The meaning of life — and suicide

Economists have long attracted criticism for saying “you don’t need anything; you just want things,” and then rejecting the (common) response of “what about air? I need air to live” with the rejoinder “you don’t need to live, you just want to live… Suicides provide proof of that difference.”


This post is not pro-suicide. I am putting suicide into a larger context. If you have suicidal thoughts, then get help from others who have experienced and overcome such thoughts. Here’s more from US, British and Dutch health authorities. 


Indeed, we see copycat suicides by those who admire someone who killed themselves. We see (willing) suicide bombers who kill themselves for their cause. We see soldiers on “suicide missions” who are willing to die for their country or comrades. In less-violent terms, we also see humans and other species where individuals forgo their chance to reproduce to help raise the offspring of others, for a mix of personal and collective reasons.

Indeed, we see many communities and states where “genetic suicide” via a range of (in)actions ranging from withdrawing from mating to running towards certain death has contributed to the group’s survival and prosperity. These are cases in which self-sacrifice strengthens collective outcomes and thus increases “group fitness.”

We (as a group) have not lost our ability to have suicidal thoughts, but you (as an individual) don’t need to let them run your life. What you need is a way of re-framing thoughts of worthlessness or self-sacrifice into a goal of long-run effectiveness that works because you make a difference not once but many times. Killing yourself will not help your tribe or group or cult or club get ahead compared to contributing to collective strength.

(I’ve long wondered what recruiters tell suicide bombers. Besides “72 virgins,” do they promise that that individual’s death will turn the tide to victory? Given that bombers can’t give post-bomb feedback, I’m guessing that recruiters lie a lot.)

Pushing back from individual actions to national outcomes, it’s easy to see how self-sacrifice helps groups. Most nations trace their history to founders who spoke out rather than remaining silent, who sacrificed rather than remain in comfort. In successful states, leaders are lauded for contributing to the greater good. In failed states, selfish leaders cannot united a divided people.

In today’s geo-political reality, most people live in nations defined by past sacrifices, fear the disruption of would-be suicidal “revolutionaries,” and seek leaders against challenges from Man and Nature.

In the pre-Anthropocene world, we consumed natural resources and destroyed environments in our competition with each other and our desire for comfort and ease. Now, those habits are part of the “sustainability challenge” in which climate chaos, collapsing biodiversity and natural resource shortages not only slow and reverse our progress but also pit every nation, tribe and community against the others, in a struggle to one “least worst off” in a world of shrinking possibility.

What we need now is not more suicides but more self-sacrifice — via lower consumption, childlessness, refusing destructive jobs and so on — that is designed to help the group. We need people who feel better when they forgo a flight abroad; we need societies that admire these people more than “jet-setters.”

My one-handed conclusion: We won’t need to live empty lives if we want to live full lives. Find your place and purpose, and you have found life.

Comparing (un)known (un)knowns

I am a big fan of figures that show how various ideas relate to each other.

I use the “2×2 of goods” to explain how water should be managed by economic or social/political means.

I have set out how social sciences relate to each other and how underlying “truth” changes as you move from sciences to humanities. I summarised that difference in this post:

The humanities (language, history, philosophy) illustrate the diversity of human existence just as the sciences (biology, physics, etc.) illustrate our similarities. This explains how scientists can collaborate and agree on the “big picture” while failing to see the point of humanities studies that don’t seem to draw any conclusions (and sometimes seem locked in eternal battles over the “right” element drawn from a pile of subjective perspectives)

…and now I am back with a new figure that maps risk and uncertainty into a 2×2 that overlaps with objective (science) and subjective (humanities) views:

The reason for this figure, as with all my figures, is to highlight how “we” are often talking past each other when we make comments based on unstated assumptions.

Thus: “This cake is good” (lower left) is not the same as “this cake is fresh” (upper left), “this cake uses a secret recipe” (upper right) or “I’m not sure if we’re gonna get cake out of the oven” (lower right).

My one-handed suggestion is that every discussions and debate begin by establishing how each participant “sees” the topic at hand (subjective/objective? humanities/social science/science, etc.), as that reduces confusion related to mismatched baselines.

20 years after 9/11

On September 12 2001, I wrote:

This events yesterday are indeed beyond our imaginations. Although it would be better if it had never happened at all, it seems that the best impact that it might have (as the perpetrators perhaps wanted), is for us (the USA, the Americans), to reconsider our positions and how we “project” power in the world – before we start bombing…  

If the attack was Muslim (not domestic – like last time in Oklahoma), then start by acknowledging that Christians own and control most of the world. The Muslims get screwed quite often (with support from Christian/Western Governments). Perhaps that is fair (the Strong make the rules), but it hardly seems to be either “what Jesus would do” or “love thy Neighbor”. 

[a long list of examples of Muslims being exploited in many countries]

Before we go off and start shooting (or nuking) all the “rag heads” (as Howard Stern’s listeners want), perhaps we should consider where the perpetrators are coming from in terms of their anger at what “America” has done to them. It’s too bad that US citizens are not called upon to make the decisions that the government makes for them, because, if we knew more of what was happening (there is a clear lack of coverage and bias in most of the US press/television – against Muslims), it is likely that the USA wouldn’t be responsible for as many messes as it is. One clear result of constraint would be a lessening of Israel’s current aggression, not possible without the support of the US government (current UN Racism conference in S. Africa, etc.)

Finally, it is interesting to make a note, when looking for those responsible (Bush’s “Evil” ones), of who gain’s from US anguish and anger. A US backlash against Muslims would strengthen Israel. Perhaps Mossad** is responsible?

Just a few thoughts on this so-predictable tragedy. My regrets to those who died for someone else’s opinion.

Reading this 20 years later, I can point at a few developments that (don’t) align with my predictions:

  • Muslims are maybe (not) better governed.
  • The biggest terrorist threat to the US comes from White extremists.
  • The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were complete failures. (I support Biden’s pull out, although the planning sucked.)
  • Americans barely know much more about the world. This has a lot to do with the volunteer army not representing “average” Americans abroad.
  • America has wasted $trillions on war and lost prestige as land of the free, let alone leader of the Free World.
  • Israel has not made any sort of peace with the Palestinians, but former Arab allies have made peace with Israel.
  • Social media and lying Republicans have made it much harder for people to understand what’s happening, to whom and why.

My one-handed conclusion is that Osama Bin Laden and Al Queda “won” 9/11 due to America’s self-harming (and freedom-harming) response, which was naive in the ways that many with experience outside the US could have predicted.

You cannot fight terror and ignorance with terror and ignorance. The only way is to use knowledge, dialogue and cooperation among freedom-loving nations and people’s. I hope the US learns this lesson before too long, but I am not optimistic.

What’s your panty-dropper?

Hopefully, I am away on vacation when this post goes up.

The title asks the question. I want your answers.

But first, let me deconstruct the question, in 3 parts:

  1. “Panty-dropper” is a paternal, hetero-normal phrase for something that gets a girl so excited she wants to have sex on the spot. I’m not talking about sex (or boys-girls) with this phrase. Rather, I am trying to evoke that sense of excitement that leads to immediate action. I’d love to have a neutral term, so tell me if you have one. The question is aimed at any and all genders and orientations 😉
  2. With “your,” I am asking about things (or smells or words or whatever)  that get you excited OR that you use to get others excited.
  3. I’m not really asking about sex, as that’s kinda boring (unless you’re a smooth P.U.A.). So it’s about exciting — emotional, intellectual, physical — which can refer to your mother’s praise, solving a crossword, or climbing a tree.

My one-handed reason for asking is that excitement is what makes our life worth living, what gets us out of bed in the morning.

Do tell!

Marshall’s legacy

After 18 months of reading and commenting on every single chapter (except the mathematical appendix) Alfred Marshall’s (AM’s) Principles of Economics (1920), I read some essays on what others thought about AM.

NB: My overall impression is that PoE was worth my time, but probably not worth the time of anyone except those interested in the history of economic thought. Yes, it’s interesting to read how AM explained and explored elasticity, the role of time, the representative firm, and so on, but I doubt that those benefits justify the time it takes to read 70+ chapters on topics that can be found in (over)simplified forms in modern textbooks. That said, I think that anyone looking into canonical concepts in economics should read what AM had to say about them. (NB: AM sometimes uses different terms so “control F” won’t help you!)

Here are my notes and some excerpts from five commentaries:

J.M. Keynes (1924). “Alfred Marshall, 1842-1924” [pdf].
  • This 60-page biography, published a few months after AM’s death, offers many insights into AM’s upbringing and thinking. He was planning to become a priest but turned to mathematics and then economics. His respect for history and the idiosyncratic details of “the everyday business of life” meant, in today’s jargon, that AM was more institutionalist than modeller.
  • Every summer, AM walked in the Alps, to clear his head and strengthen his body. His long life attests to those vacations.
  • The socialists assumed human nature would change with the ownership of capital. AM was skeptical. He studied actual business and workers.
  • AM published very slowly. Most of his ideas were known (via his lectures) well before PoE appeared. Jevons (according to JMK) was impatient and shallow compared to AM. Mixed speeds and energies meant that some people misattributed discovery.
  • AM was first to popularise mathematical diagrams for explaining economic ideas, but he hesitated to lean too much on mathematical descriptions of real life:
  • Page 333:

    Marshall… always felt a slight contempt from the intellectual or aesthetic point of view for the rather “potty ” scraps of elementary algebra, geometry, and differential calculus which make up mathematical economics.1 Unlike physics, for example, such parts of the bare bones of economic theory as are expressible in mathematical form are extremely easy compared with the economic interpretation of the complex and incompletely known facts of experience,2 and lead one but a very little way towards establishing useful results.
    Footnote 1: Mathematical economics often exercise an excessive fascination and influence over students who approach the subject without much previous training in technical mathematics. They are so easy as to be within the grasp of almost anyone, yet do introduce the student, on a small scale, to the delights of perceiving constructions of pure form, and place toy bricks in his hands that he can manipulate for himself, which gives a new thrill to those who have had no glimpse of the sky-scraping architecture and minutely embellished monuments of modern mathematics.
    Footnote 2: Professor Planck of Berlin, the famous originator of the Quantum Theory, once remarked to me that in early life he, had thought of studying economics, but had found it too difficult! Professor Planck could easily master the whole corpus of mathematical economics in a few days. He did not mean that! But the amalgam of logic and intuition and the wide knowledge of facts, most of which are not precise, which is required for economic interpretation in its highest form, is, quite truly, overwhelmingly difficult for those whose gift mainly consists in the power to imagine and pursue to their furthest points the implications and prior conditions of comparatively simple facts which are known with a high degree of precision.

  • AM: “Economics is not a body of concrete truth, but an engine for the discovery of concrete truth.” But his desire to do good meant that (according to JMK) “he had an inclination to undervalue those intellectual parts of the subject which were not directly connected with human well-being or the condition of the working classes…” and thus slow intellectual progress [pp 344-5].
  • AM’s inclusion of time and (dis)economies of scale really fleshed out the reality of production in economics.
  • AM’s understated writing style reduced his wow-factor with some but also helped his ideas spread among non-academics and skeptics.
  • AM’s lecturing style was far less refined or formal than his writing style. AM  wanted students to “think with him” (page 359) rather than copy complete thoughts. This style challenged under-prepared students but spurred the curious to explore the material. (I try to teach in this way, but now it’s called “co-creation.”)
  • AM wrote in favor of allowing women to work and contribute to society but opposed giving them degrees (!). He also wrote in favor of economics as a separate study from politics, i.e., splitting departments of political economy. It’s easy to see the error in his perspective on women (or eugenics), but I am still in the minority in calling for more political economy.
  • AM was lucky to have a best-selling book in his final years, as he had not saved enough money to retire. (Pensions were not a thing in the early 20th century!)
J.A. Schumpeter (1940). “Alfred Marshall’s Principles: A Semi-Centennial Appraisal.
  • AM was one of the first economists to realize that economics is an evolutionary science” [p 237]. This observation or claim is important when it comes to understanding the differences between economists who focus on equilibrium [the destination] and those (like AM) who focus on the processes affecting movements (in any direction) and/or goals [the journey].
  • AM’s focus on the engine of analysis rather than the truth of the destination meant that his ideas could be used by anyone, at any time, to understand more about an economic topic.
  • AM, playing the role of guide, suggested ideas or paths worth pursuing. Those who followed him could fruitfully spend years tying up the loose ends he uncovered.
  • AM’s ideas on returns to scale, substitution, competition and time (evolution!) have endured. His focus on facts, quantification and results helped make economics useful.
G.F. Shove (1942). “The Place of Marshall’s Principles in the Development of Economic Theory.
  • AM wrote “an apologia for economics… a kind of Counter-Reformation” to demonstrate the underlying value of economics, which had been buried in obscure theories. AM wanted economics to “deal with man as he is, seen in the round” [p 310].
  • AM discussed long-term supply and demand, but he put little weight on equilibrium, since underlying tastes and technologies changed too fast for stability to endure.
  • AM established a third era of economic thought that built on earlier Classical (Smith) and Ricardian (Ricardo).
  • AM developed the idea of bidding for monopoly rights that is — in the case of water utilities — one way that markets can discipline monopolistic industries.
  • AM understood and discussed problems with imperfect markets, although later economists contributed more to this topic.
  • AM argued, from a biological-evolutionary perspective, that it was “better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong,” but later economists (see 1944 and 1946 links in the footnote at the end of this post) would revert to the security of precise (and wrong) mathematical equilibria.
  • That said, others have embraced AM’s manner of using statistics and data to check theory — methods that have exploded in popularity with econometrics and (better, IMO) experimental economics.
  • AM’s caution in regard to equilibrium would have been helpful in dealing with the Great Depression and WWII. Keynes escaped the suffocating assurance of supply=demand, but many other economists could not.
  • Post-AM economists brought much-needed attention to the dynamics inherent to negotiations among players with major market power and the role(s) of money and finance in the real economy. AM built the foundations they needed.
  • Plenty of other challenges (e.g., group-action, heterogeneous agents, collective control and mass bargaining) still need attention. It got attention from Samuelson (public goods, 1954), Vernon Smith (experimental markets, 1955/1964), Olson (collective action, 1965), and the Ostroms (common-pooled goods, 1977).
C.W. Guillebaud (1952) “Marshall’s Principles of Economics in the Light of Contemporary Economic Thought”.
    • AM’s PoE was “still a standard textbook” in 1952, but CWG advised students to skip most of AM’s (now outdated) moralising about behavior and society. This advice might have made reading less boring, but it seems to have been costly, if we look at the contemporary amorality of many economists. (I didn’t find AM’s writing too boorish, but the 1950s were go-go years…)
    • AM focussed on partial-equilibrium analysis because general-equilibrium was far too unstable to ever arrive:

      The Marshallian world is a more complex matter. It is not in the least static – it is in fact a world of ceaseless movement and change. Population is increasing (or it might be diminishing), capital is growing, tastes are changing, technique is altering. Some industries are expanding, while others are contracting, and the same is true of the individual firms within each industry. Not only is there seasonal and frictional unemployment of labour (the ins and outs) but there is also structural unemployment due to changes in tastes and demand on the one side, and in technique and inventions on the other. But the aggregate volume of unemployment is not so large as to indicate an overall shortag of effective demand. [p 115]

    • CWG gives (p 123) a nice summary of the short vs long run:

      In the case of the market we are dealing with a stock of goods that are already in existence and which are the fruits of past production.
      In the case of the short period we are dealing with a flow of output from a substantially fixed stock of specialised instruments of production.
      In the case of the long period we are dealing with a flow of output from a flow of all the factors of production that are required to produce that output.

      R.H. Coase (1975). “Marshall on Method
    • As promised, Coase uses most of this (short) article to discuss AM’s methods, which were mostly NON-methods, i.e., AM “would have nothing to do with controversies between deductive schools, inductive schools, historical schools and so on. There was work for all, and he welcomed all. Constructive work was what he wanted” [p 27].
    • What about inductive vs deductive? AM states his ideas in a letter (~1903) to Keynes’s father [pp 26-7]:

      … You make all your contrasts rather too sharply for me. You talk of the inductive & the deductive methods: where as I contend that each involves the other, & that historians are always deducing, & that even the most deductive writers are always implicitly at least basing themselves on observed facts… It is a mere question of arrangement: but I think it is a very important one practically. I think the right order is first to emphasize the mutual dependence of induction & deduction, & afterwards to show in what kinds of inquiry the economist has to spend the greater part of his time in collecting arranging & narrating facts, & in what kinds he is chiefly occupied in reasoning about them & trying to evolve general processes of analysis & general theories which shall show the Many in the One & The One in the Many.

      My second point is that you continually use the word theory where I shd use analysis. This seems to me in itself to cause confusion wh is increased by the fact that later on you exclude modern facts from history; & yet you do not boldly say that theyare part of theory. If they are then I agree with you that a study of theory shd come before a study of history. But I do not myself like to put the case in this way.

      My own notion is [and here Marshall is I take it describing how economics should be presented to students]

      i. Begin with analysis, which is an essential introduction to all study of facts whether of past or present time, with perhaps a very short historical introduction.
      ii. Go on to call to mind the students knowledge of the economic conditions wh he lives. Show the relations in wh they severally stand to one another & carry analysis further, making it more real & concrete.
      iii. Build up a general theory or process of reasoning applicable to Value Money Foreign Trade etc, with special reference to the conditions in wh the student lives, & pointing out how far & in what ways, it can be made to bear on other conditions.
      iv. Give a general course of economic history.
      vi. Consider economical conditions in relation to other aspects of social life.
      vii. Treat of the economic aspects of practical of practical questions in general & social reform in particular.

    • As Coase observes, AM was primarily concerned with understanding and explaining the real economic system that people live, not the abstract, theoretical system beloved by academics. Indeed: “Though a skilled mathematician, he used mathematics sparingly. He saw that excessive reliance on this instrument might lead us astray in pursuit of intellectual toys, imaginary problems not conforming to the conditions of real life: and, further, might distort our sense of proportion by causing us to neglect factors that could not easily be worked up in the mathematical machine” [p 30].
    • Thus, Coase arrives [p 30] at my favorite advice from AM (1906):
        1. Use mathematics as a shorthand language, rather than as an engine of inquiry.
        2. Keep to them till you have done.
        3. Translate into English.
        4. Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life.
        5. Burn the mathematics.
        6. If you can’t succeed in (4), burn (3). This last, I did often.

…and that ends my summary of commentary by five major economists on Alfred Marshall.

My one-handed conclusion, after 18 months of reading Marshall, is that he was one of the truly great thinkers, practitioners and expositors of economics.


This post is the last in a series for the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics from institutional induction to mathematical deduction.

The troublesome twenties

NB: I started a draft of this post in early 2020. Then COVID happened. I still think there are some interesting ideas in here, but it’s still a bit speculative in terms of identifying, and then connecting, dots. I’d appreciate any comments on this topic, whether or not I’ve addressed them.

This new decade arrived sooner than I expected. I don’t remember the arrival of 2010, but 2000 got a lot of attention. At a risk of over-simplifying, I think people were ready to party in 2000, whereas 2010 arrived in the middle of the Great Recession and 2020 dropped in the middle of a dozen crises, whether fuelled by Trump, other “leaders” (France, India, Iran, Iraq, and Hong Kong) or Nature (climate-fuelled fires, floods, you-name-it).

In this post, I begin with the zeitgeist on a troubled decade, reflect on the forces pushing us back, and end with some ideas for thriving (or self-defense) in the 2020s.

Zeitgeist of the 2010s
  • “In the 2010s, it has often felt as if everything is up for grabs – from the future of capitalism to the future of the planet – and yet nothing has been decided. Between the decade’s sense of stasis and sense of possibility, an enormous tension has built up. It is still awaiting release.” — The Guardian (“The age of perpetual crisis: how the 2010s disrupted everything but resolved nothing“)
  • “Since 2017, the United States has not only abdicated its role as a stabilizing leader on the global stage, but is also sowing unpredictability and chaos abroad.” — The New York Times (The 2010s Were the End of Normal“)
  • “The public only really unifies around what it rejects. This has profound political consequences. People can’t organize around a common idea or worldview, but they all seem to agree that they’re pissed off and they’re against … the system.” — VOX (“A decade of revolt“)
The pushing-falling-tipping-backwards Counterreformation

We’ve gone into reverse politically (hysterics from Trump, BoJo, Bolsinaro, et al.), socially (as Zuckbot et al. convert friendships into cashflow*), economically (Bezos/Amazon being only one example of crushing monopolies), and environmentally (from climate chaos to over-fishing and logging forests).
* Read this interesting explanation/defense of FB by the guy running its advertising program in the 2016 election. He correctly says that most of the election was won/lost on people’s tribal beliefs, but also calls on FB to be more transparent. [Since I read this article, I’ve read others that are much more critical of FB’s conduct, this one, for example.]

While on holiday in Italy (Jan 2020), we ate dinner with some Americans. One was serving in the Army (base police in Spain, not in combat). “How’s  it’s going with Trump?” I asked. “Good for me, I got a raise.” This response really annoyed me, as the raise probably had nothing to do with Trump while Trump’s crazy rhetoric and violent acts are making the US weaker and conflict more likely.

Young people are reading less and “feeling” more, meaning that rationality is replaced by passion, leaders are replaced by populists, and real, hard choices are replaced by fantastic lies. The use of “cancel culture” by both Republicans and Democrats has turned politics into a test of tribal loyalty towards memes and hashtags rather than a process in which the best policies emerge from contested debates. (This entire process can be traced back to Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “take no prisoners” strategy. Leave it to a professor to go for the radical, blow-up-the-country, strategy.)

‘In her comparative study of fallen empires, Jacobs identifies common early indicators of decline: “cultural xenophobia,” “self-imposed isolation,” and “a shift from faith in logos, reason, with its future-oriented spirit … to mythos, meaning conservatism that looks backwards to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview.” She warns of the profligate use of plausible denial in American politics, the idea that “a presentable image makes substance immaterial,” allowing political campaigns “to construct new reality.” She finds further evidence of our hardening cultural sclerosis in the rise of the prison-industrial complex, the prioritization of credentials over critical thinking in the educational system, low voter turnout, and the reluctance to develop renewable forms of energy in the face of global ecological collapse.’The Atlantic (2016) on her 2004 book, Dark Age Ahead (my 2016 review)

The Four Horsemen of the [Biblical] Apocalypse were pestilence, war, famine and death. Civilization and technology have pushed those horsemen away, but social-media-fueled ignorance and lying populists have brought them back.

  • Pestilence: Climate and political chaos are spreading viruses (e.g., Ebola), super-charging bacteria (e.g., antibiotic-resistent TB), reviving old diseases (smallpox from melting permafrost) and increasing the range of pests (mosquitoes) previously held back by winter cold.
  • War is more likely on several dimensions. Technology makes it easier to attack via drones, cyberattacks or small-scale militias. Politicians blame outsiders for their failures, inviting responses that can escalate. Weakening economic ties and progress mean that citizens have less to lose by supporting political aggression.
  • Famine has been predicted since Malthus (1798) explored the problem of exponential population growth outrunning linear growth in food supplies. Although population growth is slowing (still on track for 11 billion), our demand for food is driven more by wealth than headcount, which means that food demand (e.g., meat) is rising fast at the same time as water scarcity, topsoil loss, and trade disputes are limiting supplies and increasing the risks of disruptions to essential food trade.
  • Death is not negotiable but we’re managed to push back the date of death by decades over the past century, mostly due to improved public health (clean water, vaccinations), but also due to reductions in violence and increases in economic prosperity. All of these forces are weaker or reversing at the moment, under the influences of social media (ignorant anti-vaxxers**), falling spending on infrastructure and public health, and politicians who solve problems with “blood and iron” instead of thoughtful negotiation.
    ** I wrote this before Covid was a thing. Now we know just how dangerous — to themselves and society — these anti-vaxxers are.

The Guardian thinks the 2010s were a rerun of the 1970s, in the sense of building up an anxiety that fed the radical changes of the 1980s (Thatcher/Reagan revolutions). What kind of revolution will we get this time around? Although “socialist” might seem the answer, I worry that it might start off sounding good but quickly turn into a populist “socialism” that destroys everything around it in an unsustainable quest for purity in the service of the masses, an echo of the Reign of Terror or Red Terror that overthrew “civilisation” (respect for others, rule of law) in Revolutionary France and Russia, respectively.

The Roaring or Whinging 20s?
  • Parts of the rich world are now emerging from over a year of COVID-restrictions. Some are “revenge shopping”, others are still paranoid. Few are “back to normal” — whatever that is — due to the ongoing toll of COVID in poor — and poorly governed — countries.
  • Climate chaos is also a lot more in our faces, as Why we’re failing to stop climate chaos.
  • Trade wars, disrupted supply chains, and geo-political struggles between an assertive China and reactionary America are not making International cooperation and mutually-beneficial economic development any easier.

From where I sit today (a few days after my 52nd birthday), I am more inclined to pick “whinge” (blaming others) over “roar” (we’re all amazing!), mostly because populists and social media are feeding paranoia via “othering”, because the rich and powerful are grabbing more for themselves,  and because climate chaos is destroying our assets (forcing us to spend more of our income on “staying in place,” which makes us think we’re relatively poorer).

In a world of a “shrinking pie,” it’s hard to be generous towards others, and it’s doubly hard when those others are from a tribe that’s “out to get you.”

My one-handed advice
  • Don’t feed the trolls. Most influencers are attention whores. Ignore them. Spend your time on better people. Evgeny Morozov has some good ideas for escaping bad social media dynamics.
  • Do take care of family and friends. You will need them if you’re going to have a foot in the world of sanity — and especially as climate chaos tears our world apart. Have dinners, drinks, and phone calls with 10 (close) or 140 (at best) friends. Don’t doom scroll thru the delusions of your 1,236 “friends” on social media.
  • Do make good (moral) choices. You need to live with yourself, and it’s quite common for devious choices to backfire. Live as if karma mattered.
  • Do keep your powder dry. Climate and political chaos will make life more expensive, by destroying and reducing your choices, respectively. Save money. Build assets (financial, physical and social). Live simply so you’re not too upset at losses.
  • Do count your blessings. We’re richer than any generation of human history. We can drink the water (mostly). We can eat good food. We have abundant ways of spending time without spending money. Get off the hedonic treadmill and breathe.
What about me?

I have a good job teaching, a great relationship, and lots of (scattered friends). I can engage my mind with my students, my peers, and anyone on the internet who listens to my podcast, or reads my writing (blog, books, papers). I put more time into fun “concrete” activities such as my boats (!) and wood-working. I like picking up garbage on the streets (while I do my Dutch lessons 🙂

Critical thinking isn’t easy to begin with, but you can start by opening the other door, cancelling that repeating event, or taking to strangers. Such exercises help you grow, connect with others, and strengthen yourself financially, mentally, physically,  and socially.

Good luck! (We’ll all need it.)

Why we’re failing to stop climate chaos

Climate chaos (CC) is the largest threat to our collective prosperity. (Water scarcity, biodiversity loss, increasing vulnerability to viruses and bacteria are a few more.)

But “we” (citizens of rich countries) are having a hardER time understanding and addressing CC due to a few strategic mistakes, i.e.,

  1. Most discussions of impacts focus on 2100, which is too far away from our time now to take seriously. It also “hides” the fact that we are now seeing weather patterns (due to changes in climate) that are harming our way of life.
  2. Most discussions focus on +2C increases in average temperatures, when the focus should be on increasing risks at the extremes (the changes in the distribution), i.e., fat tails or black swans causing massive damages in surprising places. Examples: Houston getting three “500-year” storms in a decade a few years ago; the Pacific Northwest recently breaking high temperature records by a huge margin; Texas facing “record” cold then “record” warmth within a month; Hurricane Sandy; etc.
  3. Economists recommending a global cap and trade system rather than a series of national carbon tax and rebate systems at Kyoto (1998). The former requires global coordination, a political willingness to send money to “foreigners”, and trustworthy supra-national institutions. Local tax/rebates do not suffer these issues, but we’ve allowed the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
  4. Economists (led by that incompetent fraud, Nordhaus) have used flawed models to justify inaction (their logic is that action now limits growth that will give us resources in the future to deal with damages in the future) rather than implementing action now that can be tightened/loosened as we learn how taxes affect emissions affecting CC.
  5. Most people do not understand how the change from stationarity to non-stationarity will disrupt their habits, food production, infrastructure performance, etc. These are the same people who hesitate to take the COVID vaccine until they are offered lottery tickets. Their choice inconsistency shows they misunderstand probabilities.
  6. Few people understand the consequences of missing +2C targets due to lag effects. Hitting that target (a long run increase) means reducing emissions (and deforestation) at a radical rate now and still waiting for decades for forcing momentum to dissipate and warming to slow and reverse. Put differently, it would take 50-100 years for currently “baked in” forcing to manifest in CC-impacts assuming we went to zero emissions today, and another 10,000 years (±) for current CO2 concentrations of 409ppm (a level not seen for 800,000 years) to fall back to “pre-industrial” levels of 280ppm last seen 170 years ago. We’ve passed the point of no return.
  7. Forgetting that non-CO2 factors matter. If all GHGs are included, then we’re looking at 456ppm CO2-equilivalent, so we’re in far worse shape than the most-discussed number would suggest.
  8. I’m not even talking about the problems of greed (converting rainforest into palm oil, soy beans or more oil fields), lobbying (politicians need to be re-elected often and fossil fuel companies have lots of money to pay for protection or inaction), the massive market failure/collective action problem, our psychological desire to maintain “progress” at all costs, and so on.

My one-handed conclusion is that we — humans, as a species — have put ourselves in a difficult situation that we’ve made even harder to tackle by a series of strategic communication blunders.

The (un)comfortable joy of family

I’m on holiday in the US for the first time since COVID, and just spent 5 days with my family for a reunion that brought some of us together for the first time in 35 years!

I enjoyed catching up with my cousins and their fun, engaging and diverse-in-personality kids. We ate and drank too much, lounged and talked for hours, and had a lot of fun in the pools and rivers nearby.

This element was comfortable in a way I’m not accustomed to, as I’ve been one of the more distant members of our family (living in Amsterdam doesn’t help). It was really great, so I understand how and why people with close families are more happy, safe and content than those without. It’s great to know that others have your back and that you can help them (or just share a meal) without any expectations of future change or obligations.

On the other hand, there’s also the fact (or issue) of interactions among folks with different lives and beliefs. We’ve seen how diverse outlooks have fuelled  a cataclysm of anger and othering on social media, and some of these dynamics have affected families (e.g., with respect to Trump or vaccines), but I think that most families have dampened down the rage by Forcing relatives to engage with others’ views. This dynamic has been in place for ages, so I am confident that most families will find ways to live with each other (agree to disagree) and compromise (respecting the potential for valid disagreements). It’s not an easy process, but it’s a valuable process — for those individuals as well as for societies that depend on cooperation for their prosperity. 

My one-handed conclusion is that the benefits family far outweigh the costs. Count yourself lucky to have your (extended) family, and make sure you “spend” enough time to smooth each others’ sharp edges.