Blake Snow

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BOOK REVIEWS: Saving the world, solving murders, and fixing American politics

I finished three good books this month. Here are my thoughts on each: 

Homo Deus by Yuval Harari

First world problems are real, argues Harari. “For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little,” he writes. “More people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed from soldiers, terrorists, and criminals put together.” Call it a sign of the times or the price we pay for widespread prosperity and comfort. Either way, modern culture is more powerful than ever but simultaneously plagued by more existential angst than ever before. Where do we go from here then? Harare doesn’t provide any concrete answers. Rather he examines the challenges we face in getting to wherever we may end up given our current trajectory. For example:

  • When it comes to believing a story, most people think there are only two types of realities: objective realities (such as a physical head wound) and subjective realities (untraceable mental wounds). But there is actually a third level of reality: the intersubjective level, which depends on communication among many humans rather than on the beliefs and feelings of individual humans. Money, stock, and corporations are good examples of intersubjective reality. As long as everyone keeps believing in money’s value, you can use it to buy all kinds of things. But when people stop believing in the value of that money, then the money becomes worthless.
  • Corporations, money, brands and nations exist only in our imagination. We invent them to serve us. So why do we find ourselves so often sacrificing our lives in their service? Only entities capable of suffering are real.
  • Ancient day gods eventually transformed into modern day celebrity brands like Elvis, Madonna, Justin Bieber, and corporations such as Microsoft and Apple.
  • Religion is anything that confers superhuman legitimacy upon human social structures. This can play out amongst belief systems as varied as Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism, to liberalism, communism, or putting all of our trust in Big Data and computers rather than humans.
  • Stories serve as the foundations for human societies. Unfortunately, blind faith in these stories means that human efforts are frequently focused on increasing the glory of fictional entities such as gods, corporations and countries, instead of bettering the lives of real sentient beings.
  • Science often makes myths stronger. Thanks to computers and bioengineering, the different between fiction and reality is beginning to blur as people reshape reality to make their pet fictions come true.
  • Economic growth has now become the critical juncture where almost all modern religions, ideologies and movements converge. The very belief in economic growth can be called a religion because it now promises to solve many if not all our problems. This credo urges individuals, firms and governments to discount anything that might hamper economic growth, such as preserving social equality, saving the planet, or honoring your parents.
  • In the Cold War, capitalism didn’t win because it was more ethical, pleased God more, or held individual liberties more sacred. It won the war because “distributed data processing” works better than “centralized data processing.” The information has to flow among many decision makers so that the market can correct itself as needed.
  • While 20th century medicine aimed to heal the sick, 21st century medicine increasingly aims to upgrade the healthy.
  • We are moving now from traditional existential beliefs in God or modern humanism for the purpose of navel gazing and self-discovery to that of “dadaism,” which wants you to record every experience then share it with the data processing world for the greater good of all. Don’t get lost in the moment, record and post it to Facebook then check your account every two minutes to see how many likes you got for it. Don’t write a private diary entry; write a public blog post and share it with the world.
  • Science is converging into an all-encompassing dogma which states that all organisms are algorithms and all of life is data processing.
  • In the end, it’s all about the stories we tell ourselves, from medieval crusaders believing that God and heaven provided their lives with meaning, to modern day liberals believing that individual free choices provide life with meaning. It’s all equally delusional.

MY TAKE: Harari offers eye-opening observations, theories, and questions about our current society, but prescriptive and practical recommendations would have greatly strengthened his argument. Always question someone who tears down something without offering ways to fix it. Four stars out of five.

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie

I’ve lost track of the number of Christie novels I’ve read after first discovering her more than a decade ago. I imagine this was my eighth or ninth. In any case, it’s a good, fun read. Four stars out of five. These were my favorite passages:

  • If there is a fault about the British it is that they’re inclined to be a bit standoffish until they’ve known you a couple of years. After that nobody could be nicer.
  • Nowadays, no one believes in evil. It is considered, at most, a mere negation of good. Evil, people say, is done by those who know no better—who are undeveloped—who are to be pitied rather than blamed. But M. Poirot, evil is real! It is a fact! I believe in Evil like I believe in Good. It exists! It is powerful! It walks the earth!”
  • When a person has been murdered, it is more important to be truthful than to be decent.
  • Long after he ceased to love her and was irked by her presence, he remained sorry for her. She was to him like a child who cannot get farther than a certain page in the book of life.

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes

Promoting and valuing individuals by merit is great and all—and undoubtedly better than how Europe, caste, or otherwise arbitrarily rewarded societies operate. But it too is broken. All too easily, the wealthy are able to find ways to skew the playing field in their favor once again, ensuring their children rise to the top even within a meritocracy, Hayes argues. In short, meritocracy fails because it’s not meritocractic enough.

Hunter College High School (where the author went to prep-school) is a perfect example of how meritocracies tend to devolve. Although it attempts to enroll any Manhattan student on the merits of intelligence and regardless of race, privilege, wealth, or neighborhood, it actually ends up elevating those who can afford to prepare for its rigorous entrance test requirement. Therefore, wealthy whites and asians remain the “winners,” and minorities continue to be underrepresented.

What’s more, there should be no tenure or seniority in an effective meritocracy. A successful person is always promoted. One who continually makes mistakes takes a pay cut or is fired. But in America’s meritocracy, those who successfully climb the social ladder often find ways to either take the ladder away for others who follow, or selectively lower it only for friends and family. More fun facts:

  • In terms of economic mobility, Germany is 1.5 times more mobile, Canada is nearly 2.5 times more mobile, and Denmark is 3 times more mobile than either America or United Kingdom.
  • People simply don’t want to recognize the failing meritocracy concept, and transfer their anger onto our government instead.
  • Even with less than 5% of the world’s population, America accounts for nearly 25% of the world’s prison population. Yet that same unforgiving justice system forgave the people who created the financial crisis that destroyed so many lives (i.e. less consequence for white collar crime because those in power our more lenient on themselves and their own intersubjective values such as stocks).
  • It’s difficult to design a competitive system that rewards performance without also rewarding cheating.
  • We no longer know who to trust now or how to reach a consensus as a society on just what the facts are because of the internet. This forces us into smaller and smaller groups of agreement, around which we build higher and higher walls against attacks and arguments. (i.e. climate change)
  • Even WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange now recognizes that, rather than trying to tear down institutions, he and his organization should be saving those institutions from themselves in a more productive way. You cannot achieve progress without both institutionalism and insurrectionism.
  • We must reconstruct our institutions so we can once again feel safe in trusting them. Otherwise humankind won’t be able to reach enough consensus to win the battle against our greatest challenges, such as climate change.
  • Social distance hinders meritocracy. While the expensive meritocracy used to be more widely selective of society, it has in recent years become smaller, more powerful, and geographically concentrated with over half of the elite in specific areas such as New York city, King County in Washington, and San Francisco, Santa Clara, and San Mateo in California.
  • For self-government to work well, the people near the top need to be embedded in the system itself so they have intimate knowledge and experience of what the people’s daily lives are like and what they need and want. Unfortunately, as a society we now face the problem that the true rulers of our system are the super wealthy and powerful elite (1%) who also are out of touch with the average American’s daily issues.
  • An interesting contrast is that during the first era of equality, the equality was about income, not race, gender, or sexual orientation. But in 1979-2009, we saw that flip to less income equality, but more equality for race, gender and sexual orientation. Hence, the first era of equality lead to greater economic growth, whereas that came at the expense of social equality in the second era. The path forward is clear: combine the best of both eras so that we have equality on all fronts.
  • To fix the problem, Hayes argues that we must keep our meritocracy, but better distribute the wealth (through higher taxes) and representative politics (through more powerful local government) so the 1% don’t cheat to keep it all for themselves.

MY TAKE: Hayes is the first person I know to combine the high taxation goals of democrats with local power goals of republicans. Although I dislike high taxes, it’s a fascinating idea worth further exploration.