The Barbarians Are Not Coming – Part 2


Chapter 7 of The Decadent Society (2020) “Waiting for the Barbarians” teaches us that meritocracy will never be overthrown because it co-opts the kind of people who might do the overthrowing.  The word meritocracy was coined in Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958).  It was a fictional account of a future society that drains talent from the provinces and peripheries, depriving potential rivals and rebels of the leaders who otherwise might challenge the elite’s hegemony.  Today, smart, talented people outside Western elite circles are naturally recruited into them.  Intelligent high achievers in the Islamic world, India, Africa, etc. move to the Western world where their talents are more “valuable” in an ongoing brain drain.  Did you know there are more Ethiopian doctors in Chicago than in Ethiopia?


Consequently, we now have “a cognitive elite whose arrogance and insularity match the pedigreed aristocrats of old, but who are graced with populist enemies too disorganized, self-defeating, and easily deceived to do more than riot and react.” Populist championing Michael Lind worries “that today’s class war will come to an end when the managerial minority, with its near monopoly of wealth, political power, expertise and media influence, completely and successfully represses the numerically greater but politically weaker working-class majority.”


On 7/24/17 Scott Alexander cited multiple articles complaining about meritocracy, concluding that they were all wrong. Meritocracy works and is the best way to organize society.  He was dumbfounded by those who disagree with him, so he followed up with “Addendum to Targeting Meritocracy” on 2/14/20, which reasoned that what he was missing was:


For conflict theory people, it’s us vs. them – logic and rationality be damned.  Some people really don’t like our hereditary aristocracy/meritocracy.  I’ve cited this article before:


The problem is that grousing about it or feeling guilty (if you’re wealthy or a writer for The Atlantic) is not a cogent argument. Some of the comments on Scott’s blog make this amusingly clear:  “Sure, if your complaint about the ruling class is that you aren’t in it, then being explicit about that won’t get you much sympathy.” And “if that’s what people mean when they object to meritocracy, why don’t they just say so? The first rule of promoting your class interests is to never admit that you’re promoting your class interests… [except] when you’re rallying your own people … conflict theory just can’t produce an actual argument, at all. So all arguments you make must be necessarily mistake theory arguments.”


Next week, we get to the last of Douthat’s 4 chapters on why decadence is here to stay.


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The Barbarians Are Not Coming – Part 1


Chapter 7 of The Decadent Society (2020) is “Waiting for the Barbarians”.  It considers the possibility that Western liberal democracy could be invaded and overthrown by a completely different system – like the sack of Rome by Barbarians in 410 A.D.  Douthat first examines the possible alternatives or rivals to Western civilization.  Islam? – Nope, too convulsive, oppressive of women and embroiled in civil wars; Chinese communism? – Nope, it’s supposedly Marxist-Leninist, “but nobody believes the official rhetoric, making its formal ideological self-presentation an exercise in sustained mendacity”; Russian oligarchy?  Nope, the USSR was devastated by communism and then taken over by oligarchs and grifters.  “Vladimir Putinism is mostly smoke and mirrors”.  None of those would be conquerors represents any serious ideological challenge to liberalism.


What’s really interesting and worthy of our War Chest attention is the final section of the chapter “Decadence Defends Itself”. Meritocracy (mostly what we have right now) is a self-reinforcing, self-perpetuation system.  Meritocracy is a controversial concept (even though it should not be).  The most sweeping analysis I’ve read on the topic is Scott Alexander’s discussions at Slate Star Codex.


Hereditary Meritocracy and Aristocracy are overlapping ideas. We saw here on 3/31/20, while finishing The American Revolutionary Mind (2019), that these notions, built into America’s founding documents, are the intellectual and moral basis for why our class is wealthy and will stay wealthy across generations. Scott Alexander makes the common sense observation that we want smart and competent people to be in charge of things, so meritocracy is tautologically correct.  What he calls “conflict theory” is the only legitimate and honest attack/challenge/objection to Meritocracy.


There will always be an element of aristocracy in any meritocratic system because those who acquire wealth want to keep it and bequeath it. I’ve always thought the argument “you’re just saying that to preserve your wealth” was dumb.  If an argument is logical and lucid, why does who makes it matter?  I understand now.  There is a sharp distinction between mistake theory vs. conflict theory approaches to the debate.  I see no reason to engage the resentful, envious, often disingenuous conflict theory positions, at least on the mistake theory battlefield.


We (the few rational and industrious) win; they (the mass querulous and contentious) lose; end of story. In Part 2, we dig deeper into the meritocratic mechanism keeping the Barbarians at bay.

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If You Listen to Fools…The Mob Rules


We analyzed Ochlocracy (mob rule) here from 10/15/19 – 12/10/19 via Kevin Williamson’s book The Smallest Minority – Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics (2019).  Chapter 6 of our current project, Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society (2020), further examines this dangerous, dark and increasingly powerful force.


Douthat explains how and why our decadent culture has produced despotic government. But it’s a “kindly despotism”, as he puts it, because people don’t seem to mind, so it’s very much sustainable.  Western despotic power is not unitary (like the Chinese communist), it’s diffuse.  We have an interlocking directorate of institutions populated by like-minded people who use their power to keep the system stable and the elites in charge.  The mob ruthlessly enforces certain civil liberties (pleasure, consumption, the freedom to be “safe” broadly defined) and punishes other more noble liberties (freedom of religion and speech, the ability to engage in civic discourse without sacrificing privacy to a menacing mob).


We toured The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) here, which explains the noxious cultural trend that tries to prevent and eliminate perceived “harm” or “danger”.  Moral discrimination might wound someone’s sense of well-being and certain political speech might be harmful to a snowflake’s self-esteem.  It is therefore labeled as damaging and therefore unacceptable.  The internet has greatly exacerbated the mob’s ability to target what it perceives as wrong-think, thought crimes via online persecution and harassment.  And people do this without being hired or paid by any central authority, acting like self-appointed cops.

The woke world is a world of snitches, informants, rats. Go to any space concerned with social justice, and what will you find?  Endless surveillance.  Everybody is to be judged.  Everyone is under suspicion.  Everything you say is to be scoured, picked over, analyzed for any possible offense.  Everyone’s a detective in the Division of Problematics, and they walk the beat 24/7.  You search and search for someone Bad doing Bad Things, finding ways to indict writers and artists and ordinary people for something, anything.


Next week we get to the third of four chapters on why cultural and economic decadence is permanent. Douthat has some interesting thoughts on the relationship between meritocracy and class warfare at the end of the next chapter.

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Why Don’t They Listen?


This is a prelude post to Tuesday when we move to the second chapter in The Decadent Society (2020) on why our cultural problems [underclass fatherlessness, working class disarray, drug abuse, out of wedlock births, loneliness, childlessness, suicide, general anomie, terrorism and radicalization of all kinds] are permanent.  There is no solution to these problems and we’ve known it for decades.  Why don’t the elites in charge understand this?  Why don’t they listen to the many brilliant articulations of our societal situation?  Here’s why:


Banfield beautifully explained why academics, media elites and politicians cover their ears and ignore unpleasant facts. It’s because certain facts are “deeply subversive of opinions and beliefs to which many highly intelligent and well-informed people are wedded, and without which the world would perhaps be unendurable for them.”  The main point, which I’ve been making here for years*, is that there is a continuing cultural crisis in personal responsibility, a failure of moral agency among the underclass.  The poor do not have a proper psychological orientation toward the future like those of us with War Chest values do.  And politicians will never be able to change that grim fact.


Writers like Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek taught us long ago, what Thomas Sowell calls the “constrained vision” of human affairs. The evils of the world are derived from the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings. That’s reality whether or not a writer agrees with it.


There is “no arguing with a reader who is determined to mistake one’s meaning. All the author can do is repeat once more that there are lower-class people”.  If the elites were to uncover their ears and listen to what we know about permanent class structure “many a professional social helper, petty central planner, welfare administrator, and non-profit organization would find themselves redundant.  And as Upton Sinclair once remarked, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it’”.


Happy Memorial Day! See y’all Tuesday.


*See for example posts here on Risk Literacy (3/22/16), Time Span of Discretion (3/29/16), Controlling Your Spotlight (4/5/16) and Moral Agency (11/1/16).

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Comfortably Numb


Civilization has become comfortably numb as we (those with a War Chest) strive mightily to resist the wall of mediocrity.  Chapter 5 of The Decadent Society (2020) is the first of 4 chapters in which Ross Douthat informs us that, after having established the reality of modern decadence, societal stagnation is likely to persist for a long time.  His first point is that internet porn, violence and anonymity leads to less sexual violence and other crime in the real world.  It appears that would be criminals now descend into dark virtual fantasy worlds to gratify their savage desires.


The internet makes moral and intellectual stagnation sustainable because life’s disappointments and failures don’t burn as hot. Rebellious urges are diverted into virtual violence – radical online ranting and raving.  Moreover, opioids, marijuana and mindless social media playacting combine to form the perfect mind numbing drug, like “Soma” from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or the lotus plant eaters from Greek mythology.  The population is cognitively and emotionally sedated, which preserves peace and boring tranquility, making people unhappy, unfulfilled but well behaved in the real world.


The final section turns to how all of this impacts political discourse – “First As A Tragedy, Then As Playacting”.  The populist surge and madness of online mobs are not actually fomenting revolution, rather the internet encourages people to playact extremism – uninformed but fired up morons dredging up old moral disputes for sport, a grift, a hobby.  Legions of anonymous trolls compete with public grifters to exploit our aging society’s anxieties and voracious appetite for stimulation.


Douthat reasons that modern strife and discontent need not result in cultural collapse because our civilizational old age means that online ferocity is really just performative and empty; a safety valve, a steam-venting technology for a society that is misgoverned and stagnant, but very stable (despite the online rage). He concludes the chapter with a vivid observation:

Western society is really leaning back in an easy chair, hooked up to a drip of something soothing, playing and replaying an ideological greatest-hits tape from its wild and crazy youth, all riled up in its own imagination and yet, in reality, comfortably numb.


Next week, on to the next chapter that continues to explain why all of this is sustainable and actually OK (for those of us cemented into the hereditary aristocracy… uhm…I mean hereditary meritocracy).

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The Fourth Horseman


Ross Douthat uses a metaphor from Christian prophecy, The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, to illustrate four facets of modern society’s decadence.  The biblical four horsemen are:  1) on the white horse, Pestilence (infectious disease – pandemic.…uh oh… is that him in the above image shooting COVID-19 arrows at humanity?) – “While his horse continued galloping, he was bending his bow in order to spread pestilence abroad. At his back swung the brass quiver filled with poisoned arrows, containing the germs of all diseases”; followed by 2) War on the red horse; 3) Famine on the black horse; and finally 4) Death on the green horse. Douthat’s decadence horsemen are 1) Stagnation (economic); 2) Sterility (social); 3) Sclerosis (political); and 4) Repetition (cultural).


The Fourth Horseman of Decadence, Repetition, like death, is the most disturbing.  It is meaninglessness, stagnant existence, zero creativity, no purpose. The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) comes to mind. Sisyphus defied the gods and put Death in chains so that no human needed to die. When Death was eventually liberated and it came time for Sisyphus himself to die, he concocted a deceit. So the gods imposed an eternal punishment. He would have to push a rock up a mountain; upon reaching the top, the rock would roll down again, leaving Sisyphus to start over again.   Sisyphus is the absurd hero who lives life to the fullest, hates death, and is condemned to a meaningless task.


Douthat begins chapter 4 with an entertaining discussion of the repetition and stagnation in American film, television and literature. What’s more striking is his account of intellectual repetition.  The unimpressive mediocrity of our times, the Sisyphean pointlessness and lack of original thinking, is paradoxically both disturbing and yet somehow comforting (as we’ll see in the next 4 weeks).  We are probably not experiencing the Apocalypse; just boring but safe anomie and torpor.


Almost all of the hard-to-resolve moral and intellectual disputes have played out already. They just keep getting rehashed at different moments and intensities on partisan/tribal battle lines of cynicism and self-interest.  Round and round we go in perpetual stalemate, rolling the stone up the hill.  The good news is that it’s a comfortable, albeit adventureless, decadence into which we’ve settled.  There is an “end of history” futility in the ideological responses to systemic shocks like 9/11, The Great Recession and even COVID-19.  Political writing has degraded into shallow, clueless and increasingly dishonest, agenda-driven tribal attacks.  Douthat documents the internet’s destruction of journalism and its facilitation of dysfunctional mob status seeking instead of reasoned discourse.


These are un-extraordinary times crawling with “Twitter cops and Facebook ranters, joining the conformist horde that now determines – with an assist from friendly algorithms – what exactly people read and share and hate-click. Just as online video mostly spreads smut rather than nurturing auteurs, in overthrowing the centrist staleness of the old media, the Internet has mostly given us a bumper crop of hackish crap, of political pornography for the partisan mind, of news coverage whose problem isn’t its fakeness so much as its crushing mediocrity.”


The next 4 chapters of The Decadent Society (2020) explain why and how this decadence will, in all likelihood, continue for many decades, even generations to come; and that might be OK for those with a War Chest stocked with knowledge and material resource power.


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Chapter 3 of The Decadent Society (2020) presents the third of the Four Horsemen of Decadence – Sclerosis. Ross Douthat analyzes our unhealthy political order.  The once relatively smooth running gears of the political economy have seized up – become rusty, stuck, corroded and ineffectual.  We have sadly reached permanent stalemate, gridlock that has turned American government (and Europe’s) into a Kludgeocracy:


Kludge is a term borrowed from computer science in which every solution is an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem and designed to be backward compatible. The pileup of Kludges creates a complicated program that has no clear organizing principle, is exceedingly difficult to understand and often crashes.  That’s what we have in Western government now – a dumb jerry-rigged political system that no one trusts and that cannot get much of anything accomplished.


Douthat blames both Democrats and Republicans; but we know big, bloated government is primarily the fault of the progressive Left. Political sclerosis leads to cynicism, even hatred, as the poisonous fruits of polarization paralyze politics.  The Left seeks to use government policy as a cudgel, attacking what it deems despicable or deplorable.  Kevin D. Williamson writes that the American Right has a philosophy, while the American Left has only an enemies list.  Progressives do not engage with conservative ideas or nonconforming political opinions.  They simply attempt to deem those as beneath them, outside the bounds of that which polite intellectual discourse is obliged to consider.  No wonder both sides have resorted to throwing sand into the gears of government.


The immorality and irrationality of Leftist thought grows increasingly clear to those with eyes to see and to those who are interested in this type of thing. It’s not discourse when an intellectual opponent talks passed the other side.  Refusing to engage is worse than sophistry, it’s a cowardly position of simply ignoring countervailing ideas.  There’s no room for compromise – just sclerotic impasse with screams of revolution (not reasoned reform) Williamson puts it this way:

There is much that is in need of reform in American life. But reform is not very much in fashion among populists, who are ensorcelled by the much more exciting prospect of revolution — and destruction.  Human progress and American greatness stand on a foundation of much less exciting work: amending a law to make it a little bit more just, improving crop yields a little bit year after year, the monotonous grind of fundraising and committee-sitting for worthwhile things, raising good children, doing jobs that are difficult, thankless, and obscure.

These are things done by grateful people. Revolutions are hatched by the other kind.


Be grateful, stay safe, happy and secure. Next week, the fourth and final Horsemen emerges.


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Fertility – Sterility


I wrote here on 6/2/15:

Dystopia is the opposite of utopia.  It’s an imagined future worst case scenario of current trends and issues.  You can’t help but notice the sudden increase in books and movies like Hunger Games, Divergent, Elysium, etc. describing future horrible societies.  The writers of these fictional stories seek to generate societal fear and reflection, maybe even change to our economic system.


Chapter 2 of The Decadent Society (2020) presents the second of the four horsemen of decadence – Sterility. It begins with a discussion of two literary dystopias – The Handmaid’s Tale and Children of Men.  Dystopias are designed to give us a big picture chronological perspective on what’s going on now and where it might lead in the future:


Douthat documents a stunningly shocking social trend in our modern world. The populations of the richest societies in human history are not reproducing enough.  Fertility rates are far below replacement levels around the globe.  This trend, like the other four, is overdetermined (accounted for in more than one way with more than one condition than is necessary for it).  Douthat explains that sterility is part of our society’s undeniable descent into decadence, as he defines it.  I disagree with who he blames economically (us, the moderately wealthy) and his solution (roll back our “privilege” and tax our wealth [pg. 32]) but I think his overall diagnosis is frighteningly accurate.


I won’t recount his sterility story here but our thinning family trees will obviously have world changing cultural and economic impacts. The dystopic tales he tells makes it clear that the future apocalypse, the end of the world as we know it, our dying society, has become quiescent (in a state of inactivity or dormancy).  Douthat’s conclusion is depressing but screams to the fortunate few – count your blessings!  We should be grateful for our lucky position in the hereditary aristocracy, while the bottom 80% settles “into the senility of repetition, content to live despairingly but peaceably, paying down, for the last few decades, the accumulated capital of its vigorous and vanished past”.


Sad but true. Thank your lucky stars for where you are.  Next week, we ride up to the third horseman.

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Off With Our Heads!


If you want to understand why our intellectual enemies in the political economy seek our destruction, read the second subsection in chapter 1 of The Decadent Society (2020), The Limits of Neoliberalism, along with John Cochrane’s 5 part blog on wealth and taxes.


Ross Douthat is careful with language; other authors – not so much, choosing to redefine words to make them deceptive weapons of rhetoric. The word Neoliberalism is an abused, hide-the-ball, weaponized term.  Read the Wiki page on it:


But Douthat is forthright, defining Neoliberalism as the government policy mix of “lower taxes and deregulation, free trade and anti-inflationary monetary policy”.  He then explores theories that explain (and place blame for) the great stagnation.  And here is where it gets interesting, controversial and vital to us (my moderately wealthy clients).  Douthat does not like our wealth demographic, portraying us as evil enemy economic combatants.


He trains his cross hairs on us and fires 3 well known bullets; criticizing Neoliberalism and “patrimonial capitalism” – the system which keeps top wealth owners (the financial overclass or managerial elite) in place over time:

  1. The Captured Economy: (2017). Lindsey and Teles
  2. Capital in the 21st Century (2013). Thomas Piketty
  3. Dream Hoarders (2017). Richard Reeves


These books claim that the elite wealthy are just enriching themselves off rents rather than productivity and innovation at the expense of everyone else. Piketty’s work (discredited in my opinion) argues that capitalism has created a class of rentiers that gets rich passively via investment and inheritance, while everyone else falls further and further behind.  Pikkety targets billionaires.  Reeves accuses us (not the grand rentiers but we the petit rentiers (mass affluent)) of hogging advantages for ourselves and our children at the expense of others.


The debate is really whether we live in a meritocracy or a hereditary aristocracy. It’s both, of course, but some argue that it must be 100% one or the other.  Here’s a quote from Michael Lind’s The New Class War (2020) that illustrates my point (pg. 116):

The implicit theory of technocratic neoliberalism is that the U.S. and other Western societies at this point are essentially classless societies in which the only significant barriers involve race and gender. The people at the top got there purely as a result of their own efforts, on the basis of their superior intellectual or academic skills.  Many of these corporate managers, financiers, lawyers, accountants, engineers, foundation program officers, media elites… are members of a new creative class and digital elite, the thinkpreneurs and thought leaders of the knowledge economy who live in brain hubs (to use only a few of the flattering terms in the lexicon of overclass self-idolatry).


Douthat’s disdain for us is on pg. 32:

Meanwhile, the fact that this new elite is officially more meritocratic (however debatable the reality) than past ruling classes seems at times to justify its grab-what-you-can spirit, its fearful accumulation of advantage – lest a bad SAT score undo your children’s hard-won privilege.   If the old patrimonial capitalism at least featured some noblesse oblige…the new sort feels more justified in its self-dealing, more self-righteous in its selfishness.  And the cost of its privilege, it appears, is economic disappointment for everyone else.


The problem with all this high browed societal hatred and envy is that trying to “solve the problem” means attacking the wealthy, a disastrous public policy mistake that would be a danger (albeit a remote threat) to my clients. John Cochrane at his Grumpy Economist blog masterfully walks us through why a Bernie Sanders “billionaires should not exist” wealth tax would not raise much revenue or even effectively redistribute wealth but would rather implement an “off with their heads!” worldview – George Bernard Shaw’s “The more I see of the moneyed classes, the more I understand the guillotine”.


Well, not on my watch. Guillotining the mass affluent is never going to happen because of the knowledge placed here weekly in our Estate Planning War Chest.

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The Second Derivative


The first chapter of The Decadent Society (2020) is “Stagnation”.  Stagnation is a prolonged period of low growth and development.  Our civilization is experiencing stagnation.  It’s the first element of cultural decadence (the first of Douthat’s “Four Horsemen”).  Economic stagnation is a function of time – change, rate of change and change to the rate of change.


I had to hire a math tutor while studying at Purdue University in 1988 to get through a Calculus course. I was a finance major and couldn’t quite grasp why corporate earnings growth was graphed on a logarithmic and not linear scale.  As COVID-19 spreads, understanding basic calculus concepts is comforting.  If you go to the site, it gives you the option of viewing graphs of Coronavirus cases and deaths on either a linear or logarithmic scale. Douthat quotes blogger Scott Alexander while discussing economic deceleration and stagnation.  Scott’s blog post on 4/10/20 is “The Second Derivative”, which is the rate of growth of the rate of growth:


Here’s some positive, hopeful thoughts on the virus from the Grumpy Economist:


Anyway, chapter 1 of Douthat’s book is divided into four sections covering: 1) economic deceleration, 2) Neoliberalism; 3) economic growth limits; and 4) technological stagnation.  The Neoliberalism section is packed with valuable War Chest ideas, so we’ll wait until next Tuesday to cover that here.


The striking pattern of logarithmic economic growth ended around the Apollo moon landing. The limits of economic growth have been documented and analyzed by many writers, the most famous of whom is Tyler Cowen in his book The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better (2011).


The final section of Douthat’s first chapter is titled “Where Have You Gone, Thomas Edison?”. It contains informative illustrations convincing readers that we are experiencing the end of a historic surge in innovation and technological progress.  It’s pretty obvious so I won’t belabor it here.


Tuesday we tackle the fascinating, controversial notion of Neoliberalism.

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