32: Whig History, Decadence, and Stagnation with Quinn Lewandowski

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Hosted by
Will Jarvis

Today on the podcast, I’m joined by Quinn Lewandowski to explore common ideas of how history is progressing. We also discuss cost disease, scientific freedom, and why there is a dearth of new, really good art.

Show Notes:

Scott’s cost disease post

Alex Tabarrok’s cost disease study

Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Inadequate Equilibria

Scientific Freedom by Don Braben.

Zvi’s blog

Now it can be told by General Groves.

Ideas that have helped mankind by Bertrand Russell. 

Revolt of the Public by Martin Gurri

Transcript:

Will Jarvis  

Hey folks, I’m William Jarvis, along with my dad, Dr. David Jarvis, I host the podcast narratives. narratives is a project exploring the ways in which the world is better than it has been the ways it is worse in the past or making a better, more definite future. I hope you enjoy it. 

Well, Hey, folks. Back in Wake Forest, North Carolina tonight, Raleigh area with Quinn Quinn, how are you doing tonight, I’m feeling pretty good. We’re back on the front porch. Again, it’s kind of nice mask up just kind of socially distance, that we would record an episode kind of get to see each other kind of get out of the house for a little bit, be a nice thing to do. And we want to talk a little bit about Whig history and decadence, and what these two concepts are and how they’re different, why they’re important, and,and kind of what they’re explaining about the world. So I guess just to kick it off, you know, what’s whig history? I think that’s a good, good place to start. 

Quinn Lewandowski  

I think there’s a defensible and indefensible version. And the defensible version starts with the observation they’ll have our objective metrics are getting bare. Few babies starve to death, then good starve to death before. And there’s not a whole lot of doubt that babies starving to death is bad. Not much controversy. Most people agree with that. And they so at least if you’re focusing on the metrics, which are getting better, which do seem like important things, you can argue that things seem to be getting better. On the whole. I think the indefensible version is kind of, we’re actually we just touched on Hegel. Hegel believed that there was sort of underlying cosmic progress for reasons that were essentially mystical, that the world was moving toward pure and pure manifestations of the absolute idea. And that is very, I think that’s very, very difficult to argue. And I think very few people explicitly believe that. But a lot of people, on some level, do believe that there is a cosmic law, that things are getting better, and that everything is getting better. So they don’t have the sense that, Oh, I should look at this statistic and see if it’s actually improving. Interesting. So Hegel had this idea that we’re just improving toward this, like, Good thing immaterial, good thing and yeah, future. Pure thought thinking about pure thought is how Russell summarizes Hegel’s? Absolutely. But I think Hegel is the archetypal example. He’s the one I use when I’m talking to my mom, for instance, of somebody who’s communicating badly, because if they were communicating well, they would be less convincing. Yes, there’s a lot of cases of that. Yeah. Especially in academia. Yeah. Especially in German philosophy. It seems like to be a bit of a common theme. Yeah, I think so. Interesting. So, on its face with history, you know, things seem to be getting better from like a utilitarian perspective. Yeah. Let’s start with less people in extreme poverty. Yeah. But on the flip side, there seems to be all these problems. Yes. So I guess against Whig history. There’s the the deck and it’s kind of argument. Yeah. So that’s a kind of Ross Douthat coined the term. Yeah. I didn’t know that. Yeah, he did. Actually, a decade ago, he coined the term. Can you describe kind of decadence, what it is, and why it’s important, I think, more the opposite view that history is sloping downward. We’re losing useful social technology. And I have some ideas for plausible mechanisms, why that might be happening.

Will Jarvis  

What’s an example of social technologies for? Well, I would say representative democracy is that’s a thing we know how to do. And it has certain advantages. For one thing, it seems to stabilize succession. So you don’t have to go war each time the government life.

Quinn Lewandowski  

I think manners probably are also social technology. Sometimes they’re obsolete or vestigial, but a lot of the times they serve a purpose. Got him

Will Jarvis  

with this. I’ve got an example. Yeah. I want to see what you think. And we may have talked about it before, so excuse me if we have but um, They do these this study to try and measure social trust and drop wallets off in different societies, from big cities across the world. And you see, and there’s like $100 in the wallet, you know, I don’t know, I can’t remember exactly, you know, exact criteria, but they dropped them off, you know, they’ll drop like 100 wallets, often each city. And they see there’s a phone number in there, and then a card contact, and they see how many of the wallets get returned. And how many of the wallets get returned with cash. Yeah. So perhaps like a really good society would be one where the wallet always gets returned with cash. One of the really interesting findings is just a side note, is that one of the worst places in the world to get your wallet back at all, or with cash, and it was actually the People’s Republic of China. on your face, you think it would be like, some really poor place in you know, the developing world, like in Latin America? Or perhaps Africa or the Indian subcontinent? But no, it was actually in, in China, which is, which is interesting, even in cities like Shanghai? Yeah, I don’t, I’m not good geography is that very developed or quite developed? I would say it looks like New York City. I’m just wondering, because I’m betting one of the things that correlates with returning the wallet is reputational systems and social systems interest, I think people get used to.

Quinn Lewandowski  

I think it’s not just conscious calculation. If you live in an environment where your reputation is an asset, and people know you and you’re not really atomized, then doing the right thing is a strategy that pays off again and again and again, because people can see that you’re a good person. And so they cooperate with you. And so maybe like, if you’re in a small town, you’re more likely to cooperate. Yeah, because there’s more likely to be a repeated game. Yeah, if it’s just like one offer in a big city. Yeah, you could see returning the wallet as trying to decide between the money and the reputational capital, and you can’t get as much reputational capital out of it in a place where people don’t know who you are. Interesting. I don’t think people are actually that cynical consciously, right.

Will Jarvis  

But there could be some unconscious process that works then that way to really that’s really interesting. So that’s good example of social technology. Maybe do you return to shopping cart or not? That’s just like a good Yeah, good metric, or even even norms around, like lining up for things? Yes to be? I don’t know. Anyway, sorry. That was a complete tangent, no. Social technology seat, we seem to be getting worse going in the wrong direction. Yeah, at least some of it is.

Quinn Lewandowski  

And I want to be as skeptical of a universal decadent view, as I would be a universal progress, we’ll, um, yeah, we are losing some stuff, potentially. And it’s valuable stuff. I kinda, I have some baggage about this. I feel like 90% of the people I talked to about this are either committed to the view that things are getting worse, and they brush off the infant mortality stuff, which is significant. Or they’re committed to the fact that things are getting better. And they brush off social trust or self determination, or the sense that lots of people obviously have very deeply felt that things are getting worse. And I think both of those are significant enough, that part of me is always kind of trying to anticipate which way you’re going and to be ready to say, But wait, there are dead babies or But wait, there is an enemy and suicide. And yeah,

Will Jarvis  

that’s right. That’s a really good point. And often wonder, what I’ve, what I’ve come to think, is that and I’m not super confident about this, but it’s something like, things are getting better. Like there’s less people in poverty, and that trend is continuing. But I think at the same time, in the so called the quote, unquote, developed world, things are either getting better, more slowly, or they’re only getting better at the top and they’re getting worse or staying the same. In the middle and bottom, if that makes sense. Cost disease and stagnation. Definitely. Our friend, Scott Alexander is we should mention cost disease. Yes. I think that’s that’s really good. And then Michonne. Scott came back yesterday, they recorded Alexander. I had a thought that was going to put me more in the Whig history camp, because things are obviously getting better because Scott came back. That’s exactly, exactly there. It’s settled for DOD. Why are we going to talk anymore? We fixed it. Salted all that so. So cost disease, yeah, can show up with cost diseases. I think the original idea is an economist named Bombo.

Quinn Lewandowski  

Who was trying to explain why Wages generally rose when we made technological improvements, like, why should improvements in factory technology raise the wages of people who play violin professionally?

Will Jarvis  

Right.

Quinn Lewandowski  

And his solution was that you have to pay them not to leave to become a factory worker, God, and so the. And so even though they’re not producing more than they were before, or not necessarily producing more than they were before, their bargaining position has changed. And on its face, this seems like maybe a good thing. But productivity enhancements get shared throughout the economy. Got it. I mean, if we imagine the world without that kind of effect, somehow jobs would just not be worth doing, you’d still be making subsistence level wages.

Will Jarvis  

And I guess your point about the so let’s say we want to go see someone played the violin at a concert every now but say we wanted to, or, actually a couple miles from here, I saw Lang Lang play a really famous Chinese piano player at a Mandy concert hall. And his wages, whatnot, his wages, it’s hard for him to be more like get efficiency gains. Yeah. Because he can only play so many concerts a night, you know, there’s a fixed and once you’ve so

Quinn Lewandowski  

but but you can make games and other areas. So so maybe there’s some areas where it’s like, you know, a doctor can only see X amount of people a day, and you can make you can make these small improvements, but their absolute productivity gains, like once you reach them, it’s impossible to add level and indirect improvements. If the people the doc, if the doctor can say 10 people a day. But those 10 people have shifted from being people who are able to produce 10 widgets an hour to people who are able to produce 150 widgets an hour, and he saves one life of those 10 people, probably not that much. But then the doctor has indirectly caused there’ll be way more widgets than he would have beforehand, even though he’s still seeing the same number of people. Definitely.

Will Jarvis  

So we’ve got so we’ve got cost disease here. Yeah. And I think the main point about cost disease is that essential goods have gotten, yeah, more. So because inflation chart and like we’ve got, you know,

Quinn Lewandowski  

TVs are getting cheaper, and like consumer goods, but then essential goods are getting more expensive. This is Scott Alexander’s point, he wrote a very, very, very good essay. And it looks like very essential things you need to live like housing, it seems like not food, but housing and medical care, and education that you need for your job. Right, is getting more expensive. And I maybe tell me if you think I’m misinterpreting this, but I’ve read the essay two or three times, and I think no one really knows why. He throws around like four or five theories, but not them are actually strong enough to explain the effect. That’s the sense I get. And I almost wonder I know, to have rock wrote a book on this, which I have not read yet, which I think he may have reviewed the review at Scott, it may have reviewed the book. But it seems to me

Will Jarvis  

the more and yeah, it’s it’s almost impossible to tell why. And it almost doesn’t matter why just more than anything else. It matters that it’s happening. And we have to find some way to fix it. Right? Yeah. But so the essential goods you just talked about, where they’re rising faster than inflation, it’s like housing prices. That could be due to like, I’m just let’s, let’s go through each one, maybe throw out a few reasons why it might be. The cost may be growing fast inflation. It’s like housing, zoning regulations. Yeah, build their housing, kind of NIMBY, not in my backyard. And then there’s healthcare. It’s unclear what’s going on health care. And then education.

Quinn Lewandowski  

That’s the other area. Maybe it’s subsidies have some effect, but there’s a lot of Yeah, I think I also read Eliot koski, writes about this stuff. And he says, The subsidizing a good can only ever have beneficial effects if it causes more of the good to be produced. And if it doesn’t, it will raise the price. And so screw all the people who aren’t getting a subsidy. Got it. And so he says, I think he uses education as an example. He says in the early 20th century, we built many more universities. we subsidize the universities and that caused there to be many more than there had been and In the late 20th, or maybe the early 21st century, recently, we tried that again, and it caused University prices to rise, but it didn’t cause more to be built. And so something has changed. That keeps us from building more universities. And that keeps that subsidy from causing it to be more affordable, and to actually contribute to making it less affordable. Right. That’s really interesting. It does seem like there hasn’t been a prestigious university built since 1900. Yeah, like, I mean, like Stanford feels like the last one. Yeah. I don’t know. Like, even Duke, like, you know, like the, you know, James B do give all the money and trend in college and yeah, I don’t know, there seems like to be some cap.

Will Jarvis  

I don’t know. The stagnation is strong in this one. Yeah. Yes. And

Quinn Lewandowski  

I mean, it’s stronger if you take into account population, like, the argument that made me that made this dawn on me was about riders. So sort of different than, yeah, Shakespeare. Shakespeare is great. Macbeth is great. Shakespeare has a reputation for being great. So probably, there would be enough inertia that people would keep saying he was great, even if he wasn’t great. But I’ve read him and he’s great. Our population is out. Now how many times that of Elizabethan England but it’s a lot more, there ought to be four or five people as good as Shakespeare. And as far as I can tell, there aren’t. And that seems very surprising that it seems like a fairly strong argument in favor of the decadence thesis, that with the increased population, we should be seeing more people doing great things for just about any category of great things that hasn’t become obsolete. That makes sense. Because I guess for any activity, we’ve got, like, you know, yeah, exactly. There should be more, you know, if you have a normal distribution of people, yeah, there are going to be any, you increase the number of people. Yeah, there’s gonna be more people that, you know, are off on these tail ends. Yes. But that’s very bizarre, right? Yeah, I’m sorry that it’s not happening. It is. I mean, our go to example of a great writer is from Elizabeth in England. That’s very odd. Yeah.

Will Jarvis  

So I guess, you know, and these questions are, let’s just take the, you know, the Shakespeare case, because I think it’s a good case. And this may be a useless exercise, because I think this is like, you know, wise, and we’re determined. But, you know, what do you think went wrong? Like, why do you think we don’t have let’s just even an art, like, why do you think there’s this? What Why is it bereft of, of these great works?

Quinn Lewandowski  

I think there’s a thesis that I run into sometimes on the air, not that I don’t know if I understand it well enough to articulate Yeah, but it seems to suggest that most of the institutions we have dedicated toward nurturing toward directing resources toward artists, right, are mostly neglecting people with the talent to produce beautiful things, or insightful things or truthful things in order to play signaling games. So if you compare modern art to older art, it’s kind I’m sure saw the modern art is very nice. But with a lot of it’s hard to see the point of it. I don’t have this sense. When I it seems like just about every time run across a really beautiful painting on the internet. I google the artist is from like, 100 years ago, right? I just discovered Windham Lewis who I gather, wrote very controversial stuff that I’m not very interested in reading. But all of his paintings are gorgeous. Yeah, they’re just gorgeous. And I feel like I could have predicted before I looked up who this guy was that, you know, he wasn’t gonna be Oh, he lives in San Francisco now. Yeah, he’s a historical figure. It’s definitely historical figure.

Will Jarvis  

Which is very bizarre. Yeah. It’s very bizarre to think we’ve gotten worse off at doing that.

Quinn Lewandowski  

It is. Um, so I think the culture has something to do with it. I think, um, as a pet theory, that institutionalization has something to do with it. I guess maybe it’s not pet theory now that I’ve seen some other people saying stuff like that. But I picked up I was reading Bertrand Russell, because I like Bertrand Russell, talking about the Royal Society. It’s basically this group of friends who you know, they fart around, they play games, right? The game is who can make the best predictions of science, right? And it seems like a lot of that early science. It’s done by people who love it. It’s not incentivized, and it’s not institutionalized. So you don’ Good hearts law type issues are breslov, where the people who are motivated by power get control of the bureaucracy, because there isn’t bureaucracy. That’s a great point. And I wonder to what extent so

Will Jarvis  

talk to Don braven yesterday, who recently got yesterday, recently. And he is he’s a five year old. And he just, he had his book, scientific freedom, republished by strike press. And he had this has this idea that essentially, what you need to do is you need to find people that can make, you know, breakthroughs and basic research. Yeah. And you just give them money, and you just let leave them be. And I wonder to what extent have we just like that, that doesn’t happen in all these different fields, right? You just don’t get like, you know, a small chunk of money and just go out and just, like, be creative and do things like, you know, it’s it’s counterintuitive to me, because I feel like a lot of the problems, we have like a lot of problems, coordination problems now, like, right, so like the vaccine like, and so we’re really bad at coordination, but it seems like maybe what’s gone wrong is that we’ve got, we’ve gotten good at, well, we think

Quinn Lewandowski  

coordination is more important than it is in some areas, and then like, don’t worry about it in other areas. So we want accountability and like science and creative pursuits, I think we often overestimate our ability to do it, until we could try to do it and ends up worse than not trying to do it. Because we’re not, I think a lot of this, I don’t want to be reductive. Yeah. But I think a huge part of this is gold specification, we can’t specify what exactly we want. So we specify a proxy. And we think the proxy is what we want. And then we get much more capable, our civilization gets much more power. And we pour that power into the proxy, and it becomes very unlike what we actually want. Interesting. So bureaucracies select for people who are good at playing politics, right? It’s really hard to stop them from doing that, right? You need bureaucracy to coordinate a lot of different people definitely needs help. I think partly, we’re just, we’re overestimating how much adding bureaucracy actually helps and how careful you have to be and sang out. Gradually does when you get one of the actually functions. I think, I think that’s a good point. It’s like super underrated, like, you know, we talked this V, like there’s constant entropy in bureaucracies. And like you said, I think it’s like there’s a real art to setting him up and keeping them accountable. It’s very difficult to do and people perhaps underrate how difficult it is. Yeah. I’m your enemy about the artists. Just a side note. You know, I see, you know, the proliferation of MFA programs. Yeah. You know, like, Tisch School, the arts, you know, they’re everywhere now. And I often wonder, it’s like, you know,

Will Jarvis  

if you’re really like, want to become an artist, shouldn’t you do like, kind of what throw? Did you just go to a cabin in the woods and just write a book? Yeah. Yeah. I mean,

Quinn Lewandowski  

maybe that’s maybe that’s the real answer in things just have gotten weird, right? Like, I don’t know, like, you don’t need someone to teach you how to do it. And in fact, the act of going to get taught is perhaps counter counterproductive. Yeah. Well, it at least the way we’re teaching it now. I think our teaching paradigms are, well, I think we’ve fallen victim to this. It’s very hard to test for genuine knowledge. It’s easy to test for vegetation, the best processes for getting people good at regurgitating stuff, destroy the capacity for genuine knowledge, they blank out understanding. Our educational systems have kind of gone whole hog on this point. But so they to elaborate on that they teach you to copy things, yes, about creating new things. But it’s it’s very, like, can you even teach people to create new things? Like that’s a real question. Yeah, I don’t know. I have a there’s a pattern that I recognize, which is, we assume that something is easy. And we know how to do it. Yeah. And then when jobs realize that it’s not, and we don’t we start saying it’s impossible. And my air koski would say, Well, have you tried for five minutes? We’re actually cried for five minutes to think of a way to do this. Right? Yeah. So this reminds me I’m reading this great book, and I have to go podcast on this. It’s a it’s called now it can be told by General groves, who ran the Manhattan Project. Which fun side note, by the way, is it was actually going to be called the Knoxville project. But for political reasons, God continues to Manhattan. I’m a big East Tennessee fan.

Will Jarvis  

But it’s incredible how he’s describing in the beginning, how he’s talking to scientists, and he’s completely non technical. He would like to tell you that. And he’s like, Well, you know, we didn’t really know that we could do it. But we thought, you know, we probably could do it, and we would figure out a way to get it done. And we’re just gonna set up all the infrastructure. We know, we think we need now, if he’s talking about setting up heavy water plants, which he actually ended up not needing, but just like, just in case, you know, so they thought through everything, it seems like people avoid doing that process of actually thinking through like, is this feasible? Is this something people would want?

Quinn Lewandowski  

All these different areas? I think so. Yeah. It’s interesting. I think it is interesting. Yeah. My arms free passing are really going nowhere. Gotcha. No, I don’t actually know where. Interesting. Yeah. Um,

Will Jarvis  

yeah, I’m just thinking about, you know, what’s gone wrong is difficult. But I think, like, we’ve just talked about it, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what’s going wrong. But I do wonder, you know, what are the paths? So, we’ve talked about decadence. We’ve talked about Whig history, I think both of us perhaps have a sense that, you know, the numbers are getting better. But there’s also a real stagnation that’s going on.

Quinn Lewandowski  

I think I’m, I’m a little I hear a tribute to Luke keep who’s a blocker, his work I find fascinating, but I never feel like I understand that.

Will Jarvis  

It’s not like Hegel is

Quinn Lewandowski  

good. That’s important. But which is that, um, the division is between legible and illegible that we’re good at improving legible metrics that are bad, illegible metrics, that’s really good. illegible metrics get sacrificed, and we improve the legible metrics. Got it?

Will Jarvis  

That’s really interesting. So baby, we’ve gotten really good at just like, well, that’s not exactly. That’s not true. We’re also we’ve also gotten bad at doing legible things like vaccine distribution. Yeah. But, you know, in some areas of our society, we’re good at like, legible things. Yes.

Quinn Lewandowski  

We are. The vaccine stuff is disturbing. I mean, I feel like it represents a progression in some sense, or a visible progression. So maybe, um, maybe it’s a lagging indicator of things that should have worried us 10 years ago. Right. That’s a good point. Is that our general inability to

Will Jarvis  

do just about anything? Yeah. Just continues to pace? And with with few ways out of it, it seems like Yeah. Which is partly I think the world is getting.

Quinn Lewandowski  

I’ve heard that and it’s a judgment call. But I do think the world is getting stranger. I think it’s getting less like the ancestral environment. And so our default heuristics are malfunctioning, more and more badly. Interesting. Which I think is one of the sources of this. Do you think in? In what sense? Do you think it’s like, we’re more atomized or more? Yeah, with more population more, in some sense, more connected, almost, um, it used to be your peer group, or the people who lived near you, and they had the same information diet. So it’s partly less that we’re atomized and more that we have different incompatible sets of productions. This Good point, while being stuck together, yeah. We’re in different media bubbles, right? I don’t know. It’s complicated. I think we’re trying to do big things, then love coordinating lots of people. Right. And I think we have a set of intuitions about that, that. Actually, a lot of things sort of fell into place. And I don’t know if this is, I don’t know, I’m not professional. And this is one of those areas where people will say to you in an accusatory voice, you’re not professional. But, um, if you read about the ancestral environment, yeah, you have little groups of people, right, under Dunbar’s number, yep. Who have known each other, all their lives, right, who are going to know each other all their lives. And so many things fall into place, reputation systems are everything. Revenge makes sense, because people will see that you took revenge and so they won’t harm you. Right? That’s a sensible investment and, and coordination tech makes sense. We have this intuition that um, if we bring the tribe together and all agree that x is a problem, then x will get soft, which makes sense when everyone is watching each other all the time, right? Exactly. And we have the sense that, oh, by golly, if that doesn’t work, we will assign someone to do X. And that will fix, right. And actually, what that means in the modern world, is giving someone the title of being the exercise, and then trying to specify the goal well enough that they solve that and not proxy. And that’s really, really hard. But we don’t realize that it’s hard. We expect it to be automatic. That’s great. What’s it like the, the separation of and this is on

Will Jarvis  

a different level, but the separation of responsibility? And I guess, like, responsibility and like this, the benefit of like having a title, what, how would you put this like, so like, I’m thinking about the case of this is a good case. I think everyone knows about this, that, you know, the Trump administration, they decided, you know, we don’t want to, we don’t want the responsibility of dealing with COVID. So we’re gonna just hand this response over to the States. You know, and it’s like, so they want the status of having taken care of COVID without the actual responsibility of taking care of it, and then we end up yeah, I mean, there’s so many failures down the chain, like, you know, just this specific example. Yeah.

Quinn Lewandowski  

Like play on the state. That’s right. The state of coordination problem, right. And they’re bureaucracies. Yep. Get second hearing me say that. But I do think it’s key. Yeah, it’s very important. And until it doesn’t work very well. I’m not totally sure where you’re going with this, to be honest. Just I think the the separation of

Will Jarvis  

the problems that happen, when do you get status? And what’s the word? You can get the status without responsibility? Yes.

Quinn Lewandowski  

There’s a blog post by I think she blogs under Elizabeth, which is not very Google name, but it’s called Power BI as you distance from the crime. Oh, interesting. The ideas that are not the things people use status and power for is insulation from responsibility. And so you have a negative correlation between people’s ability to be responsible for stuff and their ability and make bad stuff happen. Oh, wow. Yeah, that’s really interesting.

Will Jarvis  

And I wonder what happens when that effect spreads out? Kind of across? Yeah. Our society, right. I don’t know. Yeah. We end up where we are now. Yeah. It’s a whole tangle of tricky problems. Yes. And even enumerate them. numerating them is like a tall task. Yeah. Where’s my brain going?

Quinn Lewandowski  

It’s a great question.

Will Jarvis  

I want to talk a little bit about so we’ve talked about decadence. We’ve talked about work history, and craft some some pathways out of decadence, per se. I know. So Ross Douthat ends his book, and it’s like, until we get, you know, the warp drive or whatever. We’re in trouble. Which seems like a kind of a cop out. You know, specifically, I want tolet’s look at art again. I think that’s a great, great place to be, you know, are we just doomed to, you know, Marvel and Star Wars? You know, every year? Yes. You know, until it till civilization collapses. 

Quinn Lewandowski  

I don’t know. Star Wars is getting worse. I think civilizational scale anyway. Yes, exactly.

Will Jarvis  

And, like, Where’s the new? You know, the problem doesn’t seem to me that we don’t have enough Star Wars is that we don’t have enough Star Wars in the sense that we don’t have new media that is actually new. 

Quinn Lewandowski  

Yes. 

Will Jarvis  

It’s just like rehashing old things until

Quinn Lewandowski  

three hash things are getting worse. It doesn’t fit as neatly into Marvel, butI love the Batman comic books. Yeah. And I don’t love any of the movies. I really 

Will Jarvis  

None of the Dark Knight stuff.

Quinn Lewandowski  

 I really like their portrayal of the Joker, but some roads there is some structural elements they’re missing where I’m personally, I love derivative works. I love the kayak creativity that comes from relaxing something that’s already existing, but the new ones feel more and more stale. I don’t want to you could do a whole podcast just about this. But a big part of the problem with the Dark Knight stuff is that they allow the viewer to see Batman’s decision to dress up like a giant flying around. Number one punch mothers as a rational response to crime. And one of the key things that all the really good Batman comics have in common is the acknowledgement on some level, they isn’t that you need something on. That’s what makes him a psychologically interesting character. And it’s what makes them powerful as art in a way that I don’t think a mainstream superhero movie has been. They don’t feel safe, they feel they don’t feel sterilized. They feel right on the border of being actual horror. Interesting. And in the context of that dynamic, his relationship with the Joker is interesting. Union is the word I keep coming down to because that’s the level of analysis that I think makes sense for it. And so I do kind of want to the way this ties back is that, um, the comic books I loved were derivative works. They were based on the character who was created in the 1930s. Yeah, but they were good derivative works. And I don’t think the current stuff is on anything like the same level. And interesting. I don’t know. It just gets worn out. Yeah. After a while.

Will Jarvis  

Yeah, that’s really interesting. So I, so perhaps you can ride the tail winds for a while, but yeah, eventually, you know, also, um,

Quinn Lewandowski  

I feel like the status of stuff changed. The comic books from the 30s were made to be disposable for children. And then a bunch of people. Frank Miller, Alan Moore, came along in the 80s. inside. Okay, let’s do serious art based on this. And it was great. Yeah. And now we are making blockbuster movies and not serious art. And they are not great. They’re okay. If you enjoy them, you can enjoy them out. Were not enjoying. Yeah. It’s almost like the, but it feels like like that transition matters. Now, you can’t do anything too scary with the character because he’s a billion dollar property. Right.

Will Jarvis  

First, so perhaps you get constrained because you have to serve everyone. Yeah.

Quinn Lewandowski  

your target audience is broader. 

Will Jarvis  

Right? 

Quinn Lewandowski  

The work gets less specific. 

Will Jarvis  

And then you less eyes you can do. That’s really interesting. That’s really interesting. I wonder, are people as artists now reaching too broadly? Like, are they trained to reach too broadly, and they don’t focus enough on their own super bizarre and interesting things, the things they’re interested in,

Quinn Lewandowski  

 the internet would do that. And the feedback cycles, you get likes very quickly for doing stuff that appeals to most people interested in fewer people working in the woods. Right.

Will Jarvis  

Perhaps that feeds into that. Yeah. So perhaps we can run back to Whig history for a bit. It does seem like there has been a great, there’s been quite the recognition that it’s somewhat run out, particularly in the last, you know, five years, I would say, like, I think you could, you know, there’s like the end of history, you know, who and Fukuyama claims, like that’s not exactly what I said. But you know, it probably isn’t exactly what he said. But it does seem like things have really devolved, and there’s more recognition that there are real problems going on. Yeah. And I don’t know. Like, I don’t think there are many serious people that acknowledge that everything’s going super in all facets. Yeah. But I could be wrong about that. I don’t know. I don’t think you’re wrong about that. I mean, I can’t think of any and, and this does remind me like, you know, you’ve got a there’s a lot of anti in on that same front align with that is just a lot of anti, you know, liberal democracy, not anti but like, you know, my favorite is like in its palladium. It’s like, what’s next after liberalism? And I’m, you know, I keep going back and forth on this, but I’m fair. I’m, at the end of the day, I’m like, kind of a McCloskey, Deidre McCloskey liberal and, and I feel like everyone who’s making critiques all the smart people that make critiques have not spent enough time looking at the alternatives. Yeah, I think we’re in the same boat there.

Quinn Lewandowski  

I haven’t read Mccloskey. No by reputation. Great. Um, I do hear great things. A lot of it feels like no decision, but the complicated machine is producing some bad outcomes and jumping prey quickly to smashing it with a hammer, right. Which leads us to simpler outcomes that I think are mostly worse. Yeah. You almost get a little bit of a sense of Neitzche, he talks about, he was talking about value systems. But he distinguishes, I think between regressing to simpler sets of values, and creating more complicated sets of values based on your existing set of values. That feels relevant, at least is an analogy that I’m after liberalism. Well, we could try feudalism again. But we know that through very high entropy sisters of attraction toward their or good try something weird and new and complicated that we haven’t thought of. Yeah, right. Laughter sounds about a billion times more interesting than the other. Right.

Will Jarvis  

But the real challenge seems to be, you know, coming up with what that is, you know, it has to be something that’s achievable. That is, you know, it’s it seems so complex, and it’s just not something I’ve seen in the cultural value. Like, everyone’s talking about this stuff. But I don’t know, like, you know, everyone’s exploring, you know, what comes next, you know, what do we replace it with? But I think, you know, it’s good to look and eyes, you know, it’s always good to look. But I guess my point would be, it’s probably good to be careful about blowing things up until you have something better perhaps, yes, they are a big fan of that sentiment is David Friedman puts it out revolution is the hell of it. Right? I think he’s riffing on revolution for the hell of it. But I do you think these critiques, they are strong, and they have, you know, how things are progressing and how they’re not progressing? And I think they’re becoming almost more true. And that is disturbing to me, because it is somewhat of a forcing function for the revolution, like you said, right. Like, as things get generally worse, alternatives seem to look better and better, even if they’re not well thought through. And, and I don’t think this is like a rational process where we all sit around now, you know, like, we don’t sit around the roundtable and all like, you know, come to a conclusion together about what we should do. It’s like super messy and bad. And it’s like the you sent me the essay by Bertrand Russell about what was it to titled, I was reading it last night. Things that I guess I’ve helped mankind and ideas that have hurt my account. And in the in the ideas that have hurt mankind. There is one, one line which I’ll highlight on my Kindle, which I don’t have with me, but it was something like, you know, you wouldn’t believe how, you know, just a few short years ago, you know, people in Portugal, they, they’re used described this incident where people were really mad that they had strangled someone before they burn them. Instead of the Portuguese Inquisition, I believe. Because they didn’t get to see them. Right. Then agony. Yeah, as they passed, and it’s like, oh, my God, like, you know, we’ve replaced some of that with like, video games, right, which is really good, but really positive development. But like that part, there’s parts of human nature, which are just like very complex and disturbing and dark and like, you have to everything has to be modeled with that in mind. Yes, it does.

Quinn Lewandowski  

Martin Gurri I started reading his book, revolt of the PowerPoint. Oh, how was it? It was okay. Um, and I started, I think, um, I have the sense that I get the point. Gotcha. All right. But um, several times, I’ve had that sense of our book, and I’ve read and I’ve been like, Wow, I didn’t get low point. Right. But that’s I understand the point. The idea is, the area has connected people in a way that unlocks a lot of populist energy, because a lot of people can coordinate now, coordination is much cheaper, but the lowest, the thing that unites the most people is negation. It’s tear it down, building it up, people have different conflicting versions of it. And so we’re seeing got a lot of energy put toward purely negative ideas. Right. We see hate moms, we don’t see why we don’t see moms coming together to build stuff because that requires more complex coordination. Right later enables us to player enables a shift in our ability to smash things.

Will Jarvis  

It makes it because coordination is easier around destruction. Well, and even if you can even hear that, like, you know, listening to the inauguration, and just, and it was a, you know, it was a unity speech. Yeah. But even then, the applause lines in a political speech are always the ones that were you’re like, scoring points. Yeah, I get some like political enemy. Yeah. I don’t know, this is important to remember, like, you’re right. Like, it’s you can’t sell unity or coming together to build something up, like the I think the only way to large groups of people, I think you can start the very small groups of people. And that’s how you can actually move the needle. But I think that’s important to keep in mind. You can only it’s the only thing that sells to large groups of people coordinating is taking things apart. Yes.

Quinn Lewandowski  

Benjamin Hoffman talks about scapegoat rituals, how a large group of people might coordinate on to extract resources from an individual has a target, but they have no reason to coordinate to bestow resources upon individual, right. And so we see certain we see certain equilibria where a from what makes you stick out is bad. And Scott Alexander’s. In the post he put out like yesterday, he talks about the pressure not to blog if you’re working as a psychiatrist or a cop. And it’s difficult to rationalize that. That’s a really good, good point. And once again, why is always really difficult. But perhaps, do you have any thoughts around why it seems like things have gotten so?

Will Jarvis  

Like, what’s the word? There’s a mint pressure to conform? Yeah, like all walks of life, it almost seems like, I think I do have some thoughts on that I saved Oh, perfect.

Quinn Lewandowski  

Scott writes, talking about the pressure not to blog. Yeah, I got emails that were like that only it was grad students. Apparently, if you have a blog about your field, that can make it harder to get or keep a job in academia. Let’s pause and if you write about your intellectual subject, that’s harder to get keep a job in the portion of our society that’s dedicated toward disseminating knowledge about that intellectual subject. I’m not sure what we think we’re gaining by ensuring the smartest and best educated people around are able to talk openly about the fields they’re experts in, but I hope it’s worth and I wrote a thread about possible explanations. Benjamin Hoffman says, in zero sum games, majority theory and decision rules such as democracy create an asymmetry, it’s much easier to expropriate from a minority than from Jordy are easier to transfer wealth to a majority than to a minority. Why would the majority vote for something they all benefit from? A sample benefit of this sample variant of this is the survivor game in which a single player is voted off the island at a time. Since there’s comparatively little advantage to being singled out for good players will tend to want to avoid revealing information about themselves or their allies. Loudly voicing consensus opinion in ways that don’t specify the implications for any person is fine, because it’s not informative. But anything that lets people distinguish you from the others is dangerous. Oh, it’s just incredulous as and I feel like that. I think that’s where a lot of is coming from. Things. nonconformity makes you stuck out makes you a potential shelling point makes you a target on. And disruptive energy is easier than creative energy. So you’re mostly on the lookout for disruptive energy. And this ties in to the martial arts. asymmetric justice, you can get punished, you can get blamed for unforeseen bad consequences of your actions, but you can’t get rewarded for unforeseen good consequences, right. And so there’s selective pressure against doing anything that like 

Will Jarvis  

You see this all the time and  the FDA classic example. I would say, you know, you don’t get and like the vaccine rollout. Right. So you don’t get any points for the people you save. You only get points for the 100,000 people that negative points for the 100,000 people who get gi on Bray, yeah. So the vaccine, so they of course they take their time, they let you know, just just 200,000 people can die from while they make sure that you know, no one’s going to get gamma ray from taxi. Yeah. But it leads to like just some outcomes that are much worse. Do you think there’s anything with our legal system that that plays into this? It does seem to be like doing things. It’s like the trolley problem, right? So if you threw the switch in the trolley problem, yes, you would be held? liable? Yes. Whereas if you let more people died, you didn’t do anything?

Quinn Lewandowski  

You know, I think our system makes it significantly worse. It’s a hard problem. Yeah. I don’t love our legal system. I have a grudge against it, because it doesn’t live up to my ideals. And when I was a child, I fight dead. And learning that was unpleasant because

Will Jarvis  

It is always bad when your heroes are villains.

Quinn Lewandowski  

But yeah, it makes it easier. I think there are tweaks we can do. But the underlying problem is very difficult. We can’t, um, punishing people for inaction tends not to go well, right. And there is a fear, and I think it’s a legitimate fear. I think it’s kind of an unthinking fear sometimes. But I think if you think about it, you’ll be scared of it. After you think about that, um, if we say, okay, you can kill people. If you have to, to save people, then you open the door to all kinds of rationalizations, and humans are very good at coming up with rationalizations. And you’ve damaged, common knowledge that people won’t kill you for the greater good. That’s good point. 

Will Jarvis  

So perhaps it’s something like, well, what could start happening is, Colin, you know, we’re operating on you for some unknown reason. And, like, wow, we realize man wills over here, and three of wills, friends are here. And man, if we take all Quinn’s organs out, we’d save all, that’d be great. That’s four people. 

Quinn Lewandowski  

Yes, we need. I mean, that’s the surgeon variant on the trolley problem, right? And love the I think traditional responses to it is that society needs us to be able to trust that that’s not going to happen, that we lose more from your staff, purely utilitarian sense, you lose more from people being worried about that happen, right and ever getting surgery in case, right. I think is true. But um, so I don’t see how to. I haven’t tried for five minutes to literally write laws that would let you throw the switch in the trolley problem, but wouldn’t let you take someone’s organs out. But I don’t trust people to actually enforce those laws. Right. Right. I think I don’t think I have mentioned on here. I usually say that. There’s this line about the law and its majestic equality punishes rich people and poor people equally for sleeping under bridges. Right. But realistically, I don’t know, I think I think that was proudhon. And he was French. And it was a long time ago up in the society I live in. No, it doesn’t. Um, yeah. lives, even if they’re facially very unequal, or never enforced. Equally, right. Sometimes the division isn’t rich and poor. But there’s almost always I think that relevant division would be high versus low status, right. And they get selectively enforced along that axis. People straight up pretend the law says something different than the actual words say, if it lets them punish people they really want to find out, right? What is the real problem? How do you manage that that tribal intuition? Yeah. But it does mean that you know, even if I could write a law that would let you throw the switch in the trolley problem, but wouldn’t allow for organ harvesting. I’m not sure I can trust that people would actually carry it out. Even if I got the word. Perfect. That’s a good point.

Will Jarvis  

I’ve got a question for you about utilitarianism. Yeah. So we’ll McCaskill someone asked him this thought experiment and, and he he’s kind of the I guess the, the leader of the effective altruism movement or the modern kind of philosopher behind it. He wrote a book called doing good better, which I really enjoyed. But he had this I think it was too much of a hard line. On this and I think he’s a poor salesman for EA because of it, but someone asked him, okay, so Quinn, right across the street here, we’ve got two houses directly front of us. On the left, there’s million dollars in the house, that’s yours, you can go get it. And on the right, there are there’s a house, it’s on fire. There’s two. Let’s say there’s two people inside. Say that two children, how would that make it even? More? vivid, shall we say? So we only have time to go on a house and get out the people or get the money from the house. So what you can do with the money, you can go and you can save, let’s say, 1000 lives with this. So you go in and get the money? Or do you go in and get the people? Yes. It is an interesting question. I think

Quinn Lewandowski  

now almost certainly the people. Yeah, yeah. In real life. The I’m not saying that normatively I I practice the since I was young, the art of distinguishing Why should do from my window to predict why window and I’m good at predicting my window and why should do is trickier. I think part of the don’t want to pretend there aren’t irrational, visceral, kind of indefensible reasons for that, right. But there are also some possibly overlooked defensible reasons that I think filter into Benjamin Hoffman, who I just wrote, he wrote a post called drowning child is hard to find. Yeah, he argued that altruists have greatly overestimated, and whether it seems sort of systematic. how cheap it is to actually save lives. Oh, yeah. They want people to donate. Oh, yeah. So to some extent, the million dollars, you’re trusting that your society will actually use that to do the right thing. It says it won’t do. And I think people don’t have a visceral level of trust in that, and I think they shouldn’t.

Will Jarvis  

That’s a really good point. So that’s actually that’s a really good point. You know, that’s like, have you seen Tiger King? Yeah, we’ve talked about this. Okay. So do you remember he has a section where he starts talking about nonprofits? Yeah. And how, and I think this is the most like he saw the world Joe saw the world most clearly when he talks about Now, obviously, you know, they’re all scams, essentially, they like, and all of them, that’s a broad term, but you know, the vast majority of them are essentially scams that don’t do what their status is that what they set out to do. And so rationally, perhaps, like he’s like, if we look over there, you know, the million bucks in the house was like, well, the odds that that actually goes to the right place, are just so low. Yeah, perhaps, perhaps we’re really, are we really all just causative utilitarians? Yeah, I think I’m

Quinn Lewandowski  

worse than we seem to be. I think, solver moral intuitions make sense in that context. And more of them makes sense as Scott has opposed to us. They make sense as proxies that we’ve come to care about for themselves, but we were originally cared about for utilitarian reason. Gotcha. Like fairness makes a lot of sense in the context of diminishing marginal utility. Gotcha. I think people are subconsciously calculating diminishing marginal utility. Now when they care about fairness, that makes sense. Have you read, um, there’s a wonderful blog post by Jessica Taylor called active charity. I’m going to send it to your own blog at about she worked on nonprofit I think, writes about, um, act is the defining word. I think it’s hard to summarize the thesis of it’s a dialogue. And but I think part of it is her claim that not only are the nonprofit scams, most people who donate to them know that they’re scams are real. And so we’re in a sort of collaborative symbiotic act where we pretend to fix these problems. Oh, interesting. So they are aware. Yeah. I mean, I don’t know if he’s right. It was a very eloquent well, reasoned case. And I think she’s more right than I thought she was before I read it. There’s a guy on Twitter, who told me once that we should sometimes think of communication as moving people marginally closer to the truth. Got it. Which was a big relief to me, because sometimes I say things I know are wrong, but I don’t know how they’re wrong. And they’re the closest I can come to articulating how rare

Will Jarvis  

So I do want this. This reminds me, you know, elephant the brain. Yeah. prominence. But so we’re talking about nonprofits right. And so most people get into nonprofits to signal that They care about the people, right. And most people buy health care for their loved ones to signal they care about them. Even though, you know, if you look at like the RAND Health Study, and like all these big meta analysis, it turns out, you know, health care.There are some interventions that do things, a lot of adult most of its just signaling, we just care about each other one second, that we care about each other. I wonder if people like so the idea behind supposition in the book was that people are not aware of this. Yeah, perhaps people are more aware of this than Robin and Kevin would give them credit for right. Like, perhaps we know that, you know, like, let’s say, clean, you’re sick, you know, like, of course, we get you the best treatment in the world, you know, and like, we know, like the odd. It’s not a probably won’t do anything. Right. But like, we want to feel better about ourselves. Yes. And we want to believe that someone would take care of us like that. Yeah, we felt like we intuitively have that sense that it’s true. Yes. I don’t know. I don’t know. I think

Quinn Lewandowski  

one of the things that I’ve come to believe that I think most people don’t believe it, at least relevant here is that there is a division and modeling is a bimodal distribution that might be more of a continuum. I do think it’s a lumpy continuum between people who interest back. And so for them, I am not aware of this means I’ve looked for it, and I can’t find it. And people who habitually don’t, they don’t know why they do things. Don’t ask themselves why they do things. For them, I’m aware of it is the default state, right? And so it’s not so much that it’s hidden so much as they don’t want, right? That’s a good point. But maybe if you you critically ask them, they sat down and thought about it, they probably come back to you and say, Yes, I’m doing because I want to signal to any game the terminology. They say, you know, I’m giving you this nonprofit to signal that I care about the poor animals, and I think you can find a lot of that stuff in awareness. And through probing, I use imaginary counterfactuals. a lot. Yeah. I use one routinely for do I believe this where I get offered up to bet on, right? A million dollars, if I’m right, I lose a finger if I’m wrong. Losing a finger is visceral enough to make me actually care about a million dollars is visceral enough not to make me bet against whatever makes me risk losing a finger.

Will Jarvis  

There’s a bit of a heretical subtext to I think, what we’ve been talking about for the last 30 minutes or so. It’s that, you know, in some extent, this whole show, it’s that, you know, like, yes, humans, human minds are valuable in all these crazy ways, like all the time, but, you know, perhaps through critical thinking, sitting down and like figuring things out, we can get pretty close to the truth in in different areas. I mean, it takes us like, sitting down, I remember, we have this, like, we had this like, problem at work I was working on, and it seemed like insurmountable. And this has happened time and time again. But then we put it out in front of everybody. And we explicitly like walk through what the problem is. and time and time again, we’re just able to come up with like, solutions to these seemingly impossible are very unlikely to be able to be solved problems. And it’s just like, we are able to reason through things, but we have to focus on it. And it’s like expensive, and it takes time. And I don’t know, like expensive as in like, mental energy wise. Yeah, I don’t know. 

Quinn Lewandowski  

And an intuitive auditor, that’s why cask is it’s impossible. Have you thought about four or five months or so effective? Because they haven’t. Right? Always means that they don’t care. It’s an unintuitive, that you can come up with solutions by thinking about things, right. Suppose I intuitive, and sometimes it’s hard to communicate to people because they’ll rehearse their solutions for their excuses for why they can’t find a solution rather than actually looking. Right. Right.

Will Jarvis  

Which is a real problem. 

Quinn Lewandowski  

Yeah. I mean, it’s a communication problem. Yeah, it is.

Will Jarvis  

And it’s an important one for our society solved. Gotta move forward. Well, Quinn, yeah. I think my legs might fall off here. Yeah. It’s been it’s been great talking to you. Yeah.any parting shots? anything you’d like to add? 

Quinn Lewandowski  

I dont think so.

 Okay.

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