Keeping up with the FITs 12/20
Robin Hanson on mob mentality; Mike Solana on buried stories; Joel Kotkin on cultural decline; Razib Khan and Yuval Levin on meritocracy
(note: FIT comes from Fantasy Intellectual Teams, a game I tried to start this summer)
Compared to mobs, standard formal orgs are at least able to have discussions, engage arguments, and consider that they might be wrong. However, as these happen mostly via the support of top org people, and few people are near that top, this conversation capacity is quite limited compared to that of individuals. But at least it is there. However such organizations often suffer from yes-men and from failures to pass bad news up the chain.
However, at the global level one of the big trends over the last few decades is away from the hierarchical group minds of nations, churches, and firms, and toward the mob group mind of a world-wide elite. Supported by mob-like expert group minds in academia, law, and media. Our world is this likely to suffer more soon from mob mind inadequacies.
Mike Solana talks about stories that have not held our attention. One example is the closure of nuclear power plants.
First, again, nuclear power is carbon free. Then, with Diablo Canyon set to close by 2025, and a state target for wind fairy utopia by 2045, we’re looking at 20 years of Greta Thunberg Blackouts while California, with a gun to its head, quietly burns coal out of state. There is absolutely no doubt this policy will increase carbon emissions while decreasing grid reliability. Nuclear is safe, effective, and all of the nuclear waste our country has ever produced — in history — could fit inside a single football field. So what is really going on here?
Environmentalists don’t hate nuclear because it’s dangerous, they hate nuclear because it works. Almost religiously, the environmentalist’s belief is people should use less, do less, be less. Forget yourself. Disappear. Global warming is only regarded in so far as it seems to prove there are consequences for disturbing nature. But a world of nuclear is a world in which people produce more with less, counterintuitive but historically proven — this is the nature of technology. We don’t have to produce less. We don’t have to be less.
Solana points out that it has been 50 years since we sent someone to the moon. If this is not a sufficient indicator that we are moving backward, Joel Kotkin offers a litany.
At many US colleges, books written before 1990 are considered ‘inaccessible’ to students. University policies increasingly marginalise Homer, Confucius, Shakespeare, Milton, Tocqueville or the Founding Fathers. Some books are scorned for having been written by dead white males, who as a group are linked to such horrors as slavery, the subjugation of women and mass poverty. America’s cultural arbiters, such as the National Archives, now consider it necessary to flag up the nation’s founding documents for ‘harmful language’. Ultimately, many of those things that drove Western ascendancy since 1500 – reason, work ethic, family and even science – are being cashiered to create some kind of woke brave new world. And our society seems all the poorer for the loss.
Razib Khan reviews Adrian Wooldridge’s book on meritocracy.
Jared Kushner is heir to a multi-billion-dollar fortune, but his father nevertheless purchased a seat for him at Harvard University with a strategic donation. All the world’s wealth and breeding do not automatically confer the imprimatur of merit that matriculation at Harvard does. Though by all accounts, Kushner is an intellectual mediocrity, his Harvard degree gives him a glamor imparted from the institution, that in turn obtains its reputation from the ranks of bright young men and women of more modest means who aspire to be peers with the country’s best. In ancient Rome, a glorious lineage was sufficient to embark on a public career, but in the contemporary US, a degree from a prestigious university is arguably just as important.
Khan uses Kushner as the symbol of privilege over merit. Certainly fair, but I might have gone in a different direction and used Kamala Harris.
As William Deresiewicz has noted, the portion of students at selective colleges whose families are in the top quarter of income earners in America rose from roughly 45% in 1985 to more than 65% by 2015. Our meritocracy is plainly rearranging itself into a more familiar aristocratic pattern, which leaves the larger society less and less persuaded of its claim to legitimate authority.
. . .the broader democratic public is increasingly cynical about its leaders, not so much because too few Americans attend elite colleges as because those who do too often go on to exercise power in our society without enough restraints.
[Universities] should work with their students’ healthy discomfort with privilege, but in a way that points them toward channeling their advantages into obligations rather than rendering those students into permanent hypocrites who pretend to be powerless outsider critics while running all the country’s major institutions.
I don’t credit the “discomfort with privilege” as genuine.
The writing styles of Yuval Levin and David Brooks have converged over the past few years, and alas, that's much for the worse. (Ironically perhaps, Levin, while also drowning him in praise, once gently criticized Brooks for this overgeneralizing tendency, and nb - even as far back as 14 years ago, before Trump and even before Obama, Brooks' take on mainstream conservative thought - i.e., "Not my center-left True Scotsman Conservatism like it should be" - had exactly the same tone as his more recent articles. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose: https://www.nationalreview.com/2007/10/conservatives-and-creeds-yuval-levin/ )
But over-generalized is putting it mildly with regard to Levin's recent output. Who is going to argue with unobjectionable and inane platitudes? Is one really going out on a limb and inviting criticism with appeals regarding the importance of inculcating good character, public spiritedness, humility, self-restraint, noblesse oblige, and that elites ought to take care to maintain the public's good-will and bolster their opinion of the system's legitimacy?
Question: Is it coherent to say that the good thing about yesterday's elites was their diversity of perspective, ideas, and experiences and that the problem with today's elites is that they are all becoming little mind-clones of each other, while at the same time, to say that we should all be teaching the next generation of elites to have ... the same virtues and attitudes about the importance of character and what it means to be public-spirited. Teach them what about it exactly, one correct set of things? That doesn't sound very diverse. And, um, isn't that exactly what's going on right now, just with a different constellation of values, and part of how we got into this mess? If diversity is the problem, because the universities are doing exactly what Levin recommends now (just not with the *content* he would like them to), then isn't the logical conclusion that universities should *stop* teaching new students what to believe?
Here's the really funny thing: he makes one mild and oblique swipe at ideological-singularity virtue signaling, "... increasingly intense displays of its ideal of social justice," but notice, that's not at all criticizing that principle, and indeed, wouldn't any university respond that their relentless indoctrination and insertion of the "ideal of social justice" into everything they do is *precisely* the correct answer to all of Levin's concerns and recommendations?
For example, wouldn't universities say that it's pretty obvious that they *don't* select students on strictly on the basis of intellect, GPA, test-scores, and so forth, and that - to much public and especially conservative complaint! - they specifically deviate from those measures, sometimes quite substantially, in order to both "demographically diversity" their student body (note again, something Levin applauds) and to try and identify those young people with the best character, values, and commitments?
If Levin's complaint is only that he would prefer that universities teach elites a different faith to the woke one they are currently preaching, then it wouldn't be so incoherent and would gain a lot of clarity for him to be specific and come out and say so. Come on man, just spell it out, if you dare.
“Khan uses Kushner as the symbol of privilege over merit. Certainly fair, but I might have gone in a different direction and used Kamala Harris.”
I often wonder whether Kamala Harris is an intellectual mediocrity out of lack of talent or lack of interest. Her father is a Stanford economist and her mother was a biomedical scientist who appears to have made significant advances in our understanding of breast cancer. Yet from a very early age Kamala Harris appears to have employed every political stratagem in the book to route around developing genuine merit and obtain political power instead.
Could she have done a BA at Berkeley (like her sister) but instead chose Howard University to bolster her legitimacy as a member of the black community? I want to say that level of cynicism is too extreme and welcome contradiction to this but I have a hard time imagining she couldn’t have placed higher on the strength of good genes, Affirmative Action, and her parents’ pedigree.
As an aside, it seems the status afforded to activism is vastly disproportionate to that given other endeavors. Two successful minority intellectuals have two children in the 1960s and both devote their lives to activism instead. Even Kamala and Maya’s mother appears to have received more plaudits in her role as activist for her scientific contributions as such. See this obituary from 2009:
“An activist to the end, in lieu of flowers, Harris requested that donations be made to Breast Cancer Action. We remain forever grateful for her generosity.”