Tag Archives: culture

Inaction and Indifference as Rebellion, and the Decline of the Culture Wars

Activism includes but is not limited to telling people what to do or what to believe. By that definition, mainstream liberalism and conservatism is activist. There is an authoritarian and conformist tone to it that implores the subject to do something; for example, for the left, ‘you must spread your wealth and check your privilege’, as part of a collective ‘good’. But, especially since 2013, both the ‘left’ and ‘right’, particularly millennials, are tired of having to ‘do’ things, to have to ‘believe’ things, or to have strong convictions about things. With the exception of SJWs and, to a lesser extent, the alt-right and Trump, millennials are tired of action and dogma, preferring inaction and indifference. Decades ago, young people rebelled through action (protests, Woodstock, drugs, cross-country motorcycle rides), but now ‘rebellion’ is through inaction: staying home and watching Netflix instead of partying, going MGTOW, abstaining from drugs and alcohol, minimalism, personal finance, learning coding, and eschewing careerism.

As part of the post-2013 rise of ‘introspection culture’ (which is related to intellectualism culture), where ‘boring’ has become the new ‘hip’, naval-gazing and introspective articles, such as the widely-shared personal account of someone disconnecting from the internet for a month How I Got My Attention Back, frequently go viral, as every personal observation, no matter how small, has suddenly found a captive audience. In terms of clicks and viralness, even attention-grabbing headlines about major pubic figures such as Donald Trump find it hard to compete against seemingly mundane and contemplative topics, such as the articles In Defense Of A Boring, Comfortable Life and Why are Adults so busy?, both of which went viral.

With the decline of activism and the rise of introspection, which is individualistic and to some extent self-absorbed, the ‘culture wars’ are dying, as far as millennials are concerned. The post-2009 bull market (which is officially the longest ever), the post-2009 economic expansion (also the longest ever although the GDP growth is still sluggish), as well as a culture, economy, and society that celebrates and prizes individualism (such as taking pictures on Instagram), has also made culture wars less relevant. People see headlines about surging stock prices, stratospheric web 2.0 valuations, and Chinese buying up all the expensive estate estate in America, and we want a piece of the action instead of missing out (FOMO)–but also headlines about social security dwindling, the bad labor market, or how deficit spending threatens social programs, and millennials realize that while culture wars may be a sort of ‘bonding experience’ between like-minded people, no amount chest-thumping about social issues will change anything as far as policy is concerned nor provide financial peace of mind in increasingly uncertain economic times (such saving for retirement, paying for healthcare and education, covering the mortgage, or getting a job). Because of the aforementioned social, cultural, and economic factors, the culture wars ‘lost’ in the ‘court of pubic opinion’ or the ‘marketplace of ideas’, because the ‘generals’ failed to provide a sufficiently compelling case for why people should keep fighting when other issues seem more pressing.

As further evidence of this capitulation, particularly among the millennial-right, in 2016, Peter Thiel’s RNC speech, in which he proudly proclaimed being gay, was met with raucous applause. Such an ebullient response would have been inconceivable even as recently as a generation ago. Additionally, Thiel implored the ‘right’ to focus less on culture war issues (such as the controversy over same-sex bathrooms) and more on entrepreneurshi and innovation. However, conservatism in the individualistic, Randian sense (capitalism, private property, ‘ownership society’) is thriving, which is why Peter Thiel, who is a business and investing genius, not a culture warrior, is beloved by many millennials on the right. Same for Elon Musk.

With the exception of condoning obvious criminality that violates the non-aggression principle, such as the exploitation of minors, taking a moral ‘high ground’, in recent years, has become an untenable position in our era of moral ambiguity. For one, it’s a lost cause. For decades, spanning four presidential administrations, as well as talk radio and TV, the ‘right’ has nothing to show for its efforts, as American culture and society has inexorably moved ‘left’. Also, wrapping yourself in a cloak of moral sanctity and piousness leaves one exposed to charges of hypocrisy should one’s own indiscretions come to light. Rather than pressing judgement, it’s easier, but also more robust, to just not care. Moralizing, which includes SJW-activism, is sometimes an unwanted imposition that goes against one’s capacity for self-determination and self-regulation. ‘Our’ values, as in the ‘right’, are the bedrock of civilization, and leftist values are anathema to this. But to have strong values at all, from throwing in the towel on the culture wars or the rise centrism is, in and of itself, becoming an anachronism.

Wealth, Intellectualism, and Individualism, Part 7

Part 6

Nerd mannerisms and appropriations, especially in pop culture and on Instagram, where pretty women donning faux glasses post memes about social isolation, have become the ‘new normal’, and words like ‘normie’ have become pejorative.

Nowadays everyone wants to be the ‘smartest person in the room’, not the most outgoing or popular. But ironically, in being smart, you become popular, whether you seek the attention or not.

Autistic-like traits such as social awkwardness, dismissiveness, curtness and bluntness (as opposed to sugarcoating, sentimentalism, and extroversion) convey authenticity and credibility, versus being a shallow ‘normie’ or ‘people-pleaser’, leading to a boost in social status both online and offline, whereas decades ago these smart people were ignored or relegated to the lower echelons of the social hierarchy.

Fast-forward to today, from Silicon Valley to Wall St., to having the most subscribers and followers on Instagram, Twitter, Vine, and YouTube, and in terms of higher wages (for STEM jobs), surging real estate (in Silicon Valley), stratospheric Web 2.0 valuations, and a perpetually rising stock market, as well as approbation and cultural appropriation, it’s not a stretch to say nerds, or more specially, introverts, rule the world right now.

Due to STEM, his popular blog, and by being really smart, Scott Aaronson has far more status than the vast majority of ‘normies’ (except for, perhaps, some athletes and actors). Same for Tyler Cowen, an economist (which is close enough to STEM), whose Marginal Revolution blog is extremely popular, read by thousands of people every day. Yeah, Marginal Revolution is not a big as TMZ or ESPN, but 1,000-10,000 dedicated readers/fans is about 1,000-10,000 more than the typical ‘normie’, who has close to zero after excluding immediate fiends and family. Those are just a handful of examples of out many; more will be given later.

From Virtue Signaling and Status:

We all want to be perceived as smarter because smart people are among the most successful in society today as measured by wealth, wages, and social status. While famous athletes and other entertainers make a lot of money, no one seeks their counsel on anything substantive, whereas if you’re smart you are elevated to the status of an ‘oracle’, and your opinions on a wide-range of issues – be it global warming, economics, sociology, or history – are valued and sought.

Intellectuals, particularly in the most difficult of fields, have become America’s new priesthood or nobility, sought for answers and bestowed with high social status, and whether it’s the latest gizmo from Google, Amazon, or Tesla, or the latest particle discovery in the field of high-energy physics, their contributions are broadcast by the media to the world. From The Daily View [...]

Smart people are among the most important and respected people in the world. They have the most Karma on Reddit, the most points on sites like Stack Exchange, the highest reputation on forums, and most views on YouTube for technical, artsy, or philosophical subjects. They have the credentials – SAT scores and degrees – to lend their expertise in a variety of fields and are showered with accolades …

Smart people are displacing ‘old money’ on the Forbes 400 list, getting their Web 2.0 companies valued or acquired for billions of dollars, watching their stocks and real estate zoom into the stratosphere – even as real wages for most people haven’t budged. A meritocracy epitomized by Bay Area tech scene or the financial cognoscenti of Manhattan, where erudition, wealth, and the specter of all-knowing omnipotence is valued.

And from the Economist, Be nice to nerds:

“Be nice to nerds. Chances are you may end up working for them,” wrote Charles Sykes, author of the book “50 Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School”, first published in 2007. Today there are more reasons than ever to treat nerds with respect: never mind the fact that every company is clamouring to hire them, geeks are starting to shape markets for new products and services.

Behaviors that may seem repulsive and anti-social, paradoxically, draw people in as ‘nerds’ are sought for their expertise and sober objectivity in contrast to the mainstream media, which is full of hoaxes, sensationalism, inaccuracies, omissions, and biases. From Deconstructing a Viral Article:

As I show in the example of Warren Buffett, intellectualism, competence, and merit is what draws people in, not being extroverted. Every year, thousands of people flock to Omaha for Buffett’s annual shareholder meetings – not because Buffet is a people-pleaser, but because he is very competent and his insights are invaluable. Elon Musk, another example of someone who is extremely competent, had the most popular Reddit AMA ever. Richard Dawkins, who lately seems to have gotten into habit of offending the easily offended, also had an enormously popular AMA.

They (nerds, quants, wonks, experts) are providing the answers to life’s most intractable mysteries, from theories of the origin of the universe, to theories of biology, economics, and sociology – to try to explain why wealth inequality is so persistent or why some groups always underperform academically and economically despite despite billions of dollars of entitlement spending over many decades. Sugar-coated, politically correct explanations and ‘nice’ discourse has fallen short at explaining the world, and people demand answers, even if such answers aren’t wrapped in a pretty bow of political correctness.

A lengthy 1994 New Yorker profile of Bill Gates aptly applies to many smart millennials today, who disregard obsoleted social conventions and niceties for bluntness and disheveledness, in their ‘pursuit of the truth’:

“Bill just doesn’t think about clothes. And his hygiene is not good. And his glasses—how can he see out of them? But Bill’s attitude is: I’m in this pure mind state, and clothes and hygiene are last on the list.”

[...]

Gates is famously confrontational. If he strongly disagrees with what you’re saying, he is in the habit of blurting out, “That’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard!” People tell stories of Gates spraying saliva into the face of some hapless employee as he yells, “This stuff isn’t hard! I could do this stuff in a weekend!”

Back in 1994, a less intelligent era dominated by shows like Friends, Baywatch, and 90210, social conventions were more important than they are now, making Gates’ behavior truly anomalous, but now it’s commonplace, almost expected, and (as mentioned earlier) conveys authenticity and honesty. In the 90′s the clubs were busting, but now everyone wants to stay at home, quiet, watching Netflix, being introspective, or posting pictures on Instagram. Nightclub attendance has plunged.

Or as summed-up by the brilliant Eric Winstein, creator of the online mathematics encyclopedia MathWorld:

Right now I think we’re in something of a ‘competence bubble’ of sorts, where competence is valued more than ever as measured by social prestige, wealth, and wages, with ‘social skills’ and ‘people skills’ being less important. This is also related our post-2008 results-orientated economy, whereby quantifiable results have become more important than agreeability, as part of the push by corporations towards greater productivity and efficiency. Smart people, because they tend to be more competent, are especially suited for America’s competitive economic and social environment that prizes quantifiable, individual results over ‘collectivist’ traits like social skills.

To be continued…

Our morally ambiguous times

Years ago in a philosophy class I posed the question of whether it was more virtuous to have never sinned or to have sinned and then reformed. The evidence suggests the latter, as redemption and America’s culture of authenticity have become increasingly intertwined. ‘Authenticity culture’ celebrates individualism, particularity intellectual endeavors (such as stock trading or winning math Olympiads). This is the opposite of politics, which is collectivist, dumbed-down, and elevates the ‘everyday man’.

It’s not uncommon for reformed prisoners to give motivational talks to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who socioeconomically tend to be the complete opposite of the typical maximum-security prisoner, yet modern wisdom is that these two diametrically opposed groups can somehow mutually benefit from each other’s rapport. Other times the roles are reversed, with the entrepreneurs working directly with the prisoners:

Enter Defy. Defy’s mission is simple: “to transform the lives of business leaders and people with criminal histories through their collaboration along the entrepreneurial journey.” I received an invitation from Brad Feld and Mark Suster to join a group they were assembling for Defy; we were part of a group of CEOs, founders, and VCs who traveled to the prison to serve as judges for the pitch competition taking place that day.

Part of the appeal of ‘reform’ is how post-2008 American economy and society prizes quantifiable results (the ‘ends’) over the means (‘ethics’). The value or intrinsic worth of a person is measured by their intellectual, social, or financial status, with things like ‘morals’ and ‘ethics’, neither of which are as easy to quantify, pushed to the periphery. For example, financiers Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, for which jail was a pit stop on the road to success, given their philanthropy are now forgiven and celebrated. Redemption becomes just another just another way to ‘cash out’ after the dubious venture has run its course.

Rather than going down the boring path of ‘strait and narrow’, many desire to to emulate those who became wealthy by taking shortcuts at the possible cost of ethics. And who can blame them: millions of people who ‘did the right thing’ only find themselves with poor job prospects, unpaid bills, and piles of student loan debt to show for it, and to add insult to injury, are snubbed or looked down upon by a culture and economy that sees these people are either invisible or victims of bad personal choices, not forces outside of their control.

In the past, America looked up to those of upstanding moral character but otherwise were kinda dull or were part of a group or team. Although the rugged individualistic characters portrayed by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood may be exception to this, such characters weren’t intellectual, relying on physical prowess more so intellectualism. America’s brand of individualism has a strong intellectual bent to it – think Edward Snowden or Julian Assange, in which the the ‘ends’ (liberating information) justified the ‘means’ (breaking the law). Rather than the ‘justice league’, it’s the rogue programmer who seeks justice. Or like Michael Burry, as documented in The Big Short, a smart person (a Randian hero of sorts) who in 2007 bet against the housing market (and the prevailing economic consensus) and became wealthy (combining wealth, intellectualism, and individualism…see it all ties together).

Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek situates the Randian hero in Rand’s fiction in the “standard masculine narrative” of the conflict between the exceptional, creative individual (the Master) and the undifferentiated conformist crowd…

Author Stephen Newman compares the Randian hero to the concept of the Übermensch created by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, saying that “the Randian hero is really Nietzsche’s superman in the guise of the entrepreneur”.[13]

In Less Than Zero, a 1985 novel by Bret Easton Ellis, disaffected, rich teenagers of Los Angeles drive around, do drugs, and party – except now it’s older people who are doing this, minus the drug and partying, permanently delaying adulthood to live lives of introspective excess.

A recent article about how smart people prefer to be alone, went viral and is relevant to America’s culture of individualism and the rise of ‘introversion culture’.

Smarter people can more easily adapt to their surroundings in the modern world, so they don’t need close relationships to help them with food and shelter, like our ancestors did. Or, in the modern equivalent, the Wi-Fi password and a spare phone charger.

From memes on Instagram that celebrate solitude and ‘being alone’ over socializing, to people choosing ‘hustling’ instead of the ’9-5′, it seems everyone is like this. For example, memes about choosing money over friends and socializing, frequently go viral:

One can argue we’re in an era of moral ambiguity…no one really knows what is right or wrong. Major pop culture productions like the hit HBO show Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, that blur the lines between criminality and everyday life, are a contributing factor or a symptom of this confusion. There is the contradiction between how culture promotes extreme sanctimoniousness, but also condones amorality, if not outright criminality, on the other.

Time Management and The Celebration of the Mundane

It’s weird or interesting how certain stories go viral and what such viralness says about the state of American society, media, and culture today. On one extreme, stories about Trump and Aleppo go viral, being shared many times, but these are big stories involving important people and important events; such virnalness is expected. But then on the other extreme you have mundane stories going viral, that don’t involve terrorism or major political figures, such as a recent article by The Guardian Why time management is ruining our lives, which got over 400 comments and was shared on Facebook over 12,000 times, in addition to also going viral on Reddit and elsewhere. The viralness of ‘boring’ stories about day-to-day stuff is in contrast to the excitement of the imminent Trump presidency, terrorism, or ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.

This phenomena of boring stories doing so well is related to the post-2013 anti-democracy movement, and how people are walling themselves from the hype of the mainstream media to focus on their ‘inner circle‘. You have the cacophony of Trump and all this stuff going on, but people have had enough. Democracy and the mainstream media are linked, because they both involve persuading the masses to care and participate; without the participation of the masses, both cease to exist. The media needs your attention; democracy needs your votes. This is also related to millennials choosing to live a ‘boring‘ life of self-sufficiency, self-improvement, and frugality, in contrast to their activist-minded, work-driven, spendthrift boomers parents who want people to ‘get involved’, and also how institutions and conventions such as democracy are being challenged.

As for the content of the article itself, the author conflates time management with efficiency and productivity, but they are not always mutually inclusive: the former is deontological; the later two are quotients (results divided by time). One can be very assiduous about doing calculations with pen and paper, but this is an unproductive and inefficient use of time when computers can do the job in a few seconds. In pre-2008 culture and society, good-paying jobs for mediocre, obedient people were abundant, and as epitomized by Dibert, point-haired bosses ruled, in contrast to today where productivity, efficiency, and quantifiable results (value creation) are more important than diligence and conformity, and the labor market is much more competitive. In pre-2008 society, employees weren’t creating as much value as they thought they were (or that companies wanted), and a lot of overpaid jobs were lost to never return. People were practicing good time management but the were fired anyway. Managing your time is less important than learning how to create value. Too many people are stuck in a ‘pen and paper’ mindset thinking that they can just get by with hard work.

The culture of Silicon Valley, which despite its leftism is on a per-capita basis the richest region in the world, values wily ingenuity over obedience. Elon Musk of Tesla, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and Travis Kalanick of Uber, all from the Silicon Valley and are the antithesis of the pointy-haired boss and are among the most successful and well-respected CEOs and founders alive, don’t care about your time management strategies – they care about results, first and foremost. Uber’s whole business model is about making the transportation industry more efficient. Economic and labor trends suggest that the world is becoming like Silicon Valley, not Silicon Valley resembling the rest of the world. Silicon Valley, which exited the 2008 crisis unscathed, is a role model for the rest of the business world. Hard work and diligence, in and of itself, is not a virtue anymore – value creation and signaled competence is.

Make America Something Again

Trump’s riveting closing campaign ad:

‘Make America Great’, a slogan that rolls off the tip of the tongue and has become a refrain in popular culture, almost as memorable as Nike’s ‘just do it’. But what does it mean? And how does one Make America Great? A common theme of political ads and campaigns such as the clip above, but also for the ‘left’, too, is rolling America back to a ‘simpler’ time, to restore something that is lost – innocence, happiness, manufacturing jobs, ‘national pride’, job security, and so on.

But the problem with political ads and campaigns, in general, is the reductionism, in reducing the complexity and totality of society and the economy to simple stock characters that are a synecdoche for America as a whole. A clip of the factory worker represents all men. The clip of the teacher represents all women. The imagery of Wall St. and money printing presses represents corruption by some sort of elite apparatus or occult hand that is somehow conspiring against the aforementioned workers, the telos being the destruction of the ‘middle class’. It’s a simple good vs. evil narrative wrapped up into two minutes, for easy consumption and to evoke emotion.

You’ll never see campaign ads featuring white collar workers, despite the fact they actually make up the majority of workers (60%), not blue collar workers:

Wall St. is not the evil that campaign ads and rhetoric portray it to be. Markets are how companies raise money so they can expand. Markets, by providing pricing transparency, are actually beneficial to the public and commerce, in general. Without markets and speculators, no would know how much anything is worth. Although prices can fluctuate wildly, markets are a real-time pricing mechanism that allow goods to be priced in a manner that is as ‘fair’ as possible, a committee of sorts whereby market participants and speculators cast ‘votes’ – buy or sell – to determine the fair price of something – be it a stock or a commodity – and through millions of these votes prices eventually converge to a value that is ‘correct’ rather than ambiguous. And the whole process is transparent. Futures markets allow those farmers that politicians love to pander to, to hedge, creating stability.

Wealth from Wall St. often trickles down to fund creative endeavors that may not generate profit but provides aesthetic value to society – things such as parks, movies, and museums. Even Stephen K. Bannon, chief executive officer of Trumps’ campaign, worked at Goldman in the 80′s and early 90′s, becoming wealthy after selling his spin-off firm, Bannon & Co, in 1998 and using his wealth to direct movies and various conservative causes.

A common theme of campaign ads is that America is broken, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Disposable income and living standards have surged since the 70′s, an era of ill-fitting hand-me-downs, grainy TV sets with limited channels, and gas lines. Nowadays, $7 Starbucks coffees are the norm, with $15 Chipotle lunches, and all while watching Netflix on an iPhone. Such extravagances were inconceivable decades ago, back when entire families had to share a single TV and food was much blander.

To quote David Brooks, there is an an epidemic of worry. Politicians are still stuck in ‘Carter’s America’, an era when the economy was dominated by both manufacturing jobs and high inflation, forgetting or ignoring how much better and different things have become. And enough with the obsession with manufacturing. Young people aren’t distraught about factory jobs going away – rather they are watching concerts outdoors and posting pictures of it on Instagram. For your average millennial in America, life is pretty good. Even as manufacturing jobs go away, new jobs are always being created: coding, web design, online tutoring, consulting, automotive repair, and Uber driving – all examples of growth industries that a decade ago either didn’t exist or were much smaller.

Just, as I explain in a post criticizing Michael Moore’s patronizing attitude to blue collar workers, as there is no single ‘blue collar worker’, there is no single ‘American’, nor single ideal of what it means to ‘Make America Great’. For millennials, to Make America Great may mean better job prospects and less student loan debt. For the middle-aged, it may mean retirement security and affordable healthcare. It may mean existential fulfillment. Or maybe something else. None those will be solved by campaign rhetoric, assuming a solution can ever exist. But given all the technological and economic progress made in the past three decades (America gave the world Facebook, Tesla, Google, and Apple), the path forwards seem better than longing for a return to the past.

Individualism vs. the State

From Social Matter The End Of Atomistic Individualism: A Theory On Who You Are

The purpose of this thought experiment is an attempt to formulate a new, sustainable, non-atomistic understanding of the concept of individualism. Modern individualism, as a product of the Enlightenment, has the function of isolating and alienating individuals from God, society, and eventually even from themselves. From Putnam’s Bowling Alone to the transgender movement, modernity loudly proclaims the inability of people to belong, even to themselves. It instead offers a vision of individualism, in which the person creates themselves in their own image, as if Adam were to form himself in the Garden.

Just as it is vain to think that a lump of clay will form itself into a man, so it is equally vain to think that an alienated, atomized person can create in themselves a personality out of the muck of consumerism and mass media. Modernity tells us that we can form our own personality with tattoos, body modification, consumerist consumption, and status objects like automobiles.

But Putnam is also a strong proponent of democracy. One can argue that atomic individualism, with is related to libertarism, is antithetical to democracy and the democratic process. Sometimes, I think we want it both ways: to oppose both individualism and democracy, but this may not be logically consistent. The answer , like many things, seems to lie somewhere in the middle. This could mean a community united by commonalities (such as culture), but without democracy, and individualism is also preserved. This is similar to the nation state concept:

The most obvious impact of the nation state, as compared to its non-national predecessors, is the creation of a uniform national culture, through state policy. The model of the nation state implies that its population constitutes a nation, united by a common descent, a common language and many forms of shared culture. When the implied unity was absent, the nation state often tried to create it. It promoted a uniform national language, through language policy. The creation of national systems of compulsory primary education and a relatively uniform curriculum in secondary schools, was the most effective instrument in the spread of the national languages. The schools also taught the national history, often in a propagandistic and mythologised version, and (especially during conflicts) some nation states still teach this kind of history.[20]

But I have also heard arguments that individualism is inextricably linked with liberalism and that individualism is an ‘enlightenment’ ideal. But a distinction must be made between enlightenment ideals, which are the antecedent to neo and classical varieties of liberalism, versus welfare liberal ideals (which is a more recent development). The former supports individualism, but also the possibility of unequal outcomes that may arise from it. The latter seeks conformity in the form of egalitarianism and equal outcomes (higher taxes, more social spending, wealth spreading, etc.) despite giving the outward appearance of supporting individualism. Marxist and other far-left variants of liberalism also oppose individualism, preferring the state to mandate ‘equal outcomes’ as well as individual subservience to the state.

But both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ seem to have a love-hate relationship with individualism. For the ‘left’, they like individualism as a way to rebel against the status quo, but the also oppose individualism if it leads to too much wealth inequality or what they perceive as oppression (such as ‘homophobia’ of a baker for not making a baking a ‘gay cake’); for the ‘right’, they like individualism in context of free markets, personal autonomy, and personal property, but oppose it because it may lead to the breakdown of communities, decline of organized religion, the separation of church and state, and increased ‘moral decay’.

The libertarian or minarchist position, which is somewhere in the middle, may be the most logically consistent in bridging this schism, that strikes a balance between individualism and cohesion. Minarchism is like a shopping mall, where stores exist as individual entities under the patronage of the mall, a symbiosis of sorts where both the mall and businesses benefit. Business pay the mall in exchange for the benefits the mall provides (such as security, infrastructure, and customers). Because it’s elective, businesses don’t have to join, but America’s tax system isn’t and individuals, businesses have to pay to fund services they don’t want or need.

And from Family and Individualism:

In any society, there is probably an optimal balance between individualism and collectivism. A society that is 100% atomized, by definition, is not a society. But history also shows that total conformity is no better. Those quirky people on the right side of the Bell Curve, with their idiosyncrasies, are needed for society to advance technologically, while everyone else goes about tending to civilization. If you go through Charles Murray’s database of human accomplishments, you’ll find virtually all accomplishments were made by smart people. Liberals value social justice and equality over quantifiable results. The left wants America to be a nation of takers, not creators.

Related: Individualism vs. Thede

Cambrian explosion’ of intellectualism

One question is: why learn advanced mathematics? This is related to the is-ought problem, as posed by Hume. The examples in differential geometry can be difficult and time-consuming , unlike simple calculus, and are best done with computer, not by hand. A single tensor, as found in general relativity, may have dozens of components…writing them out would be taxing. The question is, what do want to do with this knowledge. There is value in learning complicated, abstract math to signal intellect and thus become more popular online, and maybe get consulting work. That alone is very valuable, and is why STEM graduates or graduates from elite schools make so much money and have such god job prospects compared to everyone else, because such degrees generally require a lot of intelligence to obtain and thus signal competence.

But also, why is there so much interest in learning complicate, esoteric math concepts? All things ‘smart’ have gotten more attention as of late, such as as theoretical physics, quantum mechanics, philosophy and math (as well as all these things melded together). It seems, especially as of 2013, there is huge demand for learning complicated mathematics, coding, and trading algorithms. It’s like the AP-math class of high school but expanded to include almost everyone, not just a dozen students. Popular sites like WaitbutWhy are popularizing ideas (cryonics, fermi paradox, etc.) that just as recently as a decade ago were mostly of the domain of scifi aficionados and scientists. Pre-2008, the internet was a pretty ‘dumb’ place, dominated by crappy MySpace profiles, LiveJournal and DeviantArt, V-Bulletin forums, bombastic opinion pieces, bland advice pieces, and content transcribed from offline sources to the internet. Then, around 2013 or so, came long-form, infographics, data visualizations, and social networking like Facebook and Twitter (which replaced Myspace). And also, the rise of ‘expert culture’ – sites like Reddit, Hacker News, Medium, as well as those ‘question and answer’ sites that have social aspects to them (math exchange/overflow, stack overflow/exchange), all of which reward competent, helpful people with ‘karma’ and status. In the past, you either had to go to a crappy V-Bulletin site or a newsgroup, and your contributions were generally ignored outside of their respective communities. ‘Expert culture’, which is related to ‘intellectualism culture’ is how ‘esoteric celebrities’ are created, because now these competent, smart people are having their contributions broadcast to the world, gaining wealth and social status in the process. There are huge markets for this stuff, tons of readers, and lots of viralness and page views – and no topic is too complicated or esoteric. I liken it to a ‘Cambrian explosion’ of intellectualism.

But also, people observe, read headlines about high-IQ founders, venture capitalists, and coders making tons of money in Web 2.0 (Uber, Pinterest, Snaphat, Dropbox, etc.); STEM people getting tons of prestige, status, and global notoriety for their finding (Arxiv physics and math papers frequently go viral); and how the economy, especially as of 2008, rewards intellectualism and STEM in terms of higher wages and surging asset prices (like stocks (the S&P 500 has nearly tripled since the 2009 bottom), web 2.0 valuations (Snapchat is worth $15 billion, on its way to $50 billion), and real estate (Palo Also home prices have doubled since 2011)), and, understandably, many people want a piece of the wealth pie. They see that intellect – which includes STEM, finance, and also quantitative finance – is the path to both riches and social status (as embodied by wealthy geniuses like Musk, Thiel, Zuckerberg, Shkreli), which is why there is so much interest in these technical, difficult subjects, unlike decades ago when only a handful of people were interested. This is the so-called wealth-intellectualism synthesis.

An explanation for this ‘explosion’ may have to do with how the internet evolved, as well as demographic changes. From the late 90′s until around the early 2000′s, the internet was dominated primarily by music downloading/sharing and pornography, as well as crudely designed ‘personal webpages’ and news repositories (cnn.com, fox.com, etc.). Internet and computer speeds were slow, and what little precious bandwidth there was could not go to waste, so that meant a lot people used the internet to circumvent restrictions found offline, for example, not having to pay $18 for a CD but instead downloading the songs for free using a service such as Napster (which lead to a lot of lawsuits), which took a long time due to slow internet speeds. But at the time, it was amazing….people underestimate how important music downloads were for the early internet. While teens and 20-somethings were downloading music and pornography, older people were primarily using the internet to check news, finance (motley fool and yahoo finance were two popular sites). By 2002-2009, almost everyone has some form of high-speed internet, forums and social networks such as Myspace and v-bulletin are very popular and begin to overshadow music and porn downloads (because the internet is faster, people don’t have to chose between downloading music or porn (first priority) or social networking (second priority); they can easily do both), but the internet is still a pretty ‘dumb’ place, as mentioned earlier. At this point, millennials are still in their in their early to late teens and don’t have as large of a presence on the internet as they do now, which between 2002-2009 was dominated by gen-x.

Fast-forward to 2013, and now millennials are either finishing college or just graduated, and now dominate the internet, which has evolved from being dominated by Myspace, porn, and music downloading (all of which have now been pushed to the periphery, and Myspace has been replaced by Twitter and Facebook, which are much better), to now being dominated by sites such as Medium, Reddit, and Hacker News, that reward intellectualism and have huge traffic and growth. Although Slashdot, a smart site, was popular in 2002-2009, it was mostly an outlier, not the mainstream. Furthermore, millennials, being overeducated and more intellectually curious than earlier generations, are leading this intellectual renaissance/explosion, and have a keen interest in ‘smart’ topics such as economics, philosophy, computer programming, physics, finance, HBD, political science, sociology, etc. – not just music downloads or checking sports scores, and readily debate these complicated subjects on social news sites such as Reddit or Hacker News or on Twitter, which is both good and bad, to some extent. It’s ‘good’ because millennials helped create the ‘alt right’ another other esoteric ideologies and movements (such as MGTOW and Red Pill) that defy the boring, politically correct left-right dichotomy. Debating physics and economics online, imho, is more interesting than downloading music. Instead of trying to find the latest ‘Britney download’, young people now want to learn about functional programming, how to make money online (such as through stocks and finance) and be self-sufficient (instead of broke, dull, and spendthrift like their baby boomer parents), learn about Tensor flows, or the space-time continuum. They are also taking to Medium and Tumblr to blog about philosophy and how to find meaning in life, but also about programming, social theory, and start-ups. But on the other extreme, unfortunately, there are the millennial SJWs, who seem to have an especially large presence on Twitter, with ‘BLM’ Twitter mobs and campus crusaders.

‘Culture Wars’ give way to ‘Shared Narratives’

As I explain in The Genius of Ross Douthat, partisanship and ‘culture wars’ have given way to ‘shared narratives and themes’ (existential matters, the economy, anxiety, distrust of elites, etc.) that cross the political aisle. This was especially evident during the 2016 GOP convention, where in his well-received speech Peter Thiel openly proclaimed being gay and implored the GOP to focus not on ‘culture’ issues (such as gender-neutral bathrooms) and instead focus on more ‘worldly’ objectives. From his speech:

But today our government is broken. Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks. Our newest fighter jets can’t even fly in the rain. And it would be kind to say the government’s software works poorly, because much of the time it doesn’t even work at all. That is a staggering decline for the country that completed the Manhattan project. We don’t accept such incompetence in Silicon Valley, and we must not accept it from our government.

Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East. We don’t need to see Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails: her incompetence is in plain sight. She pushed for a war in Libya, and today it’s a training ground for ISIS. On this most important issue Donald Trump is right. It’s time to end the era of stupid wars and rebuild our country.

When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?

Of course, every American has a unique identity. I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all I am proud to be an American. I don’t pretend to agree with every plank in our party’s platform; but fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline, and nobody in this race is being honest about it except Donald Trump.

The US government being ‘broken’ is another example of a narrative that both liberals and conservatives can agree on. The same for how ‘culture wars’ (which he explicitly mentions in his speech) are a distraction, and how America should focus on ‘real problems’, not contrived ones.

His speech, arguably the highlight of the night and even overshadowing Donald Trump himself, was met by raucous cheers by the audience, indicating that perhaps the GOP has thrown in the towel on the culture wars. You see this in the online in the ‘alt right’ movement, with Milo who is openly gay as their ‘shitlord leader’. Or Donald Trump, who has positioned himself more as an ‘economic warrior’ or a ‘border-control warrior’ than a ‘culture warrior’. Hot-button issues such as abortion, gun control, contraception, gay marriage, or the ‘separation of church and state’ have been pushed to the periphery or ignored all together.

To some extent Scott also concurs, in POST-PARTISANSHIP IS HYPER-PARTISANSHIP:

The consensus explanation was that there was a moment in the 90s and early Bush administration when evangelical Christianity seemed to have a lot of political power, and secularists felt really threatened by it. This caused a lot of fear and arguments. Then everyone mostly agreed Bush was terrible, studies came out showing religion was on the decline, evangelicalism became so politically irrelevant that even the Republicans started nominating Mormons and Donald Trump, and people stopped caring so much.

Not only have they stopped caring that much about religion, but they’re willing to adopt progressive religious people as role models and generally share stories that portray religious people in a positive light. Pope Francis gets to be the same sort of Socially Approved Benevolent Wise Person as the Dalai Lama.

The Defense of Marriage Act was a big deal, until the court struck it down in 2013 and everyone seemed to stop caring. Same for Obamacare, which generated a lot of heated, emotional debate between 2009-2013, and now it’s just become background noise, something that is annoying but tolerable. Prayer in schools, ‘under god’ in the pledge of allegiance, etc. were a big deal in the early-mid 2000′s, but now hardly any discussion about those things.

Perhaps many Americans have become inured and indifferent to ‘culture-war outrage’ and ‘partisanship’ that reached a fever pitch in 2008. Tribal politics were more appealing during periods of economic crisis like in 2008 or in the early 2000′s after 911, but as the stock market keeps making new highs and companies like Google and Facebook keeps reporting blowout earnings and computer sci and math become more important than ever, people are now seeking nuance and understanding, as part of the rise of ‘shared narratives’ and intellectualism. Instead of duking it out about gender-neutral bathrooms, people are now wondering if post-scarcity is possible, if quantum physics and relativity will ever be reconciled, if wealth inequality threatens the economy, if liberal arts degrees instead of STEM are a waste of money, if the stock market is a good buy at these levels, or if the singularity is near.

The traffic of medium.com and vox.com, two sites that epitomize the post-2013 trend towards ‘wonkish’ journalism and intellectualism, have exploded in recent years:

Although Vox.com, overall, does have a liberal bias, they frequently entertain contrarian, non-PC ideas as IQ-determinism, the Revolutionary War being a bad idea, and feature-length write ups about neoreaction (NRx) and the ‘alt-right’. These contrarian articles, as well as articles that are chock-full full of data and graphs instead of emotive partisanship, and the fact that these articles always go viral, is part of bigger trend of an ‘intellectual renaissance’ of sorts unfolding in America.

Same for medium.com, another website that entertains contrarian and complicated, intellectual stuff, that is seeing massive growth since 2013 and is now one of the top-400 sites in the world according to Alexa. Just this morning I checked my email and in the spam folder are tons of articles from Medium about programming, technology, psychology, machine learning, and other smart topics. It’s not like I deliberately chose to follow bloggers who write about smart subjects – the whole site is like that.

Liberal Smugness, or Something Else

The smug style in American liberalism

Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, the working class, once the core of the coalition, began abandoning the Democratic Party. In 1948, in the immediate wake of Franklin Roosevelt, 66 percent of manual laborers voted for Democrats, along with 60 percent of farmers. In 1964, it was 55 percent of working-class voters. By 1980, it was 35 percent.

This mirrors the decline of union membership, more so than Americans becoming less liberal. As industrial and unionized labor falls, now it’s middle/lower-income service sector workers filling the ranks of the ‘left’.

But is liberalism really that ‘smug’. If smug is synonymous with elitist, one can argue Sander’s campaign is the antithesis of elitism and is in fact very inclusive and populist, provided you’re not a banker. Despite supposed ties to Wall St., even Hillary’s campaign is pretty inclusive in her pandering to various minority groups and significant minority support (a common criticism of Sanders is that he failed to ‘win over’ minorities).

So what type of liberalism is smug? Or does smugness cross political lines? Is it liberalism, or something else?

It is a way of conducting politics, predicated on the belief that American life is not divided by moral difference or policy divergence — not really — but by the failure of half the country to know what’s good for them.

Hmmm… but as an example of elitism on the ‘right’, neoconservatives are also anti-populist and prescriptivist – people should summit to TSA screenings, for the good of national security; people should support tax cuts for high-income earners, for the good of the economy. And for the ‘left’ – people should signup for Obamacare, for or the ‘good’ of public healthcare; people should stop buying guns, for the ‘good’ of public safety.

So perhaps smugness is just another world for ‘prescriptivism’, and is related to anti-democracy – the notion that the masses are incapable rational judgment and decision making and should acquiesce to ‘experts’.

Maybe there is a hybrid ideology that combines neoconservative and neoliberal prescriptivism (people should support free trade, for the good of the economy) with the ethos personal responsibility and individualism (‘culture of self’) that is found in the ‘right’ and various libertarian ideologies (if people fail, it’s because they are either dumb and or lazy), that could be considered smug and elitist.

Our Less Particpatory Times

It seems we’re on the news carousal, going up and down, seeing the same scenery over and over again as the carousal revolves. This is could be to a dearth of ideas, boredom, or the monotony of geopolitical events which have become as predictable as whether the sun will rise. But maybe another problem is that public intellectuals and other influencers may be calling it quits, too. Around 2008 to 2013, during the depths of the final crisis and after, we saw a public intellectual explosion, particularly in the social sciences. Daniel Kahneman, Taleb, Pinker…all had books which spurred considerable debate. Even the self-help market saw a boom (Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour Workweek, for example). Then you had the rise of bloggers like Brad Delong, Robin Hanson and others, and while their blogs are still popular, it seems like their influence has diminished. Between 2007-2012, Ted talks were all the rave, but with all the marquee names having already given talks (some of them multiple times), TED has been scraping the bottom of the barrel as of late. The apex of blogging was probably around 2013, and it’s been gradually downhill since then, for a wide variety of niches. NRx blogging peaked in 2013, as did iSteve and most ‘alt right’ blogging. In 2012, a Ron Unz article published in The American Conservative about quotas against Asians in Harvard admissions became something of a mini-sensation, generating enormous coverage and debate, eventually culminating in Unz cashing in on his new found fame and parting ways with American Conservative to launch his own news site, unz.com. Nothing since then surpassed the grandiosity that article.

In 90′s and 2000′s everything was more ‘participatory’ or ‘hands-on’, unlike the un-participatory, autopilot nature of the post-2008 and post-2013 economy and society. In the 80′s and 90′s, when everything was smaller, slower, and less efficient, ordinary people could get rich with stocks, technology, entrepreneurship, and while people still can get rich with those things (especially with index funds), it’s become much harder. The future of America is one where we’re all just consumers, not creators or producers, and while the economy and stock market can keep growing in this condition – and even thrive – it won’t be fulfilling for many. Web 2.0 has much higher barriers to entry, but immensely bigger riches than the 90′s tech boom. The stock market has posted bigger gains between 2009 to 2015 than the late 90s, but too many people are fearful and pessimistic, sitting on the sidelines as the indexes keep making new highs. Every single technology metric has exploded since the late 90′s – from smaller, more powerful computers, to services and apps that can outsource your entire life. We have Amazon self-publishing, podcasting, YouTube, Vine, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook – giving anyone with a pulse a presence. But the problem is, again, that pesky barrier to entry: too much content and not enough eyeballs. The ability to readily create content creates the false illusion that we’re having an impact, being productive. The US population and internet adoption rate hasn’t grown much relative to the amount of new content being added, whereas in the 90′s you had a boom in content and an even bigger boom in adoption. Then going back further, to the 50′s all the way to the 80s, you had four decades of post-WW2 prosperity and a consumer spending spree – tens of millions of impressionable Americans that were willing to buy anything you put in front of them, on TV, in the newspaper, or radio. This was a ripe time for entrepreneurs who captured this growth spurt. While consumer spending has continued to boom, they have far more choices, with successful, large companies having already established their dominance. This is why consumer staples ETFs (XLP and RHS) have been such great investments and will continue to do well. In a winner-take-all economy, you want to be buying the biggest and best. For the technology sector, that means Amazon (AMZN), Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB) and Microsoft (MSFT). Each of these is worth at least $250 billion.

With entrepreneurship (with the exception of web 2.0) being too saturated and costumer staples ETfs the best way to make passive wealth, that leaves a void which is filled by the rise of ‘intellectualism culture’ in post-2008 America, with entrepreneurs being supplanted by intellectuals and wonks. Nowadays, we all aspire to be the ‘smartest guy in the room’, because that’s where the money and fame is. Blogs by academicians are immensely popular (Tyler Cowen of marginalrevolution.com, Robin Hanson of overcomingbias.com, and Brag Delong of delong.typepad.com); fivethirtyeight.com, a site started by a stat wonk Nate Silver, was an overnight success, although Nate’s earlier fame certainty helped. Same for vox.com, a very popular news site with a wonk-like appeal and methodology, launched in 2014. As discussed many times on this blog, ‘social awkwardness’, monomania and other ‘nerd/autistic/ INTJ&INTP mannerisms’ convey authenticity in or ‘new economy’, instead of agreeability and politeness, which is perceived as phony and superficial. People have gotten more judgmental, better at sniffing out ulterior motives, and the rise of Trump (against ‘mainstream conservatism’) and the rise of centrism (against SJW-liberalism) reflects this. Although social media is saturated, as with with most post-2008 successes, a high IQ is almost always a necessary condition for success.

But there is also the post-2008 rise of ‘hustle culture’ – which is related to individualism – of millennials trying to get rich with stocks, selling stuff online, and YouTube & Vine, as well as the online celebration and glamorization of wealth creation. The internet may have lowered the barriers to entry in terms of start-up costs, but there is a lot of competition in these domains. This form of individualism, while not always related to academia or academic subjects, is still tangentially related to ‘intellectualism culture’, in the Randian sense, part of the ‘wealth-intellectualism’ synthesis. A major aspect of this type of entrepreneurship (compared to pre-2008) is that it tends to involve few employees, is automated to a large degree, and involves intangibles (stock trading, coding, YouTube, websites) rather than building or making things – in other words, high-IQ type endeavors, which agrees with the last sentence of the prior paragraph.

Perhaps we need public intellectuals (even pseudo-intellectuals like Gladwell), who have major media platforms, to get people talkin. Or cataclysmic events to shake the slumber and monotony. Otherwise we just go in circles. In 2008, you had the financial problem and the election of Obama, both which generated a lot of discussion online, and, even earlier, the events of 911 and the invasion of Iraq. But now, especially since 2012 or so, not much is happening, although Trump’s ascent came as a surprise to many. Pinker’s ‘long peace‘ is underway, save for some terrorist attacks here and there. Politics and blogging needs ‘stuff’ to happen – either news or the injection of new ideas from intellectuals – in order to evolve; otherwise, nothing changes. The same also applies to science; the formulation and verification of relativity killed off the aether theories that previously dominated.