Wishing the World Away
Silver Bullets and Simulations
There is a pernicious tendency I find too many people fall into: that of Simulation-building.
Put simply, people (usually ideologues) construct a simulation of the world where things just work. All that is required is you tune and direct the system properly, hit "Go!" and then everything falls into place. The simulation naturally tends to be one of order and neatness. The bureaucracies function smoothly, none of the cogs in any of the constructed systems get jammed (or if they do, it isn't that serious), people do their jobs and are generally well-behaved, etc. etc.
Perhaps it stems from a belief in our allegedly unlimited power to "improve" the world and/or construct systems that overcome nature. Perhaps it comes from naivete. Perhaps it comes from being uninformed, or otherwise being unable to internalize the complexity and uncertainty of the world, and therefore building hyper-simplified models of it and assuming that "world-building" can be done based on these models. If I had to guess, I suspect theres a variety of reasons why people come to these beliefs.
And, naturally, all of these beliefs are delusions. These simulations tend to be used to justify the visions of technocrats, lolbertarians, or hippies. All of these groups are insane, as each attempts to convey a world where the fundamental disorder and uncertainty of human existence and society can be controlled or otherwise "smoothed out." Perhaps you trace these ideas to Hutcheson, or Bacon, or Kant. Or perhaps you aren't an insufferable nerd having debates about whether 1528 or 1629 or 1913 was the beginning of the end for the West (I picked these years at random, so if they happen to be significant than cool). Either way, it doesn't matter. What matters is that this form of ideology is all too common.
Of course, Spreadsheet-Americans tend to be shocked to learn that most of the World barely functions. Organizations are held together at the seams...and this has always been the case. Grand narratives make everything seem neat and clean when the reality is that nothing works as it's supposed to, and everything is broken in some significant way.
In this area, sports fans are more sane than political theorists and wonks. Your average sports fan has experienced at least one crushing disappointment as their favorite team that should work ON PAPER collapses on the field. Some unquantifiable (or at least unidentified) factor has thrown a wrench into the system that cannot be removed. While coaches and GMs may get fired for refusing to adapt to the reality on the field, wonks tend to simply double down. Why? Because some people are not able to insulate themselves from reality enough where they can avoid getting kicked in the teeth when things go wrong.
What we end up getting is a series of ideologies or proposals in which you get people either calling for silver bullets, believing in magic (I have no other way to describe some of these ideas), and/or asking people to go against their interests for the sake of...something.
The most notorious and well-understood example of this is "communism." For now, put aside the fact that a relatively tiny percentage of self-described "communists" have actually read Marx (let alone could accurately describe what his core ideas are). "Communists" are notorious for making grand hand-waving claims, and for providing little concrete rationale as to how their proposals would benefit people. Grand visions are nice, but they aren't enough. Maybe wonkery isn't the answer, but neither is communal property nor "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Even the claim that American youths (ahem, Hi!) are supportive of "socialism" isn't the full picture, as most of them probably couldn't define "socialism" properly anyways.
But communism, while being the preferred whipping boy of so many, is not even close to the only area where this mindset emerges from. In fact, it's not even the most egregious in my opinion. Perhaps the most egregious (from my humble vantage point) comes from the technocratic Left: the group that thinks that if we just build enough factories and hand them over to "the Workers", full communism can be achieved. Centralization, optimization, and efficiency are the watchwords of their perverse ideology. In the name of progress, rise up comrade! You shall trade your old capitalist boss for a new communist boss, who will be elected (because democracy definitely works, lol) and these huge bureaucratic enterprises will certainly care about you, the lowly cog! You see them with greater frequency in the press and online: simping for BlackRock and Amazon, as if replacing one centralized bureaucracy with another will make people "free."
Democracy & National Divorce
About a week ago, I mentioned two issues that had risen into the discourse recently: democracy and "national divorce."
On "democracy," far too many people have a brutally naive and ironically individualist model of how democracy works: each man, forming his own opinion independently, voices his position with a secret ballot. Ironically, the same (valid) critiques levied against individualist understandings of markets by progressives can be wielded against the progressives position on democratic processes.
When consent is a precondition for authority, Power will learn to manipulate people into giving consent.
Media and Tech elites are so adamant about defending this "democracy" because it is the system in which they can manipulate the people to support elite interests and legitimize those interests with "the will of the people" through voting.
And so when people naively question what could possibly be wrong about "convincing people to vote," they demonstrate their naivete, resting upon an utterly simplistic and delusional model of the world. The idea that manipulation might be a key aspect of political functioning is simply disqualified from the beginning. Sure, it may have happened in the past, but we are morally superior now and don't do such things anymore. Such things might happen but that isn't real democracy. Democracy is good and therefore anything wrong with it must be a perversion of this good. It cannot be accepted that perhaps the process itself is flawed.
National Divorce LARPing runs on a similar naivete about how difficult governance truly is. It simply hand-waves away the unbelievably messy process of coalition building and assumes a world-building POV: as if you're playing a Paradox Interactive video game as an absolute monarch and can control everything down to the finest detail. Gets too much to deal with? Just pause time! These world-building delusions are crippling:
Put simply: National Divorce is ridiculous and stupid. Who would lead it? The same elites who happily offshore jobs today? Oh, you have new elites? Where? How do they wield power? Why aren't they powerful currently? What would change? Is splitting up the US actually a good idea (hint: no)?
I will admit that there is certainly potential for rival elites to form. I do not deny this. But such a rival elite is either extremely nascent or all bark, no bite.
Because, truthfully, that's what politics is for most: aesthetics, and an endless cycle of resentment and counter-resentment. Signaling and rationalization of positions afterwards. Principles willfully abandoned at the first sign of inconvenience. Friend/Enemy and nothing more. There is no rival elite: there is a group of snakes who, in an attempt to maintain their power, spill words dripping with honey over the people, and then do nothing but plunder them once they are behind the curtain.
Which leads us to two related issues...
YIMBYism ("Yes, In My Backyard")
It can be difficult to distinguish between the counter-signaling against "NIMBYs" with the substantive beliefs of these "YIMBYs", but they are, without a doubt, some of the silliest people on the internet. YIMBYs are another example of asking people to go against their interests instead of meaningfully changing the playing field. "We must build!" the YIMBY declares, without giving much thought to the broader impact of building. Certainly, NIMBYism can be detrimental and dysfunctional, but I see little nuance in the YIMBY's proposals. They are focused instead on aesthetics. Glittering skyscrapers!....ignoring that, while horizontal density is eco-friendly, vertical height is harmful to the environment. They rarely mean building in their own backyard (most of them can't afford backyards), but rather just building.
By all means, America does need to build more. But I find that YIMBYs are disproportionately Spreadsheet-Americans who recoil when they are forced to encounter the messiness of the real world. There is a belief that B U I L D I N G will solve the housing crisis (it won't), bring us to endless prosperity (it won't...or at least it won't without obliterating the environment), or lead us to greater and greater innovation (it won't...or at least the innovation will almost certainly not be good, given the kinds of tech that gets your average YIMBY excited).
The same technocratic BUILD, CENTRALIZE, OPTIMIZE, REEEEEEE mindset that so many YIMBYs have and which characterizes so much of the technocratic Left and Right is shared by many of the more recent supporters of Nuclear energy.
Now, before I continue, I must say: I have nothing against nuclear energy, and I do believe that modern designs are both efficient and safer than most other sources of energy. I think nuclear energy could be a cornerstone in many countries' energy production (and already is in France, Sweden, and South Korea, amongst others). But I am skeptical of the system being in use in the US.
Why? We can't even build two reactors on time or under budget. And by "not on time" I mean SIX YEARS late. And by "over budget" I mean BILLIONS over budget. The US generates a little over 4000 Terawatt Hours per year of electricity. The two reactors under construction are expected to, combined, generate ~20 Terawatt Hours. Even if we assume Nuclear should only be used for half of that, you would need 200 reactors, at least. Each of these reactors will likely cost, by the end of the construction, about $15bn+. So you would need to get $3tn approved for a politically unpopular mandate AND you would need to find enough workers to get 200 reactors built (pre-electrification, which is necessary to go net zero) when we appear to have lost the skilled workers who understood how to effectively build reactors.
Good luck with that.
Nuclear is great on paper. If I'm playing a world-building game on my PC, I'm spamming nuclear reactors. But the world isn't the World. Reality is not neat, and life does not occur on paper (any sports fan can tell you that). Life is messy. Systems barely function. And if you are going to squander political capital, do not do so on a policy when alternatives exist (and, yes, there are indeed effective alternatives to a nuclear-ized energy grid).
Burning the Paper and Observing the Field
What must be done is move beyond the "On Paper" ideologies, and accept the reality on the field. To dispense with our delusions of how systems should work and engage with how they actually do work. To establish First Principles and then determine how to build structures to best fulfill those.
Housing prices are too high, but 1) people like their single family homes, and 2) many have the (sometimes quite correct) perception that ditching NIMBYism will lead to a decline in the value of the single most important asset they own. Clearly, just BUILDING isn't going to be a meaningful solution (and it's debatable if supply is actually the chief driver of housing price increases nationally). Perhaps the answer here is to begin with the question "what is a house for" and proceed from there. If you accept my claim that houses are for living in, and for creating a home that may be passed down through the generations, perhaps we should be moving towards decommodifying housing. Making houses into homes, not investments or income-generating engines. Perhaps we ban corporations and banks and foreigners from owning houses as a first step. Of course, as houses are the most valuable asset most people own they are integral to retirement for most and their value must increase with inflation in a vicious cycle, there will have to be a shift in how we structure savings and retirement. Obviously much detail must go into this plan, and I will explain in depth my "Decommodify Housing" calls at a future point.
If Democracy is a system that can be gamed by those who control information, perhaps the answer to this is 1) greater transparency, 2) more investigative journalists and fewer analysts, and 3) more local and regional journalism and less national journalism.
Perhaps we should be financing and supporting the renewal of local newspapers and have them prioritize investigative journalists. Perhaps we should be dismantling most (if not all) of the 3-letter agencies that claim to defend the American way of life and yet seem committed to undermining everything that supports that way of life. Perhaps we need to begin crushing bureaucracies and making audits more accessible throughout the Federal Government.
And if different areas of the nation simply cannot get along, perhaps we should be devolving powers down towards more local levels. National Divorce is a pipedream, but if we're going for a homerun, perhaps we should allow contiguous counties to either join neighboring states, or form their own state if their population is high enough. There would have to be some conditions (you can't form your own state and leave one county stranded alone on the other side of the rest of the Legacy State, maybe it's subject to a 2/3rds vote, etc.) I think thats a far more reasonable home run scenario than literally splitting off and forming a second country.
With YIMBYism, as with housing supply side crazies, what we must center our construction efforts around is "what are we building for." Gentle density, safe and renewable energy, local production, low cost of living, being near extended family and friends, etc. Perhaps the answer to our troubles is more underground carparks, surface-level parks, and 2-6 story buildings instead of 20-60+ story glass and steel monstrosities with thousands of people packed in like sardines in a can in a city where the green space is constrained to a handful of areas.
Theoretically we could build a 1 GW reactor for about $6bn, or 40% of the cost of the latest 2 in Georgia. But that’s pure theory. In reality, even in other countries there have been cost overruns, etc. On the other hand geothermal energy could pull on the expertise of our already dominant oil and gas industry, is politically more palatable, and is capable of being the dominant baseload energy provider in the US with technological advances that have already been made. Nuclear is currently untenable as a way to produce 2k+ TwH of energy per year because it's clear the process (both technological and political) is fundamentally broken.
Once again, it's the problem of the sports team that works on paper but just doesn't click on the field. The synergy isn't there. The issue is when ideologues, rather than accepting the unquantifiable and adjusting, double down on what works on paper. By all means, build a pipeline of nuclear engineers, construction specialists, etc. to revitalize our nuclear industry and start rebuilding it in 10-20 years; but it will not come fast enough. If I'm investing trillions in anything right now, it's geothermal, offshore wind + wave, and more efficient solar + storage.
Wrapping this all up, I am frustrated with the endless cycle of resentment and counter-resentment, of signaling and rationalization instead of principles, which characterizes our politics.
I do not trust those with little connection to the physical world and to the social world of the masses to have any idea how to construct pro-worker and pro-human politics. Here's a decent heuristic: if you're an office worker and you aren't friends with a single janitor or custodial staff member in your building, perhaps you don't have much ground to call for "pro-worker" policies.
It is time to stop living detached, para-social lives where everything can be controlled and assumptions allow one to smooth out the uncertainty of the world and dive back into the messy reality of society. Only then can we begin to actually build societies structured towards genuine human flourishing.
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(Thumbnail image source: Medium)
There are many energy-strategies besides nuclear - though it is a very effective one once built. I salute you for considering geothermal, there are a lot of pockets in the world where's available!
There is also decentralised hydro (let's say old watermills upgraded), biogas and gas-cogeneration that produces both heat and electricity at the same time. All of these need smaller scale thinking so that is why I think they're not so prevalent (yet!).
The larger these messy systems are, the more energy-losses they produce through the system - this is one very underrated fact when we consider the neat/messy aspect of systems.
And obviously my vocation, passive solar architecture can produce great results reducing energy use and providing sovereignty with minimal or no high-technology involved.
Keep up the good work!