The Upheaval Reading Thread (#3)

Welcome to the third Upheaval Reading Thread, where I offer you some interesting weekend reads while deliberately trying not to talk about China again today:

(1) Ross Douthat, “Playing Those End of History Hits Again,” Reactions (Substack).

Douthat reflects here on his own (book length) argument that we are in a period of decadence (i.e. stagnation), compared with an argument by the liberal Matthew Yglesias that everything is fine and we’re all still in the End of History, on the upward path of progress toward a bright future of prosperity and stability. And while Yglesias believes that any excesses of the “successor ideology” of the far-left will be kept in check by the continuing power of moderates in institutions, Douthat contrasts this perspective, and his own, to a third view:

The maximalist fear on the right is that we’re living through a kind of elite-driven religious upheaval, analogous to the Protestant Reformation or the defeat of paganism by the original “successor ideology” of early Christianity. In which case identifying a procedural roadblock to the new worldview misses the point: A John Roberts or Amy Coney Barrett ruling will no more stop a cultural revolution than a 16th century papal bull could restore the world of Innocent III, or Julian the Apostate could re-awaken the oracles by decree. Likewise the fact that most Democratic voters aren’t all-in for the new ideology is like saying, ah, don’t worry, opinion polls in 337 A.D. show that the average Roman still believes firmly in the old gods, nothing’s going to change. In fact it could, and very soon it did.

I guess that would be me then.

(2) Alex Hochuli, “The Brazilianization of the World,” American Affairs.

In one of the more interesting pieces I’ve read in a while (and in a sort of similar take on Douhat’s decadence), Hochuli argues that instead of the “Global South” catching up to and becoming more like the developed “Global North,” much of the North instead seems to be steadily transforming itself into the South – i.e. undergoing “Brazilianization.”

Features of Brazilianization include: the decay of the governing state; deindustrialization, financialization, corruption, and crime; sky-high inequality, distributed, as in Brazil, as if there were an “urban Belgium perched atop a poor, rural India, all in one country”; the creation of an internationally cosmopolitan but nationally isolated bourgeoisie urban elite, who are disgusted and frightened by their own rural countrymen and become increasingly walled-off and self-centered; a permanent precariat, for whom the norm is “social relations structured around flexibility, rather than binding contract; [and] a need to find semi-licit workarounds, through hustling”; societal post-modern “irresolution and indeterminacy,” and a politics split between “pervasive cynicism” and “moralistic denunciations,” with sporadic outbreaks of violence.

If “the sense that things don’t work as they should is now widely shared across the political spectrum,” then:

“Welcome to Brazil. Here the only people satisfied with their situation are financial elites and venal politicians. Everyone complains, but everyone shrugs their shoulders. This slow degradation of society is not so much a runaway train, but more of a jittery rollercoaster, occasionally holding out promise of ascent, yet never breaking free from the tracks. We always come back to where we started, shaken and disoriented, haunted by what might have been.”

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(3) Agnieszka de Sousa and Jeremy Diamond, “Priciest Food Since 1970s Is a Big Challenge for Governments,” Bloomberg

Global food prices were up 33 percent year-over-year in August, according to new data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Acute food insecurity is up 40 percent worldwide. 768 million people were undernourished overall in 2020, an increase of 118 million from 2019.

This increase, resulting from pandemic-induced supply chain and labor disruptions, as well as general inflation, is almost unprecedented. As one academic in this report notes, “Food is more expensive today than it has been for the vast majority of modern recorded history.”

This is a situation that bears very careful watching, and not just because it’s a humanitarian tragedy – the link between food insecurity and civil unrest and conflict is one of the most robust yet established in terms of predictive techniques. Indeed, as the Bloomberg piece notes, “Food inflation spurred more than two dozen riots across Asia, the Middle East and Africa, contributing to the Arab Spring uprisings 10 years ago.”

Now, “Pockets of discontentment are growing again,” given that it’s “now harder to afford food than it was during the 2011 protests in the Middle East that led to the overthrow of leaders in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.” Flour prices in Lebanon, for example, are up 219 percent since last year. No spooks should claim to be surprised if things get wild again.

While waiting to find out, also check out Joel Kotkin and Hügo Krüger’s “The coming collapse of the developing world” and Gillian Tett’s “Global debt is soaring — and we need to talk about it”. (The FT is pay-walled, so here’s the bottom line: the global debt-to-GDP ratio is now 353 percent; it was 280 percent in 2008. “Thus we face a long-term existential question: will governments eventually be forced to unleash sky-high inflation to reduce that debt? Will there be widespread debt forgiveness in the future to avoid a political or social explosion?” Someone should check with the Lebanese.)

(4) Richard Hanania, “Tetlock and the Taliban,” Hanania Newsletter (Substack)

Why did America fail so badly in Afghanistan even though the “American-led coalition had countless experts with backgrounds pertaining to every part of the mission on their side: people who had done their dissertations on topics like state building, terrorism, military-civilian relations, and gender in the military”? Even when they had “Ashraf Ghani, the just deposed president of the country, [who] has a PhD in anthropology from Columbia and is the co-author of a book literally called Fixing Failed States”? As Hanania puts it, “It’s as if Wernher von Braun had been given all the resources in the world to run a space program and had been beaten to the moon by an African witch doctor.”

Well, it might be because, as Hanania points out, citing the groundbreaking studies of Philip Tetlock which have found that credentialed experts in the social sciences typically score no better in doing their jobs than randos with no formal training, most such “expertise” is simply fake. He concludes:

The main argument of this essay is we’re not thinking big enough. The American loss should be seen as a complete discrediting of the academic understanding of “expertise,” with its reliance on narrowly focused peer reviewed publications and subject matter knowledge as the way to understand the world. Although I don’t develop the argument here, I think I could make the case that expertise isn’t just fake, it actually makes you worse off because it gives you a higher level of certainty in your own wishful thinking. The Taliban probably did better by focusing their intellectual energies on interpreting the Holy Quran and taking a pragmatic approach to how they fought the war rather than proceeding with a prepackaged theory of how to engage in nation building, which for the West conveniently involved importing its own institutions.

A discussion of the practical implications of all this, or how we move from a world of specialization to one with better elites, is also for another day. For now, I’ll just emphasize that for those thinking of choosing an academic career to make universities or the peer review system function better, my advice is don’t. The conversation is much more interesting, meaningful, and oriented towards finding truth here on the outside.

(5) Ed West, “Why the French are revolting,” UnHerd.

I don’t think “Why the French are revolting” is an accurate title for this somewhat amusing piece, which, if you look in the hyperlink, you can see was actually originally labeled “why the French love fighting.”

After all, West says, the “French love of protesting at the drop of the hat is perhaps their defining character trait, but it reflects a deeper culture of political violence that goes deep into their history, and not just the revolution.” Describing the details of how France has a far more violent history than his native Britain, West argues that this history has an enduring cultural resonance even today.

But he concludes that this may not be such a bad thing in the end:

While there is something about the French readiness to protest and riot that is shocking to the Anglo-Saxon soul, it also quite admirable. Deep down, there is a great deal of respect for this belligerence, part of that wider Gallic battle with Americanisation, the modern world, and often reality.

We, though, are too timid and passionless to spend every Saturday blocking the centre of town, or driving a lorry load of slurry into the nearest government building; and if we protested like the French, we couldn’t do so with the same panache. Even the gilet jaunes movement managed a certain stylistic triumph while wearing high-viz vests, which in Britain are the very symbol of health and safety-driven inertia and defeatism.

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