The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, by Walter Scheidel

I can tell a straightforward, partisan story about inequality in the United States:

  1. The colonial United States was a remarkably egalitarian place ⁠⁠— for white people, at least.  But as the United States industrialized, from the Civil War through the Gilded Age and all the way until the Great Depression, the government made few efforts to redistribute wealth, and inequality grew and grew.
  2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies reduced inequality dramatically and established a bipartisan consensus in favor of egalitarian redistribution that lasted for decades.  Democrats controlled the White House and Congress for most of these years, and even the two Republican presidents elected during this time — Eisenhower and Nixon — basically accepted the New Deal consensus.  During this time, inequality remained low and even declined slightly.
  3. But backlash against the Civil Rights Act ultimately shattered public confidence in Big Government, eventually leading to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.  After this point inequality began to rise again, such that today we once again see levels of inequality we haven’t seen since the Gilded Age.

This is a common story — for example, it’s pretty much exactly the one Paul Krugman tells in The Conscience of a Liberal.

gini-index-usa

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Not Peer Reviewed in Review, 2019

By my count, I wrote six public posts of substantive length in 2019:

I also wrote two additional posts that I haven’t publicly published:

  • Personal experience and a literature review on the use of naltrexone to treat alcohol abuse.  I decided not to publish the post last year because I want to have a lengthier period of personal experience to draw upon.
  • A review of The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, by Walter Scheidel.  This is private simply because I’m still finishing it, and I hope to publicize it by the end of the month.

Some thoughts about my year in blogging:

  • I would like to roughly double the number of long-form posts I publish next year, such that I write one a month.
  • I’m satisfied with the range of topics and formats of posts I’m writing.  Reviews, data analysis, and argumentative essays all seem like areas where I have the skills and interests to write productively.
  • I think I can be more proactive about promoting my posts.  By far the biggest spike in my traffic was when I posted a link on r/slatestarcodex.  I was initially cautious about doing that sort of thing; it felt like it might be a violation of Reddit’s norms, but it seems that people don’t mind some judiciously applied self-promotion when the effort level is high and the topic is relevant.
  • I’ve scaled back the food photos.  I like the way they fit visually between the long-form posts, but I don’t know whether they contribute to other peoples’ experience of the blog.  For whatever reason, they do seem to get a lot of other WordPress users following my blog, but I’m not so sure those users enjoy my long-form content.

Book Review: “Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age” by Bear F. Braumoeller

(note: this review kinda sorta assumes you’re familiar with Steven Pinker’s theories on the decline of violence.  If you need a brief synopsis, watch this.)

Bear F. Braumoeller’s Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age is one of the most sophisticated rebuttals to Steven Pinker’s claims about the decline of violence, as presented in Better Angels and elsewhere.  At its core, though, its argument is a variation on the same strategy every rebuttal to Pinker uses: Count something other than war deaths as the numerator or something other than world population as the denominator.

To his credit, the author reveals himself to be unusually self-aware of this issue:

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Book Reviews: Michael Young’s “Rise of the Meritocracy” and Chris Hayes’ “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy.”

The 2019 college admissions scandal (sentencing underway) brought a wave of thinkpieces and cheeky tweets on the meritocracy, with the consistent message that America isn’t one.  Two critics of meritocracy got a lot of name-checks: Michael Young, who invented the term in Rise of the Meritocracy, and Chris Hayes, whose more recent Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy now seems shockingly prescient.  Both warn that meritocratic ideology is dangerous, but the dangers they each point to are quite different.

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Privilege is real, and we need to stop talking about it so much.

Louis C.K. shows up several times in Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s The Perils of Privilege — not as villain exactly, but as an undeserving beneficiary: A white man who, through, through self-awareness and linguistic finesse, reaps admiration from a culture that values performative “privilege checking.”  Her choice of example aged almost unbelievably well; six months after the book was published, Louis C.K.’s wokeness was revealed to be not just a profitable performance, but a facade for a serial dick-whipper-outter.

Bovy’s critique of privilege comes from the political left; she has no doubt that the kinds of inequalities described as “privilege” exist; rather, she believes the concept of “privilege” is a counterproductive way to describe and analyze those inequalities. And while I imagine Bovy takes no joy in what Louis C.K. turned out to be, it does put her in a great position to say “I told you so.”

(Because Bovy writes from the left, her book probably won’t be of much interest to conservatives, except for the schadenfreude of dozens of examples of liberals own-goaling themselves and treating each other horribly.  If you don’t believe there is much unfair, group-based inequality in the United States today, but you still want to follow along with my reasoning, feel free to imagine you’re reading this in 1964 or 1862.)

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Necessary pedantry: Human genetic engineering is not eugenics.

(Late-breaking epistemic status: I still stand behind the definitional claim in the title, but my attempt to draw connections between the definitional claim and the moral argument were not very coherent.  Also, many people reading this clearly think that “population” just means the sum of individuals, so I’ve clearly got more work to do in that area of the argument as well.)

I’ve recently noticed some advocates of human genetic engineering claim that eugenics is actually a good thing. I’m pretty sure the majority of these people are not in favor of of “eugenics” as the term has historically been used, and I think misusing the word in this way has bad consequences. The distinction I’m about to draw is often ignored in public debate, but it is both pragmatic and morally necessary.

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