Samsara

I.

The man standing outside my front door was carrying a clipboard and wearing a golden robe. “Not interested,” I said, preparing to slam the door in his face.

“Please,” said the acolyte. Before I could say no he’d jammed a wad of $100 bills into my hand. “If this will buy a few moments of your time.”

It did, if only because I stood too flabbergasted to move. Surely they didn’t have enough money to do this for everybody.

“There is no everybody,” said the acolyte, when I expressed my bewilderment. “You’re the last one. The last unenlightened person in the world.”

And it sort of made sense. Twenty years ago, a group of San Francisco hippie/yuppie/techie seekers had pared down the ancient techniques to their bare essentials, then optimized hard. A combination of drugs, meditation, and ecstatic dance that could catapult you to enlightenment in the space of a weekend retreat, 100% success rate. Their cult/movement/startup, the Order Of The Golden Lotus, spread like wildfire through California – a state where wildfires spread even faster than usual – and then on to the rest of the world. Soon investment bankers and soccer moms were showing up to book clubs talking about how they had grasped the peace beyond understanding and vanquished their ego-self.

I’d kind of ignored it. Actually, super ignored it. First a flat refusal to attend Golden Lotus retreats. Then slamming the door in their face whenever their golden-robed pamphleteers came to call. Then quitting my job to live off savings after my coworkers started converting and the team-building exercises turned into meditation sessions. Then unplugging my cable box after the sitcoms started incorporating Golden Lotus themes and the national news started being about how peaceful everybody was all the time. After that I might have kind of become a complete recluse, never leaving the house, ordering meals through UberEats, cut off from noticing any of the changes happening outside except through the gradual disappearance of nonvegetarian restaurants on the app.

I’m not a bigot; people can have whatever religion they choose. But Golden Lotus wasn’t for me. I don’t want to be enlightened. I like being an individual with an ego. Ayn Rand loses me when she starts talking politics, but the stuff about selfishness really speaks to me. Tend to your own garden, that kind of thing. I’m not becoming part of some universal-love-transcendent-joy hive mind, and I’m not interested in what Golden Lotus is selling.

So I just said: “Cool. Do I get a medal?”

“This is actually very serious,” said the acolyte. “Do you know about the Bodhisattva’s Vow?”

“The what now?”

“It’s from ancient China. You say it before embarking on the path of enlightenment. ‘However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them all.’ The idea is that we’re all in this together. We swear that we will not fully forsake this world of suffering and partake of the ultimate mahaparanirvana – complete cosmic bliss – until everyone is as enlightened as we are.”

“Cool story.”

“That means 7.5 billion people are waiting on you.”

“What?”

“We all swore not to sit back and enjoy enlightenement until everyone was enlightened. Now everyone is enlightened except you. You’re the only thing holding us all back from ultimate cosmic bliss.”

“Man. I’m sorry.”

“You are forgiven. We would like to offer you a free three-day course with the Head Lama of Golden Lotus to correct the situation. We’ll pick you up at your home and fly you to the Big Island of Hawaii, where the Head Lama will personally…”

“…yeah, no thanks.”

“What?”

“No thanks.”

“But you have to! Nobody else can reach mahaparanirvana until you get enlightened!”

“Sure they can. Tell them I’m okay, they can head off to mahabharata without me, no need to wait up.”

“They can’t. They swore not to.

“Well, they shouldn’t have done that.”

“It’s done! It’s irreversible! The vow has been sworn! Each of the seven point five billion acolytes of Golden Lotus has sworn it!”

“Break it.”

“We are enlightened beings! We can’t break our solemn vow!”

“Then I guess you’re going to learn an important lesson about swearing unbreakable vows you don’t want to keep.”

“Sir, this entire planet is heavy with suffering. It groans under its weight. Seven billion people, the entirety of the human race, and for the first time they have the chance to escape together! I understand you’re afraid of enlightenment, I understand that this isn’t what you would have chosen, but for the sake of the world, please, accept what must be!”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I really am. But the fault here is totally yours. You guys swore an oath conditional on my behavior, but that doesn’t mean I have to change my behavior to prevent your oath from having bad consequences. Imagine if I let that work! You could all swear to kill yourself unless I donated money, and I’d have to donate or have billions of deaths on my hands. That kind of reasoning, you’ve got to nip it in the bud. I’m sorry about your oath and I’m sorry you’re never going to get to Paramaribo but I don’t want to be enlightened and you can’t make me.”

I slammed the door in his face.

II.

A few days later, just as I was trying to order lunch on UberEats, my cell phone internet stopped working. I tried my laptop. Wasn’t working either. iPad? Not working.

I’d been wondering whether Golden Lotus was going to kill me. It was the natural thing to try in this situation. But I figured people who were too enlightened to break a vow were probably too enlightened to murder me, or to threaten to break my kneecaps, or to drug me, or to take any of the other easy ways out.

But starving me – that might work. And if everyone else was a Golden Lotuser at this point, they were like a world state. They probably controlled the infrastructure, and I didn’t think there were any ancient Buddhist commandments against shutting off someone’s internet connection.

There was a 7-11 on the corner of my street. I put on a jacket, prayed to any god who would listen to me right now, and walked outside.

My street, as I remembered it, was gone. The familiar buildings had been torn down. Far away, I could see tranquil gardens and intricate pagodas. But the street I was on – the one between my apartment and 7-11 – had been turned into a gauntlet. A series of flashing, attention-grabbing billboards and video-screens explaining Golden Lotus techniques, the virtues of enlightenment, and the illusory nature of the material world, accompanied by a soundtrack of giant speakers blaring sermons.

So this was their plan. Not very subtle, but I could live with it. I stared down at my feet and broke into a run, trying to make it to the store as quickly as possible without absorbing any of the information being blasted at me. Staring at my feet turned out to be a mistake – there were sutras written all along the pavement. The first giant letter was right past my doormat, and I saw them stretching forward, continuing in order to the 7-11 I was trying to reach. I tried looking up instead, but a transparent canopy placed atop the street was similarly laden with spiritual wisdom. I closed my eyes, but this slowed my progress forward, and made me more vulnerable to sermons coming from the speakers all around me. “SINGLE-POINTED AWARENESS ON ANY INDIVIDUAL SENSATION REVEALS ITS EMPTINESS!” blared one. “THE MIND IS LIKE A STILL POOL DISTURBED BY THE RIPPLES OF THOUGHTS” blasted another.

I thought about the technical problem facing Golden Lotus leadership: how do you enlighten someone who resists enlightenment? You can’t teach them practices, because they won’t do them. You can’t impart advice, because they won’t take it. But you can draw awareness to certain facets of their own thinking, along the lines of the old “You are now aware of the feeling of your tongue in your mouth”. You can present someone with metaphors of such explanatory value that they reshape the way he interprets his own experience. If you had a lot of very smart people developing the “curriculum”, and a lot of patience, maybe it could work.

How could one resist such an effort? I would have to close all possible communication channels. I put my hands over my ears, even though the awkward position slowed my blind stumble to the store. I took a few steps forward, then felt a sudden weight. I opened my eyes. A brightly-colored macaw had landed on my right shoulder and was staring straight at me. “HERE AND NOW!” it screeched, point-blank, before flying off.

Okay. Trained birds. They were really on top of their game. So maybe I couldn’t close off all possible communication channels. Maybe I would have to fight them on their own turf. Maybe if they’ve created a super-efficient science of enlightenment, I would have to create a super-efficient science of samsara.

The convenience store sold mostly rice and incense now, and restricted rice purchases to a single day’s supply. I picked some up and headed for the cashier. The aisles were confusingly laid out, and I realized after a moment that they formed one of those labyrinths that people sometimes walk as a spiritual practice. I didn’t think those things worked, but I couldn’t take any chances. I climbed a shelf full of meditation cushions, vaulted over, and climbed down the other side to the frowning cashier.

I saw another door on the other side of the 7-11, this one guarded by a stern-looking man in a golden robe. I realized it was the door to freedom – outside my enlightenment-ad-plastered prison and into the world of pagodas and gardens outside. I assessed my chances. The monk was really big, and I didn’t know if the door was locked or if there were other guards on the other side. I decided against it. I paid for my rice, stuffed enough of it in my pockets that I could reassume the hands-over-ears-eyes-closed pose, and walked home.

A science of samsara. What would that involve? Instead of meditating on lovingkindness, I could meditate on everybody I hated. Instead of a vow of poverty, I could take a vow of greed. Instead of practicing self-awareness, I could practice self-obliviousness. I took out a piece of paper and began to jot some of this down. This was going to be so much fun.

III.

I was at the 7-11, buying a meditation cushion. My meditation on hatred was going well, but sitting on the floor that long was starting to hurt my back. I figured that on my daily rice run, I’d get a cushion, a bell, maybe some looser-fitting clothes. I was near the center of the labyrinth, picking them out, when someone tapped me on the shoulder.

It was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She looked like a supermodel or something. She whispered to me. “Are you…the unenlightened person?”

I nodded, wondering where she was going with this.

“Look,” she said. “I have not had decent sex in a year and a half. Everyone is just like ‘abandon carnal desires of the flesh’ and ‘real pleasure comes from within’. And even when I can rope some guy into doing it, somehow it manages to be tranquil.” She spat out this last word. “Are you…uh…are you free tonight?”

I controlled my shock at my good fortune long enough to sputter out a short “yes”.

We stumbled back to my apartment together, braving the billboards and sermons and dive-bomb-parrots. In record time we made it to my bedroom and started ripping our clothes off.

“How did you get in?” I asked her. “Is this place well-guarded?”

“There’s a door in the back of the 7-11,” she said, confirming my suspicions. “There’s one monk and your side, and about five on the other. There’s no restriction on people coming in to talk to you if they want. Only on you getting out.”

I pulled her onto the bed and into my embrace.

“You feel so good,” she said. “It’s like a snake, coiled at the bottom of the spine, waiting to get out. Oh! It’s like the snake is made of energy, and the energy is escaping, moving upward…”

That sounded familiar. I stopped, pushed her off me.

“Wait a second,” I said. “That’s from tantric sex!”

“Tantric sex?” she asked innocently. “What’s that?”

“Don’t pretend you don’t know what tantric sex is! It’s that thing where sex can be used as a spiritual practice that brings people to enlightenment! You’re trying to trick me!”

She pouted seductively. “Come on, let’s keep going.”

I started putting my clothes back on. “You guys are scared of me. You’re scared that you’re not reaching me, that I’m immune to your tricks. Well, tell them that they’re going to have to try harder. Every day I meditate for an hour on all the people I hate, then another hour on all the material goods I wish I had, then for another hour on all the women I want to screw. Then I finish it off with an hour trying to experience selfhood as viscerally and dramatically as possible. I’m reaching depths of samsara they can’t even imagine. And there’s nothing you or the Head Lama or anyone else can do about it. Get out!” I threw her clothes at her. When she left, I slammed the door in her face.

IV.

A knock on the door.

I got up from my meditation cushion, eyeing the stains and scratches on it. Twenty years. Twenty years I had kept up my meditation practice, the four hours of anger-greed-lust-selfhood meditation I’d established a few weeks after my confinement started. To be honest, I didn’t look much better than the cushion. I was getting old. My rice and tap water diet kept me lean and wiry, but the years still took their toll. There were no razors at the 7-11, so I had grown a long white beard.

For the first few years, Golden Lotus had tried more tricks like the supermodel. I had seen through them all. Eventually they must have given up. I’d been unmolested for more than a decade. I wondered what they were up to now.

At the door was a kid. There was no other way to describe him. Scrawny, a little worn-out, looked South Asian, maybe sixteen or seventeen. He was wearing some kind of black plastic poncho over his clothes.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Are you the unenlightened man?”

“That’s me.”

“I want to learn from you.”

“What?”

“Master, until now I have lived an unexamined life. Going to temple every day, meditating, taking the drugs, doing the dances. But I longed for something more. In an old library, I found a book which claimed the ancients knew of a state known as samsara, and of a mystery called the Self. That those who master these mysteries gain strange powers. Using the technique of Greed, they can attain such perfect willpower that they can work eighty hour weeks for abusive bosses without quitting. Using the technique of Lust, they can reach such perfect focus that all their thoughts for months revolve around the same person.

“I thought it might all just be legends. But I asked those who knew more than I did, and they directed me to those who knew more than them, and finally I heard rumors that in a far-off place called California there was an ancient sage who had achieved samsara long ago. Please, Master, will you take me as your disciple?”

I was flabbergasted for just a second before common sense took hold of me once again. “No,” I said. “You’re some kind of trick. Go away.”

“Master!” protested the kid. “I will wait kneeling on your doorstep without food or water until you agree to take me as a disciple!”

I shrugged and closed the door.

The next day, when I went out to 7-11, the kid was still there, kneeling.

“Master!” he said. “Please take me as your disciple.”

“No,” I said. “But if you want to make yourself useful, you can help guide me to the corner store while I have my eyes closed and my hands over my ears. And if you see any parrots, fight them off.”

“Yes, Master!” said the kid, and he took me by the arm and helped guide me to 7-11.

The next day the same thing happened. I went to go to the store, the kid was waiting on my doorstep, and he helped guide me to 7-11 safely. By the time I got back it was raining, and although the transparent canopy covered with sutra verses blocked out the worst of it, there was still a chill in the air.

“You might as well come inside and sleep on the couch,” I told him. “And have a little of the rice.”

The next morning, we began his training. I asked him to think about all the material goods he wanted. He couldn’t come up with any. I asked him to think about all the most attractive women he knew. He said he’d never thought about women that way before, and it seemed kind of objectifying. I asked him who really pissed him off, and his only answer was himself, when he strayed from the path of maximum virtue.

I tried for a few hours, then I gave up.

“Go to the spare room,” I said “and think about the sound of one hand clapping. Once you figure it out, come tell me. Until then, leave me alone. Got it, uh…what was your name again?”

“Maitrayaniputra,” said the kid.

“Not anymore,” I said. “From now on, your name is Brad.”

V.

Somehow, my fame spread.

My apartment-street-convenience-store prison had turned into a makeshift ashram. Two dozen seekers from all around the globe. A select few slept in my house. The rest pitched tents on the street, or huddled into the aisles of the 7-11. The guard on the back door stared at them impassively, but said nothing.

I tried to discourage them, turn them away. But every time I yelled at one, or hit her with my cane, or slapped him on the face, more kept coming, sure this was some manifestation of ancient wisdom. A few gave up and returned back through the guarded door; but overall the numbers grew and grew.

Brad had declared himself chief of my disciples, the Peter to my Jesus. He would lead the congregation in meditation each morning, drawing off my old morning routine – an hour thinking of all the people they were angry at, an hour thinking of the material goods they wanted, an hour thinking of all the sexy people they wanted to screw – followed by a final hour of meditation on the Self. The novices failed in ways I didn’t even think possible. All the material goods they wanted were things like lotuses and celestial jewels. All the people they wanted to have sex with were particularly virtuous saints whose wisdom they admired. Sometimes, I would march into the room and demand to know what a novice was thinking. “Who are you having sexual fantasies about?” I shouted at one young man, who I had given the name Kyle. He admitted he was thinking of the Tibetan Buddhist guru Padmasambhava. “Are you even gay?” I demanded. He didn’t know what that meant, so I explained that some people were straight and should be having fantasies about the opposite sex, and other people were gay and should be having fantasies about the same sex, and other people were bi and could have fantasies about whichever sex they wanted. “But how would I know which of those I am?” Kyle asked me. I didn’t know what to say, so I hit him with my stick and stormed out.

But they kept coming. Kyle left the ashram, only to return a few weeks later with his sister. Her name was Shantideva; I told her she would henceforth be Sherri. Sherri was stick-thin, a dialysis port in one arm, and rarely spoke. Kyle told me she had a rare disease and would die before age 30. She had read Dylan Thomas’ “Rage Against The Dying Of The Light” and decided to achieve samsara before she died, so that she too could feel rage at her situation. I was nervous about her – she looked like the slightest breeze would tip her over – but she meditated with a fervor beyond anything I could have predicted, sometimes outdoing even Brad in time spent on the cushion.

I instituted a dress code for my disciples. I made the men dress as douchey as possible, and the women as slutty as they could. One day I dug my old printer out of a closet, and ran off a thousand copies of George Washington’s face. I distributed them to the disciples as unevenly as I could. “This is money,” I said. “It is an important ritual object. From now on, whenever someone wants something from you, you must refuse unless they offer you money. If they don’t offer you enough money, you should yell at them and call them cheap. If they offer you too much money, you should laugh at them behind their backs and tell everyone they’re an easy mark.”

“But Master,” protested Kyle, “why do we need all these rituals? Didn’t you yourself say that the essence of samsara is about mental states? Aren’t all these intermediaries and traditions only distracting us from the true work of self-transformation?”

“I will give you $10 to shut up and stop bothering me about this,” I said, and I handed him ten of the Washington papers.

Kyle slowly nodded and took them.

“Now do you understand?” I asked.

Kyle nodded, but I could tell he did not understand.

A few days later, Brad came into my room. I looked up.

“Master,” he said. “There is no sound of one hand clapping. You were just trying to get rid of me. I wasted almost a year of my life trying to figure it out, and there was nothing there. It was all a fraud and you’re a fraud and this whole piece of shit ashram is a fraud. Fuck you.”

“My son,” I said. “Today you have achieved samsara.”

Brad stopped as if stuck by a train. He tried to speak, then tried again, then fell silent. I watched as understanding flowed into his eyes.

“You bastard,” he said. “You magnificent bastard. You really did it.” He hugged me. I hugged him back. Then I marched him out to the street, where the majority of the disciples were eating their evening meal. “Everybody!” I announced. “Brad is unenlightened now! That means he’s better than you! He’s going to lord it over you, and you should all feel jealous of him!” A few looks of bewilderment from people who couldn’t grasp why they should be unhappy at anyone else’s achievement, but that was fine. I knew I had planted a seed.

VI.

Years went by. My first disciples – Brad, Kyle, Sherri, and the rest – left the ashram to preach to the outside world. New disciples replaced them. Life went on.

I grew into my role as samsara master. If Golden Lotus could enlighten people in a weekend, I needed to be able to unenlighten them faster. I spent more and more time in meditation, probing the true meaning of samsara, investigating each impulse, querying each baser urge. My doctrines became more and more esoteric. I began telling seekers that they were already unenlightened, if only they could see it. That there was nothing to attain. That there was no samsara separate from nirvana.

Some left, unable to handle the paradox. It was one of these, a middle-aged man I had dubbed Logan, who left behind the golden robe.

He had taken off to change it douchey clothes as soon as he arrived. And he left in the douchey clothes I gave him. The golden robe hung in my closet. Nobody missed it. Nobody knew I had it.

I decided to try a jailbreak.

I put on the golden robe. Then I dug up an old razor from the bottom drawer of my bathroom. Then I shaved off my long beard. Then I shaved my head, until I looked the very image of a Golden Lotus monk.

I went out to the 7-11 and walked up to the back door. “I’m sick of this place,” I told the guard. “I’m going home.”

He waved me through, and for the first time in twenty-five years, I stepped into the world beyond.

It looked like a Japanese garden. Bonsai-perfect trees grew everywhere, hanging over glassy ponds stocked with koi. The roads had given way to carefully tended paths, lined every so often by pagodas or temple-like houses.

I walked further, until I reached what had been the town center before. The general aesthetic continued, but the buildings were closer together now. I saw fellow golden-robed acolytes walking the streets or sitting contemplatively beneath the trees.

One golden-robed man sitting underneath a cherry tree looked exactly like Brad. He was talking to another man who looked exactly like Kyle. I could only hear bits of their speech, but it sounded very tranquil. I hid behind a shrine. What was going on here? Was it really them? Had they reverted already?

“Sorry!” said a jogger, as she almost ran into me. I blinked again, took a second look. It was Sherri, the frail girl with the chronic disease. She didn’t look frail or diseased now. I grabbed her by the wrist, made her stop.

“Sherri. What’s going on?”

I saw recognition in her eyes, and her lips curled into a smile.

I’d been right that first time then, all those years ago. A trick. They’d all been plants. Why? What had they accomplished? Getting me thinking about samsara. I retraced several years worth of mental steps. Trying to understand the nature of desire. Becoming more aware of the movements of my own mind. They had gotten me good. I had to distract myself. Think of a material good. Think of a red Ferrari. I concentrated on a red Ferrari as hard as I could, tried to block everything else out of my mind, all the insights, all the shame, all the trickery. Just a red Ferrari, on a black road, beneath a blue sky. Everything else faded.

Sherri clapped once, right in front of my face.

Upon hearing this, I was enlightened.

Open Thread 140

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, but please try to avoid hot-button political and social topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. Thanks to the six teams who sent in their adversarial collaborations by the deadline. I’ve received entries from:

– David and Alex on meat-eating
– Joel and Missingno on circumcision
– Doris and Andrea on calorie restriction
– Douglas and Erusian on automation
– Nick and Rob on space colonization
– Nita and Patrick on CRISPR

A couple of people have said they are going to be late but will be ready soon. I would feel cruel and unforgiving if I rejected their entries, but I’m also sensitive to the unfairness of extending the deadline when some people worked really hard to have it ready now. I think what I’m going to do is reset the deadline to December 1, but penalize all late entries by -2 points in the final evaluation phase. People who have already turned theirs in may (if they want) edit and resubmit it without penalty. After December 1st, there will be no more official deadline extensions, but I might not get around to posting all of them right away, and if you send me yours before I’m done posting them all I’ll add it in with an addition -2 point penalty. I realize this is unfair to a lot of people but I’m not sure how to better balance justice and mercy. Also, if you haven’t written yours yet, can you please send it to me as plain html so it will be easy to post on the blog?

2. Ozy of Thing of Things is doing informal research on polyamory. If you’re poly, please consider filling out their survey.

3. If one of you has my Evolutionary Psychopathology book, can you please return it to me?

4. Comments of the week: Enopoletus on South Asian economic growth and DP Roberts’ story on business consulting (no opinion on the politics metaphor, I just like the story).

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New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed

Thucydides predicted that future generations would underestimate the power of Sparta. It built no great temples, left no magnificent ruins. Absent any tangible signs of the sway it once held, memories of its past importance would sound like ridiculous exaggerations.

This is how I feel about New Atheism.

If I were to describe the power of New Atheism over online discourse to a teenager, they would never believe me. Why should they? Other intellectual movements have left indelible marks in the culture; the heyday of hippiedom may be long gone, but time travelers visiting 1969 would not be surprised by the extent of Woodstock. But I imagine the same travelers visiting 2005, logging on to the Internet, and holy @#$! that’s a lot of atheism-related discourse what is going on here?

My first forays onto the Internet were online bulletin boards about computer games. They would have a lot of little forums about various aspects of the games, plus two off-topic forums. One for discussion of atheism vs. religion. And the other for everything else. This was a common structure for websites in those days. You had to do it, or the atheism vs. religion discussions would take over everything. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

In 2005, a college student made a webpage called The Church Of The Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was a joke based on the idea that there was no more scientific evidence for God or creationism than for belief in a flying spaghetti monster. The monster’s website received tens of millions of visitors, 60,000 emails (“about 95 percent” supportive), and was covered in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Daily Telegraph. Six publishing companies entered a bidding war for the rights to the spaghetti monster’s “gospel”, with the winner, Random House, offering an $80,000 advance. The book was published to massive fanfare, sold over 100,000 copies, and was translated into multiple languages. Putin’s thugs broke up a pro-Flying-Spaghetti-Monster demonstration in Russia. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

People compiled endless lists of arguments and counterarguments for or against atheism. The Talk.Origins newsgroup created a Dewey-Decimal-system-esque index of almost a thousand creationist arguments, from CA211.1 (“Karl Popper said that Darwinism is not testable”), to CD011.1 (“Variable C-14/C-12 ratio invalidates carbon dating”), through CH508 (“Chinese treasure ships show Noah’s Ark was feasible”) – and painstakingly debunked all of them; in case that wasn’t enough they linked 133 other sites doing similar work. Their arch-enemies, creationist site True.Origin, then went through and debunked all of their debunkings. Another atheist group created the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible, a version of the Bible highlighting everything bad or wrong in it. For example, if for some reason you need a hit job on the second chapter of the Book of Malachi in particular, you can look up its SAB page and find that Malachi 2:11 castigates Judah for “marrying the daughter of a strange god” (which is intolerant), Malachi 2:17 accuses the Israelites of “wearying the Lord with your words”, (which is absurd since God cannot be wearied), and Malachi 2:3 says that God will spread dung upon the faces of unbelievers (which is gross). This last entry includes a link to a 2007 YouTube video “God Wants To Smear Dung On Your Face” with 21,947 views. And the video links to a store selling Malachi-2:3-says-God-wants to-put-dung-on-your-face-related t-shirts, bumper stickers, keychains, and coffee mugs. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

Whatever media you liked, there were atheism-themed versions of it. Obviously if you liked webcomics you would never be able to finish all the different atheist options from Russell’s Teapot through Jesus & Mo through The Sheeples. If you liked TV, there were atheist TV shows like John Safran vs. God or The Atheist Experience. If you liked pithy quotes, you could read the top 10,000 atheist quotations in order of popularity. If you just liked discussion, you could go to the now-infamous r/atheism subreddit, which at the time was one of Reddit’s highest-ranked, beating topics like “news”, “humor”, and – somehow – “sex”. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

But these still don’t quite make my point, because the defining feature of this period wasn’t just that there were a lot of atheism-focused things. It was how the religious-vs-atheist conflict subtly bled into everything. Read enough old articles and blogs from this period and you’ll spot it. Some travel writer going on about how the boring small town he ended up in is probably full of fundies who hate gays and think the Earth is six thousand years old. Some logician giving an example of circular arguments: “I know the Bible is true because it says so in the Bible.” Some political writer saying a stupid policy is only to be expected in a country where X% of people still get their ethics from Bronze Age superstitions. At the time, this seemed perfectly normal.

It seemed perfectly normal because religion vs. atheism was the most important issue, maybe the only issue. How could you run a 21st century democracy with half the population believing in science and compassion, and the other half believing whatever they read in a 3000 year old book about a magic sky father? To truly understand the spirit of the time, you can’t just think of religion as evil. You have to think of it as the ur-evil, without which no other evil would exist. Homophobia? Only there because the Bible says to stone gay people. War? It’s all holy war of one sort or another, whether it’s Arabs vs. Israelis, Sunnis vs. Shias, or the Christian/Muslim “clash of civilizations”. Environmental devastation? Only there because religious people believe God elevated Adam over the animals and told him to exploit them for his own purposes. Poverty? Only because religious people believe in the prosperity gospel that says people get what they deserve.

Christopher Hitchens, 2008:

Now, I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion and organized religion. Absolutely convinced of that. And I think it should be—religion—treated with ridicule, hatred, and contempt. And I claim that right. So when I say—as the subtitle of my book—that I think religion poisons everything, I’m not just doing what publishers like and coming up with a provocative subtitle. I mean to say it infects us in our most basic integrity. It says we can’t be moral without ‘Big Brother,’ without a totalitarian permission, means we can’t be good to one another without this, we must be afraid, we must also be forced to love someone whom we fear—the essence of sadomasochism, the essence of abjection, the essence of the master-slave relationship and that knows that death is coming and can’t wait to bring it on. I say that is evil, and though I do, some nights, stay home, I enjoy more the nights when I go out and fight against this ultimate wickedness and ultimate stupidity.

Where did this come from? And where did it go?

At the time, the question of where it came from seemed to have an obvious answer. As a civilization becomes advanced enough that some people throw off the yoke of religion, they will naturally come into conflict with people who have not thrown off that yoke. This will dominate discussion since atheism vs. religion is obviously the most important issue and maybe the only issue, and last until the civilization advances enough that religion disappears.

But the past decade or so has shown that advanced civilizations are perfectly capable of containing atheists and religious people in close proximity without either side caring that much about it. So what made the turn of the millennium such an acrimonious period?

As for where it went, I asked that question last year and got various responses. The most popular was that 9/11 made religion-bashing segue into Islam-bashing, which started to look pretty racist. But 9/11 happened in 2001, The God Delusion wasn’t published until 2006, and New Atheism didn’t peak until the early 2010s. Why?

In order to answer these questions, I’ll start by presenting some data confirming the picture I paint above and trying to pinpoint exactly when the peak and the beginning of the end happened. I’ll move on to some of the intellectual subtrends in New Atheism that might explain the picture a little better. And finally, I’ll present my theory explaining the mysteries above: New Atheism was a failed hamartiology.

II.

Here is a graph of US religiosity over time:

Between the first stirrings of internet atheism in 2000 and the beginning of the end in 2015, the percent of Americans identifying as Christian dropped about 10%; the percent identifying as no religion increased about the same amount. There are many different ways of looking at the data: self-reported affiliation, church attendance, even polls on whether religion can answer all of today’s problems, but they all show the same story of slow, steady decline.

By the numbers, the decline is slight: from 80% Christian / 15% atheist in 2000 to 70% Christian / 25% atheist in 2018. This could hide wider social changes. The number of gay people has barely changed since 2000, but society’s attitude toward them has totally transformed. Likewise, although religion has barely declined, and nonbelief barely risen, Christianity no longer seems to command quite the same level of political power, nor does atheism provoke quite as much revulsion.

But the sudden fall of New Atheism didn’t feel like a process of gradual social change and eventual acceptance. It felt like a movement certain of its own victory burning out spectacularly over the course of a few short years, followed by mysterious yet near-total contempt from the very people it thought it had convinced.

Here are some graphs of atheism-related search terms on Google Trends since 2004:

And here are the traffic numbers for some atheism-related websites (source: http://rank2traffic.com/):

And it may not be Internet atheism per se, but here’s word frequency in the New York Times (source: New York Times Media Analytics):

I can’t figure out how to average the traffic numbers or the NYT frequencies, but here’s an average of all the atheism-related search terms:

I think these graphs mostly tell the same story. Unlike the continuous trend in religiosity, the atheist movement appears to be going strong throughout the 2000s, peak in 2012, and start declining shortly afterward.

But this hides a division into two different patterns. Two keywords (“creationism” and “Biblical contradictions”) and two websites (Talk Origins and Internet Infidels) are declining throughout the time period measured. Three keywords (“atheist”, “agnostic”, “freethinker”), two websites (Freethought Blogs and Atheist Revolution), and the New York Times frequencies are increasing through most of the period, peak around 2012, stay strong for a few years after that, and decline around 2016.

To get an intuitive feel for the first category, look at the two sites involved. Talk Origins is almost perfectly preserved, a time capsule from an era when people really wanted to debate creationism. Internet Infidels has decayed a bit more, but even its ruins are impressive: a database of forty videotaped atheist-vs-theist debates, an online library of uploaded works by about two hundred atheist authors, and the obligatory list of several hundred Biblical contradictions. Who does that these days?

This exercise is gradually bringing back memories of just how intellectual the Internet was around the turn of the millennium. You would go to bulletin boards, have long and acrimonious debates over whether or not the Gospels were based on pagan myths. Then someone would check Vast Apologetics Library tektonics.org and repost every one of their twenty-eight different articles about all the pagan myths the Gospels weren’t based on, from Adonis (“yet another unprofitable proposition for the copycat theorist”) to Zalmoxis (“there is no comparison, other than by illicit collapsing of terminology and by unsubstantiated speculation”). Both sides had these vast pre-built armories full of facts and arguments to go to.

At some point, in a way unrelated to the fall of New Atheism, the Internet stopped being like this. The topics that interest people today don’t get debated in the same way. People dunk on each other on Twitter, occasionally even have back-and-forth exchanges, but the average person doesn’t post long screeds and get equally long responses fisking each of their points. There’s less need for giant databases containing every fact you might need to win a particular argument, organized Dewey-Decimal-style by which argument you are trying to win. People just stopped caring.

I’m not sure why this happened. Maybe it took about ten years from the founding of the Internet for people to really internalize that online arguments didn’t change minds. The first Internet pioneers, starting their dial-up modems and running headfirst into people outside their filter bubbles, must have been so excited. For the first time in human history, people interested in debating a subject could do so 24-7 out in a joint salon-panopticon with all of the information of the human race at their fingertips. Bible Belt churchgoers for whom atheists had been an almost-fictional bogeyman, and New York atheists who thought of the religious as unsophisticated yokels, came together for the first time thinking “Convincing these people is going to be so easy”. The decade or so before they figured out that it wasn’t was a magical time, of which the great argument-arsenals of the past are almost the only remaining monument.

Or maybe it was something else. Maybe it was that getting online was actually pretty hard in those days, you needed to be technically inclined or attending a college or both, and so netizens were just more educated. Maybe the sort of people who interrupt any attempt at intellectual discussion with words like “rationalbro” or “mansplaining” or “well acktually” were still stuck in their caves, fruitlessly banging AOL CDs against rocks trying to create fire. Maybe it was something as simple as Wikipedia not existing yet, leaving the intellectual world in a sort of state of nature with every man for himself. Maybe it was just that the bulletin board format was more conducive to this than the later social media style fora.

Whatever it was, the decline of this culture started no later than 2000, and is reflected in the fate of argument-related search terms like “biblical contradictions” and “creationism”, and in the fading of the great argument-armories like Talk Origins and Infidels.

But the “atheism” search term keeps rising for another decade. What happened?

The intellectuals were succeeded by the activists. Early Internet Argument Culture disappeared and was replaced by something more familiar.

The atheists of Early Internet Argument Culture were not New Atheists. The term “New Atheism” didn’t really catch on until about 2006 when Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion; Early Internet Argument Culture was just a prelude to the main event. Post-2006 atheists were brasher and more political. They were less interested in arguing with religious people about the minutiae of carbon-dating; they were more interested in posting about how stupid carbon-dating denalists were, on their own social media feeds, read entirely by other atheists. The concept of the Internet as magical place where you could change other people’s minds had given way to the Internet as magical place where you could complain to like-minded friends about how ignorant other people were.

EIAC had been timeless, examining the medieval kalam argument and the Scopes Monkey Trial with equal detachment. New Atheism was ephemeral, obsessed with the issue of the day. This was in the mid-Bush administration, after the post-9/11 spirit of national unity had disappeared. Democrats had not yet invented the hashtag #Resistance, but they had invented the spirit. George W. Bush was portrayed as a religious fanatic, basing his every decision on what he considered to be the will of God. His supporters were evangelicals, willing to follow him into any war or disaster out of blind faith. A lot of the debate centered on faith-based charities, Bush’s push to give government funding to religiously-affiliated groups like the Salvation Army. It was assumed that they would preferentially serve Christians, leaving Jews, Muslims, and atheists without aid. Once Bush had shifted all welfare into these programs, non-Christians would die in the cold, and the government would laugh evilly. Every day brought new perspectives on this and a host of similar anti-religious activist causes.

New Atheism was also more centralized. EIAC was every man for himself; you would march forth alone into your chosen bulletin board and engage, neither seeking or receiving any help beyond precooked arguments from your local armory-site. New Atheism, for the first time, started to have celebrities. Richard Dawkins, of course, and the Four Horsemen, but also random bloggers like PZ Myers and Stephanie Zvan. These were the days when bloggers filled auditoria and travelled in high-altitude balloons. Every day they would tell you the latest reason to be outraged about religion, and every day you would discuss it on social media and comment sections and get appropriately angry.

This corresponds to the peak of Freethought Blogs on the traffic graph above, and ended around 2016. What happened to it?

I think it seamlessly merged into the modern social justice movement.

This probably comes as a surprise, seeing as how everyone else talks about how atheists are heavily affiliated with the modern anti-social justice movement. I think that’s the wrong takeaway. Sure, a lot of people who identify as atheists now are pretty critical of social justice. That’s because the only people remaining in the atheist movement are the people who didn’t participate in the mass transformation into social justice. It is no contradiction to say both “Most of the pagans you see around these days are really opposed to Christianity” and “What ever happened to all the pagans there used to be? They all became Christian.”

Somebody should make this case more exhaustively, but the highlight will no doubt be all the discussion around Atheism Plus, the brand name for a combination of “atheism plus social justice” which in a few years became entirely social justice. According to the original manifesto:

We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism…

Religion is responsible for generating and sustaining most of the racism, sexism, anti-(insert minority human subgroup here)-isms… it gave a voice to the bigotry, established the privilege, and fed these things from the pulpit for thousands upon thousands of years. What sense does it make to throw out the garbage bag of religion yet keep all the garbage that it contained? I can’t help but see social justice as a logical consequence of atheism. I’m for getting rid of all the garbage.

Within a week, it got glowing articles in the mainstream press, from New Statesman to Salon to The Guardian (consider how weird it sounds today for a post by a mid-tier atheist blog post to result in a bunch of mainstream press articles) and support from top atheist blogging celebrities . A review a week later wrote:

Last week, Jen McCreight announced that she was fed up with sexism in the atheist movement and called for a new wave of atheist activism, one explicitly concerned with social justice, which quickly acquired the name “atheism+”.

These posts landed like a cannon shell, generating a huge wave of excitement and feedback – the vast majority of which, to my surprise, was positive and enthusiastic. Clearly, they’ve tapped into a powerful vein of pro-equality sentiment in the atheist movement, crystallizing the frustrations that those of us who care about this have been feeling for the last year or two. This is an idea whose time has come, and all it needed were some excellent posts like Jen’s to kickstart it.

Famous atheist blogger PZ Myers embraced the new label and said that “atheism ought to be a progressive social movement in addition to being a scientific and philosophical position” and that:

If you don’t agree with any of that — and this is the only ‘divisive’ part — then you’re an asshole. I suggest you form your own label, “Asshole Atheists” and own it, proudly. I promise not to resent it or cry about joining it.

Richard Carrier, an academic and another of the most famous New Atheists, told atheists who objected to the rebranding that:

Atheism+ is our movement. We will not consider you a part of it, we will not work with you, we will not befriend you. We will heretofore denounce you as the irrational or immoral scum you are (if such you are). If you reject these values, then you are no longer one of us. And we will now say so, publicly and repeatedly. You are hereby disowned.

I don’t want to dwell on this too much. I don’t have a great sense of how this era went, since it was around the time I unfollowed every atheist blog and forum for the sake of my own sanity, but my impression is that some of the Atheism Plussers later admitted they came on a little too strong and dropped that particular branding. But the cleavage the incident highlighted (not created, but highlighted) stuck around. As far as I can tell, it eventually ended with the anti-social-justice atheists stomping off to YouTube or somewhere horrible like that, while most of the important celebrity members of the public-facing movement very gradually turned into social justice bloggers.

For example, I look at Pharyngula, which during its heyday was the biggest atheist blog on the Internet. On the day I am writing this, its front page contains posts like “Are They All Racists On The Right Side Of The Aisle?” (recommended answer: yes), a discussion of how opposing the Gilette commercial represents “classic toxic masculinity”, and an attack on Milo Yiannopoulos. Its sidebar includes links to “Discussion: Racism In America”, “Discussion: Through A Feminist Lens”, and “Social Justice Links Roundup”. There’s still a little bit of anti-religious content, but mostly in the context of Catholics being racist and misogynist.

Aside from Pharyngula, a lot of the old atheist blogs have ended up at atheism-blogging-mega-nexus-site The Orbit. When I read its About page, it doesn’t even describe itself as an atheist blogging site at all. It says:

The Orbit is a diverse collective of atheist and nonreligious bloggers committed to social justice, within and outside the secular community. We provide a platform for writing, discussion, activism, collaboration, and community.

It’s not “blogs on atheism” anymore. It’s “blogs by atheists about social justice”. The whole atheist movement is like this.

One post I distinctly remember, but which I can no longer find, was a rousing call for atheists to switch to social justice blogging. It said something like “Instead of rehearsing the same old tired arguments for or against the existence of God, it’s time to become part of the struggle for progress and equality.”

I wish I could find this, because the sentiment it expresses is so bizarre that I worry you won’t believe me when I say it exists. Like, yes, the arguments for and against the existence of God are old and tired. Just like, for example, the arguments for and against restrictions on abortion. But if one day all of the top pro-choice activists agreed among themselves that what the pro-choice movement was really about was stopping Brexit – and they all posted supportive messages like “We’re tired of being known as those boring busybodies who go on about fetus this and right-to-your-own-body that when millions of people could be harmed by Britain’s ill-advised and bungled exit from the European Union” – and if from that day forward NARAL and Planned Parenthood were 100% Brexit-related organizations – surely we would find it strange? Surely we would think something deeper had to be going on?

I think of this as the second part of the mystery around New Atheism’s decline: why did a successful social movement so quietly and complacently agree to turn into a totally different social movement?

III.

My solution to both these questions is: New Atheism was a failed hamartiology.

“Hamartiology” is a subfield of theology dealing with the study of sin, in particular, how sin enters the universe. Orthodox Christian hamartiology says we all have original sin because Adam and Eve ate the apple. Gnostic hamartiologies say we sin because we are ignorant of our true nature as celestial beings. Some heretical hamartiologies say that all of this is irrelevant, and we sin because we choose to.

The rise of the Internet broadened our intellectual horizons. We got access to a whole new world of people with totally different standards, norms, and ideologies opposed to our own. When the Internet was small and confined to an optimistic group of technophile intellectuals, this spawned Early Internet Argument Culture, where we tried to iron out our differences through Reason. We hoped that the new world the Web revealed to us could be managed in the same friendly way we managed differences with our crazy uncle or the next-door neighbor.

As friendly debate started feeling more and more inadequate, and as newer and less nerdy people started taking over the Internet, this dream receded. In its place, we were left with an intolerable truth: a lot of people seem really horrible, and refuse to stop being horrible even when we ask them nicely. They seem to believe awful things. They seem to act in awful ways. When we tell them the obviously correct reasons they should be more like us, they refuse to listen to them, and instead spout insane moon gibberish about how they are right and we are wrong.

I can only describe this experience from my own side of the aisle, which was the progressive side. We watched the US population elect George W Bush and act like this was a remotely reasonable thing to do. We saw people destroying the environment, leaving the poor to starve, and denying gay people their right to live as normal members of society. We saw people endorsing weird ideas and conspiracy theories, from homeopathy and creationism to the Clintons murdering their enemies. We were always vaguely aware from reading the newspapers that some of these people existed. But now we were seeing and conversing with them every day.

Not only were we noticing the trend for the first time, but the trend itself was strengthening. I could use any of a hundred images to make this case, but for today I’ll use these:

And so we asked ourselves: what the hell is wrong with these people?

And New Atheism had an answer: religion.

That was it. It was beautiful, it was simple, it was perfect. We were the “reality-based community”. They were ignoring Reason and basing all of their opinions on three thousand year old fairy-tales because people told them they would burn in Hell forever if they didn’t. There was nothing confusing or unsettling at all about the situation, and we did not need to question any of our own beliefs. It was just that some people had been brainwashed by their church/mosque/synagogue to believe transparently wrong things, so they did. Sin began with the apple tree in Eden; conservatism began with the Bible in Jerusalem. Language separates us from the apes; not being blinded by religion separates us from the Republicans.

This was a socially momentous proposal. The Democratic Party is centuries old, but the Blue Tribe – the Democratic Party as a social phenomenon with strong demographic and ideological implications – can be said to have started in 2004.

As it took its first baby steps, the Blue Tribe started asking itself “Who am I? What defines me?”, trying to figure out how it conceived of itself. New Atheism had an answer – “You are the people who aren’t blinded by fundamentalism” – and for a while the tribe toyed with accepting it. During the Bush administration, with all its struggles over Radical Islam and Intelligent Design and Faith-Based Charity, this seemed like it might be a reasonable answer. The atheist movement and the network of journalists/academics/pundits/operatives who made up the tribe’s core started drifting closer together.

Gradually the Blue Tribe got a little bit more self-awareness and realized this was not a great idea. Their coalition contained too many Catholic Latinos, too many Muslim Arabs, too many Baptist African-Americans. Remember that in 2008, “what if all the Hispanic people end up going Republican?” was considered a major and plausible concern. It became somewhat less amenable to New Atheism’s answer to its identity question – but absent a better one, the New Atheists continued to wield some social power.

Betweem 2008 and 2016, two things happened. First, Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush as president. Second, Ferguson. The Blue Tribe kept posing its same identity question: “Who am I? What defines me?”, and now Black Lives Matter gave them an answer they liked better “You are the people who aren’t blinded by sexism and racism.”

Again, it was beautiful, simple, and perfect. We were “the reality-based community”. They were ignoring Reason and basing all of their opinions on blind hatred and prejudice. There was nothing confusing or unsettling at all about the situation, and we did not need to question any of our own beliefs. It was just that some people had been brainwashed by white supremacy and an all-consuming desire to protect their own privilege, and so they did. Sin began with the apple tree in Eden; conservativism began with the cotton plant in Jamestown. Language separates us from the apes; not being blinded by bigotry separates us from the Republicans.

Since I started writing this essay, I’ve noticed a surprising number of people just saying this outright. If you go to any thread on r/politics about Trump (aka any thread on r/politics), you’ll see people saying things like this:

[Trump voters] know they are being lied to, well most of them do, but look at the increase of hatred in America. THAT is what they are voting on. Hatred. Ironically, the Republicans are a large reason why their lives are so shitty and full of hatred, but hatred nonetheless. I guarantee you, you debate any of these people long enough. You back them into a corner. They say the same thing. “We are winning. We won the election. Racism is good. Hatred is good. Cheating on elections is good as long as it’s my side.” Because that is what happens when one side is the Republicans and the other side is baby murdering, child raping and trafficking and harvesting drugs from their brain, brown and black people loving devil worshippers. Go on you know what sub. Read their posts. They will say, “I was driving by a school bus stop, none of them were white.” This makes them so angry. To them, Russia [is better than] Democrats. At least Russia is white.

Google Trends shows traffic for atheism-related terms starting to decline around 2012, and really plummeting around 2015. How were other terms doing around that time?

Not enough for you? We can go deeper:

Most movement atheists weren’t in it for the religion. They were in it for the hamartiology. Once they got the message that the culture-at-large had settled on a different, better hamartiology, there was no psychological impediment to switching over. We woke up one morning and the atheist bloggers had all quietly became social justice bloggers. Nothing else had changed because nothing else had to; the underlying itch being scratched was the same. They just had to CTRL+F and replace a couple of keywords.

Eventually, things came full circle. I started this essay with a memory of noticing that my favorite early-2000s-era website had two off-topic forums: one for religion vs. atheism, and one for everything else. Earlier this year, SSC’s subreddit split in two: one for “culture war” discussions mostly about race and gender, the other for everything else.

Where do we go from here? I’m not sure. The socialist wing of the Democratic Party seems to be working off a model kind of like this, but hoping to change the hamartiology from race/gender to class. Maybe they’ll succeed, and one day talking too much about racism will seem as out-of-touch as talking too much about atheism does now; maybe the rise of terms like “woke capitalism” is already part of this process.

I’ve lost the exact quote, but a famous historian once said that we learn history to keep us from taking the present too seriously. This isn’t to say the problems of the present aren’t serious. Just that history helps us avoid getting too dazzled by current trends, or too swept away by any particular narrative.

If this is true, we might do well to study the history of New Atheism a little more seriously.

Financial Incentives Are Weaker Than Social Incentives But Very Important Anyway

NYT: Economic Incentives Don’t Always Do What We Want Them To (h/t MR). For the first time in history, the title actually understates the article, which argues that incentives can be surprisingly useless:

Economists have somehow managed to hide in plain sight an enormously consequential finding from their research: Financial incentives are nowhere near as powerful as they are usually assumed to be.

The article starts with some surprising facts. Increased taxes on the rich don’t make rich people work much less. Salary caps on athletes don’t decrease athletic performance. Increased welfare doesn’t make poor people work less. Decreased job opportunities in one area rarely cause people to move elsewhere.

Then it presents a neat chart showing that most people believe others would respond to an incentive, but deny responding to that incentive themselves. For example, 60% of people say a Medicaid program with no work requirement would prevent many people from seeking work, but only 10% of people say they themselves would stop seeking work with such a program.

…but keep in mind an alternate interpretation would be “desirability bias makes people deny they would work less and evade taxes”

All this suggests that:

If it is not financial incentives, what else might people care about? The answer is something we know in our guts: status, dignity, social connections. Chief executives and top athletes are driven by the desire to win and be the best. The poor will walk away from social benefits if they come with being treated like a criminal. And among the middle class, the fear of losing their sense of who they are and their status in the local community can be an extraordinarily paralyzing force.

They conclude that this argues in favor of policies like raising taxes on the rich and removing all requirements from welfare programs.

The authors are Nobel Prize winning economists, so I assume they’re basically right. And I’m not up to doing a complicated literature review to compare all the cases where economic incentives do work to the cases where they don’t and develop a well-informed understanding of the subtleties in their position. So instead, a few low-effort thoughts.

First, it matters less whether the average person responds to economic incentives, and more whether the marginal person will. If I need someone to cover the graveyard shift at work, nobody will do it for normal pay, and I offer double pay, all I need is for one employee to be incentive-sensitive enough to take me up on it. Maybe most people wouldn’t accept any amount of money to become an oil rig worker, a McKinsey consultant, or a camgirl, but ExxonMobil/McKinsey/MyFreeCams.com only need just enough qualified people to accept whatever deal they’re offering.

Likewise, perhaps if I had no alarm system protecting my house, 99.999% of people still wouldn’t rob me. But 99.999% of people not robbing you is still known as “getting robbed”.

So “most people don’t respond to most economic incentives” is totally compatible with “economic incentives rule the world and control everything around us.”

Second, grant that most people care primarily about “status, dignity, [and] social connections”. A lot of how that works out in real life is “doing the socially acceptable thing”. Even if incentives are weak in the short term, they can be very strong in the long term after they have time to act on what is or isn’t socially acceptable.

It’s all nice and good to say “most people wouldn’t steal even in the absence of punishment”. But what about music piracy? Nobody had any way to enforce rules against pirating music. Maybe only a few people pirated at first. But then more and more people did it, and eventually the unwritten rule among teenagers became that music piracy was okay – in fact, that you were weird if you didn’t do it. On the other hand, stealing a CD from a record store still feels horrifying and criminal and inconceivable. Although there are subtle differences between the two cases (it costs nonzero money to make a physical CD) I still think a lot of this is social norms that formed downstream of enforcement-related incentives.

Or: most people would never cheat on welfare. But there are Alabama counties where over 25% of the population are on disability, an increase of 50% from just fifteen years earlier. I don’t want to accuse any of them of cheating, per se, and see here for a more in-depth analysis. But I think it’s easy to normalize taking disability for lesser and lesser afflictions, and that part of the normalization process involves an economic incentive to do it and a lack of incentive not to.

Or: in Sierra Leone, 84% of people say they have paid bribes; in Japan, 1% have. So do “people” care about financial incentives or not? Grant that “status, dignity, [and] social connections” are more important, and that this is what prevents bribery in Japan. But once these factors permit bribery, it becomes rampant. And are these factors themselves maintained partly by incentives, eg punishments upon being caught? I’m not sure.

Third, remember that principles are usually downstream of politics. So one fun game is to take a principle usually used on one side of the political spectrum, then apply it in support of the opposite side and see if you still hold it.

So. We know there’s no reason not to raise taxes, since rich people don’t respond to financial incentives. But there’s also no reason to close tax loopholes – rich people defrauding the government of money through tax evasion is surely as unthinkable as poor people defrauding the government through welfare scams. And there’s no reason to question the bonuses of Wall Street traders, since it’s not like anything as crass as a financial incentive would cause them to make risky trades.

Did pharmaceutical companies incentivize opioid overuse through paying doctors to overprescribe? Doesn’t matter, doctors would never let financial incentives affect their prescribing decisions. Are senators cozying up to companies that will give them lucrative sinecures later in a “revolving-door” system of legal bribery? No, because incentives aren’t powerful enough to make senators abandon their dignity. Are billionaires destroying the environment just to make a buck? No, the financial incentives to do so wouldn’t outweigh the cost in status and social connections.

None of this snark disproves the real empirical research the authors use to show that rich people’s taxes, poor people’s welfare use, and economic mobility are not very incentive-sensitive. But I hope they prevent people from generalizing to a general sense that financial incentives don’t matter, or turning this into a purely partisan issue where anyone who believes in financial incentives at all gets accused of “dog whistling” conservativism.

Fourth, and most important, the more we’re ruled by social incentives, the more importance financial incentives take on as a counterweight. Quoting my favorite part of the article again:

If it is not financial incentives, what else might people care about? The answer is something we know in our guts: status, dignity, social connections. Chief executives and top athletes are driven by the desire to win and be the best. The poor will walk away from social benefits if they come with being treated like a criminal. And among the middle class, the fear of losing their sense of who they are and their status in the local community can be an extraordinarily paralyzing force.

I think this is profoundly true, so true that it’s almost impossible to appreciate enough. The article frames it positively – we care about community more than money, how heartwarming. But I find it disquieting – it could equally be framed “We care more about fitting in and not seeming weird than about anything else in the world”. 99% of world-changing ideas are stillborn when their would-be-inventor worries they might sound weird for proposing them. 99% of great companies don’t get off the ground because their would-be-founder worries about what other people would think. The most important ideas for changing government and society sit on the lunatic fringe, because everyone worries that supporting such ideas might keep them out of the Inner Ring.

Paradoxically, I think this argues in favor of financial incentives. The beauty of financial incentives is that they provide a counterbalance to status incentives. The counterbalance is weak, inconsistent, blink-and-you-miss-it, but it is real. If all the cool people say “we do it this way”, 99% of people will do it that way to fit in, but there will be one person who does it the much better way that lets them outcompete everyone else and make $10 billion. And having $10 billion brings “status, dignity, [and] social connections” of its own. Even if only a tiny number of people are sensitive to money, it’s enough to create a core who occasionally try making things better even when that’s not cool.

One corollary of this is that when you remove financial incentives, you don’t get everyone acting ethically for the good of all. You just get status incentives with no counterbalance. I can think of few things scarier.

Highlights From The Comments On PNSE

(original post)

Alex M writes:

I think one of the main problems with the current state of rationalism (and many other fake “sciences” such as economics or sociology) is fuzzy thinking and lack of falsifiable empirical testing. So somebody claims to be “enlightened.” Does a smart person take that at face value? Of course not. Once you just start believing random shit, you’re no better than a superstitious primitive cargo-cult. You have to TEST all claims. For example, I don’t just take it at face value that economics is a real science just because a bunch of IYIs tell me so. I analyze economist predictions, see that their track record of successful predictions is atrocious, and then make the totally RATIONAL choice to discard my priors and treats economics as the laughable hocus-pocus that it is – because when you genuinely have an accurate view of reality, it doesn’t collapse under scrutiny. We should treat mystical claims exactly the same way. So somebody claims to be enlightened? Fine. How can they substantiate it? Can they do things that unenlightened people can’t, like clairvoyance, predicting the future, or sending messages through the collective subconscious in order to significantly impact world events? Do you see what I’m saying? Enlightenment should have some objectively quantifiable impact beyond just having a different internal narrative that is completely subjective and unprovable.

This total lack of skepticism that people have is endlessly frustrating to me, because it results in bad data and popular narratives that are completely incorrect, if not outright delusional. In my opinion, the reason we have entire pseudo-scientific fields (like sociology or economics) that are nothing more than fake science cargo cults is because of this credulous behavior that results in people just believing whatever an “expert” with a fancy degree says. The fact that we have a replication crisis is a result of this gullible tendency to accept claims at face value. We are slowly learning to fix science by being more skeptical of expert claims, but we have to apply these same standards of falsifiability to spirituality as well, otherwise we are simply shifting our cult-like behavior from the field of science to the field of religion.

Imagine a doctor told you that repeated trauma can cause a long-lasting state of dysphoric depersonalization. In fact, you don’t need to imagine it – I am telling you now that repeated trauma can cause a long-lasting state of dysphoric depersonalization. How much effort should you put any effort into doubting this? If I say that my evidence is I know a few patients with trauma histories who say they’ve had long-lasting states of dysphoric depersonalization, and that most other doctors I talk to also know some patients, and a couple of small studies have been done on this and say the same thing, are you especially interested in doubting it?

Now imagine a doctor tells you that repeated meditation can cause a long-lasting state of euphoric depersonalization. Should our prior on this be any lower than the last statement? Should we reject the experience of thousands of people and dozens of studies because it’s just too far out there? Should we say that no rationalist should ever believe such a thing?

I don’t think the minimalist account of enlightenment takes us quite as minimal as “a long-lasting state of euphoric depersonalization”. But it takes us pretty close. And the evidence includes thousands of otherwise-trustworthy people who say they’ve had the experience, including some people I know personally and trust quite a bit, and who radically change their behavior afterwards (even if that change is just being impressed by the experience they devote the rest of their lives to exploring it). These are accompanied by many other people who haven’t gotten that far but report surprising and related-sounding experiences from the small amount of meditation they’ve done. And all of this is supported by brain scan results. And all of this meshes well with the evidence from philosophers like Dennett and Parfit that the “self” is a construct created by the brain rather than an objective reality, which itself meshes well with evidence that groups like schizophrenics and drug users can have disturbed senses of self or misplaced self/other boundaries.

This is really as much evidence as we have for any kind of mental state we haven’t experienced personally, and I’m pretty okay with it.

Bugmaster asks:

If 50 people told you they were abducted by aliens, does it mean that there are aliens abducting people?

No. I also wouldn’t believe 50 people who said they had seen Bigfoot, or created perpetual motion machines. I would believe 50 people who said McDonalds had a new dessert on the menu, or that Biden was up in the polls today, or that they had the flu (assuming I hadn’t investigated these issues myself).

As Bayesians, we compute our belief by combining evidence with priors. Our evidence in all these cases is “fifty people believe something”. Our priors are either very low (in the first three examples) or reasonably high (in the last three).

As I mentioned above, my prior that there are euphoric depersonalized states of consciousness is pretty high, given that I know there are dysphoric depersonalized states of consciousness. It’s certainly not low enough that when thousands of people swear they have it, and most of the neuroscientists who look into it end up pretty convinced that it’s real, I’m going to say “Haha, no, you’re all lying”. For thousands of not-really-enlightened people to all falsely claim to be enlightened, describe enlightenment in similar ways, and go around teaching students who themselves later claim to be enlightened, all without giving up the game – sounds like an absurd conspiracy theory.

If I try to steelman the anti-enlightenment argument, the best I can do is to imagine a sort of placebo enlightenment, where if you get told by your culture that you can feel inner peace and selflessness by doing X, eventually you feel (something that can be mistaken for) inner peace and selflessness.

But if we’re going to worry about this, why don’t we believe that LSD only causes placebo hallucinations? Maybe drug culture talks up LSD hallucinations so much that users say they’ve seen them to fit in. Why don’t we believe chronic pain conditions are only placebo pain? Why don’t we worry that “runners high” and “endorphin rushes” are just stories runners tell to feel better for themselves after torturing their bodies over long marathons?

Part of the answer must surely be “because there’s no philosophical difference between pain and a ‘placebo pain’ which presents the same subjective experience as pain, given that pain is a subjective experience”. The other part will depend on our priors about how often people have unusual experiences vs. how often people make things up. My prior is that people have really unusual experiences all the time, and that they make things up much less than doctors like to think. My OCD sometimes presents as a burning need to touch a random piece of furniture far away, felt through a sensory modality I cannot describe to anyone without the condition; my standing to accuse other people of making their unusual experiences up is pretty much nil.

I worry that all of this is being contaminated by associations with the word “enlightenment”, where it represents something like “becoming a superhuman surrounded by glowy rays of light”. If you just say “euphoric depersonalization experience” (or, like Martin, “persistant non-symbolic experience”), it doesn’t seem to have as much cause for skepticism. I imagine people doubted the existence of Komodo dragons for a while based on generally-accurate anti-dragon priors, but if you just think of them as “big lizards” then the problem disappears.

Seppo has a more interesting anti-enlightenment steelman than my poor attempt:

The most interesting enlightenment-skeptical thing I’ve ever heard is this interview (“Meditation: Deconstructing Nonsense” with Bill Joslin; h/t peach jam on David Chapman’s blog).

To summarize (from somewhat hazy memory, sorry):

Joslin did various Buddhist and Taoist practices and had… some kind of weird experience and/or insight. I’m reluctant to throw the word “enlightenment” around since it’s defined in too many ways, but Joslin explains what his thing was in a good amount of detail. He also gives a lucid account of several different kinds of meditation practices that people do and why each of them would lead to something freaky happening to the self/other boundary.

Afterwards, he started teaching meditation, probably without an official licence. (At least, he doesn’t mention having one; even ex-Buddhists who have such certifications will normally say so and name the person who gave it to them, if the topic ever comes up.)

After having some doubts about the whole thing, he spent some time trying to talk about his Insights into the Nature of the Mind and/or Reality with ordinary Americans who had never been interested in Buddhism or meditation or the like⁠—and a lot of them told him something like, “Oh, sure, I know all about that. I was walking in the woods one day and sorta… noticed?”

Now he thinks that (1) whatever valid insights come with wild experiences like his are things that random people stumble into all the time without making a big fuss about it, and (2) the main function of mystical/meditation traditions is to get those insights to come at you in the form of unnecessarily dramatic experiences that they can then take credit for.

Remember, on the last SSC survey, 6% of respondents said they were enlightened. Sure, 4% of that is Lizardman’s Constant. What about the other 2%? Maybe some could be the walking-in-the-woods-one-day people Joslin talks about?

Skaladom writes:

Since we’re using Buddhist terminology, it might be worth pointing out that in Buddhism only those at the far end of the spectrum would be called enlightened. What the paper calls Stage 1, in particular, sounds pretty close to what Theravada Buddhism calls stream entry, which is recognized as an important step to enlightenment. A more generic term used by spiritual seekers to encompass all these levels is “realized”.

I think this is a good amendment to the above points. Maybe “enlightenment” really should be restricted to superhumans surrounded by glowy rays of light. One thing that many descriptions of spiritual experiences share is a warning that the first rungs on the enlightenment ladder, the entry-level forms of enlightenment, are so inconceivably world-shattering that the people who attain them will think they’ve reached the ultimate possible state of being unless they have really strong reasons to think otherwise. Maybe random people walking in the forest and 6% of SSC readers have had early-stage awakening experiences, but there are also states beyond that.

Aella writes:

Ok I’m about to do gossip: I know a highly experienced mediator, someone who’s worked with/around Jeffrey and I asked him about what he thought about the PSNE paper (which I liked a lot, particularly because I strongly related to having experienced the last location). He said that he thought Jeffrey was more interested in developing a good narrative (he makes a lot of money off this stuff) than actually trying to figure out patterns, and that the data is cherrypicked, and that he doesn’t really trust anything Jeffrey puts out.

Of course take this with a grain of salt, is heresay, but I trust the meditator enough that now I personally feel wary of the PNSE paper as well.

Also I’m really intrigued by the infighting that goes on in meditation communities, particularly around claims to enlightenment. I’ve talked at least one somewhat famous meditation teacher that is extremely sure another somewhat famous meditation teacher is definitely not enlightened. The lack of agreement in this area is so goddamn juicy and I really want to dig into it.

Cuke writes:

Student of Buddhism for past 35 years. I don’t claim enlightenment for sure, but I have some lived experience with this terrain — repeated glimpses let’s say, on and off the cushion.

The thing that makes me most skeptical about these reported findings is the discussion around stress and loved ones’ perceptions of the person.

As one goes down this path, the person experiences significantly less emotional reactivity. That means both that they will experience less stress in response to things that used to stress them more and they will move more flexibly/kindly through the world than they previously did. Loved ones will notice this, without question. The person themselves will experience fewer days of tight chest anxiety, hot-faced anger, tension headaches, chronic muscle tension, insomnia due to worry, fear of death, conflict with others, etc.

You can’t really compare one person to another that way because we all start at different places, but within a person, it seems dubious to me that a person could claim to be moving along the road to enlightenment and still be manifesting the same level of stress response and emotional reactivity as they did before. This to me is a contradiction of what it means to hold one’s experience more lightly, to cling less to ego, to be less identified with the self, to feel less attached to desire and aversion, and so on.

In my experience, the path is not reversible beyond a certain point. And there’s good reason for that — the awareness gained in meditation, or indeed however the insight comes — permanently changes one’s outlook about oneself and the nature of reality. You can’t un-see it. Part of what that means too is that the awareness/tools/insights gained in meditation cannot be isolated to the cushion — they change fundamentally how you experience and move through your daily life, how you respond to stressors and to other people.

Anyway, that’s been my experience and what I’ve witnessed in others. For all of us somewhere on the road but short of enlightenment, it doesn’t mean the end of stress, the end of pettiness, the end of ego, the end of clinging. But you definitely definitely would expect to see change along those dimensions in a way that would be noticeable to other people.

What comes through Scott’s review here is a particular focus on the experience of loss of self. Our language is imprecise in this arena. It’s possible to experience “loss of self” in the midst of sex or trance or on LSD or in the woods or after long hours of devotional chanting or certain breath practices. It’s possible to have moments of experiencing “loss of agency” in a way that feels very relieving. I don’t think this should be confused with “enlightenment.”

The path towards enlightenment is about “waking up” from cycles of attachment and aversion that we live in. I think it’s possible to have all kinds of transcendent experiences of “oneness” without making much progress on the waking up from attachment part. Those fleeting transcendent experiences may come and go in any person’s life. Waking up entails new levels of self-awareness that are not reversible (I can’t speak to the impact of dementia or brain injury) and that lead to deeper levels of compassion towards all beings.

I’m not familiar with what enlightenment means outside of Buddhist traditions, so part of the imprecision may be that people studying enlightenment experiences need to be clearer about how the definition varies from one tradition to another. I think it’s possible in the effort to study some phenomenon across traditions, that researchers are settling on a least common denominator that no longer resembles “enlightenment” as it’s understood within any one tradition…

For me personally, [gaining new levels of self-awareness] is like discovering a new room in my house. I may not always be able to go in and see the view from that room, but now that I know it’s there, I know that that view exists. Before that, I didn’t know that the room or the view existed. And now mostly, I know how to get back into that room and see the view. From that view, the things that used to cause me habitual suffering, no longer do. So even on days that I can’t get into the room, the things that used to cause me habitual suffering, don’t cause quite as much suffering.

[As for changes of outlook about the nature of reality] — I don’t have a short way to answer this question. I can tell you it’s not mainly a cognitive/philosophical shift, but it includes it. It’s a more visceral shift in terms of how I hold my moment-to-moment lived experience and how I view myself moving through it. All of it does indeed seem to be tied to what is described as the four noble truths — ie, that attachment causes suffering, that it’s possible to get freer from attachment, and that practicing that does free one up from suffering.

This is what I mean when I talk about the sheer number of testimonials. It’s not just some guy in Tibet trying to sell you a book. Whenever I talk about it, there are smart, normal-seeming people who pipe up and say they have “some experience with the terrain”. I think if you’re going to doubt all these people, you need some theory of what’s going on, something more explanatory than just “we’re rationalists so we don’t believe any of this stuff”.

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Indian Economic Reform: Much More Than You Wanted To Know

From a recent Charter Cities Institute report:

From India’s independence from the British Raj in 1947 to the early 1990s, the country’s economic policy was largely socialist. In the 1980s some early steps were taken to open the Indian economy to increased trade, reduce controls over industry, and set a more realistic exchange rate. In 1991, more widespread economic reforms were introduced. These reforms included the end of government monopolies over certain sectors of the economy, reductions in barriers to entry for new firms, increased foreign investment was allowed, and tariffs and other barriers to trade were reduced or eliminated. After liberalization, exports increased substantially, and various service sector industries saw significant growth.

India’s growth has not just been good for the more educated segment of the population. Datt, Ravallion, and Murgai (2016) argue that India has made substantial progress in reducing the incidence of absolute poverty, and that this trend exists in both urban and rural areas. Historically higher rates of rural poverty have been converging with urban rates of poverty, and the overall poverty rate has been declining at an accelerating rate in the post-1991 reform era. In the 1970s over 60 percent of Indians were living in extreme poverty. As of 2011, only 20 percent of the population lived in extreme poverty. Between 2005 and 2016, an estimated 271 million Indians rose out of multidimensional poverty, which accounts for various health, education, and living standard indicators rather than just income (UNDP and OPHI 2018). Infant mortality has fallen from 161.4 deaths per 1,000 births in 1960 to just 32 deaths per 1,000 births in 2017, and India should soon converge with the world average if the current trend continues. Life expectancy has also improved dramatically, rising from 41 years in 1960 to nearly 69 years today. Like with infant mortality, India is close to converging with the world average in life expectancy. Literacy has improved from just 41 percent in 1981 to 72 percent in 2015, an increase of 75 percent. Here too, India is converging with the world average. Female literacy in particular rose from just 25 percent in 1981 to nearly 60 percent in 2011, and female primary school enrollment has increased from 65 percent in 1990 to over 98 percent today. Across the board of development measures, India has made tremendous strides.

Reading this surprised me. I was vaguely aware that India had done relatively well, but I didn’t grasp the scale. This should be up there with the rise of China as one of the most important (and most encouraging) news stories of my lifetime. And if it was really due to the 1991 reforms, they should go down alongside Deng Xiaoping’s liberalization of China as one of the century’s great achievements.

Looking into it further, the progress against poverty is on firm ground, but the attribution to the 1991 reforms is controversial. Here’s India’s rate of GDP growth over time:

And here’s its poverty rate over time:

Neither looks like much happened in 1991. Both show, if anything, gradual progress from around 1980. Kotwal, Ramaswami and Wadhwa have an especially clear presentation of this:

For their claim about 1991, CCI cites Indian-American economist Arvind Panagariya’s 2004 paper. Panagariya is aware that the graphs don’t back him up, and cites other economists like Brad DeLong and Dani Rodrik making approximately this point. But he argues that liberalization deserves credit for India’s growth anyway, on two grounds. First, he says that there was “stealth reform” in the mid-1980s, when reformers opened the economy without publicizing what they were doing in order to avoid a crackdown from angry leftists. These were complete by 1987, leading to a boom from 1987 – 1991. Second, this growth was unsustainable, and ended in a 1991 crash. Only after the major 1991 reforms did India enter a sustained period of economic growth.

But Panagariya’s panegyric is founded on the growth starting in 1987; the graphs don’t support that story either. He can only note that:

It is difficult to pinpoint the timing of the upward shift in India’s growth rate. Thus, in a recent attempt to pinpoint structural breaks in the growth series, Wallack (2003) is able to achieve at best partial success. She finds that with a 90 percent probability the shift in the growth rate of GDP took place between 1973 and 1987. The associated point estimate of the shift, statistically significant at 10 percent level, is 1980. When Wallack replaces GDP by gross national product (GNP), however, the cutoff point with 90 percent probability shifts to the years between 1980 and 1994. The associated point estimate, statistically significant at 10 percent level, now turns out to be 1987.

In other words, statistics is hard, and random upward swings can segue into real changes in trend in hard-to-analyze ways. It’s impossible to say for sure from the GDP numbers that there wasn’t a (random) boom in 1980 that gradually merged with the (real) boom starting in 1987. This works with the GDP numbers, but I find it basically impossible to square with the graph on poverty (which is from 2016 and which Panagariya didn’t have access to).

CCI also cites Datt, Ravillion, and Murgal (paper, article), which claims that “economic reforms following the macroeconomic crisis of 1991-92 marked a significant change in India’s economic landscape, ushering in a new phase of high economic growth. The growth rate of NDP per capita more than doubled in the period since 1992.” But on closer inspection, they are just comparing an average for the period 1957 – 1991 with an average for the period 1992 – 2012, and finding the latter average is higher. They make no effort to establish that the break point is actually in 1991. Since people had been complaining about this for about ten years before the publication of their paper, I’m not sure what their excuse is, other than that they’re mostly making an unrelated point about poverty and this is not super relevant.

More recent work seems to agree that there is something fishy here. Agarwal and Whalley (2013) concludes that:

We do not find persuasive the contention of manyanalysts that growth accelerated after the mid-1980s when reforms were initiated. Nor does statisticalanalysis support the contention that reforms in the mid-1980s resulted in a growth acceleration. Weshow that there is an accelerating rate of growth of GDP after the mid 1970s and it is difficult to relate this gradual acceleration to specific policy changes. The changed policies in the 1980s did not meana basic change in the policy framework. Furthermore, since corporate investment as a share of GDP did not increase in the 1980s it is difficult to identify the mechanism by which the more pro-business policies of the government were translated to higher growth.

And Kotwal, Ramaswami, and Wadhwa (2016) says basically the same:

Formal econometric tests also indicate a structural break around 1980. Using an F-test, Wallack (2003) finds the highest value of the F-statistic in 1980. Rodrik and Subramanian (2004) use a procedure of Bai and Perron(1998, 2003) and they report a single structural break in 1979. Balakrishnan and Parameswaran (2007) also used the Bai and Perron procedure and they too locate a single structural break in GDP in 1978-79. The authors also estimate structural breaks for sectoral GDP. Their principal finding is that structural break in agricultural output occurs in the mid-1960s while it occurs in the early to mid-1970s for various sub-sectors of services. On the other hand, the first positive structural break in manufacturing occurs after the GDP break in 1982-83.

Basu (2008) and Sen (2007), however, point out that GDP fell by 5.2% in 1979-80 (due to a combination of a drought and the second oil price shock). If this outlier is disregarded, then the trend break occurs in 1975-76. The average annual growth rate during the period 1975-78 is 5.8% – a rate more in line with the post-1980 experience than with the earlier period.

Is the timing of the structural break important? The discussion in the literature about the structural break takes place in the belief that it could offer clues about what policies led to the shift in the economy’s growth rate. Such inference is problematic because statistical methods alone are unlikely to provide a precise timing. Judgments about outliers, the period of analysis, and the sectors that are considered, matter. An additional complication is that policy measures do not have instantaneous results. The delay would be especially pronounced if the benefits flow from a structural change. It is therefore unwise to correlate the changes in economic variables to the policy changes that immediately preceded them. These caveats notwithstanding, the economy does seem to have moved to a higher growth trajectory sometime in the mid to late 1970s or early 1980s, well before the economic reforms of 1991.

So what did cause the Indian economic boom, save 200 million people from poverty, and accomplish an almost unmatched victory over misery and mortality? After discussing a series of possibilities, Kotwal, Ramaswami, and Wadhwa…admit that they are confused:

Although it is clear that GDP growth rates increased sometime in the ‘70s or early ‘80s, the precise timing is hard to establish and depends on one’s prior. Various explanations have been proposed and it is impossible to be sure which of these is the most important one. The economic orthodoxy would favor one that credits trade liberalization, limited as it was, that decreased the cost of capital equipment but it is hard to disentangle the effects of this from more heterodox factors such as public investment and rise in savings rate (due to bank nationalization), the diffusion of agricultural technology (entirely due to public research and dissemination) or indeed to rule out the role of political attitudes towards business. It is also indisputable that there was an unsustainable fiscal expansion through 1980’s and any income growth resulting from it should be considered qualitatively different from the much more sustainable growth that occurred in the next decade.

Of the various papers they cite, the one I find most interesting is Rodrik and Subramanian (2004). After a while describing the problem, they look at it from a different angle: which Indian states boomed first? They find it was the states most closely allied with the ruling Congress Party, and tell a story where floundering Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided she needed support from Big Business and adopted a pro-Big-Business attitude. They do excellent work establishing the plausibility of every link in the chain of assumptions here except the one where they admit that this attitude wasn’t reflected in any pro-business policies until the late 1980s at the earliest. Somehow Gandhi’s pro-Big-Business attitude is supposed to have helped business without being reflected in any major economic reforms. Maybe it changed the way existing laws were enforced? Maybe it signalled to businesses that they should get started on long-term strategies because they could expect favorable laws in the future? Or maybe Prime Minister Gandhi just sort of sat in New Delhi, telepathically willing Big Business to succeed, and it worked? Rodrik and Subramanian are kind of agnostic about this. Everything else seems to fit pretty well, though. This might be a good time to reread Does Reality Drive Straight Lines On Graphs, Or Do Straight Lines On Graphs Drive Reality?

This is also a good time to reread The History Of The Fabian Society, because the problem might be their fault to begin with. In the waning days of the British Empire, bright young leaders from all over the developing world (including India’s Jawaharlal Nehru) came to study at Oxford and Cambridge, got inducted into Fabian socialism, went home to their newly independent countries, and pursued socialist policies. All those countries did terribly and became the Third World basketcases of today. Only over the last few decades is the damage starting to be reversed.

If we had a better understanding of what exactly happened and how it was reversed, it could be an important source of information for developing countries in the future. Also, and more selfishly, it would be an important source of information for the US. Historically-informed anti-socialism arguments have tended to hinge on things like socialist China killing 60 million people, or socialist Russia killing 15 million people, or socialist Cambodia killing 1.5 million people, or [insert other socialist regimes killing 6-7 digit numbers of people]. But nobody thinks that Bernie Sanders plans to kill a six to seven digit number of people. To respond to Bernie-Sanders-style-socialism, we need to study and raise awareness of the history of democratic, comparatively “nice” countries that did nothing worse than overregulate business a bit – and investigate whether even these best-case scenarios still doomed millions of people to live in poverty. My (biased) guess is that careful study will show this to be true. But I don’t think this study has been done, I don’t think the facts are in yet, and I don’t think it was appropriate for the Charter Cities Institute to cite Panagariya’s argument on this point without any challenges or caveats.

The PNSE Paper

I’ve mentioned this a few times, but it’s worth going over in detail. The full title is Clusters Of Individual Experiences Form A Continuum Of Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences In Adults by Jeffery Martin, with “persistent non-symbolic experience” (PNSE) as a scientific-sounding culturally-neutral code word for “enlightenment”. Martin is a Reiki practitioner associated with the “Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness”, so we’re not getting this from the most sober of skeptics, but I still find the project interesting enough to deserve a look.

Martin searched various religious and spiritual groups for people who both self-reported enlightenment and were affiliated with “a community that provided validity to their claims”. He says he eventually found 1200 such people who were willing to participate in the study, but that “the data reported here comes primarily from the first 50 participants who sat for in-depth interviews…based on the overall research effort these 50 were felt to be a sufficient sample to represent what has been learned from the larger population”. Although Martin says he tried to get as much diversity as possible, the group was mostly white male Americans.

Martin’s research was mostly qualitative, based on in-depth interviews, so we’re mostly going with his impressions. But his impression was that most people who self-described as enlightened had similar experiences, which could be be plotted on:

…a continuum that seemed to progress from ‘normal’ waking consciousness toward a distant location where participants reported no individualized sense of self, no self-related thoughts, no emotion, and no apparent sense of agency or ability to make a choice. Locations prior to this seemed to involve consistent changes toward this direction.

He describes this distant form of consciousness as involving changes in sense-of-self, cognition, emotion, memory, and perception.

Starting with sense-of-self, he says:

Perhaps the most universal change in what PNSE participants reported related to their sense of self. They experienced a fundamental change from a highly individualized sense of self, which is common among the ‘normal’ population, to something else. How that ‘something else’ was reported often related to their religious or spiritual tradition(s), or lack thereof. For example, Buddhists often referred to a sense of spaciousness while Christians frequently spoke of experiencing a union with God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit depending on their sect. However, each experienced a transformation into a sense of self that seemed ‘larger’ and less individuated than the one that was experienced previously. Often participants talked about feeling that they extended beyond their body, sometimes very far beyond it…

This change was dramatic and most participants noticed it immediately, even if initially they could not pinpoint exactly what had occurred. Sense of self changed immediately in approximately 70% of participants. In the other 30% it unfolded gradually, with the unfolding period reported as varying from a few days to four months.

Those who were not involved in a religious or spiritual tradition that contextualized the experience often felt that they might have acquired a mental disorder. This analysis was not based on emotional or mental distress. It was typically arrived at rationally because the way they were experiencing reality was suddenly remarkably different than they had previously, and as far as they could tell different from everyone they knew. Many of these participants sought professional mental health care, which no participant viewed as having been beneficial. Clinicians often told them their descriptions showed similarities to depersonalization and derealization, except for the positive nature of the experience.

There were nuances within how sense of self was experienced at different locations along the continuum. In the earliest locations, the sense of self felt expanded, and often seemed more connected to everything. In the farthest locations on the continuum, an even more pronounced change occurred in sense of self; a ll aspects of having an individualized sense of self had vanished for these participants. Prior to this location some aspects of an individualized sense of self remained, and participants could occasionally be drawn into them.

On cognition:

Another consistent report is a shift in the nature and quantity of thoughts. Virtually all of the participants discussed this as one of the first things they noticed upon entering PNSE. The nature and degree of the change related to a participant’s location on the continuum. On the early part of the continuum, nearly all participants reported a significant reduction in, or even complete absence of, thoughts. Around 5% reported that their thoughts actually increased. Those who reported thoughts, including increased thoughts, stated that they were far less influenced by them. Participants reported that for the most part thoughts just came and went, and were generally either devoid of or contained greatly reduced emotional content.

Almost immediately it became clear that participants were not referring to the disappearance of all thoughts. They remained fully able to use thought for problem solving and living what appeared outwardly to be a ‘normal’ life. The reduction seemed limited to self-related thoughts. Nevertheless, participants were experiencing a reduction in quantity of thoughts that was so significant that when they were asked to quantify the reduction, t hose who could answered within the 80-95% range. This high percentage may suggest why someone would say all thought had fallen away.

There do not appear to be negative cognitive consequences to this reduction in thought. When asked, none said they wanted their self-referential thoughts to return to previous levels or to have the emotional charge returned to them. Participants generally reported that their problem solving abilities, mental capacity, and mental capability in general had increased because it was not being crowded out or influenced by the missing thoughts. They would often express the notion that thinking was now a much more finely tuned tool that had taken its appropriate place within their psychological architecture.

On perception:

Participants in the later part of the middle range of the PNSE continuum often reported seeing the unfolding layers of these perceptual processes in detail. They reported being able to begin to detect the difference between the orientation response and the physical, cognitive, and emotional processes that arose after it. They reported reaching a point where some events were reacted to by one or more of these layers while others were not. This was in contrast to participants on the early end of the continuum who perceived all of these layers as one during an event, or at least as a greatly reduced number of discrete processes.

You can read more, plus the sections on emotion and memory, yourself; they mostly fit with the stereotypes you would expect of enlightened people; a lot of tranquility, joy, and focus on the present moment.

What I like about this paper is the parts where it departs from these stereotypes. It makes clear that most of these people’s external characteristics didn’t change at all. In many cases, their friends and family didn’t even notice anything was different, and could not be convinced that anything about them was different:

Despite an overwhelming change in how it felt to experience both themselves and the world after the onset of PNSE, the outward appearance of the participants changed very little. Generally speaking they retained their previous mannerisms, hobbies, political ideology, food and clothing preferences, and so forth. If someone were an environmentalist prior to PNSE, typically they remained so after it. If they weren’t, they still are not.

Many participants discussed the thought, just after their transition to PNSE, that they would have to go to work and explain the difference in themselves to co-workers. They went on to describe a puzzled drive home after a full day of work when no one seemed to notice anything different about them. Quite a few chose to never discuss the change that had occurred in them with their families and friends and stated that no one seemed to notice much of a difference. In short, although they had experienced radical internal transformation, externally people didn’t seem to take much notice of it, if any.

Similarly, despite people saying that they no longer had any sense of agency, they were behaving as agentically as anyone else:

On the far end of the continuum, participants reported no sense of agency. They reported that they did not feel they could take any action of their own, nor make any decisions. Reality was perceived as just unfolding, with ‘doing’ and ‘deciding’ simply happening. Nevertheless, many of these participants were functioning in a range of demanding environments and performing well. One, for example, was a doctoral level student at a major university. Another was a young college professor who was building a strong career. Still another was a seasoned public and private sector executive who served as a high-level consultant and on various institutional-level boards.

Can you imagine investing in a company whose executive believes he cannot take any action and is just watching reality unfold? But it seems to work out.

Other times the PNSE participants are just outright wrong about their experience. When asked if they were stressed, they would say of course not, they were experiencing inner peace. But their friends and family said they were totally stressed. For example:

Over the course of a week, [one participant’s] father died, followed very rapidly by his sister. He was also going through a significant issue with one of his children. Over dinner I asked him about his internal state, which he reported as deeply peaceful and positive despite everything that was happening. Having known that the participant was bringing his longtime girlfriend, I’d taken an associate researcher with me to the meeting to independently collect the observations from her. My fellow researcher isolated the participant’s girlfriend at the bar and interviewed her about any signs of stress that the participant might be exhibiting. I casually asked the same questions to the participant as we continued our dinner conversation. Their answers couldn’t have been more different. While the participant reported no stress, his partner had been observing many telltale signs: he wasn’t sleeping well, his appetite was off, his mood was noticeably different, his muscles were much tenser than normal, his sex drive was reduced, his health was suffering, and so forth.

Or:

It was not uncommon for participants to state that they had gained increased bodily awareness upon their transition into PNSE. I arranged and observed private yoga sessions with a series of participants as part of a larger inquiry into their bodily awareness. During these sessions it became clear that participants believed they were far more aware of their body than they actually were. For example, the instructor would often put her hand on part of the body asking the participant to relax the tense muscles there, only to have the participant insist that s/he was totally relaxed in that area and did not feel any muscle tension.

Or even:

During some interviews participants expressed that they no longer felt it was possible for them to be racist or sexist. I asked these participants to take Harvard University’s Project Implicit tests online. All of these participants were white males and each showed a degree of sexism and/or racism, including participants who were in the later no emotion and agency locations on the continuum. Project Implicit uses physiology to test these responses.

It’s tempting to say these people are just making it up. But I think about some of the people I know with very severe psychiatric issues, people who are constantly miserable – and are similarly externally unaffected. These people are holding down stressful jobs, keeping difficult relationships together, etc – and often the people they haven’t “opened up to” don’t have any inkling of what they’re going through. They may tell me it must seem obvious to everybody that they’re completely falling apart – whereas in fact they are speaking fluently, they’re well-dressed, and they haven’t made a single social misstep during the whole time I’ve known them. If unusually negative mental states don’t affect behavior as strongly as people believe, why not unusually positive mental states?

Also, other times these people under-estimate themselves:

As participants neared the further reaches of the continuum, they frequently reported significant difficulty with recalling memories that related to their life history. They did not feel this way about facts, but rather about the details of the biographical moments surrounding the learning of those facts. They also reported that encoding for these types of memories seemed greatly reduced. A lthough this was their perception it did not appear to be the case when talking to them. They were typically rich sources of personal history information and their degree of recall seemed indistinguishable from participants who were in earlier locations on the continuum.

But:

There was a noticeable exception that seemed to be a genuine deficit. As they neared and entered the farther reaches of the continuum, participants routinely reported that they wereincreasingly unable to remember things such as scheduled appointments, while still being able to remember events that were part of a routine. For example, they might consistently remember to pick their child up at school each day, but forget other types of appointments such as doctor visits. Often they had adapted their routines to adjust for this change. Many would immediately write down scheduled events, items they needed to get at the store, and so forth on prominently displayed lists. When visiting their homes I noticed that these lists could be found on: televisions, computer monitors, near toilets, on and next to doors, and so forth. It was clear that the lists were being placed in locations that the participants would look with at least some degree of regularity. Participants consistently stated that they would prefer to remain in PNSE even if going back to ‘normal’ experience meant that they would no longer have this type of deficit.

Finally, Martin is impressed with the certainty that accompanies all of these experiences. People describe their PNSE as obviously more real and better than past states. They tend to be very effusive about this, saying that having the experience shattered everything they had previously believed in the most obvious and final way. But here too, there are signs that the participants are not well-attuned to what is going on in their own heads. Martin says that participants who moved from one level of his continuum to another (whether forward or back) would always say that the level they were currently at was the most fundamental and obviously real (even if they had said the opposite before). When he would tell participants about the experiences of other participants who were at different points of the continuum or just describing their experiences a slightly different way, both participants would confidently pronounce that the other wasn’t really enlightened.

I like this paper because it provides the basis for a minimalist account of enlightenment, similar to Daniel Ingram’s. Enlightenment hasn’t transformed these people’s personalities. It hasn’t given them infinite willpower or productivity or the ability to shoot qi bolts from their third eyes. It hasn’t even given them that much self-understanding. It’s just given them a different kind of internal experience.

The experience itself is hard to describe, but seems marked by drawing the self-other boundary in a different place. Participants don’t see themselves as making decisions; the decisions get made “under the hood” in a way where the person just feels like their path is laid out before them. They don’t see themselves as having thoughts; computations obviously get done, but they are not in awareness. They don’t feel like they have stress, even if the stress is physiologically present and obvious from their actions. On the other hand, they were more aware of certain low-level perceptual processes that are usually unconscious. It seems to be accompanied by total certainty that this is correct and revelatory and new (…much like the altered states people sometimes get on drugs).

None of this seems wildly outside the realm of possibility. It seems about as surprising as the existence of some new mental disorder. If 50 (or 1200, depending on how you count it) people with no history of lying said they had some kind of weird new mental disorder, I’d be willing to credit that they were describing their experience correctly, and able to give some useful information on the sorts of things that caused this disorder. It just sounds like information processing in the brain switching to some new attractor state if you force it hard enough.

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Open Thread 139

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, but please try to avoid hot-button political and social topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. Comment of the week last time was an argument that the severity of the opioid crisis was exaggerated; reader Digital Cygnet wrote a counterargument that you can read here.

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Is Enlightenment Compatible With Sex Scandals?

Last year I reviewed The Mind Illuminated, a meditation guide by Buddhist teacher Upasaka Culadasa. Last month, Culudasa’s Buddhist community accused him of cheating on his wife with prostitutes for many years. Culadasa doesn’t seem to agree with the exact details of the accusations, but he also doesn’t seem to deny that there was something in that general category of thing. What can this teach us about enlightenment?

Culadasa has been meditating and studying Buddhism for over forty years and trained under some of the greatest teachers of his generation. I don’t know if he’s claimed to “be enlightened” in so many words, but he’s written books that describe how to reach enlightenment and that assert you can do it in a few years if you follow his advice, which sounds a lot like claiming enlightenment by implication. Other self-proclaimed enlightened Buddhist teachers seem to respect him and treat him as being at around their level.

And if Culudasa wasn’t enlightened, there’s a long list of other Buddhist masters with similar misdeeds. The Atlantic points out that three of the four great founders of American Zen “caused major public sex scandals”; the fourth, Shunryu Suzuki, was spotless, but his successor Richard Baker caused a major public sex scandal. The two most famous US teachers of Tibetan Buddhism, Chongyam Trungpa and Sogyal Rinpoche, both caused major public sex scandals. Trungpa’s immediate successor Ösel Tendzin caused a particularly horrifying major public sex scandal, and the current head of Shambhala Buddhism, Sakyong Rinpoche, also caused a major public sex scandal.

These teachers were among the most accomplished of our time. Many were officially certified as enlightened by the relevant governing bodies (of course there are governing bodies that certify enlightenment, we’re not barbarians). Doubt Culudasa if you want, but it would be hard to say none of these people had achieved enlightenment – at least if you want to maintain any reason to believe in enlightenment as an achievable state at all.

I don’t think many modern teachers say enlightenment makes you morally perfect. But I think at least some of them say it makes you free from craving or desire. And repeatedly cheating on your wife doesn’t seem like the action of someone who’s free from desire. It doesn’t even seem like someone whose desire has been moderately decreased. It sounds like the action of someone who has at least as much desire as anyone else. Maybe Buddhists should retreat to a minimalist account of enlightenment where it changes some brain networks around in a way that short-circuits some processing of experiences of suffering and selfhood, but doesn’t really lead to better decisions?

Tricycle Magazine discusses various theories for why Buddhist sex scandals are so common. Maybe Asians from patriarchal cultures do badly when transplanted to the more sexually liberal West (…but Culadasa was white and born in the US). Maybe powerful men are naturally tempted to behave badly when surrounded by vulnerable female students (but Culadasa didn’t have sex with his students). Maybe the Mahayana emphasis on how enlightened people transcend ordinary human norms causes enlightened people to, uh, transcend ordinary human norms (but most of Culadasa’s training was Theravada).

I recently got a chance to talk to about this with a very experienced Buddhist practitioner, one who claims to be enlightened himself. He said it’s accepted in his tradition that meditation “dissolves social conditioning”. In theory once you’ve dissolved all social conditioning, the Inner Light Of Compassion shines through and you can behave with true kindness. But in practice the Inner Light Of Compassion sometimes goes AWOL and you’re just left valueless. This works fine if you’re in a monastery like most advanced meditators were for most of history, not so well if you’re out in the real world with all the usual temptations.

This fascinates me for the same reason HPPD fascinates me. There are all these transformative practices that purport to give you a higher level of consciousness. But by Algernon’s Law, there’s presumably some reason we’re in this state of consciousness, some reason our system protects its usual state so diligently that you need powerful drugs or years of meditation to break through to anything else. Are there advantages to samsara? Are they related to the reason why so many enlightened people end up in sex scandals?

Or to put it another way: if meditation, like LSD, relaxes mental priors and increases entropy, do these failure modes help us understand what strong priors and low entropy are good for?

Book Review: Against The Grain

Someone on SSC Discord summarized James Scott’s Against The Grain as “basically 300 pages of calling wheat a fascist”. I have only two qualms with this description. First, the book is more like 250 pages; the rest is just endnotes. Second, “fascist” isn’t quite the right aspersion to use here.

Against The Grain should be read as a prequel to Scott’s most famous work, Seeing Like A State. SLaS argued that much of what we think of as “progress” towards a more orderly world – like Prussian scientific forestry, or planned cities with wide streets – didn’t make anyone better off or grow the economy. It was “progress” only from a state’s-eye perspective of wanting everything to be legible to top-down control and taxation. He particularly criticizes the High Modernists, Le Corbusier-style architects who replaced flourishing organic cities with grandiose but sterile rectangular grids.

Against the Grain extends the analysis from the 19th century all the way back to the dawn of civilization. If, as Samuel Johnson claimed, “The Devil was the first Whig”, Against the Grain argues that wheat was the first High Modernist.

Sumer just before the dawn of civilization was in many ways an idyllic place. Forget your vision of stark Middle Eastern deserts; during the Paleolithic, the area where the first cities would one day arise was a great swamp. Foragers roamed the landscape, eating everything from fishes to gazelles to shellfish to wild plants. There was more than enough for everyone; “as Jack Harlan famously showed, one could gather enough [wild] grain with a flint sickle in three weeks to feed a family for a year”. Foragers alternated short periods of frenetic activity (eg catching as many gazelles as possible during their weeklong migration through the area) with longer periods of rest and recreation.

Intensive cereal cultivation is miserable work requiring constant toil with little guarantee of a good harvest. Why would anyone leave this wilderness Eden for a 100% wheat diet?

Not because they were tired of wandering around; Scott presents evidence that permanent settlements began as early as 6000 BC, long before Uruk, the first true city-state, began in 3300. Sometimes these towns subsisted off of particularly rich local wildlife; other times they practiced some transitional form of agriculture, which also antedated states by millennia. Settled peoples would eat whatever plants they liked, then scatter the seeds in particularly promising-looking soil close to camp – reaping the benefits of agriculture without the back-breaking work.

And not because they needed to store food. Hunter-gatherers could store food just fine, from salting animal meat to burying fish and letting it ferment to just having grain in siloes like everyone else. There is ample archaeological evidence of all of these techniques. Also, when you are surrounded by so much bounty, storing things takes on secondary importance.

And not because the new lifestyle made this happy life even happier. While hunter-gatherers enjoyed a stable and varied diet, agriculturalists subsisted almost entirely on grain; their bones display signs of significant nutritional deficiency. While hunter-gatherers were well-fed, agriculturalists were famished; their skeletons were several inches shorter than contemporaneous foragers. While hunter-gatherers worked ten to twenty hour weeks, agriculturalists lived lives of backbreaking labor. While hunter-gatherers who survived childhood usually lived to old age, agriculturalists suffered from disease, warfare, and conscription into dangerous forced labor.

Scott argues that intensive grain cultivation was a natural choice not for cultivators, but for the states oppressing them. The shift from complicated and mobile food webs to a perfectly rectangular grid of wheat fields was the same sort of “progress” as scientific forestry and planned cities thousands of years later:

Why should cereal grains play such a massive role in the earliest states? After all, other crops, in particular legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, and peas, had been domesticated in the Middle East and, in China, taro and soybean. Why were they not the basis of state formation? More broadly, why have no “lentil states,” chickpea states, taro states, sago states, breadfruit states, yam states, cassava states, potato states, peanut states, or banana states appeared in the historical record? Many of these cultivars provide more calories per unit of land than wheat and barley, some require less labor, and singly or in combination they would provide comparable basic nutrition. Many of them meet, in other words, the agro-demographic conditions of population density and food value as well as cereal grains. Only irrigated rice outclasses them in terms of sheer concentration of caloric value per unit of land.

The key to the nexus between grains and states lies, I believe, in the fact that only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and “rationable.” Other crops—legumes, tubers, and starch plants—have some of these desirable state-adapted qualities, but none has all of these advantages. To appreciate the unique advantages of the cereal grains, it helps to place yourself in the sandals of an ancient tax-collection official interested, above all, in the ease and efficiency of appropriation.

The fact that cereal grains grow above ground and ripen at roughly the same time makes the job of any would-be taxman that much easier. If the army or the tax officials arrive at the right time, they can cut, thresh, and confiscate the entire harvest in one operation. For a hostile army, cereal grains make a scorched-earth policy that much simpler; they can burn the harvest-ready grain fields and reduce the cultivators to flight or starvation. Better yet, a tax collector or enemy can simply wait until the crop has been threshed and stored and confiscate the entire contents of the granary.

Compare this situation with, say, that of farmers whose staple crops are tubers such as potatoes or cassava/manioc. Such crops ripen in a year but may be safely left in the ground for an additional year or two. They can be dug up as needed and the reaminder stored where they grew, underground. If an army or tax collectors want your tubers, they will have to dig them up tuber by tuber, as the farmer does, and then they will have a cartload of potatoes which is far less valuable (either calorically or at the market) than a cartload of wheat, and is also more likely to spoil quickly. Frederick the Great of Prussia, when he ordered his subjects to plant potatoes, understood that, as planters of tubers, they could not be so easily dispersed by invading armies.

The “aboveground” simultaneous ripening of cereal grains has the inestimable advantage of being legible and assessable by the state tax collectors. These characteristics are what make wheat, barley, rice, millet, and maize the premier political crops. A tax assessor typically classifies fields in terms of soil quality and, knowing the average yield of a particular grain from such soil, is able to estimate a tax. If a year-to-year adjustment is required, fields can be surveyed and crop cuttings taken from a representative patch just before harvest to arrive at an estimated yield for that particular crop year. As we shall see, state officials tried to raise crop yields and taxes in kind by mandating techniques of cultivation; in Mesopotamia this included insisting on repeated ploughing to break up the large clods of earth and repeated harrowing for better rooting and nutrient delivery. The point is that with cereal grains and soil preparation, the planting, the condition of the crop, and the ultimate yield were more visible and assessable.

Scott’s great advantage over other writers is the care he takes in analyzing the concrete machinery of statehood. Instead of abstractly saying “the state levies a 10% tax”, he realizes that some guy in a palace has resolved to take “ten percent” of the “value” produced in some vast area, with no natural way of knowing who is in that area or how much value they produce. For most of the Stone Age, this problem was insurmountable. You can’t tax hunter-gatherers, because you don’t know how many they are or where they are, and even if you search for them you’ll spend months hunting them down through forests and canyons, and even if you finally find them they’ll just have, like, two elk carcasses and half a herring or something. But you also can’t tax potato farmers, because they can just leave when they hear you coming, and you will never be able to find all of the potatoes and dig them up and tax them. And you can’t even tax lentil farmers, because you’ll go to the lentil plantation and there will be a few lentils on the plants and the farmer will just say “Well, come back next week and there will be a few more”, and you can’t visit every citizen every week.

But you can tax grain farmers! You can assign them some land, and come back around harvest time, and there will be a bunch of grain just standing there for you to take ten percent of. If the grain farmer flees, you can take his grain without him. Then you can grind the grain up and have a nice homogenous, dense, easy-to-transport grain product that you can dole out in measured rations. Grain farming was a giant leap in oppressability.

In this model, the gradual drying-out of Sumeria in the 4th millennium BC caused a shift away from wetland foraging and toward grain farming. The advent of grain farming made oppression possible, and a new class of oppression-entrepreneurs arose to turn this possibility into a reality. They incentivized farmers to intensify grain production further at the expense of other foods, and this turned into a vicious cycle of stronger states = more grain = stronger states. Within a few centuries, Uruk and a few other cities developed the full model: tax collectors, to take the grain; scribes, to measure the grain; and priests, to write stories like The Debate Between Sheep And Grain, with immortal lines like:

From sunrise till sunset, may the name of Grain be praised. People should submit to the yoke of Grain. Whoever has silver, whoever has jewels, whoever has cattle, whoever has sheep shall take a seat at the gate of whoever has Grain, and pass his time there

And so the people were taught that growing grain was Correct and Right and The Will Of God and they shouldn’t do anything stupid like try to escape back to the very close and easily-escapable-to areas where everyone was still living in Edenic plenty.

…turns out lots of people in early states escaped to the very close and easily-escapable-to areas where everyone was still living in Edenic plenty. Early states were necessarily tiny; overland transportation of resources more than a few miles was cost-prohibitive; you could do a little better by having the state on a river and adding in water transport, but Uruk’s sphere of influence was still probably just a double-digit number of kilometers. Even in good times, peasants would be tempted to escape to the hills and wetlands; in bad times, it started seeming crazy not to try this. Scott suggests that ancient Uruk had a weaker distinction between “subject” and “slave” than we would expect. Although there were certainly literal slaves involved in mining and manufacturing, even the typical subject was a serf at best, bound to the land and monitored for flight risk.

In one of my favorite parts of the book, Scott discusses how this shaped the character of early Near Eastern warfare. Read a typical Near Eastern victory stele, and it looks something like “Hail the glorious king Whoever, who campaigned against Such-And-Such and took 10,000 prisoners of war back to the capital.” Territorial conquest, if it happened at all, was an afterthought; what these kings really wanted was prisoners. Why? Because they didn’t even have enough subjects to farm the land they had; they were short of labor. Prisoners of war would be resettled on some arable land, given one or another legal status that basically equated to slave laborers, and so end up little different from the native-born population. The most extreme example was the massive deportation campaigns of Assyria (eg the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel), but everybody did it because everybody knew their current subjects were a time-limited resources, available only until they gradually drained out into the wilderness.

Early states were pretty time-limited themselves. Scott addresses the collapse of early civilizations, which was ubiquitous; typical history disguises this by talking about “dynasties” or “periods” rather than “the couple of generations an early state could hold itself together without collapsing”.

Robert Adams, whose knowledge of the early Mesopotamian states is unsurpassed, expresses some astonishment at the Third Dynasty of Ur (Ur III), in which five kings succeeded one another over a hundred-year period. Though it too collapsed afterward, it represented something of a record of stability.

Scott thinks of these collapses not as disasters or mysteries but as the expected order of things. It is a minor miracle that some guy in a palace can get everyone to stay on his fields and work for him and pay him taxes, and no surprise when this situation stops holding. These collapses rarely involved great loss of life. They could just be a simple transition from “a bunch of farming towns pay taxes to the state center” to “a bunch of farming towns are no longer paying taxes to the state center”. The great world cultures of the time – Egypt, Sumeria, China, whereever – kept chugging along whether or not there was a king in the middle collecting taxes from them. Scott warns against the bias of archaeologists who – deprived of the great monuments and libraries of cuneiform tablets that only a powerful king could produce – curse the resulting interregnum as a dark age or disaster. Probably most people were better off during these times.

The book ends with a chapter on “barbarians”. Scott reminds us that until about 1600, the majority of human population lived outside state control; histories that focus on states and forget barbarians are forgetting about most humans alive. In keeping with his thesis, Scott reviews some ancient sources that talk about barbarians in the context of people who did not farm or eat grain. Also in keeping with his thesis, he warns against thinking of barbarians as somehow worse or more primitive. Many barbarians were former state citizens who had escaped state control to a freer and happier lifestyle. Barbarian tribes could control vast trading empires, form complex confederations, and enter in various symbiotic relationships with the states around them. Scott wants us to think of these not as primitive people vs. advanced people, but as two different interacting lifestyles, of which the barbarian one was superior for most people up until a few centuries ago.

Overall I liked this book. I’m not sure how convinced I am – Scott occasionally mentions how much denser (in terms of calories produced per unit land) grain is than other forms of subsistence, and this surely deserves more consideration as an alternative explanation for its success. But overall the theory is plausible as at least one of many explanations for the grain/state correlation.

My only other complaint is the constant insistence throughout the book that we should be having our minds blown by it. Scott talks about how he wanted to give a lecture on the rise of civilization in Sumeria, hadn’t studied the subject for a few decades, thought he’d do a quick review of what had been discovered in the interim, and instead found that everything he knew was wrong. He talks a lot about how the conventional narrative of the dawn of agriculture has been turned on its head, overthrown, debunked, etc, and how you need to unlearn all your brainwashing about the superiority of states to hunter-gatherers.

But Jared Diamond was calling agriculture The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race back in the 1980s. And the changes to the Sumeria story I learned in school seem like updates rather than paradigm shifts. Yes, people were sedentary agriculturalists long before Uruk – but I remember a page in my elementary school textbook (so we’re talking 1995 or so) going over Catal Huyuk and its neighbors in 6000 BC. Yes, early city-states sucked – but does anyone think of “Bronze Age god-king” and imagine a nice guy committed to egalitarianism? The Epic of Gilgamesh was talking about the suckiness of Bronze Age city-states before the Bronze Age even ended. The most surprising revision to the standard story in Against The Grain was the setting of early Sumer in wetland rather than desert. And even that is only a small change; the first cities were on a kind of flat alluvium separate from the wetland proper, and their environmental damage quickly dried the region up into the irrigation-heavy desert we know today.

Scott tries to downplay his own role in the book, emphasizing how much he is just relaying the discoveries of more accomplished Sumer experts than himself. But the part I most appreciated was the part that was most clearly Scott-ish: the role of grain as a state-builder. In this story, the beginning of civilization – like the progress of the High Modernists – wasn’t an advance in human welfare or economic growth. It was an advance in tax collecting and the machinery of oppression; everything else followed.

“From sunrise till sunset, may the name of Grain be praised”, said the Sumerians. And the ancient Greeks had their Eleusinian Mysteries, where “the mighty, and marvelous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest truths” was the “revelation of the mystic grain”. Can we trace a direct line from there to the sheaves of wheat that feature on fifteen out of fifty US state seals? On the National Emblem of China? The Coat of Arms of the Soviet Union? Does this last one really show the Earth caught in a pincers between two giant stalks of wheat? Should we really make impressionable schoolchildren sing songs of praise for “amber waves of grain”?

Read this book, and you may never think about cereal crops the same way again.