Weekend Reading & Selected Links

11 min read

Happy weekend! Here are some links to things I've been reading that you might also enjoy:

1. My new podcast conversation, with founding father of cliodynamics Peter Turchin. (At the bottom of this email, I've included 10 of my favourite excerpts from the conversation.)

2. A new Toby Ord paper providing a formal treatment of the Lindy effect.

3. This week was the tenth anniversary of the death of Seamus Heaney. Four of my favourite poems of his: 'Casualty', 'Digging', 'Funeral Rites', 'Punishment'.

4. Statecraft, a new newsletter focusing on stories of policy-makers getting things done effectively.

5. SMH article on Ozempic and the Danish economy.

6. 'Does History have a Replication Crisis?', a new blog post by Anton Howes.

7. Twitter thread on executive physicals.

8. Michael Collins' 1969 photo.

Have a great weekend,


Excerpts from my podcast with Peter Turchin

1. On why lawyers are so dangerous

WALKER: Why are lawyers so dangerous?

TURCHIN: Well, it turns out that lawyers are the most common profession amongst revolutionaries. Lenin was a lawyer. Castro. Robespierre.

WALKER: Lincoln.

TURCHIN: Lincoln. Gandhi. Gandhi was not a revolutionary, but he was certainly a very influential agent of chance.

In the United States specifically, as I mentioned earlier, if you want to get into political office, you want to get a law degree. And by the way, the best law degree apparently is from Yale Law School. In fact, Yale Law School produces both people who are very successful, but also counter-elites, those elite aspirants who are frustrated and then turn away.

WALKER: Like Stewart Rhodes.

TURCHIN: Stewart Rhodes. Exactly. The founder and the leader of the Oath Keepers. He got a Yale law degree. And several other populist politicians.

Now, again, taking the case of the United States, we have a horrible overproduction of lawyers. There are three times as many people getting law degrees as there are positions for them. And as a result of that we see a really bizarre distribution of salaries that newly minted lawyers receive.

I talk about this in my book. There is one quarter who get really huge salaries, close to $200,000. Then more than half get between 50 and 70,000, which is not enough to even pay off the debts that you have. And nobody in between.

WALKER: Bimodal.

TURCHIN: Yeah, it's bimodal. So this means that we know who gets those chairs and those who don't get the chairs. And so of those who don't get the chairs, they are ambitious, typically very smart, well organised, networked, energetic. And so the more of them are frustrated in their ambitions, the more turn to starting breaking rules and starting revolutionary movements.

Now things are getting even worse because it turns out that GPT-4 already can automate 45% of what lawyers do. So instead of three to one, we soon will have six to one.

WALKER: I hadn't updated on that, actually. That's a good point.

TURCHIN: Lawyers is the second profession, after secretary types, whose work is going to be automated massively. And as a result, it's going to be bad news unless you figure out where to put that energy into a productive manner.

WALKER: So many reasons to be pessimistic. As a side note, in terms of the significance of Yale Law School, I assume it's just a selection effect, where it's the most prestigious law school, so that's where the elite aspirants choose to go. But I was curious whether you had ever actually looked into the law school and its curriculum specifically, to see whether maybe there's something going on.

TURCHIN: I have not. I don't know why it's Yale, because it could be Princeton or Columbia or whatever, but it's an interesting question, but I don't know the answer to it.

2. Is intra-elite competition fractal?

WALKER: Is intra-elite competition fractal? So if the proportion of elite aspirants to elites gets out of control, and there's a lot of competition between the 1%, is that also reflected in the 0.1%, 0.01%, and so on? Or is there like some threshold at which the competition ceases?

TURCHIN: No, and we just saw a great example of that, with Elon Musk and Zuckerberg. Now, I doubt it will ever come to pass, but they are making serious-sounding noises that they want to fight each other in the cage. So no, it's like with the turtles: all the way down, basically.

WALKER: If that fight does come to pass, who are you putting your money on?

TURCHIN: Cliodynamics does not have an insight on this.

3. On why he is worried about 2024

TURCHIN: I am particularly worried about 2024.

WALKER: Because it's an election year.

TURCHIN: Because it's an election year in America and we have two candidates who are both now under legal proceedings. Lawfare is going back and forth, and the rhetoric continues to escalate. And judging by previous crises of past societies sliding into crisis, it takes time. There is some inertia before people become ready to use violence, start killing other people. And the heating up of rhetoric is a very telltale sign that this is heating up.

Now, I hope that I'm wrong, because I live in this country and I don't want to have a civil war here. I'm too old for those types of things. But unfortunately, we're talking about statistical patterns. Chances are that we have a few more years of turbulence ahead of us.

4. On how complex societies collapse — and why Americans should remember the 1850s

TURCHIN: There is some inertia. People need some time to psych themselves up for violence, at least normal people, not assassins or somebody like that. And so it typically takes days, weeks, sometimes months.

But yeah, since we are in the United States, we should think about 1860. In fact, the 1850s was a period when violence kept going up and up, and so we had Bloody Kansas and several other incidents, and no Americans really believed that what would happen in the next, you know, five years is that 600,000 people would get killed and a lot of real estate destroyed. And so when in South Carolina they attacked Fort Sumter, they clearly did not think that they would be completely devastated by this thing. This is the law of unintended consequences.

And so I agree with you that complex societies are very fragile. Most people who don't study history don't understand how fragile they are. Everybody thinks that this time is going to be different.

In fact, it's hard for me to imagine civil war in the United States. But it was hard for Americans in the 1850s to imagine civil war. Just because you can't imagine it doesn't mean it's not going to happen. And I'm not saying that it's 100% going to happen. But the probability is more than zero.

5. On narratives elites have used throughout history to justify inequality

WALKER: Yeah, I'm curious about narratives that elites use to justify and defend popular immiseration to the workers themselves. So if the narrative used in the post 1970 period, in a word, was meritocracy — the idea that, hey, don't get envious or resentful, just work hard and you can be like us too — what was the narrative during the first Gilded Age or at other points during disintegrative phases? Are there any examples you can share?

TURCHIN: Sure. Details of the ideologies change, but the end result is the same. So in the Gilded Age, that was social Darwinism. Some people were essentially genetically worthy or equipped to be leaders and rich and so on and so forth.

Before that, during the 17th century, it was God, basically. In many Protestant versions of the religion, some people were preordained to be successful and others were not.

In the Middle Ages, the nobility said, “Because I had ten generations of ancestors, therefore I'm deserving to live better than you.”

But the end result is always the same. It's the elites justifying inequality, essentially.

6. How does elite overproduction predict the spread of cancel culture?

TURCHIN: In the United States, the ruling class is the coalition of wealth holders and credential holders.Unless you have wealth or become a self-made wealthy person, the route to political office is pretty clear: you want to get a law degree. But if you don't want to become president, but you just want to escape precarity, for example get into the top 10%, then you also want an advanced degree. It could be a PhD, medical doctor, or several others.

So as a result of elite overproduction, we have too many individuals who aspire to getting ahead. And so they are all trying to get credentials that would increase their chances. And as part of this, what we see is that some strategic individuals, but maybe not very nice ones, start thinking ahead, and therefore they want to clear the ranks of competitors a little bit.

And so how do you do that? In the old times — and we actually do see this, both in the 19th century and in the 17th century crises — the elite aspirants would have duels and kill each other using swords, pistols, or whatever.

Nowadays, we are more civilised than that. So it's character assassination that works well. It's an ugly side of things, but you want to attack both the established elites — so take professors, for example, because when a professor is fired, an extra place frees up — but also your competitors. So you want to clear the ranks and increase your own chances. And of course, it’s not necessarily that everybody who does this is consciously following this strategy. First of all, it could be more on a subconscious level. But secondly, once this game starts, once this elite overproduction game goes on, the norms of attacking competitors spread.

And so then many people actually might do it in self defence before they get accused. So this is the dynamic that results in the explosion of cancel culture.

So think about cancel culture as like duelling culture in previous, more brutal times.

WALKER: So to put it back into the musical chairs metaphor, if I can get someone cancelled, that removes them from the game and makes it more likely that I'll get a seat.

TURCHIN: Exactly.

7. On using height to proxy the biological wellbeing of a population

WALKER: Another one is: data on height is a key measure of popular immiseration, which is a concept we'll discuss more generally shortly. This is kind of obvious, but can you just explain why height is such an important indicator of biological wellbeing?

TURCHIN: Yeah, so human height typically gets set by the early twenties, and after that, by the way, sadly we start shrinking. So I'm a little shorter than what I was 40 years ago.

WALKER: Well, you must have been very tall in your early twenties.

TURCHIN: Well, at the time, yes. But now, of course, because of [inaudible] and everything, there are lots of much taller people. Anyway. So there are two growth spurts. The first one is the first five years or so, and the next one is the teenage years (different between males and females), but it turns out that both are important in determining your terminal height.

Now, the variation between individuals in height is mostly genetic. But if you are looking at a population of the same genetic composition over time, then shrinking heights indicate times of immiseration — which could happen for a variety of reasons, often several reasons together. One of them is that people, children and teenagers, don't get enough to eat. The second one is that they get sick all the time (because an organism needs energy to fight sickness). Or they're overworked. All those measures of immiseration result in declining population heights.

It is remarkable how sensitive this indicator is. It, of course, mostly gives us information about the general population, because heights for the nobility and elites typically don't shrink. But then you sometimes see a five, seven centimetre difference between nobility and peasants. This is a measure of inequality that you can get from skeletal material.

By the way, all you have to use is a femur. If you have a femur — that's the big bone in your leg, upper leg — that is closely correlated with overall height. And femurs have a pretty high probability of surviving. So you can estimate how population stature, height, average height, increased or decreased from skeletons.

WALKER: So you take the length of the femur, you use a table of correspondences and then you just average out the heights of each generation in a particular region.

TURCHIN: That's right.

WALKER: There's this really remarkable fact in your book End Times about how one of the reasons we know why American workers fared so poorly in the 19th century is because the average height of native born Americans declined by 5 centimetres.

TURCHIN: Yeah, two inches.

WALKER: Which is a lot.

8. On why fractured left ulnas are a good indicator of political violence

WALKER: Another way bones can be used is to measure violence. Why is a high frequency of breaks on the left ulna (also known as the forearm) in skeletons good evidence of violence?

TURCHIN: Yeah. Well, that's because… I wish your listeners could see us — I could demonstrate it on you. No, kidding. Well, most people are right handed. And so if somebody hits you with a club, you throw your arms up — and since they are right handed, they will hit your left forearm.

The other one is, of course, an arrowhead stuck in bones or just sitting inside your chest cavity.

WALKER: That's usually a good sign of violence.

9. On how Tolstoy has influenced him

WALKER: Okay, three final questions. When did you read War and Peace? And was it compulsory reading in the Russian school system?

TURCHIN: Yeah, but I read it even before. I actually read it four times.


TURCHIN: Yeah. The first time before. Then for the class. Then I read it again for enjoyment. And the fourth time I read it more recently when I was writing my books, Ages of Discord and Ultrasociety.

WALKER: Okay, so to what extent has your view on history been influenced by Tolstoy.

TURCHIN: To some degree, yeah. I don't take everything that he said 100%. But several of his ideas have been quite influential for me. So mainly his idea, which is similar to Isaac Asimov's idea in the Foundation series, that you can make a lot of progress understanding the dynamics of societies by ignoring individuals and focusing on macro level and meso level dynamics.

WALKER: Right. And then I guess maybe his second idea to influence you is his version of asabiyyah.


10. On the interplay between contingency and broad historical forces

WALKER: How do you think about the interplay between contingency and broad impersonal forces? So take World War I, for example — and we can quibble over the details of this example — but many historians argue that World War I was a highly contingent event. And then that contingent eventually sets the stage for all of these structural forces that arguably lead to World War II. In a way, you could argue that it's contingency all the way down. So how do you deal with that? Is your answer again, well, cliodynamics just looks at larger timescales and contingency can't really shape structures over those larger timescales?

TURCHIN: It can, of course. And so again, we are back to the question of the limits to predictability. And in the dynamical systems approach, we can incorporate such contingencies in a reasonably straightforward way. So the contingency itself, or the event that has caused the trajectory to turn into a very different direction, is not predictable. But once that happens, the trajectory starts running now in a more understandable and predictable way. So this is what you mean by contingency: contingent on this event. So this event itself perhaps is not predictable, but we can investigate the trajectories contingent on such events that resulted in macro changes. So that's one thing.

But the second thing: here is another metaphor from dynamical systems science that's useful. If you think about systems in chaotic regimes, they are typically found on a strange attractor, which could be a fairly low dimensional attractor. So if you kick the system in one of the sensitive places, then the next peak might disappear or vice versa. Instead of not having a peak, you would have a peak. So there will be a macro level event.

But after the trajectory goes back, it will be still on the same strange attractor. So you may have delayed, let's say, a breakdown of a political system — or advanced it — but you haven't really changed much of anything.

So my interpretation of World War I is that if Serbian nationalists didn't shoot the Archduke, then something else would have happened, probably within a year, maybe two, because we know that Germans were really worried about Russia. Russia had a miracle decade from the end of the revolution of 1907. (Well, it was only seven years.) Their economy was growing at unprecedented rates, very rapidly, and the German Staff was very worried about Russia catching up, and therefore they were getting ready to have a preventive war. And so if Gavrilo Princip didn't assassinate the Archduke somebody, something else would have come along and triggered things.