Looking in the Dark

Vol 5. Preparation, Facing the hard problems, and Darwin's Prophecy

As a bit of foreword — this strikes a more somber tone, but it's an important one to listen to.

I know I'm not qualified to talk about Afghanistan in the slightest. I'm barely qualified to talk about most things I'd wager. But I have been slowly going through different articles and essays on the topic to try and get a better understanding of what happened.

I've continued to come back to two articles, written by the same author: Radigan Carter. I highly recommend reading both. Radigan served overseas, and has a refreshing authenticity to his work that’s paired with insights you likely won’t find anywhere else.

  1. The Promises of Politicians

  2. The Financialization of Everything

After reading the latter one earlier today, I can’t say I walked away upbeat.

I'm aware that plenty of people have always talked about an impending doom throughout history. As I'm often quick to point out, the world is different now: we can easily read and hear all the reasons why the world is falling apart.

So I try to tune most of it out, because usually it's not very useful or cogent. But as my readers, friends, and family may know, I have been focused on what the world would look like if the world de-globalized.

Venture capitalists stress the importance of inflection points: moments when conditions allow new ideas to escape imagination and become reality. This train of thought also holds for everything else though. It's incredibly important to find things that are overlooked in the world, even if you’re not necessarily investing. Sometimes they’re new ideas, other times they’re a virus in a city called Wuhan.

Another way to think about this is Mark Twain's quote: It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

Contrary to what most believe, most of the catastrophic events over the past few decades (arguably, centuries) were not surprises. People knew about the underlying causes that led to 9/11, the Great Recession, heck, even COVID-19. People predicted they would happen. The timing wasn't always right, but people saw it coming.

One of the many insights I've gotten from my worldview expansion has been the notion that seeing the future isn't an anomaly. In Lords of Finance, there are accounts of people in the early 1900s anticipating the future of industrialized warfare. It turns out that they were drowned out by the expert consensus among elites that such a thing was not improbable, but impossible. The quotes below capture this hubris:

So smug were the bankers and economists that they even allowed themselves to be convinced that the discipline of “sound money” itself would bring everyone to their senses and force an end to the war. On August 30, 1914, barely a month into the fighting, Charles Conant of the New York Times reported that the international banking community was very confident that there would not be the sort of “unlimited issue of paper [money] and its steady depreciation," which had wrought such inflationary havoc in previous wars. "Monetary science is better understood at the present time than in those days," declared the bankers confidently…

Sir Felix Schuster, chairman of the Union of London and Smith’s Bank, one of the City’s most prominent bankers, went confidently around telling everyone that the fighting would grind to a halt within six months — the interruption of trade would be too great…

John Maynard Keynes, then a thirty-one-year-old economics don at King’s College, Cambridge, who had made himself something of an overnight expert on war finance, announced to his friends in September 1914 that “he was quite certain that war could not last more than a year” because by then the liquid wealth of Europe that could be utilized to finance the war would be "used up," and he became quite angry at the stupidity of anyone who thought otherwise…

In November 1914, the Economist predicted that the war would be over in a few months. That same month, at a dinner party in Paris given in honor of the visiting British secretary of state for war, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, the French finance minister confidently proclaimed that the fighting would have to be over by July 1915 because the money would have run out…

And so as the financiers of Europe watched their continent slip toward Armageddon, its credit system collapsing onto itself, world stock markets closing their doors, and the gold standard grinding to a halt, they clung to the illusion that global commerce would be disrupted only briefly and the world would rapidly return to “business as usual…”

The experts seemed to have forgotten that among the first casualties of war is not only truth but also sound finance. None of the big wars of the previous century—for example, the Napoleonic Wars or the American Civil War—had been held back by a mere lack of gold. These had been fights to the death in which the belligerents had been willing to resort to everything and anything…

As I like to say, the past 80 years should never have happened. Because it’s never been this peaceful or cordial. This aberration has led to a societal Alzheimer's. We don't remember that human nature frequently leads to intense conflict.1 There are plenty of problems today, and they’re ferociously amplified for clicks, but if you step back, there's been a lot less to be upset about.

But there are multiple vulnerabilities in today's world that I'm thinking about: global supply chains being one of them. But the biggest concern is what the future of warfare looks like, because today's military conflict is nearly nonexistent.2

Very similar to the beginning of the 20th century: digital warfare rewards the party that strikes first. Instead of Blitzkrieg, it'd be cyberattacks on electrical grids. Unlike previous wars, there's no way to hide, because as the digital world further entangles itself with the real one, more tangible aspects of our lives become exposed.

Bank accounts, email passwords, addresses, and so much more have all been subsumed in data breaches. This NPR article from last week is noteworthy: "Intelligence officials estimate that China has now stolen all the personal identifiable information of about 80% of Americans, and it has a good start on collecting information on the remaining 20%."China's Microsoft Hack May Have Had A Bigger Purpose Than Just Spying

And as I've discussed, most people either don't see this happening, or they don't think it's possible, just as was true in the early 1900s.

Why Focus on This

One of my friends recently asked me why I look at these dire forecasts when I espouse myself as optimistic. I didn't have a great answer then, but I do now. Here are three reasons:

  1. First, I would push back that even though I'm reading and thinking about these things, that doesn't automatically make me a pessimist. I try to follow curiosity, and this has been a deep rabbit hole that seems quite pertinent given today's State of Affairs.

  2. Second, you can never be over-prepared. Scouting introduced this to me, and athletics cemented it. You need to know what your environment looks like if you're going to prepare yourself accordingly. When things go wrong, you only have one choice: control what you can control. This means doing what's in your power to solve the problem at hand. Preparation is another way of controlling what you can, but trying to be proactive about it so you’re not flat footed.3

  3. Lastly, and the most important overall, is that the only way to solve any of these problems it to acknowledge they're there in the first place. A doctor can't help you heal if they don't know your bone is broken. This is why I've been spending time looking at all of this, because if the past 2+ years have shown us anything, it's that we're entering a period of instability (a Fourth Turning). The end of history is no more. History has begun, again. And the only way forward is to get people in positions of leadership who will take ownership and solve hard problems.

This final point specifically warrants a larger piece, and it's something I've been working on for a while now. What I will say is that this framework leaves room to be optimistic. We're at a unique inflection point as a species, and there isn't a preordained rule spellbinding us to demise. There are many successful paths forward.

As I’ve continued working on my Balaji v Zeihan analysis, I’ve noticed that both worldviews have a major flaw: they fail to take into account the actions of individuals.

Part of this is pragmatic. It's impossible to do that. But part of it is also an inherent weakness when you’re predicting what the future looks like. Morgan Housel puts it better than I ever could (from The Psychology of Money):

Fifteen billion people were born in the 19th and 20th centuries. But try to imagine how different the global economy—and the whole world—would be today if just seven of them never existed:

  • Adolf Hitler

  • Joseph Stalin

  • Mao Zedong

  • Gavrilo Princip

  • Thomas Edison

  • Bill Gates

  • Martin Luther King Jr.

I’m not even sure that’s the most meaningful list. But almost everything about the world today—from borders to technology to social norms—would be different if these seven people hadn’t left their mark. Another way to put this is that 0.00000000004% of people were responsible for perhaps the majority of the world’s direction over the last century.

The same goes for projects, innovations, and events. Imagine the last century without:

  • The Great Depression

  • World War II

  • The Manhattan Project

  • Vaccines

  • Antibiotics

  • ARPANET

  • 9/11

  • The fall of the Soviet Union

People matter. They can leave a mark on the world. I'm sure there are some scenarios that need to happen in order for them to be in a position to fully influence it, certain ingredients if you will, but this is quite an empowering realization. The human mind is quite malleable, and by extension, so is the rest of the world.

"The world is a very malleable place. If you know what you want, and you go for it with maximum energy and drive and passion, the world will often reconfigure itself around you much more quickly and easily than you would think." — Marc Andreessen

A lot of energy has been poured into impressive projects recently, and I don't mean to belittle any of them. But for the past few decades, not nearly enough of our best, brightest, and most ambitious have been tackling these bigger problems. The biggest VC-backed companies in the last decade reflect our lack of vision. They revolve around personal comforts. “Drive me here. Bring me food. Find me an apartment for a week.” Comfort and convenience. Undeniably valuable, but invariably uninspiring.

Where To Go From Here: Darwin’s Prophecy

I’ll close this piece with an excerpt from something I wrote last year:4

We don't have to drive blind. If we don’t allow more people to participate in these changes, we’re going to be dealing with a two-sided battle. Compounding inequality and the absence of preparation.

This is trying to get people to go up Mount Everest without ever having introduced them to hiking. It's hard to identify another example similar in magnitude where we’ve set people up for failure. This lack of preparation must change.

And so we have to first get people caught up with where the world is. Then we need to get them to consider where the world is going. If we can't understand what's happening now, we’re outmatched by tomorrow's problems.

We’re seeing an example now: COVID-19 demolished the world. People knew this was going to happen. They warned us and the world still wasn't ready. We weren't thinking about what's going to happen tomorrow because we’ve been short-sighted.

Mass unemployment, massive inequality, and the absence of coherent plans to fight these challenges, all existed before COVID-19. The pandemic exacerbated each one. They’ve been festering prior to the pandemic, but not enough people cared.

It’s hard to teach math and science in school because they contain intangible concepts and high barriers for understanding. You can't see negative numbers. By contrast, there’s no reason we can’t teach people about the problems above, because they’re tangible and persistent. This extends to technology. There are aspects of technology that are invisible, but much of it is tangible! We just need to redevelop how we learn about it. There’s nothing overly complicated about how technology works, we just haven’t given people the right tools to understand it.

Technology is intimately infused in our lives. It's troubling people don't grasp it. Part of the blame falls on those who understand it, because we haven’t done a sufficient job informing the rest of us. This can change. The value of understanding technology is that it touches all parts of the world. A disciple of technology inevitably learns about the world. Being more informed is a path to understanding. Because it’s so omnipresent, once people start understanding tech, they'll only gain further of an understanding of the long-term challenges and opportunities it brings.

There’s no switch or lever to pull. This shift will take time and multiple iterations. Efforts compound over time though, and if sustained, we’ll see stark improvement. Humanity has undergone multiple incarnations of itself since we wandered as hunter gatherers. We’ve never been the strongest species nor the most energy efficient, but we have been the most innovative.

Steve Jobs had a famous aphorism that the computer was the bicycle of the mind. Meaning, that compared to other animals, humans weren’t that special. Our tools changed that. Tools aren’t something we can immediately use — we have to learn and practice first to reach proficiency.

We’ve successfully given everyone a bicycle over the past decade, now all we need to do is teach people how to ride it.

I’ll give Darwin the final word.

“It is not the strongest of species that survive; nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the most adaptable to change.” — Charles Darwin

1

Trying to change human nature is a Sisyphean task. I view that in a positive light overall, because instead of trying to change people’s behavior, we can focus on making tangible things that will help us overcome future challenges.

2

Another concern worth highlighting is the potential collapse of America’s Constitutional Federal Republic. Democracy is a fragile thing, and based on my understanding of history there are many corollaries between today’s State of Affairs and the late Roman Republic. This is by no means prescriptive, but it’s worth studying history to see its patterns. I recommend The Storm Before The Storm as a relevant read, and Radigan Carter also discusses this in his The Financialization of Everything piece. I won’t write anything more on this right now because 1) it’s a highly charged topic, and 2) I’m still thinking and forming my thoughts about this. The 3rd point in the Why Focus on This section explains why I’m looking at this.

3

Seeing where the world is potentially heading, means that I need to build my life to be resilient to these possible outcomes. In January and February of 2020, I stockpiled canned food, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and facemasks. It cost me a bit, but in less than a month it was invaluable.

I'm trying to apply the same mindset here by controlling what I can control. You need to take concrete action, but you can’t be distraught by what might happen.