The finest handpicked things from the stinking and burning dumpster fire that is the interweb.

Month: December 2023

Trip over yourself and fall on your face!

A few reasonable observations

Before we get to our regular programming, here are a few things on my mind:

  • If you are looking to build a career, the real money is not building the actual career but teaching people how to. From trading to self-help, the total addressable market (TAM) for trainers that can teach wannabe grifters—sorry, I mean trainers—is yuge.
  • Be careful when wishing someone dead; with COVID back again, your wish might just come true.
  • There’s an epidemic of active laziness. People go all the way to the gym to lift weights and take substances until they look like embryos that were dipped in a vat of industrial sludge, but still take the gym lift instead of the stairs
  • 2024 will be a stock picker’s after a long time, excluding 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019…
  • Sell-side research is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) for financial services.
  • This new year, don’t fall for the propaganda of big fitness, big nutrition, big health, and big bariatrics—just take Ozempic.
  • AI will change everything, dude. Ok, let me kill myself.

In praise of doing random things

We all end up in situations where people, both young and old, come and ask for advice. I can think of very few situations that are as uncomfortable as people older than you asking for advice. In a relative sense, being in situations where people younger than you ask for your advice is better than being in situations where people older than you ask for advice. What advice do you give to people older than you? They not only have more hair on them, but  they’ve seen more than you. 

When you are young, you tend to blurt out random shit because you’re dumb. As you get older, you learn that everything is 50 shades of gray, and you learn to think before you speak. While the ability to see the nuance and complexity in everything saves you a lot of grief in life, it is ill-suited for situations where people ask for advice.

When people ask for advice, they want a clear-cut answer. But if you are older and a little wiser, your answer should and will be some version of you don’t know, or it depends. You have to say you don’t know because you probably haven’t done anything of note in life and just got lucky to be where you are. But if you say that you have no clue about anything, you’re in bigger trouble. People say, “Wah, how humble you are, bro.” Randomness and luck = humility. Little do people know that you are actually telling the truth, and on top of that, you have a debilitating and raging impostor syndrome wreaking havoc like a category five hurricane in your head.

The problem is that the last thing people looking for advice wanna hear is I don’t know, or it depends. Whenever you say something nonspecific, you almost always come off looking like the metaphorical male reproductive organ or the hind part of the human abdomen. But, if you think about it, there’s no good or bad advice because everything is context-dependent, and you almost never have all the context. You can always disguise generalized principles of a good life as advice, like working hard, being consistent, and being curious, but that’s not what most people are looking for. They want specific answers. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes ever:

There really shouldn’t be such a thing as bad advice. It’s all just perspective. But because we mistake pencil sketches for indelible ink, we get into all sorts of unnecessary problems. This starts out as a language problem and manifests as an error in reality modeling. In this view, there’s no such thing as good advice, either. There’s just perspective. All of it is conditional; none of it is universal; some of it is occasionally useful. All advice is context-dependent to a degree you may not appreciate until you encounter another context. Sufficiently caveated advice is indistinguishable from chaos.

It’s like this: every piece of advice is a simplification. Every simplification has imperfections. But to fully explain every single imperfection in a little bit of advice would take longer than a human lifetime. And it would take even longer to understand it. — Link

Aside: Make sure you follow Visa on Twitter.

In response to this tweet, someone responded:

Hm. I think I’d also claim “insufficiently caveated advice is indistinguishable from ignorant generalization.” On average, the most useful, non-obvious insights have some essential oddity and complexity but retain elegance. So maybe one should aim somewhere in between.

My staple advice for a long time was a version of Do what you like. When I was young, this sounded cool and romantic. I hadn’t realized that there’s sufficient vagueness to the advice that you can avoid looking like the proverbial reproductive organ. The problem is that when people reply, I’ve no idea what I like. You then do verbal and semantic gymnastics to not look like an idiot. I ended up in a situation where someone young asked me for some advice twice in the last couple of months, and I came away with the nagging feeling that I didn’t say anything helpful.

The reason I’m writing about this is because of a few things. The first is that I’m a comedy geek, as you know by now. The way I listen to podcasts is to subscribe to a bunch of shows, then listen to the episodes I like. I’ve never read Ryan Holiday’s books, but I subscribe to his podcast. Earlier this year, comedian Tom Segura was on his podcast, and I had added the episode to my playlist. I finally got around to listening to it last week, and the conversation didn’t disappoint. The first half revolves around the art of crafting a comedy act, career choices, and mistakes. The discussion about shaping a comedy special was really good and applies to writing as well. But it’s the conversation around building a career that got me thinking about giving advice.

The second was that a few weeks ago, some unfortunate souls asked me for advice, and the only thing I was comfortable saying was to do random things in life. The third thing was a smart kid yesterday said the kids these days in college have the philosophy of fuck around and find out. That’s a damn good way to live life. The only side effect is that you may catch some unwanted and unspeakable diseases, but I digress.

There were parts of the conversation where I was thinking, “Hmm, that’s good advice that I can give to others.” I hope I don’t get sued for copy-pasting long bits of transcripts, but I loved these parts of the conversations. If you notice, even though it’s unsaid, the subtext of the conversation about doing random things in life to figure out what you like. We aren’t born with a gene that’s encoded with our purpose in life. The only way to figure out what you want to do and what you like in this miserable life is to fuck around and find out—preferably without catching diseases. Tripping over and busting your face is the only way you’ll learn not to walk like a rapper.

Ryan Holiday: If you can go, “Hey, this is what I’m trying to accomplish here,” then it makes it easier to make decisions about including it or not including it. I think people are bad at this with life as a whole. They don’t know what they want their life to be like, what success is, so they just go, “Well, someone offered me a lot of money to do X,” or it’s unpleasant to do. Why, yeah? So, sometimes you do unpleasant things to get to a place you want to get, and sometimes you turn down lots of money or a cool opportunity because it gets you far away from where you want to go. But if you don’t have a sense of where you’re trying to end up, you’re just making these individual decisions, and you don’t actually have the perspective to know what the best choices.

Tom Segura: Yeah, you’re totally right, and it’s very hard to be able to see clearly all those things when you’re 25. I mean, at this age, I can look back and go, “Oh, I understand why someone is unaware or not yet there to make those decisions.”

Ryan Holiday: If you don’t have this sense of where you want to end up, you end up just taking things that are cool or exciting or where you’re getting some traction or momentum, but that’s getting you far away from where you ultimately want to end up.

Tom Segura: This leads me to this kind of thought for you, though, and maybe because you have an answer on this. I feel like I really knew that I want to do. I want to perform, right? I didn’t know I wanted to stand up at the time. I thought maybe I want to act, but I knew. I knew that. But what do you say to people? Because I imagine, and I’ve heard people be like, “I don’t know. I don’t know what I want to do.” Yeah, what do you tell them when they’re being like, “Yeah, you’re right. I don’t know where I want to end up.”

Ryan Holiday: Yeah, in Robert Greene’s Mastery, he talks about your sort of life’s task, like how do you find what that thing is? People go like, “What’s my passion?” He’s basically saying, and I think it’s true, it usually goes back to some point in your childhood or early teen years. You discovered this thing that lit you up, that got you excited, and then there was some part of you that said, “This is impractical. This is impossible. This is too hard,” and you turned away from that. It’s usually not that you don’t know what it is; it’s that you have decided that it can’t be something that you’ve already tried, you know what I mean?

Tom Segura: Your brain is almost blocking out, “Well, it’s obviously not photography.”

Ryan Holiday: Yes, but it’s photography. Like I knew I loved books; I wanted to be a writer. I had done this stuff to fund being a writer. It was like, “It’s time I got to go get serious about this thing,” and I ended up quitting and moving across the country maybe 6-8 months later.

Tom Segura: Here’s the thing, all those stories, right? Like, they sound insane. Now it doesn’t because you’re wildly successful.

Ryan Holiday: It worked out.

Tom Segura: But right, you tell somebody, “I quit this and I packed up,” and they’re like, “It’s fucking stupid.” So if you’re listening or watching, you’ve got to remember that it might look, it probably will look crazy or stupid to a lot of people for you to pursue the thing that you really want to do.

Ryan Holiday: I would say one way to handle that is just don’t fucking tell people. When people say it’s not going to work out for you, you feel that so deeply that it affects you, right? Like, I didn’t want people to be like, “You’re going to do that? You know how hard it is.” So I just did it quietly, and it wasn’t until I had done it that I talked about it, and I wasn’t susceptible to either judgment or ego or anything. I was just doing the thing.

I love the idea of doing random things with any sense of direction in life. This has been a big part of my life for a long time, and even though most of the things I’ve tried have gone nowhere, I lost nothing but gained a lot. I’ve met some amazing people and learned a ton of things that I otherwise wouldn’t have. Another way of saying do random things is to say have no goals. I learned this from Patrick O’Shaughnessy’s wonderful philosophy of growth without goals.

Now I just want to explore. That may mean blog posts, research papers, new investing strategies, letters, podcasts, long periods of nothing, or maybe another book. Who knows? Exploration is continuous, there is no end point. Focusing on exploration is very rewarding all the time. It may produce things that look like end points, like achievements, but those things are just byproducts.

It is in these woods that I’ve begun to teach my son (and will soon teach my daughter) this lesson: explore for the sake of exploration, without expectation. Discover essence in your surroundings and in yourself, free from external conditioning (stories) and expectations. Build from the inside out and bottom up. Great habits and practices make a great and successful life. Cultivate those and the rest will take care of itself.

This reminds me of a passage of conversation between Stephen Fry and John Cleese that I talked about in a previous post:

Stephen Fry: One of the things that always maddened me about self-help books is the ones that start off with goal orientation—setting yourself goals—and I think it’s the most dangerous and despicable inimical thing imaginable because I don’t know a human being who, when they reach a goal they’ve set themselves, isn’t dissatisfied.

John Cleese: Absolutely.

Stephen Fry: Always an anticlimax.

John Cleese: So many of the Nobel Prize winners get very depressed when they win the Nobel Prize.

Stephen Fry: I can imagine exactly, because what do they do next?

The cool kids even have a fancy phrase to describe doing random things: “surface area of luck.”

If there’s one thing I’ve discovered in recent years it’s this. The amount of serendipity that will occur in your life, your Luck Surface Area, is directly proportional to the degree to which you do something you’re passionate about combined with the total number of people to whom this is effectively communicated. It’s a simple concept, but an extremely powerful one because what it implies is that you can directly control the amount of luck you receive. In other words, you make your own luck.

This reminds me of a quote my boss loves and uses often:

“I have two basic rules about winning in trading as well as in life: 1. If you don’t bet, you can’t win. 2. If you lose all your chips, you can’t bet.” — Larry Hite

In the same vein, there was another brilliant quote that Ryan Holidays shared in the podcast:

“According to Seneca, the Greek word euthymia is one we should think of often: it is the sense of our own path and how to stay on it without getting distracted by all the others that intersect it. In other words, it’s not about beating the other guy. It’s not about having more than the others. It’s about being what you are, and being as good as possible at it, without succumbing to all the things that draw you away from it. It’s about going where you set out to go.”

I know nothing about the stoics, but these are some smart dudes. No wonder all of them have abs.

Oh, to try to try random things is a good new year’s resolution as well. Just try random things. Life might just surprise you.

A few good reads

Cells, Not DNA, Are The Master Architects Of Life (archive)

DNA is not destiny.

But without a cell, a genome doesn’t mean much. For creatures ranging from a virus to a human being, it is cells that give meaning to those sequences of nucleic acids by translating stretches of them into proteins. It is cells that use those proteins to take care of and repair themselves. Most importantly, it is cells that work with other cells to construct an organism. The cell decides which genes are used for what purposes and when, rather than being at the mercy of the genes, a feat on most magnificent display during the development of an embryo.

“Cells hold a creative potential that genes cannot dream of.”

Pair this with: These Cells Spark Electricity in the Brain. They’re Not Neurons

Investing’s Big Blindspot.

Being able to chant Mungerisms and Buffettisms on cue is one thing, but knowing how to use them to make money is a whole new thing. Brilliant piece by Tom Morgan.

Like most people, I was told that thinking from first principles is the way you understand anything. Rules come first. But CFT argues that “ill-structured” domains like investing are so variable that there are rarely any consistent first principles that apply to every situation. Reality is simply too messy. Instead, the right approach is to consume a vast number of case studies, in order to understand all the various ways principles may appear in the real world.

This approach is somewhat at odds with the blogs, threads, listicles and books that are focused on revealing the “10 universal principles of success.” Sure, these may exist, but they’re useless without understanding how to apply the principles- especially given the way the principles show up are always different. It’s about understanding the power of context. This is why you can’t get as rich as Warren and Charlie by following rules. Intelligence can quote Warren and Charlie, chapter and verse, but wisdom might actually help reproduce their results.

Sowing Anachronism: How to be Weird in Public, and Private (archive)

A thought-provoking post on the perils of over-reliance on technology and the attendant life of convenience. As we become enamored with the erotic comforts of technology, are we losing the good things in life? If you feel disenchanted by the modern era of technology, this is a wonderful blueprint on how to live a fulfilling life by rebelling against the false promise of technological convenience and comfort.

Our age is rare, in that we’ve thrown ourselves into a laboratory of new technologies that have not been tested through the careful sifting of history. Our children and teens are being subjected to a global experiment, whose early results are disturbing, yet with no sign, as yet, that Big Tech or our elected officials are seriously interested in slowing the experiment down.

Which is why many of us will choose to creatively resist with anachronistic action. Step two of the 3Rs, which we introduced in an earlier essay, is Remove: physically remove devices and other forms of technology from any places where we don’t want them. The next step, Return, happens more naturally. Free of the magnetic pull of our devices, we will instinctively start to look elsewhere for stimulation, connection, and meaning. Anachronistic actions can be a part of this return, whether reading older books or writing by quill, or perhaps restructuring our lives around an ancient cycle of prayers and devotions.

Pair this with:

Freeing Ourselves From The Clutches Of Big Tech (archive)

This is what I’ve been calling “comcom” — competitive compatibility. For most of modern history, this kind of guerrilla interoperability, achieved through reverse engineering, bots, scraping and other permissionless tactics, were the norm. But a growing thicket of “IP” laws creates severe legal jeopardy for these time-honored traditions. Just one of these IP rules — the “anti-circumvention” provision in Section 1201 of 1998’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act — provides for a five-year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine for anyone who bypasses “an effective means of access control.” And that’s for a first offense!

It’s Time to Dismantle the Technopoly (archive)

There’s a utilitarian logic to this approach. The impact of technologies on our well-being can be both significant and unpredictable. The technopoly mind-set holds that we should accept the positive impacts of new tools alongside the negative ones, hoping that, over time, the positives will outweigh the negatives. This optimism might prove justified, but techno-selectionists think that we can do better. If we aggressively repudiate the technologies that are clearly causing net harm, while continuing to embrace those that seem to be more beneficial, we can direct our techno-social evolution much more intentionally. Such attempts at curation—which can occur at every scale, from personal decisions to community norms and civic regulation—are unavoidably messy. Often, it’s necessary to forgo some positive developments in order to eliminate larger negative impacts. And curation can easily go wrong. What is widespread vaccine hesitancy, for example, if not a prominent example of techno-selectionism?

Where does the modern state come from? (archive)

This, Mr Allen and his co-authors say, is evidence that that the fist states were formed by farmers co-operating for economic reasons. A canal network would have been too large a cost for any to bear alone. But by spreading the cost, the construction was worth it for each. Such decisions were momentous. They represent some of the earliest examples of governments providing infrastructure in return for taxes, and thus the genesis of the earliest states.

Why the World Is on the Brink of Great Disorder (archive)

As we head into a new year, here’s a cheerful and jolly message about how we’re fucked by Ray Dalio. I wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

History shows that the painful seismic shifts part of the Big Cycle comes about when there is simultaneously 1) too much debt creation that leads to debt bubbles bursting and economic contractions which cause central banks to print a lot of money and buy debt, 2) big conflicts within countries due to big wealth and values conflicts made worse by the bad economic conditions, and 3) big international conflicts due to rising world powers challenging the existing world powers at a time of economic and internal political crises In doing this study, I also saw two other big forces that had big effects. They are:

  1. Acts of nature (droughts, floods, pandemics) including climate change.
  2. Learning leading to inventions of technologies that typically produced evolutionary advances in productivity and living standards —e.g., the First and Second Industrial Revolution, and computing/AI revolution.

Pair this with the following cheerful and uplifting posts:

2023 shows that economic growth does not always breed peace (archive)

A brutal takedown of the fantasy that economic development can cure all societal ills by Adam Tooze.

A Year in Crises (archive)

We’re buggered.

New Clues for What Will Happen When the Sun Eats the Earth (archive)

In the same vein, let’s fast forward the we’re buggered reality to it’s logical end: what happens when the sun around which the earth orbits dies? Well, the good news is that you won’t be around to find out, but the bad news is that earth might be turned into a planetary version of Domino’s cheese burst.

Go and try tripping a friend or a sibling. If they fall on their face and get angry, tell them you’re welcome because you learned the importance of being mindful, and pain is the best teacher.

Horny for stuff

Everything is cyclical. Fear and greed. Hope and despair. War and peace. Creation and destruction. Minimalism and maximalism. Monogamy and harems. Happiness and sadness. Boxers and G-string chaddi (remember this). More and less. Untorn jeans and torn jeans. Things come and go, but the more things change, the more they remain the same.

There was a time when more was good. There was even a word for wanting more—aspirational. Things have changed. If you are the kind of person who likes more stuff, you will be labeled a planetary murderer. Wanting more is passé. Wanting less is the new virtue. Wanting less even has a new branding—minimalism.

The reason I’m writing is because of a long read (archive) in The Guardian on the cost of mindless consumerism by Chip Colwell. The article is an excerpt from his book Stuff: Humanity’s Epic Journey from Naked Ape to Nonstop ShopperIt’s an article about the emptiness of consumer culture and his attempts to embrace a minimalist lifestyle.

By the tour’s end, I couldn’t help but admire the landfill’s efficiency, the engineering that goes into managing so much waste. Dads enables the endless cycle of consumption of my city to go on uninterrupted while reducing the chances of immediate environmental harm. But not every place has the resources to manage such monumental waste. Ghana, for instance, imports around 15m items of secondhand clothing from countries including the UK, US and China every week. Many of these garments end up in informal dumps, which, after seasonal rains, wash out millions of rotting, tangled pieces of clothing on to local beaches.

There are a wide range of possible motivations for this kind of strategic living: an aesthetic sense (when people like spaces with fewer things), sustainability (driven by concerns over the environment), thrift (saving money), mindfulness (wanting to be more intentional in one’s life) and experience (when people are excited to try different lifestyles). For my daughter, it was the environment; for my wife, mindfulness. For me, I lean toward a minimalist aesthetic. But mainly I was exhausted by endless shopping, and terrified by the possibility that our over-consumption was destroying the planet.

All humans, even the quarter-witted ones, know that overconsumption is bad. Despite this knowledge, why do we keep buying stuff?

That was the question in my head after reading the article. So I started looking around for some answers. What follows is a collection of seemingly random perspectives on materialism and consumerism from a wide variety of thinkers.

One of the first things that popped into my head as I was reading the article was the brilliant George Carlin bit on on stuff:

That’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff. That’s all. Your house is just a place for your stuff. If you didn’t have so much goddamn stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. That’s all your house is; it’s a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You see that when you take off in an airplane and you look down, and you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff. Everybody’s got their own pile of stuff, and when you leave your stuff, you’ve got to lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They don’t bother with that crap you’re saving. Ain’t nobody interested in your fourth-grade arithmetic papers; they’re looking for the good stuff.

That’s all your house is; it’s a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. Now, sometimes you’ve got to move; you’ve got to get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff. You’ve got to move all your stuff and maybe put some of your stuff in storage. Imagine that; there’s a whole industry based on keeping an eye on your stuff.

Enough about your stuff; let’s talk about other people’s stuff. Did you ever notice when you go to somebody else’s house, you never quite feel 100 percent at home? You know why? No room for your stuff. Somebody else’s stuff is all over the place. And what awful stuff it is. Where did they get this stuff?

And if you have to stay overnight at someone’s house unexpectedly, and they give you a little room to sleep in that they don’t use that often, someone died in it 11 years ago, and they haven’t moved any of his stuff or wherever they give you to sleep, usually right near the bed, there’s a dresser, and there’s never any room on the dresser for your stuff. Someone else’s [ __ ] is on the dresser. Have you noticed that their stuff is shit and your shit is stuff?

It’s brilliant. Stand-up comedians are philosophers and the sharpest observers of the human condition. What did I tell ya?

Now to the question at hand: Why do we buy stuff even if we know we are making ourselves miserable and destroying the planet?

A few weeks ago, I started writing a post on behavioral economics that I’ve yet to publish. While I was doing some research for the piece, I read a little about the evolutionary psychology perspectives on human behavior. I think the discipline is fascinating and adds an important dimension to our thinking about why humans do what they do. So I started searching the evolutionary psychology literature for some insights on consumer behavior. I came across a fascinating paper by Douglas Kenrick, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, and Vladas Griskevicius, professor of marketing and psychology at the Carlson School. Here’s their hypothesis on why we consume and the consumption choices we make:

The fundamental motives framework highlights that people everywhere have the same ultimate motives. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, all humans have an evolutionary need to evade physical harm, avoid disease, make friends, attain status, acquire a mate, keep that mate, and care for family. These deep-seated ancestral motives continue to shape consumer preferences and decision making, albeit not always in obvious or conscious ways.

People everywhere have the same evolutionary needs, and these fundamental needs have a profound influence on people’s preferences and behavior. While an evolutionary perspective points to the ultimate reasons for human behavior, it does not in any way suggest that proximate reasons are irrelevant or uninformative. Rather, an evolutionary perspective highlights that there are critically distinct and complementary levels of analysis. At the proximate level, consumers seek goals such as novelty, value, self-esteem, meaning, quality, happiness, simplicity, reliability, entertainment, efficiency, identity, and hundreds of other goals. But at the ultimate level, people are often pursuing something very different, even if we’re not always aware of what’s happening behind the curtain of consciousness. The brain is designed to solve a set of perennial ancestral challenges. The need to solve these deep-seated evolutionary challenges continues to powerfully influence modern product choices and economic decisions.

— Fundamental motives: How evolutionary needs influence consumer behavior (archive)

They contend that our consumption choices are influenced by deep-rooted evolutionary imperatives. Here’s a cool table from the paper on evolutionary motives and how they manifest in terms of consumption choices:

Fundamental motives: How evolutionary needs influence consumer behavior (archive)

Here are a couple of examples from a brilliant talk by Dr. Gad Saad (archive), who also applies an evolutionary lens to marketing and consumer behavior:

To give you another example of how gorging manifests itself in the human context, there was a classic study where the number and distribution of colors of M&Ms were manipulated. Objectively, the coloring is odorless and tasteless; objectively, there are no differences in taste between the various conditions. Yet people end up consuming more when exposed to greater variety. Their brains are visually tricked to eat more precisely because of what is known as the ‘variety effect,’ which has also been shown using single versus multiple flavors of yogurt, and by manipulating the number of pasta shapes in an offering. Now, the evolutionary reason is quite simple: our bodies actually need to sample a multitude of nutritional sources, but secondly, if we only eat one source of food and if that source is contaminated by food pathogens, then that’s a real problem. So you’re diversifying your risk of being exposed to pathogens by sampling from multiple sources. This was a mechanism first proposed by Paul Rozin, a food psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. And so here, even though objectively speaking, people should not be succumbing to the variety effect, they do because it is such an alluring Darwinian pull to do so.

In the next example, we’ve got grizzly bears that have to gorge on a lot of fatty salmon if they hope to survive the period of hibernation. And, of course, we pick the juicy burgers and we’re more than happy to gorge on that fatty food. The Atkins diet was very popular for many years because it actually prescribed a behavior that was perfectly consistent with our evolved gustatory preferences. It didn’t say, ‘Eat all you can eat raw celery.’ It said, ‘You can eat fatty burger patties, steaks, and eggs and bacon, and guess what? You’re actually going to lose weight.’ Now, of course, what the Atkins diet doesn’t tell you is that some of your cholesterol metrics didn’t fare too well, but from a strictly commercial perspective, it worked well because it was consistent with what our evolved gustatory preferences were expecting. If you look at the top restaurants in the world, they’re top restaurants not so much because they’ve got Justin Timberlake as an endorser; they do very well because they provide us with exactly what we want, which is fatty foods—fatty and tasty foods.

Ok, all these fancy evolutionary theories are nice, but how did modern consumer society come about?

Most explanations about the prosperity of the modern world start with the industrial revolution in Britain, which started in the second half of the 1700s. The putative explanations for the origins of the industrial revolution range from Marxian explanations of the exploitation of labor by capital to progressive explanations of slavery to technological explanations of the birth of the steam engine, rail roads, containerized shipping, immigration, mechanized production, etc. For some, the problem with these explanations is that they may be teleological—they explain the effect and not the cause.

Here’s Jared Rubin (archive), who, along with Mark Koyama wrote How the World Became Rich:

During the millennia from the caves down to 1800 the average person on the planet earned and spent in today’s prices some $2 or $3 a day, as now in the Central African Republic. By 1800 the average person in the richest countries, such as Holland and Britain and Britain’s newly independent daughter in the New World, had attained perhaps $6 day, as now in Afghanistan. Still pitiful. But in the 19th century, after a precarious beginning during the 18t,h century in Britain, a Great Enrichment transformed western European countries and their offshoots.

But Dierdre McCloskey disagrees with these explanations. She argues that while capital, labor, technology, etc. were needed for the industrial revolution, the secret sauce was individual liberty. In other words, the vanishing distance between barons, bishops, and serfs and the death of hierarchies. An enlightened environment of economic equality that lets anybody with an idea have a go at it to make their own destiny was what led to the birth of the age of plenty.

What we can show very clearly is that the usual suspects do not work. The slave trade, colonial exploitation, overseas trade, rising thrift, improved racial stock—no such material cause works to explain he modern world. We must recur—as other economic historians like Mokyr are recurring—to ideas, the ideas about steam engines and the ideas about the standing of bourgeois people who make the steam engines and the ideas about liberty that allow the ideas to change. The change in ideas arose perhaps from the turmoil of 17th-century Europe experimenting with democratic church government and getting along without kings. It certainly arose with the printing press and the difficulty of keeping Dutch presses from publishing scurrilous works in all languages. It arose also from the medieval intellectual heritage of Europe, free universities and wandering scholars. In short, it was free people who innovated and kept their just rewards. — The Industrial Revolution (archive)

The enrichment, I repeat, is recent. Some centuries before 1800 a few technological ideas had started to be borrowed by Europe from China and other economies to the east and south—paper, for example, and gunpowder, and the silk worm, and the blast furnace. But from the seventeenth century onward, and especially after 1800, the political and social ideas of liberalism shockingly extended the technology, through equality of liberty and dignity in Holland and Britain and Belgium and above all in the United States, and then beyond. The economic historian Joel Mokyr in a new book chronicles the improvements in communication and the welcoming of novelties that made for a freewheeling and largely egalitarian Republic of Letters after 1500, and especially after 1600.3 The outcome of such rhetorical developments was a technological explosion, especially after 1800, that radically improved on Europe’s old overseas borrowings. The Great Enrichment is not to be explained, that is, by material matters of race, class, gender, power, climate, culture, religion, genetics, geography, institutions, or nationality. On the contrary, what led to our automobiles and our voting rights, our plumbing and our primary schools, were the fresh ideas that flowed from liberalism, that is, a new system of encouraging betterment and a partial erosion of hierarchy. — Liberalism Caused the Great Enrichment (archive)

Mass consumerism was born in Europe, then spread to America, and then to the rest of the world through movies and music as the world got richer and more globalized.

The Spread of the Industrial Revolution (archive)
Our World in Data

If liberty is our greatest export, consumerism is a strong No. 2. Americans figured out how to tap into the brainstem to persuade people without ever reaching the cerebrum. It works–and merchants everywhere are adopting it. Including idea- and candidate-merchants. — David Von Drehle

If consumerism had its initial roots in Europe in the seventeenth century, as the fruits of conquest and colonization gave rise to increasing material wealth and a growth in the range of products available for consumption (McKendrick et al., 1983; Brewer and Porter, 1993), the ‘imitation’ that quickly took hold in the American colonies, and then in an independent USA, became from the late nineteenth century the ‘real thing’, a way of life to which, in due course, more and more people around the world have aspired, albeit while also at times attaching local meanings and values to the commodities and services purchased and consumed. — Consuming: Historical and Conceptual Issues (archive)

Our World in Data
Our World in Data

If we stop buying stuff, what should we do instead?

In the previous edition (archive), I had quoted this wonderful bit from Stephen Fry’s interview with John Cleese:

So I… I had this empty hole in me, this vast empty hole that said, “Feed me. I need this sugar. I need it.” And then when it wasn’t sugar, it became tobacco, and I smoked. And then in my 20s, it became cocaine. I just… And I couldn’t sit still without going, you know, and it’s that addictive impulse that many people, many people watching will know what I mean. And many people won’t because this is the important thing to remember. I said, “Not everybody has this.” And it’s a kind of addictive gene. And I guess the money people have it for money. There’s this hole in them they have to acquire and they have to own.

This hunger for moar and moar reminds me of a passage from the book Balance: How to Invest and Spend for Happiness, Health, and Wealth:

Here’s the point of this story: If Andrew and I were sharing stories around a campfire with friends today, we might talk about the crazy fight in the hotel lobby. We might laugh about begging our way onto a local Cuban bus while the driver stopped to pick up milk and chickens. But we wouldn’t likely talk about anything we bought that year. We value our experiences over the things we buy. Yes, we might be a couple of dorky dudes, but most people prefer life experiences over stuff.

When I give talks about happiness and money, I ask attendees to recall their most memorable material purchase. Sometimes, I ask them to write down what they felt when they first acquired that purchase. I recall one gentleman saying, “I love tech gadgets. When the first iPhone came out, I was one of the first to buy one. I loved it. I thought it was amazing.”

Next, I present the following scenario: You have one more month to live. The Grim Reaper says, “I’m going to erase one of your memories. It’s going to be the memory of your favorite material purchase or the memory of your favorite experiential purchase.”

Not surprisingly, the man said he would sacrifice the memory of any “thing” he bought before relinquishing a memory of an enjoyable time with his family.

Sounds sensible, doesn’t it?

Not so fast.

Sash Chapin wrote a wonderful response to this topic (archive) of spending on things vs. experiences. The TLDR of his long post is: It’s complicated. That we like experiences over possessions isn’t as black and white as people assume. Meaningful and utilitarian material possessions can be as fulfilling as experiences.

I guess it should go something like, “try to buy experiences instead of possessions, or maybe buy possessions that enrich your life by enabling novel experiences, or, if you’re the kind of person who tends to buy possessions over experiences, ignore us, we wouldn’t dare make broad generalities and purport to know better than you do about what makes you happy based on a couple of surveys, happiness is way too complicated for that.”

Adam Mastroianni studies human behavior and also writes a substack that I really enjoy reading but am not smart enough to understand in full. He had an insightful reply to Sasha Chapin’s post:

I agree. It’s not clear to me how you could reasonably answer a question like, “Which makes you happier, things or experiences?”

Buying my toothbrush didn’t make me particularly happy. But if it fell in the toilet, should I say, “Too bad I can’t buy a new one, because to maximize my happiness I should really put that $1.50 toward buying Coldplay tickets”?

In fact, I bet people overestimate their momentary happiness more when predicting for experiences than for possessions. There’s research on how people expect fun experiences (like a European vacation) to be great, they remember them being great, but when they’re actually experiencing them, they’re less great:

That’s because when you imagine going to Rome, you picture yourself sucking down Negronis and strolling through the Coliseum. You don’t picture yourself waiting in line, or getting dehydrated, or tossing and turning while sirens wail outside your AirBnB. All those things fade in memory, both because negative things fade faster than positive (, and because you had a strong theory in the first place that “European vacation = fun”, and things that don’t fit with that theory tend to get lost.

I bet this happens less with possessions. I buy a TV in the hopes of watching entertaining images on it, and that’s exactly what I end up doing. I never expect buying a new thing to make me transcendently happy, but I do expect experiences to do that for me sometimes, and I’m often disappointed.

TLDR: We’re all beautiful and unique snowflakes.

Going back to the question of why we want moar and moar, I found a couple of brilliant perspectives. The first perspective is from the great American novelist David Foster Wallace, talking about the ethos of individualism and consumerism in America. After I watched the video, I was ashamed that I didn’t know who he was. The man is a goddamn genius.

A few highlights:

In the book, there’s an element in which various people are living out something that, I think, is true, which is that we all worship, and we all have a religious impulse. We can choose to an extent what we worship, but the myth that we worship nothing and give ourselves away to nothing simply sets us up to give ourselves away to something different. For instance, pleasure or drugs or the idea of having a lot of money and being able to buy nice stuff.

Whatever the conditions of hopelessness you’re talking about, at least in “Infinite Jest,” have to do, I think, with an American idea, and not a universal one, but one that I think kids get exposed to very early. That you are the most important and what you want is the most important and that your job in life is to gratify your own desires. That’s a little crude to say it that way, but in fact it’s something of the ideology here. And it’s certainly the ideology that’s perpetrated by television and advertising and entertainment and the economy thrives on it. Well, of course, nobody tells you. I mean, mom and dad don’t sit you down and say this. This is something very subtle and is delivered by a great many messages.

That feeling of having to obey every impulse and gratify every desire. It seems to me to be a strange kind of slavery. Nobody talks about it as such though. It talks about the freedom of choice and you have the right to have things and spend this much money and you can have this stuff. Again, saying it this way, it sounds to me very crude and very simple, but that’s sort of the way. And it works very well as a system for running an economy and keeping goods produced and sold. It works wonderfully. The ways in which it doesn’t work are much more difficult to talk about. One of the things it causes is tension and unhappiness in people. I don’t think it’s very complicated and I don’t think I’ve named the only reason for it. The paradox is that that sort of tension and complication and conflict in people also makes them very easy to market to. Because I can say to you, ‘Feeling uneasy? Life feels empty?’ ‘Well, here’s something you can buy or something you can go do.’

The legendary linguist, activist, and philosopher Noam Chomsky has a darker take on consumerism:

We should be careful to consider consumerism and the consumption culture, which is largely artificially created. This is not just my opinion; if we go back to about a century ago and examine the origins of the public relations industry, including the advertising industry, we find an interesting history. In the freest countries in the world at the time, such as England and the United States, there was a conscious and articulated recognition among elite sectors that enough freedom had been won through popular struggle. As a result, people couldn’t be controlled by force anymore, so alternative means were necessary to control them. This alternative means was the control of attitudes and opinions, leading to the call for the manufacture of consent.

We indeed need a mechanism for the manufacture of consent, but we also need to create conditions where people are driven towards more superficial aspects of life, like fashionable consumption. I’m actually quoting from the business press when I say this, as they recognize that by creating such conditions, we can effectively control people. This concept is often referred to as “fabrication of wants,” a term used by the great political economist Thorstein Veblen, who understood and wrote about it. By fabricating wants, we can trap people into consumerism and debt, among other things.

If you examine television content directed at infants and two-year-olds, you’ll notice that it’s already attempting to create a culture of demand for goods. In fact, there’s now an academic discipline within Applied Psychology that deals with the concept of nagging. The reason behind this is that the advertising industry recognized a couple of decades ago that a significant portion of the population doesn’t have disposable income, so they can’t make purchases. To address this, they focus on children, as they can influence their parents through nagging. For instance, a child might insist, “I need that toy or video game,” and this form of advertising, targeting children through television and other mediums, employs various types of nagging techniques tailored to different kinds of purchases. The overarching idea is to ensnare infants and children into a culture of fabricated wants, so they can later be ensnared into a consumer culture, effectively controlled alongside the manufacturing of opinions.

Chomsky sounds like one of those conspiratorial kooks, but he isn’t wrong. American consumerism was both a grand psychological experiment and an explicit political project. At the turn of the century, the biggest worry for American companies was: What if people said enough and stopped buying more? An excerpt from Jeffrey Kaplan’s brilliant post on the history of American consumerism:

By the late 1920s, America’s business and political elite had found a way to defuse the dual threat of stagnating economic growth and a radicalized working class in what one industrial consultant called “the gospel of consumption” — the notion that people could be convinced that however much they have, it isn’t enough. President Herbert Hoover’s 1929 Committee on Recent Economic Changes observed in glowing terms the results: “By advertising and other promotional devices . . . a measurable pull on production has been created which releases capital otherwise tied up.” They celebrated the conceptual breakthrough: “Economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied.”

If you had read my previous post on the history of media, you’d remember that by the early 1900s, advertising agencies were beginning to mushroom in America. American companies wanted to sell more. With the help of advertising agencies, they unleashed what can only be termed a deliberate campaign of propaganda to convince and program people into believing that they always needed to buy more. Advertisers perfected the art of hacking people’s desire for status. A key figure in early American advertising was Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Thanks to him, propaganda became public relations, and people became guinea pigs on a hamster wheel of endless consumption:

Having seen how effective propaganda could be during war, Bernays wondered whether it might prove equally useful during peacetime.

Yet propaganda had acquired a somewhat pejorative connotation (which would be further magnified during World War II), so Bernays promoted the term “public relations.”

Bernays’ publicity campaigns were the stuff of legend. To overcome “sales resistance” to cigarette smoking among women, Bernays staged a demonstration at the 1929 Easter parade, having fashionable young women flaunt their “torches of freedom.”

In the 1930s, he promoted cigarettes as both soothing to the throat and slimming to the waistline. But at home, Bernays was attempting to persuade his wife to kick the habit. When would find a pack of her Parliaments in their home, he would snap every one of them in half and throw them in the toilet. While promoting cigarettes as soothing and slimming, Bernays, it seems, was aware of some of the early studies linking smoking to cancer. — The manipulation of the American mind: Edward Bernays and the birth of public relations (archive)

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.” ― Edward Bernays, Propaganda

We don’t consume in isolation but in a social context—we’re all keeping up with the Joneses. In other words, we have a reference group against whom we compare ourselves. Our friends, neighbors, peers, and popular culture all have an influence on what we consume. Juliet Schor (archive), a professor of sociology and economics at Boston College, has an interesting theory of how America became a nation of shoppers. The reference group for Americans in the 1950s were their neighbors. The wants and desires of Americans were in comparison to what their neighbors had and wanted. But then married women entered the workforce and were exposed to a diverse group of people. As neighborhood bonds weakened, the reference group for comparison shifted upwards to successful people in professional settings.

The other key factor was inequality. The share of income going to the richest 20% kept increasing. As radio, TV, and the Internet proliferated, Americans were exposed to more media than ever. Nobody likes watching poor people on their TVs and phones, so the media started broadcasting the lives of the rich and the famous. This further led to an upward shift in reference groups. Americans no longer wanted to emulate their neighbors or bosses but wanted the lives of the rich and famous—the ones on TV and glossy magazines. So they started working more at the cost of family time, friendships, and leisure to earn more. When that wasn’t enough, they started borrowing more and piling on mortgage and credit card debt so that they could have a piece of that juicy American dream. I believe this is what’s happening around the world. We are in an age of aspirational inflation.

There’s what I’ve called competitive consumption, you know, where we just want to maintain our position in society. Not necessarily trying to get ahead of everyone, but simply keeping up and not falling behind. In a world with a growing economy, this often entails escalating our standard of living.

Growing social inequality fuels a spiral of “competitive consumption.” As the wealthy get richer, the pressure on the middle class to maintain their relative position intensifies. This manifests in a constant need to keep up with the rising standard of living, even if it means acquiring unnecessary luxuries. This fear of falling behind and losing social status is exacerbated by the widening gap between the rich and everyone else.

Consumption as a remedy for economic woes: The Great Depression and its aftermath instilled a fear of economic collapse. Consumption, in this context, is seen as a way to keep the production engine running and creating jobs.

Questioning consumption, but not jobs: While the idea of endless consumption for happiness might be debatable, the need for employment is less so. Hence, consumption carries a “golden halo” as a solution to unemployment.

An AI generated summary of this video of Juliet Schor

Some of these perspectives give the impression that we’re all mindless robots without agency, consuming our way to oblivion. I’m not sure how I feel about that. The notion that we’re all mindless puppets and playthings in the hands of brands and advertisers to be molded and programmed to satisfy their needs is depressing. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but we have to accept that there’s an element of unconscious consumption. We give into our evolutionary impulses because we’re easily aroused by things. People selling trinkets have perfected the art of making humans horny for shiny objects.

Modern life is hard. Consumption is as much a social activity as it is an individual one. We’re all infected by the raging epidemic of social comparison, and there’s no known vaccine for it. Having said that, while it’s fashionable to rant against consumerism, we have to start by accepting that modern prosperity has given us many good and pleasurable things—it’s made our lives better. As economist Jayati Ghosh put it eloquently, romanticized notions of an ideal past are wrong and useless.

But we should not romanticize life in the past, which in much of the world, until quite recently, could still be characterized, in Thomas Hobbes’s formulation, as “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In the long course of human history, one of the most striking features of the twentieth century—simultaneously a terrible time in many ways and for many people—was the dramatic increase in life expectancy in all the regions of the world. After around two millennia when average life expectancy is estimated to have remained broadly flat at around twenty-eight to thirty-two years, it started increasing in the nineteenth century in today’s rich (then, colonizing) countries. Over the twentieth century the average of world life expectancy doubled—and the gains were spread across countries. What is more, the gaps between countries, though still very large, have reduced since 1950. Max Roser notes that “today most people in the world can expect to live as long as those in the very richest countries in 1950.” — Degrowth Is a Distraction. The distribution of gains is more important than GDP. Jayati Ghosh (archive)

Consumption isn’t bad; it’s rampant consumerism that’s bad. They aren’t the same thing. It’s our collective inability to say enough that’s at the root of most modern ills. Consumerism was born from a war on enough. The result was that the ever-elusive ideal of a good life—the one on Instagram and magazine covers—became a benchmark for all of us. You can see this from the fact that the poor want to be rich and the rich want to be happy. At some point in all our lives, we have to change our benchmarks and start to define our own happiness.

We can change. It’s hard, but we can break out of the cycle of pointless consumption by prioritizing things that add value and meaning to life, however you define that. Realizing that we can never outrun our insecurities and feelings of inadequacy, no matter what we buy on Black Friday and Singles Day, is hard. Money and consumerism are cocaine for our insecurities. It’s not going to be easy because we’re up against capitalism, and capitalism is a gorgeous model seducing us with a promise to make us happy (don’t be a pervert; it’s a metaphor). It’s in capital’s interest to leave you with holes that can’t be filled so that you keep shoveling stuff (again, don’t be a pervert).

We’re social animals; we’ll always compare ourselves to others, we’ll always feel inadequate, and we’ll always want more. We will never fill that hole inside of us, even if we spend a decade in a Tibetan monastery, wearing a loincloth, chanting weird things, sitting in an eternal selfie pose, and banging brass plates. We’re all damned by a customized version of the Sisyphean curse. The trick is to get to a place where you grunt instead of yelling “you piece of shit” when you wake up and look yourself in the mirror. I hope to get there one day.

Trigger alert, but here’s another gem from old George:

Then you have advertising. Advertising is the businessman’s cheaply dressed two-dollar blow job. Advertising sells you things you don’t need and can’t afford that are overpriced and don’t work, and they do it by exploiting your fears and insecurities. If you don’t have any, they’ll be glad to give you a few by showing you a nice picture of a woman with big tits.

I don’t know if Chuck Palahniuk was inspired by George Carlin or the Dalai Lama, but here’s a banger from the movie Fight Club, based on the book of the same title:

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

I asked you to remember the g-string chaddi. Here’s why:

This is the cruel and twisted consumerist world in which we are living. Less coverage area around your Latin American region is more costly than more coverage.

Reading and watching recommendations

The Boston Review published an amazing series of articles on hedonism in 2022. The lead article in the series is by philosopher Kate Soper (archive). It’s a brilliant article in which she paints a depressing picture of the emptiness of modern life in capitalist societies and suggests ways to get off the consumerist treadmill and embrace simpler and more fulfilling lifestyles. Sustainable lifestyles in which happiness doesn’t come from buying useless shit but from being part of local communities, social enterprises, and the knowledge that one’s lifestyle isn’t destroying the only home we have.

I first read the piece at the beginning of the year, and I keep rereading it every now and then. The article left a deep imprint on me and forced me to question many things about my life. There are responses to Kate Soper’s exhortation from a variety of equally brilliant thinkers, the links to which are on the right side and at the end of this article.

How Humans Became ‘Consumers’: A History (archive)

A Brief History of Consumer Culture (archive)

The Gospel of Consumption (archive)

The Politics of Consumption: an Interview with Juliet Schor (archive)

This Is What Happens to All the Stuff You Don’t Want (archive)

How the young spend their money (archive)

How Consumerism Sold Democracy to Postwar Germany (archive)

Empire of Things: a New History of Humans and their Stuff

Civilization Episode 5: Consumerism

How the World Became Rich – Deirdre McCloskey

Things I read

Walking the city, walking the world (archive)

For a long time, scaled consumer marketing has created status roles where none used to exist, and amplified division and class as a way to create insufficiency and generate sales.

But what we see when we look at the media or at a stack of resumes doesn’t accurately represent the world as it is.

We are all weird, and that’s okay.

All the Carcinogens We Cannot See (archive)

This is a fascinating article on the impossibility of figuring out what factors cause and trigger cancer. I kinda felt depressed when I learned that we’re all filled with cancerous cells just waiting to be triggered by something like air pollution or inflammation.

The fact that, in almost one in ten cases, we can’t identify a clear mechanism for the development of lung cancer even in smokers gives us all the more reason to think that we may be missing a plenitude of cancer-causing agents. The multi-hit model tells us about what’s happening within a cell, but Balmain knew that a cell is not an isolated spaceship floating between planets. That’s why he came to suspect that some of the “hits” have to do not with the cancer cell but with the tissue milieu in which the cancer cell finds itself. The snake, venomous as it is, must still be whipped to provoke its attack; the hound must be painted _and_ set to roam the moor.

Hill, Lim, and Weeden aren’t the only researchers to have found potentially cancerous cells lying dormant in tissues. In 2015, a team of scientists studied cells from the eyelid, an area of skin routinely exposed to UV light. (The tissue came from patients who’d had “eyelid lift” surgery.) Roughly a fifth to a third of the cells carried skin-cancer-driving mutations, and clones carrying some of these mutations had expanded, suggesting positive selection. Yet none of these patients had overt skin cancer. Such research suggests that healthy people may have a cadre of potentially cancerous clones.

How Anxiety Became Content (archive)

Derek Thompson perfectly captures the essence of something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time: depression and anxiety have become sexy. I want to be clear: I don’t mean people aren’t anxious or depressed. I’m saying a lot of people are confusing the realities of life for mental health issues. Perversely, this makes life difficult for people who are actually suffering from anxiety and depression.

Darby Saxbe, a clinical psychologist at the University of Southern California and a mother to a high schooler, told me she has come to think that, for many young people, claiming an anxiety crisis or post-traumatic stress disorder has become like a status symbol. “I worry that for some people, it’s become an identity marker that makes people feel special and unique,” Saxbe said. “That’s a big problem because this modern idea that anxiety is an identity gives people a fixed mindset, telling them this is who they are and will be in the future.” On the contrary, she said, therapy works best when patients come into sessions believing that they can get better. That means believing that anxiety is treatable, modifiable, and malleable—all the things a fixed identity is not.

How Twitter broke the news (archive)

But the context collapse that made Twitter so dangerous and so reductive was also what made it thrilling — your feed could contain everything from tech executives to Beyoncé fans to the president, and anyone’s tweets could be quote-tweeted and sent to viral heaven at any time, rocketing people into 15 minutes of deeply fucked-up fame. 

How Jamie Dimon Built JPMorgan Into a $4 Trillion Colossus (archive)

People on Wall Street love — truly, love — talking trash about their competitors, but when I researched this article, I found surprising respect for JPMorgan. A board member of a rival bank marveled at how the bank’s employees all seem “to row in the same direction.” One hedge-fund manager told me that JPMorgan’s research and trade execution is generally the best of the banks he deals with — as are the ethics of JPMorgan employees, who lack the “spiciness” of other bankers. (And this guy once sued JPMorgan over the terms of a credit-default swap!) Another customer told me that JPMorgan’s commercial banker had an intellectual depth and command of the details above other bankers and a long-term relationship focus that eschewed many of the ticky-tacky fees banks annoy their customers with. JPMorgan has achieved this through a GE-style focus on culling underperformers and an ability — thanks to its profitability — to retain long-tenured employees. It never hurts on Wall Street when you can pay people more.

Coinbase targets financially vulnerable young adults (archive)

Coinbase’s ad is not the first time that a crypto company has aired ads focused on exploiting economic insecurities. In 2022, FTX launched a Super Bowl ad starring actor Larry David. The ad shows David expressing skepticism about famous inventions throughout history, such as the wheel and the lightbulb, and arguing that they would not catch on. At the end of the ad, someone tells David about investing in crypto through FTX. “I don’t think so, and I’m never wrong about this stuff. Never,” David responds. The tagline of the video, “Don’t Miss Out,” insinuates that the invention of crypto investments is akin to the invention of coffee, forks, and toilets and that people who do not invest will miss out on a lucrative opportunity. 

Don’t applaud the COP28 climate summit’s loss and damage fund deal just yet – here’s what’s missing (archive)

While any deal on funding for climate disaster damages was sure to be portrayed as a historic win, further investigation suggests that it should be welcomed with hesitation and scrutiny.

First, the fund contains no specifics on scale, financial targets or how it will be funded. Instead, the decision merely “invites” developed nations to “take the lead” in providing finance and support and encourages commitments from other parties. It also fails to detail which countries will be eligible to receive funding and vaguely states it would be for “economic and non-economic loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow onset events.”

Stop buying things online and start feeling miserable a little—it’s for the planet. We only have one earth, and there are no returns.

What’s your enough?


Look, I know it’s fashionable to rant about the “algorithms” and how they are brainwashing us by feeding us pointless nonsense. Experts peoples tell me that by giving us what we want, the “algorithms” are turning our brains into mush. It’s a ploy by the overlords that control these algorithms to make us docile enough to control us , like puppets. In our anthropomorphized descriptions of algorithms, they are akin to Darth Vader and Moriarty. But damnit, once in a while, the algorithms feed us something really good.

The good thing the algorithms fed me this week was this wonderful conversation between the amazing John Cleese and the incredible Stephen Fry. I loved it. Maybe it’s because they are British, and there’s something about British accents—they seduce you, titillate you intellectually, and make you mentally moist.

John Cleese and Stephen Fry talk about many things, from cricket, money, and work to artificial intelligence. But the part of the conversation that I loved the most was about money—it was beautiful. There was nothing in it that you and I didn’t know about, but sometimes it takes a British accent to make us think that the obvious is profound.

Like most Indians, I grew up in a family that swung between abject poverty and a luxurious lower-middle-class lifestyle. The thing about childhood experiences is that they leave a deep imprint on us. In my journey of learning about money, a revelatory moment was when I learned that our lived experiences tend to leave long-lasting scars, thanks to Ulrike Malmendier, a professor of economics and finance at the University of California, Berkeley. Our lived experiences shape everything, from how people perceive risk to their job choices, consumption patterns, and more. It sounds obvious, but sometimes the obvious things sound like profound realizations because we ignore them because they’re obvious. I wrote a little about the long lasting scars that early experiences leave on us a few months ago when Silicon Valley Bank committed hara-kiri. A couple of weeks ago, I learned about the neurobiological basis for why early experiences leave a lasting imprint on us, thanks to neuroscience professor Robert Sapolsky.

Early experiences have lifelong and even multi-generational effects. It’s essential to understand that an individual’s environment doesn’t start at birth; a significant portion of it is shaped during the prenatal period. The impact of early-life experiences can be enduring, stretching across generations, and this is especially true for early childhood adversity. While some of its effects can be mitigated through adult intervention, the longer one waits to address them, the more challenging it becomes to reverse their impact.

Your early experience is going to cause lifelong changes in your brain, which will make you more likely to reproduce the same early experience for your offspring.

— Robert Sapolsky

Coming back to the point about money, it’s a peculiar object. In a utilitarian sense, it’s the single most uncomplicated object in life: money is a means to an end. But emotionally, boy, oh boy, is it complicated! Money can evoke a million emotions, from love, hate, and envy to shame, disgust, and misery. I can’t think of any other object or experience that can conjure up such a bhelpuri of emotions—not even the first memory of your lover’s kiss or the classical Greek sculpture of a naked rhinoceros.

Coming back to the previous point about early experiences, we are all forever tainted by the beliefs of your family and friends about money. Beliefs about money are like social pathogens. They infect our minds when we are growing up because we are blank slates. No matter what we do or how old we become, we’ll never get rid of the pathogens—there’s no vaccine. Like addicts battling addiction, we’ll have a lifelong struggle with what money means to us. Our own beliefs about money will always be anchored to those of the people around us growing up, and most of us won’t even realize it.

One reason I loved this conversation is because Stephen Fry was honest about how he thinks about money. Like most people, I have a complicated relationship with money, and listening to the conversation was a reminder to keep reminding myself about what’s important and what’s not.

The other reason I wanted to share this is because money is the single biggest cause of stress among people. Just because our beliefs about money are shaped by so many things and people doesn’t mean we accept them. We may never have the perfect relationship with money. I don’t think so, because it’s so interwoven across all facets of our lives. Money is a part of most of our life decisions; it’s everywhere, like dark matter causing a tug in our behavior.


You can get to a place where you have a functional relationship with money. It’s like if you are addicted to weed, you don’t keep it at your house but at your friend’s place. You just go there and smoke once a week. You figure out ways to deal with the nauseating and dizzying range of emotions that money causes. Even Robert Sapolsky, who thinks we have no free will, says we can change:

All of this can instill a wonderfully positive belief: that change can occur, even in the face of trauma or the most challenging circumstances. It reminds us that change is possible, that things can evolve. We should not adopt a fatalistic mindset or believe that, because we are mechanistic biological beings without free will, we cannot change ourselves. Instead, we can be transformed by our circumstances.

So, while we acknowledge that change can be incredibly difficult or seemingly impossible and that circumstances can change us, striving to be better human beings remains a worthwhile pursuit. The key is recognizing that change can happen within the framework of our mechanistic neurobiology, making us more receptive to optimism and less susceptible to discouragement.

To change, you need to ask the right questions, and for that, you have to read, listen to other people’s experiences, and think.

Stephen Fry: We’re none of us entirely wide-eyed and naive about the world; we know that about the world, and it has always been the case that money talks and that everybody has a price to some extent.

John Cleese: Do you know what Napoleon said?

Stephen Fry: No, go on.

John Cleese: He said the surprising thing is not that every man has his price but how low it is. I think that’s hilarious.

Stephen Fry: I’ve always thought the greatest power a human being can have in negotiations, whether it’s as an actor in a film as minor as that or in a huge, boardroom way, is the power to walk away. Yeah, just to be able to say, Oh no, this is not for me, and go.

Aside: This reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld and Dave Chappelle walking away from millions for their own reasons.

On the pathology of money:

John Cleese: Have you ever understood why people want to be so rich? We all want to be able to have a better bottle of wine, or we all want to have a nice car, or maybe a slightly bigger house, but I think the point of being very rich is to be able to tell people that you are very rich.

Stephen Fry: Essentially, I think it is a display. It’s very fashionable these days to look into genetics and ancestry and to picture our ancestors in a cave or in a field, you know, hunting and gathering, and we know that some part of being human is acquisition, is territorial acquisition, and whether it’s land, building a castle like this, as a display as well as a defense, and money is a defense as well as a display. It protects you from everything in the world.

John Cleese: Why such huge sums of it?

Stephen Fry: You join a sort of club in which, you know, people in the suburbs might say they’ve got a better lawnmower than I have. I’m going to have to upgrade my lawnmower. I’m going to have to upgrade my strimmer. All the sort of suburban things, keeping up with the Joneses, we call it. It’s a very…we’ve talked about that all our lives. We know it as a phenomenon. But you scale it up. You simply scale it up. And we know this is true. I mean, I can still picture the moment when I was nine and I found an old Macintosh, an old raincoat people used to wear them, and it had a 10 Shilling note in it, and the joy, yeah, the absolute joy. Now what you can’t do is scale that joy up. If I then found £100,000 in a coat, I would be astonished. I would go, “Wow,” but I wouldn’t be…um…well, 10 Shillings is, you know, half a pound, so I wouldn’t be 200,000 times happier than when I found that 1 note.

John Cleese: But people think more is better, don’t they? I mean, alcoholics think more is better.

Stephen Fry: There are many aspects of humanity where we are bound, if we’re honest, to inspect ourselves and say, “I get that. I feel like that.” But also, “I don’t feel like that.” I’ve always been very lucky with alcohol, for example. I do like a drink. I like wine. But I know I could never be an alcoholic. I just don’t like it enough. I don’t like feeling sick. I don’t like having to cope with the responsibility of apologizing the next day if I’ve been drunk. I don’t like the fact I might get a bit argumentative. So I just, you know, could never be an alcoholic. But I could be lots of other things that I do recognize faults in. And similarly with money. I mean, I like having enough money. I’ll be honest to turn left on an airplane. I think it’s the most…I still get excited by it. I still think, “Oh my goodness, I’m going first class,” and I love it. I mean, I just love it, and it’s a disgrace, and I know I shouldn’t. And I try and do this keyword carbon offsetting.

John Cleese: You used the keyword “enough.” So these very rich people have no sense of enough. Can you understand it? I mean, it’s an illness.

Stephen Fry: It is an illness.

Stephen Fry: I was born in the same year as Sugar Puffs, the cereal, right? So I… I should never forget. Yeah, I was of a generation for whom television advertising was first directed towards me when I was young, to eat Sugar Puffs and Rice Krispies and Frosties and sugary things. And I went to a school which had a Tuck Shop, you know, a little boarding school, and there were things like sherbet fountains with sherbet in it, white powder that you… you sucked in through a licorice straw. And they even extraordinarily had Spanish gallant rolling tobacco, which was coconut shreds, but it was done exactly like a rolling tobacco packet that you’d see grown-ups using, and you would have a pipe made of licorice, uh, and you would have cigarettes with red tips on the end, which were candy cigarettes. Do you remember all these sweets?

Well, you’re probably a generation older. You didn’t have quite… No, there was a… But they were so… You were being prepared for cocaine and tobacco, essentially. You were given white powder and tobacco, and I never could eat enough of that, and I would break out of school bans, go to the village shop, and buy all the fruit salads and Black Jacks and foamy shrimps and little rice paper flying saucers, and I stuffed myself. I couldn’t eat them. I… I got teeth missing here because of it.

So I… I had this empty hole in me, this vast empty hole that said, “Feed me. I need this sugar. I need it.” And then when it wasn’t sugar, it became tobacco, and I smoked. And then in my 20s, it became cocaine. I just… And I couldn’t sit still without going, you know, and it’s that addictive impulse that many people, many people watching will know what I mean. And many people won’t because this is the important thing to remember. I said, “Not everybody has this.” And it’s a kind of addictive gene. And I guess the money people have it for money. There’s this hole in them they have to acquire and they have to own.

John Cleese: They don’t know how to fill it, no. And they think if I had another 500 million, I’d be happier.

Stephen Fry: One of the things that always maddened me about self-help books and books on there is the ones that start off with “Goal orientation, set yourself goals.” And I think it’s the most dangerous and despicable, inimical thing imaginable because I don’t know a human being who, when they reach a goal they’ve set themselves, isn’t dissatisfied. Absolutely always an anticlimax.

The other thing I remembered as I was writing this was the book BalanceIt’s a wonderful book about personal finance that I read recently. I had written a small review of the book as well. The key message of the book is to think about your personal finances holistically; in other words, it’s just about money. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

Plenty of people seek success, but they don’t define it holistically. To many, like my students, success means money in the bank, a great career, or a big house on the hill. How often have you heard (or even said) something like, “That woman is so successful. She owns a massive house, a BMW, and her own law firm” Unfortunately, this picture defines only one element of success: monetary. As I see it, there are four quadrants to a successful life:

  • Having enough money
  • Maintaining strong relationships
  • Maximizing your physical and mental health
  • Living with a sense of purpose

Think of success as a four-legged table, with each leg representing a quadrant. Each quadrant depends on the other. If they don’t all play their part equally, the table collapses. If one leg is spindly or cracked, it’s tough to maximize your life satisfaction, no matter how solid you might be in the other three quadrants.

Unfortunately, when defining success, we often focus too much on the money leg.

Getting to a place where you can say “enough” is a superpower. I hope to get there.

Live players

Since I wrote about the death of social media platforms last week, I gots to address the deranged ketamine-laden elephant in the room: our lord and savior, Elon Musk. Our Lord made an appearance at the New York Times DealBook Summit, and this happened when Andrew Sorkin asked him about his recent trip to Israel:

Andrew Sorkin: What was that trip like? Obviously, you know that there’s a public perception that, and you’re clarifying this now. But there is a public perception that that was but part of a so-called apology tour. If you will, this had been said online, there was all of the criticism, there were advertisers leaving, and we talked to Bob Iger.

Elon Musk: I hope they stop you.

Andrew Sorkin: You don’t want them to advertise?

Elon Musk: No.

Andrew Sorkin: What do you mean?

Elon Musk: If somebody could try to blackmail me with advertising and blackmail me with money, go fuck yourself. Go fuck yourself. Is that clear? I hope it is. Hey, Bob. If you’re in the audience.

Andrew Sorkin: Well, let me ask you then about the economics of X if part of the underlying model, at least today, and maybe it needs to shift. Maybe the answer is it needs to shift away from advertising. If you believe that this is the one part of your business where you will be beholden to those who have this view. What do you do? Linda Yaccarino is right here, and she’s got to sell advertising.

Elon Musk: What this advertising boycott is is going to do is it’s going to kill the company. And the whole world will know that those advertisers killed the company, and we will document it in great detail.

And then this also happened:

Elon Musk: Jonathan, the only reason I’m here is because you are a friend. What was my speaking fee?

Andrew Sorkin: I’m Andrew.

I mean, a lot has been said about this weird conversation. The way I would describe it, is a masterclass in blowing $44 billion. I don’t want to waste my time rehashing it. Also, I’m not an Elon fanboy, and I don’t care much about what he says or does. I care to the extent that he owns Twitter. I care because it’s the platform where I keep track of amazing thinkers, the latest research, and discover most of the things I read. Despite it stinking more than the open-door toilet near the majestic busstand, as someone once said, Twitter is like having the smartest people in your pocket. 

It’s not a great mystery that X is in trouble. In Elon’s defense, it was decaying before his arrival, but he may have accelerated the process. Not everybody agrees; some believe Elon will magically pull a rabbit out of the hat and make Twitter better. I’m not so sanguine about that possibility, but my crystal ball is as cloudy as the next person’s.

At some level, maybe we have to care a little about what Elon does. He’s the CEO of one of the largest electric vehicle companies in the world, a rocket company, a satellite internet company, and the public toilet of the internet—Twitter (X). He’s also on a mission to spread his seed, as if he’s delivering newspapers and wants to take us to Mars after his planting season is done. So you gotta pay some attention to him—he needs it too.

Now, given his silly antics, antisemitism, and right-wing kookiness, it’s easy to dismiss him as another nutjob billionaire. But at the same time, he heads some of the most important and civilization-defining companies in the world. If you are jobless in life to worry about the contradictions and cognitive dissonance caused by our Lord and Savior, Elon, here’s a frame of thinking that may help. I recently heard political analyst Samo Burja on a podcast. He talks about the idea of live players and dead players, which I think is an interesting way to think about smart but crazy people.

Here’s what a live player is:

The most basic observation is that nearly everyone is following conventions right? You follow conventions and pre-designed scripts in your life – be it through the educational process, be it following the standards of your industry – and for the most part these conventions are in place for good reasons. Right? You don’t necessarily want, uh, your doctor improvising your treatment. Well, that is until you do – until you do have a rare condition that’s not common and that’s not well covered by the literature.

So the vast majority of society, uh, is not, uh, improvising. Right? They’re not very good at coming up with new, uh, processes, new ways of doing things on the fly. Honestly, they’re not even that good at evaluating evidence. There’s plenty of empirical evidence for this poor quality of our ability to evaluate evidence on the fly – massive literature, uh, you know, some of it even replicates in the cognitive science field and the biases literature, and so on. Uh, but also just, you know, day-to-day experience.

So why, you know, live players – right? – people who actually are always thinking from first principles. They’re remarkably rare in society. Um, but one of the best ways to sort of spot such individuals is people who easily and successfully jump multiple domains through the course of their life.

I don’t think Elon’s even listening. I think that Elon’s perspective is so first principles-driven that while he does recognize what is popular and what is not and can work with it, his decisions as to what to do next are not tied at all to the mainstream but are following, I don’t know, like, a technology tree chart derived from basic physics or his favorite science fiction story. Let’s expand through the universe; let’s have AI not kill us; let’s actually reach a new Destiny.

Samo calls Elon a live player

Live players are basically just people who can respond to circumstances as they arise, rethinking things from first principles or just a really well-known intuition.

Dead players are people who follow a preset script. It can even be a very high-quality script, so one can easily be a dead player and still be a top performer.

Why do I frame them in terms of players? Well, because you have to think about a game. Live versus dead players is a lens that helps you think through a game. You imagine a political setting, economic setting, right? Two companies competing. Uh, who’s going to win? Well identify who’s the live player and who’s the dead player. Why? Because you know the live player can always read the dead player’s rule book and then just do something more. The dead player can’t really predict what the live player will do.

In fact, live players cannot predict what live players will do. All they can do is proactively, dynamically respond to it. So if you have a competition of dead players, you look at all of their fundamentals and you bet on the one with the best fundamentals. If it’s countries competing, the biggest army, the most natural resources, whatever. As soon as you introduce a live player, they might still lose, right? There’s nothing really, you know, they might get taken out too early in the game.

But if you have like a fairly reasonable contender and they’re a live player, the advantage is so outsized it’s it’s just not even, it’s not even funny. I think it usually, you know, either economically, politically or in any other domain, you kind of need a live player to beat a live player and a dead player will just tend to lose.

Now this is not to say that live and dead players exist only in a zero-sum context.

Pair this with these two articles:

A book review of Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance (archive)

X Enters the Death Spiral (archive)

Stop trying to make a “good” social media site (archive)

I gotta agree with this brilliant piece. There’ can never be a “good “social media site. Bhuvan’s law: Human nature ensures that anything that can go to shit, will eventually.

Spinning up new social media websites mimics this, except what you are trying to outrun is human nature. No design of social media can get rid of what I like to call the “semantic nadir,” which is what you’ll inevitably experience if your tweet ever goes viral, wherein eventually someone will take your tweet in literally the worst possible way (there’s some classic examples of this, as generally if you say “I love cheesecake” it won’t be long before someone reaches to “Oh, so you hate regular cake”—that’s the semantic nadir).

Substack is more chill

There’s rampant inequality. No, there isn’t. Yes, there is.

In a development that surprised everyone in the universe, from earthlings on Earth to Cyberton, Arakkis, Vogsphere, and Tatooine, economists are fighting again. Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman became superstars for their work showing that income inequality has exploded across much of the world.

But in 2018, economists Gerald Auten and David Splinter published a new paper using the same data as Piketty, Saez, and Zucman and came to the opposite conclusion that inequality has not exploded. Their paper was recently accepted in the Journal of Political Economy (JPE) and sparked a debate on Twitter.

So, what’s happening?

This isn’t a new debate. Piketty, Saez, and Zucman have long been accused (archive) of poor methodological choices since 2014 (archive). In their defense, they’ve engaged with the critics. But let me tell you something shocking: assessing inequality trends is hard. A lot of the arguments boil down to methodological choices and data sources because good data just isn’t available. These debates are good because they can attract other researchers to look at their issues with a fresh set of eyes and improve our understanding.

I’m not the most qualified person to assess these decisions. But there are a ton of weird decisions and adjustments regarding profits and business income that are super consequential for the conclusions drawn by AS.

So the AS trends depend a lot on a large bundle of assumptions and decisions, some reasonable, some strange. Unfortunately, PSZ have the same bundle of issues. Where to go from here? — What the heck is happening to inequality VI. Inequality _never_ increased? (Archive)

You might think that analysing trends in income inequality would be straightforward. Don’t people’s tax returns tell researchers all they need to know? But although tax returns are useful, they can mislead. Americans who are partners in a company, or hold investments, often have enough trouble estimating their own income. Now imagine trying to estimate the incomes of millions of people over several decades, accounting for overhauls to the tax code. Researchers then need to account for the 30-40% of national income that is not even reported on tax returns—including some employer-provided benefits and government welfare. Researchers’ methodological choices have huge effects on the results. — Why economists are at war over inequality (archive)

A new study says much of the rise in inequality is an illusion. Should you believe it? (archive)

Vincent Geloso critiquing Piketty and Saez

India: how COVID enabled new forms of economic abuse of women (archive)

I have been researching economic violence in India, where it surged during periods of social distancing and lockdowns. This not only resulted in the reduction of safe spaces for women and girls, but also trapped them in a space where they were more easily economically exploited. My research suggests that the COVID lockdowns spawned a whole new class of economic abuse of women in India.

How Javier Milei Upended Argentina’s Politics. If he wins the presidency, the far-right libertarian will have young voters to thank (archive)

Outside economics, Milei has also voiced support for liberalizing gun laws and greenlighting the sale of organs. Years ago, he floated a “free market” for the sale of babies, an idea he has since distanced himself from. In line with his anarcho-capitalist beliefs, Milei has pledged to cut 10 federal ministries, privatize state industries, and dismantle the public health care system in favor of private alternatives. Foreign policy wouldn’t be spared from major changes, either: Milei has suggested he would distance Argentina from Brazil and China, the country’s two biggest trading partners, and align closely with the United States and Israel.

This notion of markets for everything from organs to babies reminds me of Michael Sandel’s brilliant lecture, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (archive).”

These three cases—the commodification of books, the privatization of prisons, the commercialization of governments and universities—illustrate one of the most powerful social and political tendencies of our time, namely the extension of markets and of market-oriented thinking to spheres of life once thought to lie beyond their reach.

I highly recommend his article in the Boston Review (archive) on the same topic:

This economistic view of virtue fuels the faith in markets and propels their reach into places they don’t belong. But the metaphor is misleading. Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles that grow stronger with exercise. One of the defects of a market-driven society is that it lets these virtues languish. To renew our public life we need to exercise them more strenuously.

YouTube and Reels Could Decide India’s Elections. Major political parties in India are courting social media influencers to reach rural voters, paying for reach and dodging tough questions (archive)

From fluffy interviews on YouTube podcasts with millions of subscribers to subliminal attacks on Instagram Reels, the political parties in India are betting big on influencers to swing voting patterns, manage crises, and help them secure power as the world’s largest democracy gears up for state elections this month, and a national election in 2024. It’s a strategy that makes sense—622 million Indians are online, and with the cost of internet access falling, people from India’s harder-to-reach hinterlands are coming online fast. Two-thirds of the population lives in these areas, giving them enormous power to sway the results of national elections. And while the symbiotic relationship between political campaigns and influencers has allowed politicians to reach the electorate in new ways, and to influence how they vote, it’s also helped them to dodge media scrutiny during public engagement and to challenge the integrity of elections in I had written about the scourge of influencers in the content of finance.

I had written about the scourge of influencers (archive) in the content of finance.

Washington’s Looming Middle Eastern Quagmire (archive)

As the Biden administration has doubled down on the surge of additional U.S. arms and forces to the Middle East, however, it is not clear that U.S. policymakers have thought through the second- and third-order effects of amplifying the United States’ security role in the region and how it will be perceived by adversaries and allies alike. Specifically, there are three risks that the Biden administration must acknowledge and address: escalation, backlash, and overstretch.

In things that will make us die

An unruly OPEC is causing problems for Russia and Saudi Arabia (archive)

Opec’s market-share strategy last time round helped discipline America’s oil producers, pushing them to become more efficient and therefore more resistant to future squeezes. JPMorgan Chase, a bank, reckons that the cost of getting oil out of the American ground has declined by more than one-third since 2014. The country’s oilmen have found methods to fracture rocks that produce more fissures, easing the extraction of oil, and now drill deeper wells that have longer lifespans.

The UAE guys must have seen Glengarry Glen Ross.

The United Arab Emirates’ team organizing the COP28 climate talks that begin this week was planning to use its position as host of the summit to strike new oil and gas deals with foreign governments, a cache of leaked documents shows. — CNN

Oil and Politics in the Mid-Transition (archive)

This article is a transcript of a discussion on the energy transition. I’ve yet to watch the video, but I read the transcript, and it’s fascinating.

A few highlights:

  • Oil has become less inelastic thanks to new technologies and electric vehicles.
  • We may not face shortages of critical commodities required for energy transition as many people assume. Also, they are less bad than the oil industry would like us to believe. Like Indian found a massive lithium deposit, “commodities have a way of showing up when somebody needs them.”
  • We’re in an era of “actor less threats” like the COVID pandemic and climate change. 
  • The world economy may be entering this mid-transition, unstable phase. This is happening even as climate impacts and other impacts of the polycrisis worsen. In this context, there’s a real risk of the world economy being increasingly exposed to cross-border risks of an economic and financial nature, which would deepen fragmentation.
  • In my view, the focus on winners and losers is missing a very big blind spot, which is that we’re facing a huge collective action trap related to political economy. Neither the middle classes in high-income economies nor the majority of developing economies have the means in the current international institutional configuration to achieve the transition. We are seeing the simultaneous occurrence of significant costs related to climate policies and rules of the game that prevent many countries from achieving a rapid transition. The risk is that this could give rise to a significant political backlash.
  • That’s why I think there’s a blind spot on this discussion about winners and losers—because we will all be losers, in an absolute sense, if the current configuration persists. That is because we are likely to see these very significant binding constraints materialize both on resources and supply chains. 
  • There’s also the issue with China—much like a lot of other countries and particularly the US—where it is a large domestic producer of a lot of fossil commodities, but also newer energy products. This, of course, has very big macro implications for anyone who trades with China in commodities. 
  • We see the risk of a trap because of numerous cross-border feedback loops. To give you one example, the materialization of physical climate risks hit hydropower in Latin America, directly leading to a buildup of fossil infrastructure to offset that. Multiple countries face sovereign debt crises arising from different sources, which have led to an inflow of foreign direct investment into extractive sectors to address these countries’ foreign currency needs. There are also huge gas projects in Argentina. The climate crisis will continue to be fueled by all this.
  • China has been building up its petroleum reserves like crazy during COVID. As soon as they stopped, the market kind of fell out of bed. In a weird way, China’s been acting like a covert central bank of oil
  • I think about all these discussions in terms of priorities. There’s almost no country in the world where climate change is an actual political and social priority. And if you don’t have something prioritized then you’re not going to get very much done about it. 
  • If EVs are not affordable, you can’t leave a big chunk of the US middle class without freedom to move around.
  • I liked what Alex said about this convergence of interests. That’s why you see the military in the US talking about climate and security. And what Amy said—of course, it’s exactly right that you asked, what will it take to take climate seriously? War is one thing. But to go back to my point, we can use things people really care about—like security, like air and water pollution, and like economic development—as prime motivators that will help the climate as well. You can get some of these happy coalitions. But if you insist on transacting everything through a climate lens, it is, in my view, not the most powerful nor the most effective way to make those transitions.

On that note, an interesting chart from the Our World in Data digest. I added India, China, Brazil, Canada, and Italy.

Does reducing CO2 emissions mean sacrificing economic growth? Or can we “decouple” the two, by both growing the economy and reducing emissions?

The answer is yes: many countries have managed to achieve economic growth while reducing emissions.

You can see several examples in the chart: it shows the change in annual CO2 emissions and GDP per capita since 1990. In these countries, GDP has increased over the last 30 years while emissions have fallen. You can also see the data without per capita adjustments.

But is this all due to offshoring production overseas — transferring emissions to manufacturing economies such as China and India?

In the chart, we see that consumption-based CO2 emissions — which adjust for emissions from goods that are imported or exported — have also fallen. It’s true that some emissions have been offshored overseas, but that is not the only driver of the decline.

Will China save the planet or destroy it? (archive)

That’s it for this week. Please hold your farts and do your part to save the planet.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén