Making It Up As You Go Along

One of them's bound to be right

Two articles that could have come from different universes were actually written in the same week.  The first is a Washington Post article describing how president Obama, aware of Russian plans to influence the 2016 election “choked” by not responding forcefully, lulled by “the assumption that Clinton would win” anyway.  The second article by Emile Simpson at Foreign Policy warns that Trump may be stumbling into a war involving the very same Russia.


They are representative of stories that depict the administration either at Putin’s throat or at his feet, in collusion or conflict with the Kremlin.  Although this is contradictory nobody seems to notice. In fact both can simultaneously be true if you assume the political system is inconsistent, as if driven by a random number generator.  That may in fact be the case.  The entire political system, not just Trump administration, is zig-zagging through public policy.

Ten years ago one could predict what the official (and unofficial) story would be in any situation. By contrast today’s headlines are often absolutely contradictory, a situation that has made it hard for pundits to write anything intelligent about current events.  Some have given up or seemingly had a nervous breakdown.  This randomness is telling because it is indicative of  a narrative in disarray. Unpredictability is exactly what you’d expect during a paradigm shift and observing it may even proof you’re inside of one.  We are lost.

What does one do when lost?  What should politicians stripped of a narrative do in a world in disarray?  For the most part they pretend not to notice the dangers gathering round them, like a frightened man whistling past the graveyard. Politicians are never lost.

The more honest and sagacious will try to determine some direction of improvement in order to find a way back to some new equilibrium.  There are a number of rules of thumb they might attempt. One can imagine a world restored to order and mentally retrace the steps from that idealized state backward to our current predicament.  Alternatively we can identify a common sense improvements and construct strategy extending these ad infinitum.  The more contemplative can create a theory of why we fell into the present condition and work out our salvation intellectually.


But in each case we need a direction of betterment.  That is not so easy to find.  Recently California tried — and failed — pass a single payer health care bill as an alternative to the Obamacare replacement. They just as quickly shelved it.  “California will not be instituting single-payer health care anytime soon.”  It would have been wonderful if California had actually attempted it for there is no proof of the superiority or inferiority of single-payer so convincing as an actual experiment.  But it was mostly for show. The bill was “woefully incomplete … never presented cost estimates or a detailed plan for how to finance it” probably because they didn’t know where to find the $400 billion needed to make it work. Despite their show outward of confidence their compass was as baffled as anyone else’s.

Where a direction of improvement cannot be found, one solution is simply to do nothing and wait for something to improve. This is not as crazy as it seems.  After all, lost hikers are advised to stay where they are.  The crews of disabled submarines were trained to wait for help and attempt a individual escape only as a last resort. Inactivity is rational when the direction of “better” is unknown because there are many more random ways to worsen a position than to alleviate it.  So it’s sometimes better to do nothing when you don’t know what you’re doing.

This is because of the Anna Karenina principle: “a successful endeavor … is one where every possible deficiency has been avoided.”  Or as Aristotle put it “it is possible to fail in many ways … while to succeed is possible only in one way.”  Because the space of wrong answers is so much bigger than that of correct answers sitting tight keeps you safe until rescue can arrive — if it arrives.


Rescue sometimes comes in the form of hidden progress, through innovations and improvements that creep up unnoticed in human history.  Many of humanity’s most seemingly insoluble problems were fixed not by politicians but by ordinary unheralded people.  Malthus was invalidated by the British agricultural and industrial revolutions.  In 1900 experts predicted New York would be buried in horse manure.  Then someone invented the automobile.  In 1968 Paul Erlich warned “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. … nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate”. Yet by the 21st century Third World obesity from American fast food imperialism was the principal complaint of the Left.   In the 1980s many experts predicted the world would run out of oil in a few decades.  Has it happened? For forty years it seemed the Soviet Union and the Cold War would last forever until Ronald Reagan came along.

The “experts” don’t always call the it right. If you had told someone in the late 20th century the 21st century would be convulsed by religious warfare they would have laughed at you.

The idea of merely avoiding the catastrophic as a solution is not so stupid.  Even progressives may be served.  Who knows but we’ll invent a robot economy where our mechanical slaves can be taxed at 99.999% for income transfers to humans.  Getting college, health care, food etc for free is really a good idea marred by the single problem of who’s going to pay for it.


Of course help doesn’t always come. “More than 99 percent of all species, amounting to over five billion species, that ever lived on Earth are estimated to be extinct.”  For the vast majority the wheel of fortune spun and they lost. All the same the strategy of avoiding catastrophe and hoping for the best is a perfectly rational one.  It’s just not guaranteed to succeed.

The strategy of waiting out the crisis may be difficult when ideologues or other fanatics are present since by definition they always know the way out of each and every crisis on ideological or doctrinal grounds.  However murky the circumstances they will be pressing for their chosen policy to be adopted.  They are like the sailors who want to open the hatch of the sunken submarine underwater convinced the world outside is being stashed by the Man, like one of those movies set in a post apocalyptic shelter where the protagonist gradually comes to believe it is all normal without.  With ideology things don’t have to make sense.

Whether ideologues succeed in convincing the crew to open the hatch depends to a large extent on whether people can be made to see the promise of their sometimes fruitless individual attempts to improve things.  A world in crisis can self-immolate on its own despair.  By contrast a society that persists in seeking a solution just might make it.  Joseph Giovanelli argued that faith might have evolved because an indomitable optimism favored survival. Perhaps the secret to living in crazy times is to keep trying. It’s the human condition; one that might work for us.


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Support the Belmont Club by purchasing from Amazon through the links below.


The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis – and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, by Ben Sasse. In this book, Sasse diagnoses the causes of a generation that can’t grow up and offers a path for raising children to become active and engaged citizens. He identifies many of the coming-of-age activities that have defined the American experience since the Founding that young people should pursue but have skipped altogether – hard work to appreciate the benefits of labor, travel to understand deprivation and want, the power of reading, leaving home to start a family, becoming economically self-reliant ― and explains how parents can encourage them. The statistics are daunting: 30% of college students drop out after the first year, and only 4 in 10 graduate. One in three 18-to-34 year-olds live with their parents. Sasse believes these phenomena are an existential threat to the American way of life.

Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden. The first battle book from the author of Black Hawk Down, Hue 1968 is the story of the centerpiece of the Tet Offensive and a turning point in the American War in Vietnam. Using war archives in the US and Vietnam and interviews with participants from both sides, Bowden narrates each stage of this crucial battle through multiple viewpoints. The battle, which included the most intense urban combat since World War 2, played out over 24 days and ultimately cost 10,000 lives. It was the bloodiest of the entire war.


The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb, by Neal Bascomb. Based on a trove of top secret documents and never-before-seen diaries and letters of the saboteurs, this book is a chronicle of a brilliant scientist, a band of spies on skies, perilous survival in the wild, sacrifice for one’s country, Gestapo manhunts, soul-crushing setbacks, and a last-minute operation that would end any chance Hitler could obtain the atomic bomb – and alter the course of the war.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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