harold lee


There’s a phrase going around that you should “buy experiences, not things.” People, it’s claimed, think that having a lot of stuff is what’s going to make them happy. But they’re mistaken. A Lamborghini may be fun to drive for the first days or weeks, but pretty soon it fades into the background of your life. The drive to accumulate stuff is an evolutionary relic that no longer fits our modern situation. Better to embrace minimalism and focus on immaterial things like experiences, whose memories you can treasure forever.

While I appreciate the Stoic-style appraisal of what really brings happiness, economically, this analysis seems precisely backward. It amounts to saying that in an age of industrialization and globalism, when material goods are cheaper than ever, we should avoid partaking of this abundance. Instead, we should consume services afflicted by Baumol’s cost disease, taking long vacations and getting expensive haircuts which are just as hard to produce as ever.

Put that way, the focus on minimalism sounds like a new form of conspicuous consumption. Now that even the poor can afford material goods, let’s denigrate goods while highlighting the remaining luxuries that only the affluent can enjoy and show off to their friends.

But I think there’s more to it than that. The advocates of the new minimalism are, by and large, urban dwellers, tied to stratospheric real estate markets in prime locations. (Prime locations are, tellingly, never considered material “things” to be shunned.) In a downtown studio, one simply cannot afford to have that many material goods. As the dream of homeownership fades further away, it makes total sense to economize by buying a few, high-quality items and just accept the loss of capability from not having, say, a well stocked toolshed. But what cities can provide are experiences, both new and interesting events in town and opportunities for international travel. So “buy experiences, not things” is less a bold new philosophy than a mere rationalization of life choices that people have already been forced to adopt.

But what this rationalization ignores is the extent to which tools and possessions enable new experiences. A well-appointed kitchen allows you to cook healthy meals for yourself rather than ordering delivery night after night. A toolbox lets you fix things around the house and in the process learn to appreciate how our modern world was made. A spacious living room makes it easy for your friends to come over and catch up on one another’s lives. A hunting rifle can produce not only meat, but also camaraderie and a sense of connection with the natural world of our forefathers. In truth, there is no real boundary between things and experiences. There are experience-like things; like a basement carpentry workshop or a fine collection of loose-leaf tea. And there are thing-like experiences, like an Instagrammable vacation that collects a bunch of likes but soon fades from memory.

Indeed, much of what is wrong with our modern lifestyles is, in a sense, a matter of overconsuming experiences. The sectors of the economy that are becoming more expensive every year – which are preventing people from building durable wealth – include real estate and education, both items that are sold by the promise of irreplaceable “experiences.” Healthcare, too, is a modern experience that is best avoided. As a percent of GDP, these are the growing expenditures that are eating up people’s wallets, not durable goods. If we really want to live a minimalist life, then forget about throwing away boxes of stuff, and focus on downsizing education, real estate, and healthcare.

Nobody seems to have a complete program to escape the experience economy rat race, but if there is a solution, it may very well involve making good use of the material abundance we now have. If you have a space for entertaining and are intentional about building up a web of friendships, you can be independent from the social pull of expensive cities. Build that network to the point of introducing people to jobs, and you can take the edge off, a little, of the pressure for credentialism. If you have a functional kitchen and a home gym (or tennis rackets or cross-country skis), you might reduce your dependence on healthcare.

So I would, if anything, reverse the maxim: “Buy things, not experiences!” Sure, the Lambo might still be a waste of money, but thoughtfully chosen material goods can enable new activities can enrich your life, extend your capabilities, and deepen your understanding of the world. And if ever more affordable material goods can build up a measure of independence from the ever more expensive services that actually consume people’s income, that would be a trade to be proud of.

I once worked with a doctor who spent the entire morning complaining about the cost of 30k Montessori preschool for his two kids, as well as unstated expenses for his part-time housekeeper. Fortunately, his wife is also a doctor, so with her second income they’re making an extra $120k, post-tax $80k, post preschool $20k, post housekeeper…let’s be generous and say $10k.

Stuff is cheap, people are expensive

I’ve got a few friends who went through business school, and as one might expect, they talk about success a lot. Not just how to succeed, in business, but what success looks like in modern society. When you break it down, people seem to have very different ideas of what success means – does it mean staying cashflow positive as a single person, supporting a family at an upper-middle class level, or kicking back on your private island? But one thing that everyone agrees on is that families are expensive.

So why is that? Let’s take a look at a study breaking down the costs of raising a child in 1960 and today:

Childrearing Costs, 1960 and Today

Material goods – food, clothing, and transportation – have gotten dramatically cheaper even as their quality has improved year on year. At the same time, the cost of healthcare and childcare/education have together more than quadrupled, and housing, the largest expense, has remained roughly constant.

The overall pattern here is that stuff is cheap, people are expensive. Wherever we’re buying a straightforward material good, with minimal change in social technology, things have gotten much cheaper in the past half-century. Clothing, which has almost halved in price, is probably the purest example.

But why have other categories gotten expensive? Well, healthcare is its own little bundle of brokenness, so let’s set that aside. Instead let’s look at childcare/education, which has shot up, and housing, which remains puzzlingly stagnant for what should be a product of physical technology, enjoying the same improvements as other material goods.

The increase in childcare expenses is largely driven by the rise of dual-earner households, childcare being part of the cost of working moms. (It’s worth noting that dual-earner households also probably prevented the decline in food expenses from being as dramatic as the decline in clothing expenses. Here, gains from technology and globalization are partly clawed back by greater reliance on prepared foods and eating out as women no longer have as much time to cook.)

Rising education expenditures are largely due to inflating college costs and increasingly mandatory college attendance, the results of higher education dysfunction and inefficient constraints on companies’ hiring practices that force them to rely on expensive credentials.

Housing costs are largely driven by zero-sum competition for good school districts and safe neighborhoods, which were in much greater supply in 1960. It’s true that houses have gotten larger, reflecting improved construction technology, so people are getting more house for their money. But part of the reason people are buying more house than they used to is that they’re using laws that indirectly discriminate against people you’d rather not have as neighbors, since the most effective ways to discriminate against bad neighbors have become infeasible. Minimum lot sizes, maximum occupancies, various environmental initiatives, and migration to exurbs all increase the amount of housing purchased. But people are buying more house not because they intrinsically like McMansions, but because what they’re buying is good neighbors and good peers for their children. Right now, McMansions are now the easiest way to do that.

In an age of globalization and continued improvement in material technology, it should be cheaper than ever to support a large family. But we end up giving up these gains and then some by having to throw cash at social technology failures, in a way that extends well past Baumol’s cost disease. The escalating cost of acceptable educations and houses in acceptable neighborhoods is not a fact baked into the universe, but a tax that we pay for dysfunction in the education and job market and our inability to maintain public cooperation without income-based segregation. More precisely, they represent a silent, unreported form of inflation.

The formal way to calculate inflation is to ask how much things cost, and track the prices over time. For potatoes and t-shirts, this formula works fine. By adding some mildly questionable but broadly accepted adjustments for changes in quality, you can even track the costs of cars and iPads over time. But when you’re looking at spending on social technology, this sort of robotic calculation breaks down. What people are buying with education is not a year of instruction in a Gothic building, it’s a credential that helps guarantee their employability. What people are buying with a house isn’t a pile of timber and concrete, it’s a space to live and raise children in a congenial environment. And these prices have been relentlessly increasing.

Two-income trap, one-income solution

Now, you can complain about these failures and push for political change. But it’s also entirely possible to solve them yourself by replacing these institutions at home and through local community. Parenting can replace daycare. Strong communities can replace ritzy housing. And homeschooling, either solo or in community, can replace schooling.

Now, to make this happen pretty much requires that one parent, almost always the woman, give up a traditional career track. This doesn’t preclude working. But it does mean the departing from the standard view of a life-fulfilling career that demands primary dedication and in exchange provides a narrative and social role for your life. Rather, she should treat work as a straightforward exchange of time and effort for money.

Doing this produces underappreciated benefits. For one, it can save a great deal of money; indeed, as our opening anecdote illustrates the “shadow housewife salary” can be very competitive with a market wage. One interesting thing about the housewife premium is that it scales almost linearly with class. While the opportunity cost for a high-income couple to give up the wife’s income is higher, so too are their expected domestic expenditures for things that a housewife can produce herself. For the average household, the shadow housewife wage is something on the order of cheap daycare, meal prep, and fixing inefficiencies at home, which can approach the median female pretax income of $40k. As the income scales up, you expect to spend more on things like housing, schooling, and maid service, and the housewife premium increases commensurately. If the family is willing to homeschool – admittedly a large step – they could also save on the real estate premium of good school districts, which in larger cities runs to several hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In many cases, too, home production is simply qualitatively superior to the market alternative. Parenting is better than daycare and local community is better than fancy neighborhoods, for the same reason that a nursing home is no substitute for a loving child taking care of her parents. And there are many other benefits besides these headline ones. Home cooking can be cheaper, healthier, and more personalized than eating out or precooked meals. Having a single person focused on making the home run smoothly can problem-solve and wring out efficiencies in ways that are simply impossible for two willpower-depleted employees.

Finally, a housewife can add value simply by not having a career that needs prioritization. In an age of multiple career jumps, two earnest careerists often can’t make the geographic moves that would be ideal for their careers – if, say, he’s a coder who’s best off in the Bay Area while her law firm has a plum opening in Atlanta. The job of a housewife, by contrast, is location independent, freeing up a single-income family to go all-in on optimizing that one income.

Indeed, there’s widespread vague desire for this sort of life – a life both more gracious and civilized, and one that empowers people to shape their home life to their liking, rather than being stuck with what life hands us as defaults. Reality show producers, fingers ever on the pulse of the collective id, have produced a proliferation of cooking shows and home makeover/fixer-upper shows. Interior decorating blogs and Pinterests abound. [1]

And it’s not only women who find a more domestically-oriented life preferable. Consider the dream of many tech workers: to have a “reasonable” ~10m exit from their company and not have to work again. From there, their dreams have a lot in common with the stereotypical housewife. They want to flexibly spend time with their family, devote energy to their hobbies, get involved in community projects, gossip groups. Now, their hobbies might be paleo dieting rather than crochet, their community projects might be nonprofits rather than PTAs, and their gossip groups might be angel investors rather than morning powerwalkers. But the outlines of this aspirational lifestyle remain the same.

And yet, a housewife’s lifestyle does not have to be aspirational. Martha Stewart may be one-of-a-kind, but any family can choose to live in a less-sprawling house, invest in community relationships, cook fresh meals at home, and look after their own kids. But, crucially, to make this work requires an entire cultural package and the community to support it.

Consider the example of the dual-doctor couple we started out with. There’s certainly no financial barrier to them reverting to one income. But nevertheless, the social barriers are high. They invested their youth in medical training, which means in practice that their social ties are primarily with other doctors, without a durable community outside the hospital. In this milieu, the wife would be taking a huge social hit upon becoming a housewife. Even though she’d have more free time to socialize, she’d miss most of the serendipitous social encounters that can be found only at work, and doesn’t know people outside work to compensate for it. Her working friends, at any rate, will be too busy working to meet up frequently.

And so, boredom. Running a household may have been a full-time job in 1900, but since the advent of dishwashers and washing machines, it’s no longer a full-time job. The ‘50s housewife had PTA meetings and groups of friends to fill her time; our doctor-housewife today largely no longer has these things. Churches and meetup groups do exist, but the sorts of professionals that end up as doctors and the like are precisely the sort of people who spent their youth grinding for the MCAT and not investing in them. To the extent that women are pressured to have it all, it’s far more dangerous to underinvest in your career, where your performance is measured quarterly and promotions are public, than in family, where consequences emerge years or decades later and dysfunction can be papered over for public view with a few professional Facebook photos.

Having been seeped in a culture where medical prowess (and more broadly, money and career) is the consensus status metric, it would also be a struggle for her to have an internal narrative of why what she does as a housewife is meaningful – something important both for other people to understand and for herself. The main thing keeping this couple in a dual-income household is the shackles of social poverty, not the lure of material success.

Elizabeth Warren talks about the two income trap, the idea that the middle class is still financially struggling despite having moved from one or two. She’s right on the description. Not only has GDP not doubled from doubling the number of workers, but declining social technology has actually increased the cost of having a family. But perhaps the answer is simple – not easy, but simple – the way out of the two income trap is to return to one income families. But to do that requires not only individual will but a community of families who can provide social ties, support one another, and provide an alternate narrative of the good life.

[1] While many women are indeed focused on career today, ambition is more flexible than you’d think. If the high-status thing for an adult woman was to be an excellent mother and a pillar of informal community institutions, we’d see lots of current happy career women happily pursuing a housewife’s lifestyle, just as the mainstream of Austen’s women were happily chasing pianoforte skills and marriages to wealthy men. In such a world, it’s entirely possible for a woman who legitimately loves a particular field of work (rather than the status we currently give to careers) to pursue advanced-amateur work in that area, but only the Emmy Noethers of the world would strongly desire to do so.

David Graeber wrote a piece On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs which niggled at me for a long time. On one hand, anyone who has worked has seen people doing work that didn’t really need to exist. On the other hand, the way he catalogued bullshit jobs rang false to me. He singles out administration, financial services, academia, and public relations, among others, as entirely bullshit fields. But this seems cartoonish – of course there are scammers in every line of work, but a civilization that hanged all the administrators would quickly rediscover the importance of coordination.

I think a better way of approaching the problem is to start with this axiom: a bullshit job is a job whose demand is artificially created. And in practice, there is a sliding scale of bullshit. On the pure-bullshit side, you have “rubber room” jobs, where incompetent employees are placed with nothing to do except stare at the walls, in the hope that they will quit in shame and in the meantime encourage the others. Another example would be the sort of jobs you’d imagine giving the boss’s idiot son. In both cases, the work creates no value to the company, and you couldn’t imagine a company waking up one morning and deciding to hire someone off the street to do this work. The demand is entirely driven by the political considerations within the company.

For the next level, imagine the economics textbook example of two women who start off as stay at home moms, taking care of their children, and decide instead to babysit for one another instead. Suddenly they become employees, and GDP goes up, even though they’re doing exactly the same work as before. Unlike the rubber room workers, these women are doing real work. If one of them were to jet off to Tahiti, diapers would start to pile up and people would notice. Still, their “job” is in a real sense bullshit – they are no more productive than they were before.

The next level is even more subtle. Let’s take the example of the Joint Strike Fighter, the bloated project aiming to produce the next generation of fighter planes. With an estimated program cost of $1 trillion and an estimated unit cost almost 5 times that of the F-15, the program has been plagued by absurd cost overruns. Now, if we look at the engineers working on the project, they seem to be doing serious, non-bullshit work. These are smart guys working on real technical problems, and at the end of the day fighter planes are in fact rolling out of the factories. And yet, if we had a government that was competent at planning a project like this, four out of five of them would be out of a job. Contra Graeber, bullshit jobs aren’t a matter of how technical or sexy a job appears. Despite being STEM-based, working on cool projects, and ultimately producing results, these engineers’ jobs only exist because of demand driven by political incompetence – they are to a large extent bullshit.

And this leads us to a whole swath of government jobs, which aren’t characterized by hilarious cost overruns but are still largely created by artificial demand. Tyler Cowen in The Great Stagnation points out the real difficulty in figuring out how to value the activities of government. $100 worth of work by a Health and Human Services bureaucrat, while perhaps not devoid of value, seems less certain to yield objective value than $100 of jeans. But if we’re going to be skeptical that bureaucrat, we need to turn skepticism much farther afield. Many of the people who read this essay have jobs that are paid for by the government. Academics who are dependent on government grants, doctors who are dependent on payments from Medicare and ACA-mandated private insurance, civil and environmental engineers whose companies live and die by government contracts – the list goes on.

The tricky thing is that these jobs are only partially bullshit. Doctors, for example, do a lot of valuable work, and even in your preferred utopia, doctors would still be needed. But the way the medicine is practiced is inevitably distorted by its status as an outsourced government job. Medicine has to be done in a way that is legible to a Medicare bureaucrat. Incredible amounts of effort are spent on licensing and credentialing. And hospital billing departments wage endless trench warfare with private insurance companies, whose own bureaucrats are fighting to find reasons to deny payment to hospitals – a perverse set of incentives that exists only because of the way the government has set up healthcare.

There’s a real sense in which every one of these jobs is a vital one, at least in the Rube Goldberg way things are set up now. A hospital that fired half its billing department would soon cease to remain solvent. A doctor who practiced medicine without regard to Medicare regulations would soon find himself without a license. And somehow, in between all this nonsense, doctors and nurses find time to actually take care of patients. But it’s hard to look at all of this and say that this is really the best way we could be doing things. In a well-managed healthcare system, things would be a lot more streamlined – and lots of those billing department cubicles would be vacant.

Now, putting on one’s libertarian hat, the obvious counterargument to the notion of bullshit jobs is “if these jobs are so useless, why not start a company without them, and corner the market?” The fact is, many institutions that provide both the jobs are in fact quite efficient – efficient at meeting the artificial demand of government contracts. The engineers at Lockheed Martin are, to all appearances, working hard at the problems assigned to them. The problem is not that they are slacking off, the problem is that their assignments are asinine. And there’s no way to profit from that dysfunction, short of trying to start a competing government.

Elon Musk is at once a challenge to and an exemplar of this phenomenon. By forming SpaceX, he demonstrated that there was tremendous slack in the way that Boeing and Lockheed Martin had been fulfilling their launch contracts for NASA. Because of his superior ability to organize a launch company, he has been able to outcompete the existing contractors, stealing a sizable chunk of their contracts. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that SpaceX is still in the business of landing government contracts – chasing the artificial demand driven by NASA. (Private satellite launch contracts are a growing but still small portion of their revenues.) And even if you just want to fight existing contractors head to head, it seems like the table stakes are on the order of “founding two successful tech companies and being Elon Musk.”

This picture is more complex than the one painted by Graeber. There aren’t, for the most part, a cabal of obvious villains or laughably pointless jobs. With the exception of the rubber room, most of these jobs have a logic of their own – there is good reason for each of them to exist in the complex ecology that is the modern economy. There is very little you, as a private citizen, can do, either to tear down bullshit jobs or outcompete them as an entrepreneur. But this picture does leave us with some takeaways.

For one, our economy is driven by artificial demand to a much greater extent than most people realize. The government itself only employs a limited number of people. But huge swathes of the economy, including the modern growth industries of education and healthcare, only exist in their present form because of government spending and government mandates. Western countries may have an aesthetic preference for channeling this artificial demand through nominally private entities, such as aerospace companies, hospitals, and universities. But in a real sense these engineers, doctors, and professors have government jobs, the same sort of government job as your stereotypical paper-pushing bureaucrat. They may still do valuable work, just as some bureaucrats do, but much of their work has a large admixture of bullshit – and in a sane world wouldn’t exist.

A corollary: since the demand here is artificial, the jobs themselves are political artifacts. We’re used of thinking of jobs as roles that emerge as people figure out how to fulfil existing demands. But to a certain frame of mind, “jobs” are commodities to be doled out. We understand this perspective when politicians scheme to place army bases and VA hospitals in key congressional districts, but it extends further than that. Debates over issues as far-flung as the appropriate level of education spending, the role of nurse practitioners, and the value of massage therapy are thinly laundered debates about how much artificial demand to create for bullshit jobs.

A final lesson here is that qualitative economics has an important role in helping us understand how the world works. The problems with GDP as a metric of well-being are well known. But even a statistician who is willing to look at, say, “GDP minus government” will miss many of the ripple effects that these distortions have on the economy. He might note the dollar value of Medicare payments, but include billing managers as purely private-sector workers, not noticing that the demand for their work is in large part driven by government regulations. Quantitative economics can get as part of the way towards understanding the world, but if we want to truly understand what sorts of work are socially valuable, we have to be comfortable thinking qualitatively about how individual jobs work, why they exist, and what social value they create.

Back in the 60s, one group of protesters tried a novel strategy to attack the big banks that they hated. They distributed flyers around town telling everyone to withdraw their entire savings from one particular bank at a preordained time. In effect, they were trying to create an artificial run on the bank, with a small core of ideologically committed people helping to set off a mass panic and withdrawal.

For various reasons, this protest ended up not working – maybe there weren’t enough people on board, or maybe the bank got wind of this ahead of time and build up enough reserves that triggering the run became unfeasible. But what’s remarkable about this story is that these protesters had a specific plan to gain power. They were not just pamphleting and picketing because that’s what protesters are expected to do; rather, they started with a goal in mind and used in their understanding of the financial system to actually try to achieve those goals for themselves.

Compare that to the recent spate of campus protests, from Oberlin students protesting cultural appropriation in their cafeteria food to Princeton students demanding that Woodrow Wilson’s name be swapped out for a leftist of more recent provenance. They do hold a few rallies, likely because rallies have become part of the grammar for any political group. But beyond that, they’re taking no direct action to actually try to achieve those goals. Instead, these “protestors” act more like petitioners. They write blog posts, look for signatures on petitioners, and entreat with professors. Rather than trying to take what is theirs from the hands of an illegitimate authority, they try to persuade authorities, who they view as entirely legitimate, to see things their way.

Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning wrote an insightful paper contrasting three different moral regimes. In an honor culture, you’re supposed to defend your honor through your own personal efforts. In a dignity culture, insults have less impact, and you’re supposed to delegate enforcement to agreed-upon civic institutions. In a victim culture, insults matter a great deal once again, but the correct response is to assume a powerless victim role and basically passively request that powerful other people, usually institutions, step in and do something about it.

Now, I think for student protestors, this is usually the objectively correct strategy in that it implicitly recognizes that universities are both way more powerful than the protest movements, and have large internal factions that are likely to be sympathetic to their petition. So assuming a victim role is an efficient way to get things done.

But at the same time, it speaks to a student culture that has internalized powerlessness, cowardice, and lack of agency. The world is way bigger than you, and your only hope to get things done is to passively broadcast your grievances and hope that some other institution takes up your fight.

These are the kids at elite schools in one of the richest countries in the world – if anyone should feel like they have agency, it should be these guys. Perhaps they’re insulated in a bubble that’s force-feeding them signals to conform. Perhaps they’re reacting to a real phenomenon of elite overproduction, so they are correctly insecure about their future and pessimistic about their abilities. But it should be a remarkable fact that our future elites have internalized the idea that taking action on their own is futile, and that they can only do something remarkable if they make the proper petitions to vast formless institutions.

Mild spoilers for Submission follow.

Halfway through the novel Submission, the narrator’s parents die in quick succession. But this is not a novel about the death of his parents, and these events are a narrative sideshow. François’s parents are divorced and he hasn’t seen either of them in years. The news, therefore, reaches him not through family or friends but through the dull prose of bureaucratic paperwork:

Finally, on July 11 the city informed me that pursuant to article L 2223-27 of the General Local Authorities code, the city had deposited my mother’s body in the common division of the municipal cemetery. I had five years to order the exhumation of her body and its reburial in a private plot, at the end of which time it would be cremated and the ashes scattered in a “garden of memory.“

I certainly hadn’t imagined my mother leading a vibrant social life….even so, I had no idea she was so completely alone. They’d probably tried to get in touch with my father, too, and he must have left the letters unanswered….I wondered what had become of her French bulldog (humane society? euthanasia by injection?)

Later, he hears about his father’s death from the late father’s girlfriend, a woman he had never met before:

I got the news over the phone from Sylvia, his partner. She said she was sorry that we hadn’t ‘had much chance to talk’. This was a euphemism: in fact, we’d never spoken at all. I had learned of her existence only two years before, the last time my father and I had talked, when he’d happened to mention her in passing.

There’s no rending of clothes or interpersonal conflict here, but something still strikes the reader as being terribly wrong. The idea of a bureaucratically designated “garden of memory” does not exactly inspire reverence. François describes these events bloodlessly and remotely, a remoteness mirrored in the lack of human connection and lack of lasting consequences from these events. He meets his father’s girlfriend and his lawyer, and everyone exchanges pleasantries while divvying up the estate without fuss. Then they go their separate ways without ever getting in contact again, because, well, what would be the point? Thus passes his father.

Houellebecq tries hard to emphasize the strangeness of this alienation, but really what we’re seeing here is the logical culmination of a trio of lives lived with the commonplace and essentially well-meaning goal of avoiding unpleasantness. The parents divorced, presumably amiably but without warmth, rather than “continue to make one another miserable.” The protagonist and his father’s new girlfriend, after circling for a bit, don’t try to connect over the shared memory of his father, because man, it’s already awkward enough when you’re divvying up his stuff. And there is some short-term benefit from this culture of niceness. For example, in order to divide the estate, the lawyer realizes that they will have to sell the house where the girlfriend lived in luxury for several years. And she accepts this without bursting into tears or showing any other signs of emotion, making the legal transaction much easier.

But look a little past the short term, and this lack of courage results in a horrifying landscape of atomization. In general, every social relationship involves some friction. There is always a temptation to take the easy way out, to exit from demanding obligations to family and friends. But when you spread out a little conflict-aversion throughout a society, this avoidant behavior gets amplified into atomization.

There are probably fewer family feuds now than in any previous point in American history. But this is not because people have learned how to better get along with one another; rather, they figured out how not to have to get along with one another. And in a conflict-averse culture, it’s considered preferable to have no extended family ties than to have occasional family rancor.

One of the subtle touches in Submission is that the narrator clearly suffering from depression, but is totally unselfaware about it and gives no explanation as to why. It’s up to the reader to act as a sort of proxy therapist and puzzle it out. It’s not an easy question. François seems to have all the accoutrements of success, and all his social needs appear to be fulfilled. He’s a Sorbonne professor whose dissertation people are still talking about, with guaranteed prestigious employment for life. He has a number of faculty friends who he can always invite out for a drink. He’s even (being French) got a new coed mistress every academic year.

And yet, as you read along, you get the sense of a guy whose life feels terribly hollow, has no real human relationships, no intellectual life, and tries to drown his anhedonia with lackluster pursuit of sex and gourmet food. What’s going on here?

I think what it boils down to is that he realizes, on some level, the impermanence of all of this contentedness. When the Muslim Brotherhood comes into power, they close the universities, and all of his faculty friends dissolve as a community as soon as that Schelling point is removed. Like his annual relationships, his friendships were a matter of convenience. Similarly, when his job was taken away, he had no independent ideas for scholarly work without the direction of the University. Left to his own devices, all he could think to do was to enjoy his pension with the typical Houellebecqian pursuits.

Even before the political disruption, he realizes on some level that his lifestyle is leading nowhere good. He is already about as materially well-off as he’s ever going to get, he’s not building up any financial, social, or intellectual capital. All he has to look forward to is the slow turnover of his social relationships, his slowly dimming academic star, and the slow decay of the flesh.

And this comes back to the notion of courage, because all of these problems, including the resulting depression, are self-inflicted. The simplest way for him to become happier is not to run off and join a monastery, but to stay a professor while pursuing depth in all of these aspects of his life. He can do real intellectual work rather than coasting on the sinecure. He can deepen work friendships into collaborations and true friendships. He can get married to one of the coeds and have a family. In various ways, if he makes his life more demanding in these virtuous ways, meaning and happiness will follow. This is entirely within his power, and indeed most of his ancestors would have considered these choices not even remarkable enough to rate as conscious decisions at all.

But all of that requires courage. Any new piece of real intellectual work is probably not going to be as well received as his dissertation. Ask more from his friends, and some of them are sure to refuse, with resulting awkwardness. And marriage is in a real sense more terrifying than the other two put together, with highs and lows and conflicts and compromises that, to a certain cast of mind, sounds like way too much trouble when casual, commitment free relationships are available on an à la carte basis.

Submission has been advertised as a dystopian novel about the Muslim takeover of France. But the dystopia he paints is not the Muslim takeover, but rather the state of French culture as it exists today. And on the personal as well as the political level, it shows the consequence of a culture without courage, and of a life lived on the principles of maximizing niceness and avoiding discord. In the long run, Houellebecq shows, it doesn’t look anywhere near nice, and its peacefulness is the peace of the grave.

The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons….Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.

-Confucius, The Great Learning.

Confucianism is a philosophy that’s sometimes thrown around in these circles. I wanted to give a brief outline and explanation of the Confucian heuristic, because it’s a philosophy that’s less mysterious than it seems, and it can often be a fruitful angle on the sorts of social problems that we address.

Confucianism is less a religion than a set of social rules. Like a lot of people, Confucius was bothered by “bad inequality” – the kind of hierarchy where the elites actively oppress the poor and the lower class at best toils away, and at worse foment short-sighted peasant rebellions. The usual Western response to bad inequality is leveling – knock down all hierarchies as “elitism” and “privilege,” and even everything out until there’s no concentration of power such that anyone can oppress his fellow man. Sometimes that can be a helpful approach, but there are several side effects.

One is that while some kinds of inequality can be gotten rid of – wealth, family inheritance, ethnic inequalities, and so on – there are many more you can’t touch. Some people are more diligent than others, you can’t change that. Some are more politically savvy, some are taller, better looking. If you suppress all sources of inequality that you can, often you end up just increasing the importance of things you can’t touch. Knock down aristocracy, and you simply get meritocracy that privileges diligent, politically savvy nerds instead. And while we’ve developed some social technology to at least channel selfish impulses in prosocial ways, we haven’t yet invented the analogue of capitalism that channels height inequality into prosocial behavior.

A related problem is that in telling a story about eliminating inequality, this leveling frees up the new elites – the winners in the new “emergent inequality,” to deny that they’re in fact elites. They’re just average Joes like anyone else, and feel therefore feel no sense of obligation towards the losers of society. And when they’re in competition with the weak, they see it as a contest between equals and have no compunction about using their strengths to exploit them, all cloaked in egalitarianism. (This is in fact a criticism that has been leveled against meritocracy – the winners feel like they have earned their advantages, and therefore feel no noblesse oblige.)

Confucius took a different tack – he said hey, there’s always going to be inequality, let’s not kid ourselves. Instead, let’s formalize it into really visible hierarchy, and, crucially, tie great power to great responsibility. Rather than wrangle with abstract notions of status, he prefers to emphasize the personal interactions between superiors and inferiors. So he spends a lot of time talking about rights and responsibilities in different kinds of relationships, and promoting rites – think “etiquette” – to make it clear that the weak respect the strong, and that the strong have obligations to the weak. If you’re going to be king, you’d better protect your people. If you’re going to be a mom, the kids have to obey you and take care of you in your old age, but you’d better raise them well. No weaseling out.

And overall, it’s a pretty fascinating set of prescriptions. A lot of the problems that people complain about today have to do with social atomization and the lack of agentic leadership in powerful institutions. Confucianism would diagnose some of these problems as stemming from our willful insistence on a veneer of equality. With this egalitarianism comes a withdrawal of respect for elites, and so the elites don’t feel like elites – they just feel like average folks without any extraordinary sense of duty. And because they don’t feel like a winner yet, these elites also feel insecure and powerfully want to “get theirs” – whether a credential, a cushy job, or social approval. And in the process, they feel justified in exploiting their advantages without feeling a sense of obligation to their inferiors. The Confucian prescription: make it really clear who the elites are and pay them respect, and tie them to one-on-one relationships with their inferiors that come with corresponding obligations.

A lot of the social problems that usually concern us are enormous society-wide problems that we individuals can only do so much about. But the strength of Confucianism is that unlike many other political philosphies, it is scale-free; you don’t need to be a philosopher-king to start putting it into practice. Everyone, whatever his station, has the ability to start fostering stable, explicit, human-level relationships, and openly acknowledge respect and obligation as appropriate. And this matters: from relationships within a family or workplace up through the administration of a country, almost all the things we care about are mediated through human interactions. And if we can get those relationships right, a lot of previously intractable institutional problems will suddenly seem less daunting.

When I visited Singapore a few years ago, I kept noticing novel bits of social technology that managed to solve problems that I didn’t even realize I had. One favorite example was parking: all parking garages were equipped with an RFID reader, and everyone had an EZ-Tag type device in their car. Instead of picking up a ticket when you go in and waiting to hand it to an attendant on the way out, you just drive in, park, and drive out, and they automatically deduct the payment from your account.

But what made the biggest impression on me was the maid system in Singapore. Singapore’s policy on guest workers would make for an interesting essay in its own right. Briefly, though, the government makes it easy for guest workers to come if they can find work in various industries, including domestic service. Once in, you get a visa for a couple years, which does not come with voting rights or many of the perks of citizenship. But because this system is so rigorous in ensuring that would-be guest workers are net economic positives, it’s politically feasible for Singapore to take in a lot of guest workers. Proportionally, Singapore’s guest worker population is equivalent to the US taking in about two-thirds the population of Mexico – with huge net benefits to them and their families.

Which is all well and good from a policy perspective, but did nothing for me when faced with the reality of interacting with my host family’s maid. There, in the flesh, was a middle-aged Filipino woman who was just there to attend to my needs, as a guest of the family. I was expected to ask her to wash my clothes, for example, and prepare whatever I wanted for breakfast. And for all my admiration of the political needle-threading of Singaporean immigration policy, this situation completely freaked me out. It made me intensely uncomfortable to have someone hanging around just to attend to my needs, and tell them to do menial chores for me.

And yet, when I thought about it, I realized that I had no problem with janitors or baristas doing dirty work for me. My emotional reaction was not really about being an American with sturdy frontier values of self-sufficiency. I was perfectly happy to farm out menial work – as long as it was done by a faceless worker in a uniform, rather than a single person I was expected to have a relationship with. This incongruence was one of the major lessons I took from my trip to Singapore. Even after I returned to the Land of the Free, I kept being struck by the ease with which I blithely accepted the service of servants as long as they were framed as business transactions with dehumanized service workers.

And I noticed that the same blind spot applied in the other direction, in people’s attitudes towards submission towards superiors. The very word “submissiveness” tends to raise people’s hackles in our culture, but in fact we are happy to accept it – if and only if it’s submission to a faceless institution, rather than to someone’s personal authority. In an old-school apprenticeship, the master essentially runs your life for seven years and can bring you back if you run away, possibly with a flogging for good measure. This seems incredibly coercive today, and is probably one of the reasons apprenticeship and other forms of demanding mentorship are in short supply. But at the same time, it’s considered completely unremarkable for someone to go into nondischargeable debt to go to grad school and work hard to satisfy every whim of their professors. For a more barbed example, it’s considered entirely unremarkable for a woman to be submissive to her boss, but sounds terribly suspect to expect her to be equivalently submissive to her husband.

A manager can order around his subordinates, but only to the extent that he’s acting as a manager, to the extent that he can be trivially replaced by another executive taking on the same powers. If he begins to lead in ways that conspicuously make him a person, say by asking for personal favors or developing strong mentor-mentee relationships with some of his subordinates, the arrangement starts taking on a countercultural air.

Once you know what to look for, you see this all over the place. Students behave submissively towards their professors. Workers are obsequious to their bosses (to a large extent, even in companies with a veneer of informality). Sick patients in a hospital are (aside from a few frankly abusive ones) meek and unquestioning towards their nurses and doctors, to the extent that we often have to encourage them to ask questions and tell us when things bother them. These behaviors are essentially the same as the sort of attitude that I found jarring from the maid in Singapore, but we don’t consider them odd or even notice that they count as “real subservience.” What individualism has bought us is not the end of servitude, but merely the cloaking of masters.

It’s pretty perverse that our culture celebrates individualism and yet condones submission only to inhuman institutions like schools, companies, and governments. It’s a sort of inverse Confucianism – a system where authority can only be exercised by people who deliberately do not engage in one-on-one superior-inferior relationships. And while a principled liberal might dislike hierarchy in all its forms, if you’ve got to have one or the other, we’ve settled on the greater of the two evils. Both institutions and personal authority may have incentives imperfectly aligned with yours, but only personal leaders may disregard their incentives in the interests of their subordinates. And for the most part, institutional authority feels less human-shaped than personal authority – compare a visit to the DMV with filling out paperwork with a trusted secretary, or a minor pay raise compared to a minor pay raise with a handshake and word of thanks from a long-time boss and mentor.

It’s not obvious, then, why “inverse Confucianism” has taken hold. One hypothesis is that workplaces are an unprincipled exception to an overall individualist ideology. Hierarchy is necessary to run any sizeable institution and to have a modern economy, so vital institutions get grandfathered in as “not the sort of dominance that you should get upset about” even when norms shifted so that dominance by parents or mentors became instinctively upsetting.

Another – advanced by a friend – is that this is really a case of Nietzschean slave morality run amok. Individualism isn’t about freedom so much as it is envy of the powerful and dominant. We therefore have a strong instinct to pull down anyone who’s in a position of personal authority, but this instinct doesn’t care about domination that doesn’t appear to be done by a human-shaped agent. And as a result, we’ve gotten rid of the sorts of hierarchy that could lead to personal relationships and noblesse oblige, and replaced them with the sorts of hierarchy that are least likely to be human-friendly.

When I was towards the end of medical school, I had a bout of last minute questioning about my choice of specialty. I had put in my application for a specialty that offered a stable prosperous career, but there was another that was currently less attractive but which might be upstream of some interesting technological developments in the next few decades. I couldn’t very well bring this question to the senior doctor who I had already asked for a recommendation letter, and my med school friends were equally uncertain on the issue. So, I turned to the internet, where I found no wise counsel but did find a database of the salaries of all California state workers. Instead of getting advice on whether or not it’s worth taking a chance on interesting technology emerging, I got the salaries of every doctor working in those two specialties in public hospitals in California.

Well, I eventually came to a decision after much soul searching, but I still remember the incongruity of that image. Here I was, swimming in an incredible ocean of data, but data that was only tangentially relevant to my goals and with no guidance on how to contextualize it. Even now, when my uncertainty about my specialty is a distant memory, that moment stuck in my mind as a perfect example of the modern paradox of data abundance and human-judgment scarcity.

It’s all the more memorable because it’s emblematic of a decrease in mentorship in recent decades. People have fewer confidantes from older generations. Multigenerational households are no longer common. And even the white collar professions that in theory hold on to an apprenticeship model – such as medical residency and grad school – have largely morphed into bureaucratic entities rather than institutions dominated by a personal master-apprentice relationship.

And yet this change doesn’t seem to coincide with a decline in the desire for advice and mentorship. Consider the explosion of the self-help genre. Millions of people are seeking advice in books and television specials, and willing to pay in time and money to learn from their preferred gurus. And I don’t think there’s any slackening in elders’ desire to mentor either. I’ve been repeatedly struck by how willing older people, whether veterans of my profession or just friends and family, are willing to take time to answer questions and talk about their own hard-won lessons in life, even when a deeper mentorship relationship is not on the table. And so we’re stuck with this mystery where the supply is steady, the demand is still there, and yet the market itself cratered. What’s going on?

One approach is to meditate on the difference between a mentor and a self-help book. Namely: a mentor can have a legitimate claim to make you do hard, aversive things, like quitting smoking or studying harder than you’d otherwise do. Self-help books, on the other hand, are sold on the marketplace. You choose what self-help book you want to buy, and if you don’t like the advice you’re given, you can buy another.

In modern times, we tend to be very sensitive about rooting out coercion and exploitation. We prize autonomy and pleasantness, and while there’s still some appeal to the notion of a grueling training montage that leaves us stronger at the end, our sympathies tend to strongly support people who give up midway, saying they can’t take the pain any longer. A grad student complaining about being worked to the bone is likely to find sympathy, a coach known to produce some disgruntled students is not, no matter what defenses he trots out about his training methods making them stronger.

As a result, we’ve effectively placed a price ceiling on mentorship. Mentors can still teach individual skills and recount old war stories, but they are no longer allowed to be highly demanding of their protégés. And without a credible way to promise hard, dependable labor, it’s harder for would-be apprentices to justify their demands on the master’s time and efficiency. The supply of intensive mentoring dries up. And so people turn to self-help books, seeking guidance through the very choice-based mechanisms that rendered mentorship untenable.

Note that I’m not suggesting that people in general are leading cushier lives, only that specific mentors are no longer allowed to be as demanding. Whatever price ceiling we put on mentorship seems to have a loophole for institutions like school and bureaucratic workplaces. It seems perfectly normal for grad school to require five years of grueling work. But having a single authority figure, like a PI or boss, go out on a limb and demand that you do five years of grueling work under his personal authority in exchange for his occasional helpful comments feels strange and coercive. That difference is a measure of how much of a ceiling we’ve put on mentors’ demandingness.

The mystery of the institutional loophole – why we’re okay with submission and hard labor as long as it’s to a faceless bureaucracy rather than a fully human authority figure – is worth pondering as well. But that’d be a post for another time.

As steel sharpeneth steel, so one man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.

– Proverbs 27:17

There’s a common romantic image of the lone genius working in obscurity before throwing a brilliant masterpiece into the world. The only problem is, this is almost never the way genius actually works. Almost anyone who’s done great work had been active and well-regarded even before their breakout works. Einstein – usually held out as an example of the lone genius type was fully engaged with the physics community of his day, corresponding with professors across the continent, even while he was doing his day job at the patent office.

But even more specifically, many prominent people did their great early work in the company of a small group of local friends working in the same field. Einstein had his Olympia Academy, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien had their Inklings, Benjamin Franklin, a terrific networker, had his Junto in Philadelphia and seeded other small clubs wherever he went. In a more modern incarnation, the Stanford Review, an undergraduate literary magazine, and the later PayPal Mafia were critical influences on some of the great entrepreneurs of our times. This pattern is common enough to require explanation: what were these groups like, and what did they do for the people who went through them?

When Benjamin Franklin arrived in Philadelphia as an apprentice printer, he organized a group of his friends into a club they called the Junto. The members were mostly young tradesmen, and in typical Franklin fashion he set up the club explicitly as a self-improvement and mutual-aid club. Members presented essays they wrote, debated public issues, and discussed a set of self-improvement topics. These topics make for interesting anthropology:

  • Has any citizen in your knowledge failed in his business lately, and what have you heard of the cause?
  • Have you lately heard of any citizen’s thriving well, and by what means?
  • Do you know of any fellow citizen, who has lately done a worthy action, deserving praise and imitation? or who has committed an error proper for us to be warned against and avoid?
  • What unhappy effects of intemperance have you lately observed or heard? of imprudence? of passion? or of any other vice or folly?
  • Do you know of any deserving young beginner lately set up, whom it lies in the power of the Junto any way to encourage?

Unromantic it might seem, but the Junto ended up accomplishing many of the feats we now attribute to Franklin alone. For example, members of the Junto contributed to create the first American lending library, a volunteer fire company, and the Pennsylvania Hospital. It also supported him as he entered the world of politics in his later life. But it also proved crucial in sharpening the skills of a generation of middle-class tradesmen in Pennsylvania, who would take over from the landed gentry as the driving force in the new America.

A rather different sort of small group was the Inklings. This group was started by CS Lewis at Oxford, and included JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams, and others. Unlike the Inklings, it had no formal structure, but was drawn from a group of writers that explored similar themes in their writing – myth-making, Christianity, and literature. Rather than a fixed program, they took up projects – Tolkien taught the group how to read Icelandic sagas in the original Old Icelandic, and the Inklings frequently read excerpts from their own writing projects – such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But it wasn’t all work; one of their biweekly meetings was in a local pub, and they often took long rambling walks around the English countryside, talking as they went.

Tolkien later wrote:

The unpayable debt that I owe to [Lewis] was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The L. of the R. to a conclusion.

Short of being a fly on the wall in these small groups, it’s hard to say exactly what went on in each specific case. But there are some obvious ways in which these informal groups can help their members grow in ways that other institutions couldn’t.

The first is that these groups are not drawn from random school friends. They are usually composed of people roughly in the same field. In Franklin’s case, they were all tradesmen who wanted to improve their language skills and encourage one another in developing bourgeois virtues. In the case of the Inklings, it was educated writers who were fascinated by a similar set of ideas. These groups were all working on the frontier – the place where the signposts of grades, promotions, and critical reviews could no longer guide them. Out there, productivity can be perceived only as an essentially subjective sense of taste. And so one important service they provided was a sense of judgment: was this latest piece of work something promising, or a waste of time? When Tolkien asked whether his invented mythology worked in Lord of the Rings (answer: yes) or Ralph asked Franklin whether his poetry was any good (answer: no), they were getting feedback from some of the only people in the world qualified to have an opinion on their work.

At the same time, it’s important to note that these groups were not day jobs. They may have critiqued one another’s work with brutal honesty, they may have exerted peer pressure, but they had no power to hire or fire. Why was this important? Because “hard power” and “soft power” work very differently in influencing creative work. Mutual encouragement and criticism could give strong feedback, but it doesn’t induce learned helplessness. When Tolkien criticized the random assortment of mythological creatures in The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance, it didn’t discourage Lewis from continuing on, ultimately producing more profound works later in the series. But if the boss says something is a bad idea, not only had you better not work on it on company time, it has a way of inexorably changing your own priorities. Only the strongest willed would continue working on something like that as a side project, and many of them would end up as temperamental rebels wasting all their energies fighting the system in various ways.

If your choice of associates will have a huge impact on your work, how do you bottle some of this magic for yourself? A few principles seem clear. One is simply to cast a broad net. As the popular conception of the “10x engineer” indicates, people vary hugely in their ability to do creative work, and in the amount they are able to contribute to your development. And they’re not necessarily concentrated in the most prestigious places you might expect. Certainly environments that filter for intelligence, such as colleges or top-level jobs, will likely be enriched in interesting people. But simply looking for the most prestigious people will usually miss the mark. The key trait of the people in these groups is that they’re doers, not ladder-climbers, and they can often look quite shabby if you’re not attuned to the wavelength of quality work. If you were a social climber in Philadelphia, you’d want to hobnob with the gentry, not with Franklin’s band of scrappy tradesmen. And if you were in prewar Oxford, the junior professors Lewis and Tolkien would have a certain amount of prestige, sure, but they were still peripheral to the action even within in the English department of their college. So a young person looking for such a group might indeed want to go to Harvard, but once there, look more at the Harvard Drone Club and less for future Rhodes Scholars.

But perhaps in the end there is no particular secret. Great doers are attracted to other men of deeds, each according to his own taste, like moths to a candle. They fall to talking. And among such men of course, the talk will inevitably involve the work that is their passion in life. And as Lewis said, friendship is born – at that moment when one man says to another – “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”

The past, it’s said, is a foreign country. If so, that country lies firmly in the third world. Past societies were much poorer than ours, and had significant amount of inequality. The vast majority of people in medieval times were peasants, not nobles; most Romans were landless poor, and even in classical Athens citizens were outnumbered by slaves. In all these societies, only a tiny fraction of the population was wealthy enough and educated enough to do intellectual work.

What’s less appreciated is the obvious corollary, that a tiny fraction of aristocrats was responsible for the entire intellectual output of premodern civilization. Whether you’re reading Greek philosophy, Roman oratory, Indian Vedas, or the collected works of Darwin, what you’re reading is the product of the aristocracy.

Aristocrats were few. They weren’t particularly selected for intelligence; certainly compared to our modern Ivy League elites. And in many ways, they were poorer than we are – more servants, but fewer books, no Internet, no precision machining, no modern dentistry. And yet, despite all those disadvantages, they were able to produce work that we look up to as classics. You could certainly argue that in some areas, our artists and scientists could hold their own against the ancients. The best of HBO could probably stand up to the best of classical theater, for example. But the fact that the aristocrats were even in the same league, coming from impoverished societies with only a tiny class of knowledge workers, is a marvel.

We don’t have aristocrats today. Oh, we do have plenty of rich people, and even the middle class among us could outspend all but the wealthiest ancient aristocrats. But the key factor that made aristocrats productive wasn’t money; it was freedom. It was the freedom to tinker and engage in intellectual play, to focus on being an excellent person, on living well, and doing things. Being an aristocrat is not about having a lot of stuff, it’s about not having higher ups to please.

And that’s something that even the rich mostly don’t have today. I went to school with some pretty rich kids, and while they may have taken better vacations and the rest of us, they were plagued by pretty much the same career anxieties as anyone else. They were just as nervous about grades and recommendation letters, they fought just as hard to get into prestigious career tracks. This wasn’t a game for them to play as part of their quest for arête; no less than for the rest of us, the rat race was the meaning of their lives.

A modern aristocracy would not need to have serfs. It wouldn’t need to have unjust laws separating aristocrats from commoners. As we’ll see, it won’t even require an economic revolution. What it would need is a new social contract, a new culture. The people in that culture may not be the richest or the most influential, but they have to be able to believe that they’re at the top of the food chain and didn’t need someone else’s stamp of approval. And if they could pull this off, we might see the birth of a new Royal Society or a new Athens.

How do we get from here to there – to transform our modern elites into a form that’s more productive, more courageous, and better aligned with civilizational goals? The answers aren’t obvious, but it’s a pretty important question to figure out.