harold lee

rectified.name@gmail.com

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone…

-Robert Heinlein

1.

I recently went to my sixth college reunion. It was great to catch up with old friends, and it was also a pretty fascinating experience to see how people’s lives have branched out. At this early stage in life, it’s not totally obvious how everyone’s going to turn out, but it’s certainly starting to become clear just where people are placing their bets at this early stage in their career.

Towards the end, as I was reflecting on the weekend’s events, I noticed a remarkable thing: all of the smartest and most dedicated people I caught up with were on incredibly conventional, though prestigious, career tracks. People were going to Wall Street, people were getting into excellent law schools and med schools,and so on. But nobody I know was dropping out of school to start the next Apple, or working on revolutionary research that they were excited to talk about. The few people who were not on one of these conventional career tracks all seemed pretty dissatisfied with their lives, and framed their predicament as trying to find their way out of what they were currently doing to something more conventionally prestigious and stable.

This seemed really strange to me. Certainly, the world needed good lawyers and doctors and so on. But the world needed the next generation of great men as well. And out of the best and the brightest in my class – in one of the top universities in the country – it seemed like nobody was really stepping up to that particular challenge. You could almost draw a 2 x 2 matrix with the axes labeled “Courage” and “Capability” and see a vast yawning void where the right upper quadrant ought to be. I scratched my head about this puzzle for a long time, but no explanation was forthcoming.

2.

So let’s tackle a different question: why is Donald Trump so interesting? I don’t mean his politics per se, but rather his personality. In a time when lots of politicians try to brand themselves an outsider to politics, he actually acts like one, for better or worse. He exudes an attitude of “I’ve already made it, I’m gonna do my thing, and maybe people will like it or not.”

And sure, he’s a billionaire, so it’s easy for him to do that sort of thing. But it’s notable that there are 536 billionaires in the US – just two short of the number of Congressmen – and almost all of them are quite boring. Trump, Soros, Musk, and Thiel are the ones that jump out as exhibiting, in very different ways, the sort of agency you’d expect from someone who’s already made it. Sure, most of us have day jobs and families to feed, so you’d expect us to veer closer to convention. But if anyone could be brashly unconventional, it would be billionaires. And yet, that’s not what we observe.

My sense is that aristocrats were way more interesting, and this is not unrelated to their remarkable intellectual productivity. Darwin noodled around with naturalism after abandoning a career in medicine. Edward Gibbon wrote his famous Decline and Fall only after several equally ambitious failures, such as a panoramic history of Switzerland and a survey of contemporary English literature. These were not the equivalents of a grad student carefully publishing some cautious extensions of his PI’s work to get some guaranteed publications, they were bold, imaginative, and ambitious.

In a world where more people than ever could live materially quite comfortably, it seems notable that so few of our elites are demonstrating that level of ambition. It’s as though we had all the tools necessary to support enormous levels of human agency, and decided to just sit on them.

3.

There are probably lots of causes for this shift, from changes in culture to differences in education. But one striking difference is that for past generations of elites, it was common to take a position as a military officer while growing up – whereas today, outside maybe Israel and a few other countries, it’s unheard of. Being a lieutenant in a cavalry regiment was as common then is going to grad school is today.

Part of this, sure, was carrying on the tradition of the nobility as being responsible for physical security. But part of it, too, is the sense that command over men in situations that matter fundamentally changes the way you see the world. As a leader, you have to be responsible both for planning and for execution. You have to closely monitor how the men under your command or behaving. And it forces you into a frame of mind where taking initiative and making decisions are the default, rather than the exception.

We don’t really have analogues of this anymore. Pretty much every prestigious career track involves not personal command but prolonged institutional subordination. In medical school, law school, and grad school, you toil under the eye of faceless representatives of massive institutions, whether these be senior physicians or law firm partners or PIs. You don’t have any subordinates to manage, unless it’s the occasional junior medical student or summer research intern. Furthermore, even this subordination is not personal, under someone who has been trained in command, but rather institutional, under superiors who are themselves slotted into institutional roles and don’t always have a great deal of autonomy. This is least true in grad school, where the apprenticeship model is still somewhat alive, but even there, many grad school friends have told me that they see their PIs more like a boss that they try to interact with infrequently then as a valued mentor.

Even business school, which is probably the closest thing we have to pure leadership training, follows this pattern. The most common route to business school involves working as an analyst in a Wall Street firm or other prestigious financial institution. And just like first-year law students or medical interns, this basically involves institutional subordination, not command. A telling story: my friend who is now in business school ended up with a brief stint in charge of a small department, but only by accident. He had intended to continue as a venture capital analyst, but when his contract wasn’t renewed at the end of the standard two-year gig, he found a position in one of their portfolio companies. So rather than command being an expected part of an elite upbringing, it’s reserved only for the elites who fall off the ladder! No wonder, then, that our elites tend less towards leadership and independent thinking, and languish instead in institutional learned helplessness, working as various flavors of Company Men.

Some of my friends have a strong intuition that more people should lift weights. They argue not only for the health benefits but also for the changes in mood and outlook that are supposed to come with it – more positivity and a greater overall sense of ability to accomplish things. I suspect that given this trend in elite education, it may be worth thinking about having the same attitude towards small group leadership. At minimum, we’d end up picking up some skills that might be useful in jobs. But even more valuable, I think we’d end up picking up an aristocratic stance towards life that is necessary for real accomplishment.

After us, the people of our race will wear garments of gold; they will eat sweet, greasy food, ride splendid coursers, and hold in their arms the loveliest of women, and they will forget that they owe these things to us. -Genghis Khan

1.

In Chinese history, there have been several periods when parts or the whole of the country were conquered by outside invaders. There is a common pattern with these invasions. A group of steppe nomads gets their act together, mounts a coordinated attack, succeeds in toppling the ruling dynasty, and installs themselves as emperors. They then start getting used to the soft court life, assimilate, and within a few generations they were as decadent as the guys they replaced.

In the mid-1600s, the Manchus took their turn as the steppe nomad conquerors du jour, and after decades of fighting they were successful in consolidating their power over China. But they had read their history, and known about the decadence that afflicted their predecessors. And they decided that they were not going to be taken in by the same tricks. So, during their rule, they maintained a separate Manchu language, even as they used Chinese to administer the bureaucracy. They designated a set of minor capitals that the Emperor would travel between regularly, an echo of their nomadic past. They even tried to maintain the Manchu homeland in Northeast China as a culturally distinct region, and rotated many of their noble men through it to inculcate them with manly virtues.

And they started getting used to the soft court life, assimilated, and within a few generations they were as decadent as the guys they replaced.

2.

I see a similar pattern playing out in the Asian-American community. The first generation is lean and hungry. They study and work with incredible discipline, sacrifice for family and respect their elders, and live fairly clean lives (except for the significant minority that smoke like chimneys.)

When it comes time to have kids, they try to pass on the same values. And this works to an extent. After much parental prodding, the second-generation children do tend to study harder at school and work their way into high-discipline, high-end careers like medicine and law and engineering. But while they do the same object-level behavior, they don’t quite have the same fire in the belly. Not having gone through the experience of undergoing privation and immigrating to a new country, most can’t quite articulate why it’s so important to study hard or respect elders or any of the rest.

And so when it comes to raising their own kids, these second-generation folks find it hard to justify being as strict with them as their own parents were. Without a deeply internalized understanding of the logic that drove their own parents’ behavior, it’s hard to have the confidence to raise your children in a way that’s deeply out of step with modern American culture. And so the third-generation goes, as they say, banana.

3.

In recent years, we’ve seen the emergence of the New Atheists, and religiosity in the US has dropped sharply across the board. One of the knee-jerk arguments that ends up being brought up against this movement is that without religion, people will have no reason to behave morally. And the New Atheists have a good rejoinder to this: look at the data! Atheists don’t in fact murder or steal or even defect in the Prisoners Dilemma at significantly higher rates in general population. Now certainly part of this is due to the fact that atheists – at least the kind that read The God Delusion – are also wealthier and better educated than the general population, but it’s hard to make a claim that their atheism has made them measurably worse people.

But what this argument ignores is that these atheists, and the wider secularizing society as a whole, were nevertheless raised with the values of a Christian society. And despite their de-conversion, they still mostly behave according to these tenets, valuing honesty and courage and humility and chivalry. Sometimes these values are dressed up in new names – instead of saying chivalry they might say “being an ally.” But once you know where to look, the underlying values are unmistakable.

But like the second-generation Asian immigrants, even while their enacting all the object-level virtues, they can’t quite articulate why they should care about them. And we’re beginning to see the effects of this lack of confidence. An earlier wave of new age religiosity in the 60s led to the rise of a sort of wishy-washy cultural relativism. Today, we also see the emergence of novel forms of sacredness such as the social justice subculture, as moral entrepreneurs realize that there does in fact exist a values vacuum to be filled.

If these examples show anything, it’s that values preservation is an extremely hard problem. The problem of preserving difficult virtues once their justifications are gone is one that nobody’s really figured out how to solve. And so, we may complain about the silliness that this generation of atheists is involved in today, but what should really worry us is what happens once they start having children.

I’ve never been a huge anime fan, but Death Note is the one show that I’ve really enjoyed. The intricate plot can be simplified as follows: Yagami Light, a bright high school student, finds a magic notebook that lets him kill anyone whose name he writes on it (modulo various rules.) He proceeds to launch a crusade to rid the world of criminals. While personally maintaining a low profile, he starts anonymously killing high profile criminals to set an example. According to his plan, once people realize was going on, the crime rate will drop like a stone, and people realize that someone with a godlike power is responsible. His social crusade will end with him as the god of a new, crime-free world.

The only problem with this plan, as we shall see, is that it is not ambitious enough.

Mencius Moldbug once wrote up a thought experiment. Imagine that someone found a magic ring that gave him the power of life and death over anyone in a Pacific island. For all intents and purposes, he has become the absolute monarch over that territory. What would that regime look like? Well, things would actually work surprisingly well. Suppose our new King were a greedy man. He would rationally institute sound economic policies to turn it into a first-world country, and tax at the Laffer limit. He has no interest groups to pay off. His rule is absolutely secure. So he has no need for secret police or limits on free speech. Let the people say what they like, as long as the gold keeps flowing. And if their cause were truly and obviously hopeless, there will be very few outright rebels.

Well, Yagami Light had that magic ring. And instead of using it to seize political power for himself – with a tough-on-crime platform that would be pretty popular and the threat of the notebook itself to keep challengers at bay – Light instead tries to wield his influence anonymously from the shadows. And so a story that could have ended with Yagami Light on the Chrysanthemum Throne instead has him hunted like a dog.

This is fun as far as fan-theorizing goes, but Light’s failure also points to a more general nerd failure mode. Nerds, who understand better than anyone the power and value of technology, often act as though understanding technology alone is enough to bring influence. They systematically underestimate the importance of actively seeking power, whether on a small scale in office politics, or on a grand scale as powerful, active investors or CEOs. Light’s instinct was to rely heavily on the power that’s the Death Note gave him, paying no attention to gaining conventional political power or even creating a pseudonymous public persona, even when both of these tactics would have greatly helped him to realize his goals. [1] [2]

Peter Thiel has pointed out the remarkable fact that aside for some very brief, very contingent points in history, inventors of new technologies have captured almost none of the value that they created through those technologies. Even though science itself is a powerful force, and innovation extraordinarily valuable, it’s a mistake to assume that individual scientists and innovators are themselves powerful. Mostly, they’re withdrawing from overt contests for power and influence, whether at the corporate or political level, and dreaming that they will quietly change the world through their inventions, publications, and anonymous blog posts. The tragedy of Light shows how much they’re leaving on the table.

[1] (At least he avoided an even more extreme nerd failure mode: he at least targeted high profile criminals to create a media sensation, rather than mechanically killing anonymous criminals in the abstract sense that it would change people’s incentives on the margin.)

[2] It’s not surprising that Death Note functions as such a good allegory for this nerd failure mode. It was written, in part, as a way to appeal to teenage power fantasies, and a lot of the fun in watching the series is thinking through what kind of strategies you yourself would use if you were in his situation. That his instincts are those of his typical teenage fans is no surprise.

The Tragedy of Light

I’ve never been a huge anime fan, but Death Note is the one show that I’ve really enjoyed. The intricate plot can be simplified as follows: Yagami Light, a bright high school student, finds a magic notebook that lets him kill anyone whose name he writes on it (modulo various rules.) He proceeds to launch a crusade to rid the world of criminals. While personally maintaining a low profile, he starts anonymously killing high profile criminals to set an example. According to his plan, once people realize was going on, the crime rate will drop like a stone, and people realize that someone with a godlike power is responsible. His social crusade will end with him as the god of a new, crime-free world.

The only problem with this plan, as we shall see, is that it is not ambitious enough.

Mencius Moldbug once wrote up a thought experiment. Imagine that someone found a magic ring that gave him the power of life and death over anyone in a Pacific island. For all intents and purposes, he has become the absolute monarch over that territory. What would that regime look like? Well, things would actually work surprisingly well. Suppose our new King were a greedy man. He would rationally institute sound economic policies to turn it into a first-world country, and tax at the Laffer limit. He has no interest groups to pay off. His rule is absolutely secure. So he has no need for secret police or limits on free speech. Let the people say what they like, as long as the gold keeps flowing. And if their cause were truly and obviously hopeless, there will be very few outright rebels.

Well, Yagami Light had that magic ring. And instead of using it to seize political power for himself – with a tough-on-crime platform that would be pretty popular and the threat of the notebook itself to keep challengers at bay – Light instead tries to wield his influence anonymously from the shadows. And so a story that could have ended with Yagami Light on the Chrysanthemum Throne instead has him hunted like a dog.

This is fun as far as fan-theorizing goes, but Light’s failure also points to a more general nerd failure mode. Nerds, who understand better than anyone the power and value of technology, often act as though understanding technology alone is enough to bring influence. They systematically underestimate the importance of actively seeking power, whether on a small scale in office politics, or on a grand scale as powerful, active investors or CEOs. Light’s instinct was to rely heavily on the power that’s the Death Note gave him, paying no attention to gaining conventional political power or even creating a pseudonymous public persona, even when both of these tactics would have greatly helped him to realize his goals. [1] [2]

Peter Thiel has pointed out the remarkable fact that aside for some very brief, very contingent points in history, inventors of new technologies have captured almost none of the value that they created through those technologies. Even though science itself is a powerful force, and innovation extraordinarily valuable, it’s a mistake to assume that individual scientists and innovators are themselves powerful. Mostly, they’re withdrawing from overt contests for power and influence, whether at the corporate or political level, and dreaming that they will quietly change the world through their inventions, publications, and anonymous blog posts. The tragedy of Light shows how much they’re leaving on the table.

[1] (At least he avoided an even more extreme nerd failure mode: he at least targeted high profile criminals to create a media sensation, rather than mechanically killing anonymous criminals in the abstract sense that it would change people’s incentives on the margin.)

[2] It’s not surprising that Death Note functions as such a good allegory for this nerd failure mode. It was written, in part, as a way to appeal to teenage power fantasies, and a lot of the fun in watching the series is thinking through what kind of strategies you yourself would use if you were in his situation. That his instincts are those of his typical teenage fans is no surprise.