The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Curtis Yarvin. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Curtis Yarvin who in the past is written under the pen name Mencius Moldbug. Today, he writes mostly on his Gray Mirror blog on Substack. Well, I don’t always agree with Curtis, there is no denying the depth of his thinking. I’m a paid subscriber to Gray Mirror, it’s worth a look if you’re interested in real, as opposed to simulated thinking. Welcome Curtis.
Curtis: Thanks so much for having me Jim. It’s a pleasure to be on your show.
Jim: Yeah, great chat with you. I’ve been a reader of your stuff for a long time and it’s great to have a chance to actually talk to you. Today we’re going to talk mostly about ideas emerging from his recent essay, 2020, the year of everything fake which is on his Substack Gray Mirror, but it is not behind the paywall. So feel free to check it out. And as always, we’ll have a link to that essay on the episode page at jimruttshow.com. So anyway, the gist of the beginning of the essay is a riff on the ability or inability to take the world seriously. What did you mean by that?
Curtis: Well, one way to explain that is to think about the way that we think about history because we’re actually very used to not taking periods in the past seriously. Suppose someone from the old kingdom of Egypt was to come up to us and say something about the giant dung beetle that was pushing the sun around the earth or the Pharaoh who’s actually the son or the distant dependent, would we try to argue with this person? No, we might humor them. Maybe we have been transported to their kingdom in which case we’re like, “Yes, definitely, big dung beetle. Got it.”
Curtis: But when we live in the present, of course we live in this real, tangible world that can affect us in these sort of very clear physical ways. And so we have to take it seriously on a physical level, but do we have to respect it on an intellectual level? And clearly there are … All periods in history deserve respect, but we certainly can’t say that all periods in history are equal. We certainly respect the intellectual achievements of let’s say the Italian Renaissance much more than we respect the intellectual achievements of let’s say Late Antiquity when the Huns are about to invade and the Romans are basically the Biggus Dickus caricature out of Monty Python.
Curtis: And so the question is when we look at our own society, are we more like the Italian Renaissance? Are we more like Biggus Dickus? And it’s hard especially when you look at Late Antiquity specifically, there’s some very interesting parallels there which don’t come across super well. But when we look at the way our society and specifically the way our discourse perceives itself, it definitely looks in the mirror and thinks it’s looking at the Italian Renaissance, but so do all periods so certainly did Late Antiquity. And so, which is definitely a period that cannot be taken seriously.
Curtis: We take Plato seriously, Plato was writing 800 years before this, we take him completely seriously. We can’t take say [Pridentious 00:03:42] seriously. St. Augustine, I guess some people take him seriously, but it’s the value of the period is not guaranteed. And so when you look at our society, you’re sort of trying to figure out, “Okay, is this a society and a period that can even be taken seriously?” And I think increasingly, it’s becoming clear that the answer is really no.
Jim: I tend to use the phrase clown show fairly often about our political process.
Curtis: Sure, sure. For example, there’s a famous passage in Macaulay, the English historian from I guess around 1830s or so is probably run when this was written. Macaulay is a great liberal, he really believes he’s a Whig. He believes in the Whig theory of history, he believes in the continuous advance of history, but he of course is familiar with thinking in the other direction. And so he poses this example which was fairly famous in the Victorian world of some explorer from New Zealand contemplating the ruins of London in a very Logan’s Run like fashion and of course, this is 150 years for a Logan’s Run, but he brings up the same image of London and ruins. And this is being contemplated by this citizen of New Zealand which is this bright rising society or whatever in his future.
Curtis: It’s funny, one question, and this was a common Victorian perception. So we can certainly ask the Victorians coming a little bit closer than Late Antiquity are a good example of this because we can easily ask, “Okay, what did we think of the Victorians? Well, clearly they were racist, sexist, hung up, all sorts of thug.” Great stereotypes about the Victorians. And then you can say, “Well, what would the Victorians think of us?” And literally, if you could bring a Victorian, preferably an intellectual to 2020, and they would observe the clown show as you call it, what would be their reflections on this?
Curtis: What would they think had gone wrong? Or right, maybe they’re like, “Oh yeah, this is definitely what we were hoping for here.” And most people when I would say if you talk to an academic historian about this analogy, you would basically be like, “Well, why should we take their … We’re better than them. Why should we take their critiques of us seriously? What the hell?” And so I don’t think that someone would be gauche enough to actually say that, but there’s a historical, this temporal chauvinism which some called presentism that creeps into that.
Curtis: And so presentism is always assuming that your world is completely real and that it basically deserves a very large amount of respect and this is very much the mistake that the scholars of the late Roman Empire are making because they don’t think their empire is declining. They don’t think there’s a problem at all. They’re writing in like the late 4th century AD and everything is perfectly fine and what these guys do is they basically, they surf connections.
Curtis: The whole system is built on these connections. They have this very pretentious intellectual tradition, the tradition of the grammarians as it’s called which is they’ll study writers like Virgil. They actually consider their own work as equal in quality to that of Virgil which is utterly hilarious because it’s this pompous fluff, and the main literary tone of the era is a tone of flattery. They’re always flattering each other and they’re always writing these long flattering letters to each other because obviously, connections grifting is how the world works at this time.
Curtis: And a lot of these letters have been saved because this is a Christian period. And so the works of Christians are getting randomly copied by monks. And so it’s like there’s this one, Sidonius, writer, he was actually very politically influential, he was a player and he wrote all these letters and we have all these letters and you read all these letters and you’re like, “Sidonius, I don’t care what a great Villa of your friends you stayed at the other day. What I care about is the fall of the Roman empire.” But he doesn’t talk about the fall of the Roman Empire, he’s not interested in the fall of the Roman empire.
Curtis: And then in one or two passages, he’s like, “Oh Biggus Dickus, I’m sorry, I could not visit you this year because the roads were so dangerous.” Why were the roads dangerous? Who was making the roads dangerous? And there’s no answer to these questions, right? And that’s the society that is clearly falling in this … We don’t have the equivalent kinds of barbarians, but it’s a society that’s clearly falling because it’s just out of touch with reality. And when you sort of fast-forward to that into 2020, it’s like everyone was just completely in this country was taken aback by its complete incompetence of dealing with this disease. And it’s also its absolute incompetence, and it’s also its relative incompetence as compared to other countries and that was just something that Americans did not expect.
Jim: And the West in general, parts of the West a little better, but in general, you could say the West failed this test in a pretty miserable fashion across the board. They failed it in different ways, but none of them did nearly as well as most of the Confucian countries were able to do. Talk a little bit about this presentism idea, I often talk about mythos, that there’s any given time in society, there’s a series of beliefs that most people, other than chronic assholes like you and me believe, right? And people think it’s right and good.
Jim: I like to point out that the Aztecs while they were cutting the hearts out of 13-year-old girls and throwing them down the pyramid for their priests to eat thought they were good and wonderful people. So that’s not at all unusual that no matter what the state of the world is, 95, 98, 99% of the people entirely believed the mythos of the era. And only if you have that rare time that you can step away from it.
Curtis: Do you know the term political formula?
Curtis: That’s just a term, the introductory textbook on political science I always recommend is a book called The Machiavellians by James Burnham which is a great survey of something called the Italian School of Political Science, mainly writing around the turn of the last century and chiefly featuring writers like Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto who was also very influential in the development of statistics, real giants. And Mosca in particular is I would say he’s in some ways the unsung Darwin of political science. His concept of the political formula is basically the political formula is that element of the mythos as you call it which makes people believe that the government is good, that power is good and right.
Curtis: And so if you’re like an Egyptian peasant, you’re like, “Why do I love the Pharaoh?” I’m like, “I love the Pharaoh because the Pharaoh is the son of the sun and if the Pharaoh is displeased, the sun will go out.” Right? And that’s a political formula and we have much more modern ones now and most of these political formulas that happen now make the individual feel powerful and important. So they make you feel like you matter, you’re changing the world, you have an impact, you care, all of these words which are basically euphemisms for you’re a powerful person and you mean something and you matter.
Curtis: And so essentially, the political formula of today boils down to you matter because you support the government. And so one of the big shocks for a lot of people, feeling this way which I find as we were talking before the show I find hilarious because I grew up in DC, I grew up in the foreign service to be exact. And so this was always like a real thing to me. It can never be this icon on the … The deep state could never be worshiped because that was where I was from. And so when you find people who really revere the competence of these agencies and essentially, the top-down summary of what happened in 2020 with COVID is that you can see most people when they look at this disaster, either see the failures of Trump or the failures of the deep state.
Curtis: And both of those screw-ups are in some ways equally spectacular, but completely different, but you have to see them both as basically a single screw up of a much larger system. So it’s even worse than you think in a way and just people are used to thinking, “Well, okay, at least one of these sides must be good. At least one of these forces or directions or something must have competence, must know what it’s doing, the fundamental ideas which the system are based on are obviously completely and totally right even if they’re not always implemented maybe in the proper way.” And 2020 when you had I think and will continue to have into 2021, this slightly Chernobyl-like effect of basically saying, “What if it’s all fucked?”
Jim: I do and we talked about this quite a bit in some of the circles I follow which is the shock of COVID, obviously there’s many microshocks, but perhaps the biggest is the number of ears to hear that the status quo, the emperor is wearing no clothes is probably increased by at least an order of magnitude in one year and the implications of that shock in the coming years are hard to predict, but it could be quite significant.
Curtis: Sure. Or they could be nothing at all. The Soviet Union was in a very, very different situation than ours in so many ways. But when you look at the fall of the Soviet Union, certainly what stands out is that if you talk to anyone in the Soviet Union in the eighties, even dissidence, even the most radical dissidence, no one talked to anyone in America even the most radical cold warriors. Maybe some of the radical cold warriors, nobody is predicting the fall of the Soviet Union. Nobody knows that that concept doesn’t even really make sense to people before it happens.
Jim: Actually, I love that particular analysis. I want examples that gives … In the late ’80s, I bought a book called the 100 greatest people in history and I went back to it after the fall of Soviet Union to see exactly what the person had written about Marx. And they had written this, the book was published in 1887 or the second edition was ’87 or ’88, something like that. And the entry on Marx I think had him ranked as the third most important person in history after Muhammad number one and Jesus number two.
Jim: One of these pop history kinds of things. So but anyways, this person said, “Well, obviously, Marxism is going to be a gigantic effect, the Soviet Union and it’s hard to see how it could not be a major force for at least the next 200 years.” This was literally three years before the fall. So nobody saw it coming and one of my dear friends is a political scientist specializing in Russian studies and particularly on local and regional government Russia and she’s been to Russia lots of times. And she said, “Neither her nor any of her colleagues saw it coming.”
Curtis: Well, here’s a tweet that was posted 11 minutes ago Jim by some right-wing reporter who I don’t quite trust the language he’s using here, but I’m just going to repeat it. Breaking, revolution in process as Trump supporters break into the Capitol building attacking police, breaking windows, and knocking down doors. Full anarchy at this quote, mostly peaceful demonstration DC. The people have pushed through and are storming to main chambers.
Jim: Interesting. The barbarians are at the gates.
Curtis: The barbarians are the [crosstalk 00:16:57]
Jim: We’ll make our own barbarians though.
Curtis: They’re apparently through the gate. Of course I can’t comment on, I’m not there, but I gather someone is filming it.
Jim: We’ll find out about it later. One of my New Year’s resolutions was spent a lot less time wallowing in the news.
Curtis: All right, let us cease at once to wallowing the news.
Jim: Yeah, let’s get back to our little essay here. Let’s go out to the next topic here which again, a lens, one of the reasons I reached out to you and said I want to talk to you about this essay. Was there some interesting lenses and people listen to the show know that we regularly talk about choosing the right lens to see to try to make sense of the world. And I loved your invention of the stupidity quotient. I think this is a wonderful tool which I am going to adopt and use and remember to credit you when I do. Tell us a little bit about the SQ.
Curtis: Oh, that’s just my clever way of reversing. It’s really a literary gesture in that essay. What I find is that people for a lot of reasons don’t like to talk about IQ. And the other thing is that humans are just objectively stupid. We’re terribly bad at things like chess and math, we can barely do math. We’re just not very smart creatures and the stupidest ones among us which is a species that I know very well, what is the stupidest kind of human? Obviously it’s a child, right?
Curtis: And so this is my way of doing The Emperor’s New Clothes thing and saying, “Let’s look at what happened in 2020 through the mindset of a child.” Let’s suppose you have a six year old in the house. I don’t have a six year old in the house, I used to and I said to the six-year-old, “There’s a dangerous disease developing in China. Do you think we should let airplanes keep flying across the ocean with people that may be full of that disease?”
Curtis: The child is going to be like, “No, make the airplanes turn around daddy.” And yet the ability of the USG which saw that there was potentially human to human transmission in the first days of January for it to say, “Well, we don’t want to disrupt the travel and trade.” Is to say, “No, actually we’re going to make an executive decision. Hey, it looks like there’s a weird bug coming out of China, just to be sure we’re going to disconnect the hemispheres now. Nobody flies, not even South America, close it off, shut it down until we can figure out what’s going on.”
Curtis: That’s what obviously would have been the rational policy and so to realize that you don’t have a government that can think as well as a six-year-old is which is completely obvious to … Anyone who knows DC, I think gave, came as a relatively large shock to a lot of people looking at this in hindsight.
Jim: Yeah, you make an interesting point throughout the essay that the folks in the establishment are optimizing for is not sense-making and making quality decisions, but rather bolstering the institutional reputations and strengths of their particular little factions shall we say.
Curtis: Sure, because people have an instinct for loyalty and when you’re working in an army or a corporation or something that’s structured with a very direct connection to results, then you have this nice thing where loyalty to the people around you turns into loyalty to the institution which turns into basically a desire to see the institution get its nominal results. And that’s something that works in any normal structured set up and it completely in a bureaucracy, there’s no accountability for results whatsoever and the institution is still all powerful. And so your first loyalty is to basically your little bureaucratic mafia that scratches each other’s back and helps you advance your second loyalty is to the institution itself. And often, the institution’s goals just totally, its real goals just totally diverge from its nominal goals.
Curtis: And there’s no way to keep … It’s like you go to DC and one of the things that happened around 9/11 which is so amazing is that people realized, “Wow, securing the US mainland is really a very important problem. We need a new institution to solve that to secure the nation. What do we call it? Well, why don’t we call it National Security? But wait, that word’s taken.” So they had to come up with this weird Nazi sounding thing of Homeland Security, the Heimat and like Homeland, what about National Security? But the thing is National Security means conquering the planet and the assumption that America’s National Security could only be secured by conquering the planet is certainly older than you, it’s certainly older than me, it’s a very old assumption.
Curtis: It really dates back arguably to the ’20s, the original ’20s. So you basically have all of these and then you’re like, “Okay, what is the mission of the state department? What is it?” “Well, it’s to secure America’s National Security, it’s part of our …” There are all of these things where the point of the institution which was once when it was established razor sharp is not even really clear anymore and certainly protecting the institution is going to be your highest goal at all times. If you don’t think that way, you’re just not a team player and you can’t continue to work in these places.
Jim: Yeah, we talked about interesting books. One of my real heroes, not so well known anymore in political science is Mancur Olson, he was a professor at the University of Maryland. And he talks about this a lot in two of the very best, deep political theory books in my mind. One is The Rise and Decline of Nations where he talks about this exactly, the capture of important decision-making by self-serving internal bureaucracies and conflicts of interest between the interests of bureaucracies and various players and the real interest to society.
Jim: And then a more difficult book, even more important, a book called The Logic of Collective Action. How small groups are always able to outmaneuver large groups when it comes to manipulating bureaucracies such that outcomes that are favorable to the small, more intense group will win out over those that are more important for the larger group. In this case, let’s say the epidemiologists versus the public [crosstalk 00:24:24] also would not be at all surprised by these outcomes.
Curtis: The one point that I didn’t mention in my 2020 essay which I think brings out this public choice theory stuff really, really well is and which is just like, it would be hilarious if we’re … It’s the very definition of grimly hilarious is I don’t know if you saw the piece by Nicholson Baker in the New York magazine recently. Nicholson Baker is one of America’s greatest writers and I like to give my enemies in the press points when they do things right. And publishing this essay was something New York magazine really did right. Because essentially what Nicholson Baker does is he took on a point that I was, I knew and basically agreed with him on this.
Curtis: His point is essentially, “Look, this is clearly a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.” And he really traces the scientific trail really, really well. And what essentially happened here in the most plausible understanding is that after SARS 1, a lot of people got funding to study this shit and then SARS 1 actually disappeared and never went away and so people are like, “Oh, well SARS 1 is a bat coronavirus. Clearly, there’s a national security threat from bat coronaviruses attacking the human population. So here’s what we’re going to do about it. We’re going to go and find all these bat coronaviruses, we’re going to go to every bat cave we can find a dig up bat coronaviruses, we’re going to get those bat coronaviruses and see how they could become dangerous to humans and do things called gain of function experiments where you basically enhanced the power of the virus.”
Curtis: This was actually some of the best virologists got together to actually put a moratorium on funding this stuff for whatever reason that was lifted in 2017 in the Trump administration. The main player in this let’s investigate bat coronavirus is a thing is this guy Peter Daszak. And he has this group called the EcoHealth Alliance. What’s hilarious is that the EcoHealth Alliance actually has a long and distinguished history going back to a zoological organization founded by Gerald Durrell who was my favorite writer as a kid, an English naturalist, but now what they do is instead of finding beautiful animals in the world and bringing them to England, they find ugly coronaviruses and bring them to humanity.
Curtis: And in fact, the people who were at the Wuhan Institute of Virology not only had been former students of American PIs in this effort, mainly Ralph Baric at UNC, but actually were being funded by American grants to fuck around with bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. And so Nicholson Baker basically brings out this trail and I know enough people with expertise in this matter to know that he’s not … This is actually, I know people who were involved in putting that story together. This is very, very sound science.
Curtis: And of course, the whole conspiracy theory weaponry has been turned on it, but it’s perfectly true and perfectly obvious. And so the thing that’s amazing is this whole epidemic comes out of one of if this is true. And I think it likely is. I wouldn’t stake my life on it, but if this is true, the whole pandemic not only feel to be countered by these DC self-licking ice cream cones, if you’ve heard that term, but was actually created as a DC self-licking ice cream cone.
Jim: Yup, it’s certainly possible. In fact, one of my deep sources, again, I wouldn’t take a huge amount of money out on it, but it seems reasonable to me, his theory which comes from a family connection actually in Wuhan is that the actual vector was indeed from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and if you know something about the intensification technology, they use animals to essentially intensify breed, et cetera, and particularly they used ferrets-
Jim: And the story which again, strongly plausible because of the other antecedent aspects. I’ll have to go check out Nicholson Baker, I actually know Nicholson Baker a little bit, and he’s extremely good writer and thinker. But anyway, this theory from inside Wuhan, a family of a friend of mine said it was actually the janitor at the institute who was supposed to kill and burn the animals rather was illegally taking the dead animals to his cousin who was selling them at the market in Wuhan and that was the actual vector. And this sounds so realistically Chinese to me that that [crosstalk 00:29:39]
Curtis: Yeah, I was about to say that makes perfect from everything I know about China and, yeah. My children speak Mandarin, I’ve never been to China, but I have great respect for China, but at the same time and I use many, many fine Chinese products, but at the same time, that sounds very, very plausible. And the other piece of information that I heard from a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend was that Wendy dang if you know that name admitted at some fat cat gathering that it was … Well, apparently she said Chinese military, but that’s just pumping it up, there’s no military anything around this virus.
Curtis: It was just these fuckwads basically doing research for the sake of doing research essentially. And then they’re like, “Oh, if you read their grant proposals.” I’ve actually read one of these guy’s grant proposals and it’s basically like, “Oh, well, the next time one of these viruses comes to attack us, it will help a great deal that we’ve been fucking around with them in our labs. Of course, it didn’t help for shit.”
Jim: Exactly. Let’s go onto your next SQ filter where you’re on your lens and that is you make a good point that very rapidly. We actually had some fairly decent vaccines, but it took us a long time to get through this sausage factory of FDA approvals, frankly, about 10 times faster than usual, but still a long time. Interestingly, back on the show in May, a Renegade virologist who actually made his own COVID vaccine in April and gave it to himself and some friends of his, and he argued on my show, on the episode Brian Hanley is his name, the episode we republished on the 26th of May that the correct theory was that we should release all 100 vaccines into the world right now and just track them quickly.
Jim: And we recall the ones that have a disproportionate number of side effects, and you go down that road and make a similar, they’re not quite as extreme as Brian’s argument. So talk to us to about point number two, about SQ at work.
Curtis: Well, I’m a generalist and not a specialist, but as a generalist, I like to come in just a little bit under the specialists and he’s certainly right about that. And I think what he’s right about even more is that the idea of saying we have this holy procedure and our society which is very Holy and which is equal to the best of the Italian Renaissance or whatever is based on following these Holy procedures and if these procedures become less Holy than the whole basis of society falls apart just as if the dung beetle stopped pushing the sun, right?
Curtis: And when you talk to really true believers in the real deep state in DC, you see clearly that it’s the form of government that Aristotle would have called an oligarchy. It’s process means basically the government of the few because it’s the government of the people that are in the process loop. And those people I think what you have to wrestle with is that most of the people, one thing that people outside DC often make the mistake of thinking is they look at the stupid decisions made by these institutions and they think the people involved in these institutions are either stupid or evil because these are stupid decisions that have evil effects.
Curtis: And generally speaking, they couldn’t be more wrong about that. Generally speaking, what you see is that essentially what governs really is the process and not the people to the extent that the people can make a difference. And certainly people in DC do make an individual difference all the freaking time. They do that by, I borrowed this phrase from a lib at one point which I really like which is they do it by manipulating procedural outcomes.
Curtis: So basically if they want to get some outcome from some committee, what they don’t do is say, “Okay, I’m just going to bring the best ideas to this process and the best ideas are going to be right. What do they actually do? They stack the fucking committee.” And this is how you get things done in DC, you become this master bureaucratic operator and you even start to think of that as a good and noble skill which perhaps in a sense it is. And of course, the people also who succeed in these systems, they’re still quite competitive.
Curtis: And so the people who build these bureaucratic empire, the Fauci’s of the world, and by the way, one of the things that Baker points out is that of the good, the ubiquitous Dr. Fauci was actually involved himself considerably in this whole let’s do gain of function experiments on bat beta-coronaviruses thing, right? So it’s actually you’re appointing the head of the Soviet Nuclear Authority to clean up Chernobyl. In fact, they even appointed this guy, Peter Daszak to lead the committee that would go into China and figure out where this epidemic came from.
Curtis: So that’s just a masterstroke, you basically you have a guy who’s credibly accused of being the culprit and he’s appointed to lead the investigation. That’s so Hollywood I can’t even and it’s beautiful. And so when you look at these Holy institutions, the ability to do that to work in this way is what you’re looking at. And so you’re looking at very talented, knowledgeable people, but they’re operating in a world of incentives that you can’t see, and those incentives are very, very different from yours.
Curtis: So for example with this proposal of, “Oh, let’s just put the vaccines out there and treat it like the emergency that it is.” The immediate counter example that people think of and I go into this in the essay is the swine flu panic of 1976 in which basically a bunch of scientists, no doubt seeking to make a name for themselves where like, “Wow, there’s a flu in pigs in Mexico that’s going to be the next 1918.”
Curtis: And the Carter administration or the Ford administration, I think maybe it span both is like, “Oh yes, we must rush this vaccine into production and vaccinate everyone with basically disgusting bulk spray injectors.” And they did that and or they vaccinated a substantial percentage of the American population and unfortunately, two things happened. One is that the swine flu was not really a real thing. And the other was that of the people who were vaccinated, a few hundred developed Guillain-Barre disease which is a serious although generally not fatal condition.
Curtis: And so people are like, “Oh my God, we fucked this up. This is Hitler 2.0, this must never happen again because we violated our Hippocratic Oath.” And we did no harm, above all, did no harm, we harmed these people for no reason. And the thing is that when you look at this from a risk benefit standpoint, first of all, yes. It is pretty easy to evaluate vaccine outcomes on the fly. There’s also obviously the challenge trial approach has been proposed by many as well. I was proposing it back in March. But from the perspective of someone involved in these institutions whose loyalty is to the institution, he basically puts his scale and he says, “On one side of the scale, we made 400 people sick who didn’t need to be sick.” And then on the other side of the scale, we say, “Well, we let 300,000 people die who didn’t need to die.”
Curtis: And the thing is to a child, to any sane person over the age of four, I don’t think even six is needed here, you’d be like, “Wait a second. The right side of that scale is heavier.” But actually inside FDA, it’s the left side of the scale that’s heavier. And that’s really if you look at what is causing that, what is causing that is something very, very basic, as a very basic concept which all persons in a position of responsibility which I believe both you and I have been CEOs understand which is a conflict of interest.
Curtis: These institutions are giving us this strange advice because they have a very, very strong conflict of interest. Our interest can be accurately expressed by risk benefit advice, but their interest is in retaining their prestige. And so anything that damages their prestige like we gave this vaccine to people and harm them is much ways, much more heavily on their minds than this, “We’re just going to let people die even though we have a vaccine.” What the fuck? Right? And so the magnitude of this conflict of interest is immense and the problem is completely unsolvable because there’s simply no one else who’s empowered who has the legitimate right to make that decision.
Curtis: Let’s say Donald Trump had been which he easily could have. He’s a mercurial man. He could have been like, “Oh yeah, let’s release the vaccine. It’s my FDA, it’s part of the executive branch. I’m just going to tell the FDA what to do. I’m the president aren’t I? They elected me, didn’t I? Release the vaccines.” I don’t know what would happen then, but certainly every one who reads the New York Times and The New Yorker and even New York Magazine would have been like, “This is the most illegitimate and evil decision in the world. This guy is Hitler 2.0, we’ve been saying this for a while and now we know we’re right.”
Curtis: And there’s just no question that that … There’s nothing in the current American system that makes it legitimate to make that kind of decision. Maybe it could be made in an emergency. And so the thing is you have the only authority that you have to make these decisions has a giant conflict of interest, and there is no other authority that we can even imagine overruling that authority. And then in the essay, I’ll go into an amusing degression on the origins of this attitude and the Hippocratic Oath which is that the thing is you have to realize Hippocrates or as some call him Hippo was a very realistic guy and he was a player.
Curtis: And if you wanted medicine, if you could afford medicine and 200 BC or whatever, then you were a rich dude. You’re a rich dude, you’re a powerful dude, you’re a powerful dude, you can get a guy whacked. So you’re a doctor in this environment, you’re a smart guy. You’re not naive. You’re the Hippo, what is your attitude going to be? Your attitude is going to be above all. Let me not fuck this up and be seen to fuck it up because that’s a matter of personal survival to you.
Curtis: So in a way, Hippocrates himself in the environment that he’s operating in has the same conflict of interest. He can’t act in wholly in the interest of his patient because if he does that, the cost of a positive mistake is going to be very great to him personally whereas the cost of a negative mistake is like, “Oh, I did my best. People die, it happens.”
Jim: Yeah, it’s an excellent strategy. It’s an excellent mimetic strategy just like the idea of faith in a revealed religion, right? That’s one of these-
Curtis: Yeah. And so the thing is that then you have to convince your patient that you’re following the right strategy whereas you’re actually following the wrong strategy because you’re actually following, you’re conflicted, you’re following a strategy that is in your interest and not in the interest of the patient. And so you have to basically brainwash the patient into believing that you’re doing the thing that he would do in your position with your expertise which is not in fact the case.
Jim: Well, you’ve turned the Hippocratic Oath into a mythos, right? That this is a metastrategy that is correct. And because it’s now at mythos, it can’t be questioned.
Curtis: Yes. And the problem with turning things into a mythos is that when you create … When you start to get a lot of things that can’t be questioned and can’t be changed or huge absolutes, this tend to clump together in a way that is very undesired by the creators of the mythos and then the whole mythos gets thrown out in one bag.
Jim: Which could well happen. Well, let’s go onto the third example that fails the SQ test and it’s got I think perhaps even more interesting ramifications in than the first two which is the lockdown, right?
Curtis: The lockdown.
Jim: Yeah, let’s talk about the lockdown and the various flavors of lockdown and how we happen to choose the particular one we did because of these balances of self-interest by the decision maker.
Curtis: Yeah, yeah, and that’s a fascinating story because we landed in the lockdown of shit basically. And the whole story of these events is so fascinating. And I had a really weird view on it because I was of after about, I think the middle of January, I was making financial bets on the coronavirus. And so I was basically rooting for this fucking disease which is a really unhealthy state of mind. And so basically as you no doubt know, anyone who has a financial position in anything comes to talk their book and basically believe in their story.
Curtis: So arguably I believed in this virus a little too much, or I was a little too impressed by it. I thought it was a little closer to the Soderbergh virus. It’s in the strange valley where it’s a serious concern, but it’s not a world-ending concern. I think if it was a world ending concern, we probably would have learned to act more effectively. But in any case, basically, I was reading something, some critical piece about China’s response to this, or they’re trying to find something to criticize them. What they come up with criticizing is they’re like, “Well, when China sees a problem, it doesn’t really think, it just solves the problem.”
Curtis: And so China was like, “Okay, we’re just going to solve the problem. The problem is basically people communicating the disease to each other. The critical ingredient in a true Chinese lockdown is that testing is aggressive and proactive and anyone who has tested positive, anyone who has had positive contact was put in a quarantine facility, simple as that, stopped the thing, brought our down to like 0.3.” Bam, Chinese people are partying right now.
Curtis: And so in a way, the West saw this and it you might remember one of the things I go into in the piece that we haven’t touched on yet is this whole great world health organization excuse of travel and trade like, “Oh yeah, we can’t do quarantines because shutting down travel and trade is absolutely wrong.” It turns out to A, be an obvious lie, B, we’ve had a lot of trade without travel, you might’ve noticed since then. Actually, travel doesn’t seem to be needed for trade at all. And I actually, that policy came into existence with the generous aid of the hospitality industry on the World Health Organization.
Curtis: And so that’s the level at which these authorities, if you think American deep state organizations are fucked, try the international ones. My father was actually the US Attaché to international organizations in Geneva. So seen some shit, but the WHO of course is like, and then this ridiculous organization because it’s a world organization, see it has w in it and a three letter acronym basically gets to decide what content can appear on YouTube. It’s absolutely wild.
Curtis: It just destroys every sort of verity of this system that we’ve believed in for many years. In any case, basically what happens when the lockdown comes to America is a couple of things. I do think that in general, this is a nasty disease, you don’t want it. You should do your best to avoid getting it and giving it to other people. Certainly this is all true. At the same time, the state capacity of American institutions was greatly overstated by all intellectuals because most of the people in the discourse don’t really have any contact with the regime that is supposedly actually activating these policies that they debate as if they were talking about chess.
Curtis: And so basically, a couple of ideas come up. First what we’re going to do, test, trace and isolate in America and this is now a very straight forward coming out of an academic. Oh yeah. We’re just going to … Remember the tracing apps? Everyone is going to have a tracing app. There were all these basically, if you looked at what people were talking about and thinking about, you remember the Hammer and the Dance?
Jim: I actually read that essay when it came out. I loved it and I promoted the shit out of it and I made the mistake that you pointed out, right? Why don’t you talk about that a little bit? Now, this is a wonderful essay that really laid out how an actually effective government could and should have dealt with the coronavirus, but didn’t.
Curtis: But the analysis in a way it’s completely misplaced because basically, let’s say you’re a doctor and you’re dealing with a 75-year-old heart patient who has some kind of … Needs to get back in shape and you’re like, “Here’s how an athlete would deal with this.” An athlete would deal with this by running 10 miles every day in the morning. So why don’t you run at least five?” So a couple of things sort of happened out of that experience, right? One is that you’re giving this advice.
Curtis: Actually, I talked to Tomas Pueyo for an hour or two on Clubhouse a few weeks ago, perfectly a nice guy and he certainly recognizes this failing of his advice which is that the advice is that would have been perfectly reasonable advice delivered to the Taiwanese government.
Jim: Actually, that was the error I was speaking of that I made the mistake of assuming that our government was actually capable of acting which it wasn’t.
Curtis: Yeah, yeah, and I was living in this world where I’m basically like, “I know none of these things can be done. How does anybody not know that none of these things can be done?” This is a country, the government doesn’t even know to within 10 million people, how many people are inside it. Anything that involves counting people, tracking people is just hopelessly fucked. If you want to go, if you want to prove your identity in many situations, the best way to prove your identity is with a utility bill.
Curtis: This country is digital shambles. There are probably private databases that can do … Really, if you really wanted to make test, trace, and isolate work, you know who you really would have needed to pull in? The collection agencies. But of course, try to imagine something like the Tomas Pueyo essay where he’s like, “Oh yeah, and we need to recruit collections agencies to make this happen.”
Jim: They’re a Spherion. Yeah, Spherion will be the front agency on this, right?
Curtis: Well, and that’s a credit reporting agency. Those aren’t the people that actually track … But the thing is, the whole thing is a shit show. And even the private, even collections agencies are a shit show. How many times they wind up collecting a debt that doesn’t even exist. The whole digital infrastructure of citizenship is basically the 21st century equivalent of like the Haitian road network. It’s ridiculous. And so you look in countries that actually have a list of their citizens or really basic high-tech things like that. And it’s just, you must know the James C. Scott book Seeing Like a State?
Jim: Of course. It’s a very, very interesting book.
Curtis: Right. And the thing is that basically one of the things that you see in America is that these many basic … James C. Scott himself is an anarchist, but one thing you see from James C. Scott is that many features of the American system have this anarchy built into them where they don’t want to be seen as a state. The state is bounded in its ability to perceive the population, it’s bounded in its ability to control crime, it’s bounded in its ability to control disease.
Curtis: It doesn’t even have a list of its people, it doesn’t know where they are to get access to their phone records which knows exactly where they are is this Herculean feat which would be equivalent to the civil war or something like that. And so it’s a very, very weak state. And we see of course much weaker States in the third world that are the logical extreme of that. And so basically asking the state to perform like China is very much like asking your 75-year-old heart patient to run a marathon.
Curtis: Yeah, running a marathon maybe it is good for your heart, but not this guy’s heart. And so we drifted into this zone of unreality. And then the worst thing I think about the Hammer and the Dance is that basically, when you give the advice of the Hammer and the Dance, and there were a lot of forms of advice like that and I do think that piece itself was very influential because it was very well done. But when you basically give that to people who can’t dance, what you’re telling them is the hammer, but not really the hammer and what you’re telling them is crack down on it, but don’t, you got to get it to controllable levels, two weeks to flatten the curve.
Curtis: I’m like, “Do you know anything about math? Because if you know anything about math, you know that one of the hardest fricking things to do with an exponential curve is to flatten it. Either it’s going to the sky or it’s going to the floor.” But they’re just like, “Oh, we got a minute.” Somehow the idea crept the American institutional mind that the goal of working with COVID-19 was not to eradicate it and not to reach herd immunity, but to control it. And so that drifted into, that’s where this kind of Afghanistan mindset of like, “We need to keep fighting even though we’re not winning, but we need to keep fighting, but it’s good that we fight to … You fall by default into this permanent war mentality where it becomes completely acceptable that you’re not winning, but maybe you could be losing more.”
Curtis: For anyone who’s ever debugged a program which you see America doing with COVID is thrashing. It’s basically trying things that it knows isn’t going to work over and over again.
Jim: And so yeah, we had this, call it an impedance mismatch between the Hammer and the Dance and the real capability of American institutions. I like the analogy that it’s … The cardiologist telling the 75-year-old to run a marathon. Sorry, not really. So that was indeed the error of thinking that that was the right answer, but what’s interesting if we go back in history, American government wasn’t always like that. Back in World War 2, we used to actually be able to do shit.
Curtis: Yeah. The actual government was able to do things shit. In fact, the two most successful large engineering projects of all time are of course, number one, the Manhattan Project and a number two, the Apollo program. Now the second one was actually the Nazi space program, but so we’ll cancel that out. Let’s cancel that one.
Jim: Yeah, no actually it was bigger, actually I did the analysis. The Apollo Project was four, five times bigger than the Manhattan Project.
Curtis: Yeah, yeah, yeah and, but the core of the Apollo Project was still von Braun and his Huntsville team. So let’s keep it American here and focus on Manhattan which was really run arguably better. Now, if you look at what Manhattan was, it was absolutely amazing. And quite simply, it was run like a startup. It was everything that was done like a startup and one of the most amazing things about Manhattan is that they got basically people who were top quality researchers to work on shit like Richard Feynman to work on shit other than their own personal hobby horses which is the thing that has basically never been done since then.
Curtis: And so I always like to joke that if they tried to do the Manhattan project in 1941 or whenever it was started, I think 41 in the way that DC would do it now, what they would do is actually very, very simple. They would appropriate let’s say the same amount of money, they would look at this problem and they would say, “Wow, to build this bomb which we know is technically possible. We’re going to have to solve a huge number of problems in metallurgy and chemistry and high energy physics and this field and that field and the other field.”
Curtis: So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to put out some RFPs, we’re going to put out a lot of grant proposals, and we’re going to say, “Metallurgists, come and figure out all these … We invite your grant proposals related to building an atomic bomb.” And every metallurgist, professor of material science out there and freshwater state would be like, “Aha, how is my research relevant to building an atomic bomb?” Right? They would go and they would basically spend … These people spend a third of their work-life writing grant proposals, they would spend it and they would basically be like, “Here’s my existing research repackaged to be about atomic bombs.”
Curtis: And because they had friends in the metallurgy, of course the people would be issuing these grants and approving the recommendations would be metallurgy professors. And they have friends on the committee who really value and trust and admire their work and bam, it goes through and this would happen all over science and engineering. And the probability is I think it’s quite possible that you might get an atomic bomb by like 1985, right? And just in time to drop it on Japan and the Black Rain, Michael Douglas era. And what is the difference between these kinds of organizations?
Curtis: Well, if you look at the way Manhattan actually operated, again, it operated like a startup. So it operated like a startup and that it had two-in-a-box leadership. It had the Technical Supervisor Oppenheimer and General Groves who didn’t know anything about anything except getting shit done and it basically operated, it was structured as an absolutely top-down pyramid. Nobody was like, “Oh, here’s my proposal for how shit would be.” Yes, could you make a proposal, but it was the exception rather than the rule.
Curtis: And so there was no … To summarize all of these differences, the nature of a startup or even a big startup, a big company, a big tech company or a big any company, the nature of a company and the nature of the Manhattan Project are essentially of the nature of monarchical governance. The way science is run now is the way everything was run now which is fundamentally oligarchical. And so the idea of a scientist being ordered, told what to work on is just that would be utterly demeaning, that you would lose your class status is like, well, that’s what going to industry is, you’re descending from the Valhalla, of you are an independent spirit in the priestly tradition of science.
Curtis: And so expecting science to get the same kinds of results as the Manhattan Project is very implausible. Of course, the Modernas and the Pfizers of the world are also run as monarchies. And so the interesting question comes down to, how could in the Washington of the 1940s, how could this monarchical structure exist? Whereas it would obviously be torn to shreds and proceduralized to hell in DC today. Actually, there’s a fact about the Manhattan Project that most people don’t know which is that it’s still alive.
Curtis: That organization was never dissolved. It has a current successor. My mother actually worked for its current living successor. Its current living successor is called the Department of Energy and the department of energy is notoriously one of the most incompetent departments in Washington which is saying a lot. And so it actually, it’s the same institution and how is this deteriorated? Well, when you answer that question, you basically clearly are looking for systemic effects. And then what happens is you’re like, “Okay, what was different about DC in the 1930s?” And you can’t help but run into the observation that maybe this worked because you see in the 1930s was also a monarchy.
Curtis: Because when you look at the way that FDR actually operated, he could tell anyone to do anything. He could destroy, create and destroy agencies. In some cases he had to … Congress was not quite a rubber stamp for FDR. Normally the way he operated is he would rather create a new parallel agency, his so-called alphabet soup. Then work with these old line, the state department and the army were very, very conservative at the time so we had trouble working with them sometimes so he’d read around them, but FDR himself was not very much of a manager.
Curtis: He was a very Trump-like figure in some ways. He was very entertaining, very charismatic and he loved to lie. There’s nothing FDR like more than just telling a lie and being believed. Trump exaggerates, but FDR would just straight out make shit up. But the great thing that FDR had that Trump didn’t have is one, he had essentially absolute power or close to it. Another is he had an ability to delegate and he delegated very, very effective managers, people like Harry Hopkins. Now there’s some evidence that Harry Hopkins may have been a GRU agent or at least a GRU contact, that said, the guy knew how to get shit done.
Curtis: You’re like, “How was it that this Washington could get shit done?” And it’s like, “Well, it was getting shit done in the Manhattan Project because that was shaped like organizations which get shit done.” And moreover, that organization existed in the context of a whole organization, the whole of DC that was shaped like an organization that gets shit done. And then you’re like, “Wait a second. Everything from my COVID vaccine to my car, to the restaurant that I’ll eat at once the COVID vaccines finally get distributed, none of these things is run as an oligarchy. They’re all run as monarchies. They’re all shaped like pyramids and they have an accountable leader at the top and he tells people what to do. And if his results are bad …” He or she, I should say, and if his results are bad, then he gets tossed.” That’s accountability for you.
Curtis: And, of course, nothing like that exists in FDA. My God, right? And so you have or has anyone gotten fired for screwing up the CDC tests? Has anyone lost their job? I’m sure people have like lost reputation, it was embarrassing that the US made the series of mistakes and FDA and CDC in January, February and March. Who has suffered for this? Probably no one. And so you have this is a completely different character of organization. Then you take one step back and you look at this historically and you’re like, “Okay, this is super interesting because nominally, America has the same constitution in 1933 as in 2020.”
Curtis: Nobody’s rewritten the Holy document or anything. Nonetheless, it appears to me that at that time, these were actually different forms of constitution in the most basic Aristotelian sense. It’s like plants, animals and fungi, right? Clearly you’re not the same animal if you go from becoming a plant to becoming a fungus, you’ve crossed kingdoms. And so in a sense, the US in 1933 was a de facto monarchy. If you want to understand what was going on, that made it possible for this organization the Manhattan Project to exist, let me read a speech to you that is a speech that was made by a leader who seized power in 1933 and when he took power, this is a speech he made.
Curtis: “If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize, as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other. That we can not merely take, but we must give as well. That if we are to go forward, we must move as a train and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline because without such discipline, no progress is made. No leadership becomes effective. We are I know ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty, hitherto evoked only in time of war.
Curtis: With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems. Action in this image and to this end is feasible under the form of government which we have inherited from our ancestors. Our constitution is so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form. That is why our constitutional system has proved itself the most superbly enduring political mechanism the modern world has produced.
Curtis: It has met every stress of vast expansion of territory, of foreign wars, of bitter internal strife of world relations. It is to be hoped that the normal balance of executive and legislative authority may be wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us, but it may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure. I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom.
Curtis: I shall seek within my constitutional authority to bring to speedy adoption, but in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis, broad executive power, to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign enemy. For the trust reposed in me, I will return the courage and the devotion that befit the time. I can do no less.
Curtis: We face the arduous days the lie before us in the warm courage of the national unity. With a clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values, with a clean satisfaction that comes from the stern performance of duty by old and young alike. We aim at the assurance of a rounded and permanent national life. We do not distrust the future of the essential democracy. The people of the United States have not failed in their need, they have registered a mandate that they want direct vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes in the spirit of the gift I take it.
Curtis: In this dedication of a nation, we humbly asked the blessing of God, may he protect each and every one of us, may he guide me in the days to come.” End of speech. So and that’s obviously a slightly different kind of political rhetoric than you’ll find in the United States these days.
Jim: Yup, sure enough. And that was?
Curtis: FDR, 1933 First Inaugural Address.
Jim: Yeah, there were enough internal clues I figured it out of course, but yeah. But it’s funny, I’ve often said that Trump could have easily won if he had had the psychological capability to just have channeled either FDR or Churchill for six months, but the poor lad was just not capable of doing.
Curtis: He was capable of doing a very good fake FDR or Churchill, but he needed to not just … He didn’t do it. He didn’t do it in the tone that he took on that. And no doubt you remember the amazing switch in March in which basically before a certain date, the right way to think about the coronavirus was that it was a right wing conspiracy theory, and your best way to fight the conspiracy theory was to go down to your local Chinese restaurant and lick some door knobs. And you should definitely not wear a mask because that’s completely wrong. And that switched around and I think that the person who caused that switch was actually Trump.
Curtis: I think that if Trump had taken a hard line on the virus, I think the establishment would have had no choice, but to take a soft line and it would have gone full Sweden. And you could already see signs of that popping up. You could see signs of the civil liberties establishment swinging into action to prevent these horrible quarantines and lockdowns and so forth. And then Trump himself, and this was a personal decision by this one person basically instinctively took the other side and that actually caused the establishment to turn on a dime and go with the full lockdown theory which however they couldn’t really perform on, although it sort of looked like they were, but that was just virus seasonality.
Jim: Indeed. Yeah, it’s interesting. Well, I think we’re going to have to wrap it up here Curtis. This has been a remarkably interesting conversation. We’ve gone over our usual time for our current episode. There’s a lot more in the essay which I would recommend folks read if they found what they heard here on the show today interesting and again, the name of the essay is 2020, the year of everything fake.
Curtis: And that’s at Gray Mirror, Gray Mirror with an A.substack.com.
Jim: Indeed. Alrighty. We’ll wrap her there.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.