Fam, I made a mistake. I keep trying to do these basic little blog posts and then I get an idea and it takes me way too long to write it, which is against the spirit of this project. My goal right now is just to read some books that are informative on governance and write little posts about them, but instead I get all ambitious and try and do these long essays. Anyway that’s not your problem, that’s my problem. Or, it’s your problem too since this essay is like 2x as long as I intended. We’ll share in our misery. Our collective hardship will bind us closer.
Anyway, this week I got the idea of doing a riff on Mark Andreeson’s famous 2020 essay “It’s time to Build” [link]. But instead of the main action being to build, it would be to “join.” You’ll get the picture below. But just as context, the way I wrote this essay is I went paragraph by paragraph on his original, and tried to copy his format of decline -> solution. So there will be some overlap, but the ideas are original.
Every American institution is unprepared for the 21st century. Despite decades of mounting evidence, we still have no collective consensus that our system is failing, why, or what to do about it. This generational decline in institutional effectiveness puts not only our safety and quality of life at risk, but over time our very civilization.
Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one administration or department. But the harsh reality is that it is all failing — no administration, or state, or city seems to have a solution — despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions. So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home state.
Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we aren’t doing now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to *join* — i.e. join together for collective action.
We see this today with major economic problems on the horizon. Our banking officials just created the highest inflation since the 1950’s which puts intense financial pressure on the American people, and is both morally and spiritually degrading — you work and save, but the thing you save in can be distorted by a third party. It’s a fundamental dislocation of your connection to the fruits of your labor.
It also encourages other countries to divest from the US dollar. US dollar treasuries are the most widely held central bank reserve asset so when it loses 10% of it’s value in a single year, that entire economy just lost a massive chunk of it’s own savings — the collective sweat of that population. It would be irresponsible to continue to save in an inflationary asset. Not only that, but by weaponizing the dollar and freezing Russia’s global accounts upon their invasion of Ukraine, we’ve proven that those countries that use the global US dollar financial system can only expect it to be available to them so long as they remain in our good graces. Not a stable proposition.
Hence we’re seeing headlines almost weekly now that countries are starting to settle international trade in currencies other than the USD for the first time since WWII, most often in Chinese Yuan.
The trust in the institutions which should fix these problems cratering across the board. We’re used to people not trusting politicians and the media, but now they’re increasingly not trusting experts and scientists, intelligence agencies, international organizations and the system as a whole. The only groups capable of putting up candidates for US political office, the Republicans and Democrats, are both significantly disapproved of by the public.
The root of these systemic problems is what I think of as late empire leadership (lel — like lol but not funny). It’s not an exact term, but a late empire leader is usually a career politician who has never built or managed anything substantial in their life. They inherited a working system and if they’re American politicians, they’ve overseen its decline. Late empire leaders are narcissists. They’re in it for their brand, to get rich, for their ideology. They don’t compromise. They don’t have abundant mentalities but scarcity mentalities. Some of them are even anti-human and believe that humans are a net negative on the planet. They don’t shoot straight but instead “message” to us based on focus group data. Their job is not to identify issues and reverse our decline, but to manage it as smoothly as possible so as to extend the life of the American casino economy as long as possible for the sake of themselves, their donors, and their future employers in the private sector (I repeat myself).
They do not want the system to change, so they do not offer real solutions. That is why you must get involved. You must become a player. The classic American way of doing that is by joining with others.
Since we are unable to join together as a population, we can’t determine our values and priorities for the 21st century. Meanwhile our late empire leaders have no vision for the future, they are dividers, they only make decisions that benefit elites, and they’ve created a climate of political and civic retreat.
Lel’s have no vision for the future. America used to be an exciting place to live! For over 100 years we were building the future. Locomotives and sky-scrapers, films and new music genres, the mass-manufactured automobile affordable to the average person for the first time, nuclear energy capable of solving power scarcity forever, medical breakthroughs, computers, the internet, and now Bitcoin, crypto and AI. The United States was where you came to build the future! But we have a dark view of technology now. We’ve all but banned the building of new nuclear power plants, are over-regulating Bitcoin and Crypto with obvious political goal of slowing / stopping its adoption, and many of them see AI more as a thing to fear than embrace. What happened to our confidence and positive vision of the future?
Lel’s are dividers. They’re much more concerned with trying to freak us out about the opposition than telling us why they’re qualified and will do a good job. As a result most members of both parties walk around with increasing levels of fear and loathing for the other party than a love for their own. This comes from the tone set by the leadership and their late-empire tactic of diverting your attention away from their own poor performance. And once the tone is set that the other side is defiled, compromise with them becomes immoral. This drives increasing polarization.
The reason we have late empire leaders isn’t lack of talent, it’s talent selection. The two parties will only offer candidates who are willing to play their game, hence their general below-average quality.
The problems on the side of the population are desire and imagination. Do we want to have a better leadership, and can we imagine it? If we decide that we want it and we imagine that it’s possible, there will be nothing stopping the American people once we choose to fix these problems.
First, we need to separate the imperative to join from ideology and politics. This is about getting the country on track for the 21st century, not about winning a partisan argument. There are things the right does well, and things that the left does well, regarding helping people get involved in their local civic / political environment.
The great strength of the right in this regard is their tradition of federalism (states rights), and the decentralization of government more generally. Historically, they believe in ‘devolving’ power away from the center out toward the regional governments that have more information about local needs and can be more responsive to them.
States rights can have a tangible effect on innovation. Right now we’re seeing laws passed in several states that support Bitcoin mining and prevent the introduction of central bank surveillance coins, also known as CBDCs (central bank digital currencies). This state-level legislative approach will allow innovation to move forward and perhaps even provide a safe haven as the federal continues its slide into perceiving everything that it doesn’t control as a threat.
The benefit of the left is they believe in “people power” which is also decentralized. They’re also generally much more interested in governing, which is why so many city governments are blue, even inside deeply red states. They back the public sector, which can be seen as allies in this innovation of institutions rather than obstacles.
If you’re a builder on the left, then you can be excited about making the public sector more transparent and more results-oriented. Start to hold public departments accountable for their work by setting goals and publishing the results. Better yet, ask the public what the goals should be, make them measurable, then share them like a report card. Only the strongest leaders would be willing to do this because it would reveal the weak links in the local government and they are all riddled with them. But rather than fearing the public and concealing them, which comes off as disingenuous and (uncompromising), reveal the issues that are discovered and be open with the community on how they’re being addressed.
Joining is how we reboot the American dream. Our federal government is a fractal of our local democracies. If polarization is increasing, perhaps it’s because people aren’t working with those they disagree with in-person, on the local level. If we lack a vision for the future, perhaps it is because we are not experimenting enough at a local level with different forms of regulation, voting methods and civic engagement which could help us chart a path forward. If we don’t have enough talented candidates, perhaps we need to run way more of them, perhaps we have to do away with the two party system, perhaps one of those candidates will be you, or a friend you choose to encourage and support.
We have the technology to easily and affordably house, educate, and provide healthcare for our entire population. The reason these things become scarce and unaffordable is a failure to coordinate on the part of the population. Zoning laws and burdensome regulations make it impossible to build housing at the pace needed to keep prices reasonable. The best universities limit admission ostensibly to only admit the best, but in practice it’s to maintain the elite status of the degree for the sake of the alumni. But can’t we just build more Universities? This will only happen if pro-growth people lean in where they live.
There’s a story near my hometown of Ojai, California. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia and mega rich guy, helped elect an anti-growth city council to keep things the way he liked them, i.e. stagnant. The state of California was looking for a site to put a new California State University, and was eying a massive ranch on a hillside right on the ocean. It would have been one of the most beautiful locations for a University in the state if not the country. But Chouinard’s city council rejected the university. The story was that Chouinard and the council thought the school would be bad for the nearby beaches. The land was soon bought by a massive avocado grower that proceeded to spray tons of god-knows-what on their thousands of trees which is definitely making its way into the ocean. This bad local leadership led to a lose, lose. Once people saw what was lost there was an outcry and council members were voted out, but too late.
Showing up isn’t easy or we’d already be doing it. But we need to demand more from our leadership class and that will likely involve many of us becoming actual civic leaders — councilmembers, committee members, and workers on candidate’s campaigns. Only through contact will we have any effect on them.
Every step of the way, to everyone around us, we should be asking the question, what groups are you a member of? Have you started any? Where are you a member? Do you contribute? Do you have a role? If you are not a member of any organizations society is failing you, and it needs to provide appealing, dynamic, and valuable groups for you to join and contribute to.
To those who think they don’t have the time because they’re too busy working, I give the following proposition. Would you trade 10% of your income in the short term for 10x more leverage in your community, a 10x better network, and a significantly more satisfying social life? Do you realize these things lead to more money and opportunity along with a more satisfying life in the long run?
I expect this essay to be the target of criticism. Here’s a modest proposal to my critics. Instead of attacking my ideas of why people should join and to what, make your own! Why do you think people need to join up, and where? We need a diversity of opinion anyway.
Our nation and our civilization was built by groups, not individuals. The Founders were a group, and as Toqueville noted in Democracy in America, Americans gather together in local groups to solve any problem. It was practically a superpower. Yes we are individualists, but most individuals express power better, learn more and are more effective in groups, civic groups.