O, While you Live, Tell Truth and Shame the Devil!

Note: I am going to talk about inflation, and markets, and the Federal Reserve in the first part of this post – I am not making a “market call,” I am not going to talk about the rectitude or efficacy of the position of the Federal Reserve, I am not going to perform a statistical or economic analysis, I am going to talk about communications-style. If you take anything I say as some sort of financial advice (which I don’t know how you even could), well, you deserve what you get.
Dall-E 2 image…

The cover-up is not just worse than the crime, it is now virtually impossible.

What do the Federal Reserve, Boris Johnson, Major League Baseball, and the former President of Liberty University all have in common? They’re all liars.

And more than that, they’re all representatives of important institutions: government bureaucracy, representative and executive government, entertainment, and religion and academia.

With the amount of analysis and commentary available and the amount of information that always leaks, or otherwise finds its way into the public sphere, all across the world, institutions still play a game where nobody actually quite comes out and tells the truth. The central bank of the United States (the Federal Reserve), an organization of decisive importance, has their pronouncements and policies analyzed with the depth normally reserved for the forensic investigations of plane crashes by the NTSB, and unlike those scrupulous investigators, the analysis is often conveyed to the broader public by hacks trying to frighten, enthrall, or generate ratings.

Public speeches and announcements by the Federal Reserve are therefore worded with precision, and, even if they don’t know what the Federal Reserve is or what it does (and even more likely, do not know that it exists at all), citizens are pushed and pulled by the weight of those announcements

Regarding the current inflation gripping the financial markets and the economy, here is Jerome Powell in his Jackson Hole speech on August 22nd, dashing the hopes of those investors who were hoping for an easing of monetary policy (highlights mine – anytime you see a bolded line in any quote, that was me):

Restoring price stability will take some time and requires using our tools forcefully to bring demand and supply into better balance. Reducing inflation is likely to require a sustained period of below-trend growth. Moreover, there will very likely be some softening of labor market conditions. While higher interest rates, slower growth, and softer labor market conditions will bring down inflation, they will also bring some pain to households and businesses. These are the unfortunate costs of reducing inflation. But a failure to restore price stability would mean far greater pain.

Imagine if, instead of using the euphemisms “below-trend growth,” and “softer labor market conditions” the Chairman had said, explicitly

“We are going to try to cause a recession by hiking interest rates.”

Image of Jerome Powell testifying before Congress

It is fair to speculate if public opinion would “allow” the Fed to raise interest rates if he had spoken with such plainness. That openness would bring the policies outside of commentary and spin and analysis, the decisions that impact the entire global economy would be out in the open even if it constrained the Fed’s ability to act. A full public debate could be had about the whether this is an appropriate course of action, with a full understanding on either side of the issue of what the presumed consequences of those actions would be.

Speaking in euphemisms doesn’t work anymore with the information we all have available to us. Every time the head of an important institution or organization seeks to obscure, or speak in euphemisms, cover-up, or lie, they are no longer “getting away with it,” or “doing what needs to be done,” they are, in fact, eroding their position of authority. Good or bad, right or wrong, wise or foolish, short-sighted or over-broad – institutions must adapt to the new environment or continuously risk their power and prestige. Whether or not you think the public should be involved in the Fed’s decision, technocrats can no longer make policy out of the eye of public opinion without devastating the public’s trust in their decisions, which is intolerable to the continued functioning of those institutions over time.

There are, at least, two specific evils caused by not being explicit and open and honest.

The first is the fact that lack of candor is everywhere, almost immediately, exposed as hypocrisy and untruth.

The second is, as mentioned above, the institution loses control of their own message and gives it up to tabloid writers, doom-spammers, political hacks, and vain television hosts. Whatever is said or released is then filtered through a million viewpoints and there is enough ambiguity for actors with their own purposes to impose a meaning on these communications. Whether it is good or bad, the headline: Fed Determined to Cause a Recession to Stop Inflation, leaves no room for interpretation.

This specific speech lacks candor in a more subtle way as well. Jerome Powell endorses a specific view of the “Great Inflation” (the period of high inflation lasting from the mid-1960’s to the early 1980’s) that is not a fact, but rather an opinion (as far as I can tell, there is not much consensus at all as to the causes of the Great Inflation except that oil prices were high), through a rhetorical sleight-of-hand. More from his speech:

The first lesson is that central banks can and should take responsibility for delivering low and stable inflation. It may seem strange now that central bankers and others once needed convincing on these two fronts, but as former Chairman Ben Bernanke has shown, both propositions were widely questioned during the Great Inflation period.1 Today, we regard these questions as settled. Our responsibility to deliver price stability is unconditional. It is true that the current high inflation is a global phenomenon, and that many economies around the world face inflation as high or higher than seen here in the United States. It is also true, in my view, that the current high inflation in the United States is the product of strong demand and constrained supply, and that the Fed’s tools work principally on aggregate demand. None of this diminishes the Federal Reserve’s responsibility to carry out our assigned task of achieving price stability. There is clearly a job to do in moderating demand to better align with supply. We are committed to doing that job.

The second lesson is that the public’s expectations about future inflation can play an important role in setting the path of inflation over time. Today, by many measures, longer-term inflation expectations appear to remain well anchored. That is broadly true of surveys of households, businesses, and forecasters, and of market-based measures as well. But that is not grounds for complacency, with inflation having run well above our goal for some time.

That footnote which is sneaked into the first paragraph links to a speech by former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke in 2004 titled The Great Moderation. Here are some relevant quotations from Bernanke’s speech:

Three types of explanations have been suggested for this dramatic change [in reduced macroeconomic volatility – including inflation]; for brevity, I will refer to these classes of explanations as structural change, improved macroeconomic policies, and good luck…

…My view is that improvements in monetary policy, though certainly not the only factor, have probably been an important source of the Great Moderation. In particular, I am not convinced that the decline in macroeconomic volatility of the past two decades was primarily the result of good luck, as some have argued, though I am sure good luck had its part to play as well…

…Monetary policymakers bemoaned the high rate of inflation in the 1970s but did not fully appreciate their own role in its creation. Ironically, their errors in estimating the natural rate [of unemployment] and in ascribing inflation to nonmonetary forces were mutually reinforcing…

I want to be careful in what I’m asserting, because I do not have the expertise to be critical of the policies indicated by Bernanke’s or Powell’s analysis. I do feel comfortable in criticizing their characterizations of policy, consensus, and history though. When citing Bernanke, Powell is again speaking in code, what I think he is really saying is that the Federal Reserve of the 1960’s and 1970’s thought that inflation was beyond their control and the Chairmen of the time were later despised and condemned for taking this view, and, critically, that this is not a mistake he intends to repeat.

I could wonder if he fears to repeat that “mistake” because of his determination to have correct monetary policy, or because his own pride and vanity are pushing him to be a “hero” like Paul Volcker (the Federal Reserve Chairman often credited with stopping the “Great Inflation” by forcing through rate hikes that may have helped cause a terrible recession). I don’t mean to pose a genuine question about Powell’s motivation here, I happen to think he is trying to do what he believes is the right thing in the right way, but there is room for interpretation. Without this citation, he is perhaps more trustworthy, rather than less, at least to an outside observer. “Fed watchers” are not the ones who may be confused about Powell’s meaning.

In the staid, stilted, and academic language of the Federal bureaucracy he is almost shouting: “the public be damned!” without telling the public why he is cursing them. It is the not telling the public “why” he does not care about their input which is problematic. An institution cannot (or, better to say: should not) always be constrained by public opinion, but, again, it can no longer seek to hide things from the public.

As to the substance of Bernanke’s speech, what I am comfortable saying is that, through the Global Financial Crisis and the COVID Crisis, it is not clear to me at all that “improved monetary policy” was, in fact, the primary contributor to the period of economic expansion with low inflation called “The Great Moderation.”

Powell, when citing Bernanke’s speech and endorsing the “expectation” view of inflation, is not providing actual evidence that hiking interest rates is a good policy, but is rather providing a justification with an appeal to history, one that is made to sound like it is backed by empirical research. Again, all of this justification and citation is just another way to avoid saying:

“We believe the only way we can stop inflation is by causing a recession.”

But how many people are going to go ahead and read the speech Powell is citing? And how many have a basic knowledge of the history of monetary policy? The problem is, of course, that we can read the speech Powell is citing (it’s not long, by the way, and you don’t need to understand too much about monetary policy to get it) – and what this does, for me at least, is expose the obfuscatory quality of Powell’s remarks. A critical government bureaucracy that is not accountable to the will of the public (as much as anything is immune from the will of the public anymore), must be open and transparent. Borders are dissolved, there is no longer a separation between the technocratic government bureaucracy and the lowliest of cashiers or medical payment processors or construction workers. But at least, in this instance, Powell is not modeling personal and public moral behavior for the entire country as a symbolic leader, like our elected government officials.

Boris Johnson

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Relevant text of the law passed at Johnson’s urging on “Tier 3 Lockdowns”
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Image of Johnson drinking with others in the Gray Report on his illicit partying

If you have read about Premiership of Boris Johnson, I feel like I barely need to say anything here. Our politics are full of hypocrisy, astounding hypocrisy, and again, there is nothing new here besides the exposure afforded by modern technologies. And the titanic volume of blatant, flagrant violations of laws by politicians during the Pandemic, policies which were enacted by the politicians themselves, is enough to make a Borgia Pope blush, and that is not particular to Johnson.

I could also talk about Trump here, but I don’t really want to talk about him anymore than we all already have, plus, I’m not sure it was hypocrisy that caused Trump to lose his election, so much as his egregious incompetence and the loathing he inspired. Boris Johnson, on the other hand, was deposed by his own consistent dissembling.

Boris Johnson, the Tory MP and former Prime Minister of the UK, was forced to resign as his ministry sank after being swamped by a number of scandals, occurring almost simultaneously, and all involving public dishonesty about personal immorality. He flouted his own lockdown rules, and, even dumber, he did not disclose their full extent, and instead let the incidents trickle into the public discussion one by one. Through this lack of candor, he ensured the continuous broadcast of scandal, which blended with the other scandals routinely appearing in the news media about his administration of the commonwealth. Amongst numerous other scandals which I won’t bother to mention, Johnson was accused of skirting conflict of interest rules when having a wealthy donor pay for a refurbishment of his residences, of attempting to keep a dubious political ally in office, of cronyism in public contracts for the Pandemic, and finally, of elevating a political ally whom he was warned (and then lied about being warned) had sexually assaulted men.

Being able to see, in pictures, the Prime Minister contradicting his own laws when so many in the United Kingdom were suffering under strict controls, as well as allowing his political opponents to control the image (correct, as it seems) of him as corrupt beyond redemption by the relentless leaks alleging wrongdoing, dismantled the barrier between the excusable hyperbolic rhetoric of a politician and the dishonesty of the private man. It is difficult now to be an “elite” and to remain exempted from the laws which constrain the humble and meek when every person can simply look at their phone and be filled with indignant rage at the injustice and hypocrisy manifest in such behavior.

I do not know if being honest about his own disregard for the law or basic tenets of public morals would have saved Johnson, but I’m sure his lying damned him. But behind the mismanagement of the crises and dissolution of the boundaries between private and public affairs by the unceasing flow of information lies another failure of public institutions in managing their communications environment. Instead of acting as soon as it became clear that Johnson’s personal failings would destroy their political standing (or, in an imagined Utopia, acting on principle as soon as they discovered the Prime Minister’s personal failings), Johnson’s Conservative Party, which enabled his maintenance in that powerful position, only reacted after public opinion had turned and Johnson’s unpopularity would cost them elections. If a public-facing institution is constantly reacting , it cannot lead, but only try and fix problems which have already arisen. This is the curse of a constant connection with the public, and the constant use of opinion polling. Parties proceed to follow the polls instead of trying to enact policies which will move the polls. In order to maintain this constant reactionary stance, rhetoric, even more than it always has, replaces policy.


aerial view of sports stadium during daytime
Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com – literally just a picture of a baseball stadium, full of fans by the way, which is never assured

Next up to the plate, another institution that is losing the trust (what little it retained) of its fanbase, Major League Baseball.

The last two or three years, baseball complacently allowed pitchers to cheat en masse by looking the other way while they applied so-called “sticky stuff” to their hands to give them a better grip on the ball. This superior grip allows pitchers to generate more spin (a higher spin rate as its known) on the ball as it leaves their hands, generating more movement, and making those pitches harder for hitters to hit. This cheating was noticed and rampant.

Applying a “foreign substance” to the ball is illegal according to the official MLB rules, but that did not trouble MLB until it was exposed by fans posting videos on Youtube, players complaining in the press, and most of all, by lower batting averages – and nothing frightens the MLB more than games with fewer hits and home runs. There was a “crackdown,” which apparently did not stick. Noting statistical oddities, Major League Baseball realized that the spin rates on pitches were still high, so in the middle of the 2021 season, they sent a memo out to the teams announcing the rigorous implementation of all sorts of checks to make sure pitchers could not cheat anymore.

Waiting until everyone knew about it, and until they were afraid it would hurt the league’s bottom line, MLB announced publicly that it would do what it should have done immediately. The delay is as bad as a cover-up. Instead of acting in a decisive manner, they opened themselves to criticism from fans, and from a 24/7 sports-commentary media ecosystem salivating at the prospect of chewing into a meaty scandal. Ubiquitous video and sophisticated statistical analysis makes cheating, in a public sport, difficult to hide.

Even worse, what Major League Baseball’s fecklessness has the potential to bring about the outcome they fear most, having fans stay away. Faith in the integrity of an institution is important, even when that institution is as (perhaps to some) trivial as professional sports. According to US Diplomatic Cables (leaked of course, like everything else now), when Bulgarians lost faith in the integrity of their soccer league because the teams were taken over my organized crime figures, they stopped going to matches. The owners of Major League Baseball teams are not quite mafiosi (well, not to most observers at least), but loss of integrity is loss of integrity, whether the cause is crime, incompetence, or deception.

Liberty University

Jerry Falwell, Jr. – by Gage Skidmore

Shameless hypocrisy is perhaps no more reviled than in matters of religion, where morality is often foundational to the creed. Evangelical Baptists are among the most declamatory spiritual moralists in United States, and such fervent faith is much abused by unscrupulous preachers to line their own pockets, as with so many televangelists, faith-healers, and other predators.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. is the son of noted conservative politician, umm, excuse me…noted pastor and televangelist Jerry Falwell, and was the President of Liberty University, a faith-based academic institution in Virginia, whose mission statement includes the following line:

Persons are spiritual, rational, moral, social, and physical, created in the image of God. They are, therefore, able to know and to value themselves and other persons, the universe, and God.

Falwell’s scandal involved both a breach of fiduciary duty and the perversion of good, Christian sexual morals. He was accused of recording and watching his wife have sex with a pool boy (yes, if you don’t remember, this is actually what happened) over the course of many years, several days after he posted a photo of himself on Instagram in a somewhat lascivious photo with a woman who was not his wife, in which he appeared to be drinking alcohol.

Repeatedly backtracking and switching his position, he failed to put out any coherent statement or argument about his scandals. He had the gall to say that he was being unfairly judged by “self-righteous people.” When forced to resign, he even sued the school for defamation.

Falwell should have known his exposure was inevitable. He should have resigned admitting that he failed to live up his agreement with the Lord, and that the Devil tempted him with liquor and lust. He could have saved a modicum of his reputation, and, perhaps, not have made Liberty University into a joke. By getting out in front of the situation, he also could have better controlled the conversation, instead he was prey to political enemies and religious ones.

As it happens, who can take such a moralizing institution so corrupted by its nominal leader seriously now? Again the academic and religious institution itself, the University, is partially to blame. Negative stories began leaking in 2019, and instead of acting, they let it fester until it rotted.

Shame the Devil

The hypocrisy and wrong-doing and stupidity and foolishness and dishonesty was always there, but now all of society has the ability to see the beliefs and actions professed and the actual actions taken in a type of informational split-screen. The current, and apparent, crisis of our institutions, characterized by loss of faith in them, is a byproduct of being able to see the difference between words and actions in real time, all of the time.

What our institutions now do, too often, is the equivalent of a husband texting his wife “I love you, see you after this baseball game I’m attending with my friends!” while simultaneously livestreaming his lap dance from the strip club on Instagram. It may have worked in the past, but no longer.

The implication of this is not for increased secrecy on the part of institutions or slicker talking points, because this is futile anyway, but rather for increased honesty and transparency. I think some of these people who run these organizations would be shocked at the power and trust they could wield by telling the whole truth, instead of having their messages clouded and hijacked by a ravenous commentariat and disregarded and distrusted by a cynical, overwhelmed, and fearful populace.

There are so many good and necessary things our institutions do, so many good things they represent, that we should not be quick to discard them. By their own failure to recognize that the future will not be like the past, they are condemning themselves to obsolescence even faster than they were heading to the Wikipedia pages of history anyway. The ideals of rule by laws and their equal and objective enforcement, of good sportsmanship and honest competition, of community and morality are by far preferable to rule by force, of cheating to win, and of atomization and selfishness – but that’s where we are headed if our institutions continue to fail to adapt to the demands of the new information environment.

Note on the title: The title is from a line in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part I, where the hotheaded antagonist, Hotspur, makes fun of an ally for claiming he can conjure demons, and even the Devil himself. Hotspur is rather skeptical. Act III, Scene I, Lines 60-65

A Tale of Two Moralities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Everybody knows the first part, but nobody finishes the paragraph.[1] We are living in another such period of extremes, and importantly, perceived extremes (if, in fact, there was ever a time in which we did not live within and amongst the extremities of experience), one of profound promise for the future and of deep pessimism as our knowledge and social systems develop at a breakneck pace with changes in technology. This is overwhelming and forces us to decode and integrate all this new information into our value systems. Some things have not changed in 300,000 years, like the survival of our species always prodded into our conscious and unconscious minds by the promises and fears of pleasure and pain. Much of our group and individual behaviors derive from those two places, urging us to productive, procreative behavior. They are universals, and mutual experiences of pain and joy tie us together in communities, friendships, and families. The Covid-19 pandemic, while causing massive amounts of suffering throughout the world, has promoted political and social disunity in the United States – I offer no metrics, but I don’t believe this is a controversial statement. I don’t think people shared the same experiences regarding lockdowns, wealth accumulation, raising children, or personal grief. How could we when the nature of the shock, placing a tax on physical contact, necessarily impacted people of different economic statuses differently? During this most recent period of disruption and dislocation, technological innovations and the primacy of “social distancing” highlighted and enhanced our involvement and dependency on the internet. Communities of increasing sophistication developed by computer science experts and populated with regular citizens are prominent and a gateway to disintermediation and civic and economic democratization and decentralization. While over the last few decades, the physical state of the people of the world has improved in material ways – as it has almost continuously since the Renaissance – an ugly inequality the pandemic highlighted was the depressing increase in so-called “deaths of despair,” deaths caused by suicide, alcoholism, or drug use and addiction. One of the reasons why there was an increase in these deaths is that changing social circumstances and technological advances leave us unhappy in many ways, and I think this is almost always the paradox of progress.

Contradiction walks with humanity through any development, in any era. Our present age of contradictions is both personal and social. As technology becomes more specialized, intricate, and complex, the more the majority of people must rely on automated processes or expertise to harness the technologies. At the same time this is happening, trust in those processes and expertise is waning. We are: more free and more controlled, more educated and more ignorant, more contented and more unhappy. What is more, as these gulfs open up between us, and often within us, our sense of morality changes as well. Communities attached to moral changes fade and bloom, sometimes with stunning speed. With unlimited information decreasing centralized control and certainty about the future, these groups sometimes grow more certain in their beliefs. As former moral imperatives are rendered obsolete, the moral conviction of the new groups may grow. As apathy and ignorance grows, political and social conviction grows as well. As individual expression is unshackled, people seek familiar spaces in which to fit their views.

Online communication is intensely public, always curated, and responses can be thought about before they’re distributed. Social pressure is never far away from us, since we are in the digital panopticon when participating in the new public square. At the same time as our division seems to grow more heated even as the underlying principles lack depth, the punishment for deviation from the new principles is more severe, since deviations can rarely escape notice and social censure.

As new issues which are unaddressed by old moral commitments increase in salience, new patterns emerge. A rise in the spread of “misinformation” raises questions of the costs which the collective must pay to allow such openness. Increased understanding of the complexity of dynamic systems and psychology reveals formerly hidden inequalities tied to race, and other ethnic or social features which provoke bias. Globalization promotes prosperity in the world, but what of its economic harm at home? Many of these questions lead to fundamental political policy disagreements, but so much of our conflict skirts the edges of these issues. Both the word “moral” and “ethic” derive from concepts related to appropriate conduct in public society (a favorite pastime is looking up the etymology of words, it can be wonderfully revealing about the connotations of words, and how we think). This etymology provides us with an intuition that morals change when the mass of people shift their beliefs. Community morals are habitual, they are a learned behavior, not an innate one.

Over time we have come to expect an unrestrained freedom of speech, for example. This has caused a conflict involving the spread of so-called misinformation as I mentioned above. The term “free speech” is a kind of anachronism. We are using a term from the 1700’s to mean something entirely different than what “freedom of speech” meant to those who framed the idea in our Constitution. We are accustomed to a wild license the Founding Fathers never would have recognized. Freedom of speech, in the way we mean it now, means: being able to express almost any idea that is not specifically criminal without being subjected to public censure and “deplatforming,” much less legal sanction!

An ironic process occurred whereby the ability to debate the scope of regulation of speech for the good of the community was curtailed by formal legal sanction which made static our modern sense of free speech. Judges stifled debate, disallowing fundamental discussions about the nature of free speech. That is not to say our current definition of free speech is bad, just that even such deeply held values as this are changeable over time, and even those values are subject to larger frameworks of universal understanding.

All of these frameworks and their structures of value come from the organization of our communities. Our old tribal identities are failing, so we create new ones, especially ones that are mutually intelligible over the internet, where ethnicity, race, religion, and nationality are less important markers and where people can maintain multiple identities at once. Ambiguity, decentralization, and information-overload feeds common linkages by allowing people to pluck a sense of certainty out of “too much information” by finding evidence that conforms to almost any group view.

As all these traditional links of community are shorn away, people revert to more primitive expressions of group solidarity, namely: collective suffering. Much of this suffering forms from oppression, or a sense of victimhood, which can have social benefits.

I think we are going through a period of moral illegibility and changed communication patterns which compel the creation of new communities.

A visual display of a Twitter network, showing people crossing between different clusters – different communities

Our associations grow smaller and more local by the day, but the broader social groups that remain are the fumes evaporated from more substantial ideas. The Church’s creed of “Love Thy Neighbor and Thy Enemy” replaced by the creed of prosperity gospel and anti-abortion politics, the capitalist injunction to serve the greater good through individual prosperity and industry replaced by “number go up,” the principles of a restrained government which protects citizens from subjective reasons for imprisonment, dispossession of property, and execution reduced to the freedom to not wear a mask.

Emancipation from the ages-old oppressions of arbitrary government – government which obtains its authority on the principles of birth, force, or the supernatural – and poverty, vacates the vitality of our broad communal associations, and masses of information inhibit the growth of new, broader ideals. This social anarchy is anathema to our biology and to governments. As the chaos from the base of the social pyramid grows, the more force will be applied from the apex. I don’t think it is random that we’re seeing a rise in autocracy around the globe. This dual movement, one of simultaneous freeing and constricting social influences, accompanies improvements in communications technology.

The invention of moveable type in Europe helped enable the Reformation, as Luther’s ideas spread throughout Europe – provoking rebellion, and in turn, enormous forces of repression. French Revolutionary ideals were distributed through innumerable pamphlets, newspapers, and even in letters from an increasingly literate populace to one another, while that same literary explosion contributed to the social uniformity and contagious fear that permitted the atrocious War in the Vendée and the Reign of Terror. Radio helped to create a society with flourishing national entertainments and an outlet for bold and imaginative artistry and dissemination of knowledge of current events, while allowing the development of monoculture and proving an invaluable aid to government propaganda. Social media helps oppressed citizens organize an Arab Spring, and enforces rigid social controls. With each successive, more immediate, more immersive, more personal advance in communications technology comes a stronger direct linkage to broad social and public affairs for each individual. Crime in San Francisco makes an emotional impact on a person in rural Vermont, or a law in Texas is reviled by a person in Los Angeles. Or the experience of a person in Australia is widely shared in the United States as evidence of dangerous COVID policy, and a racist incident in Wales gets a magazine story in the US. It makes sense that such a broadening of perspective would generalize emotional reactions.

Never have so many people been so free to invent and live in their own moral codes, or to live by the fruits of their own intellectual labor, but few people are able to stand entirely in their own view of the world. People will seek out community, even if it is not an apparent motivation to themselves at all. Our social interactions are always ambiguous and layered. The confident newcomer enters a group and boldly greets others, making conversation and telling people about themself. Everyone knows that this is both a genuine attempt to learn about and introduce oneself to others while simultaneously being an act, a method of securing social support from others. People exist on different levels: the person we see, the person we believe we are based on our own internal psychology, and the person we don’t know. We contain multitudes, the endless pathways of our mind unfurling into dark territory – virgin terrain even to ourselves.

And even as the world becomes connected in more complex ways, with identities not limited to one group or another, a paradox exists wherein our perception of there being fewer dominant ideologies increases.

Americans are now convinced that we are polarized (and of course, politically, we are), but this perception is more important than an actual fact, if it is indeed true. People may not even know themselves, let alone others, and most of us are far too complicated to be crammed into one of two social-political groupings, and far too uncaring or ignorant to have coherent political ideologies. Popular pundits and politicians reinforce this view by taking individual actions or beliefs of individual people and forcing them to be representative of a supposedly coherent whole – part of the cherry-picking process enabled by endless flows of information. Social media and the internet exacerbates some of these dynamics whereby hidden communities, with loosely held beliefs which are broadly applicable and do not preclude participation in other communities, are created and strengthened.

Seeking out “independent” centers of thought to combat mainstream orthodoxy hides the development of new communities with their own orthodoxy. For instance, in combating the groupthink of the “liberal mainstream media,” there is a covert community of “conservative” morality and analysis of climate change. There is a robust and widespread “contrarian consensus” about the harm caused by restricting the use of fossil fuels. Take the rising popularity of the “Doomberg” account on Twitter and Substack, who explains in clear, imaginative terms this contrarian consensus view of climate-change influenced fossil fuel policies.[2] The same can be said of the intelligence and law-enforcement apparatuses of the United States’ government. When Glenn Greenwald or Matt Taibbi focus their efforts on elevating conservative-grievance-politics talking-points (e.g. that the riot at the Capitol was not a big deal), they are feeding a view of the world which girds a community that often transcends our two political parties. Many of the arguments are true, or at least true in parts, but leave out reasonable counters. Commentators often grow upset about big tech censorship of conservatives, but almost every single day the top pages shared on Facebook are dominated by conservative pundits. This may not prove anything at all, but it is just as fit a data point as any made by an “independent.” These “independent” positions are nothing of the sort. They are not iconoclastic, they are, in fact, the stable views of a large community often based around grievances toward “elites” and crimping of personal freedoms.

New moral groupings can be found in almost any community touched by or reliant on the internet. Take a financial market-focused community on Reddit, whose popularity has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic, r/wallstreetbets. I would argue that it is bound together as much by posting screenshots of losses (they even have a term: “loss porn”) than by the huge gains. A perusal through other new financial subreddits (ones focused on meme-stocks AMC or GME for instance) reveals a lot about the not-immediately-apparent glue of these communities. Noticeable there, again, is the focus on group suffering and persecution. Reading or listening to more traditional financial groups, like value investors, also yields the same focus on suffering and group-wide value judgments.

People talk a lot about fear and greed, and behavioral errors, and the madness of crowds, but I see a lot of moral judgments in markets.

It is immoral for Tesla to get bid up (go to zero).

It is immoral for people to short (ape in to) AMC and GME.

It is immoral for people to claim that BTC is going to zero ($100K).

It is immoral for commodity prices to increase (decline) exponentially.

In the broad culture and political strife which we perceive manifesting in political polarization, morality and suffering are prominent. Though I submit that this strife is still not apparent as being more about community rather than policy issues.

What we are witnessing in the fear of critical race theory, or the conviction of white Americans that they’re being discriminated against, or anti-vaccine hyperbolics claiming there is a coming genocide is not idiocy or irrational fear, it is a set of intertwined signals of common persecution and suffering based on a specific moral code (one based around ideals of autonomy) which enhances group cohesion. On the “liberal” side we see a similar set of signals of group suffering, based around moral ideals of equality, wherein you see the conviction that racism is at all-time highs, that minorities and low-income workers are being especially economically oppressed, and that global warming is going to drive of us to the edge of extinction because of capitalist greed.

Again, these ideas of moral purity attained through suffering and bonding through persecution are not new, they are ancient, as old as human beings. The development of new moralities is a perilous endeavor, however. There is great danger in periods of such social anarchy. George Orwell reviewed Hitler’s tome, Mein Kampf, in 1940, offering a valuable and prescient insight (highlights mine):

Also [Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation “Greatest happiness of the greatest number” is a good slogan, but at this moment “Better an end with horror than a horror without end” is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.

There is so much moral virtue and camaraderie in suffering, it is so powerful that it can be irresistible. The abstractions of the internet have created a possibly new way for suffering and persecution to be manufactured.  We don’t have to look far to see the emotional and moral appeal of the new American conservatism of Donald Trump[3], from his inaugural address (highlights mine):

For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs, and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes, starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment — it belongs to you…

…The forgotten men and women of our country, will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public, but for too many of our citizens a different reality exists. Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories, scattered like tombstones across the across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge, and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

We are one nation and their pain is our pain

A Trump Rally in Mesa Arizona, notice the sign: Jobs vs. Mobs

Of course, there is truth here just like there is truth in the critiques of the independent journalists and the financial communities. There are people who are struggling, who are deprived, who are robbed of their potential. But the basis of the group identity he is claiming as the base of his sovereignty is shared suffering on a massive scale, the group he’s speaking to, the MAGA crowd, is being singled out as being burdened especially by the persecution of “elites.” Despite Trump’s brutal ignorance and depraved vulgarity, he repeated this effective message over and over in his campaign rallies, the mere content of which was too often ignored in favor of his buffoonish and risible statements regarding his many personal enemies. The value of this in the era of information overload is that anyone can claim they are part of the oppressed grouping, MAGA could be accepted by anyone, anyone can be a victim in one of these areas if they choose to identify themselves as such. And then it can be backed with barrages of statistics, or infinite cherry-picked examples. It is impossible to pin down the suffering of the group exactly, it is a feeling, a perception. It is amorphous and non-dependent on any outward marker of group-affiliation, like age or race.

As for the group based around the morality of equality, here is a quote from antiracism activist Ibram X. Kendi, in response to the question (paraphrased), what does a version of America look like where a person’s character matters more than their race? (again, highlights mine):

Well, what it looks like for me as a black American is that people do not view me as dangerous and thereby make my existence dangerous. It allows me to walk around this country and to not believe that people are going to fear me because of the color my skin. It allows me to believe, you know what, I didn’t get that job because I could have done better on my interview, not because of the color of my skin. It allows me to — a country where there’s racial equity, a country where there’s racial justice, you know, a country where there’s shared opportunity, a country where African American culture and Native American culture and the cultures of Mexican Americans and Korean Americans are all valued equally, that no one is being asked to assimilate into white American culture. There’s no such thing as standard professional wear. There’s no such thing as, well, you need to learn how to speak English in order to be an American. And we would truly not only have equity and justice for all but we would somehow have found a way to appreciate difference, to appreciate all of the human ethnic and cultural difference that exists in the United States. This is what could make this country great, in which we literally become a country where you could literally travel around this country and learn about cultures from all over the world and appreciate those cultures, and understand even your own culture from what other people are doing. There’s so much beauty here amid all this pain and I just want to peel away and remove away all of those scabs of racist policies so that people can heal and so that we can see true beauty.

This is a radical redefinition of what it means to be American (or perhaps, what it meant in the past), far away from dictates of the Constitution, or the primacy of democracy and capitalism. These new tribes, based primarily around suffering, are not anything like our old tribes, despite using such an ancient point of communalism. What is interesting about Kendi’s take here on his ideal community is that, even though it is centered around both the equality and autonomy of different racial groupings, it is an attitude that literally anyone can adopt: one of antiracism. So like MAGA’s tribe of persecution, antiracism’s tribe of equality is available to anyone who wishes to adopt it. Also, due to the appeals to structural and systemic racism, almost any policy or circumstance can be claimed to be racist, even if there is scant evidence. It is a completely inclusive group of choice, united solely by its conviction that the current government and policies of the country, and the beliefs of citizens, are inflicting pain and suffering on minority groups and the non-wealthy.

These new moralities competing with one another are both so broad and distant from more rigorous versions of their pure ideological ancestors and actual considerations of specific allocations of scarce resources that they promise complete inclusiveness. How easy is it to say online (or in a text, for that matter) “We have to stand up to the elites to prevent people from suffering?” That sentence could be used by both the autonomy and equality groupings to signal support of moral virtue, a commonality of suffering, and inclusion in an ideological tribe. What’s more, the generalities and distance of these communities from the actual, specific policy decisions that their moralities imply allows people to exist in other more focused or local groups, since there is no necessary exclusivity.

BLM protest in Stockholm, Sweden, highlighting the multiethnic nature of the movement

As seems to happen so often with large disruptive events, the unexpected tragedy of the pandemic hit our collective society at its most vulnerable points. It strained trust in governing institutions, projected wealth inequality in harsh relief, and disrupted the flow of goods and services in the global economy. There is no guarantee of quick relief from the pandemic, and there is no “normal” to which we can go back. And change is not going to decelerate. Every time communications technology improves, it becomes more intimate, it enables more individuality, setting us at opposition with our own selves and our innate, incontrovertible, inextinguishable yearning for a place in a community. There is opportunity here, as in so many other technological disruptions, for the creation of new morals and new morality which are precipitated by new social or political challenges. Reimagining our communities in new constructs of morality allowed for the destruction of slavery, the condemnation and curtailment of genocide, the alleviation of poverty, the right to education and so many wonderful innovations that were not innate in novel technology itself. New moralities also aided Totalitarianism, Imperialism, global conflict, and other evils of societies and government over the centuries.

I think, when political ideology and policy preference are understood, most often, as moral signaling centered around group suffering, our bitter cultural disputes become more rational. Instead of imputing irrationality to people, or stupidity, or malevolence, we can understand how our conflicts are often driven by the simple, persistent need to alleviate the anxiety and loneliness of social and moral homelessness in a time when mass amounts of communication is conducted in a virtual setting.

It is astonishing and poignant that, through all our advances, our unavoidable frailty and pain and willingness to sacrifice and suffer for one another remains such a powerful binding agent, giving purpose and meaning to our lives. As the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities are famous, so are the closing ones, relating a character’s thoughts about his own impending sacrifice of his life for the betterment of others:

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

[1] Not a bad metaphor for our contextless information society, eh?

[2] An excellent read by the way, I recommend it heartily: @doombergT on Twitter, https://doomberg.substack.com/

[3] My juxtaposition here is not meant to compare Donald Trump with Hitler, just to show the appeal and bond which suffering creates