One of the pillars of the American Dream has been that of seeing your children go to college. And, for the many families that can’t afford the cost of soaring university tuitions, a new controversial institution has arisen to address the problem. That institution is Sugar Baby University, a tuition assistance campaign that attempts to allow attractive young women, and a smaller number of handsome young men, find generous older men to date in the quest to complete a new version of the American Dream by graduating debt free in an era which has made it all but impossible to discharge student debt even in personal bankruptcy since 2005.

This year, Sugar Baby University is ‘graduating’ it’s fifth class with thousands of alumni in its network that stretches from coast to coast and includes institutions of higher education from local community colleges to research universities and ivy league colleges. If you know many young graduates, the chances have been increasing that one of them has quietly matriculated in response to the crisis of crushing debt payments. Yet despite widespread awareness of the program on campuses by students and financial aid advisors via word of mouth, the world of Universities and mainstream media news outlets have tacitly given their approval to the campaign by remaining strangely silent as tuitions have continued to climb an unbelievable average of 8-9% per year.

In this episode we do not pass judgement on Sugar Baby University, it’s parent company ‘Seeking Arrangement’ or it’s spokesperson Kimberly De La Cruz, who is our guest. Rather, we celebrate their openness to discuss the situation, and question, instead, the universities, politicians, media, and the lending industry, who have quietly created the desperate need for this program which they do not openly discuss and prefer not to address at all. 

We also note that Kimberly is approximately 15 years from the date she took on her own student loans which leaves her still approximately $50,000.00 in debt. We have asked her to start a GoFundMe campaign so that we could make a contribution of $1000 dollars to let her know that we appreciate her honesty in being willing to talk openly about the terrible crisis on which her very business and livelihood now depends. I ask my listeners, who can easily afford it, to simply donate $10 dollars as a simple show of appreciation and solidarity with a woman who I have no doubt would, if it were possible with the wave of a wand, put her own company out of business by making attending college the beginning of a new American Dream, rather than the start of a familiar financial nightmare. If $10.00 is too much, pledge the minimum you can just to send a message of solidarity. The show now gets hundreds of thousands of listens per episode. A small number of contributions will go a long way. 

Lastly: She’s not the one asking for this. I am. And thank you.  

https://www.gofundme.com/f/em369-no-more-student-loans

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Transcript

For a transcript of the audio essay at the beginning of this episode, see link below:

With this release, we try something a little different on The Portal. We begin an initiative to search for ways to feature members of the vibrant Portal sub-communities as part of the podcast itself, by requesting that listeners send in their questions around the prompt: “Mass media, markets, and human malware.” 

The questions that came in were interesting and enlightening, and we hope that you may find the answers similarly useful.

We look forward to hearing your feedback on this new format as we continue to expand and experiment on The Portal. Hope you enjoy this episode.

Thanks To Our Sponsors

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Transcript

Eric Weinstein: The following release represents our first foray into Portal-community-oriented content. In an attempt to make our sponsors brief messages as unobtrusive as possible, they’ve been placed after the first and third answers to your questions.

Hello, you’ve found The Portal. I think we’re going to be doing something interesting today, which is we’re going to start to bring in the portal community into a portal episode. The purpose of this is to show some of the interactions that we’ve been having with our people, whether it’s through Instagram or over our Discord servers that people have set up to allow and facilitate members of the Portal community to interact directly with each other. Now, I’ve been doing a lot of Q and A’s off-the-cuff on live Instagram chats while I try to get my 10,000 steps in a day. It’s been very productive, but my producer, Colin Thompson, has suggested that maybe what we should be doing is AMA-style episodes in which we solicit questions from the audience, perhaps on a restricted topic, and then we actually get the people who write in, after my producer has gone through the questions that he thinks are the most interesting, and go back to those people and allow them to ask the questions directly and to get an off-the-cuff answer that isn’t scripted, which is just from the heart so that people have an understanding that in fact, the show is being hugely informed by the number of people who are interacting with us directly.

As people are taking the concept of The Portal into their own lives, I actually wonder whether the podcasts will continue to be the leading part of the Portal community. We’re going to keep doing it, but there are now so many different opportunities for people to interact, whether it’s the voice chat rooms, the various projects that people are on, or these Q and A’s that we’ve been doing across different sorts of platforms, that these opportunities are going to continue to grow as an important part of the Portal experience. And, in fact, I have a fantasy that, at the end of this, I might even be able to remove myself completely from The Portal for a period of time and let the community take over as they come to understand what it is that this show is doing for them, because, after all, that is the entire point of doing the show. So, ask yourself, what is it that you want to see and instead of just hanging back, consider sending in questions the next time we solicit them on Twitter or Periscope, wherever we happen to ask the question next. And then, if we are able to find your question amongst the flurry of activity that comes in, we’ll try to contact you so that you can appear either through audio or on video and interacting with us directly. And I just wanted to do this in part to say thank you guys for making the show a success. We’re coming up on the one year anniversary from when we began the show at first, and perhaps the biggest part of this experience for me has been finding out what an enormous worldwide community of people are interested in the topic of looking for The Portal to get us out of our current frameworks of thinking and to find the door towards a more transcendent future, and even a present. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to start by allowing some of the people who responded to our first request for questions to ask their questions, and I’m going to give my off-the-cuff answers and we’ll find out whether that’s something that you guys find interesting, so stay tuned, and hope you like it.

Aviv 3:29
Q: Hey, Eric, my name is Aviv, and I’m calling from the Boston area. Could you help resolve the media markets and human malware Mobius band? We are told that the media and social media influence our opinions, but at the same time, we are told that, in this day and age, the media is thirsty for our clicks. So, in effect, we tell the media what we want, and they give it to us. Well, which is it? Are we the Masters? Or are they? The same goes for markets. Markets are great at identifying needs and pricing them. But markets also convince us that we need some really bad things. As an example, universities want to import cheap labor to do research. This is done to maximize research per dollar spent. And this is perfectly rational. Yet you have argued that this is a problem, even though the market is doing exactly what it was designed to do. My intuition tells me that human malware seems to be the culprit here, but what exactly is going on? I’ll leave that for you to answer.

Eric Weinstein 4:38
A: Aviv, you raise a very important topic. This has come up in a bunch of different places. George Soros, for example, has a famous Principle of Reflexivity, which he believes that he can convey to almost no economists. And effectively it is the concept that not only do minds move markets, but markets move minds. That is, if you think you know what’s going on, and you start to see that the market isn’t behaving in any way that seems to reflect your preconceived idea, you may change your mind. For example, you thought that the world was falling apart but now the stock market starts gapping upwards. Well, that’s very confusing to most people. So there’s a way in which you have a two way interaction that you would expect—social media is both dictating our tastes, and it is trying to figure out our tastes, so that it can profit from it, at least the people who run the companies that social media is dominated by.

Now, what do we do in a situation in which taste formation is not understood? For example, in economic theory, given that all of this is market-mediated, we have a very long standing tradition, that tastes are to be treated as given, which I think goes back to Marshall, probably the early part of the 20th century. So we’re not allowed to ask, “Why do you prefer X to Y, and what would cause you to change your taste?” In fact, once tastes are given, they tend to be fixed in economic theory, precisely because the economist didn’t know enough math to be able to track taste change. In fact, this is the basis of my research with Pia Malaney into gauge theoretic economics. By adding more mathematics, we were able to show that you could continue to compare people’s tastes between two different points in time if the tastes are not the same. So we have a big problem because taste formation has, in fact, eluded any kind of analytic effort within the economics profession and we are in a market-mediated situation. I think we have to take this two-way relationship very seriously.

Now, John Archibald Wheeler, once famously tried to take the mathematics of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, and he said, “Here’s how you’d express it—you say that space tells matter how to move; matter tells space how to curve.” Well, in some sense, this is exactly what is occurring in the two-way process that you’re talking about. That’s actually mediated through a single equation rather than two separate equations.

So you have a very interesting situation. Are there equations? Are there new mathematics? Is there new form of analysis that can actually deal with an interacting nonlinear system in which we are both being influenced by media and we are influencing media in return? And now when you have a really complicated feedback loop like that, can you say anything about whether or not the market will tend towards a positive or a negative social outcome? That is, is the market going to efficiently get us to a better place? Or is it going to efficiently get us to a place that we don’t want to be at all? These are the sorts of questions that have been traditionally punted by the academics.

And so I think you may not even understand just how profound a question you’ve asked. We’ve been at this for a very long time. And it’s stunning to us the way in which the economics profession pretends to be incurious about this, there’s a paper by two particular authors, both of whom have received the prize that is frequently referred to as the Nobel Prize in Economics. And although it technically is not, and these authors are Gary Becker, and George Stigler, and they wrote a paper called De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum, and they argued that tastes should be treated as the same for all men, and do not vary over time, comparing them to the Rocky Mountains. The reason that paper is so bizarre is that the field is terrified of your question. What happens when you ask that question is that the field may in fact collapse and it required two people at the very highest levels of the economics profession to effectively put a tourniquet on the bleeding that you can expect to stem from asking that question, because they didn’t have the mathematics or the sophistication to be able to handle it. And furthermore, it may very well lead to a check on the power of economists, if that question does not have a positive answer. Maybe markets, in fact, lead us right up to the gates of hell.

So what the economics profession did was that they put in a very artificial claim, which is that you don’t need to worry about that because tastes cannot, in fact, be altered. This is positively academic nonsense of the worst kind. You’ll find this paper in the late 1970s, and I have an excellent authority from a member of the economics profession affiliated with the Chicago department, in which both of these gentlemen worked, that, in fact, they did not see economics as a free field so much as as a bulwark against totalitarian Soviet-style communism, given when they were writing. Now, if that’s true, it means that we came up with an artificial position in order to make the claim that capitalism was superior to communism. Communism then was defeated, but modern economists don’t necessarily even know that some of these claims were inflated, specifically as a political Bulwark rather than as an intellectual contribution. So you’ve asked one hell of a question. I don’t know whether you find that that was one hell of an answer, but maybe we should do more on this topic you’ve raised, and thanks for having such a an incisive look at the situation.

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Seb 13:01
Q: Hi it’s Seb from the UK, @seblawson11 on Twitter. My question is: Similar to some long form podcasts, do you think it’d be possible for mainstream journalism to implement a duality of opinion on a current issue, or at least take time to digest events before printing? Or will the current model not allow a mainstream publication type an unsexy headline such as “it’s more complex” than an article written a day later? Similar to shopkeepers putting up a sign saying “back in 15 minutes”, The New York Times, for example, might say “we’re thinking/digesting events—will report back in a few days.”

Eric Weinstein 13:45
A: That’s a really interesting question. What is the penalty for not being fast? We don’t know. We know that if you if you always race into print, and you’re famous forgetting everything wrong, that that probably has a cost, unless you do it in an entertaining way. And that’s a terrifying idea that you could be wrong in a very entertaining way, and nobody would care. If there is a penalty for being wrong, and there is a penalty for being fast that indicates that there has to be some sort of a trade off between them. And I think kind of the problem is that the exchange rate favors fast. But I think people are also getting bored and fatigued. And I do believe that a lot of what’s going on is that the legacy media we’re still dependent upon, is integrated into our lives in ways that we don’t really understand. So for example, a newspaper would typically have had two principal sources of income, it would have subscription income from the people who are choosing to consume and would have advertising income for the people who are looking to use it as a medium by which to sell their product.

In a world in which subscription income is very important, you’re constantly catering to your readership. However, when that becomes too slight, and it’s all ad driven, you suddenly change the orientations. The first question has to do in part with the business model. We could disincentivize very quick takes by, for example, strengthening our libel and slander laws and making it very expensive to get things wrong. On the other hand, you could imagine, you know, putting in speed bumps, in digital platforms, everything feels very artificial. But I think what will happen is we’ll start to see bolt-ons like for example, a scorekeeper as to which which sources have been the most reliable, and which have been the most biased, in ways that the scorekeeping is relatively transparent.

So one of the problems you might have is you’ll have something like Snopes that will advertise itself as being bias free. And then it appears that it actually isn’t bias free. It has its own bias. It might be that instead, what you do is you set up an algorithm that looks for things like Russell Conjugates. And I’ve talked about this—if a particular leader is referred to as a president, a strong man or a dictator, you’re being told a great deal about the editorial viewpoint at that particular media origin. And so one possibility is that you’re just have robots that crawl the internet and discern from which Russell Conjugation of something like dictator, strong man, president. What is it that every outlet actually believes?

You can easily imagine that as people came to understand the means by which they were being manipulated, they would, in fact, start to shy away from the things that they felt were not treating them with respect. So then if you rushed in very quickly with your take, there might be some penalty. I guess the great fear that I have is that we’re not really interested in the information as much at the moment as what is likely to be a massive redistributive event. And people are, in effect, jockeying for position to see whether or not we have a revolution and a ton of value shakes free. So think about the idea that maybe we’re all becoming pretty disinterested in fairness and objectivity and an understanding of the world because we see that there’s a pinata that’s being swung at, and at some point that pinata is going to break and there’s going to be a mad dash for all of the goodies that fall. to the floor. And so people are really positioning themselves not to understand what’s going on, but to scoop up as much of what falls out of what is to come as is possible. And that’s not a very optimistic perspective, but I think that there are things we could do if we were convinced that we were trying to build the future. And I think that too much of what we’re talking about is squabbling over the spoils that have accumulated in the past to build the present. And so once we become concerned with the future again, we’re going to be much more focused on getting things right. At the moment, we’re concerned with the present and the past. And so we’re much more concerned to getting things early, and getting things powerful, so that we might be the ones who benefit when the pinata finally breaks. That’s not a very optimistic perspective, but it’s how I see it. I really appreciate the question.

Felix 19:01
Q: My name is Felix Kamelander. I live in Frankfurt, Germany. My Twitter handle is @FelixKamaralan1. And here comes my question. Recent attempts to counter the radical left malware simply consists of criticism towards it, which is unlikely to be heard through echo chambering. Which features must a human software update have for it to be sufficiently attractive to establish a pull in a better direction?

Eric Weinstein 19:35
A: It’s an interesting question. Part of the problem with a lot of the current human cognitive malware that we’re seeing, particularly from the Marxist perspective, is that it anticipates its own removal. And so the attempt to remove it creates a huge problem. So I’m a huge fan of not letting it get its first foothold, rather than saying, “Oh, well, let’s take all arguments under our open architecture”, and then you find out that you’ve got some sort of a new problem that you can’t get rid of.

Now, why is this so difficult? Well, there are particular moves that if somebody invokes them, my feeling is is that you one should stop talking to that person. For example. If your response to finding that something is offensive is to have the person say, Wow, you have x fragility, where “x” is something, “American” fragility, “white” fragility, “male” fragility, that entire line of argument, if it’s allowed, says that certain people do not have the right to be heard or offended. And therefore, those who use that line of argument have to be ejected from the conversation, because otherwise it sets up a hierarchy of haves and have nots inside of a conversation about who actually is allowed to have the full spectrum of positions, including talking about how they’re concerns have been hurt or infringed upon.

I think that when you’re looking at these sorts of arguments, you can detail what their behaviors are, namely, that they allow one group of people, usually, to profit within the argument at the expense of another because of an asymmetry of what those people are bringing into a conversation. And if we lose the idea of interoperability, or the idea that the correctness or incorrectness of a particular position is completely decoupled from the characteristics of the person holding that position, then we’re in real trouble because we’ve lost the ability to actually share experience. And I think that human empathy, for example, is quite substantial so that we can imagine the lives of people that are very far away from our own lives. And those that have that capacity to be empathic and to use the imagination allows us to go to the movies, for example, or to lose ourselves in a book or a song, because many things happen to people that haven’t happened to us. Listen to the old song, “Billy, don’t be a hero”, and, in general, you will not have the experience of either being the woman asking her true love not to go to war and come home in a box, or Billy, who decides that he has to go and do this thing for glory. You don’t have either of those two experiences in most cases, but you’re able to lose yourself immersively in the song. I think that that idea that we can can’t actually understand each other maybe not perfectly, but we can get to very high levels of understanding, has been completely lost, and there’s a form of malware in the situation.

So when you see certain sorts of moves, you should know that if you actually accept those moves as legitimate, from that point on, the conversation will almost certainly derange, and you can’t actually object to those moves internal to the other person’s ruleset. In other words, if the idea is that in a conversation, whoever has experienced the most pain becomes the most expert, because the only thing that matters is lived experience and oppression—once you’ve accepted that that’s how the conversation will be scored, you’re in a very difficult situation. And there’s a point that I’m going to start to make quite a bit, which is illustrated with the difference between two games.

So, the way I usually phrase it is, imagine that you come upon a beach, and you see a very high net with two teams of three, and a ball to be exchanged by the two teams over the net. Most of us would assume that we are looking at volleyball, and then we would imagine that is played under standard rules for beach volleyball. But in Southeast Asia, the same equipment and configuration supports the second game called Sepak Takraw, which is effectively a form of volleyball played with the feet in a kind of incredible martial arts, you know, Hong Kong wire-act style. It’s kind of amazing to watch. What happens when you’re in a conversation where you think you recognize what the rules are just from the nature of the conversation, that would be the analog of looking at the net, the ball and the teams, where you’re making an inference, “I bet this volleyball”. Unfortunately, your conversation is going to be scored under completely different rules. That subtle change has fouled up a huge number of people because if they actually examine the rules, they will realize that they effectively can’t win at the conversation, even if their points are correct.

So, the most important thing is to understand what the frame is that you’ve been handed, who will be doing the scoring of the argument? Based on what principles? And if you don’t share the same sense of what the rules are, my advice to you is get yourself out of the conversation or object to the idea that the wrong rules are being used to score the conversation. And if somebody keeps saying, “Wow, that’s so bigoted, that’s so backward, that’s so paternalistic, that’s so unacceptable or problematic.” Well, okay, that’s the best that they’re going to be able to do. But it’s your problem if you decide to begin in good faith by assuming that you will be able to self-referee the game, much the way, in the United States, touch football, or a pickup game of basketball would be self-refereed. In that case, everybody’s more interested in the game. You don’t have endorsement deals on the line. It would be ruined if you couldn’t trust the other players to adjudicate, you know, whether or not somebody got fouled on a shot, or there was some kind of a penalty on the play.

Now, good sportsmanship is what allows us to be able to reliably find a pickup game with people we don’t know. It’s very important that we have a culture that anticipates what a discussion is, in good faith. As people start to realize that good faith discussions will not aid their point, they will attempt to look like they’re engaging in good faith, but will substitute a second set of rules. And so once you detect that that second set of rules has been substituted, it’s time to either eject the other people from the conversation, to leave yourself, to note that you don’t agree with the scoring of the conversation, that you will be using some set of rules. And, you know, I think about the evolution of, let’s say, Queensberry rules for fighting. It’s not true that in combat sport, everything is all out. You know, eye gouging or small digit manipulation is usually frowned upon. Of course, there were contests for example in Thailand, where the Muay Thai actors would wrap their knuckles in plaster and liberally salt them with broken glass to do maximal damage for the pleasure of onlookers. If you find yourself in such a situation expecting a boxing match, which is, in general, my impression of what it’s like to argue with the radical left, you better either be prepared to do something equally as disturbing, which will probably debase your morality, or get the hell out of the ring. And I would highly recommend the latter, noting a protest that this isn’t boxing, this is madness. And if somebody tells you this is Sparta, then you know exactly where you are.

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Joe Constantino 30:20
Q: Hey Eric, my name is Joe Constantino. I’m a Bay Area native, but I’m calling in from Los Angeles, California at the moment. My Twitter handle is @Joe_Constantin0, but the last “o” is actually zero. Anyway, here’s my question. I wanted to extend an idea that you and Peter Thiel put forward in your first episode of The Portal, the idea being growth as a mitigation to conflict. And Walter Scheidel’s book, The Great Leveler, Scheidel asserts economic inequality as something that is built into all societies. And the only events that level inequality are state failure, mass mobilization, warfare, pandemic, and revolution. In the first chapter of his book Scheidel describes the difference between relative and absolute inequality. The idea is simple. Let’s say in a society, the top 1% of earners make $100,000 and the bottom 1% make 10,000. Now we introduce growth, and everybody becomes twice as rich. Relative inequality hasn’t changed. The top 1% is still 10 times richer than the bottom 1%. But now, absolute inequality has doubled. It seems that growth inevitably leads to exponentially larger absolute inequality. If you accept Scheidel’s premise, then exponentially growing inequality will eventually lead to a leveling event, three of which certainly involve violence: state failure, pandemic, and revolution. Interestingly, I think we are experiencing these three events in the present moment. Do you agree with with this analysis, which said more simply states that growth leads to increased inequality, which leads to a leveling event characterized by violence? If yes, how do you reconcile this with Peter’s premise of growth as a mitigation to violence? Thanks again, and I really appreciate everything you’re doing with The Portal. All the best.

Eric Weinstein 32:24
A: Well, Joe, I think you’re bringing up an excellent question. Rephrased slightly—and I don’t know whether you’re going to accept the rephrasing—are we both dependent on growth, to stop violence, as well as being consigned to violence by growth?

Well, let’s put it this way. Whatever we, whatever double bind we might be in, we can at least attempt to minimize the loss to needless violence. So, in other words, there might be a level of essential violence of one form or another that we can’t get rid of. I mean, certainly, there’s no shortage of examples in nature where violence is baked into a species. Particularly, for example, in mating contests, how many four legged mammals, you know, have large antlers as weaponry for contesting for mates? So very often, violence is an expected part of a species condition, but you can talk about compensated and uncompensated violence and violence minimization. So it’s very important not to fantasize about a world without violence. because nobody’s ever figured out how to devise such a world it’s not even clear that that would be a positive thing. You can talk about monopolizing violence, which is Weber’s theory of the state. You can talk about trying to shift from physical violence towards financial violence or digital violence, or anything to reduce or abate the harm that comes from essential violence that cannot be gotten rid of.

Now, if I understand correctly, we have a situation in which a growing world might be a world that would accentuate inequality and therefore resentment. But if we don’t have growth, people are not optimistic about the future, and they’ll start to fight over whatever is present in the here and the now.

One thing we’ve learned is various techniques for either avoiding violence due to, let’s say, taxation schemes or concepts of patriotism, where people are willing to sacrifice for a national project that excites them, think about the number of people who went through the 60s who, when they when asked about like, inside of the United States, what they think of their country, they say, well, we put a man on the moon. It was viewed as a communal achievement, and so even people who had never achieved anything remotely like a great scientific breakthrough individually, or a great innovation, or invention, were able to participate in something that made them feel positive. Remember that that putting a man on the moon had to do with tax dollars. It was also obviously a demonstration to our chief geopolitical rival, the Soviet Union, of our capabilities, because there are lots of things that you can put on top of a rocket other than a few guys to take pictures on a foreign orb.

I think that, in general, without national projects that we feel great about, it’s very tough to say, “Well, what are you getting out of your country?” If it has a high tax rate, particularly a high marginal tax rate, what does that—what is that buying you? And, here’s a question, did the rich really understand why they might want a high marginal tax rate? I think that’s a very weird question for most rich people. Obviously, they would say, I don’t want a high marginal tax rate and they, individually, should not. But what if they were told, let’s say, you know, we don’t know how to prevent violence. And if we do a good job of a reasonable, although somewhat high marginal tax rates on top earners, we can probably avoid the revolution that may, in fact, threaten your ability not only to earn, but to be unmolested by civil unrest in the future. It’s a very upsetting thing for people to think about, who have 10 or 11 figures worth of wealth. However, it may be that a highly unequal society is not a stable society. So I’m not really sure whether we’ve ever had deep conversations about the essential violence that may be embedded within human organization, and what the very powerful and very wealthy need to fear about becoming ever more unequal, because, in fact, I have no doubt that would have been very hard to have a conversation with Marie Antoinette and King Louie, about their long term interests. I don’t think their long term interests were served in a world in which they were viewed as presiding over an incredibly unequal state. And I don’t know how to begin the conversation with the wealthiest families that what they think may be in their best interest with respect to wealth conservation, they might, in fact, be far better served by making sure that the society on which their success rests is a stable one. So these are fascinating and interesting questions. I don’t know whether that fully answers that but I would say that you want to minimize the violence that might be necessary in the system between your two possible alternatives, and you should also try to get the very wealthy on board and get them to understand exactly why they don’t want to become too wealthy. And why that should best be shared. And if you want to see what can happen, take a look at what happened to the Soviet Union. Take a look at what happened to Communist China. Take a look at what happened to any of these societies that experienced a very violent communist revolution.

Steve 38:34
Q: Hi, Eric, this is Steve calling from Tacoma, Washington. My social handle is @SteveWanderer. My question for you: If the current political age is coming to an end, and by that I mean Reaganism, Neoliberalism, and Third Wave Democrats, what do you believe needs to die? And what should take its place? What is a 40 to 50 year theory for the American Dream that can meet the challenges of our times, and that most people could embrace? What shared myth can take us towards something creative? Thank you for taking my question.

Eric Weinstein 39:14
A: Oh, that’s easy. I mean, obviously, capitalism and communism both have to die. You need to hybridize it into something which captures the essence of what capitalism did best, which was to provide for freedom, you have to figure out something, short of communism, that provides for people on the basis of being a soul rather than a pair of hands, so that we can’t have your entire value resting on whether or not jobs will continue to exist. As the economy continues to transform, the new economic system has to take much more into account, the issue of public goods and services, because the market will not be able to associate the proper price to the value provided. So you should expect that we were going to have to have hyper capitalism because people will have to be allowed to sort of invent in an unfettered environment because it’s gotten very difficult. And the individuals on whom we depend are really outliers. They’re determined by very fat tails, power laws, kurtosis, various things that people don’t think about. So when you have an Elon Musk, for example, you probably need to give him a wide berth in order to create as much value as possible, but then you probably need hyper socialism to go with hyper capitalism. And the idea there is that our traditional claim in a capitalist economy is simply through our labor. And, in fact, we have two claims we have one claim as a sole and one claim as a set of hands or a brain, which is what do we what do we provide and what do we need?

We are going to have to experiment with something like universal basic income to deal with the fact that technology is going to obviate many occupations that we would think of as providing for dignity as well as an ability to share in the wealth created. On the other hand, if we cannibalize the entire thing by talking in nonsensical terms in order to get justice, if you will, we are going to keep the people who would be able to innovate from even being able to think or function, because so much of this is intellectual rot that may be, in fact, attempting to achieve a positive social outcome, which is to make sure that all souls are provided for. So we’re gonna have to be more honest that there are certain people who are just remarkable. And there are others of us who are going to provide things that the market can’t see. So for example, when musicians watched vinyl turn into CDs turn into mp3s, by the time a song could be recorded as an mp3, there was no ability to keep that from spreading too broadly. So you have something become a public good that was once a private good, and musicians were no longer able to make the same kind of money from record sales.

That kind of behavior is going to occur again and again, because effectively what the internet and computers are doing is they’re taking tangible physical objects and their virtualizing them. When they become virtualized, they become public good. When they become a public good, they sit in the blind spot of the markets, constituting market failure.

It’s a very serious state of affairs. And so, whatever this new thing is, it’s not going to be capitalism, it’s not going to be socialism, we’re probably going to need to start talking about escape, because I don’t think that we can afford to run one single correlated experiment. What globalization has done is it has created a situation with our increasing technological abilities, so that a problem anywhere in the world can spread everywhere. You could look at COVID. You could look at the radiation that came off of, let’s say, Chernobyl or Fukushima. You could look at the danger that we were in with Deepwater Horizon. Roughly speaking, we are not stewards of this planet who know what to do with all the power we have.

Every mistake that we have can go global the way COVID has gone global. We’re probably going to have to figure out how to get off this planet. There are various ways to think about that, but they all sound insane. If I were to tell you that we’re going to upload that would seem nonsensical to me. If I could tell you that we have to become a society spread out between the moon, Mars, and the earth, as Elon might have it, I would say it’s not enough diversification and quite honestly, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to terraform Mars.

My own bet is that we have to break the laws of physics because rockets aren’t going to be the way that we’re going to spread out into the into the solar—beyond the solar system, into the galaxies. But who knows whether that’s even possible? Are we going to upload? Are we going to reboot from tardigrades? Everything sounds insane. But you want to know the weird part about it? The thing that sounds craziest is imagining that we’re going to be able to continue doing what we’ve been doing and it’s going to work for the next 2000 years, I think you can tell from the power of a hydrogen device that that’s not going to happen.

I recently was exploring virtual reality inside of Oculus Quest. And I had the idea that after I called for a return to very limited above ground nuclear testing on Ben Shapiro’s program, I wanted to experience what it would be like to stand near a nuclear test and found a simulator in VR. And let me tell you something, we really need to have everybody go through this experience, because everyone who thinks that we’re going to have a little bit of revolution or we’re going to have a little bit of global conflict doesn’t realize that it’s it’s almost an unbelievable occurance that, since 1952, we haven’t had a hydrogen device, a fusion device, exploded in combat. So, I think we’re in a most unusual situation, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not we can get out of it. But I think, you know, there’s no other option, other than to try, and so everybody should pick his or her own best way of thinking about how we avoid this fate and spread out and let 1000 flowers bloom.

Sean 45:44
Q: Hi, this is Sean from Washington, DC. Eric, regarding economics, you have very thought provoking opinions. For example, you’re the only person I’ve heard voicing skepticism of high skilled immigration. I wonder why this is. You have also voiced concerned about capitalism. Given the complexity of economics and the wide ranging disagreements among experts, how can a lay person get a handle on how to think about these issues to form a coherent worldview? Thanks.

Eric Weinstein 46:14
A: I really appreciate the question. Thanks very much for asking, Sean. It’s an interesting problem, because I really believe, as I’ve said before, that economics is in a very unusual position for a modern field and maybe this is going to happen to more fields, but it happened to economics in modern times in a very brutal and dangerous way. What I’ve said is that there was probably a time when you had chemists and alchemists in the same department, or astronomers and astrologers, and every modern economics department represents a fusion of two separate traditions, a bullshit tradition that attempts to rationalize power and an analytic tradition that attempts to understand the world as we as we have it.

In the case of of my opinions, one of the things that happened is I did not go through a standard economics department. I went to working in the field directly without any education or background except from what I learned from my wife. That was a situation which led me to very different conclusions.

In the case of high skilled immigration, the reason that you don’t hear almost anyone critiquing high skilled immigration, is that we’ve put a very dangerous piece of malware into our collective understanding, which is that anyone who opposes immigration can only do so because they hate foreigners, which is about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Immigration is a very complex phenomena, it creates all sorts of different effects. There are good reasons to be for it. There are good reasons to be against it. Bad reasons to be for it, bad reasons to be against it.

So the first thing you have to understand is that we have to turn this around. How insane is it that there, in general, is not understood to be a position which I have termed as Xenophilic Restrictionism, where you’re fascinated by foreign cultures. You probably cook in different idioms, you learn foreign languages, you travel all over the world, you have friends from all different backgrounds, and yet you’re a restrictionist because you’re very concerned about certain economic issues. You don’t want your vote diluted. And you have an idea that your country has a national character that makes it interesting, just as you wish to visit other countries that have their own national characters, and you want to be thoughtful about how immigration changes and transforms your particular home society.

So the first thing that’s insane, I mean, just completely insane, Is that Xenophilic restrictionism is denied by our media—there’s no coverage of it. Try to find an article in which people are given the option to say I both find the world’s cultures fascinating and very attractive, and, I don’t want to adopt every single person from every other country and bring them to my own home country and home labor market.

The next part of it is that there’s a very simple story called “the best and the brightest” story. And just imagine, for example, that we start playing the Stars and Stripes Forever in the background, and you see a picture of a waving American flag, and somebody starts to speak, you know, saying, “America has always welcomed the immigrant, some of our largest companies, our biggest employers that have delivered us vaccines and untold wonders were in fact founded by immigrants. Do we wish to cut off the supply of talent and ambition? People flocking to our shores? Or do we wish to welcome them with a giant golden welcome mat, letting people know we are open for business, send us your best and your brightest”. So as we start to hear this patriotic appeal, you know, naturally we stand at attention to the flag, our hand goes over our heart, we ask ourselves, “Is this not the best example of Emma Lazarus’ poem that sits at the base of the Statue of Liberty?”

Okay, well, cut all that out. That’s not how immigration works. That is an attempt to get you not to think about the various positive and negative effects. What are the rights issues that are raised by immigration? In particular, with high skilled immigration, people love to say, “look, I love high skilled immigration”, because they think it’s a very small market. They think that it gets us the best and the brightest. They think all sorts of things that have nothing to do with labor markets that don’t really make sense, for example, the number of companies that are founded by immigrants would undoubtedly change if we had a more restrictive policy, but one of the things is that a lot more companies would be founded by Americans that wouldn’t be founded by immigrants because this would be a much more attractive field to enter, let’s say, a technological field or scientific field.

It doesn’t take into account the way in which the wage mechanism alleviates labor shortages. It doesn’t take into account the fact that changing our immigration structure would probably decrease inequality and bring lots of minorities and females and less represented groups into the workforce. There’s no such thing as a labor shortage of long term in a market economy, right, because the wage level just rises to the to the appropriate point at which you can attract the labor you need. I’ve talked before about having a Steinway shortage in my house. It’s not that I can’t afford a Steinway, it’s just that I have not chosen to purchase one. So when somebody tells you that they have a terrible labor shortage, they’re telling you I’m too cheap to pay the market price of labor.

The whole thing makes actually no sense. But the reason that you don’t find other people talking about a problem with high skilled immigration is, first of all, that we have a hidden history that it was in fact largely determined by the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, who, unknown to us, effectively conspired inside of something called the Government University-Industry-Research Roundtable, and the Policy Research and Analysis division of NSF to decrease the wages of what I think of as being the top labor force in the world, because the American educational system is quite heterogeneous. We have terrible schools, and we have the world’s best schools. And in fact, we’re not getting the most innovative people anymore, because we’ve really given up on that, and what we hear is the best and the brightest is, in general, a very competent pliant labor force that is not particularly empowered to make bold decisions.

Try to imagine that you’re on an H1-B visa inside of the United States and you need to tell your employer that he or she is an idiot. You’re not going to be in a position to do that because you’re tethered to them because the H1-B doesn’t actually even allow you to listen to wage signals from other employers. It’s effectively a tethering device to make sure that you are wedded to the person who employed you. Well, it’s not quite slave labor, but it’s certainly not free labor either.

So the reason you’re hearing this from me, and me alone, is that I know where this came from, and I know what it was intended to do, and I’m emboldened by the fact that I know why they erected it, which was to destroy the power of scientists and engineers to be able to bargain for higher wages, better benefits and more rights. And as a result, the reason that they don’t come after me, and I’ve been relatively unmolested, is that they don’t want the story getting out. So we sit here, kind of looking to see who’s gonna blink first. The second they come after me and they call me a xenophobe, I’m going to tell the actual full story about how they conspired to destroy their own labor market for the very people that they were supposed to promote and protect.

With respect to capitalism. I’m a huge fan of what capitalism did. And what I’m concerned about is that people don’t realize that capitalism has a different future than it has a past. It was absolutely the most powerful idea in the 19th and 20th centuries, because it created so much wealth, it lifted so many people out of poverty, but it has various problems. It doesn’t incorporate all of the negative externalities. So for example, the price of a gallon of petrol or gasoline almost certainly doesn’t include all of the costs of belching the waste product into the atmosphere or the despoiling of the environment that was needed to go after that oil.

You have all sorts of situations where it doesn’t deal well with public goods and services. And those are things that are increasingly created by technology from what were private goods and services. I’ve talked about that elsewhere. So capitalism may have been tied to a particular place and time, and people get emotionally invested because they think that it’s always going to function the way that it did function. I’ve called this problem the problem of anthropic capitalism, that is, that capitalism was tied to a particular time and place in history, and it’s now time to move on to the next thing.

And I’ve talked a bunch about the idea of what happens when you graduate from high school, but you keep hanging around year after year, you know fewer and fewer of the people and it becomes more inappropriate that you aren’t moving on with your life. In part, I think that that’s what we have, we have a failure to launch our post capitalist society. So you’re watching capitalism come unraveled. And as I’ve said before, we thought that capitalism and communism were in fact rivals, but I’ve likened them to Thelma and Louise, in the final scene from that film. It doesn’t really matter who hits the ground first, but both capitalism and communism are intrinsically unsustainable. And the fact is, we don’t know what that leaves us with except to invent the future. That’s what Adam Smith had to do. That’s what we did with Bitcoin and crypto. We have to invent the future. And so I don’t know why our economists and our best thinkers aren’t realizing that they’re probably looking at a system on its last legs. We’re going to have to take what worked from capitalism that continues to work, and we’re going to have to fuse it to what we now know about markets and the human condition. It’s a very tall order, and it’s scary, but I don’t understand why we think that the answers are going to be in the past, and not things that we’re going to have to invent for ourselves in the future if we want to have a long term perspective on our own viability.

This essay appears in audio format at the beginning of The Portal Podcast, Episode 37.


Hello, it’s Eric with a few thoughts this week on the coming US election before we introduce this episode’s main conversation. Now, I should say upfront that this audio essay is not actually focused on the 2020 election, which is partially concluded, but in the election of 2024 instead. The reason I want to focus on that election is that, precisely because it is four years away, we should know almost nothing about it. We shouldn’t know almost anything about who is likely to be running or what the main issues will be, and we should be able to say almost nothing about the analysis of the election. Unfortunately, almost none of that is true.

Now, obviously, we can’t know all of the particulars. However, we still know a great deal more than we should. And that is because the ritual is not what many suppose it to be. A simple, nationwide open contest, to be held on a single day, after several unrestricted long form debates, with unbiased rules enforced by trusted referees. What is most important is that, prior to the 2024 election, there will have to be an appearance of a primary election.

So what actually is a primary election and what function does it serve? It’s hard to say. But if you think about it, this is really the awkward disingenuous and occasionally dangerous ritual by which a large and relatively unrestricted field of candidates needs to be narrowed to the subset that is acceptable to the insiders of the parties, their associated legacy media bosses, and the party megadonors. Now the goal of this process is to, in the famous words of Noam Chomsky, manufacture consent from us, the governed, so that we at least feel like we have selected the final candidates, who, in truth, we would likely never have chosen in an open process. I’ve elsewhere compared this ritual to the related process referred to by professional illusionists as “magician’s choice”, whereby an audience member is made to feel that they’ve selected something, like a card from a deck, out of their own free will, but that the magician has actually chosen from a position of superior knowledge and control, long before the trick has even begun.

In the modern era, of course, “consent” has become a much more interesting word, especially of late. And perhaps that fact is important in this context too, as the constellation of issues carry over surprisingly well. To bring in more terminology from the national conversation on consent, the party rank and file are groomed, if you will, by the party-affiliated media, as to who is viable, and who should be ignored and laughed at, through a process of what might be termed “political negging”. The candidates are also conditioned by being told that they can only appear in party-approved debates, which must be hosted exclusively by affiliated legacy media outlets, which emphasize sound bites and theatrical gotcha moments over substance, despite the internet’s general move towards in-depth discussion made possible in large part by the advent of independent long form podcasts like this one. Thus, both voters and candidates are prevented from giving informed and uncoerced consent by the very institutional structures most associated with democracy itself.

Now, why am I saying all of this? Well, it goes back to a video I’ve not been able to get out of my mind for four years. As some of you may remember from the 2016 election, Jake Tapper was asking democratic national committee chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz, about why Bernie Sanders would be leaving New Hampshire with an equal number of convention delegates after trouncing his old rival Hillary Clinton in an historic upset.

Tapper asked, “What do you tell voters who are new to the process who say that this makes them feel like it’s all rigged?”

Now, what was odd here was the idea that only those new to the process needed to have this explained. As someone then in his early 50s, I can say that I certainly felt that this was rigged at the time, even though this was hardly my first rodeo. But I digress.

Wasserman Schultz was in fact prepared for the question, and she replied, “Well, let me just make sure that I can clarify exactly what was available during the primaries in Iowa and in New Hampshire. The unpledged delegates are a separate category. The only thing available on the ballot in a primary and a caucus is the pledged delegates, those that are tied to the candidate that they are pledged to support. They receive a proportional number of delegates going into our convention.”

Now this was confusing. Why are there any unpledged delegates at all? And why not call them Super Delegates, just like everyone else? And why was she asserting that availability was a settled question? This is like an emergency room administrator explaining to someone having a heart attack in real time that what is available is a vending machine down the hall rather than the nurse or physician chatting idly beside it. I remember thinking, “I don’t care what you say is available, you crazy, crazy lady.”

But of course, she wasn’t crazy. And this wasn’t about availability. It was about naked power, and its public rationalization. Wasserman Schultz attempted to explain further that it was all due to a need for—and I swear I’m not making this up—diversity and inclusion. She continued, saying,

“Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that the party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists. We as the Democratic Party, really highlight and emphasize inclusiveness and diversity at our convention, and so we want to give every opportunity to grassroots activists and diverse committed Democrats to be able to participate, attend, and be a delegate at the convention, and so we separate out those unpledged delegates to make sure that there isn’t competition between them.”

Did I hear that right? This is about diversity and inclusion for Super Delegates? Oddly, Tapper responded that while this obviously made no sense to him, either, they should both move to the next question,

“I’m not sure that that answer would satisfy an anxious young voter. But let’s move on.”

If you were confused, let me offer to translate. This isn’t supposed to be an election. “One man, one vote” is nowhere in evidence, obviously. And this isn’t the party of the rank and file. This is the party of the insiders. Perhaps it is weirdly easier to discuss this in the consent paradigm. She was saying, in effect,

“Come on, Jake. You’re a big boy, so don’t be so naive. Obviously lifelong rank-and-file, card-carrying party primary voters are just asking for it by coming to the polling place and voting provocatively in the presence of super delegates. Hey, if they weren’t into it, they wouldn’t flock to the voting booth like moths to a flame now, would they, know what I mean? Look, since we both know our place here, let’s move on to your next question so we don’t kill the buzz, shall we?”

To be clear, and most of us really never understood what the invariant phrase “diversity and inclusion” really means in such settings. I’ve always marveled at why both inclusion and the word diversity initially strike most of us and certainly me as positive concepts, but the now ubiquitous “diversity and inclusion” soundbite leaves many with a vaguely sick feeling. If I understand correctly, there’s both the meritorious part of the primary process which involves having to win at the ballot box by listening and appealing to voters, as well as the corrupt part of the voting, which is guaranteed through superdelegate quotas. And bizarrely, the diversity delegates she refers to here are the unpledged delegates. That is, in the twisted logic of the modern Democratic Party, it is actually the insiders who are the vulnerable diversity and inclusion delegates who must be protected. And, as you must have guessed, in the mind of the party operatives, only a bigot would argue with diversity and inclusion.

So is that the extent of it? Well, not even close. While the parties are not exactly shy about making sure that truly fair primaries are structurally impossible, they still have to leave at least a formal possibility that the people could choose a candidate hostile to the rent seeking insiders and donors. If an upset were not formally possible, the rank and file would be expected to balk at calling this arcane process a primary election, and they would be expected to reject the final candidate pushed by insiders, yet leaving that possibility formally open is dangerous to the mandarins, as it is exactly what led to Donald Trump becoming the Republican nominee in 2016.

Thus, there are two more important steps to controlling the process to prevent a Trump like coup against the insiders in the future. Perhaps the most disturbing to observe is the constant harassment of popular candidates by party activists who live inside what is supposed to be independent news media, and who pose as journalists and news people. This is the second juggernaut to stop popular candidates, by ignoring their outperformance and positive reception, by dropping them from graphics, misspelling their names, ignoring their successes, standing in front of their likenesses on green screens and even inexplicably using someone else’s photograph just to troll them. Particularly egregious here was the all out war that MSNBC appeared to be waging on Andrew Yang in 2019 and 2020, which showcased the exact same tactics that had been used previously against Bernie Sanders in 2016, and Ron Paul in 2012, when the Pew Research Center on journalism in the media concluded, “The same could be said of the narrative in the news media of Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who received the least coverage of any candidate overall. The difference with Paul is that he has received by far the most favorable coverage of any candidate in the blogosphere, 48% positive and only 15% negative”.

In Yang’s case, MSNBC was forced to comically apologize on multiple occasions for both suppose that errors and claimed emissions. When dropped from a visual the network dutifully tweeted, “Earlier on, we aired a poll graphic that inadvertently left off Andrew Yang. This was a mistake that we have since corrected on air. We apologize to Mr. Yang,” said MSNBC when they mysteriously dropped the candidate from their visuals. Yet when inexplicably screwing up Yang’s first name they said, “Earlier tonight on The Beat, we made a mistake in a segment about Andrew Yang. While we fixed his name during the segment, we’d like to apologize Andrew for the error.”

Yet this string of seemingly focused errors and omissions targeted on Yang continued unrelentingly, despite being extensively documented by the campaign. If these super delegates, staggered primaries, apparently deliberate errors, and endless targeted emissions were not enough to keep popular candidates from gaining serious support, the last major rigging of the election takes place by saying who can and cannot hold a debate. In 2020, all three of the most ferociously independent, and therefore dangerous candidates to Democratic Party insiders—that would be Sanders, Gabbard and Yang—were welcomed on Joe Rogan’s extremely popular long form podcast. Additionally, Sam Harris and I both interviewed Yang, and Dave Rubin, I believe, interview Both Yang and Gabbard, yet we were told that there were various strict rules to prevent multiple candidates from appearing at once in real discussions outside the standard format of legacy-media-run, media soundbite and gotcha spectacles termed “debates”. The main benefit of having, say, a Joe Rogan or a Sam Harris hosted discussion or debate is that the candidates could actually develop long trains of thought with nuance and subtlety to go well beyond the bumper sticker level complexity so loved by legacy media. But inside the bizarre upside-down world of official debates refereed by legacy media, the candidates that do the best in free long form discussions are systematically given the least time.

To sum up, the more you thrive with bold ideas and positions and actual policy discussions, the less time you are given and the bigger your handicapping. It’s essentially that simple. Thus, that long form format that we use on this show would almost certainly spell the death of most of the “focus-group candidates”. So why bring up 2024, when the election of 2020 has not even taken place? Because it is always going to be the same so long as we are fighting the current and last wars rather than the next one.

Personally, I don’t want to go through this idiocy ever again, just like you. And, like you, I’m tired of voting for the lesser of two evils, just for the privilege of blessing the candidate that the insiders can count upon to be hostile to my interests, because I have nowhere else to go. I would likely have voted for any candidate who would have told Debbie Wasserman Schultz that she should be fired immediately, and to stop hurting democracy. We need to recognize that in a country stuffed to the gills with both talent and ambition, there is no conceivable world in which a creepy 74 year old reality television celebrity with an enormous ego but no previous interest in government would be running against a relatively disinterested 77 year old with obvious progressing cognitive decline, for the most demanding job to be found on Earth.

There is no plausible world in which all five of the final five major candidates—that would be Biden, Trump, Bloomberg, Warren and Sanders—would all be born in the 1940s. That just isn’t something that would happen in a country where no president outside of that list was ever past the age of 70 at first inauguration in the history of the Republic, going back to its founding. With no precedent for such an aged ruler, are you really telling me that suddenly in 2020, we have five four or five septuagenarians without significant outrage or commentary?

Really?

Come on.

So what are we saying here? Really, then In short, there is no primary. And with no real primaries, there is no meaningful election, per se, and it is time to overthrow whatever structure is supporting an abomination posing as an election. If the parties donors and media maintain levers that are sufficient to control the elections, then a foreign power can also scheme to control the same levers the parties and insiders have given themselves to avoid democracy. We can’t afford to give the party and media insiders these levers even if we thought that they were trying to use them for our benefit, which they obviously are not.

It is time to clean out the innards of the parties and their media enablers. We need an independent media that isn’t trying to elect anyone in particular, but it’s instead animated by reporting whatever is actually happening. And we need to know that the party insiders aren’t choosing the candidate before we can even get a chance to enter the voting booth. Right now, many say that we are a democracy in decline, but I disagree. We are instead a republic that is not sure that it is safe to experiment with democracy at all. And there’s nothing less safe than a rigged an bittering superpower that will do everything it can to make sure that those with their snouts already in the trough are allowed to feed in uninterrupted splendor by the people they both parasitize and claim to represent.

The purpose of this essay is to say this: I may or may not vote the lesser of two evils in 2020, but we as a nation should be immediately focused on gutting these monsters parties and their affiliated media before 2024. There is no reason to cycle endlessly around the strain. It is time to overthrow and fire those who have taken over the DNC, RNC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, New York Times, etc., and repurpose them to spectacular effect against us all. Let these anti-patriots of both the left and right search for work elsewhere before we sign up to do this every four years. Before we move on to slates of octogenarians or young wild eyed utopians with little real world experience, it is time to end the national charade of pseudo democracy so that we can find out whether the real thing that is actual consent is any better than being groomed and nagged by the creeps hanging around the ballot box. I can’t promise that it will be, but don’t you think it’s time we found out?

Of course, I’m a bit worried about what we might get. But it’s unlikely to be worse than this. So, I’m game if you are.

New Yorker writer and book author Andrew Marantz and Eric became friends shortly before the 2016 election when Andrew set off to write the first profile of Eric and Geometric Unity, his theory of Physics. Coming from similar ethnic and politically progressive backgrounds they found plenty of common cause.

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This essay appears in audio format at the beginning of The Portal Podcast, Episode 36.


Hello, it’s Eric. I wanted to talk about the death and the afterlife of the blues. Now, the difficulty in talking about the blues is that people do not have a common picture of what I mean. Some will hear in the phrase “the blues” a reference to mood. Others will associate it with the music that fits a depressed state of mind. And musicians will hear it as a reference to a class of structured music analogous to sonata form in western classical music, or the ritualized three part structure of a classical Indian concert.

Well, permit me to pretend that you were where I was as a young man coming of age, which is that I knew nothing about it. All I knew was that I loved rock and roll, and that within rock, there were certain songs more than others that I would listen to over and over again. And oddly, I would notice several names recurring on the song credits. For example, W. Dixon, who the hell was W. Dixon? And the other name that came up repeatedly clearly sounded like a patrician blueblood Senator, McKinley Morganfield. There were others, of course, as well. Ellis McDaniel sounded Scottish to me as a name, but he wrote like he was straight out of Texarkana. This was confusing. All these rock bands knew about these guys and played their songs, but these names weren’t listed on any performances.

So who were these people? And why did I love everything that they did? I asked around in my circle of family and friends, and no one had an answer or even thought the question particularly interesting. So one day, in the days before the internet, I went to the Tower Record store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, near where we lived, and determined that I would screw up my courage to ask.

Now I say that for the benefit of those of you who may not regularly visit record stores or musical instrument shops, because you may not understand who works behind the counter and on the floor. Music is a weird sector of the economy, because it behaves somewhat like a legal drug, which some people can handle, while others cannot. And as a result, many musicians of near infinite ability exist who still cannot earn much living doing what they love most, which is playing music. Thus, almost everyone working in any area that touches music is usually overqualified by orders of magnitude. And Tower Records on Sunset was effectively a university-level music and folklore department, with shaggy professors manning the cash registers on the floor. I would have my parents drop me off there just to listen to the conversations at their classical music annex across the street from their larger popular music store.

But on this one particular day, I got up the courage to go to the general information desk and ask my question.

“May I help you, young man?”, the bearded gentleman said to me, with what sounded like it might have been a faint snort of contempt.

“Yes, sir. Who is W Dixon?” I said meekly.

Never heard of him. Sorry. Next?

“Wait!” I exclaimed desperately. “I’m not done with my questions.”

“Go on, then”, the bearded man said.

Who is McKinley Morganfield?”

Suddenly the man’s face brightened. “You mean Muddy Waters?”

“No”, I protested. “It’s not a body of water or a song. It’s a person, a songwriter.”

The man called over some associates to laugh over the situation I was creating.

“This young man is trying to discover the blues and he’s never even heard of Muddy Waters!” The man said.

I was now panicking as this was fast becoming an embarrassing scene with lots of grown men laughing at me and my questions. Let’s try my last question instead.

“Who is Ellis McDaniel?”

All the men laughed and said the same word simultaneously, “Bo Diddley!”

Then the bearded man said, “Oh, and that mysterious W. Dixon you asked about is going to be a bass player out of Chicago named Willie Dixon.”

“Then you know what I’m talking about. So why are you all laughing at me?” I asked.

“Because your life is about to change today, and you don’t even know it or just how much”, said the man.

“How can you know that?” I demanded.

“Well, you’ll see,” said he.

The bearded man then got up and walked me over to what was not much more than a single bin or two in the huge store labeled “blues” off to the side of the jazz section.

As he left I started going through the records and started seeing all of the song titles that I had loved, only they were no longer being performed by the Rolling Stones or The Doors. And what was more, almost all of the musicians were black, but often in the same configurations as white rock groups—electric guitar and bass, keyboards and drums, for example. Sure enough, there was a singer called Muddy Waters, a guitarist named Bo Diddley, and a world of people I’d never heard of. I decided to take a risk and bought two of the cheapest of these mysterious records, a collection of BB King songs, and a double album of John Lee Hooker.

I got the records home and, feeling humiliated, I determined never to go back to that store again. I opened the shrink wrap and took the BB King record out of the paper sleeve first. And I remember watching the stylist drop down to the vinyl and I waited nervously listening to the scratches over a tiny eternity for whatever was to come next. The song started and my life changed in under 10 seconds. I felt like I was being born so, I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Put on the song you upset me baby, and you’ll find that it begins with a tasty, upbeat guitar that introduces the mood. I felt like I wanted to dance immediately. I didn’t feel at all depressed. It made no sense.

Then I heard BB King’s voice for the first time. The lyrics, or the description, without apology, I might add, of a woman who is “36 in the bust, 28 in the waist, 44 in the hips, she got real crazy legs…”

Well, growing up in a progressive household, I was mortified and excited all at the same time as I dove for the volume knob to turn it down. What was I listening to? And wasn’t that like eight inches larger down below than what I was taught were the fabled perfect measurements? And this BB King, he wasn’t embarrassed at all. I mean, he was literally shouting her measurements to the world, like he expected she would find that flattering, rather than feeling objectified or needing to diet.

But it wasn’t the lyrics that got me. It was that I had swum upstream and discovered the distilled essence of Rock and Roll, without knowing that there was anything there to discover. If this was a scene from Kung Fu Panda, I would be stumbling upon The Pool of Sacred Tears, where it all began. I liked this music so much more than Rock and Roll that I couldn’t get enough of the sound. This was audio heroin to me. I went to the piano my family had downstairs, and tried to figure out the notes, but they didn’t fit the Do-Re-Mi scales I had once learned in six months of failed piano lessons.

Well, what I soon learned was that there was a musical art form called the blues that was more dance music than Moke fest. Oddly, it wasn’t well understood by anyone I seem to know. And it was based on two main secrets. It is perhaps easiest to say what they are while sitting at the piano. The first secret is that the left hand in the bass plays a repeating 12 bar cycle of three chords in a particular sequence known as the blues progression. The other secret is that the right hand improvises using a scale known as the blues scale that is neither major nor minor, and that cannot even fit onto the white keys alone in any key. This was literally music to my ears. Many of these blues musicians like me were unable to read music. A good number of them were even blind. Yet they had developed a mature art form like Haiku that used a largely rigid formula to produce work of infinite variety and emotion.

Why was I never told that this existed? Why was this never even offered to me as a possible alternative to classical music? The short and perfect answer is race. The Blues, even more than jazz, really is black music, which black Americans had largely outgrown by the 1960s, if we are honest, just as some white musicians, we’re learning how to master it. There’s a famous song by Muddy Waters about what he calls the story that’s, “never been told”, where the title and main line of the song is, “The Blues had a baby, and they named it Rock and Roll”.

The reason for my confusion is that there’s often no real difference between Rock and Roll and the Blues. You can look on YouTube for Keith Richards showing how the Stone song “Satisfaction” is actually a disguised country blues hidden in plain sight, or you can hear Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin tell the audience that “Whole Lot of Love” really derives from Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love”. And if we are honest, there is a certain financial premium to be earned by white musicians for simply taking the work of black blues musicians and repackaging it for white audiences Rock and roll. Before we even get to it, they have legitimately added as true innovation in a collaborative process.

It is also true that it represents different cultural norms. I remember my grandfather who was not a bigoted man telling me that he personally disliked this music and that I was bending guitar notes and trying to sing with melisma and wide vibrato. “Why not listen to a Schubert song cycle instead?”, he asked. To him and others, I was clearly going in an unexpected and disappointing direction away from the formal regimented western classical music that my parents and grandparents held up as the gold standard.

Yet exactly what my grandfather detested was what I loved most. The warmth, the excitement, the improvisational brilliance. By the time I snuck out of the house at 15 to see Ray Charles at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium with my friend Ed Tuttle, I could see that this was really another world. The audience was part of the show, or at least that was true in black musicians played before black audiences. People would stand up in their seats and shout at the stage, or dance in the aisles, and the performers would talk back, sometimes in words and sometimes with their instruments. When I went to see BB King years later in Boston in two back to back concerts over two nights, the first one was in a black area of town, and it was joyous and raucous.

The next night’s event however, it was like looking at an autopsy of the previous evening, by comparison. The white concert hall audience waited respectfully until the end of every song to clap vigorously as if they were seated at a symphony. I didn’t want to be black necessarily, but I wanted to be in with black America. If blues was developed largely around call and response, the white audience simply did not understand how to give back to the musicians and the music always suffered as a result.

So what is the blues and why does it matter? Well, accept for a moment that, if American classical music means anything at all, and we’re really talking about the art form known as jazz, blues is in a certain sense an ancestor to jazz as well as Rock and Roll and R&B, with the so called Talking Blues, a forerunner of hip hop and rap. Thus, despite black audiences largely turning away from the blues as an art form, it can’t really ever die, because it is the foundation for so much of the American contribution to world music. Further, it is a place for musicians to meet. When two musicians who do not know each other or their respective styles want to play together for the first time, in my experience, they’re most likely to try to play a 12 bar blues the way strangers would shake hands and introduce themselves.

It is also a superpower waiting to be discovered in the life of everyone who dreams of playing music. Because it is based on just two musical rules, the initial overhead for entering the world of blues musicianship is quite a bit lower than other forms, while the limits of virtuosic elaboration within the idiom have never been found and tested even by the likes of Art Tatum or Jimi Hendrix. If you think you can’t play music at all, but you have too strong working arms, start with a guitar and a slide, like a coffee mug, and a chart of the 12 bar blues cycle. You can probably play your first blues song within 15 minutes with a little bit of instruction from a friend who is knowledgeable.

Now you may be guessing that there is a payload to this story, and there is. I fell deeply in love with black America completely by accident before I was 14. It was from afar at first, having few black friends, but love turns to progressive understanding over decades, and infatuation turns to a deeper appreciation of gifts, quirks, and flaws. At this point, I don’t even have a strong sense of distance and objectivity, as it is all through my life by now.

One of the things I found was that I had developed a very different picture of black Americans than almost anyone I knew as a result. And central to that picture was that black Americans took merit and meritocracy as seriously and definitionally as any group I ever met, with the possible exception of Soviet Russians.

As a folklore minor at the University of Pennsylvania, I advanced the thesis there that I want to share with you all. And that is this: We non blacks are missing the history and role of merit, and particularly genius, in black culture. Having been fenced out of white institutions by discrimination, and having been stripped of their heritage by slave owners who wish to erase their past, black Americans came up with an ingenious solution to rebuild their identity in the space of the hundred years since slavery. They would use open head-to-head high stakes competitions in, well, just about everything. In the school yard, they called it The Dozens and it was a game of insult played for keeps. At open mic night they called it head-cutting competitions to see who could blow the other clear off the stage. When it came to the spoken word, they would have pitted Robert Frost against TS Eliot, had they both been black and at a poetry slam. Regular chess often took too long, so they hustled at Blitz style chess in public parks against all comers. In comedy, competitive roasting and the blow torching of hecklers reigned supreme. And in hip-hop, the concept of a rap battle is well known to all.

And this is why I don’t really get the race and IQ discussion, because this is a genius-based culture, whose principal gift, after all, lies in out thinking the rival with creative generative solutions, under maximal pressure, that will never be found on a multiple choice test. This is exactly how Eminem could win at rap battling, because fairness and judging is how blacks maintained an air of superiority over whites, who needed to cheat by exclusion.

I have threatened for years to come up with an IQ substitute test that favored blacks based on my study of black history. It would involve multiple people competing directly against each other head to head in real time to solve open ended analytic problems under maximal pressure, where no answer was known to begin with to those making up the test.

But despite my reverence for black genius, I also came to see flaws and faults as one does in any deep cross cultural relationship of sufficient length and depth. For example, where I learned to see the white society to which I belonged as being systemically violent in ways that I had never understood or imagined, the initial unparalleled warmth of black society that mirrored my Jewish upbringing, eventually peeled back to reveal a comfort with the idiosyncratic horror of Louisiana red sweet blood call that made me physically sick the first time I heard both men and women clapping and joking about what seemed like misogynistic madness beyond any murder ballad I had ever heard.

Now, what am I to do with all of this? On the one hand, I cannot pretend that I would even recognize the US without the black contribution. If there were a crime of cultural appropriation, I would only be let off the hook for attempting the crime without succeeding. That is how badly I wanted to understand and learn from Art Tatum, Richard Pryor, Harry Belafonte, the Nicholas brothers, Paul Robeson and Louie Armstrong, Eric Lewis, Stanley Jordan, Dick Gregory and my other heroes.

But we outside the black community, in our modeling guilt and performative shame, are now in the process of losing the ability to meet our own amazing subculture of black America as equals. Think about it. We fear, we idolize, we covet, we desire, we condescend, and we steal from them. We feel as if we have no right to meet our own people as intimates due to the fear of offense. And there is no true love where we cannot share what it is that we see and pass through the valley of offence to deeper understanding. This alienation is, in fact, the origin of the stock character from cinema of the magic Negro possessed of otherworldly wisdom, but who is always a supporting character as drawn, propelling the Caucasian narrative ever forward. And, quite honestly, I see in our shame that we don’t have enough of the deep friendships between blacks and whites, where we might actually come to love each other from a position of intimacy and knowledge, rather than an oscillation between idolization and demonization.

So I will leave you with this thought. Those of us in white America who believe most in our black brothers and sisters are not going in for this groveling performative bullshit. We have already many times stood with our friends in shock when the cab which slowed to pick us up, then sped off when it saw who we were with, and I can assure you that we were never called something so genteel and euphemistic as N-word loving race traders as we were physically bullied in school. Just as my black colleagues can mostly understand anti-semitism, I can get most of anti-black prejudice too. Sure, maybe not the whole thing, but this pretend divide has to end. What is the purpose of the heights of black oratorical skill, if not to make us understand each other better?

And speaking directly to black listeners: we are equals and very lucky to have each other. I’m so very glad you are here and I wouldn’t be who I am without your gifts. Forgive me, but no true friend of mine has ever asked me to wear a hair shirt for my connection to racial crimes of slavery committed by people who vaguely looked like me, decades before any of my family ever came to this country. I will support you and do believe that you have triumphed over the humiliation of oppression. But don’t ask me for Reparations, to abolish the police, to repeat lines that you feed me, to kneel when you instruct, or to accept lower standards of empathy between people because of the uniqueness of your pain. I’m not going to simply take your word for it that no white person fears the police, nor am I going to ignore statistics that in turns both confirm and cast out on so called lived experience. Daniel Shaver was white and died on camera in an Arizona hotel room. Be honest, had he been black, you would know that racism was behind the deed. And yet, because he was white, we know that it played no role. The true solution to race problems isn’t competing to demonstrate just how guilty we are. It is true love and friendship and critique and offense and fumbling in the dark until we get it right. We Jews do have a problem with sexual predation. Our Muslim brothers have had problems with terror. Blacks have problems with violent crime. And if you have true friends, who are any of these, you discuss these things in an arena of trust. As a black friend of mine once said, “I cross the street when a big guy with a do rag comes towards me. I’m not sure why I feel just a bit weird that you do it too.” But above all, thank you for immeasurably enriching my life. It will be an honor to try to help your children do for science and technology what you have already done for culture, letters, music, comedy and national character.

This country of ours isn’t perfect, but it’s not 1840 anymore, and no group of us has the right to scuttle this beautiful ship we share called America. Let’s reform prisons and law enforcement like grownups. I’m saying this because I believe in us as intimates, and not because I’m trying to hold on to an insulating layer that others built into the system.