30: Ross Douthat - The Rave Before the Fall

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Description[edit]

Just before the great indooring due to the Pandemic of 2020, Eric sat down with conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat to discuss his book "The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success." Over champagne flutes filled with bubbly, the two discussed the various ways that the success and excesses of American Capitalism were now distorting the American Dream into a dystopian fever vision, making it far harder to wake up from this stasis in time to avoid the previous fates of fallen empires.


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Transcript[edit]

Eric Weinstein: Hello, this is Eric with a few words of housekeeping.

First of all, I just wanted to check in with our audience of Portal listeners and say that I've been trying to stay reasonably safe and sane and if only in fact left my compound twice in recent weeks, and both times were to do podcasts that I judged to be significant enough to potentially warrant the slightly increased risk with no hand shaken nor hugs exchanged.

In the first place, I visited with my good buddy Joe Rogan over at the JRE podcast to discuss COVID masks the genius of American jazz dance and geometric unity. I believe at this point, it has been viewed by just north of 5.4 million folks in less than two weeks. So if you haven't already seen it, I would suggest maybe checking it out because it seems to be fairly popular despite being a bit on the long side. What can I say we went slightly viral, if you will excuse the gallows humor.

Now the other new podcast I did was with my friend Lex Friedman, who hosts the MIT AI podcast which I did for the second time. Lex is one of my favorite interviewers—in part because he works in a somewhat mysterious way to get one-of-a-kind interviews out of an amazing lineup of heavy-hitters. I would highly recommend tuning into his podcast in general, and our episode in particular.

Now this of course brings us to our own podcast and steering its course in the time of Corona. In an abundance of caution good fortune, and frankly a bit of sloth in our release schedule, we are so far not having to tape new in person interviews for The Portal as we have you covered for a little while. The Portal cleverly (or accidentally) banked in studio episodes before the pandemic was truly great folks like Penn Jillette, Rick Rubin, Sean Lennon, JD Vance, Helen Fisher, Stefan Alexander, Andrew Marantz, and many others. We also have some solo episodes planned and are exploring whether we want to get into the Skype or Zoom interview game as well.

So, hopefully, that catches you up to where we are at least procedurally. We will be sure to let you know if there are any changes if you will kindly navigate to our new website at ericweinstein.org and leave us your email address for our mailing list so that we can keep connected to you in the weeks ahead.

The Big Nap[edit]

As to what is on my mind, it is mostly this: The Awakening. On Joe's show, I talked about the end of what I termed “The Big Nap”—which I defined as the period beginning on September 2, 1945, and ending 75 years later on February 19, 2020—which signaled the end of World War II and the beginning of the slide from the peak of the stock market when the world began to accept that the Coronavirus was indeed a serious pandemic, respectively. The Big Nap, in this theory, is itself divided into three sections. First, the “power sleep” between 1945 and 1970, when economic growth was extraordinary, and the memory of World War II was still fresh. This was followed by the “mysterious transition” (for three years between 1971 and 1973, when the post-war magic suddenly evaporated) and the “deep sleep” (from 1974 up until the present day in 2020 at the time of this recording, characterized by what I've termed elsewhere, the “new gimmick economy” in which leaders at first look to restart growth but, sometime in the 1980s, actually gave up and began selling claims against the future so that a small leadership class could continue to pretend the growth was indeed continuing by transferring wealth from their descendants futures, and from workers who could not politically protect themselves from predation. The Big Nap—at least in the developed free world—was essentially characterized as a run of extraordinary relative good luck and serenity (at least by the historical standards set by previous world wars, pandemics, depressions and depressions), where the new gathering storm clouds of the Cold War threatened and menaced in the distance, but the skies directly above remained unprecedentedly clear. This created a bizarre developmental environment where the serenity of the Big Nap led to a worldwide epidemic of magical thinking among the expert and leadership classes that were raised during this time.

As I understand it, we are in fact stuck with the mystery of a leadership class that cannot leave the stage nor let go of its illusions and whom I will refer to as the Big Nappers. In the United States, the final five major presidential candidates were all miraculously born between 1941 and 1949 within four years of the beginning of the Big Nap. Now that is indeed quite a mystery considering the original diversity of the field of hopeful contenders—for to be qualified for the final field you needed to be well past retirement age so that any of the five finalists would be the oldest president ever to take the oath of office. Said differently, to be a true Big Napper you needed to have a full life’s sleep.

What puzzles me as we shelter in place with no credible plan to regain control of our planet, our lives, and our economy, is what explains our anomalous selection process? I myself am not entirely certain, but I would venture a guess: I would posit that this group is characterized roughly as people who have at least some meaningful formative memory of the time before the mysterious economic transition in the early 1970s. All of the finalists could remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the moment that they heard of the Kennedy and King assassinations, and where they watched the first moon landing. Yet they also came of age with childhoods untouched by the diversity that followed from the 1965 Immigration Act in the United States, or the trauma of service in Vietnam. In short, what they appear to have in common to me is that they both prospered under all three phases of the Big Nap and remained intellectually coherent, at least among themselves.

If you think of a wealthy and reasonably equal country as akin to a family that got wealthy together from a successful family business, these are the people who saw the business prosper in their youth from their parents’ efforts and, when the business began to fail in the early 1970s, began to collectively sell off and mortgage the business's remaining valuable assets to disguise the new losses as adults. So long as this class repeated the mantras as a choir that originally came from the academic experts and think tanks that were speaking through the leading newspapers, none of them had to take an excess of responsibility for ideas that could never bear full scrutiny if subjected to serious interrogation. These mantras—of deregulation, globalization financialization, education, authoritative news sources, central banking, immigration and consolidation—were constructed so that this group could believe that the growth and prosperity that they had experienced as young people was continuing for everyone. That is, so long as they didn't notice the homeless encampments, the mounting student debt, the inequality, rising foreign power and diminution of national sovereignty.

The problem that this now leaves us with in the United States (and which I believe is echoed abroad) is that this class is all that is left of our national coherence, and they are continuing to hold on to power well past their retirement dates—because in a democracy, any shared group beliefs in nonsense, and particularly self-serving nonsense, will still beat an incoherent haystack of noise that nevertheless contains the missing needles of truth.

And that's where I think we are. Our seniors believe in a self-serving nonsense supported by legacy sense-making structures that has a measure of coherence is its major value. And this is weirdly a bipartisan coherence. President Trump, the CDC, the Surgeon General, the Speaker of the House, the Mayor of New York, the Washington Post, have all agreed to various obviously wrong statements about this virus, designed to shield our economy and our institutions from having to look at their abject failure to deal with the crisis in the face. The younger generations are habituated to the chaos of the internet, where the truth is regularly found sitting next to kitten memes shitposting and chaos.

Yet it was from these dark alleys and corners that the consensus was first challenged. And our younger and more alienated adults are paying attention to the fact that the establishment center was obviously lying in matters of life and death about the efficacy of face masks, the meaning of small numbers of deaths in the face of the law of exponential growth, and the very real possibility that this worldwide pandemic originated in a high security Chinese bio lab.

Because the most aggressive such nonsense has become structural through what must be admitted to be an unexpectedly successful pattern of perseveration over more than four decades, our senior leadership class can be relied upon to engage in magical thinking on just about everything in the world of policy. They are not wrong in the same way that younger people on the internet are wrong—with a million different personal opinions which when aggregated seem to cancel each other out. Instead, this group is actually distinguished by their ability to close their eyes and march in a coherent and even bipartisan direction whenever the source of their growing wealth is actually a suitably and sufficiently disguised transfer from their own children, or a transfer of power to a foreign competitor.

Which brings us to the following generations and their Great Awakening from the Big Nap. At this point, it has become clear to the younger generations that an enormous number of young, alienated, deeply-indebted, and underemployed Millennials or Gen-Xers were able to see this coming for some time. The timestamps on official tweets and newspaper filings are a matter of public record, and there is little question that the wretched internet menagerie trounced the experts on a global matter of life and death. I cannot believe I'm saying this, but in many cases, the cesspool that is 4chan outcompeted the nation's top-ranking health officials, and did so handily. When the dreaded internet—made up of supposedly untouchable trolls, gadflies, tech bros, xenophobes, grifters, edgelords, shitposters, racists, fascists… which is to say, the basket of deplorables beyond the control of the institutions that our betters warned us about—easily outcompeted the telegenic MDs, Ivy Leaguers, editorial boards, mayors, and even the executive branch, the jig was finally up: the need to stay within institutionally-acceptable parameters of discussion functioned as if it was an 80 point IQ handicap. The Overton Window had become a deathtrap of defenestration into the waiting jaws of COVID. Those whose primary concern was not public health, but instead respectability, protecting short term profits, or covering for our lack of preparedness, ended up giving deadly advice.

The final nail in the coffin—and I am on the verge of literal speech here—had to be the spectacle of our Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control blatantly lying by parroting The World Health Organization (which was now seemingly enthralled to Chinese masters) in telling ordinary Americans to put themselves, and each other, at risk of death by eschewing face masks. This was apparently to cover for experts who had cut corners on costs by failing to keep basic life-saving medical equipment and supplies stocked for just such surges.

So let me leave you with a final thought. Normally, an election is a speculation as to the ability to lead. Yet we have just run an important natural experiment in leadership and the minimal leadership qualifications for the next president of the United States should obviously emerge from this unexpected exercise. Quite simply, they should be a wide collection of consistent timestamped messages (beginning in late January at the latest) warning of the need to prepare for a lengthy quarantine, a need to use masks in defiance of the bad advice given by the highest health officers of the country, a need to avoid crowds (contradicting the mayors of our large cities early in the epidemic), and a focus on the scientific need not to a priori exclude the very real possibility of an accidental laboratory release from the Biosafety Level 4 Wuhan facility.

The 2020 election, by this line of reasoning, must not be between Trump and Biden. Twenty-eight years into a string of uninterrupted Baby Boomer presidents has brought us here as a matter of life and death because leadership turns out to actually matter. As loyal Americans, both men could and should simply resign honorably, as many national leaders in recent history have been forced to do, such as Chamberlain or Nixon when measured and found wanting. If this somehow has come to seem inconceivable, well, then it would be time to consider a mutiny against the entire process even to the point of becoming civilly disobedient if necessary. And clearly, somewhat paradoxically, it should never have to come to that if both men understand true leadership, as they claim.

After some words from our sponsors, we'll be back with the intro to this episode with Ross Douthat.

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Background[edit]

A few words of context: the following conversation with New York Times conservative Washington columnist, Ross Douthat, author of The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, was conducted before the COVID quarantining and before Bernie Sanders had suspended his campaign. As such, it is interesting to listen to, in part as an unintentionally perfect example of his thesis. Here we are talking about his topic of decadence while being intentionally and self-consciously ironic—quaffing bubbly with champagne flutes for effect—but not fully realizing how bizarre this would look a short time later from the perspective of national internment during shelter-at-home orders. Even though the joke is on us in some sense, it has the air (when viewed on video) of a reel of film recovered from a celebration on the Lido Deck of the USS Titanic.

By way of context, I should say that I knew Ross slightly before this interview and liked him a great deal personally, despite our political differences, as I found him insightful, knowledgeable about all things political and quite charming. But I thought I would still say a few words about how to view this discussion as, despite my earlier acquaintance with him, you will hear that it still takes me quite a while to catch on to just how different my unexamined assumptions are from his.

Ross is writing from the perspective of a conservative columnist employed as a bit of an intellectual diversifier for the top mainstream center-left newspaper in the United States. One can think of Ross, therefore, as accepting the current political game as it is presented—with, for example, a left right spectrum and rules that are well-known to those inside the beltway—as he has to for his occupation. Whereas I, on the other hand, have the luxury of coming from the perspective of an outsider—trying to apply first principles thinking to politics and generally finding that it fails to make any sense when used to analyze the claims of those in inside the beltway. One way of looking at Ross's book is that it is written to whittle away at the assumptions of those who have accepted the terms of national politics as they currently stand. Yet, as I have never accepted this game, I am much more interested in his opinion as to how the insiders ever came to believe those assumptions which did not make sense to me—at least from a first principles perspective.

We are therefore coming at this from two totally different angles. Ross is trying to shock those politically minded observers who have accepted the assumptions and framework of the political analyst class into considering that those assumptions may not be true and may need to be rethought. And I am, instead, seeing that his critique is generally right from first principles thinking, and am constantly confused by how anyone could ever have come to believe the things that he's actually debunking. For example, Ross may be well communicating a heresy within his world if he suggests that perhaps technological innovation is not nearly as powerful of a force to drive the economy is often assumed. Yet because I don't live in that world, that to me is much closer to being a given—at least among frustrated technologists. As such, I might be much more interested in understanding what could ever have gotten that belief started among the political class when it seems self-evident that only a small number of sectors have seen truly radical innovation (at least compared to historical trend lines that in the early 20th century). Seen this way, his critique comes from what might be termed “game acceptance” within the political world, where my view might be closer to something which would be termed “game rejection.”

As you'll hear in the audio, at some point Ross gets to the idea that, at least within his world, I must be counted strangely to his political Right, simply because of my restrictionist perspective on immigration. It is around this moment that I despair as I start to fully realize what we were up against: the difference in our frameworks is simply too great to easily overcome. You see, I would see my support for tight labor markets as obviously a left-of-center pro-labor perspective. It is this kind of confusion that makes the conversation much more difficult than it would otherwise be if only we shared a common language and inference patterns.

Now, that said, we seem to agree on a lot, but we get there from two totally different places—a state sometimes referred to as “being in violent agreement.” As for the decadence? Well, I think we can remember this period of quarantine as the only one in our lives in which there's essentially a worldwide shortage of all FOMO. There is nothing going on anywhere. For the first time we are all but certain that we are not missing out on anything—not a great party, or a concert, or an exotic vacation. This is a true luxury which ironically we may never experience again.

After these final words from our sponsors, we will be back for an uninterrupted conversation with Ross Douthat of the New York Times discussing The Decadent Society.

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Interview[edit]

Hello, you have found The Portal. I'm your host Eric Weinstein and today I get to sit down with none other than Ross Douthat From the New York Times, op-ed columnist, and now, author of The Decadent Society. Ross, welcome!

21:05

Ross Douthat: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

EW: Good to see you again. What a great and timely book that you've just written. I want to get into all manner of questions with you, but let's just begin by talking about the fact that there has been this kind of counter-cultural rumbling from outside the mainstream for a while that—with all of the talk of dizzying progress and blinding advances in tech—that none of this is actually really true…

RD: Right.

EW: … and that, in fact, everything has been going in the opposite direction with this really weird narrative that runs counter to the main story, which is a very long-standing story of stagnation, and falling apart, and decadence. And how is it that you're seeing your book in the context of this institutional world that has been selling progress in this other world—this sort of counter-institutional world—which seems to be saying, “Hey, we've had a real problem. Why was why was nobody paying attention?”

RD: I mean, I think I see my book as trying to put together a lot of those outsider critiques into one narrative. And I think at this point we've come far enough from the total optimism of my late teenage years—late 1990s; bridge to the 21st century; map the human genome; everything's gonna be great; Alan Greenspan's figured out the economy—we've come far enough from that, that I think people are more receptive to the idea that things aren't just getting better all the time (and in fact, there's obviously a lot of catastrophism out there as well). But my feeling was, like, there's been a set of people on both the political Right and the Left (in sometimes the weirder parts of it) who have made arguments about economic stagnation and technological decadence that … You know our friend Peter Thiel’s famous, “We were promised flying cars and we got 140 characters” line has echoes in some other writers.

And so the book, at least in the first part, tries to tie that together with stuff from my own world, right? I'm a political columnist, I write mostly about Washington, DC, and US politics (which is also pretty OBVIOUSLY decadent) and then weave that together with demographics (the decline of birth rates, the aging of the developed world), and then a little pop culture, too (because I moonlight as a movie critic). So this is an attempt, not at sort of … I think you're right, that the sort of original insights have been sort of building for a while and come from a lot of different places outside the mainstream, and this is my attempt to sort of synthesize them and say, “It’s not just that we have economic stagnation. It's not just that Silicon Valley is kind of a disappointment. It's not just that Washington doesn't work. It's not just that we're getting older and nobody's having any kids. These are all entangled, and reinforcing one another in what I'm calling ‘decadence.’”

24:28

EW: First of all, one of my critiques of the decadence is that it's not nearly as much fun as it's supposed to be. …

RD: Right. Yes.

EW: Like nobody's having drug-fueled orgies so far as I can tell. So I want to …

RD: We're gonna break … Yeah, …

EW: … Exactly. So we're going to open a bottle of bubbly on the set and drink to The Decadent Society, if you don't mind.

RD: Absolutely. And while you pop it, I will explain that, the sort of eccentricity of my definition of decadence is, I basically say that the orgies would be less decadent than what we have. That ‘decadent,’ properly understood … [POP] … [laughing] …

EW: See?

RD: … involves that sound! No …

EW: Rather than popping it and trying to hit the ceiling.

RD: Right. ‘Decadent,’ properly understood, involves, sort of, torpor and, and ennui, and boredom, and frustration. And so eras that we sort of casually think of as decadent—eras of sort of excess and, you know, Jazz Age parties and so on—aren't actually fully decadent, because they have that dynamism. And sometimes that dynamism, you know, leads to what I as a Catholic would consider to …

EW: … to decay and lots of Empire?

RD: There we go.

… what we consider slightly immoral behaviors, but at least it's an energy, right? And what we have now instead is … Instead of orgies, we have online pornography; instead of, you know, Studio 64, we have our equivalents of Aldous Huxley’s soma; we have medications designed to lull us to sleep. So that's where my definition of decadence is a little more eccentric, but I think actually a little more accurate and truer to our time than just the, you know, Nero's Rome definition.

EW: It’s interesting. Cheers!

RD: Cheers.

EW: I mean, one of the things that when you live in San Francisco, you rub shoulders with the tech polyamory community.

RD: Yes!

EW: And the tech polyamory community is very involved with rules. I mean, just rules upon rules. And so it's weird that you could take something that is ostensibly hot as polyamory, and you could …

RD: As ostensibly.

EW: Yeah.

RD: That ‘obstensibly’ is doing a lot of work.

EW: Yeah, well, in fact, there was a woman who wrote a book called, I think, Plays Well in Groups, about group sex and she was a PhD sex researcher (my recollection), and what she said is that there is no place in the world that is holding unbridled, unrestrained orgies—that in fact it's always legislated. And so in some sense, even the illusion of what true decadence might look like, is not necessarily… It doesn't fit with the facts as we know them.

But, you know, you bring up a lot of shadings of the concept of decadence. And I think one of the things that's very interesting, is that people imagine that cultural conservatives would be far away from the concept of decadence and calling for greater vigor. But in fact, I would say that very often it's within the very restricted communities that you have the highest levels of vigor. In fact, there's something to play off of, there's this sort of the power and the dynamism of the structure that has been built up and then the dynamism of the individual that has to wrestle with that weight. And that power. And so for example, heretics in the Catholic Church, you know, of course, are famously dynamic.

RD: Right.

EW: Yeah.

RD: And there's always a there's always a certain ambiguity in Catholicism about whether certain extreme figures are heretics or saints, right? And so … A healthy religious culture will probably produce a lot of figures who are in that sort of liminal space and then the church (if the church is working as an institution) over the next hundred years it'll sort of sift and say, “Okay, that person went too far and they were a heretic. But that person over there was Francis of Assisi or Joan of Arc, and they were they were actually just extreme models of sainthood.”

But it's tricky. I mean, I think that under conditions of decadence you can often find religious communities that sort of manifest certain virtues that the decadent society as a whole doesn't have. But the question is, can those be more than just preservationist enterprises, right? This is something, as a Catholic, that I wrestle with a lot. Like, can you have a religious faith that doesn't just sort of preserve goods of order and belief in transcendence and optimism about the future, but actually can SEED the wider culture with those ideas—even if you aren't winning converts in full. And I think that's part of what traditional religion has failed to do in certain ways, in the last 50 years. Sort of, lost a lot of ground after the 60s and then built some moderately successful bunkers or sort of created some counter cultures. But meanwhile, the rest of society sort of went its own way.

EW: Yeah, I mean, I think back to Paul Simon talking about the radical priests come to get him released in Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard. Of course, Tom Lehrer famously satirized the need for modernity in the church with The Vatican Rag, if you recall that song.

30:08

RD: Yes. [laughing] I do.

EW: So … you know … I think that there is a good argument to be made that we almost should expect the renewal—once we've accepted the decadent hypothesis—to come out of traditional structures, in part because there's strength and coherence that comes out of even an oppressive structure. And I think, for example, to … The photo that I've used for my youtube channel cover is the ceiling of Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Have you been to this church?

RD: I haven't been, but I know it well.

EW: I mean, it's like nothing on this planet. The ceiling of that church is just a wonder of the world. And I think about how modern it is and how completely daring and how it's all, of course, in the service of God (as a concept, whether you believe in God or not) that Gaudi undertook this project. And it even looks different from HIS wildly divergent projects. It's just separate and apart.

Should we expect that our religious traditions, that our most traditional and conservative members, might be the source of our new dynamism (as completely bizarre as that might sound)?

RD: I mean, I'd like to think that, right?

I think that there is definitely a sense in which … There's some kind of link, I think, between religious and scientific dynamism—as much as obviously, religious institutions can try and you know, choke off scientific progress in various ways; and as much as science can tend towards a sort of reductive arrogance that excludes religion. At the same time both science and religion proceeds from the view that the universe … The cosmos has secrets that can yield themselves to human beings or that can be bestowed on human beings by revelation. And that there is some link—some deep link—between the human mind’s capacities and the order and structure of the universe. And I don’t… I get this is sort of unprovable, but I don't think it's a coincidence that if you go back into the chart the history of the space program, you can see it bound up in a particular kind of post… the sort of last great era of mainline American Protestantism before and sort of dissolved itself in the 60s and 70s—the last fusion of, sort of, Protestant faith and scientific enterprise where you've got Buzz Aldrin taking communion on the moon, and they're reading the beginning of Genesis as they orbit the Earth, and so on.

And, again, I don't know exactly how … I don't know how you get back to that, because the difficulty is that the religious cultures today—unless they're very bunkered-down—tend to be, themselves, decadent. Like in Catholicism, in that period, when Sagrada Familia was being built—basically from the 20s to the 60s—produces an incredible amount of dynamic art and intellectual work and so on. Like, most smart, bookish Catholics today start out reading Evelyn Waugh (?) and G.K. Chesterton and writers from this moment when Catholicism was sort of dynamically wrestling with modernity. And all of that sort of culminates in the Second Vatican Council and the period of great debate and modernization. But then from then on, Catholicism has just been stuck in this internal debate … that I've written about a lot—I obviously care about it a great deal—but it's this debate about how much the church can adapt to the sexual revolution and the modern world that has been, you know, in basically the same place with the same battle line since about 1971 or so.

EW: But sex has changed a great deal since then.

RD: Well, sex has DECLINED, maybe, since then. I mean, I think… So tell me, how do you think sex has changed since 1970?

EW: Oh, well, just let's go through easy ones. I mean, certainly the appearance of HIV in the early 1980s (in the broad consciousness at least). I would say that the prevalence of the apps commodifying ourselves and each other into swipeable assets, and the singles bar pervading every aspect of our world rather than being some threshold that must be crossed—in fact, that singles bar is kept in in the pockets of young people everywhere. I think that the economic challenges being faced by Millennials are probably, if you looked at age differences in procreative pairings, my guess is that they've blown out (I don't know if the data is there yet, but I bet we'll see that soon). I don't think that we understand the negative effects of pornography on the sex drive. I believe that it rewires the mind to believe in a world that does not actually exist, in which a low status person who's spending way too much time on the tube sites is going to end up with the brain of Genghis Khan—thinking that they have that 10s of thousands of partners. Everything that animated the old sexualities (and I think that that changed with The Pill a great deal; it changed with certain economic and war casualties in the 20s with The Flappers)…

It's very dynamic and it keeps responding to different issues. And I think one of the biggest issues has been that women and men have been regarding each other differently in the office than they would in the home or in the dating environment, so that courtship is probably facing the problem that… A woman might not want to compete with a particular kind of man in the office, but she may wish to be courted by one after hours. (This is of course, heterosexual, heteronormative women—usual boilerplate …

RD: Yup.

EW: I think, for the purposes of this discussion, one of the things that I think has gone terribly wrong is that in our eagerness (which I think is good) to embrace non-traditional families, we've neglected the workhorse, which is the male-female heterosexual procreative pair. And I worry that we've spent too much time on things that aren't that and therefore have neglected the fact that that structure has a long history and a future in a way that we're just beginning to experiment with—homosexual couples having having children under the, you know, societally-sanctioned marriage—which is fascinating and interesting and I'm for it, but it’s… I don't think we're thinking enough about courtship, male-female dynamics and how to get back to a procreative orientation.

So just to close this riff out: One of the things that I've noticed is that as of now, every human being that has ever been born, has spent time in a woman's womb. And when you talk about the need for society to renew itself, it MUST pass through women. Until that changes through technology, many women now say, “You are taking an inappropriate interest in my ovaries and in my womb by having an interest in society continuing, and how dare you say anything about female sexuality?” Which, I’m just going to say, is absurd. Like, society has a right to continue—males and females—to think and worry about this without being told you have strayed into exclusively female territory. And Caitlin Flanagan I think had the best comment on this (at least that I've heard—and I don't know if it's original to her, but I assume that it is), and she said, “In the modern era, matters of sexuality proceed entirely on female terms.” And I thought, “Wow: that's a really good insight, and it's also a terrible state of affairs.”

RD: So do you-. I mean, I think you argue with Caitlyn Flanagan at your peril. …

EW: I think we all do.

RD: … We all do. I certainly do. …

EW: [laughing] I try to do it as little as possible.

RD: But I agreed with almost everything you've said up until… I think what's striking is that I think what she's describing is… In the official rhetoric of the culture, that's true. But at the same time, the expectations around courtship sex and dating, I think are often set by what would have 20 years ago been considered a traditionally male script, right? So if you look at female expectations versus male expectations of, “How long do you want to date before you have sex?” and, “How many partners do you want to have before you get married?” and so on, the expectations of the culture look more like the expectations of men than the expectations of women.

EW: Hard to say?

RD: Yeah.

EW: I don't. I don't really- …

RD: I mean, certainly when I- … When, you know, I'm now 40, so talking about when I was in college is maybe a ridiculous thing. …

EW: Well, considering that I'm 54 I don't want to bring the- [simultaneous speech]

RD: I’m the young man here, right? So …

That was sort of … I feel like that was often how it felt: that you were simultaneously proclaiming that, you know, you had a certain kind of sexual liberation that was necessary for the liberation of women, but the script of sexual liberation belonged to, you know, the sort of Hugh Hefner, basically, style—where the goal is to just maximize your number of pairings and conquests, and so on.

40:32

EW: Yeah, but I think that these … I don't think that men … I think that neither men nor women are well-served by, in some sense, getting what they appear to want. Right? And that our job is to frustrate each other in productive ways that makes something possible that would not have happened otherwise.

So for example, I believe that many men are called to higher purpose by high female standards. A woman who has very high self-regard saying, “If you want to even have a chance with me, I'm going to expect that you really clear some pretty high bars.” And then men say, “Okay, how high?” And it's very tough to make that work in the era of the app. So that the … You know, of course, the reason for this is biological, much more than it is sociological, which is, if we're going to have a child, and … Am I right, you are approaching number …

RD: We're approaching number 4.

EW: … Approaching number four. So as you would know, better than than even myself, you have a period where you may be incapacitated due to giving birth where you want to know that somebody is going to be capable of shouldering a fair amount of burden. So it makes a tremendous amount of sense for women to be very choosy judges of their male partners if they're going to give birth. And I think the way in which we leave divorced sexuality and procreation … you don't realize how far they're divorced until you start to bring up babies in a conversation around sexuality. And very often, it seems like nobody's ever even thought that the two are connected.

RD: I think the other, the other dynamic that feeds into this, also, is what you might call the polarization of the sexes. Where if it's true that in certain ways men and women, by demanding things of each other, bring out the best in each other … If you get into sociological dynamics where you have dramatically skewed gender ratios, then they end up bringing out the worst in each other. Right? So if you—and I think this explains some of the sort of polarization between … I guess you could call them ‘masculinists’ and ‘feminists,’ in sort of internet discourse and so on … If you go to a lot of politically liberal spaces now, especially college campuses, they have gender ratios skewed dramatically towards women. And under those conditions, men, in certain ways … It's you know, it's a good dating market for men. So men don't have incentives to behave well. Which …

EW: The good dating market for men may be a bad one …

RD: Right, exactly. It’s a bad one for the male character, which encourages men to behave badly, which then confirms women in their low opinions men. And then if you move to sort of more conservative zones, that have more men than women (which is certainly true of conservative journalism [laughing]) then the opposite obtains where you can build up a kind of toxic misogyny because men feel like the women they are encountering are not are not treating them well.

And there's clearly some kind of breakdown down all across the Western world (and in East Asia, too, and it varies from culture to culture, but … ) in how the sexes meet, and marry, and pair off. And that, above all, is what seems to be driving some of the demographic decline that I talk about in the book that … If you look at places that have the most generous of parental benefits and, you know, everything that a couple could need to have the arrival of their first child be smoothed—in places like Finland or parts of Scandinavia—you still see declines in marriage and coupling that then means that you never even get to the point where you can avail yourself of the amazing socialist pronatalism.

But the other thing, though, is to, I think (if we're thinking about reasons for optimism) I think there's been a shift (at least among some people on the left over the last 5 or 10 years) where you're more likely to have an awareness that this is a problem, and you're less likely to have people sort of just shut down the conversation and say, “You know, well, if no one's having babies, that's just female choices and you have to respect that.” I think that people-

45:24

EW: I think it’s still there, I just don’t … I think the dynamism of every one of these extreme viewpoints is dimming. And so they're all still inhabited. But we now realize that none of these things work! Like, you can't go back to the 1950s. You can't really embrace the apps for dating as being a great thing. You're pretty sure that men and women both have to be in the office. You're pretty sure that there are aspects of men and women being in the same office that aren't working very well either. And we're sort of just flummoxing around, not knowing what we could try next that might work. We don't even have new ideas that we're playing with where people are like, animated, “Hey, that there’s some-” …

RD: Well we have the polycules, right?

EW: The polycules?

RD: I mean, the polyamory folks are playing around with that as a solution to some of these …

EW: I don't see the same optimism in the polyamory community.

RD: No, I mean, I think … I don't think anything's more decadent than polyamory [laughing] so I'm not being completely serious. …

EW: It’s a lot of committee meetings for decadence. …

RD: Yeah, it’s a lot of committee meetings.

EW: So Ross: what are we excited about? Like, to be honest, I just don't share the sense of futility that the society in which I live seems to be suffused at the moment. Do you feel downhearted? I feel downhearted every time I plug in with it. But every time I divorce myself from it, I think about all the amazingly cool stuff I want to do.

RD: Yeah, I don't feel … So I've been working on this book, oddly, for a long time. (I started it about seven years ago and got sidetracked—first by an illness and then by the need to write a book about Pope Francis.) So having that kind of long time horizon means that decadence … I think that we are still decadent, but I think our decadence is more interesting, and there are more manifestations of discontent with it than there were when Mitt Romney and Barack Obama were contending for the presidency, right? So I write about politics, and political arguments are much more INTERESTING today than they were five years ago.

EW: Really?

RD: Yes.

EW: Okay. Sell that to me.

RD: Well, so I'm on the Right. So, well, … Let's say seven or eight years ago. Seven or eight years ago, the view the view on the Right—you know, the the sort of official view—was that socialism was bad, and Barack Obama was a socialist, and the only thing you needed to understand was the eternal catechism of limited government and Ronald Reagan. And this sort of peaked in certain ways with the Romney campaign for president, which was just an incredibly boring recitation of pro-business talking points and warnings about deficit spending.

And here we are eight years later, and we're having this tremendously interesting clash between radically different conceptions of what American conservatism should do with a whole group of populist intellectuals arguing for industrial policy and family policy and all kinds of things. And then another group of, sort of, defenders of the older… defenders of Reagan conservatism attacking them right back. And then sort of wilder and stranger things in my own world of Catholic conservatives: you have people arguing that, you know, the 19th century Popes were right about liberalism, and we have to go back and look at what they had to say to understand the present moment, so … There's a lot more ferment on the Right then there was eight years ago. And …

EW: Alright, so then that’s an INTERNAL right-of-center discussion.

49:05

RD: Yes, it, well … So again, I still think it's decadent in the sense that it still seems like … It still seems constrained by the larger decadence of the political system. So that even if you elect a Donald Trump or even if in four years you elected, you know, a Josh Hawley or some avatar of the new conservatism, they would still struggle to get anything done. So I still think decadence rules, but I think you have more discontent and more creativity in the responses to it—at least among people in my political world. So, that … It doesn't fundamentally change my diagnosis, but it makes it a more interesting moment to be writing and arguing than it was when Paul Ryan was the face of the Republican Party. Definitely.

EW: So in other words, there was this there was this ‘boring’ layer that made these topics uninteresting by virtue of the fact that the boring people were at the top saying things that were very general, or very …

RD: Or things that were true about 1979. Right? Part of the problem with decadence is that you have this eternal return to the debates of the 1970s, as though nothing has changed since. And so now there's a sense on the Right, that you can't just go back to 1979—that you actually have to have novelty and innovation and policy response. And that's good! That's interesting! I'm for that.

EW: Okay. So … And what do you see on the Left? Because I'll be honest, being on the Left, I just see people I don't want to talk to.

RD: [laugh] Well, you're … You know, you're being gradually tugged Rightward, …

EW: Why?

RD: … to where the interesting arguments are happening.

EW: Bullshit!

RD: No? You don't think so?

EW: No, I think you're being tugged Leftward, sir. I think that you're talking about the need to innovate; and you're talking about the need for progress because you're waking up-I mean, I'm going to overdo it a little bit but just for …

RD: No, yeah yeah. Overdo it!

EW: … because you're waking up to the idea that you can't actually have a conservative movement that's conservative. It's like a shark that won't move forward. It's not gonna work.

RD: So I think that could be, but then in that case, as you were saying earlier, maybe the Right, because it still has some rootedness in traditional forms-I mean, I'm not sure it does, but let's say for the sake of argument that it …

EW: For the sake of argument

RD: … has some rootedness in traditional forms, hasn't completely given up on the human past—which I think is a danger for the Left, that you sort of lose all memory in this, sort of … just passing judgments on the idea that everything before 1960 was terrible. The Right therefore, as it moves Left, becomes more attractive to a certain kind of, you know, future neoconservative like yourself! Right?

EW: You gotta be kidding.

RD: I’m … maybe I'm kidding. I mean … I'm not sure how it fits together because I think there's some, you know … We were talking about this idea—or I was talking about this idea—that the religious impulse and the scientific impulse can be fitted back together. And in politics that would take the form of some kind of conservative impulse and some kind of progressive impulse being fitted together. But how you actually do that … It's a, you know, well, a very uncertain question.

EW: So let’s … That's a completely insane thing to say. Let's take a stab at it because I think it's really interesting.

Here's my gambit as to why they are going to end up back together. The first problem is that science has become very decadent and very vulnerable because it now has developed this kind of fetishization of incremental steps and doing everything through an institution that has got speed bumps everywhere to make sure that all credit is diffused, nothing large seems to want to happen, and that careful science is in favor and romantic science is out. That creates a huge opportunity for anyone willing to potentially play Russian Roulette with their career. So if you want to swing for the fences (to use another metaphor, a little less gory), maybe you can do something briefly at the beginning of your career if you get lucky. And who's going to take that risk? It's going to be, in general, people who believe in something larger than a career. And the group that I see that is—I didn’t know that they were out there and it was very surprising—is religious scientists. And religious scientists fall into (sort of) two main categories. One, that allow their religion to doctor their science—and these people do not… I don't want to get close to them because it just makes for bad science and bad religion.

There's another group that says, “You know what, I will play by the rules of science but my religion motivates me and informs me as to what might be possible. So I'm not going to pretend that things that are true that aren't true are the reverse. I am, however, going to take a stab at things that I’m curious about. And if I have to pay for it with my career and my reputation, I am filled with the spirit of trying to honor something greater than myself.” THOSE people are fascinating to me. And I've met a few of them now. And they're taking big risks with their career, poking around at places where scientific consensus has formed… I mean, this is very particular in biology. So roughly speaking, my own orientation is that I would say I believe in the theory of selection, and I don't believe in the instantiation of the theory of selection, particularly around random mutation. I believe that what happened is we had such a need to stop the Jesus-smugglers (which is my terminology for people trying to bring that in) at the door, that the idea was “Let's just pretend that we actually know what the mechanisms of selection are.” And so as a result, we hardened evolutionary theory into a bulwark against Jesus-smugglers. And that bulwark is in fact retarding scientific progress within the field. But nobody can even have that thought, because it's seen as a great achievement to make sure that no Jesus-smugglers have gotten through the bulwark.

RD: Right. There are no gaps for God.

55:23

EW: “There are no gaps for your God, sir.” Right. And the idea is that you may have to introduce a gap, somebody may try to put a god there, and then you may fill in that gap with science later. But, the idea of potentially having a period of time where there's a god in a gap that has opened up is anathema to a particular generation of evolutionary theorists. As an example.

Same thing happens in cosmology, where the cosmological impulse to understand, “Well, where did we come from? And what is this place?” may be more animated by people who are willing to take a pay cut to study whatever they may view as the Lord's toenail clippings, or whatever it is, because it has clues about the nature of reality. Maybe somebody who doesn't believe in God is going to be less animated by that and choose a position at Goldman Sachs.

RD: That's a very optimistic perspective.

EW: I don’t …

RD: No! I like it, obviously. I mean …

EW: Well let's drink to that, sir!

RD: Let's, let’s, let's drink to that!

I mean, it's interesting [tinkling of champagne flutes] … I think about this a lot in [drinking, clearing throat] in medicine, because I've had Lyme disease for the last four or five years.

EW: [inaudible off mic]

RD: Yup. And this is the subject of my next book after this one. (So, you know, I shouldn't talk about it too much. You can have me back.) But when you have … Lyme disease is a famously controversial condition, where you have sort of a formal CDC consensus that says, you know, this treatment works. And if it doesn't work for you, then you have something that we can't define as Lyme disease. Right. And so that has in turn bred tons of experimentation around the edges—some of it among actual MDs, who are brilliant; some of it among cranks and quacks, who are exploiting people; and some of it among amateurs, who are, you know, chiropractors or …; people who just got sick themselves, like myself, and started experimenting.

And what's interesting is that you can see in that—when you spend a certain amount of time in that world—you can see the reasons why official science doesn’t … You know, wants to shut that down. Because that world really is there are plenty of people, you know, who are quacks, or more—it's less that they're quacks, it's more that they'll believe ANYTHING, right? Like, they'll give you an herb one day that has a few studies behind it for its efficacy, and they'll tell you about chemtrails the next. …

EW: Yeah.

RD: … And maybe chemtrails are real—I don't want to judge too much. But my sense is that … I've done a lot of reading on the vaccine literature and I think the anti-vaxxers are wrong, and the evidence for this sort of strong anti-vax position is bad, and that kids parents should vaccinate their kids. And the world of medical experimentation and weird stuff is filled with anti-vaxxers. But you also gain, when you have a weird chronic condition, a certain sympathy for people who end up in those, kind of, weird anti-establishment positions …

EW: But don’t you think the establishment weirdly breeds some amount of nuttiness in the other community?

For example, if I say “You should definitely vaccinate your children. Vaccines are remarkably safe.” that's very different than my saying “You must vaccinate your children. Vaccines are 100% safe. This is settled science.” There's this extra little move that I sometimes see in the establishment, which is to try to say, again, “There will be no gaps. There will be no place for you to make your argument. We have studied vaccines. Vaccines are safe, full stop, period, the end.”

RD: Well, the trick with vaccines is that there's a view in between … I think the view of the establishment is really: “Vaccines are not 100% safe. But nonetheless, you must vaccinate your kids. That society must … you must take the very slight risk of side effects for the sake of herd immunity.” …

EW: Okay

RD: … But people don't want to say that because it acknowledges the risks. …

EW: But that's what I'm trying to say, which is that when I speak about climate, or when I speak about vaccines, or when I speak about trade, or when I speak about financial risk, or when I speak about adjustments to free speech, or the molecular basis of evolutionary theory in all of these …

RD: That’s a lot of subjects.

EW: But there was a reason I just did that. Because if I spoke only about vaccines, there's a group of people who are poised, right? They're gonna pounce the instance you say anything about vaccines. They're either the group, “How dare you support people who wish to tell us what we must inject into our own children?” versus “How dare you erode the confidence that our medical experts know exactly what they're doing?” and asking for 100% coverage. And so in that story, if I didn't say here are 10 different examples (or whatever it is), it's the same situation over and over again. “No gaps” is how one group wishes to fight the cranks and the nutters. And as a result, they become cranky and nutty themselves. It's one impulse—the impulse to say, “All gaps must be plugged, there can be no cavities. We must have a filling in every single location.”

That thing is completely deranging us, because in the internet age, all it takes is one or two smart people who—for whatever spectrum-y reasons—don't want to go along with that, and they say, “Look! What about the following things?” And then the person’s next move is, “Well, that's a small effect.” and “Please don't drag that in in the public sphere.” If you want to settle that in the seminar room, then the next counter move to that is, “Oh, I didn't understand. There's an esoteric and there's an exoteric perspective, and you want me to lie to the public and keep the truth for the experts?”

We've changed, and I think this has to do, again, with your Decadent Society. The phone rewrote the rules, where now you CAN’T hold a private expert discussion about these things different from the public discussion, because somebody is going to connect the two.

1:01:53

RD: Right. I mean, I think this applies … It definitely applies to political debates, right? Where there's a sensibility in the political establishment (which is also weakened, clearly, compared to when I first started writing the book) that the threat from the challengers, the threat from the critics of the system, is so grave that you have to, as you say, fill in the cracks first. Defeat the enemy, and then we can get back to having an argument and a conversation. And a lot of the divide over a figure like Trump comes down to whether you think the essential problem in the West right now is ‘decadence’—which I argue it is—or whether it's ‘crisis,’ basically. Decadence or Fascism. Right? And so, and this I think is …

EW: Sorry. Tell me how this maps t-, … because the Left blames everything on Trump.

RD: But the left doesn't blame everything on TRUMP. The left blames everything on … that Trump is a manifestation of a larger …

EW: That he’s an epiphenomenon of …

RD: … an epiphenomenon of a return of fascism. But it's also the center, not the (sort of) Bernie Sanders folks, but the (sort of, you know) Washington think tank world, sort of centrist establishment, buys into that. And sometimes even buys into it more than the Left, right? The Left, for instance, was not that excited about the Russia hysteria. That was a paranoia of the Center that was built around, I think, a version of what you described happening with evolutionary theory—where there was this sense that Trump was so bad, and he was a stalking horse for Putinism, and Putinism is fascism, and it's the 1930s and you can't give fascism an inch because if you do, it's the Holocaust. And if you think that way, then you really do have every reason to be [indecipherable] up the gaps. …

EW: Look. I'm terribly frightened about Trump. I remain terribly frightened about Trump. I didn't think that he was likely going to blow up the world, as some of my left-of-center colleagues believe. But I believe that it's a continuing risk to have somebody that non-correlated with anything else …

RD: Yes

EW: … with that much power.

RD: Right.

EW: Right? And the question of what Trump represents bothers me—that we're, you know, three plus years into this thing, and there … We cannot have a sensible discussion about Trump. Every conversation I have about Trump sucks.

RD: So what do you think let's try and have a sensible conversation. What does Trump represent?

EW: He represents a superposition of different things. He represents the ability to talk about issues and a completely wrong way of talking about those issues. For example, we needed to talk about restricting immigration, and he put it in a frame so that we feel sick when we think about it, what he's actually saying. We needed to talk about China—he raises the issue, right? But the fact is, it doesn't come across as if he's doing this in a very sensible fashion. We actually need to talk about restricting some of our foreign adventures but not to become really isolationist because we do have a special duty and we have to use actually the post-World War II power that we were given for the foreseeable future.

So I think that there are all sorts of aspects of Trump, which derange and confuse every further discussion, because you can't … If you believe that he is this existential risk, your thought is, “How do I make sure that nothing is acknowledged?” And if I don't think that he's an existential risk, I'm really not paying attention because he didn't come in with a large cadre of people who share his ideology and understand him that could act as a restraining force. He’s a singular phenomenon—he’s the first genius who figured out how you could actually oppose the entire establishment and still get through. Right?

Actually, you know, I had Anna Khachiyan here and we had an interesting discussion which … I like her phraseology (it's like sort of a common point) is that he is an absolute genius, just not a political one—and from her point of view he's a performance artist. So if we wanted to have a great conversation about Trump, it would be a superposition about all of the things that he was very forward … in terms of his ability to get done—which is to break through Overton Windows, get things raised—the damage he did to the issues that he raised, and the inability to have a conversation after him which attempts to actually come together and say, “Look, how are we going to take this information in?”

If I can give it a second example, just so we have another data point: I think I'm gonna have James O'Keefe sit in on The Portal. I don't like his methods and he took exception to the fact that I said I don't like his methods—he wishes to defend them. The reason I bring up James O'Keefe is that I've watched stories and tried to help break stories before James O'Keefe ever got his hands on them, and I watched the wall, the screen, the thing that stops … which I've called the DISC (the distributed idea suppression complex) … that stops new ideas. That DISC is something that he is breaking through. And every story that appears with Project Veritas comes with a little Post-It Note™ on the back, which says, “This appeared first in Project Veritas, therefore it may be safely discounted by all major outlets.” Right? And so there's a key question about what is the danger of letting the truth go through the James O'Keefe door if that is in fact an excuse for all major news media outlets to ignore it. Same thing we're seeing about Trump: we’re ignoring the fact that he won hearts and minds.

The problem starts, in my opinion, not from your side of the aisle, but from my side of the aisle: this supposedly moderate “Washington think tank” class is anything but. This is sort of a completely debauched, denatured group of people who …

RD: These are my friends, man—they're not so bad.

EW: Get better friends.

No, they're just not good! They're not smart! And you know, the thing that I find amazing, of course, is that nobody in your world really wants to talk too much to people in my world. It's like, this is an insular group, and … If you just look at Democratic Party strategy in the 2020 elections: it took you three years to come up with THIS? You moro-, I mean, how DUMB can you be? It's like an epidemic of stupid …

RD: But this is … Yeah, and this is again why Trump has made things more interesting on the Right. Because on the Right, people don't believe in the strategists anymore. Like in 2016, you know … I’m a newspaper columnist. I don't run elections for a living. I don't go out and try and I don't run campaigns. And so I had a certain deference to the sort of strategist and consultant class who explained all the 17 reasons why Trump couldn't win the presidency. …

EW: I don't understand …

RD: … And once that … You don't understand the deference? I mean, you have to show, well, …

EW: Why?

RD: I mean, …


EW: I mean, this is the thing I don't get. Several times you've made the same point, which is the optimism of the late 1990s, let's say. Or the idea that Alan Greenspan …

1:09:39

RD: Oh, I don't think I was deferential to that. There it's more a sort of practical issue. If somebody comes in and their trade is brain surgery, and I'm watching brain surgery performed and they're telling me, “This is what's going to happen” and I am not a brain surgeon, then I'm going to have a certain level of deference to them. So someone who has run a campaign and tells me something—again, this is pre 2016—and tells me, “This is how the campaign is likely to go.” you know, just by virtue of their tradecraft, … And the fact that that was how … The 2012 campaign had sort of vindicated the view that, you know, you would have eccentric outsiders—sort of Michelle Bachman or Herman Cain—and they would rise and fall, but basically the establishment would win through. You're always conditioned by the last election that you've watched.

Anyway, whether I was right or wrong (I was clearly wrong in the event) … But since then, there's no Republican consultant class anymore that anyone defers to or imagines has any grasp on what's going on in politics. So everyone is just sort of forming their own opinions without that filter of expertise. And that, again, I think makes the debate more interesting. And if Sanders had won (which, as of this taping, he appears less-than-likely to do), maybe something similar would have happened on the Democratic side. But the victory of Biden is much more the victory for what, in the book, I call Sustainable Decadence—basically the view that, you know, things aren't that bad, they could be worse, And so let’s keep doing what we're doing. …

EW: So assume for the moment that Biden were to win. …

RD: Yeah.

EW: … the nomination and get trounced by Trump.

RD: Okay. That's a strong assumption. That's not my current assumption. But I'll make the assumption …

EW: I don't know what's going to happen. It's certainly one of the major parts …

RD: It’s possible.

EW: … it's one of the more important branches of the decision tree. Okay?

RD: Yeah.

EW: So even if somebody is watching this five years from now and they know that this doesn't happen, I would have to admit that this is a major leg of the decision tree. Now, my claim is that whoever these goddamn people are in the Democratic Party will not wake up even from that. There is no way of awakening them because they cannot become different than that which they are. And what they are is a denatured class that cannot think in the terms of the moment. They see things through realities that are screened. They're highly socialized, highly fabricated—like a kind of a permanent delusional class.

RD: Yeah, I don't think that the people who run Joe Biden's campaign, or the people who ran Hillary Clinton's campaign, would wake up after that kind of defeat and, sort of, be the change in the Democratic Party that needs to happen. I think you get change through crisis, defeat, revolution, etc. Right? So you don't have change in the Democratic Party until someone who is not part of that class runs a successful primary campaign and forces the rest of the party to adapt to new realities.

In that sense, the Republican Party is (in certain ways) ahead of the adaptive curve by having had this kind of Trumpian experience. Although, that being said, in the other branch of the decision tree, if Biden thumps Trump, there will be lots and lots of people in Republican Washington—most Republican senators—who will say to themselves, you know, “Everything was fine with our party. Trump got lucky. And we will have a restoration under Nikki Haley in 2024.” So the power to sort of return to your deluded establishment thinking remains even after as disruptive an event as Trump.

EW: But then assume that in 2028 we have some different … I mean, I guess the objection that I have is, who are these experts? And what kind of a way is this to draw inference from data points? It just … Washington seems … smart about itself in a weird way, and dumb about life. It seems like people very often keep very careful track of which staffer on The Hill moved from here to there, and what is now possible, and who did what mechanism/parliamentary procedure. And this is not really where the action is. The action is, is that we're in an unsustainable situation having to do with technological technology and growth; the fact that more people don't believe in a world after they die, and so it's very difficult to get people to make crazy sacrifices that have always propelled us forward; we're not willing to keep the stories of our heroes, who actually brought us here; we’ve sort of developed this kind of terminal … Like the anti-natalist perspective—where people are saying “Why should I have kids?” “Why should anybody be concerned that anyone have kids?” “Why is it a bad thing if our species stops?”

Something has gone, like, wildly haywire, and I don't understand, in some sense, the sway that the experts have. So assume Biden …

1:15:21

RD: Well the experts … so …

EW: Why(?) are you guys all talking to each other?

RD: We're talking about political campaigns, though, here, right? So the problem is, so in political campaigns, on the one hand, at the national level, you have, I think, a manifestation of all the trends you're describing, which … And people FEEL them and therefore are open to disruptive candidates—be it a Trump, or Bernie Sanders, or whoever comes along in 2028. But most politicians—97% of politicians—are not being elected in a national environment. They're being elected in states and localities that are intensely polarized and gerrymandered and where the goal is to effectively, you know, run a campaign peg to your particular base with a certain kind of fundraising apparatus that raises the money you need. And nobody who's coming out of that world—be they the people who run the campaigns or the people who run for office—have any immediate political incentive to think on the scale that I think we both agree we should be thinking.

So they're about, you know, … I’ve been arguing that there's this fascinating Republican, conservative debate going on, but the truth is if you went to the Republicans in the United States Senate, there were about two and a half to three and a half Republican senators who are invested in this debate. And so the hope for the future of the Republican Party is that one of those senators—or some other figure from outside, as Trump was from outside—can sort of come along and harness the moment. But most of the people in D.C. aren't engaged at the level where we're trying to have this conversation. They're engaged at a level of, you know, “I’m trying to get my boss re-elected to the Senate from Wisconsin,” which is just a different … it's a different game.

EW: Still don't understand to be blunt, and I don't mean to be difficult. I guess the way I see it is, …

RD: I mean, I, you know … I don't fully understand it myself. I just write about it, which is not, you know, …

EW: Well, okay. So I've made s-, …

RD: I mean, who are the experts? The think tank experts, then, are trying to achieve a set of policy goals that were sort of created 30 or 40 years ago. But under our system, you never actually achieve those policy goals, so you can go on championing them. Like, Republicans have been—to go back to the sort of the world of 10 years ago—Republicans have been arguing for the Flat Tax for as long as I've been alive. We will never past the Flat Tax for 17 different reasons. Therefore, it becomes just this sort of thing where you sort of cycle through arguments for it and arguments against it—it has no relationship to policy reality … Medicare For All might become the same thing on the Democratic side. And then the experts are … maybe they're denatured because they're engaging in rhetorical arguments with each other that don't have any bearing on legislation. …

EW: But why does the flat tax discussion not stop? Why is it an intellectual collection point?

RD: I think because it has a combination of fitting a certain kind of right-of-center American idea of justice—so it taps into some piece of part of the American Conservative worldview that's very powerful. And because it's one small manifestation of the way in which the sort of genuine upheavals of the 60s and 70s then got put on autopilot as the Baby Boom generation just, sort of, aged and remained dominant. So it might be that the Flat Tax finally disappears when the Grover Norquist generation of conservative operatives gets too old to have influence anymore, right?

EW: There's that. But there's another weird thing that I just don't understand. So for example, let's imagine that we start hearing a new kind of wave of discussion out of Washington about labor shortages, which is, “What is the best way of addressing the nation's serious labor shortage in science, technology, and engineering?” Right? And then you'll have: what? “I think the best way is more money for Head Start.” “No, I think, like… ‘some whole huge thing.’” Is there no one in all of Washington, in any newspaper, who can say, “Long term labor shortages do not exist in market economies. What are you people, even talking about?” Like, why … How is it that the entire Washington class never asks basic frame questions of whatever it is that they've decided to discuss? Why … How is it that this is such a closed world—where the obvious question is like, “How did somebody convince you to discuss labor shortages in a market economy?” You … There's a wage mechanism.

It just … boggles the mind.

1:20:28

RD: Well, isn't it … I mean, I guess I'll argue with you from within the consensus for a minute. I mean, the … I think the labor shortages that most people in Washington think tank world are concerned with are not the idea that market mechanisms won't assign wages appropriately, but that in an aging society you will have an insufficient percentage of workers, given current retirement ages and social security expectations, and so on …

EW: You have an asset distribution, which favors the Silent and Boomer generations, and even the Xers, over the Millennials. You would imagine that the wage mechanism would be the way of addressing what you would claim would be a labor shortage. In other words, the issue is that you've renamed the thing that pushes wages up a ‘labor shortage’ which requires government remediation. This is, like, completely confusing from a left-of-center guy about the Right: how is it that you guys want to talk about limited government actually are talking about government interference with the market, which may be telling employers “Pay more money.”?

Like, in other words, the real problem, … and this is very funny, because Ann Coulter sort of enters the story. At some point, I just got sick of this and I started writing a tweet about, “What we need is a 50 year crushing labor shortage to get American CEOs howling in pain and writhing on the floor demanding relief, and giving them none.” And Ann Coulter writes, “YESSS!” And you're just thinking, like, okay: that's a left-of-center position. “Never fucking talk to me about labor shortages, you goddamn assholes.” That's sort of the energy. And what I can't understand is: How do we have a class so that NO one at the Washington Post, or the New York Times, or CNN, or MSNBC … Like, there is no representative of analytic thought that says, “W-w-wait. Who convinced us [laughs] to have a discussion about labor shortages?”

Or, like … I guess a different one would be immigration: the idea that restrictionism is xenophobia has been maintained by our news world for decades—like there is only one reason to be a restrictionist. It's a completely insane position. And the same thing we had on the Great Moderation: volatility was being compressed and all the smart people (no offense) outside of this institutional class were saying, “This is not going to go on. You're compressing volatility the same way you're stopping a forest from going up in flames and when the forest fire comes, boy, is it going to be a lot bigger than the fires we would have had if you weren't suppressing volatility.”

Let me make the charge is sort of the strongest level: I think the smart people are outside of the Citadel. And I think that the Citadel is having these discussions internally. And the smart people outside of the Citadel are saying, “What are you guys even talking about?” And that this is the … The engine of decadence is the unwillingness of the Citadel to seat the critics anywhere inside. So there's no trace that this conversation is even happening.

RD: So let’s, I mean, … I am basically pretty sympathetic to that argument. So let me just, I mean, … So with immigration. So basically, there was a shift, I think in Liberal thinking on the issue that happens somewhere about 15 to 17 years ago. So if you go back 20 to 25 years, there is a sort of robust left-of-center, labor-centric view of immigration that says, basically a version of what you said—right, that C-, … I mean, that Bernie Sanders used to express this, right? That, of course, CEOs want …

EW: Probably Cesar Chavez might have expressed it; that the Sierra Club might have expressed it …

RD: Right. And so, of course CEOs want more immigration because they want low wages, and … Barbara Jordan, right? Famou-, you know, …

EW: African-American Immigration Reform, …

RD: … right. So this was a view, you know, pretty widely shared by labor groups, by some African-American groups, and the editorial page for the New York Times used to take, I think, a version of this view.

EW: Whereas The Wall Street Journal said, “There shall be open borders.” They wanted a constitutional amendment.

RD: Right. …

EW: So that was like the last time [indecipherable] this made sense.

1:25:13

RD: So this shifts in part because … I think in part because of class interest, basically. That as liberalism becomes more and more of a, sort of, gentry/upper middle class phenomenon, you enter a world where the typical Liberal—and certainly the typical Liberal close to/at least in the suburbs of the Citadel—benefits from low-skilled immigration in tangible ways. And meanwhile, labor unions have declined a piece of the working class has migrated into the Republican Party, so you don't have as strong an incentive to hold those voters with an (at least somewhat) restrictionist take. At the same time, you have a shift in the demographics of the US that makes the Hispanic vote something worth courting, in a dramatic way. And finally, I think there's always been a, you know, sort of cosmopolitan universalism to liberalism that's very sympathetic to immigrant narratives and the idea of the immigrant dream, and so on. And that was present before 15 years ago, but becomes heightened in a dramatic way. So you have a combination of interest, you know, political shifts, demographic change. And then what’s, I think, interesting for the purposes of your intellectual argument is: at that same time, you get a shift in academic analysis of immigration where you get a, sort of, new generation of immigration scholars who basically argue that the that the conception of mass immigration as somehow lowering the wages of native born Americans is a fallacy, and they marshal various natural experiments that claim to prove this, and the only major dissenter is George Borjas at Harvard University. And so this …

EW: Who then says to me at some point, “You know, I've spent my entire career trying to make the simplest point in the world. And I'm sort of glad that it's over.”

RD: Right [laughs]. But I'm not an academic scholar of immigration. So I have what I would characterize as sort of mild restrictionist views. Or, at least at this point, I would characterize them as sort of ‘stabilization’ views—that you could keep roughly the same immigration rate, shift the skills mix, and it wouldn't wouldn't be a terrible idea. But, so, I am to the right of the immigration consensus that you describe and have been for the whole time I've been at The Times, and I wrote lots of columns criticizing the various immigration reforms …

EW: You “lean to the right” in what sense?

RD: I'm to the right of the pro-immigration consensus, basically. So I was against …

EW: So, I’m a pretty serious restrictionist. Where am I?

RD: Yeah, you’re to my right.

EW: … No no no, I’m to your- …

RD: … Ah, no, you're to my left—no, I know …

EW: I’m to your left.

Ho-, wh-, ho-, … How does this … it's like the language is denatured. Nobody can th-, … I understand what you're saying that …

RD: Well I'm not sure it’s that the language is denatured. I think that we don’t, you know … We've inherited a certain categories of Right and Left from the French Revolution …

EW: But this is your point about …

RD: no, no, I agree …

EW: … Like we can’t have a non-decadent conversation.

RD: Yep. Now that’s … that's fair. I … even in this conversation, I'm lapsing into categories that probably don't fit. Yeah. …

EW: This is Zion: you’re free here, Ross …

RD: I’m free here.

EW: Yeah.

RD: Right. So I'm not … I am more restrictionist than the official consensus and you are more restrictionist still, …

EW: And I am left-of-center …

RD: And I am inside the Citadel, right? So that that is at least one exception …

EW: Well, you're coming here …

RD: I'm here, right. Another exception. But …

EW: But actually you're doing Bill Maher tonight. Right?

RD: Yes.

EW: So Bill Maher is sort of … has traditionally been the airlock between the Citadel and the Rascals?

RD: The Left Coast [?], yeah.

EW: Joe Rogan has increasingly become the other airlock. And even when Bill Maher visited Joe Rogan on his program, we've seen Bernie Sanders crop up now, for example, on the Joe Rogan program; we've understood that maybe Biden and Elizabeth Warren wanted to be on the Joe Rogan program. It does feel to me that the key thing is that outside the Citadel walls, nobody's going to maintain these crazy distinctions that are maintained with, sort of, perfect …

RD: Right. But that also proves that the walls are, in fact, permeable to some extent.

EW: No, no, no.

RD: No?

EW: It proves that people inside the Citadel …

RD: can go out

EW: … can go out. I guarantee you I cannot be seated on a program like Real Time discussing immigration. I mean, there's no way.

RD: Why can't you?

EW: Well, I … First of all …

RD: Doesn’t Ann Coulter go on? Didn't she used to go on Real Time? …

1:30:08

EW: But at some level she's a known commodity—what she believes … The key thing is, will you file a flight plan? And what I would say is: to actually understand the story… There is no STEM crisis in the United States. And in order to understand that there has been a fake STEM (that is science, technology, engineering and mathematics) crisis … The only way that crisis can exist is if everyone inside the Citadel agrees to pretend that it's real. Right?

RD: Right.

EW: So the point is, is that the first time somebody is actually really inside saying, “Do you realize that every term that you want to ask about is wrong? You want to talk about a stem crisis that doesn't exist? You want to talk about immigration is … that restrictionism is xenophobia—which couldn't be farther from the truth? Do you want to talk about-” …

RD: But, well, some restrictionism IS xenophobia, though, right? I mean, that's part of the story too, right? Like to go back to Trump: one reason … Everything you said about Trump as a disrupter is true. But everything you said about the way the counterproductive way he disrupted is also true. And one of the counterproductive ways he disrupted was by linking views that you hold to “birtherism” and to various flirtations with sort of, you know, white identity politics, right? And it's not that the Citadel is wrong—completely—to see that there are people out in America who oppose immigration for reasons of, you know, not, like … yeah, a sort of mild racism. That's true. It's just not the only truth worth knowing.

EW: I have a totally different view of this. I view that if you look at the number of tiki torch bears at Charlottesville, people were willing to come out … It was scary. It was definitely disturbing. But it was also small. And the key thing is, it's incredibly useful to have that tiny group of very far gone, out-and-out bigots, racists, white supremacists, KKK members, whatever this thing is. If you're a CEO, it's very advantageous to be able to point to something that's horrible and say, “You see, we're the opposition. If you are restrictionsist, you're with those people. And if you're an expansionist, you're with us.”

To not give any guidance inside of what I've called the Gated Institutional Narrative, or the GIN, to people to say, “Well, why are you a restrictionist? Like, tell me about what causes you to be a restrictionist.” By giving zero voice, what you've done is you've opportunistically seized on the troglodytes—the most backward people in our society—and you've said, “You, troglodytes, are the standard bearers for the restrictionist position.” And then we're going to point to the most exemplary person—who comes from overseas, founds a company in America, and employs thousands—as the exemplar of the other position.

My question is just: In 2020, who is this supposed to fool? And I just … I'm very confused by it. I see the same thing as having happened around NAFTA, where all the economists knew that people were going to get hurt in NAFTA, and they all spoke as if everyone would be helped.

RD: But don't you think people can just be wrong, too? I mean, with the trade stuff, right? Like, my assumption is that the economists who expected the opening to China to generate enough surplus wealth that any losers would be well-compensated were totally sincere in their views (and were basing it on real-world instances where that did happen; and were basing it on a theory that they expected to always match with reality). And in the end, they were deluded—and that was incorrect; and the China shock had bigger costs than they expected; and 10 or 15 years in everyone figured it out; and they figured that out, partially because Donald Trump ran for president and called attention to all the parts of the country that had suffered. But it's not a conscious deception. It's a combination of groupthink intellectual decadence, and the extension of things that were true, right? Like, it's not that all free trade is bad. It's that you can't extend the logic of one successful free trade deal to every subsequent case and assume you'll get the same result.

EW: I totally disagree with this.

RD: So you think the economists knew …

EW: Correct.

RD: Okay.

EW: And I know that because I discussed this with them around the time.

The point is, if you start using their terms of art, you find very quickly that they know exactly what they're talking about. They know people are about to get hurt, and they know that they're talking in different terms.

RD: They know that people are about to get hurt, what they underestimated was the scale. I think. Right?

EW: You know, it's interesting that you say …

RD: Because people get hurt from … Any economic policy has winners or losers. The question is: how many losers and what's the scale of the losses. And again, you can say that people are more inclined to underestimate the losses if they're thinking about people who are culturally distant from them. Like, Ohio steel workers are culturally distant from economists, and they therefore have some incentive to underestimate it. …

1:36:14

EW: See, this is what's fascinating to me, because this, I think, is the mis-telling of our history. Let me tell an alternate history, which I think leads to a less decadent future.

I think they knew exactly what they were doing. And I think that they had some delusions, but they aren't the delusions that I think that you think that they had. And what I think, is that they had a belief that they had a right to have an esoteric and an exoteric story. And the exoteric story was one in which the losses would be compensated by the winds through a redistribution program that everyone knew would never happen—to your point about the Flat Tax. So the idea is that what you tell economists is that it's somebody else's job to redistribute the winnings, and then you say you're free to say that, theoretically, this is in the interest of all, because we can all be benefited by free trade, full stop.

What I recently heard, Brad DeLong say in Edinburgh was, “Of COURSE we knew that it wasn't a simple story of Ricardian equivalence and comparative advantage. We've always known that. In fact, what we do is we say very simple exoteric stories, but the esoteric story is a Social Darwinist story”—literally a Social Darwinist welfare function. And why did he call it that? Because his claim was that free trade, in theory, benefits you according to the CUBE of your wealth. So, you know, the old adage from Matthew, “To he was much, more will being given.” Right? So the idea is, congratulations: you have a class of people who admits openly to knowing that they're following a Social Darwinist welfare function. and what's the defense of the behaviors? Like, do you know how many peasants in Mexico were helped? Why do we not talk about the peasants in Mexico?

Now to an American voter to have an academic technocrat say, “Don't you people understand? YOU may have been hurt. But MY class was helped. AND the Mexican peasant was helped. And why are you complaining?” is, I mean … To me this is just, like, some form of, like, a mental illness. And I can't really understand how I'm able to run like a show here and talk about these things. I could have Brad DeLong in that chair—I guarantee you'd be one of the most interesting interchanges in history, because if you look at what Brad is admitting to, it's exactly what I'm alleging. We're not in disagreement about how conscious this was. His belief is just, we should value the Mexican peasant more, and that we should re- …

1:38:57

RD: But NOW that is said.

So two things. One, now that is said openly in certain Liberal circles. And I agree that it was not said openly when NAFTA was passed or when China entered the WTO. But now it is a commonplace, I think, to have immigration defended—again, in certain Left wing circles, by versions of this kind of, you know, cosmopolitan, “we're making policy for the world” argument. So, that case, which I agree with sort of latent, has been flushed into the open more in contemporary debates …

EW: BARELY.

RD: … Or people … But also, I think this gets back to the question of, “How much do people understand the conditions of decadence?” Right? Because the DeLong theory, or the economist theory, is that there WILL be compensation for the losers.

EW: No!

RD: No, I think it is. I don't think people are … I think the assumption of the … certainly the late Clinton era technocrats, was that they would always be in charge. And they were good Liberal Democrats who would be willing to spend some money on redistribution. I think that that is quite real—that they honestly believe that.

EW: I really don’t … I mean, I'm just … I’m in a completely different place. If I look at what the word ‘deplorable’ means. I think it's code for Democratic apostate. I think that if you look at the voting patterns in Appalachia, for example: Appalachia had a lot of deep blue in it, in terms of voting. Now, it was generally not college-educated, gun-owning, Bible-thumping, heteronormative family structures, blah, blah, blah, blah. Okay?

RD: Yeah. FAILING heteronormative family structures, in some cases.

EW: You know what? All families are in danger of failing. Families are a marginal activity, and everybody who signs up to have a family and makes it: We salute you. Okay? I don't want to dump on Appalachia—some of those are incredible family structures. So …

My concern is, is that between around 1980 and the present, we went from having, like, a majority blue position in places to having north of 80 some odd percent voting for Trump. And who lost that? It's the Democratic party that started hating our Democratic base. Labor became distasteful. You know, it's the unwanted skunk at the garden party: Who invited labor? Right? And THAT’s the problem on the Left, is it was the search for identity, right? This is my wife's point—that identity is the least expensive constituency with which to replace labor. Labor actually had economic demands and the Clinton type people didn't want to meet those demands, because that was too expensive. But what you're actually saying—all of this discussion about immigration and financialization and trade—this was the get-rich-quick scheme of the Davos crowd. And the idea that it came with an ideology and maybe a song like We Are the World blinded people to the idea that it was a pickpocket operation. And that's what the Gini coefficient looks like—it looks like a transfer operation. I mean, to your point about the Decadent Society that we're in, real technology-lead growth ran out, and when science became decadent, the only way to grow a slice of the pie wasn't to keep your slice and watch the pie expand. It was two eyes, somebody else's slice.

RD: Right. I guess all … Again, I'm basically in agreement with you. So I'm just trying to, sort of, make an argument for the sake …

EW: And I'm in agreement with you generally …

RD: Right. But I think but I think that you're underestimating the extent to which people keep multiple … people are incredibly complicated and keep multiple ideas in their head at the same time, right? So the Hillary Clinton who expressed her contempt for “The Deplorables” is also a Hillary Clinton who would happily vote for a Medicaid expansion or, you know, some kind of spending program that would be [indecipherable]…

EW: [indecipherable]

RD: Yes. Yes. Oh, yeah, absolutely. …

1:43:15

EW: But, you see, it's the labor shortage, which allows the Appalachian former coal worker to say, “I need more money or I'm walking.” And without the ability to engage in what our managerial class has renamed ‘labor shortages,’ that class has no power to demand. Hillary may view that it flows from her largess. And this is what should make Republicans very angry: Oh, you're going to tap some collection of wealth and redistribute it to some other people and then say that. like Moses, you're the one bringing water forth from the rock, when in fact it was never your water to begin with. Right? That is what animates …

RD: Or you're going to conjure the money out of the air with Modern Monetary Theory. I mean, there are different …

EW: But if you conjure the … If you use Modern Monetary Theory—and print your way out of a problem—what you're doing is, is that you're using a technique called “seigniorage” which is equivalent to stealing into everybody's bedroom at night, and shaving silver off of their dimes and quarters in order to give it to somebody else. So the idea is …


RD: Right. But if interest rates are low enough, you're only shaving a teeny tiny bit of the silver. But no, I basically agree. And I think that you see this … Look, the best thing about the Trump economy has been arguably that Trump has, in effect, created labor shortages which have coincided with the first substantial increase in wages for the bottom 20% relative to the other percentiles, in 10 or 15 … not 10 or 15 years—really since the 1990s. And that, I think, is a signifier that the sort of post-George Borjas consensus (that common sense was wrong about immigration) is itself wrong. But there is still … this wealth of technical analysis that I’m, you know, I'm not an economist and I'm not …

EW: Would you defer to an economist?

RD: I don't diffe-, I wouldn't differ. But you have to engage and acknowledge, I think.

EW: Jeez, I have a completely different idea, which is that I'm not …

RD: Maybe I … Yeah, this is where I’m a …

EW: I’m not an economist …

RD: I’m a company man, at some level, probably, right? …

EW: And that may be, right? And that's part of the issue, which is: how do we make sure that the story from outside the Citadel starts to make it impossible to tell, like … My claim would be: you can't tell a trade story, or an immigration story, or a financialization story, or a health story, or any one of these stories—inside the Citadel the way it is currently told—if there's even ONE strong voice saying, “What have you all agreed to as a frame?” Like, it's somehow requires almost universal participation in a farce.

1:46:10

RD: Right. But to challenge that universal participation, you do have to be capable of arguing on the terms of expertise at some level. You can't just have voices outside the Citadel that say, “Well, we have some instincts and a certain amount of common sense, and we think your your system doesn't add up.” Because that … You're not going to be able to dramatically change the Citadel until you can win some arguments inside it. And this is the weakness of populism around the Western world: it's that it has a lot of reasonable impulses and draws a lot of reasonable inferences, but it's not very good at running governments. So far.

EW: I disagree with this. I think that the problem is that what you're calling ‘populism’ is not respectful of the fact that expertise exists both inside the Citadel and outside the Citadel.

For example, if you had an expert voice saying, “I don't think stress causes ulcers,” that person would be a doctor (and then they might have have done studies), but their studies wouldn't be allowed inside of the conversations. Like. it's a combat that you're not allowed to have. In other words, …

RD: I guess I don't … I think you still … Even if it's the case that certain things are not allowed inside, you still want to have a doctor making that case, right? …

EW: Assuming that you have a doctor making that case, my question would be … Let's imagine, for example, you had a doctor who wanted to say something about vaccine safety. Or somebody who wanted to say something about climate—like that there's too much political pressure on climate science. In general, such people are viewed as dangerous to consensus. And that rather than really inviting them in as full-fledged members of the discussions, that “We want to hear your perspective. It's really important that—if we're going to make progress on climate—we understand what the full range of expert opinion is.” That doesn't happen anymore. To the extent that I'm aware of it. I really don't see … I see people that …

RD: But it can happen, right? Because, so, right now the Republican Party controls the Senate—the United States of America—and the Republican Party is a, to put it mildly, a climate change skeptical party. And so when there are hearings on climate change, the Republican Party gets to invite experts, and it makes a big difference whether they invite, let's say, a Judith Curry—who is an academic who’s basically in your camp; who says, “Climate change is happening, but here are 17 things that are wrong with the consensus as we know it.” —versus if they invite someone who lacks credentials and expertise, and can't engage in the arguments with the defenders of consensus. Or, you know, to go back to the sort of alternative medicine example … Well to take the vaccine example, right? So the big anti-vaccine study, right, was Andrew Wakefield study in The Lancet—that, sort of, launched the anti-vaccine movement. And that study, as far as I can tell, was in fact bogus. So if you have people who are defending heterodox views, who are either incapable of speaking the language of consensus—a language of expertise—or who, when they do, turn out to be making things up, then you're never going to win. The nature of the Citadel is that it is permeable to politics, right? Donald Trump CAN get elected president—we've demonstrated that. The Republican Party, which is not at all the party of expertise, nonetheless maintains a lot of power in Washington, D.C. And so, to that extent, it seems to me that the people who are smart outside the Citadel should be sitting around saying to themselves, “Well, how do I get the expertise that I have into the heterodox forces inside the Citadel?” Which is why, ultimately, you want to get to a point where you are invited to testify on Capitol Hill about one of the issues where you have heterodox views—and you would be invited by the Republican Party. And once again, you …

EW: I can’t believe I would be depending on the Republican Party for this. But it's true. I mean, …

RD: But it's … It’s on those kinds of issues, it’s true …

1:50:55

EW: Well I think it's exactly what you said before, which is that the use of expertise as a gambit to screen out people who are interfering with a pickpocketing operation is monopolized by the Left. And it's not the real Left. It’s, sort of, the kleptocratic Left. There’s, like, this kleptocratic center that arose with the Clintons—the idea being that the Clintons had lots of weird ideology, and the ideology did seem to dovetail with wealth transfer. So if you look at what the Gini coefficient does under the Clintons, it's pretty interesting. So at the same time that we're supposed to be concerned about One Big Planet and making everybody happy and whole, it also seems like there's a lot of wealth transfer going on. And this is one of the key issues that the Right—having been sensitized by the Powell memo in the early 1970s, where they were told, “Look, we've lost the universities. If we don't come up with an alternate constellation or archipelago of institutions, we're going to have no means of defending conservatism.” And so you get things like the Hudson Institute, and the ‘law and economics’ programs, which are very effective as a counterweight to whatever was going on in this supposedly Liberal consensus, which now seems to be anything but Liberal.

RD: Right, but they aren't quite … I guess, I don't think they were quite effective enough. And I think in certain ways, the decision to form a sort of counter-establishment created a kind of temporary intellectual ballast for conservatism but then—because it was itself a bubble—became decadent in its own way. Very, very quickly, right? And so there was a 20 year period of a sort of golden age of conservative intellectual work, that all happened before I was …

EW: Sorry about that. [laughs]

RD: … I was a teenager, right? And then it sort of became its own kind of sclerotic and internally-closed system. And ultimately, what's true in politics is also true in academia: you're not going to overthrow the Harvards and the Yales (I think) on any discernible timeline. So you have to find a way to get back inside them from the outside. And I don't know what that way is, per se. But just as it was not enough to say, “Well, we have Hudson and AEI and Heritage and we don't need Harvard and Yale.” it's also not enough to say that we have the Intellectual Dark Web, and therefore we don't need Harvard and Yale. If the Intellectual Dark Web (whatever it might be) succeeds, it will succeed by making beachheads at these institutions.

EW: So far as I know there's no interaction between the Intellectual Dark Web and Harvard and Yale. In other words, I don't recall the Government department saying, “This is an interesting movement—let's have a speaker.”

RD: Right.

EW: Right, so in other words, it really … The analogy I often give is like, you have UFC and MMA and then you have … The WWE is a different sort of a thing. And there's a real need to keep the UFC/MMA away from the WWE because the WWE is what governs politics. And that you have these staged battles that aren't actually real battles. And the key feature would be that if you let somebody in from outside, it would completely change the nature of what's being done and what's being discussed. But …

RD: Sure, there's no incentive. Well, it's not completely true. There are limited incentives to let those ideas in, but those institutions, too, are vulnerable to various pressures. Including the pressures of demographics—that, you know, America's college system is about to enter into crisis because nobody had kids and the last time, right? …

1:55:00

EW: Well, not only that: The tuition pattern and the bulking up on administrator … I mean, the entire junk-ification of America's research universities is one of the most threatening parts of your Decadent Society …

RD: Right.

EW: And let me just ask about it from this perspective: If we think about institutions, what do you see as being our exit strategy from decadence (to the extent that we have one) that preserves the institution but might … remain institutions … but might actually remove the current occupants in their ideology or at least morph them into something that is more dynamic and more progress-oriented?

RD: I mean, the case study that we have for transformation of those institutions—the most recent case study—is the case study of the transformation of universities in the 50s 60s and 70s. The problem with that model is that it did involve, in effect, cooperation between the rebels and the establishment, right? The baby boomers would not have been able to totally transform academia if, to some extent, the people in charge of those schools did not already believe that the younger generation was right and should get its way. And so that's the challenge, I think, that …

EW: So what do you see is the transformation that happened in that post-war period?

RD: I mean, there was, I would say … It was, I think, pretty immense: there was there were transformations of curriculums—there was curricula; there were transformations of, sort of, ways of life—parietal rules; and you had the end of single-sex education, in many cases; and you had the first wave of strong politicization of academic life. So all of those were big, meaningful transformations that then … The generation that accomplished them then became the academics of today, and the administrators of today—to some extent. And …

But again, they did so … They were able to do that … It wasn't just that a younger generation believed a certain DIFFERENT set of things from their elders—it was that the elders had lost confidence in the older system to the point where, when the push came, they just … they opened the door.

EW: What would that look like, now, do you think, if you tried to do a repeat of what you're suggesting happened after the war?

RD: I mean, I don't think we're … Again, this is why … I don't think we're quite there yet. I think you need another generation of decadence before …

EW: [laughing]

RD: No, seriously. This is, I mean … My basic view is that there isn't it's the work of creativity and dynamism being done now is for the sake of revolutionary opportunities that will be available to my children.

EW: Wow.

What do you think of as being sort of the most dynamic … So assume that, in general, I agree with you that we're denatured, we're decadent, we're not really moving much. What do you see as being the bright spots of dynamism in a world that is not very dynamic?

1:58:17

RD: So, I mean, I already … Right. So I already offered one, which is a certain kind of political ferment among …

EW: Conservatives …

RD: … smart … Yeah, I mean, and … There's some on the Left, too. You could talk about it as, basically, people who write about politics who are under 35 are much more dissatisfied with the situation and people people older than me, basically. So that's that's one zone.

I would say that … I think the fact that Silicon Valley, for all its problems, produces billionaires who want to spend money on spaceflight, as a positive sign. Which, again, is not … I don't think the tech is there in this generational moment for Elon Musk to get where he wants to go. But I think that, …

EW: Do you take him at his word that he really wants to go to Mars?

RD: Yes, I do. But I don't know him personally …

EW: I don't know him personally, either.

RD: But you know people who know him personally …

EW: I do.

RD: … so you may have …

EW: I have heard …

RD: … you think it's more flim-flam? Because that's also the question, right? Under decadence, there’s a fine line …

EW: If you talk to me when NAFTA was being passed, I would say that I didn't think the smart people really were thinking about everybody getting better off (as they were saying). And if you asked me right now, I think that Elon is not very serious about colonizing Mars.

RD: Yeah. What do you think he's serious about?

1:59:51

EW: I think he's serious about reacquainting us with our potential. That, effectively, the hounds last had the trail of the fox when we landed on the moon; and something went wrong; and I think it's a bit of a throwback. So the idea is that he's reacquainting ourselves with that, sort of, thread of American can-do spirit …

RD: I would buy that. But that in itself is not a bad thing. I think.

EW: But it's not a … serious thing.

RD: Yeah.

EW: Yes. I think it's not a serious thing. I think that commercial spaceflight is a serious thing. I think that it may be that these rockets end up in Earth orbits …

RD: I think you and I agree—that there's something promising there that is not going to get us to Mars, but maybe gets us some breakthrough that is important to reacquainting us with something that, like you said, we’ve lost that …

EW: That may be, but the shirt “Occupy Mars” and people talking about, “how do we hold a competition to figure out who the first astronauts should be?” All of that stuff is to me quite disturbing. Because it's sort of it's the same proble-, …

RD: Play-acting, right?

EW: Right, well, it's the same thing with Alan Greenspan: no, you didn't fix volatility. Or economists didn't really believe in trade. Or no, restrictionism isn't about white supremacy and xenophobia. Like … To me, none of this stuff is real. It's just this infinite play-acting exercise—like an improv class that never ends.

RD: Well, that's my pessimistic take.

EW: Okay.

RD: But even the things … My pessimistic take is that even the things I find promising ultimately become play-acting again. So even though the political ferment that I'm describing, just ends up with people reenacting the 19th century or the 1960s on Twitter and that the same therefore goes for Elon Musk: that he's sort of performing a role that we recognize …

EW: Exactly.

RD: … but he's just performing it.

EW: But he’s building a real battery company and he's calling it a car company, you know, or something like that. You know, he's an amazing human being, and I'm not knocking him in any way. But the idea that we keep taking these people at their word, like … My instinct when I'm encountering economists or physicists or any of these people, is to say, “Oh, you come from the expert class, therefore, I know which perverse incentives you're subject to, and discounting everything that fits that sort of set of perverse incentives.” That's what I see as being the great opportunity with the Decadent Society: once we realize that something has denatured expertise in general—which is its institutional affiliations—we start to have the seeds of something that could grow and be dynamic. And …

2:02:28

RD: Right. I guess I’m stru-, … I’m not sure … I think you can totally see how that happens in culture and, I think, in worlds of religious homeschooling and in different, sort of, experiments like that. The people I know who have large families, I think you can see … yeah, sort of stepping outside the system and having it be a seedbed of renewal.

I'm less sure how that happens in science and in politics, because it seems like to do political work you have to, in some sense, be inside the political system. And science at this point has advanced to a point where you can't just be Isaac Newton, or, you know, Galileo—you need a certain degree of technical support to get somewhere. …

EW: Why do you say that?

RD: I don't kno-. Well … So I'm not a scientist. And I could be wrong about this …

EW: But I think what's interesting is just that you and I have different like … I think we agree a huge amount. …

RD: Right. No, but we're finding the points of tension. …

EW: We’re finding the points of tension …

RD: … for the sake of an interesting conversation.

EW: Yeah. I think that, for example, there's this wonderful story from England, about a Mr. Green who we remember as the developer of something called the “Green’s function” that tells us how to propagate a system forward in time. And my understanding is he was something like a miller and he had a solution to this problem, and he mailed it off to, I think Cambridge University (I think it was Cambridge) and they wanted to make him a professor but it turned out he'd never gone to college. So then he had to get an undergraduate degree [laughs] so that he could get a graduate degree of some kind so that he could become a professor. Yeah, I don't think you need to go through this mill. …

RD: Right. To be an individual genius: No. But there are certain things that we would want human beings to achieve that you need institutional support to do. So, like, Freeman Dyson just passed away, right? And Freeman Dyson is not a decadent figure—the opposite of a decadent figure …

EW: What do you mean “not a decadent figure”?

RD: In the sense of being someone who I think fits your, you know, he …

EW: He's incredibly vital.

RD: … incredibly vital. You know … In the system, but outside it. Doesn't have an advanced degree. Incredibly creative across multiple disciplines and so on …

EW: Failed to get [?] TWO different PhDs.

RD: Right. But his … He had a particular space project in mind that was kind of a work of creative of genius and thinking about how human beings could get to the stars. But Freeman Dyson couldn't build and design that program—he would have needed NASA to take a less decadent direction in order to actually implement that. Right?

So that's a case study and how you still need to have some sort of relationship, at some point, to institutional structures—to let the genius enact itself. Or in the case of medicine, right? Like alternative medicine: you absolutely can have a doctor alone with his patients who figures out a cure to a disease that nobody's figured out before. But if you want him to be a transformative figure, you have to figure out how do you get from that to Harvard Medical School adopting …

2:05:47

EW: Well, let's take the first example. Do you know how Freeman Dyson came to be at the Institute for Advanced Study (which is why you presumably know his name)? I mean, my guess is that you don't know the history of quantum electrodynamics and what he did to unify Feynman’s and Schwinger’s perspectives [indecipherable] …

RD: I know, I know that he did something really awesome in …

EW: It was COOL, yeah.

RD: … in that realm[?]. Yeah, but I could not describe …

EW: But you know him from the Institute for Advanced Study.

RD: Right. Well, I know him from-. Honestly, I know him from reading his essays in the New York Review of Books for the last 20 years. That's sort of my primary and …

EW: But the reason that you think he's a great scientist is probably having never read a Freeman Dyson paper. …

RD: I have never read an academic paper that I … right. …

EW: Which, by the way, that's not a knock. I would …

RD: No! No. I'm just getting[?] … Right.

EW: So you know him from holding this position. But what I think you may or may not know, is that he got to that position through combat. Which is that he was saying that Richard Feynman was in fact saying the same thing as a guy named Julian Scwinger, where Scwinger was the darling of the establishment and Feynman was the, sort of, cowboy upstart. And he was invited to the Institute to deliver this, and Robert Oppenheimer (who ran the institute) was merciless to Freeman Dyson and … as he apparently had real really deep confusions about what Feynman was doing—he sort of thought Feynman didn't understand the Heisenberg uncertainty relations with respect to point particles, or something like this. Dyson fought off Oppenheimer with the help of a guy named Hans Bethe who came in from Cornell. And when Oppenheimer realized that he was beaten, he left a note in Freeman Dyson's mailbox at the Institute, and all it said was: “Nolo contendere. R ‘dot’ O ‘dot’ (Robert Oppenheimer).”

And that is the story of how Freeman Dyson—with no PhD in either mathematics or physics—came to be a permanent member of the Institute for Advanced Study, the world's greatest physics department on Earth, bar none. That kind of thing requires a kind of decency. Like, you know, you and I may be on opposite sides of Left and Right (I may find it very irritating that you …

RD: That I use these terms, yeah.

EW: … well, not only that use these terms, but you assume that [laughs] … The fact you can discern that I'm farther Right than you when I'm farther Left—doesn't matter.)

The key point is, that when you don't have the ability to in-group the ‘other’ when the ‘other’ is making a good point, you lose the vitality of the system. And the issue with the Citadel is not that the outsiders can't make the good points. It's that the outsiders will never be allowed into the ring to demonstrate their skill. In general, we don't … The strategy (which is much more of the Left than the Right) is to make sure that you don't have talented outsiders (“dark horses,” if you will) come in when you don't know what moves they're going to make—you don't know what they're going to do. You don't want to be in a debate situation where suddenly somebody raises an issue and you don't have a scripted answer.

2:08:58

RD: Okay. But then you are making the deeper case for decadence, in a way, than I am. I mean, you were asking me for optimism, and I'm floating some optimistic scenarios, but you're suggesting (I think reasonably!) that, in our world, Freeman Dyson couldn't get in to the positions that he got into. But then I'm saying if he can't, then he's not gonna the next Freeman Dyson ain't gonna revolutionize spaceflight, because he's not going to be in a position to do it. So there has to be some solution to … Either the institutions have to fail completely—which is a possibility, but it's a pretty catastrophic one; I don't think you can, … it's not something that I think we should wish for because there are worse things than decadence—or you have to have some sort of disjunctive moment that makes the institutions permeable.

EW: That's the question. And I think that moment, to be honest, is coming up. Which is, …

RD: Okay, so now we're back to being more optimistic than me. Good. So what's the moment?

EW: I think it has to do with the retirement and wealth transfer patterns of the Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation with everybody below. I think that if you look at the wealth structure, way too much wealth has been captured by two generations who do not seem … This is, again, one of the great confusions of my life: I don't understand the extent to which the Baby Boomers do not see their own children (the Millennials) as a continuation of themselves.

RD: Right, I read the … Yeah, you wrote a Twitter thread about this, I think.

EW: You know, that the idea of having a 30 year old daughter, for example, who doesn't have the money to get started in her life, and having a third home, and not liquidating your third home? You know, for example … And again, I …

RD: I mean, this does happen, right? Like, it's sort of assumed, I think, in a lot of real estate marketplaces that any Millennial couple buying a home, their parents are helping to pay for it. So …

EW: Yes. And I don't think that every Boomer parent has three homes. I mean, I’m taking … But I know weird examples of this where somehow the Baby Boomers (which used to be known as the “Me Generation”) never fully connected any kind of future to themselves beyond themselves. And I think it's a very strange … Again, it's not true for every religious order, so I don't want to say there are no exceptions to this but: in aggregate, it was stunning to me that when Klobuchar dropped out and Buttigieg edge dropped out, you had everyone in the field vying for the for the next presidential opportunity born in the 1940s, split between the Silent and Boomer generations (and the oldest part). Elizabeth Warren was the YOUNGEST (in her 70s). And any ONE of those people would be the oldest president at inauguration. At some point, that weird demographic feature—which got much less commentary than I was ever expecting—has to end. It just …

RD: Right. And this is actually … On book tour (this is in at least three separate events), I’ve had questions along those lines saying, “Isn't the inflection point where a decadence starts to end when the Baby Boom Generation passes away?”

I guess my question is, does the pattern of continued demographic decline and low fertility mean that you still end up recreating the pattern in each successive cohort—that you need, at some point, a larger younger generation to force the issue. And I’m not sure. But you're absolutely … I mean, this shows up in patterns. There was a study recently on CEO patterns where the same office in the same company is occupied by an older and older figure [indecipherable] on average, …

2:13:00

EW: It goes up, like, 10 months per year.

RD: Yep. And this is true in academia. I mean, academia has a separate jobs crisis, but the …

But I think part of it is probably that the Baby Boomers just don't fully … That they assume that their children are entering a world that's like the world that they themselves entered.

EW: I don't think so. Again, I don't know why we have … It's the same set of intuitions on which we derange each time.

RD: Right. I clearly … It's very unusual, by the way, for me to be in a conversation where I'm accused of thinking the best of people. Because in most of my life, I'm considered to be, you know, the dark cynic. So this is very refreshing!

EW: Well, I’m very happy to be of service!

RD: Yeah, this is a good experience!

EW: Because what I do in these circumstances, I just flat out ask people. I say, “Well, are you aware [laughing] that you've got a 30 year old daughter who may never give you grandchildren because her prospects are totally different?” “Ohhh, I don’t know—these things have a way of sorting themselves out.”

RD: [laughing]

EW: You know, it's just like … I listen to it, and then I say, “Look, all I want to do is I want to get to the point where you recognize that you're really more interested in another vacation than you are in your own unborn grandchildren.” If I can get to that …

RD: Do you ever get to that point …

EW: Oh yeah.

RD: … in these?

EW: Yeah. And then yeah, people will say, “Well, I guess I'm just selfish.” [mirthful laughing] You know, um …

RD: [whispering] Yeah.

EW: Yeah, I don't think what you're saying is true. I think that if you actually push these points, you'll find that the economists know that they don't know what they're talking about; the Baby Boomers really want to hang on to their wealth because they're addicted to their lifestyle—they know that their children are facing it more difficult world; the millennials will secretly tell you that they're they're hoping for families, even though they may take an anti-natalist position, because if it doesn't happen, they don't want to be …

RD: Oh, yeah. No. I agree with that. I think the whole “I’m not having kids because of climate change” is a ex post facto political …

EW: It’s something to say.

RD: … yeah, something to say. But no, I don't think … And there's actually polling data, I think to back that up that when you press people.

2:15:15

EW: And I believe that this is the same thing as what's going on with Trump and Brexit: is that people really want to say, “I’m willing to risk burning the whole thing down to get rid of the kleptocratic center. I don't want to be led by fake experts sitting inside of old institutions who are interested, …”

RD: But those ideas are a little bit in tension, because it's the Baby Boomers who voted for Trump and Brexit. So we simultaneously have to believe (and this may be true) that they intuit the bankruptcy of the system and are willing to vote for … In fact, I think this is true, so tell me what you think of this. I think that older voters who support populism DO intuit the bankruptcy of the system …

EW: Yes.

RD: … and therefore are willing to vote for a politician to promise a GENERAL change, but don't want to make the SPECIFIC changes in their own lives that you describe, and also wouldn't support, like, medicare cuts or something. Right?

EW: Yeah, I think if you look at what I was saying about the very rich Boomers not helping their Millennial kids, the way I would say that is that's a minority situation. Most people don't have three homes—even if they're Boomers. That wasn't really the point. The point is, is that the crowd (the Davos crowd, the clinton crowd) the …

RD: But some of those Boomers, like you know, they don't have three homes. But people living in the villages in Florida who are big Trump voters are prosperous Americans who could transmit more wealth, presumably, to their kids and grandkids.

EW: Yes, although I do think that very often it is the rapacious class—rather than the well to do class—that is very focused on at least a veneer of public-spiritedness. And in some sense, it's a counterbalancing veneer. So that if you're if you're going to be truly rapacious, it's very important that … Pablo Escobar has to do a lot for the villagers. because quite honestly, if he doesn't, he doesn't have a balanced equation. And I think that this is the real problem with the kleptocratic center, is that the kleptocratic center-left was just crazy about wealth transfer. And as a result, they were constantly championing the good that they were doing somewhere that wasn't to themselves. And my hope is that the way that we emerge from this is a Left-Right consensus of the adult class that can say, “Look, I don't happen to share …” Let's take the Flat Tax that you brought up. My brother makes an interesting point. He says, “The Flat Tax is often championed, by virtue of its simplicity—that it can fit on an index card.” He said, “So can a progressive tax schedule without exceptions.” So it's not the flatness of the tax that fits it on an index card. It's the simplicity so that it can't be gamed.

RD: Right.

EW: And that’s what the real issue is. And that if you in fact said, “Let's debate as to whether a flat tax is the better personification of fairness OR because of our diminishing returns (diminishing marginal utility for money) we have a von Neumann-Morgenstern sub[?] utility function, yada, yada, yada, that we still want a progressive tax schedule.” Now I could listen to that argument held by people that have a technocratic bent, I could listen to that argument held by people have a kind of intuitive justice bent. But that would be a meaningful discussion that isn't about the Flat Tax or a progressive tax—it would be getting rid of parasites and I think getting rid of remoras is kind of much more important than Left versus Right, at the moment.

RD: Yeah, I would buy that. But the trick is you still have to find … Then again, you have a problem where you have to find the political embodiment of that crusade. Which is not, in fact, Donald Trump, right? Donald Trump is not getting rid of political remoras. He's substituting a slightly more honest form of graph, right?

EW: [laughs]

RD: No, seriously, I think that is part of why people liked Trump. They …

EW: He’s a vice signal

RD: Right. They like … they prefer the idea of, “I still have my business and my kids are getting rich off it” to the Joe Biden, you know, “I’m making US foreign policy and somehow accidentally, over here, my son is getting rich.” People prefer the Trump thing, but it's still corrupt—it’s not actually a solution. So you actually have to have a sort of Savanarola kind of moment with this. Which I think is possible! I don't I don't think it's impossible. But, I mean, there you also come to the question of just the individual talent in politics, right? And is it possible to get a figure who is sort of a moment of disjunction themselves, right? And, seven or 10 years ago (again, this is maybe my move to the Left, maybe my move to the Right, you know, whatever it might be) …

EW: We’ll take you!

RD: … I was I was very much a, sort of, “We need to restore the functioning of Congress.” Right? And I STILL think it would be nice to restore the functioning of Congress. But watching us politics for the last 10 years makes me think the only way to restore the functioning of politics is to have a extremely dynamic, disjunctive president who forces Congress … who bends Congress to his will, and then Congress sort of learns how to function again, through that process. And I don't know if our society can generate that kind of figure. It's not Trump, it's not Sanders. But that's sort of what I'm looking for in politics …

EW: Yeah, and d- …

RD: … which is then also dangerous, right? Because then it's like, you know, ‘the great man,’ ‘the demagogue,’ and so on.

EW: But I think that there's this box that used to be labeled ‘leadership’ and—just the way with cigarette cartons, you have to put skull and crossbones on it—somebody put a picture of Hitler on the box labeled ‘leadership.’ And then we keep doing this, where every time there's a box that contains important stuff, somebody puts a label on it that says, “Do not open this box, ever, under any circumstances” because of the worst thing that can be associated with that box. Do you think that there's some merit in that perspective? That we're all afraid of “leadership leads to Hitler.”

2:21:40

RD: I think the shadow of Hitler looms over a lot of things in the Western world. I think that there's a sense … I think it looms over some of the religious and philosophical debates that are stalled out, where basically the Western world, in a sense, tried to leave Christianity behind. Found, when it left Christianity behind, Hitler. Rightly decided, “That was a bad idea.” But then retreated to this halfway house where it is neither Christian nor non-Christian, but this sort of mix of worldviews that don't make any sense—a sort of Christian-ish view of the inviolability of human rights joined to a strictly materialist view of the cosmos. And yeah, I think the shadow of … If we look for consistency, we might become Nazis, is, I think, is a factor. And yeah, I think it certainly might play in political leadership as well. That we don't …

But at the same time, there's clearly a YEARNING for that leadership, too, right? You see it in the appeal that Trump has. You saw it in the, sort of, Barack Obama’s One Golden Year where, you know, running for president and giving speeches and getting the Nobel Peace Prize. It's not like the desire for that has gone away. But there's definitely less, you know … Conservatives only remember Churchill, and liberals only remember FDR. I think there is a broader loss of a sense of what statesmanship looks like.

EW: Don't you feel like if Jesus appeared now before us, that would mean meme-ify him within minutes? That he would be cheapened by virtue of interacting with …

RD: The virtue of believing that Jesus was actually the son of God is that I think he's immune to meme-ification.

EW: You do?

RD: Yes!

EW: Well, wasn't he humiliated in the streets of Jerusalem by people who did not accept his being the son of God, in your eyes?

RD: I mean, he's not immune to mistreatment and [indecipherable] …

EW: [indecipherable]

RD: … but he's immune to … I think he's probably he's immune to trivialization. Yeah, that's how I would put it. But … you never know, maybe we'll find out.

EW: Maybe we'll find out.

One last point I wanted to get to, and this sort of has to do with two different forms of sense-making. One would be sort of the legacy sense-making in the form of something like your employer, The New York Times. And another would be the medium that you find yourself in at the moment, on your way to Bill Maher—so this is a long-form podcast. Do you take much away from the fact that, for example, the New York Times couldn't come up with a single endorsement this year and that both of them seem to have exited the race? Do you think that the establishment in general (not necessarily the New York Times in specific) is recognizing that it's losing control of the ability to deeply influence our elections, other than by putting its finger rather strongly on the scales. (And again, NOT specific to the New York Times.)

RD: I mean, I saw on a different podcast—our own at The Times—we argued over the joint endorsement, and I was very harshly critical of it. I thought that it made no sense. And the fact that it was repeated in other publications … you know, there were … And then I think the LA Times didn't endorse at all, right?

EW: I don't know.

RD: … and I think they endorsed for other offices besides president. And yeah, I do think that … I'm not so sure it reflects a sense of the loss of control as it reflects an inability to quite figure out how to be an establishment in the era of decadence. Like, The Times … The interesting thing about The Times is that in many ways it is more significant, more substantial, more important in the American landscape now than it's ever been—because so many newspapers have failed or diminished around the country; because the Internet has brought it to a much wider audience, more people read The Times than was ever true before; we employ more reporters than was ever true before. But The Times is also very much a newspaper of what you're calling the Citadel. And it doesn't WANT to be. I think the people who are my bosses—people who run the paper—are aware of the problem of being just a newspaper that’s, sort of, inside this bubble. And especially after Trump won there was, I think, a real sense of like, “Well, let's figure out what went wrong.” But … I guess I'd put it this way: just as it's hard to figure out … when you're outside the Citadel, and you're trying to figure out how do you get in—how do you how do you inject yourself into and influence those debates—when you're inside the Citadel (and subject to internal pressure there) it's hard to figure out how do you break out? How WOULD you be a newspaper for the whole country? What would that mean? I think that's a problem that … I KNOW it's a problem that the smart people at The Times, the higher-ups, wrestle with. And I don't think there's a definite solution. But it's not something that people—the ownership and leadership and editorship of The Times—is unaware of as a problem, I think.

2:27:45

EW: I think that in a weird way (again, this is one of these perennial disagreements), my take on it is that you can tell by virtue of who doesn't come outside the city walls that there really isn't a very deep search—the search is like, well, “Let's let's slightly broaden the search amongst ourselves, and maybe we could get a few new voices at the table.” But I think that if you were to ask, for example, very deeply, … You know, if you were to convene a meeting of 25 people—the harshest critics of the times of The Washington Post or CNN—I think people would be incredibly well-informed. If you look at what happened with Andrew Yang and MSNBC and the bizarre way that he was treated repeatedly graphic after graphic, and then, you know, MSNBC would have to apologize and then they do it again …

I don't think that there's a whit of deep soul searching. I think that there's a shallow soul searching. And I don't think that the people outside the Citadel are interested in coming in. I think that's a mistake. I think what we are aware of, is that we will not have influence until this wall between the two is breached. But I don't think anybody that I know of who's doing something like this wants to come inside. I think that the idea is, …

RD: But then what is the breach? So is it a breach in the wall if my colleague Bari Weiss writes a major Sunday Review story about part of your intellectual circle. Was that a breach in the wall?

EW: Yeah.

RD: Okay. It's a breach in the wall that, I guess, I'm here talking to you right now, …

EW: Well, absolutely.

RD: Absolutely. Right.

EW: Right. Right. And then the idea is … And you and I've talked before.

It is not that there are no contacts of this form. But in general, first of all there with the op-ed portion on the … if you think of there being a Chinese Wall inside of a place like the New York Times (again, that's mirrored at other news outfits), YOU are the part that will talk to us. The other part—the regular news part—absolutely is not interested in getting the story right. If they're interested at all they want to know, “Why is this conduit to the Alt-Right being platformed and mainstreamed?” which is about the dumbest story you could possibly write. It's …

RD: I mean, I … Yeah. We don't have to get into big argument about The Times. But …

EW: No, I don't want want to make it about The Times …

RD: … I think there's much more diversity and complexity on the news side, too. But I agree with you that the op-ed page has a particular, you know …

EW: It's more adventurous. It's broader.

RD: It has the obligation to have arguments. And to express a diversity of opinion. And the challenge for the news side is that there is, sort of, a historic and admirable approach to news-gathering in American newspapers that is under extreme strain—in part because of this division between the center, the establishment, and the rest of the country. And it's hard to know exactly how to adapt to that new environment. And there's also, there’s intense … As newspapers try and adapt they’re counter-pressured and cross-pressured from lots of different directions. But op-ed is … We have a charter and a mandate to have arguments and host arguments and contain arguments. And … I don't know. I mean, I don't think we do actually that bad a job, but …

2:31:22

EW: Well, I'm friends with a bunch of you guys.

RD: Right! So there you go!

EW: Yeah.

So let me let me close out with my final question on this front, which is: To me, one of the reasons I'm doing this (and this was not my first choice—to choose long-form podcasting—I was more, I think, more content being a guest of other people's podcasts), I think this is really the bright spot in a world that is decadent and complacent and stagnant, which is … It's amazing to have a broadcast channel where you know that you're going to get hundreds of thousands of listens to very long discussions where there is no mommy and there's no daddy saying what can and cannot be said. And seemingly—at least if you can divorce yourself from the platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and Google, which have this kind of editorial control—this is actually the great hope of this moment, which is: people are tuning into incredibly long conversations where they can actually get a feel for, How do people interact with each other? What is their chemistry, like? What do they really represent? And you can actually listen to an argument or an issue get disposition. Do you think that, at some level, this is a significant, or is it a less significant, counterweight to the sense-making inside the Citadel?

RD: I think it is a counterweight. I think it's especially a counterweight to the spirit of social media—which we haven't really talked about—but as a sort of force propelling people towards caution and conformity, right? Because the nature of social media is such that it creates sort of constant purges and draggings, and attempts to just call out and attack people who transgress ever-shifting sets of rules. And this is… My colleague, Michelle Goldberg (who I podcast with), has made this point that that seems to happen much more rarely with podcasts. That, even though tons of people are listening to them, you're not having clips pulled out of them and played out of context and being used to ruin people's careers. They have some kind of immunity, for now, to the prevailing spirit of social media. Now, you know, as soon as I say that [laughs], someone will go through this podcast right and pluck something out of context—probably some comment about Hitler. or something—and drag me for it. So I don't want to take that too far.

But I think what podcasts have going for them is a version of what the blogosphere had going for it in the like five year window before it was, sort of, taken out by mainstream institutions, but then before social media sort of purged it. So, when I was a blogger, back when I was really young, …

EW: Wait, you were a blogger?

RD: Yeah, like 24/25. On my own, and then for the Atlantic.

The nature of the blogosphere was such that you had incredible kind of cross-pollenization between journalists, academics, and amateurs. And you did have sort of a version of dragging, but it took the form of like incredibly long, point-by-point rebuttals to people's arguments—not just sort of finger pointing and hysteria. And it had a smaller audience and reach than social media. But, in that window, I think it had real virtues in terms of unsettling intellectual consensuses and exposing people to a broader set of perspectives. And if I'm being optimistic (and we can end on an optimistic note) …

EW: For old time’s sake.

RD: Yeah, the … My feeling has been that social media basically killed the blogosphere. But maybe podcasting has revived and deepened it.

EW: Let us pray!

RD: Amen!

EW: Amen!

Okay. Look, you've been through The Portal now with Ross Douthat. The book is The Decadent Society—I highly recommend it. As Ross says, he's pulled together a bunch of different threads and synthesized something—sort of the way Guns, Germs and Steel synthesized a bunch of different people's thoughts. He's given us a really interesting framework to think about a ton of people's ideas and is giving us, I hope, a little bit of a blueprint for how we might escape a decadent future.

So Ross, thank you for coming through.

RD: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you for the thank you for the [indecipherable] beverage—cheers!

EW: Cheers. [champagne flutes clink]

RD: Here’s to you!

EW: And to you, sir.

You can catch Ross on his book tour, hopefully. And please subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, wherever you listen to podcasts, and then head on over to our YouTube channel and not only subscribe, but please click the bell icon to be informed when our next YouTube video drops, and we'll see you all soon. Be well. Thanks.