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Building Blocks of Politics: An Overview of Selectorate Theory

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Published on October 12, 2021 11:27 AM GMT

From 1865 to 1909, Belgium was ruled by a great king. He helped promote the adoption of universal male suffrage and proportional-representation voting. During his rule Belgium rapidly industrialized and had immense economic growth. He gave workers the right to strike. He passed laws protecting women and children. Employment of children under 12, of children under 16 at night, and of women under 21 underground, was forbidden. Workers also gained compensation rights for workplace accidents and got Sundays off. He improved education, built railways and more.

Around the same time, Congo was ruled by an awful dictator. He ruled the country using a mercenary military force, which he used for his own gain. He extracted a fortune out of ivory. He used forced labor to harvest and process rubber. Atrocities such as murder and torture were common. The feet and hands of men, women and children were severed when the quota of rubber was not met. Millions have died during his rule.

The catch? They were the same person - King Leopold II of Belgium. He's part of a small club of people that have led more than one country, and might be the only one who did so simultaneously. What made the same person act as a great king in one nation and a terrible dictator in the other? If neither innate benevolence nor malevolence led to his behavior, it has to be something else.

Leopold II, 1900

This post covers Selectorate Theory. We'll come back to the story of Leopold and see how this theory explains it, but first, we have to understand the theory. 

The theory takes a game theoretical approach to political behavior, by which I mean two things. First, that it's built on a mathematical model. And second, that it's agent and strategy based. That means the analysis doesn't happen at the level of countries, which aren't agents, but at the level of individuals, like leaders and voters, and that the behavior of these agents is strategic, and not a product of psychology, personality or ideology.

This abstraction makes this model more generally applicable beyond countries to any hierarchical power structure, such as small local governments, companies, and even small teams and groups, but to keep things simple I'll only talk about it in the context of countries.

I will try to give a comprehensive overview of the theory based on the book The Logic of Political Survival. We'll start with the basic framework, then go through the predictions and implications the authors talk about, then I'll mention further implications I think the theory has.

I won't go over the statistical evidence for the theory, except for a brief comment at the end, or over the mathematical model itself[1] - the post is long enough without it - but I might do that in future posts.

To give some background: Selectorate Theory was developed by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson, and James D. Morrow.

They introduced it in The Logic of Political Survival and later the first two authors wrote a more public oriented version in The Dictator's Handbook.

I want to thank Bruce, the first author, for reading this article before publication. I sent him a question, not even sure I would get a response, and mentioned the article, saying I'd be happy to send it to him. He responded in just two hours and agreed.

Also thanks to Shimon Ravid, Nir Aloni, and Daniel Segal for beta reading this article.

The Basic Framework

The theory is based on the idea that the primary goal of leaders is to remain in power, or put simply, to survive, and that the behavior of organizations can be predicted through the optimal survival strategy for the leader, which depends on various properties of that organization.

To do all that, we need to make some assumptions and build a simple model of a country and the people and groups in it. The theory doesn't use abstract terms like "democracy" and "dictatorship" to define nations, instead, it tries to derive them from other properties.

The Groups

Every country has a leader, and usually also a challenger for leadership. The other residents of the country are split into three groups, the Winning Coalition, which is part of the Selectorate. Those not in the selectorate are the Disenfranchised.

The Leader

The leader or leadership is the one who can make policy decisions - this means Tax policy, and spending policy, which is the allocation of tax revenue to public goods and private goods

These two assumptions about the leader are the basis for the whole theory:

  • No ruler rules alone. Every leader has to satisfy at least some people in order to rule. If they don't satisfy them, they'll be deposed.
  • The leader's goal is to gain as much influence/power/money as they can, and to keep it for as long as they can. This may sound cynical. And it might be, somewhat. But it also makes sense. Holding office is required to achieve the leader's personal goals - whether these goals are selfish or altruistic. To some people holding office isn't that important, but these people don't usually become leaders, and if they do, they don't stay long.

The leader's desire to survive stays constant, but the most effective survival strategy changes depending on the size of the other groups and other facts about the nation.


All residents engage in economic activity, pay taxes, and benefit from public goods. The size of the population determines the cost of providing public goods and increases how much tax can be collected. Residents may be included or excluded from the selectorate. Those excluded are called the disenfranchised.

The Winning Coalition 

The Winning Coalition are the essentials, the keys to power - The people the leader has to satisfy to survive. The leader does that by rewarding them with private goods. The size of the Coalition (w) is one of two most important characteristics of a nation. 

When the coalition is small, the leader can give private rewards to each person in the coalition. The more the coalition grows, the more expensive it becomes to produce private rewards for all coalition members, so the leader starts producing public goods instead.

This creates an interesting dynamic. When the coalition is sufficiently small, making it smaller is within a coalition member's interest (as long as they aren't the ones getting ejected, of course) since it lets them demand higher pay from the leader. As the coalition gets larger, there comes a point where it's better for the coalition to expand, as all of them already get so little private goods, that they can all benefit more from the leader creating more public goods and less private goods.

We'll see how small winning coalitions create autocracies and monarchies, and large coalitions create democracies.

The Selectorate 

The Selectorate are those who can influence who gets to be the leader (say, by voting). The size of the Selectorate (s) is the other most important characteristic of a nation. They do not get private rewards from the leader, but still benefit from public goods. The base rate probability of being included in the coalition for any selectorate member is w/s

The selectorate wants the winning coalition to expand, since then more money will be spent on public goods, and it increases their own chance of getting into the coalition. They don't want the selectorate to expand as that decreases their chance of inclusion in the coalition - though this effect gets weaker as the coalition grows and more public goods are produced.

In the real world, common characteristics societies use to divide people in and out of the selectorate include birthplace, lineage, skills, beliefs, knowledge, wealth, sex and age. In the Coups and Revolutions section, we'll see how military ability matters especially.

The disenfranchised 

The disenfranchised are those who don't have any influence over who gets to be leader. They too do not get private goods, but still benefit from public goods. The disenfranchised want the coalition to expand for the same reason as the selectorate. They also want the selectorate to expand so they may be included, but have no established way of making that happen - other than violence and asking nicely.

The Challenger 

The Challenger is a person that challenges the current leadership in order to replace it. The challenger has a commitment problem - they have to get support from at least some members of the current coalition to win, but even if they promise to those who defect to their side that they will get more rewards than they currently do, they can't guarantee that, or even guarantee that they'll remain in the winning coalition at all.

The challenger can be anyone, but challengers from within the current coalition have an inherent advantage - they automatically get and take one supporter away from the current incumbent.

The challenger usually has a similar interest to the current incumbent (except who's the leader, of course) since they wish to replace and get the same benefits as the leader, or more. For example, if the winning coalition grows, the country the challenger is trying to take over now has a larger coalition, which makes it less valuable.


Every game theory model has to state what agents desire and get value from, and every model of a country needs to model some basic economics.

In this model the things people value are:

  1. The untaxed portion of their economic activity
  2. Leisure
  3. Public goods
  4. Private goods (only available for coalition members)

And the leader values:

  1. Above all else - staying in office. If the leader fails to stay in office nothing else matters.
  2. And, if they remain, tax revenue not spent on public or private goods.

In the mathematical model these are precisely defined utility functions with diminishing returns and temporal discounting. If you don't know what that means, you can ignore it.

Economic Activity and Leisure

Residents split their time between economically productive activities, which we'll shorten to work, and economically unproductive activities, which we'll shorten to leisure.

More specifically, work refers to activities that can, and leisure to activities that can't, be subjected to:


The leader decides on the tax rate, and collects the revenue. 

The theory defines the tax rate as the percentage of total economic products the government extracts from the residents. No complex tax policies here - any such policy is simplified to that definition for analysis. But as we'll see, the theory does make predictions about more complex tax policies.

When the tax rate is 0%, residents split their time equally between work and leisure. As the tax rate increases they work less, until at 100% they spend all their time on leisure.

As people work more their income increases, which further increases the money available for taxation. Together this creates a tension between tax rates and GDP (the sum of what is produced by the economic activity of residents).

  • High tax rate > Less productive economic activity > Lower GDP overall
  • Low tax rate > More productive economic activity > Higher GDP overall

The tax revenue is a percentage of the GDP, so the leader always wants to find the tax rate that will create the most revenue.


The leader splits their tax revenue between private goods and public goods. Whatever isn't spent on those is the surplus, with which the leader can do whatever they want - engage in kleptocracy and keep it to themselves, invest it in some pet project, or keep it as a cushion against future political rivals.

Goods are assumed to be "normal", such that more is always better.

The optimal spending strategy for the leader requires finding how much needs to be spent on the coalition in total, and how much of that should be split between private and public goods.

Private goods only benefit coalition members. The pool of private goods is divided between the members of the coalition, making the value of private goods shrink as the coalition size increases.

Public goods are indivisible and non-excludable - they benefit everyone and have to be provided to everyone. Think roads, defense, education, sewage, the grid and communications. The price of public goods rises with the size of the population.

It's not necessary that any one good will be a pure private or public good - the theory simply deals with how much is spent on each type. Almost any public good will also have private benefits. If in the real world one of the things I listed as a public good is excluded or divided, it just becomes partially private.

Loyalty and Replaceability

The loyalty norm refers to how loyal to the leader are the coalition members . It is defined as the size of the winning coalition divided by the size of the selectorate (w/s) and it is also the base rate probability that a selectorate member will be part of a winning coalition.

A strong loyalty norm happens when coalition members are easy for the leader/challenger to replace. A weak loyalty norm happens when it's hard. The larger the selectorate is compared to the coalition, the more replacement options there are, which makes it easier to replace coalition members.

  • Selectorate size close to coalition size > Large w/s ratio (closer to 1) > Hard to replace members > Weak loyalty norm.
  • Selectorate size much larger than coalition size > Small w/s ratio (closer to 0) > Easy to replace members > Strong loyalty norm.
The three rough clusters of political systems (the leader's preferences go from left to right) 

A weak loyalty norm means members of the coalition are more likely to defect to the challenger (since the probability of being included in the coalition is higher), and will require more spending from the leader to stay loyal. A strong loyalty norm means low chances of defection, and less required spending. Needless to say - Leaders like strong loyalty from their supporters.

This creates two competing effects on the coalition's welfare. On one hand, expanding the coalition reduces the amount of private rewards each member gets, on the other hand, if the selectorate size is kept constant, it increases the total amount spent on the coalition.

The following graph shows the relationship between the size of the coalition and these two effects.

The Logic of Political Survival, figure 3.2, reproduced

Whether the coalition prefers to shrink or expand depends on where they are on this graph.

Coalition members prefer weak loyalty. When they're on the left side of the graph they only want to do so by shrinking the selectorate, since expanding the coalition would hurt their welfare, but on the right side of the graph both options are good for them.

Shrinking the coalition without shrinking the selectorate will increase loyalty, but if the coalition is small enough the extra goods compensate for it.


Affinity represents the idea that there's some bond between leaders and followers independent of policy that can be used to anticipate each other's future loyalty. All else being equal, people prefer to support leaders they have affinity for, but they won't support a leader with worse policy due to affinity. It is used in the mathematical model only for tie breaking, and isn't necessary for any of the main conclusions of the theory.

Leaders include in the coalition those they have the most affinity for. But, affinity has to be learned, and can never be known perfectly. Affinity is learned by staying in power. Challengers can have some knowledge of affinities before coming into power, but they'll always learn more once they're in power, and will remove and add coalition members as they do.

This asymmetric knowledge of affinity creates the Incumbency Advantage, expanded upon in the next section.


The deposition rule defines the circumstance under which an incumbent leader is deposed. In the book they use a deposition rule called constructive vote of no confidence, which simply means a coalition of size w is both sufficient and necessary to stay in office (though not sufficient to get it in the first place). For the challenger to win, they must both have enough supporters that they can create a coalition of size w, and get enough people to defect from the current leader so that they lack w supporters. In other words, if less than w of the incumbent's coalition supports the incumbent and at least w of the challenger's coalition supports the challenger, the incumbent is deposed and replaced by the challenger. Otherwise they stay. Hence the amount of people who's choice actually matters is never greater than 2w.

(The authors say that other deposition rules are plausible, but produce similar results, so they focus only on this one. We'll take them at their word for now and do the same, since we'll need to reproduce the mathematical model to see for ourselves.)

Coalition members who are only in the Incumbent's coalition will always prefer to support the incumbent, likewise for the challenger's coalition. Hence the decision depends on those who are in both coalitions, and on them the challenger has to compete with the incumbent, by offering a better deal.

The incumbent, to stay in office, has to at least match the challenger's offer. So the incumbent's strategy is to maximize the surplus after offering their supporters at least as much as the challenger's best possible offer.

Incumbency Advantage

The incumbent has the advantage, since they have better knowledge of affinities and can promise inclusion in the coalition and private goods more credibly, while the challenger cannot credibly promise to keep supporters in their coalition. The Incumbency Advantage is inversely related to coalition size, as the larger the coalition the less private goods matter.

The more the selectors know the affinity between them and the challenger, the lesser the incumbency advantage, and the more they'll be willing to defect. The incumbent counters that by oversizing their coalition, so they can punish defectors and still retain power.

The risk of defection moves from the risk of not being included in the challenger's coalition, to the risk of being excluded from the incumbent's coalition, or a mix of the two.

With the model in mind, we can see how the interaction of all these interests and incentives imply and predict various political behaviors.

Scope and Limitations

But before I get into the implications and predictions of the theory, I want to lay out the scope of the theory and its limitations.

  • The model doesn't distinguish between one ruler having all authority to set policy and a large group of legislators all capable of setting policy. For the purposes of the theory, they're treated as an individual and their inner group dynamics aren't addressed. This might sound like a big shortcoming, but I think the theory does exceptionally well even with democracies, considering that it abstracts the decision making process so much. Also unaddressed are questions of separation of powers and checks and balances.
  • The theory assumes no limitation on the implementation of policy. The theory has implications on how inefficiencies are addressed and how strategies are implemented, as far as they can be described as goods, but not on what the strategies themselves are.
  • The model treats good very abstractly. It does not deal with the question of which goods are prioritized (beyond public and private).
  • The model also assumes all members of all groups to be identical (except for affinity). There are no differences in competence. Particular interests (beyond what is covered above in economics) like protecting the environment, advancing science, or buying lots of yachts are not represented. Leaders don't represent people who share their opinions, but those who share their interests (and are in the coalition).
  • The theory naturally lends itself to being fractal - meaning every group might have subgroups with a similar structure, where the leader of the subgroup is an individual from the super-group. For example, a member of a country's selectorate or winning coalition might be the mayor of a town. With that said, the analysis in the book focuses on one level at a time, and doesn't consider interplay between levels (Though see bloc voting later in the article, which comes close to that).

That said, we should see that the insights from this theory have implications on all these questions when explored on their own.


With all those limitations in mind, the authors still extrapolate the implications of the model to a vast array of subjects, giving many concrete predictions. In this section I'll try to give a comprehensive overview of these implications and predictions.

Form of Government

The three general clusters of polities produce the characteristics of various regime types we're familiar with.

  • Large winning coalition systems resemble democracies - The leader requires a large supporter base, near or totally universal suffrage is common, plenty of public goods are provided and relatively little private goods, taxes are lower and economic productivity is higher.
  • Small-coalition, small-selectorate systems resemble monarchies and military juntas - The leader requires a small supporter base chosen from a small group such as aristocrats, priests and military persons, little public goods are provided and many private goods, people aren't rich. Examples: Old England monarchy, Saudi Arabia Monarchy, Argentine Junta in 1976-1983
  • Small-coalition, large-selectorate systems resemble autocracies - The leader requires a small supporter base chosen from a vast pool of potential people who otherwise usually only participate in rigged elections, the amount of public goods is tiny and the amount of private goods big but smaller than in monarchies, the leader extracts the vast majority of people's wealth and people are extremely poor. Examples: The soviet union, North Korea, Maoist China.

Smaller variations in size can account for variations within these regimes. It's hard to say which of two democracies is more democratic, or what makes it so, but if we can estimate the winning coalition of both, it's easy to say which is larger and what we should expect based on that. Not all democracies are the same, and neither are monarchies and autocracies - some more extreme and some milder.

I will sometimes use these regime types instead of specifying coalition and selectorate sizes, but remember what it represents are coalition and selectorate sizes. I do it mostly because it makes for less awkward phrasing, but also to reinforce the connection.

Transitional Democracies

When autocracies transition to democracies and expand the selectorate faster than they expand the coalition, the loyalty norm increases, which mimics the structure of a more autocratic system where the coalition is smaller relative to the selectorate. In such cases transitional democracies will temporarily exhibit more autocratic behavior like kleptocracy and willingness to start wars. This shouldn't happen in transitional democracies that either increase the coalition first, at the same rate, or faster than the selectorate.

Presidential VS Parliamentary Democracy

In presidential systems the leader is usually elected directly by the people. In parliamentary systems the people choose a group of legislators which choose the leader themselves. As we'll see in the next section, this means they require less votes to be elected, leading to a smaller coalition. The US, which has a presidential system but also has indirect elections through the electoral college, is an exception.

Federalism and Localism

The authors predict that corruption will "rise as one moves down the ladder from the central governments to state or provincial governments and on down to city, town, and village governments. Each successive layer relies on a smaller coalition and so provides more incentive to turn to private rewards rather than public goods as the means of maintaining loyalty. That incentive may be partially offset by the central government's incentives to protect the rule of law, one of the central public goods it can be expected to provide."

Federalism should let people benefit from both the benefits of large states and the benefits of small states.

Correlated Support, Bloc Voting and Indirect Election

The basic model assumes selectors are independent - the choice of one selector doesn't influence the choice of another. But of course that's not the case in reality. If we relax this assumption we can see how correlation in selector support effectively reduces coalition size.

The people's choice of support one person can influence, how many people their support correlates with, the more valuable they are as a member of the coalition, and the less the people influenced are. This applies to influential writers, speakers, celebrities, prominent community figures, owners of media outlets and so on.

Bloc voting is when a group votes similarly, usually based on the directives of one person.

In such a case that person becomes highly valuable as a member of the coalition, since their support is effectively equivalent to the size of the group that follows them. The leader would want them in the coalition, but not their followers.

Whether the followers benefit from the bloc leader being in the coalition depends on whether that leader shares their rewards with them, which will depend, like just the leader of the country, on the structure of that group (See note about fractality in Scope).

When leaders can't reward people directly for their support, like in democracies where the vote is anonymous, they may still be able to reward groups. For example in Israel each ballot box is counted independently, and then the results from each ballot box and in each town is made publicly available. You can see the last election results here. This makes it very easy for politicians to invest more in places that support them and ignore those that don't.

Bloc voting can be institutionalized through indirect election, where instead of directly choosing the leader, citizens choose electors who choose the leader for them.

The US has the electoral college. In Israel the prime minister is chosen by the Knesset. In both cases they're not completely free to support whoever they want, the US electors can have limitations set on them by the states, and in Israel Knesset members need to be careful of displeasing their supporters, but in both cases it still reduces the influence of the people on the final outcome.

(The Dictator's Handbook splits the selectorate in two to make this distinction between those who can potentially influence, which they call the "nominal selectorate" or the "Interchangeables", and those who actually choose, which they call the "real selectorate" or the "Influentials". Though this distinction is useful for bloc voting and indirect elections, it's not consequential elsewhere, so I chose not to use it.)

Selectorate theory suggests that leaders have an interest to increase things that cause vote correlation such as ethnic, racial, religious, linguistic and other social divides. Residents benefit instead from increased independence of votes.

Term Limits and the Verge of Deposition

Leaders that expect to be deposed the next time they're challenged have nothing to lose, but much to gain if they can manage onto hold to power. Therefore they'll be more willing to do reckless things to survive, like going for a diversionary war.

A term limit creates two opposing effects. 

  1. It reduces the incumbent's advantage, because they can't supply private goods beyond the end of their term. This forces the leader to work harder to please their supporters.
  2. It removes any reselection incentives by decoupling policy performance and survival, making the leaders stop working for the state, and turn kleptocratic.

The second effect comes from having nothing to lose, but since there's also little to gain from reckless actions, the leader is more likely to turn to kleptocracy to make the best of the remaining time than to do something that will keep them in power. Civic minded leaders may use this freedom to take actions that the public would like but the coalition wouldn't.

Post office consequences for kleptocracy can reduce the second effect.

The effect of term limits on spending by incumbents. The Logic of Political Survival, figure 7.3, reproduced and simplified. 

Enforcing term limits requires the winning coalition to remove the incumbent. Since in small coalitions the value of inclusion and risk of exclusion are higher, the members don't want to enforce the limit and risk exclusion. This is why autocracies rarely have them, democracies often do, and some autocracies (mainly those with rigged-elections) have fake, unenforced term limits.

Political survival

The theory predicts that leaders in autocracies survive longer in office than in democracies, with monarchies in between.

This stems from the Incumbent's advantage in guaranteeing inclusion in the coalition and promising private goods. So as the coalition expands and public goods become more important, the incumbent's advantage diminishes.

  • Small coalition > competition is over the provision of private goods > The incumbent has a big advantage
  • Large coalition > competition is over the best public goods policy > The incumbent has a smaller advantage

In the early period in office the new leader still hasn't learned affinities and sorted out his coalition, and therefore he lacks the incumbency advantage. Competitors will prefer to depose them as quickly as possible to take advantage of that. Therefore the early phases are most dangerous, but if the new leader survives them, they can persist for very long. This affects small-coalition systems more than large ones since their leaders are more dependent on private goods. This creates a higher variability in tenure in small coalition systems than large coalition systems.

Autocracies often have leaders like Stalin and Gaddafi who ruled for 39 and 42 years respectively. But they also more often have leaders like Bachir Gemayel who only survived two weeks in office before being assassinated. In democracies most elected leaders serve their full term, and are voted out after one or several terms if they don't hit a term limit.

Former leaders are dangerous to current leaders, as they're similar to a challenger with very good mutual knowledge of affinities with their supporters. The more important political survival is to the leader, the more incentive new incumbents have to permanently get rid of (say, by killing) the deposed leader. This leads us to expect that deposed incumbents are most likely to be killed or exiled in small coalition systems, and even more so when the selectorate is large. This can be seen as another reason leaders will want to keep power, though that's not included in the model.


When leaders are terminally ill, coalition members know that soon they will stop receiving private goods. This breaks their loyalty and drives them to defect. It might even become a competition of who defects more quickly to the new leader.

This makes small coalition leaders hide their health status from their supporters. This effect diminishes with coalition size as private goods become less important.

One way leaders can mitigate it is by having credible heirs who will take their place but keep the same coalition. Then coalition members have less to worry about not being included in the next coalition, and are happier to stay loyal.


Everything Leaders do they do with the purpose of keeping and gaining power, therefore as long as the coalition doesn't know, any effects their policies have after they leave office are unimportant. Policies that will have a good effect in the future are good only if the coalition knows. Similarly, Policies that will have a bad effect in the future are bad only if the coalition knows.

As we saw in the last section, democratic leader survive much less than autocratic leaders, so although autocratic leaders provide far less public goods, we can expect them to invest far more in the long term.

Even though we can expect regular public goods like rule of law, education, and infrastructure to be much better in democracies, we should expect to see that trend disappear for long term good like green technology, carbon capture, AI safety, pandemic preparedness, and so on. Green technology is a slight exception in that list, as it is a long term good heavily valued by most democratic coalitions.

Autocrats invest more in the long term, but for themselves and their friends, not the public.

Term limits should make this even more extreme, as leaders cannot even hope to last more than usual or come back after a time.


We can model competence as an ability to produce more goods from the same pool of resources. You can think about it as competent leaders paying less for goods, or as competent leaders simply having more resources - the math is the same.

Competent leaders and challengers are able to offer more goods than their opponent, and so find it easier to attain and retain office.

If the competence of the challenger is known, the leader will take it into account in his spending strategy - spending more against a competent challenger and less against an incompetent one. As far as the challenger's competence is unknown, the leader has to make a bet on how much to spend to be confident about surpassing the challenger's spending ability.

Since competent leaders spend less, they have more surplus revenue to use however they like.

Over time, all systems would select for competence. But the selection pressure is much higher in large coalitions than small coalitions.

Economic Effects


There are three constraints on tax rates:

  1. High taxes diminish how much people work. This tends to be the limiting factor in autocracies.
  2. The coalition is affected by taxes, so it has to be compensated. This tend to be the limiting factor in democracies.
  3. Tax collection isn't free, it requires resources and people to collect them.

As the coalition shrinks and the selectorate expands, autocracies tend to extract as much resources as they can from residents to give large rewards to the coalition and keep large amounts to themselves.

In small coalition systems, the coalition is compensated with private goods, which In the real world could also be tax exemptions. When the coalition is large, the leader cannot compensate them as much, since public goods cost more, and has to lower the tax rate.

Low taxes can also be considered a public good, which are inversely correlated with coalition size.

The theory predicts that as the winning coalition shrinks, taxes grow, and as the coalition grows taxes shrink.

  • Small coalition > High tax rate
  • Large coalition > Low tax rate

The lower tax rate in democracies is offset by the higher economic activity.

Though not part of the model, in the real world collecting taxes isn't free, and we can expect that the higher the taxes the more people would try to evade them and the more collecting them would cost. This can also offset the lower tax rate in democracies, and act as another limit for autocracies.

But you're probably thinking, "I live in a democratic country and I pay high taxes, what's up?". Indeed, many people pay high taxes in democracies - which seems counter to what the theory suggests - but it's part of a progressive tax system. There isn't one tax rate for everyone like the abstraction in the theory. In some places, under a certain income you don't pay income tax at all. And there are various extra benefits for things like getting married and having children.  

On the other hand, autocracies often don't report correct tax rates or extract resources from citizens in roundabout ways, like forcing them to sell produce to the government, which the government then sells internationally at a much higher price. Autocrats may even raise tax rates beyond the point that maximizes revenue as a form of oppression.

We can also expect that the more competent at providing public goods the government is the more large coalitions will approve of higher taxes, but still not nearly as high as in autocracies.

The result should be that autocracies extract more resources in total from residents than democracies. We should also expect autocracies to tax the poor the most and the rich the least, while expecting democracies to do the opposite.

Economic Activity, Leisure and Black Markets

Per-capita income is directly related to coalition size.

This graph shows the functional relationship between coalition size, tax rates and economic activity predicted by selectorate theory.

The Logic Political survival, figure 3.1, reproduced and simplified.

Everyone would like not to pay taxes while their fellow citizens continue to do so (well, at least everyone that doesn't assign much importance to notions of fairness). As taxes grow people are more tempted not to pay them, and instead engage in the black market.

Leaders never want people to avoid paying taxes. But, they might offer that as a private reward to coalition members, either in the form of tax exemptions in the law, or through selective enforcement of black market laws.

The theory predicts that as the coalition shrinks, people will engage more in black market activities, and leaders will enforce anti black market laws more selectively.

Spending and Welfare

As loyalty decreases, the proportion of revenue spent goes up (and surplus goes down), and as the coalition expands more of that spending goes towards public goods. 

Some things considered public goods by the authors and are expected to increase with coalition size:

Protection of property rights, protection of human rights, national security, Rule of law, free trade, transparency, low taxes, education, and better balanced markets, healthcare and social security.

In general, anything considered a public good by the coalition is expected to increase with coalition size.

Economic Growth is predicted to increase with coalition size since evidence shows it's related to some of the things considered public goods.

The authors also predict that "the total value of private goods will be higher in the initial period of incumbency - the transition period from one leader to another - than in subsequent years and that the overall size of the winning coalition will shrink after the transition period."


The authors suggest 3 reasons for corruption, all of which are much worse in small coalition systems, and exacerbated by strong loyalty norms:

  1. Complacency: As far as reducing corruption can be considered a public good, small coalition leaders have no interest to pursue that and instead prefer to be complacent.
  2. Sponsored Corruption: Allowing corruption can be a private benefit given to supporters.
  3. Kleptocracy: The stealing of wealth from the state directly by the leader.

I think there's a fourth mode of corruption that is more common in large coalitions, is consistent with the theory and explains why democracies still feel so full of corruption. I explain it in the Gifts section under Further Implications.

Additional Sources of Revenue

In the basic model the only source of revenue for the leader is tax revenue. But it's easy to see what would be the effects on the country from an extra revenue stream for the leader. We'll explore three possible sources: Natural resources, debt and foreign aid.

Natural Resources

An abundance of natural resources can create another income stream for the leader and reduce the leader's dependence on the economic activity of citizens.

In small coalition systems, this allows the leader to raise taxes even further.

In large coalition systems, it allows the leader to lower taxes even further.

National Debt

The basic model assumes that spending can be lower than the tax revenue, but cannot be higher. Later in the book the authors check what happens if that assumption is removed and spending is allowed to grow beyond revenue.

debt acts like another source of revenue and increases kleptocracy.

Foreign Aid

Monetary foreign aid is usually given mostly to small coalition systems, where residents are poor and are in need of it. But if the resources are given to the leader to distribute to the population, the leader is expected to take much of it to themselves.

This gets worse when the leader is in crisis too. If the leader lacks resources to provide private rewards to their coalition, they will have an even greater incentive to distribute foreign aid money away from the public and, in this case, toward the coalition.

If a body wants to give foreign aid and wants the leader to make political reforms in the favor of the public, they have to condition the aid on the reform. Otherwise, aid given before a reform helps the leader fund rewards for his coalition, and is more likely to prevent these reforms rather than incentivize them.

Selectorate theory suggests that to be effective at improving the lives of residents, foreign aid should be conditional on prior political reforms, especially ones that hurt political survival. The aid should be transferred to independent organizations and administered by them, without interference by the recipient government. Evaluation the success of aid should focus on outcomes, and not just how much aid was given. More aid should be given to those who demonstrate effective use of it.

But wait, what reason do leaders even have in providing foreign aid to other countries according to the model? Foreign aid is part of foreign policy, which is discussed later, and can influence the policy of the receiving country. That influence can be a public good if it aligns with the interests of the citizens.

Immigration and Emigration

When people feel that the system doesn't work in their favor, they have three options

  1. Exit: Leave the country to a more favorable place.
  2. Voice: Try to change the system.
  3. Loyalty: Stay loyal and wait for better times.

This section will focus on the first option, and the next section will focus on the second.

In this model, the reason for emigrating is to increase your access to public goods and, if you're lucky, private goods, so emigration is expected intuitively to be from poor polities to rich polities, and from small-coalition systems to large-coalition systems. 

Disenfranchised, and selectorate members to a lesser extent, are most likely to take this option. Coalition members already benefit from their position, and are unlikely to be better off elsewhere.

Polities are affected by emigration. Every emigrant is one less person that can be taxed. In non-proportional systems, every selectorate member who emigrates also strengthens the loyalty norm. Emigration harms especially small-coalition leaders, who benefit from kleptocracy, and they are likely to prevent it. We see that in autocracies like North Korea and the Soviet Union.

Receiving polities are also affected by immigration. Immigrants increase the population size and the price of public goods. If they are enfranchised it expands the selectorate, and in a proportional system, the coalition as well - increasing spending public goods. If they are not enfranchised, the population grows but the coalition shrinks in proportion to it, making the leader spend less on public goods.

Polities may make immigration easier or harder, making them more or less preferable for emigrants. Large-coalition states that make immigration easier hurts the leaders of small-coalition systems by making it easier for their subjects to leave.

Potential emigrants have to weigh their decision against how difficult emigration is, and how rich, public good oriented and welcoming their target nation is.

Since there are many countries, the barriers to immigration are easier to overcome than the barriers to emigration.

I find Switzerland an interesting case study for immigration policy. It's very hard to gain Swiss citizenship, point-in-fact, nearly 25% of Switzerland's residents aren't citizens, or in the language of the theory, are disenfranchised. But these are mostly foreigners that came there knowing they won't get citizenship. More than that, these mostly aren't refugees who are looking to run away from some terrible country, but well-off people living in democratic countries where they're either in the winning coalition or have a high chance of getting into it (though, in democracies that matters less).

Reading Martin Sustrik's post on the Swiss political system, I intuit that they have a large minimum size for the winning coalition. Most of that coalition doesn't want to expand the selectorate and bring more people in, and yet due to its size, Switzerland is producing so much public goods that people prefer to be disenfranchised in Switzerland than enfranchised in their home country.

Coups and Revolutions

If migrating isn't a good option, people can try to alter the system. There are several ways people may go about doing that - From passing laws, to constitutional amendments, and up to assassinations, coups, revolutions and civil wars.

Protests and Revolts

Selectorate members with a small chance of entering the coalition might seek to expand the coalition in hope they'll be included, or just throw out the current members and hope to replace them ("Seize the means of production").

The disenfranchised have no chance of entering the coalition as long as they remain disenfranchised, and need a more fundamental change.

These groups are the most likely to rebel against small-coalition, large-selectorate systems. 

The winning coalition is expected to oppose these attempts, as they have different interests. But they also have their own way of changing the system:

Coups and Purges

The leader and coalition may also take action to change the system. Remember, Leaders want to shrink the coalition and expand the selectorate. The coalition wants to expand the selectorate, and to either shrink or expand the coalition. We'll call the act of shrinking the selectorate or the coalition by removing some of its members purging.

Whether the coalition prefers to shrink or expand depends on where they are on the welfare graph. When the coalition is on the lowest point of the graph, where both expanding and shrinking the coalition increases their welfare, they’re conflicted on which direction to go in. Some may support reduction while others support expansion.

The Logic of Political Survival, figure 3.2, reproduced

Purging the Selectorate

Given the chance, after a coup for instance, coalition members are glad to purge the selectorate, as it weakens the loyalty norm and forces the leader to spend more. Though the total spending increases, this doesn't benefit the selectorate and disenfranchised much, as most of that spending is directed towards the coalition.

Purging the Coalition

The leader is always happy to purge the coalition. For the coalition it's more complicated. 

A coalition member on the left side of the welfare function can benefit from that as long as they're not the ones purged, as they will get a larger share of the rewards. But, if the coalition shrinks while the selectorate doesn't, the loyalty norm is strengthened and the total amount spent on the coalition goes down. Which effect dominates determines whether coalition members benefit from their fellow members being purged or not.

Purging the Selectorate and the Coalition

This is the optimal purge for non-purged, small-coalition members. They can get the benefits of both types of purges. Their share of private goods grows, and if the selectorate was reduced more than the coalition, such that the loyalty norm weakens, total spending also goes up.

Expanding the Coalition

On the right side of the welfare function, even non-purged coalition members never benefit from purges. Instead they benefit from expanding the coalition. But the leader would still like to purge the coalition, so they have conflicting interests.

This further predicts that once a coalition is far enough right on the welfare curve, they cannot possibly have anything to gain from shrinking the coalition. This predicts that the larger a coalition, the more stable the system will be.

Expanding the Selectorate

Leaders always want to expand the selectorate in proportion to the coalition, and the coalition always wants to stop them. If the selectorate expands and the coalition also expands proportionally, the coalition is fine with that.

Purging the Selectorate and expanding the Coalition

This is the ideal case for a coalition on the right side of the welfare graph, and the worst case for a leader. 

Civil Wars and Revolutions

Going beyond protests and coups, the authors expand the model to talk about civil wars and revolutions.

The goal of revolution in this model is to either take control of part of the nation (creating a new one), or replace the existing selectorate with another (including the leader, of course). The American Revolutionary War is an example of the first, and the French Revolution is an example of the second.

The model suggests that revolutionaries would be motivated by the prospect of overthrowing the current system so they, the excluded, become the included. The revolution attempt is modeled as a civil war between the disenfranchised (the excluded), and those in the selectorate who chose to oppose them, where each side tries to rally people/strength to their side, and whoever has more wins.

Those in the selectorate can either join, oppose or ignore the revolutionaries. The selectorate has two advantages over the disenfranchised. 

Those in power have an incentive to monopolize military ability to be able to defeat a revolution, so they either only train those in the selectorate, or induct those who are skilled into the selectorate. If instead the military was disenfranchised, they would just overthrow the system. So the first advantage of the selectorate is military ability. Formally, this is represented by a multiplier on their strength. Various things can change the value of this multiplier, like the technology available, but that's outside the scope of the model.

The second advantage is a greater ability to mobilize, due to an asymmetry of motivation. The disenfranchised can benefit from the revolution if it succeeds and they become selectors, but stand the risk of oppression and death if it fails. Passivity is safe for the disenfranchised, but not for the selectorate. If the revolution succeeds the selectorate will lose their current privileges. But like the disenfranchised, fighting is dangerous for them and it might deter them from fighting back.

The revolutionary leader promises a new alternative system. The disenfranchised calculate the expected benefits and costs from joining the revolution, and decide to join if it's worth it. The better the system the revolutionary leader promises relative to the current one the easier it will be to recruit. The ability of the leader to promise private goods in the new system solves the free rider collective action problem that would appear if they could only offer more public goods.

Selectors make the same calculation, and decide based on it whether to fight back. The better the promised system relative to the current one, the less inclined they will be to fight back. The worse it is, the more they'll be willing.

This makes large-coalition systems immune to revolution. A new system with a large winning coalition isn't better for the current selectorate, so a revolutionary leader can't improve their situation. If the leader promises a smaller coalition they will replace the current selectorate with their supporters and the current coalition would lose their chances of getting private goods and get less public goods. They will also have trouble recruiting, as even the disenfranchised benefit from the high amount of public goods, and they're probably a much smaller group than the selectorate, making it impossible to recruit enough supporters to defeat the defenders. 

Small-coalition, small-selectorate systems are vulnerable to revolution. There are way more disenfranchised than selectors, and their motivation to revolt is high. The selectorate, and especially the winning coalition, benefits greatly from such a system and will fiercely defend them. 

In Small-coalition, large-selectorate systems, there are less disenfranchised, but the selectorate may have it almost as bad as they do, and will not be willing to defend the system - They might even join the revolution. Given the competing effects of selectorate size, the authors are uncertain what selectorate size would make revolutions more common, and do not make predictions. But they do predict that such systems have less chance of surviving a revolutionary movement so they focus their efforts oppressing the ability to recruit and organize for a revolution.

This leads to an expected difference in the members of the military in small and large coalition systems. Small coalition systems have to include the military in the selectorate, or else it would lead a revolution. Large coalitions don't need to worry about revolution and so can professionalize the army and include people outside the selectorate.

Outcomes of revolution

I wrote that the revolutionary leader promises a new, better system, with a larger selectorate and usually a larger coalition, and indeed, the theory suggests that the leader is sincere when they make this promise. But once the revolution is successful and the revolutionary becomes a leader, their incentives become that of a leader, and suddenly a big coalition is not in their favor.

The model predicts that if unconstrained, leaders will choose small-coalition, large-selectorate systems. Yet some revolutionaries like Nelson Mandela and George Washington greatly expanded the coalition after they won. Therefore, if a revolution results in an expansion of the winning coalition, it must be due to constraints.

One form of constraint is a non definitive win. When Mandela's revolution succeeded it wasn't a decisive win, and they had to form a coalition agreement with the former power. The rules were not the decision of a single person.

Another form of constraint is not having a single definitive leader to the revolution. In America the revolution was a joint victory by the thirteen colonies.

Large-coalition systems are expected to have little severe anti-government action taken by residents. But in the absence of deterrence, selectorate theory predicts that small-coalition, large-selectorate systems will have the most, and the most intense, domestic resistance. That's why they turn to:


To prevent coups, revolts, and other forms of challenges, leaders can turn to oppress their population. We'll see when and who leaders oppress the most, and how they go about doing it.

Every opposer compares the benefits of success to the risks of failure. Oppression deters opposers by increasing the risk of failure. To be successful, leaders intensify oppression with the expected gains of successful opposition, making the risk of failure match or overwhelm it. 

Leaders use oppression to stay in power. The motivation to stay in power is a function of the value of holding office, and the risk from losing it. In small coalition leaders get the most value out of office, and also have the most chance to be punished when deposed. Large coalition leaders get the least out of office, but are allowed to walk out with what they got. The incentive to oppress opposition increases with the motivation to stay in office. Therefore large coalition leaders have a low motivation to oppress opposition, and small coalition leaders will attempt to hold office by any means possible.

Oppressing Challengers

The greater the inequality between the welfare of the leader and the welfare of the coalition and selectorate, the more tempting it is to challenge the incumbent. To counteract that the leader will intensify oppression on challengers. 

In large coalitions the disparity between leader welfare and coalition/selectorate welfare is small, and thus oppression of challengers is also small.

A larger selectorate (stronger loyalty norm) also increases the disparity of welfare and oppression of challengers.

Oppressing Defectors

Since challengers from the winning coalition have an advantage over other challengers, leaders more fiercely oppress their own supporters who lead challenges.

Leaders also oppress anyone who supports challengers, and especially their own supporters, as they're the most influential. 

Void of oppression, any selector not in the incumbent's coalition will join the challenger's coalition as that's their only chance of entering the coalition. Oppression discourages that. The extent of this type of oppression grows with the benefit of inclusion in the coalition. Put another way, "a leader has the greatest incentive to oppress selectors when the selectors stand to gain the most from unseating them", which is when the coalition is small.

Oppressing The Disenfranchised

Disenfranchised have an incentive to revolt when public goods provision is low. Small coalition leaders have a great incentive to oppress them.

Finding Oppressors

Just as no ruler rules alone, no oppressor oppresses alone. Those who carry out the leader's oppression are more willing to do what it takes when they benefit from their rule.

Coalition members are an obvious choice. They're willing to oppress any source of opposition. This explains why the military and secret police are key members of the coalition in autocracies. 

Selectorate members may be willing to oppress the disenfranchised if they benefit from the current system even if they don't benefit from the current leader. This happens in small-coalition, large selectorate systems, as the loyalty norm is weak and they have a good chance to be included in the coalition. 

Coalition members have a conflict of interest in punishing challengers from within the coalition, as they benefit from the existence of credible challengers to the leader. The leader provides private goods to their supporters so they don't defect. If oppression removes all possible challengers, the leader no longer has to provide anything. Leaders can solve this dilemma for the coalition by hiring selectorate members to punish insider challengers. This could be the selectorate member's way to get into the coalition.

Large coalition leaders should find it hard to recruit people willing to oppress their fellow citizens, as the benefits of inclusion are small. They can also count on getting back into power if they lose it due to the higher turnover rate in large coalition systems.

Credible Oppression

Like any punishment, oppression depends on the credibility of the oppressor's threat to punish the oppressed. In particular these are the things required for credible oppression:

  1. The leader is capable of retaining power and the opposition may fail. Leaders who lose power cannot punish those who opposed them, so threats are less effective when opposers believe they can succeed. Small coalition leaders are better at retaining power, and so are more credible oppressors.
  2. Oppression has to be connected to opposition. Random oppression doesn't deter opposition, but it does increase the motivation for it.

War and Peace

The authors start the sixth chapter with an excerpt from Sun Tsu's The Art of War, and an excerpt from a speech by Casper Weinberger on the Weinberger Doctrine, to illustrate the differences between the approach to war in small coalition and large coalition systems. The full section is worth reading, but is too long to include here.

The authors set out to explain the phenomena of Democratic Peace, that democracies do not fight wars with one another, and more specifically, these empirical tendencies:

  1. Democracies are not immune from fighting wars with non-democracies.
  2. Democracies tend to win a disproportionate share of the wars they fight
  3. Democratic dyads choose more peaceful dispute settlement processes than other pairings do.
  4. In wars they initiate, democracies pay a smaller rice in terms of human life and fight shorter wars than nondemocratic states.
  5. Transitional democracies appear to fight one another.
  6. Larger democracies seem more constrained to avoid war than are smaller democracies.

To see the consequences of selectorate theory on war, we have to expand the model to a dyadic model, where we have two polities, and set the rules of engagement between them.

In this model, when leaders enter a dispute with leaders of other polities, they each either decide to fight or negotiate a settlement. If either chooses to fight, they both choose how much of their available resources to commit to the war effort. Like anything else, any amount spent on defense is an amount not spent on other things. Who wins is a function of regular defense spending (a public good) and war effort spending (which comes out of the private goods budget).

Residents receive payoffs according to the dispute's outcome (whether through war or negotiation), and if they're coalition members, the resources not consumed in the war effort. Then the selectors in each state decide whether to retain to replace the current leader.

The size of the coalition changes war strategies by changing which type of good the coalition focuses more on, and therefore which one the leader does as well. In a small coalition the leader is best off saving resources for the coalition rather than spending them on war. A defeat, unless specified otherwise, affects everyone equally - it doesn't affect the leader and coalition more than other members.

To clarify - It's not the outcomes themselves that are better or worse depending on coalition size, but increased effort at winning decreases the ability to give private rewards, which is more detrimental to survival the smaller the coalition is.

So like in the case of taxes, it's easy for the leader to compensate small coalitions for defeat, and difficult for large coalition leaders. Therefore, large coalition leaders try harder to win wars, and avoid them in the first place if they don't think they can win.

Further, this means that large coalition leaders are more likely to win wars. And since two large coalition leaders both anticipate that both would try hard if they war, they'd rather resolve conflicts peacefully.

Small coalition leaders try less hard, but still sometimes fight wars because the cost of losing is smaller for them. 

There is an exception though, leaders will always try hard if they worry that defeat will directly cause them to lose their position. For example in WW2 both small-coalition and large-coalition leaders were nearly certain to lose their position or their lives upon defeat, so they either tried hard or surrendered their independence for survival.

At the other extreme are wars that require little resources to win, which both large and small coalition leaders may be happy to initiate and invest the little it takes to win. Colonial expansion can fit this category.

  • Small coalition > Higher focus on private goods > Less available resources to spend on war > Higher chance to be reelected upon defeat > low motivation to win wars > Willing to fight unlikely-to-win and likely-to-win wars > Less likely to win wars they start
  • Large coalition > Lower focus on private goods > More available resources to spend on war > Lower chance to be reelected upon defeat > high motivation to win wars > Reluctant to fight unlikely-to-win wars, but willing to fight likely-to-win wars > More likely to win wars they start

Since democracies are happy to take on easy wars, how aggressive they are is not inherent, but depends on the situation.

If we assume that lower casualties act like a public good - since the smaller the coalition the less casualties are children of, or themselves are, coalition members - then we can also expect democracies to care more about the life of their soldiers and have lower casualties. Same case for winning fast.

We'll compare disputes between three pairings of polities.

Autocrat VS Autocrat

Neither tries hard if there's a war. Each attacks if it believes that on average it can get more from conflict than negotiations. To paraphrase the authors, Because the war's outcome is not critical to their survival, the decision to fight is more easily influenced by secondary factors not assessed in the model, like uncertainty, rally-round-the-flag effects, and personal whims of leaders.

Autocrat VS Democrat

Though autocrats are willing to fight, they are reluctant to attack democracies if they anticipate they will reciprocate with force. Since democrats try hard, autocrats know they're likely to lose. However, since democrats are reluctant to fight wars they're unlikely to win, they're more likely to offer concessions when they aren't certain enough they'll win. This gives autocrats a strategy of creating disputes and making demands of democrats that they know won't be certain enough of winning to take advantage of their concessions.

Therefore autocrats are expected to start many disputes with democrats, but few of them will escalate to violence.

Democrats are more likely to initiate wars with autocrats than with democrats, but still only if they're likely to win. Autocrats are likely to fight back and not offer concessions, since the price of losing is smaller for them.

Israel, where I live, is a great example of this. How could such a small country constantly  win wars against several countries much larger than it is, even when they attack together? Some attribute it to Jewish ingenuity, some to Arab disorganization. This model gives a different perspective.

Though small, Israel is a democratic country, and all of Israel's opponents are somewhere along the monarchy-autocracy line. So Israel tries hard, perhaps even harder than other countries would due to the worry that loss wouldn't just be some loss of independence or an economic blow, but an existential danger, both to the citizens and, perhaps more importantly, the leader.

On the other hand, its opponents don't try hard, and can only spend so much on war before displeasing their small coalitions.

Honestly, this paints a bleak picture for me, as it suggests that Israel may have an incentive to keep these countries autocratic. On the one hand, a democratic Egypt or Syria is (according to the model) less likely to attack Israel. On the other hand, if they do attack the war would be far more devastating than any war Israel previously had, and it's far more likely it will lose. And the size difference would make them more likely to attack than if the countries had a similar size.

Israel's other front is against regimes that are weaker, and even much weaker, than her. Terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah aren't a credible existential threat to Israel. Israel can conceivably attack Hamas tomorrow and land a decisive victory. It doesn't, because the cost is high and uncertain, it will not be a popular move.

Hamas knows that, so they make relatively small attacks against the citizens of Israel (something a dictatorship couldn't care less about, but a democracy cares a lot), and get concessions from Israel. When Israel does retaliate, it's not enough to deter an autocratic leadership.

Democrat VS Democrat

A democrat will initiate war against another democrat only if they're sufficiently sure they'll win, or that their opponent will offer concessions instead of fighting back. A democrat will only fight back if they believe they have sufficiently high chances of winning, otherwise they will concede.

Foreign Policy

In the last sections we haven't given much thought to why a leader would choose to go to war, except as one of two solutions to a dispute. We also didn't give much thought to the question of what they intend to do after they win. In this section we'll explore war aims, and how the outcome of war in the losing state is affected by the winner state. We'll need to add a few more assumptions to do that.

Foreign policy regards actions leaders take to get an advantage in international competition against other nations, in order to survive domestically. The model assumes foreign policy efforts are a public good.

The winner in war either wants to obtain resources from the defeated state, force policy changes, or force structural changes (the makeup of the selectorate and the coalition).

These are treated as regular goods and are split by the leader between public goods, private goods, and personal benefit. War aims are a mix between private and public goods that depends on the size of the coalition and the selectorate - Small coalitions drive leaders to seek private goods in war, and large coalitions drive them to seek public goods. 

The postwar settlement process is modeled as a struggle in which whoever spends more relative to the other gets more. Foreign policy spending is determined by coalition and selectorate size.

Commitment and Compliance

The settlement has to be maintained somehow, and various things can make it more and less difficult.

We'll split settlements into ones that require active compliance from the loser and ones that only require passive compliance. The UN's agreement with Iraq after the Gulf War that it would allow inspections of their disarmament required active compliance. Territorial changes only require passive compliance as the defeated state has to actively challenge the winner to get back territory. Active compliance is harder to enforce than passive compliance, and leaders take that into account when forming their war aims.

Further, It's likely the defeated leader would like to go back to their previous policy if they could, leading to a commitment problem for the loser and an enforcement problem for the winner. Even if the loser wanted to follow the agreement and could credibly demonstrate that, internal pressures can stand in their way. If a challenger suggests a more attractive policy that includes breaking the agreement, it'll be hard for the leader to survive without also breaking the agreement, especially in large-coalition systems.

If, however, the new policies are in the interests of the citizens and the coalition is large, the commitment and compliance problem is reduced.

Installing a Puppet

To mitigate the commitment and compliance problem, the winner can replace the losing leader and install a puppet.

Like any other leader, a puppet still has their own interests and faces domestic pressures. If the leader loses the ability to remove the puppet from its position it will stop being loyal to them. Still, Installing a puppet increases the chances of compliance, but requires further military investment to achieve a total victory. Winners who install a puppet are incentivized to also install a small-coalition, large-selectorate regime in the defeated state, since in these regimes leaders have the most power and survive longest.

Large coalition leaders are most likely to install puppets since they spend most on foreign policy.

Structural Changes

If the winner chooses to make structural changes in the defeated state - change the sizes of the coalition and selectorate, as well as who's included - they will make them smaller if their own interests are different from the ones of the residents, and make them larger if they do.

If we look at the US's history of modifying other countries, we can see Iran as an example of pushing a country in an autocratic direction, and West Germany and Japan as examples of pushing countries that had similar interests to them after the war in a more democratic direction. It's important to note that in Germany and Japan's case the move toward democracy wasn't instant, but instead took several years during which both countries were managed from the outside. So the move to democracy can be very slow and costly.

Making the state more autocratic can help a puppet leader rule, so such structural changes often come together with the installation of puppets, while making the defeated state more democratic is unlikely to come together with installing a puppet.

This further strengthens the bleak image of Israel's relation with our neighbors. If Israel just has it easier when her neighbors are autocratic, our foreign policy efforts are likely to keep enforcing it, even if citizens like me hope our neighbors will get to have better lives under better regimes.


Taking territory from the loser continues the war after it was already won, and the defeated leader can attempt to get the territory back, so leaders aim for territorial expansion only if they benefit from it. Territory can be valuable in two ways,

  1. Strategic value comes from strategic territory that helps the state to win wars.
  2. Resource value comes from resource-rich territory.

Autocratic leaders benefit more from resources than democratic leaders as they get to keep more to themselves. This also means that democratic leaders would be more willing to return resource-rich territory. Territorial expansion shifts resources from the loser to the winner, weakening the former and strengthening the latter. 

Strategic territory increases the ability of the leader to provide the public good of security, and the ability to defend other gains from war. Autocratic leaders may value strategic territory for the reduction in resource requirement in defense, but democratic leaders value it much more.

  • Small coalition > Leader gets more value from resources and has lesser need to defend citizens > Prefers resource-rich land to strategic land > Less willing to give back resource-rich land > More likely overall to seek territorial expansion
  • Large coalition > Leader gets less value from resources and has greater need to defend citizens > Prefers strategic land to resource-rich land > More willing to give back resource-rich land > Less likely overall to seek territorial expansion

As usual, the size of the selectorate has a small "autocratic" effect on large coalition systems, and a more pronounced effect on small coalition systems. 

Further Implications 

Satisfy != Benefit 

Implicit in the theory, but not made explicit by the authors, is that the leader has to satisfy their supporters, but that does not necessarily mean doing what's good for them. If a leader can make people believe policy x (which is better for the leader) is better than policy y (which is better for the people), the leader can do x, get the personal gains, and not lose support. This is part of why journalism is important, and why weak journalism fosters bad policy. In small coalition systems, it's easy to simply censor information and suppress the press. Large coalitions won't put up with that, but a flood of irrelevant information can do the job just as well, without reducing satisfaction. Charismatic leaders give less and get more.

Voting Methods 

The selectorate theory implies that the most important thing about the way a leader is chosen, is how much of the population they have to satisfy in order to get and stay in office. So voting methods which reward being approved by a supermajority of the population should result in better policy for the people. I say reward instead of require because systems that require supermajority can become weaker and less stable. The authors give an extreme example of Poland in the 18th century which gave veto power to all legislators, which led to foreign powers easily stopping any decision being passed by bribing just one person. Also see Abram Demski's Thoughts on Voting Methods which discusses voting methods and support levels. 

Gerrymandering can also be used to manipulate the voting system into giving some people less voting power than others, thus making the coalition smaller.

Voting Age

The theory says that in large coalition systems, the less disenfranchised people there are, the better. In modern democracies usually the only people who are disenfranchised (except non-citizen immigrants) are kids. Which suggests a motive for lowering the voting age (see also). It also discourages any form of limitation on voting rights, such as intelligence tests or maximum age limits.


In a small coalition system, especially ones with a large selectorate, the leader is almost always the richest, most powerful person in the country. This is of course because they can steal more from the state, but also because they stay for longer, and can extract much more resources from the population. Unless you become part of the coalition, any riches you get that draw the attention of the state can, and probably will, be taken from you.

This also means that usually no one under the leader can bribe them, only foreign parties.

In large coalition systems, this is very different. The leader can only steal so much from the state, only stays for so long, and cannot extract resources as they please. Combined with the prosperity large coalitions bring, this creates a situation where the leader is rarely the richest member in their country.

Thus it opens the opportunity to bribe the leader with gifts (and promises of gifts, lest they'll be discovered too early).

In other words, where in small coalitions the leader trades goods with the coalition for policy (army policy, police policy, production policy, etc..), in large coalitions the relationship is flipped and the leader trades policy with the rich for goods.


Back to Leopold

I opened this article with the story of Leopold II who was simultaneously king of Belgium and ruler of the Congo Free State. Now, armed with selectorate theory, let's see what explains the difference.

When Leopold was king, Belgium was already a constitutional monarchy, yet he still had considerable influence - Like his father, Leopold II was skillful in using his constitutional authority.

The authors estimate his, and his government's, selectorate to be fairly large for the time, at 137,000 out of nearly six million residents.

When Leopold became king, many European countries were gathering colonies and building empires, and Leopold wanted to join the party. 

Finally, after much trying, he acquired a lot of land in Africa. Though unlike other colonies, his colony wasn't owned by the state, but was his own private property.

Leopold did that by lending money from the Belgium government, and creating his own private army.

In 1878 he sent a company led by explorer Henry Stanley, disguised as a scientific and philanthropic expedition, to establish the colony in Congo. "Representatives of 14 European countries and the United States recognized Leopold as sovereign of most of the area to which he and Stanley had laid claim", which was 74 times the size of Belgium.

So while in Belgium he was constrained by a large winning coalition, in Congo he had almost no constraints - he only had to reward his private military. Further, the revenue from Ivory and rubber acted as an extra revenue source like natural resources. This let him provide more goods in Belgium without raising taxes. He got the name "The Builder King" for all buildings and urban projects he would construct (And also many private ones, of course).

Eventually, evidence got out that he was growing rich on the back of slave labor and atrocities, and he was forced to cede control to the Belgium government. And though still bad, Belgian Congo was much better than Leopold's.

The picture we get is of a person who just ruthlessly followed incentives. In Congo he had what to gain from showing no restraint, so he didn't. In Belgium he had to satisfy a large coalition so he was what can be considered a good ruler, at least by past standards.

Unfortunately, I think the theory suggests that even a benevolent version of Leopold couldn't have done better for Congo than leaving it alone. He probably didn't have the money to provide them with public goods, and the only way he could take over was by relying on a small coalition in the form of an army.

A Note on Evidence

The authors did vast empirical work, checking all the predictions they could against real-world data, which I completely ignored. This is because I wanted this post to focus on the ideas of the theory, and reviewing the evidence deserves its own full post. Still, it won't do to not even comment on it.

The biggest hurdle to the empirical study of the theory is estimating the size of the selectorate and coalition of different countries (With coalition size being much more difficult). In some countries (like Israel) it barely feels like it fits.

How they estimated these values and the techniques they used are a story for another time (as well as the criticism on how they've done that, and their response to the criticism), but using these estimates and techniques they found evidence for even the most complex and specific predictions they make, such as the swoosh-shaped welfare function of the winning coalition. Further, they found the model better predicts the data than other predictors such as government type (e.g, democracy or dictatorship). 

The reason I think a review of the evidence wasn't crucial to include in this post is that, on some level, the ideas speak for themselves. For the most part, you can see intuitively if the predictions fit or contradict the world you know. At least for me, they seem to fit fantastically well.

Further, at least at first glance, many of the patterns predicted by the model seem unrelated. A simple model that gives logical explanations for so many such patterns is already doing something right.

To say it differently, if neither the authors nor anyone else did any empirical work on this theory, I would probably still find value in it, as it elegantly explains many important (seemingly) unrelated patterns. Of course, it's important to do empirical work to make sure we're not fooling ourselves, and so I'm very glad the authors did it.

The easier it is to estimate selectorate and coalition size the more practically useful this theory will be. The authors are aware of that and just recently published a paper on a new measure of coalition size.

What I would like to have is a public, regularly updating index of selectorate and coalition size estimates for all countries.

Further Reading

Should you read the books? I tried to make this post comprehensive enough that for most people it would be a good alternative, so I don't think you need to read them to understand the theory.

Still, I haven't covered all the statistical evidence given in the book or the mathematical model, and with such a large book that touches on so many subjects it's difficult not to miss anything, and impossible to reach the same depth. The books also have far more examples than I could bring here.

So if you still want to learn more, I would recommend the books. The Dictator's Handbook for a more public oriented book with many examples and stories. And The Logic of Political Survival for a more in depth, academic version that includes a wider range of topics, the mathematical model (appendixes to chapters 3, 6 and 9) and in depth statistical analysis (chapters 4-10).

And if you do read them and find something I missed, be sure to leave a comment.

I also recommend CGP Grey's excellent video The Rules for Rulers which is based on The Dictator's Handbook. It doesn't cover nearly as much of the theory as this post did, but it covers the part it does cover much better than I can, and it's a more digestible resource to send to someone else.

Future Plans (You can help)

I hope to write more posts about or inspired by this theory. I already have some plans and ideas, some of which I would like help with. I will replace these with links as I write and publish them.

  • Reviewing the evidence for selectorate theory. I would like to do a followup post reviewing the evidence for the theory, but I'm not very strong on the statistics side. If you want to collaborate on this with me I'd be happy to.
  • A post going deeper into the mathematics of the theory. I tried to recreate the mathematical model in python, and got stuck on a few things I didn't understand. If you want to help me with the math and with interpreting things that aren't clearly explained (I can handle the coding), I'd be really grateful.
  • Explorable Explanation of selectorate theory. This requires recreating the mathematical model in code. It would be a far better explainer than just text and images could ever be, and I think the theory is important enough that I would really want there to be such an explanation, but It would also probably take a lot of time and effort, so I don't know if I would do it (even if i had the mathematical model coded up).
  • Term Limits and how to improve them.
  • Estimating the coalition size in Israel. I already started writing it, it's an interesting and difficult exercise as the political system in Israel doesn't lend itself easily to that notion.

To Conclude

Selectorate Theory gives a strong basis for thinking about politics. It shows that it's viable to analyze politics based on the interests of actors inside the state, specifically, based on the expectation that the prime goal of those in power is to stay in power.

The biggest shortcoming of the theory is the difficulty of estimating the coalition size. Though the authors are working on it. If this problem is solved it will make the theory much more useful.

But if you can estimate just 2 variables about a nation (coalition and selectorate size) you can know how to set your expectation regarding a wide range of possibilities - like human rights, taxes, economic activity, corruption, government spending, foreign policy, war aims and strategy, immigration, and oppression.

Large coalitions lead to more public goods, lower taxes, shorter tenure, less oppression, better civil rights, higher wealth and welfare, less corruption, more emigration freedom immigration appeal. They use natural resources to the benefit of the public. They try harder in war and don't get into wars they are likely to lose. They are more likely to make concessions in war and to return conquered land. They are more likely to intervene in the affairs of foreign countries by forcing policy, installing policy, and transforming regimes. Unfortunately the welfare of the citizens of those nations is not their interest, and they are more likely to make regimes more autocratic unless the citizens share common interests with them. 

Small coalitions lead to few goods for the many and many goods for the few. They have higher taxes, worse civil rights, more poverty, longer tenures, more corruption and kleptocracy, and less freedom to emigrate. They use private resources and foreign aid to the benefit of the leader and their small coalition, leaving residents in even poorer states. They don't try hard in war yet are happy to get into them, and are more willing to let their residents be hurt. They are more likely to steal resources from other nations. Their residents are driven to revolt, and they ruthlessly oppress them to prevent it.

Large selectorates reduce total spending by increasing the coalition's replaceability and forcing them to be more loyal. They most prominently affect small coalition systems which become more autocratic.

In the words of the authors, the theory provides "An explanation of when bad policy is good politics and when good policy is bad politics". and more specifically, "For those who depend on a small coalition, good policy is bad politics and bad policy is good politics". Corollary, for those who depend on a sufficiently large coalition, good policy is good politics and bad policy is bad politics. Succinctly, in small coalitions the interests of the leader and the public diverge, and in large coalitions the interests align.

Selectorate theory suggests that to increase prosperity, both in our own nations and in foreign nations, we need to increase the coalition size in these countries. We should include the largest proportion of the selectorate we can in the coalition, and include all residents in the selectorate. To achieve that we should implement direct elections with better voting methods and voter anonymity. We should organize government in ways that lead to larger coalitions, like presidential systems over parliamentary systems. Employ term limits effectively. Give local authorities more power, but make sure they don't become corrupt. And to help those in smaller coalition systems, we should open our borders and make it easy to become a citizen, be careful with our foreign aid, and be weary of some of our own bad foreign policy tendencies.

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Highlights From The Comments On Modern Architecture

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Thanks to everyone who commented on Whither Tartaria (currently 1079 comments). Many of you really like modern architecture, and many others of you really hate it. I appreciate most of you being able to accept disagreement on that and move on to the bigger question of why there’s so much more of it now.

The most interesting thing I got from the comments was Chaostician linking to Wikipedia’s page on the Great Male Renunciation - men’s fashion changing from ornate colorful clothing to dark suits. Wikipedia seems pretty convinced that this was because of egalitarianism norms:

The Great Male Renunciation is the historical phenomenon at the end of the 18th century in which Western men stopped using brilliant or refined forms in their dress, which were left to women's clothing. Coined by psychoanalyst John Flügel in 1930, it is considered a major turning point in the history of clothing in which the men relinquished their claim to adornment and beauty. The Great Renunciation encouraged the establishment of the suit's monopoly on male dress codes at the beginning of the 19th century.

The Great Male Renunciation began in the mid-18th century, inspired by the ideals of the The Enlightenment; clothing that signaled aristocratic status fell out of style in favor of functional, utilitarian garments. The newfound practicality of men's clothing also coincided with the articulation of the idea that men were rational and that women were frivolous and emotional.

During the French Revolution, wearing dress associated with the royalist Ancien Régime made the wearer a target for the Jacobins. Working class men of the era, many of whom were revolutionaries, came to be known as sans-culottes because they could not afford silk breeches and wore less expensive pantaloons instead. The term was first used as an insult by French officer Jean-Bernard Gauthier de Murnan but was reclaimed by these men around the time of the Demonstration of 20 June 1792.

In the United States, the movement was associated with American republicanism, with Benjamin Franklin giving up his wig during the revolution, and later the Gold Spoon Oration of 1840 denouncing Martin Van Buren.

The post-Renunciation standards for men's dress went largely unchallenged in the Western world before the rise of the counterculture and increased informality in the 1960s.

I see no reason to disagree, except that one could argue that there’s a more general trend towards less formal dress - eg from men wearing a suit and hat in public in the 1940s, to today’s t-shirt and shorts, and I’m not sure if that’s also because of egalitarian feelings.

(a few people added that the shift in men’s dress became controversial for a little while after someone on Twitter dramatically attributed it all to a guy named Beau Brummell; more sober historians were very doubtful - see also this really funny thinkpiece on terrible social media historical claims.)

This is interesting because the male fashion change happened around 1800, but the architecture change happened around 1930. Those are different enough times that I need to re-evaluate my theory that the move from ornate to plain across many different artistic fields was all part of the same big transition. If every field changed for a different reason, then some things I ruled out (because they didn’t apply to fashion or poetry or whatever) might need reconsideration as possible explanations for architecture.

For example, cost. Long Disc writes:

For architecture, the headline theory is more or less correct: we are living in an era of a technological regress. We would not be able to build most of these landmarks even if we tried. I live near a nice Victorian bridge https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hammersmith_Bridge built in 1880s for around £80k. The standard Bank of England inflation measure gives inflation on a broad basket of about x110 from there to now, so the construction would have cost be around £9m in today money. Now, the bridge is still standing but needs repairs. It is not clear if the repairs can be done for less then £150m. The last time this city built a bridge over the same river, it was a much smaller pedestrian only bridge which cost £18m and then another £5m to repair just a few years later. The last time they tried to build a proper large bridge, they spent £60m on thinking about it, realised it will cost over a £1bn and abandoned the project.

Auros agrees:

Baumol's Cost Disease and concepts of comparative advantage are critical in here. And you can tell, because actually we _are_ still building, or re-building, a few of these -- there was active renovation on Notre Dame (which went horribly wrong with an accidental fire), and Sagrada Familia is actively under construction. But the cost to employ skilled masons to produce that kind of ornamental stonework has gone up _drastically_ relative to the baseline of what laborers broadly earn. It used to be that if you were a lower class person with the aptitude for engineering, "mason" was probably your best career choice. And you could still choose that! But you also could be any of a dozen other flavors of engineer, and many of those choices would carry considerably less risk of bodily harm, plus many of them have the "bits versus atoms" leverage, such that your work can ultimately produce much more marginal revenue per hour of labor. The fact that the kind of person who might decide to become a mason has that kind of life choice available feeds back into what it costs to hire a mason.

If for a given pile of money, we can either build one beautiful art deco skyscraper, or twenty featureless cubes, then the people who have capital to allocate to buy office space are probably going to buy the featureless cubes.

And Max adds:

One 1994 attempt to construct a large building in a classical style (Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley) cost the owner ~$73m in 2021 dollars, and the quality of the workmanship still doesn't come close to what you see in the best examples of the 1800s.

Remember, the Baumol effect happens when new technology makes some industries more productive. Since the high-tech industries are so lucrative, wages go up. Then low-tech industries have to raise their wages so that their workers don’t all desert them for the high-tech industries. But since low-tech industries aren’t improving their productivity, they just because more expensive, full stop.

If stonemasonry is a low-tech industry, and new high-tech industries are arising all around it, stonemason wages could get prohibitively high (compared to everything else) until nobody wants to hire them anymore. This would create pressure for architectural styles that require as little masonry (or, generalized, human labor) as possible.

This has gotten me thinking about furniture.

I got a new place recently and have been looking for furnishings. Sometimes I look at people’s furniture Pinterests. If Pinterest is any kind of representative window into the soul of the modern furniture-enthusiast, people really like Art Nouveau. Typical pictures that people pin will look like this:

As far as I can tell, you can’t buy any of these anywhere - they’re a combination of antiques and concept pieces. The people who pin these and pine after these end up getting minimalist Scandinavian furniture with names like UJLIBLÖK, just like everyone else.

Anything that even comes close to the above costs high four to five digits. I don’t know if this is because it’s antique, because it requires more labor, or both.

But this isn’t an antique, and it doesn’t,uh, seem to be going for the high-end classy market, yet it still costs $2399. Maybe this is because it actually costs a lot to produce?

I’m harping on furniture because it avoids a lot of the complicating factors in architecture. There isn’t some vague collection of “elites” making our furniture decisions. It’s a pretty free market! There are lots of normal middle-class people spending big chunks of money on furniture, lots of them really really like the old stuff, and the old stuff is still either unavailable or unaffordable. It seems like it used to be affordable - it wasn’t just kings and dukes who had the old Art Nouveau stuff - but for some reason that’s changed. I think Baumol effects offer a tidy explanation here, and if we use them to explain furniture, then they start looking really attractive for architecture.

I want this one to be true, because it exonerates our civilization. If we could make things like the Art Nouveau furniture above, or the Taj Mahal, relatively cheaply and easily, then the question of why we aren’t doing that demands an answer. If it’s just a quirk of basic economics, then our civilization is fine, and maybe we can hope that stoneworking technology advances to the point where we can do this kind of thing again cheaply.

My big remaining objection is: if this is true, why isn’t it obvious? How come we don’t have architects saying “Of course I’d like to build something ornate, but it costs too much”? How come we don’t have rich people (and the occasional cash-flush government working on a monument that it really cares about) saying “screw the price, I really want this one thing to look nice”? I feel like I’m doing some kind of weird archaeology here to try to discover why this happens, whereas every single person in architecture and construction and so on should know whether or not this is true.

Even if Baumol is part of the explanation, there must be some other part, a kind of Stockholm Sydrome style explanation for why, after it became hard to build ornate things, we went all sour grapes and decided that actually, ornateness is bad. I don’t want to speculate further here, because the responsible thing to do would be to actually figure out the economics here before moving on to the consequences of the economics; I have a friend who might work on that and I’m going to hold off until they’re done.

Jacob writes:

Any theory of this change has to account for buildings like this one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheikh_Zayed_Mosque

And this one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swaminarayan_Akshardham_(New_Delhi)

The things that these two buildings have in common are:

- Built by very low-wage South Asian laborers (maybe the economic explanations really do matter?)

- Religious and nationalist goals (thus designed to express/elicit popular not elite sentiments?)

I'm sure there are other examples as well, but these were the first two that came to mind. Both are very very impressive IRL! In particular, the pietra dura work on the Sheikh Zayed mosque is very similar in both style and quality to that of the Taj Mahal.

Related, from aesthetics tweeter Xirong:

Thailand seems to have a daily minimum wage of $10, which probably works out to a little over a dollar an hour, which is probably close to what the West was paying people back when it had Art Nouveau and such. I don’t know if this is a coincidence.

But Kaleberg argues the exact opposite point:

Architectural ornament is much cheaper than it used to be, so it is less important. There was a big boom in statues and curlicues in the late 19th century and into the early 20th, but a lot of it was about new techniques for sculpting forms in stone or metal. All those charming buildings in NYC's Chelsea were the result of the falling cost of cast iron fixings. Sure, adorn your office or apartment building with colonnades and six dozen statues of Audrey Munsen and see if you impress anyone.

BronxZooCobra agrees:

The other issue I had explained to me involves the Queen Anne style Victorian. A generation before that kind of detail would have been ruinously expensive. But with new technology they were able to mass produce all those wooden details. For a while poorer (but obviously not poor) people used that to build houses that were above their station. And then the rich had to go in the opposite direction and go much simpler.

This is a red Quuen Anne Victorian home with wrap-around porch and arches.
A Queen Anne style house (source)

Okay, this ought to be an empirical question. Does architectural ornament cost more or less than it used to? If somebody does a deep dive into this, I will absolutely link them. If you think you could do exceptionally good research in exchange for money, please contact me.

William Cunningham frames the political angle a little differently:

There are some interesting side details to this. 1) civil engineers *hate* the fancy parts of new architecture frequently. Turns out that if something looks impossible, it’s often at least very hard. 2) building code, building science, even availability of materials and construction crews familiar with particular techniques are often huge constraints on this sort of thing. LEED gold certification is a big deal for any entity capable of affording a classical style massive building, and in many ways it actively insists on not doing the things that make classical buildings last. Watch just about anything by Joe Lstiburek where he discusses wall and window efficiency and issues, and marvel at how poorly we build buildings these days. 3) good luck getting the permits in a typical city to build something like the Art Deco Detroit Train Station — it’s massively too big for its neighborhood these days and all the “in character for the area” crap isn’t going to be easy for the cool old giant buildings. I don’t have great evidence that this is the case, but I have a feeling that selling a small group of “elite” people like a planning board on the exciting new thing is easier than an Art Deco style fancy building. 4) cost to do a lot of the old style things has skyrocketed, so going cheap or justifying new expensive on environmental grounds is the new way of the world.

Yeep says:

Part of the issue is building something traditional that meets modern standards for things like insulation is prohibitively expensive. Most of those Barrett homes are still modern timber frame with a facade of stone or brick on the outside, the more offensive ones don't even put the stone somewhere that makes sense from a structural view, it's obviously just a decorative layer.

There's currently a new house being built near where I live entirely out of stone, complete with masons and chisels on site, presumably because it's in a conservation area and had to match the surrounding properties. But it looks like they're building a traditional stone shell then lining it with what is effectively an entire modern house on the inside, which is going to be almost as expensive as building two houses.

And one of the responses is by Jim, who is finally (hallelujah!) a real architect. He writes:

I'm a professional architect, albeit one of the minority who does traditional design work. Will try to answer a few of your questions here and below.

>>But if the changes wrought by these thinkers are so unpopular, why haven't market forces simply swept them away? People have agency over which art they buy, which galleries they visit and over which houses they buy. In the UK, where I'm based, basic market logic supports your intuitions: old houses command a premium. But that preference hasn't been carried through into the housing projects that are built.

Because almost all of the architects are modernists, and you need to hire an architect to get a new building built. The complexity of design and construction has increased enormously in the past century, in part because of new technologies and in part because of regulation. The design professionals have the licenses and expertise that you need to navigate the maze, which puts you at their mercy. They can throw you a few bones by making vague references to your preferred aesthetic, but mostly they’ll do what they’ve been taught to do and like.

And since modernism is all they know, even their sincere attempts to do traditional design work tends to generate kitsch. That goes to your comment about Poundbury below.

This goes back to a point I revisit a lot: capitalism is still not capitalist enough. No matter how hard you try to get everything based on money and market forces, it’s still controlled by kind of elite taste and sense of “wouldn’t want to make waves”. We need double-capitalism - no, fifty capitalisms!

Jim continues:

The funny thing is that, in my experience of actually dealing with them, NIMBYs are motivated in part by the sheer ugliness of so much new development. The YIMBYs hate on the historical commissions and their stringent design reviews, but it never occurs to them that if new developments looked more like the historic districts they degrade, people might actually support them more.

Note that the preservation movement followed close on the heels of widespread modernist building. It's quite possible that modernist architecture has had an enormous, though indirect, negative economic impact on middle class Americans by driving land use restrictions that make housing more expensive.

Oh, thank goodness - finally a way to turn this into an EA cause!

I also got some comments from a professional sociologist, Cicada Meth Orgy Fungus (look, people on Twitter have weird names sometimes). He writes:

…with the recent stuff being this and this.

Some people mention Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which apparently has a chapter on this. It contrasts a traditional idea that architecture needs to appeal to some innate sense of beauty vs. a modern idea that there are no innate senses and so it can be whatever is easiest or more politically convenient. Fluffy Buffalo writes:

I think Steven Pinker had some good insights on that issue in "The Blank Slate". If I remember the argument correctly: modernist architecture/ city planning/ art came into fashion as the conviction spread that there was no such thing as a "human nature" - that, in fact, human tastes and human society were nearly totally malleable, and shaped by their surroundings.

That can take different flavors: the proactive approach is, if you thought that the olden ways were bad and needed to be changed (and after centuries of monarchy, after the excesses of the industrial revolution, and after World War I, there was good reason to believe that), getting rid of the art and architecture of these periods and replacing them with something radically different was a good first step toward molding a new society. This was explicit in communist countries, maybe less so in democratic ones.

The lazy approach is, if people don't have innate preferences, you don't have to worry about making buildings aesthetically pleasing, providing green spaces etc. You can build stuff as cheap and as functional as you can make it, and after a generation no one will miss the pretty old houses and cozy parks. That was probably the thinking behind a lot of post-war planning in Europe - partly out of necessity, because the old stuff was lying in ruins, and rebuilding it close to the original would have been a luxury that would have been hard to justify. The same approach is also present in US housing projects from the 70s onward. And in office buildings around the world, for that matter :-/

Did this reshaping work? Yes and no - we ended up in a place where people still miss the old elaborate styles (because, IMO, they did tap into universal human aesthetic preferences) and pay good money to travel to see the old masterpieces of art and architecture, but where it would still feel weird and anachronistic to just bring them back. It may be time to find a new twist - a new way to please those preferences that doesn't feel 100% rehashed old-school. In architecture, I think new technologies should help a lot - with 3D painters, CNC machines, robots, CAD and AI, it shouldn't be too hard to come up with a way to produce eye-pleasing ornaments , murals and building shapes at a reasonable price. But no one is doing it, because the current crop of architects can apparently only think in steel, concrete and glass.

Michael Watts quotes Pinker at more length:

Steven Pinker devoted a chapter ("The Arts") of The Blank Slate to this question. He comes down pretty strongly in support of the idea that the elites do this stuff *because* people don't like it. (As presented above, "Maybe elites are specifically trying to signal not being commoners, by choosing the opposite of commoners’ aesthetic preferences?")

Modernism certainly proceeded *as if* human nature had changed. All the tricks that artists had used for millennia to please the human palate were cast aside. In painting, realistic depictions gave way to freakish distortions of shape and color and then to abstract grids, shapes, dribbles, splashes, and, in the $200,000 painting featured in the recent comedy *Art*, a blank white canvas. In literature, omniscient narration, structured plots, the orderly introduction of characters, and general readability were replaced by a stream of consciousness, events presented out of order, baffling characters and causal sequences, subjective and disjointed narration, and difficult prose. In poetry, the use of rhyme, meter, verse structure, and clarity were frequently abandoned. In music, conventional rhythm and melody were set aside in favor of atonal, serial, dissonant, and twelve-tone compositions. In architecture, ornamentation, human scale, garden space, and traditional craftsmanship went out the window (or would have if the windows could have been opened), and buildings were "machines for living" made of industrial materials in boxy shapes.

Why did the artistic elite spearhead a movement that called for such masochism? In part it was touted as a reaction to the complacency of the Victorian era and to the naive bourgeois belief in certain knowledge, inevitable progress, and the justice of the social order. Weird and disturbing art was supposed to remind people that the world was a weird and disturbing place.

But modernism wanted to do more than just afflict the comfortable. Its glorification of pure form and its disdain for easy beauty and bourgeois pleasure had an explicit rationale and a political and spiritual agenda.

Modernist and postmodernist critics fail to acknowledge another feature of human nature that drives the arts: the hunger for status, especially their *own* hunger for status.

The problem is that whenever people seek rare things, entrepreneurs make them less rare, and whenever a dazzling performance is imitated, it can become commonplace. The result is the perennial turnover of styles in the arts.

In twentieth-century art, the search for the new thing became desperate because of the economies of mass production and the affluence of the middle class. As cameras, art reproductions, radios, records, magazines, movies, and paperbacks became affordable, ordinary people could buy art by the carload. It is hard to distinguish oneself as a good artist or discerning connoisseur if people are up to their ears in the stuff, much of it of reasonable artistic merit. The problem for artists is not that popular culture is so bad but that it is so good, at least some of the time. Art could no longer confer prestige by the rarity or excellence of the works themselves, so it had to confer it by the rarity of the powers of appreciation.

[O]nly a special elite of initiates could get the point of the new workds of art. And with beautiful things spewing out of printing presses and record plants, distinctive works need not be beautiful. Indeed, they had better not be, because now any schmo could have beautiful things.

In his 1913 book Art, the critic Clive Bell [] argued that beauty had no place in good art because it was rooted in crass experiences.

Thirty-five years later, the abstract painter Barnett Newman approvingly declared that the impulse of modern art was "the desire to destroy beauty".

In the year 2000, the composer Stefania de Kenessey puckishly announced a new "movement" in the arts, Derrière Guard, which celebrates beauty, technique, and narrative. If that sounds too innocuous to count as a movement, consider the response of the director of the Whitney, the shrine of the dismembered-torso establishment, who called the members of the movement "a bunch of crypto-Nazi conservative bullshitters."

I mentioned that last anecdote to the art teacher in my high school, and was surprised to get a fairly enthusiastic response to the effect that yes, there is a raging controversy over whether art should be beautiful, and if not, whether beautiful art should even be allowed. She directed me to a recent story, clipped and posted to her bulletin board, about a city which had arranged for a public art project, seen the proposal somehow come in as a larger-than-life statue of Poseidon in the form of a merman holding the reins of five orcas, canceled the project because *that's just not the sort of thing we do*, and run into the absolutely unprecedented problem of massive public support for the public art project they wanted to cancel.

Other people focus more on the idea of deliberate ugliness because our civilization doesn’t deserve beautiful things. Aka writes:

So so much postwar art is exactly about this, clearly and explicitly. please read some midcentury criticism or like any art history or theory. I dare you to read this: https://www.amazon.com/Art-Culture-Critical-Clement-Greenberg/dp/0807066818

And Pachyderminator:

Theodore Adorno famously said "It is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz."

Some people were very insistent about this, saying that I was stupid for not having read the primary sources where post-WWII builders explain that this is exactly what they are doing. I admit that my claim in the original post that I hadn’t heard people say this before had more to do with my own ignorance than with what other people had said, and I will try to read those sources, but I think these people’s strident tone is a bit misplaced. Even granting that many people said that, there still seems to be a mystery here. Did Google think about the horrors of WWII before deciding to build a kind of ugly headquarters? Did some random 1990s suburb think about the horrors of WWII before deciding to build a kind of ugly City Hall?

Usually there is some group of people with some silly idea, like “let’s only build ugly things to remind ourselves of the horrors of WWII”, and they make like five things, and then the market gives ordinary people what they want, which is pretty things (at least for some watered-down mass market definition of “pretty”). If someone said “let’s only eat bad food from now on to remember 9-11”, it would never work. Heck, people won’t eat slightly-worse-tasting food to avoid diabetes and save their own lives. If some group of architects actually coordinated the entire world into only building ugly buildings for 70 years to in order to make an important moral point, this would be one of the most impressive acts of coordination in the history of the world. We should find these same architects and ask them to coordinate us into only building environmentally-sound buildings in order to prevent climate change, or whatever.

I guess I’m willing to accept “some people did this originally, and those people were cool, and then that became the cool thing, and then we ended up in a vicious cycle where everyone has to pretend to like it”, but if that were true it would still be pretty astonishing.

Also, are we still doing this? Because people like Frank Gehry are making stuff like this:

Frank Gehry - interview - DesignCurial

…which doesn’t exactly scream “penitence” or “silent contemplation of the evil within us all”.

Phil Getz goes…a lot deeper than I was expecting:

I've been exploring the question you're asking for the past several years. I haven't got a well-organized answer yet, nor time today to say much. But this isn't an isolated phenomenon. Rather, it's a pattern that has repeated throughout history and around the world, one of naturalist art executed with great skill being deliberately replaced with highly abstract art not requiring as much skill.

- The cave paintings of Chauvet Cave in France ca 30,000 BP (before present) are more natural and technically much more sophisticated than any cave or rock paintings found after 20,000 BP (some of which are quite abstract and stylized).

- The stone "goddess" idols of Europe circa 6000 BP were more realistic than their artistic descendants, the highly abstract, smooth, angular stone "idols" of the Cyclades, ca. 5000 BP, which were strong influences on modern art.

- Minoan and Mycenaean art (circa 2000 BCE) were both much more naturalistic and sophisticated than the highly abstract Greek art of the Geometric and Archaic periods.

- Ancient Egypt produced extremely skilled naturalistic art, and very stylized, abstract, and seemingly less skillful art at the same time. Check out the art of the pharaoh Akhenaten, who briefly introduced very naturalistic, realistic art, and was erased from history after his death. Note that most Egyptian wall paintings are Cubist.

- The representational art of Western Europe, starting with Constantine, and throughout the Middle Ages (with the exception of the Frankish court and some Byzantine art), up until nearly 1300 AD, seems to have been very deliberately bad, and in many times and places it was banned entirely. This was probably due to Christianity and Islam both having a horror of the misleading power of representational art (which fear came straight out of Plato). Note much medieval art was also Cubist.

- 19th century African art, which is what everyone today thinks of as "African art", is nearly all highly abstract and anti-naturalistic (and was also a big influence on modern art). Yet the very few pieces of pre-colonial African art (pre-1500 CE) which we have are more naturalistic and technically sophisticated, including a few (from present-day Nigeria) that were more skillfully made than their European contemporaries. I've even seen a series of statues made in Benin, from IIRC 1400 to 1900 AD, which show the gradual loss of realism and heightening abstraction.

Don't think of this as "progress". We also see change in the opposite direction; e.g., the gradual naturalization of Greek art from the Archaic, through the Classical, and into the Hellenistic era. Art around the world has always cycled between the poles of naturalistic realism and abstract spiritualism. The former tends to appear in times of wealth, safety, sea trade, and intellectual freedom (e.g., Athens, Venice, Renaissance Italy, the Dutch Masters, Elizabethan England); the latter, in times of great crisis. I think this is because abstract art is, seemingly without exception, more spiritual in its motivation.

These two opposing types of art are based on two general opposing philosophies, one which takes the physical world as real versus one which takes the transcendent as real. Many artistic features of each recur consistently. For instance, abstract art is often linear, with clear black borders between solid (unshaded, unmixed) primary colors, cubist in perspective, & uses size and distance to denote spirituo-political rather than physical truths.

The underlying opposition is not so much stylistic, as about the "purpose" of art. "Spiritual" art comes from the point of view that one already possesses absolute Truth, and the purpose of art is only to indoctrinate (as in Plato). Nazi and Stalinist art both used "naturalistic" representational techniques, yet were spiritual in nature: they used art for the same propagandistic purposes as religions do; they always presented images of either the ideal or the demonic; they are generally images of power. Art that is naturalistic "in nature", by contrast, is made by people who are studying nature and trying to understand it, as opposed to people who scorn messy, "imperfect" nature in favor of their beautiful abstract "Truth". Naturalists don't see everything in terms of propaganda, power, and conflict.

The rise of modern art is well-documented. The motivation for its abstraction derived originally from Plato--modern art is supposed to be the artist-as-prophet providing humanity with a more-direct vision of Plato's transcendent forms; the argument for why representational art is bad comes straight from Plato's Meno. (Though many of the early modern artists got their Plato indirectly, through Christianity or Hegel; and Romanticism and the decadents were also major influences.) Those other periods of abstract art I just mentioned which were just then being discovered were also influential, as was medieval art.

But analysis of the rise of modern art has been hindered by the fact that it was an ideological movement which still controls academia and Western art institutions, and it has always been in that movement's interests to revise the past in order to blame its failures on its enemies. For instance, you'll commonly read that modern art began as a response to the horrors of WW1. The truth is quite the opposite: proto-modern artists were demanding a great war from about 1906, and got quite psyched up about WW1 (see eg Ezra Pound's BLAST). They believed Western civilization was systemically corrupt and needed to be utterly destroyed before they could create "true Art". (They used phrases like "a clean sweep" and "a great burning".) Albert Gleizes, one of the founders of Cubism, hoped for the complete destruction of cities and a return to a more pastoral, spiritual, community-oriented medieval lifestyle. The artists now paraded as "modern" to give the illusion that modern art was some sort of peace protest movement--e.g., Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen--weren't modernists at all; just read their poems. Not a single modernist technique among them.

Spencer Maynes writes:

One of the largest causes, as stated by Frank Lloyd Wright, Ezra Pound, Monet and other important early modernists themselves was the collision with minimalist Japanese culture/Zen philosophy in the late 1800's. Frank Lloyd Wright and other early modernist architects were heavily indebted to Japanese architecture (see https://franklloydwright.org/frank-lloyd-wright-and-japan/). Minimalist poetry descended from the haiku (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_a_Station_of_the_Metro).

Impressionist art was modelled after wood block prints (https://blog.artsper.com/en/a-closer-look/influence-of-japanese-art-on-western-artists/).

So minimalist modernism in the West may actually owe more to curiosity about Japan following the Meiji Restoration than to internal factors. As the rare person who actually enjoys (some) modernist buildings and art, I think this cultural appropriation was probably a good thing.

The ugliest buildings to me nowadays are probably McMansions. They try to imitate traditional 19th century or earlier building styles, but fail heavily, partially because Baumol's cost disease means less easy access to the heavy manual labor those styles required.

I might be the only person in the world who likes McMansions. They just look like nice, pleasant buildings made by people who want to vaguely enjoy the place where they live. Probably the least offensive thing people are making these days.

Left: the dreaded McMansion, widely reviled as an eyesore ruining the built environment. Right: a house designed by Valerio Ogliati, an a world-famous architect profiled by the New York Times last month.

Michael Watts brings up an aspect of signaling I’d forgotten about:

There is something to this point:

> This only works if making beautiful things is expensive. For example, the clothing of the Kanxi Emperor (first picture on left) required servants to create the intricate patterns, dyes that had to be harvested from finicky insects and rare plants, etc. Displaying your ornate dyed objects let everyone know you were rich. With the invention of sewing machines, industrial dyes, rhinestones, etc, even poor people could dress like the Kangxi Emperor.

[But] it is overstated. This problem was encountered by pretty much every traditional society, and they almost all implemented the obvious answer of sumptuary laws. Wearing yellow clothing in China could get you in serious trouble. Wearing clothes with dragons on them *would* get you in serious trouble. Feudal Ireland had a careful system in which your social status determined the number of different colors you were permitted to wear simultaneously. Etc. etc. etc.

And while imperial costumes are popular in modern China, and lots of people have them or rent them, they are, predictably, cheap imitations. A true imperial robe would be cheaper now than it was at the time, but it wouldn't exactly be cheap today.

Fern writes:

From my own reading the best theory I've seen is that we lost the language of beauty. It's a bit like trying to revive Latin. For any but the most genius artists to make beautiful things, you need centuries to build up a corpus of techniques, habits, useful misunderstandings, etc, so to raise the general level.

This level itself seems to be many things. Firstly technical, we literally don't have enough stone carvers, people don't understand the value of it, and economics compounds things in losing economies of scale.

Secondly cultural, surely you need a period of time for the taste of the audience to be both discovered and formed by art, and this in a coherent cultural context. Globalisation might kill art by removing context, as if you were to paint a painting without a canvas.

Thirdly there's freedom to follow patterns that lead towards beauty, paradoxically because we preach too much freedom. I personally suspect our lapse from making beautiful things has sewed ways of thinking that prevent any but the most extreme free thinkers from reconstituting the foundations for beauty, which is not the same skillset as an artist. I'm personally interested in rediscovering how buildings were ornamented, and managed to read an entire book that said nothing useful at all. A good example of a pattern in ornament that we'd struggle with today is that ornament isn't meant to overwhelm, it's decoration, it should develop and harmonise with building form. Today the artist is told to show their vision, but this harms them if they leave the canvas. Their idea of freedom prevents them from appreciating the nature of their restraints, and the new freedom that creates.

So I'm personally unsurprised that we're struggling to make beauty today, though it's a mystery how we got here in the first place. My best idea is high modernist mass construction undermined the economics of art long enough to break continuity of knowledge between generations, but his isn't a sufficient theory.

Hard disagree.

Here are some of the art installations from Burning Man:

This Harbor Is a Refuge for Burning Man Artwork—Without Burning Man Crowds  | Frommer's
Burning Man 2016 Andrew Jorgensen Art Of Burning Man 1

I will leave it up to you whether this is “true art” or “beautiful” or any of those vague terms. But nonprofessionals with limited budgets are making things very different from the usual modernist stuff. If we wanted our public art to look very different, we could do it tomorrow.

David, The Economic Model writes:

So, is it just me or is the Tartaria conspiracy theory… blatantly obviously correct? Like, our modern society has all the trappings of that sort of “twilight of the gods” fiction. We have technology which we still use despite being unable to produce it (nuclear power, skyscrapers, space travel), a culture of pessimism and trying to hold on to what we have over producing anything new, a decadent and onanistic upper class, a drugged-into-complacency lower class. Like, there’s nuttiness which I don’t accept, but this seems so abundantly obviously true-in-substance that I feel like it just barely counts as a “conspiracy theory”. Just scratch out the references to "Tartarian Empire" and replace it with "Interwar America" and it seems like a fairly accurate description of history.

I want to make it clear that even though I used the Tartarian conspiracy theory as a frame story for my (hopefully) reasonable speculations about art, the actual conspiracy theory is bonkers and not “basically correct” in any sense. I haven’t explored all the nooks and crannies, but I know part of it is that Tartaria was destroyed by a “Great Mud Flood” which explains why so many buildings have basements with bricked-up windows (I have never seen this - is it true? If so, what is the explanation?) I have been looking at the preview of this book, which appears to assert that (among other things) that Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin were the same person, but scientists have covered this up. It also includes the truly excellent sentence “Researchers concluded that history and science are probably a set of lies".

So no, this conspiracy isn’t just shorthand for “there’s been some technological regress over the past century.”

Summer writes:

i think you might be ignoring the role of novelty here. like, if youre the sort of person who is very interested in a given art form (say, designing buildings), youre gonna study them a lot, and then get bored of the types of buildings that already exist, and want to see and create new weird buildings. i mean, i agree that its weird and maybe bad that weird artsy buildings have become a thing for government buildings, but i dont think its surprising that the architecture world is interested in buildings that the average person isnt, because the average person doesnt want an interesting or novel building, they just want a good building (a reasonable desire!). its like stravinsky's atonal music. it sounds worse, like, aesthetically, but its very clearly weird and novel, and if you think about music all the time, (maybe) you want that..

i think the most famous and esteemed architecture of the last 50 years is *extremely* diverse. frank gehry vs frank lloyd wright vs moshe safdie vs zaha hadid look like they come from different planets.

In case you don’t immediately recognize all those names, here’s one top building from each:

Tom P adds:

In the 1800s, an elite person had probably only seen a few dozen magnificent buildings in their life. Today, every architect has seen (pictures of) nearly every magnificent building on Earth. So as the pool of comparable buildings has exponentially expanded (from dozens to thousands), novelty has become much more prized.

Daniel makes a similar point about music:

Prestige within a creative field is so tightly bound with novelty that it’s pretty much inevitable that ambitious new works must abandon older forms, even when many of the artists and elites may prefer them.

Personally, I think the greatest music ever written was from the Romantic era, specifically Beethoven’s symphonies. Plenty of music critics (classical ones, at least) would agree. And yet, nobody writes in that style anymore, and nobody seems to think anybody should be writing in that style. Romantic music is done, like it or not (I don’t).

And then it devolves into complicated discussions by people who know music theory a lot more than I do, for example Heinrich:

I agree with all this. I think where it gets challenging is where the most parsimonious ways of doing something, given the constraints of tonality and the other rules of music, have already been “taken”, so to speak. I think this may be true of fugal counterpoint, which seems to want to tend stylistically towards a kind of robust baroque language a la Bach and Handel, and no-one since the mid C18th has really been able to do it particularly differently. So do we accept that that’s basically how fugues sound, or do we resolve not to write fugues? Not sure

I think my objection to this is that modern buildings look alike to me on most axes. I understand that one is a pile of weirdly-shaped concrete blocks and another is a pile of differently-weirdly-shaped concrete blocks, and that in some sense those must be totally different architectural problems. But there’s no modern building that looks as different from any other modern building as either looks from a cathedral - let alone more different than a cathedral looks from a Chinese pagoda. If you were really trying to maximize variety, you should have a bunch of buildings that look “modern”, a bunch of buildings that look “traditional”, and a bunch of buildings exploring weird spaces in between or totally different from either. Instead every building looks modern in about the same way.

Why doesn’t anyone make a building with the structure of top left, but the color and decoration theme of bottom-right? Wouldn’t that actually be new and unusual?

Demost gives us a story from Germany:

The Berlin Stadtschloss ("city palace") was reconstructed in the last 10 years, and has just been officially inaugurated last week. It's mostly a reconstruction of the old style, with lots of ornaments.

There was (and is) a furious debate on whether the reconstruction should be in this ornamental, reconstructive style. As far as I can tell, one side of the debate included most of the architectural/artistic world, who would have favoured something modern and condemned the reconstruction as "fake Baroque palace.. a stage-set of an old capital, with phony, manufactured charm, erasing traces of the bad years of the 20th century."

The other side was the general public, who generally was in favour of lots of ornaments and its beautiful aesthetics. Perhaps untypically, the general public won this fight.


Fluffy Buffalo finishes the tale:

Except it didn't, really. Three sides were reconstructed in original, ornamental styles, and the fourth, facing the river, was designed in modern plain blocky-rectangly style ( https://www.smb.museum/nachrichten/detail/eroeffnung-des-humboldt-forums-am-17-dezember-2020/ ) ... and I was struck by how ugly it is, and how pointless the outcome of that redesign was.

And Webster gives us stories from Macedonia and Austria:

I think Skopje is a major counterargument to Scott's claim about people preferring traditional architectural styles. Briefly, the Macedonian government decided to build a bunch of public buildings and monuments in a neo-classical style to remind everyone of their ancient heritage - it looks awful, and everyone inside and outside the country agrees that the buildings are super kitschy and shouldn't have been built.

My interpretation is that people prefer *old* buildings, not *old-style* modern buildings. The 19th century saw a large number of buildings built in revivalist styles, mostly neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque, but most of these buildings are forgotten nowadays (compare the relative popularity of the Stephansdom and the Votivkirche in Vienna - they look the same, they're both located right in the centre of the city, but the Votivkirche barely gets any visitors).

I’m including this because I was in Vienna last week, I went to Stephansdom like everyone else, and then I got lost and stumbled into Votivkirche and thought - wait, this is at least as good as Stephansdom, why isn’t it in any of the tourist books, how come nobody else is here, what’s going on?

Maybe this is even more proof that I don’t have taste.

Deiseach gives us some more information about Luigi Bocconi University (the modern building on my comparison graphic). You can read the comment if you want to see the whole thing, but she quotes part of the architects’ prospectus, eg:

In order to make this grand place of exchange we thought about the research offices as beams of space, suspended to form a grand canopy which filters light to all levels. The offices form an inhabited roofscape. This floating canopy allows the space of the city to overlap with the life of the university. Allows internal and external public spaces to merge. The beehive world of the research is physically separate but always visually connected to the life of the lower levels

The underground accommodation is treated as an erupting landscape which offers support to the inhabited light filters above. Spatially this underground world is solid, dense and carved. We tried to establish a continuity between the 'landscape' of the city and the 'made landscape' of this undercroft […]

I used to hate this kind of stuff - it always reminded me of that one really pretentious Pepsi logo. But I recently visited the Sagrada Familia Museum, and it had quotes from Gaudi’s notebook, and he sounds exactly like this. So maybe it started with brilliant architects actually having thoughts like this, and then everyone else had to fake it in order to keep up?

Several people brought up opinions that the first generation to make non-traditional art (eg modern architecture, impressionist painting, Art Deco, jazz, e.e. cummings) were very good, original, and actually quite interesting critiques. Then every generation after that was terrible. They suggested something like that rebellion is good and constructive when you have a very specific thing you’re rebelling against, understand it inside and out, and are still in some sense “constrained” by the world it created, and then the generation after you doesn’t understand the traditional forms at all and just sort of does vague rebellion-adjacent things cluelessly in the hope of capturing some of the original energy.

This reminds me of Athrelon’s claim that first-generation Chinese-American immigrants insist on slavish adherence to all the (seemingly pointless) rules of Chinese culture, second-generation immigrants have the good parts of Chinese culture (driven, intelligent, lawful) without the bad parts, and third-generation immigrants lose the good parts and become indistinguishable from other Americans. Maybe rebellion can be good and productive for one generation, and after that you’re just confused.

Simultan writes:

You may find my interview with the neo-romantic composer corentin boissier interesting: https://www.erichgrunewald.com/posts/interview-with-corentin-boissier-romanticism-modernism-composition/

CORENTIN: Always wanting to experiment further, to move forward, is part of human nature. The use of new chords and more and more complex rhythms in order to express as closely as possible the spirit of the new times has led to the dissolution of tonality. As long as it remained natural, this evolution produced masterworks in which tradition and novelty coexist in infinitely variable percentages. The dosage was sometimes explosive, sometimes tousling, but often successful.

Today, I’m more convinced than ever that there is no natural border between styles. The schools may be opposed but not the styles, which should complement each other. But in the 1960s, suddenly it was all about serialism and electro-acoustic music; there was the quasi-institutional obligation to wipe out the past, and the subsidies only went to what has been called “contemporary music” (the word “contemporary” being abusively linked to a style instead of just meaning “of our time”). Without this political, ideological, and basically non-artistic doctrine, there would have been a natural complementarity between tradition and innovation, in music as in all other arts.


ERICH: I know some great American composers, like Arnold Rosner and Harold Shapero, have spoken of having felt alienated in American music departments, due to the dogmatic serialism there. In your experience, have the conservatoires of Paris been more accepting of 19th-century idioms?

CORENTIN: Absolutely not – quite the contrary! Western Europe, and France in particular, has spearheaded this systematic destruction of all artistic tradition, of any style that could be related to the past. The conservatories have been forced to practice a clean slate policy. This undermining action, well supervised by the institutions and the media, has had the disastrous result that, for several decades, composition – in the original sense of the word – is no longer taught in the conservatories. I did all my musical courses at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique (CNSM) of Paris. I obtained five Prizes … but I was not able to attempt the “Composition” Prize since this Prize is only for composers of so-called “contemporary” music, that is to say “experimental”.

Many people recommended books or papers on this subject. I haven’t read them yet, but the most enthusiastically mooted were:

The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction
From Bauhaus To Our House
The Rite of Spring by Modris Eksteins
Art and Culture: Critical Essays by Clement Greenberg
The Intellectuals and the Masses. Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia 1880-1939
Shock of the New (TV series)
The Civilizing Process by Norbert Elias
Distinction by Bourdieu

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Bangkok, Thailand – ACX Meetups Everywhere 2021

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Published on September 22, 2021 7:58 PM GMT

This year's ACX Meetup everywhere in Bangkok, Thailand.

Location: Benjasiri park, Phrom Phong. By the skatepark. I will be wearing a blue shirt and carrying a sign.

Contact: robert.d.hoglund@gmail.com

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Maybe I should use my blurblog more. And the social aspect of this thing.
It could be interesting.
It can also be linked from LALALALA
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An (actual) explanation of climate change.

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I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” This is a special Friday edition. If someone forwarded you this email, or you found this online, it’s a sign you should subscribe.

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This read: 15 minutes.

One of the most common refrains on the topic of climate change is that it “shouldn’t be a political issue.”

The reason for that, in many people’s eyes, is that it’s purely a scientific issue. Ideally, this ought to be true. The snag is that addressing climate change is a deeply political issue — it’s something that will almost certainly require human action, government intervention, private sector buy-in, and efforts from the global citizenry as a whole. In many cases, it could involve actual lifestyle changes.

Whether you view climate change as a political issue or not is actually irrelevant, because it has become one. That means, as a political journalist, I’ve had to cover it. 

Over the course of my career as a reporter, I’ve actually done quite a bit of work on climate change. I’ve reported on the band of teenagers who sued the U.S. government for its role in allowing climate change, which they argued was an infringement on their liberty. I’ve reported on dozens of pieces of climate change legislation. I’ve reported on candidates — from presidential to local levels — who decided to run on a climate change platform (and how it impacted their races). And I’ve also reported on the climate change skeptics: the politicians, pundits, political donors and energy executives who have argued that the threat of climate change is being vastly overstated by the left.

Photo by Dorothe form PxHere

I’m not a dogmatic person. I’ve changed my mind about all sorts of critical issues over the years, from gun control to the existence of God to UFOs to how to solve our broken immigration crisis. I’ve changed my mind about politicians like Barack Obama and moved my position on hot-button issues like critical race theory. I say this all to note that I’m open: I enjoy being wrong. I find it exhilarating and terrible and fun and ultimately it has always helped me grow.

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And in all this time reporting on this issue, learning about it, engaging with a wide range of views, my perspective has really not moved much. I believe we are witnessing a period of time where humans are causing the Earth to warm; I believe that warming will have catastrophic impacts on the planet that will probably fall to our grandchildren but that we are beginning to witness now; I believe that the issue is complex, but that the science can be easy to follow. I also believe this will be a defining issue — politically, scientifically and globally, in everyday life — for the next 100 years.

Today’s edition is not about the politics of climate change. It’s not about what we should do to address it, or what pieces of legislation are best, or which party is in denial. Instead, as a staff, and with the consultation of climatologists, we’re just going to try to give you a thorough understanding of the scientific issues at hand. We’re going to do something far too few news outlets have done: explain what’s happening, what the science says, what the skeptics say, what we can reasonably infer from all of this, and what we don’t actually know yet.

And since this piece is covering a scientific issue, I collaborated more with the Tangle staff — and outside sources — than I usually do. A few months ago, we added an editor named Ari Weitzman to the team; you may remember that he pushed me to write about American Indian Reservations and supplied the introduction in a previous Friday edition. He also happens to have a degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Chicago and a deep interest in climate change. I’d like to thank him, because he did the bulk of the research and prep work for today’s edition: I’ve worked with him to try to make it easier to read, understand, and flesh out the most important points. I’ve also given him a byline on this piece for his work, which is the first time I’ve ever shared a byline in Tangle (we’re growing!).

Since this is a unique edition of Tangle, I’m especially interested in your feedback. And as a reminder, you can always reply to this email to reach me or, if you’re a subscriber, you can leave a comment on the article by clicking the headline of this piece in your email or going to our website, https://www.readtangle.com/

Finally, I encourage you to share today’s piece if you feel inclined. I have made it available to all Tangle readers.

Some basics.

Joseph Fourier was a French mathematician who lived from 1786 to 1830. He isn’t very renowned today, except by scientists and mathematicians. Like many great thinkers, he has a namesake work: Fourier Analysis, which falls under a branch of mathematics called harmonics. However, part of Fourier’s most significant work was his study of heat and conduction. 

In 1824, Fourier wondered about the Earth’s temperature. After conducting a rudimentary analysis, he concluded that the Earth was warmer than it should be given that its only heat source is the sun. Fourier theorized that something must be insulating the planet to prevent heat from the sun from radiating back into space, and proposed that gases in our atmosphere trap and radiate heat back to the surface.

Over the coming century researchers would reaffirm this theory, and today we know this concept as something called the greenhouse effect. 

It’s actually a rather simple idea: The Earth’s atmosphere allows most direct sunlight through, where it is absorbed by the planet and re-emitted back as heat energy. Imagine a strip of asphalt in direct sunlight. When you stand over it, you can feel the heat emanating from the surface. On a planetary scale the Earth is doing the same thing, and some surfaces like exposed rock and asphalt radiate more heat than others like plant cover or ice sheets. A portion of that heat is then insulated by the atmosphere, and reradiated back to the surface. This is a natural process that allows Earth to retain energy from the sun, and regulate its temperature.

We call the gases in our atmosphere that insulate this heat “greenhouse gases.” Here is the technical definition from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):  

“Many chemical compounds present in Earth's atmosphere behave as 'greenhouse gases'. These are gases which allow direct sunlight (relative shortwave energy) to reach the Earth's surface unimpeded. As the shortwave energy (that in the visible and ultraviolet portion of the spectra) heats the surface, longer-wave (infrared) energy (heat) is reradiated to the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases absorb this energy, thereby allowing less heat to escape back to space, and 'trapping' it in the lower atmosphere.”

In other words: greenhouse gases are those that let sunlight (and its energy) through, but then stop that energy and heat from going back into space.

These gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. The EPA’s website is an informative source of information on the wide variations in the energy absorption strength, lifespans in the atmosphere, and sources of all of these gases. Fluorinated gases are very powerful greenhouse gases and can live in the atmosphere for up to 270 years, but they aren’t naturally produced and are emitted from human activities (primarily as aerosols and refrigerants) at a much lower rate than other greenhouse gases. Conversely, carbon dioxide is a much less powerful greenhouse gas, but is produced both through natural process and human activity, and at a much higher rate. 

In the United States, carbon dioxide emissions are roughly five times larger by volume than emissions of all other greenhouse gases combined. Carbon dioxide is also a part of what’s called the global carbon cycle, which we’ll explain in more detail in a second. Generally, the carbon cycle is a process where geochemical and biological events play a role in how carbon dioxide is processed (like, say, by being absorbed into the ocean). This means some excess carbon dioxide will be naturally processed by the planet, while some will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

The carbon cycle.

Even though it’s a “less powerful” greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide gets a lot of attention because of the length of time it remains in the atmosphere and the huge volume at which humans emit it. Primarily, climatologists are concerned with carbon dioxide in relation to the atmosphere’s greenhouse effect. As its name suggests, CO2 is a molecule composed of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. As with methane (CH4: one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms), a more powerful greenhouse gas that is emitted at a much lower rate and lives on in the atmosphere for about a decade, carbon dioxide contains carbon.

One thing you’ll often hear from people skeptical of the threat of climate change is that carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring component of life on Earth. This is the kind of challenge that is both true and misleading: it’s true that carbon dioxide is natural and critical to life. It’s misleading to suggest that means everything is fine if we’re emitting additional millions of tons of it into the atmosphere every year.

As NASA writes, “Carbon is the backbone of life on Earth. We are made of carbon, we eat carbon, and our civilizations—our economies, our homes, our means of transport—are built on carbon.” Carbon exists naturally in the landmasses of the Earth, the ocean, and the atmosphere. It is also naturally exchanged through these three reservoirs in a process known as the carbon cycle. Over hundreds of millions of years, the balance of carbon in these reservoirs may vary, but the geologic (i.e. occurring over a time scale of millions of years) exchange between them has remained relatively consistent over time. In fact, for the 50 million years prior to 1890, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were dropping, and the planet — with some periodic fluctuations — was cooling

Again: this is an accurate point often made by people skeptical of the dangers of climate change, interpreting real science to come to a misleadingly comfortable position of unconcern (of course, it’s also worth pointing out the obvious: The scientists who are telling us the world has been cooling on a geological scale are also the ones sounding the alarms about climate change). 

Still, as more and more carbon has been released into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution, the carbon cycle has seen one noteworthy change: the exchange of carbon between the ocean and atmosphere has tipped towards the ocean absorbing much more carbon than it is releasing. On one hand, the ocean absorbing as much as a third of global carbon has provided a regulating effect on heating and has prevented extreme warming from occurring over the last 100 years. On the other hand, for the health of ocean life, it’s extremely bad. One of the ways we know that the ocean is absorbing carbon is that it’s acidifying, significantly. From NOAA again

Carbon dioxide, which is naturally in the atmosphere, dissolves into seawater. Water and carbon dioxide combine to form carbonic acid (H2CO3), a weak acid that breaks (or “dissociates”) into hydrogen ions (H+) and bicarbonate ions (HCO3-).

Because of human-driven increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there is more CO2 dissolving into the ocean. The ocean’s average pH is now around 8.1, which is basic (or alkaline), but as the ocean continues to absorb more CO2, the pH decreases and the ocean becomes more acidic.

Global warming.

The interplay between the greenhouse effect, the lifespan of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the carbon cycle presents a basis for the theory of human-caused (or anthropogenic) global warming. As early as 1896, the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius suggested that the global trend of fossil fuel combustion would result in a warming Earth. 

Once again, the theory is fairly direct: more fossil fuels burned means more carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. The more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the longer it takes the natural carbon cycle to transfer the carbon to the land and ocean, and so it accumulates. The accumulating carbon dioxide enhances the greenhouse effect and results in more heat being contained by the atmosphere. This drives global mean temperatures higher. 

It would take some time for Arrhenius to be proven right. Due to Earth (at a geological scale) being in a cooling phase, the planet’s natural capability for self-regulation, and the sheer magnitude of the process of global climate change, our planet’s global mean temperature would not be observed to dramatically curve upwards until the 1980s. In 1988, The New York Times reported that “temperatures have been rising more or less steadily for much of the last century. But, in the view of some scientists, a sharper rise detected in the 1980s is the most persuasive evidence yet that carbon dioxide and other industrial gases are trapping heat in the atmosphere and warming the earth as if it were a greenhouse.”

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The support for anthropogenic factors causing global warming requires data on a large scale — which we have. One of the most iconic visualizations of such data has come from Charles David Keeling’s observations at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which he began making in 1958 and whose observatory is still gathering data to this day. The Keeling Curve, as it’s widely known, is a chart that demonstrates the increase of atmospheric concentration of carbon over time. It looks like this:

Since 1958, carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has increased from 320 parts per million (ppm is on the Y-axis in the above chart) to 420 ppm. The Keeling Curve also demonstrates annual seasonal variability of atmospheric carbon, which had previously only been theorized. Since the large majority of plant life on Earth is in the northern hemisphere, plants will be “breathing” more in the summer — emitting more oxygen and absorbing more CO2. See how the curve on the graph has a jagged, saw-tooth pattern? That pattern confirmed the seasonal variability theory to scientists, and that expected pattern reinforces the reliability of the data from Mauna Loa.

Further, with recent advances in technology, we have been able to accurately read carbon concentrations in the atmosphere through studying samples called ice cores retrieved from ice sheets and glaciers. When we take the Mauna Loa observations and append them to the hundreds of thousands of years of ice core data, the atmospheric concentration of carbon over time looks like this:

The data speaks for itself. And given what it shows us, it appears impossible to refute Arrhenius’s theory that human beings have measurably increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

As we’d expect, given this concentration of carbon dioxide, Earth’s global mean temperature has been increasing for over a century, with a particularly sharp increase in the 1980’s. Geologically, however, Earth is far from the hottest it has ever been, which is demonstrated in this chart:

Without ice core data to extend back hundreds of millions of years ago, when the Earth was so hot that there were no glaciers or ice caps, it is hard to get an accurate understanding of the level of carbon in the atmosphere at that time. Through a new methodology that uses seismic tomography, however, scientists in the Netherlands believe that the carbon dioxide concentration was about twice as much as it is today — which supports the understanding that atmospheric carbon drives global temperatures.

Additionally, it is important to think about the scale represented in the temperature graph above. The entirety of the ice core data we have corresponds to the extreme right-hand portion of the chart — the part above the letter “y” in the word “Today” on the x-axis. The wide fluctuations in global temperature shown above to have occured over thousands to millions of years are due to a combination of complex factors. Over a period of a hundred years, however, an increase of a few degrees Fahrenheit sticks out. It is notable, and likely due to a singular cause. During one such major increase marked above, the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a massive atmospheric carbon spike accompanied an observed acidification of the ocean, again reinforcing our understanding of the carbon cycle and temperatures.

The causal relationship between atmospheric carbon and temperature increase that was theorized in 1896 and demonstrated during the PETM is being demonstrated again now. Since atmospheric carbon began increasing in 1880, global mean temperatures have risen over a degree Celsius (about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit).


The data indicate a clear trend in increasing temperatures starting in the 1980s and continuing to this day. Since climate change theorists have long understood the connection between carbon dioxide and global temperature, there has been no shortage of models that have attempted to forecast future temperatures. One good way to challenge the anthropogenic warming theory, and evaluate if it is correct, is to look at the performance of the models that assume human-caused warming. In a metastudy performed by NASA that evaluated 17 warming models from 1970 to 2007, the research team found that 14 fit observed data, with 10 “closely matching observations.”

And what are models forecasting now? Current warming will create future warming

This forecasted increase is due to a process called a positive feedback loop, which is a process whose outputs increase its inputs, thereby causing the process to accelerate. Positive feedback loops can happen in different ways, but here are a few concerning ones that we’ve already observed: 

  • More heat means a higher concentration of water vapor can be trapped in the atmosphere. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas, which means more warming, which means more water vapor in the atmosphere.

  • The ice caps and glaciers reflect sunlight back into space, so it can’t be absorbed and reradiated back as infrared light to be trapped by the gases in our atmosphere. This helps keep the planet cool. But as global temperatures get warmer, the ice caps melt, meaning less sunlight is reflected back... which means more sunlight is absorbed and radiated as heat, which means more melting.

  • Methane and carbon dioxide are trapped in permafrost — soil that remains frozen all year round. There is a lot of carbon stored in permafrost in the Siberian and Canadian tundras, for example. Higher temperatures mean melting permafrost, which means more carbon released into the atmosphere, which means more permafrost melting even faster.

It isn’t all bad news, though. There are actually a few negative feedback loops, too, all of which are projected to help regulate the warming process. 

  • Warming means more evaporation, which means more cloud cover. Clouds reflect sunlight back into space, which decreases warming.

  • The hotter the earth gets, the faster it radiates heat out to space. The faster heat is lost by the planet, the more slowly its warming occurs.

  • Human behavior causes emissions that cause warming, which humans notice and use to evaluate their own behavior. This evaluation causes less emissions… we hope.

In general, scientific models are projecting a two-to-five degree celsius increase in global mean temperatures between now and 2100. The largest unknown factors are the natural variations in Earth’s carbon cycle and how much intervention humans will be able and willing to take. However, due to the positive feedback loops that have already started, even extreme intervention is not likely to be enough to prevent some warming.

To put it another way, warming itself is a cause of warming. If our actions are left unchecked and we go about “business-as-usual,” the effects of warming will themselves be the leading cause of warming; at which point it will be too late for action. If those feedback loops become self-sustaining, there will be little we can do to prevent a “Hothouse Earth” and the resulting catastrophic effects.

Climate change.

“Global warming” is the general understanding that the Earth is getting hotter, and the implication and informed consensus is that human activity is driving that increase. “Climate change” refers to all the other effects, like the ocean acidification described above, that the global mean temperature increase will cause. These effects include changes in precipitation patterns, more droughts and heatwaves, a longer growing season, stronger hurricanes, and drastic sea level rise.

“Climate change” is mostly used as an umbrella term to refer to any changes to Earth’s climate that are caused primarily by the increase of atmospheric carbon from human beings, but the science behind it is based primarily on the understanding of anthropogenic warming.

Part of understanding climate change is grasping the magnitude and consequences of the climate’s changes to all life on Earth. The Earth itself has gone through hot phases before, and life on Earth will find a way to continue. However, biodiversity and stable environments, factors that human life on Earth depend on, will be greatly stressed. In fact, based on the warming we’ve already experienced, biodiversity is already being stressed. And since the planet has never experienced warming this quickly before, we don’t really know how such a sudden change to global climate will continue to affect life on Earth.

We know it won’t be a good thing, though. According to the journal Health Affairs, should temperatures increase by 1.5°C, a United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found that “of 105,000 species studied, four percent of vertebrates, six percent of insects and eight percent of plants would lose half of their climatically-determined geographic range. At 2°C the percents double to triple. At 1.5°C we will lose 70 to 90 percent of coral reefs, at 2°C there will be a 99 percent loss.” This will mean loss of habitable and arable land, which in turn mean mass migrations and decreased food production, which in turn mean human death and catastrophe at a scale that is hard to predict or imagine.


There has been doubt and skepticism leveled against climate change and global warming for as long as the terms have existed. Criticism over forecasting models and their performances have generally been in good faith, but theoretical criticisms of climate change are in many ways not much more reasonable than challenging Earth’s roundness. We actually have a very good understanding of what’s going on. And, as it happens, many of the loudest, most well-funded skeptics of climate change have either reversed course or been outed for pushing propaganda in order to boost their own profits (see: executives in the energy industries and the politicians they bankroll). 

Some of the most popular skeptic responses are as follows:

  1. All energy on Earth comes from the sun, so all changes in heat are due to the sun.

  2. The climate has changed before; it’s a natural process.

  3. Earth has been hotter before, so it’s not going to be destroyed.

  4. The Earth is getting warmer, but humans aren’t causing it.

  5. The Earth is getting warmer, but it won’t cause dire effects.

  6. There actually isn’t a scientific consensus about climate change.

  7. The temperature data isn’t reliable.

  8. Actually, the Earth is getting cooler.

Some of these points are not very strong. Most, like carbon dioxide being essential to life or the fact that the Earth is currently in a cooling cycle, are based on sound facts at their roots but fall apart under scrutiny. The popular science site skepticalscience.com provides more discussion and detail in response to these claims, and I encourage those interested to visit that website, but these are the basic rebuttals:

  1. A change in energy coming into Earth is due to the sun, a change in energy retained is not.

  2. Climate change may be a natural process, but it is not an exclusively natural process.

  3. The Earth won’t be destroyed, but that isn’t the concern. The concern is that the livable area for eight billion people will be greatly reduced and countless species on the Earth will be destroyed, which will be catastrophic.

  4. Humans are increasing greenhouse gases, which increases global temperature, which causes climate change.

  5. The effects are not disastrous at the moment, but we are only just beginning to see the dire effects of climate change.

  6. There is a consensus.

  7. The data is reliable.

  8. It is true that on a geological scale, the Earth had been cooling. For the past 100 years, however, the Earth has been warming. If anything, the fact that the Earth is warming as quickly as it is in the midst of this geologic cooling trend bolsters the argument that we’re living through anthropogenic warming. 

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Now what?

As I said in the beginning, this issue is not about telling you what can be done or what should be done or whose politics are right. Some people who believe climate change is a global threat have suggested very half-baked, self-defeating and ineffective solutions. Some people who have staked out political positions that are skeptical of the threat of climate change have simultaneously embraced solutions that may help control it for reasons other than fear of the climate crisis. The politics of all this, unlike the science, are not at all simple.

Others have seemingly lost their patience. David Archer, a professor of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago who Ari studied under, is an expert in the carbon cycle and climate. He is also a contributor to RealClimate.org, “a commentary site on climate science by climate scientists.”

We asked him which projections appeared most accurate in his view. “So far we’re following the worst-case ‘business-as-usual’ scenario,” he said in an email. “So doomsday people have been right.”

We asked him what individuals can do, given that some of the major greenhouse gas emitters are corporations. “Not much,” he told us. 

We asked him about efforts to reduce carbon footprints and the electric car revolution, which he described — in broad terms — as little more than “symbolic.” 

We asked him, globally, what actions could be taken — actions that are achievable — to obtain the lower end of climate change projections. “I’m not optimistic,” he said simply.

I don’t share all this to be a doomsayer or depressing, only to tell the truth as I see it. Archer’s skepticism is that of one man — an expert and a professor, who has seemingly experienced the frustration of screaming into the void for many years. Lots of experts share Archer’s skepticism. Lots of other experts believe we still have time, that technological advances and political will can answer the call. I share that belief myself. 

Two months into the coronavirus pandemic, I expressed optimism that we would witness the fastest production of safe and effective vaccines ever, largely because there was so much will and money behind it. I was right, happily. Not because I’m smart, but because I recognize that humans are an incredible, unstoppable, unbelievably clever and resourceful species when our backs are against the wall.

The problem with this issue is that far too many people don’t believe our backs are against the wall. My hope is that this newsletter can play some small part in convincing a few more people that they are. 

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46 days ago
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The Texas abortion bill.

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I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.”

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Today’s read: 13 minutes.

The Texas abortion law. Plus, a question about decriminalizing drugs.

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash


You’ve been hearing a lot from me about Afghanistan. Tomorrow, in a subscribers only edition, we’ll be publishing a piece from Tamim Ansary, an Afghan-American author who submitted a really compelling piece to us about the last few weeks in Afghanistan. To receive it, you need to be a subscriber. You can do that here:

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Quick hits.

  1. Tropical storm Ida battered the northeast, and at least 9 people died in flooding in the New York region. (The floods)

  2. A Colorado grand jury has indicted three police officers and two paramedics who were involved in the 2019 death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who was placed in a carotid hold and then injected with ketamine while in police custody. (The story)

  3. Covid-19-era federal jobless benefits are set to expire on September 6, and the Biden administration has told states to use emergency coronavirus funds if they want to provide additional benefits to their unemployed. (The end)

  4. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) has been appointed vice chair of the committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack at the capitol. (The announcement)

  5. A bankruptcy judge has approved a settlement to dissolve OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma. (The ruling)

What D.C. is talking about.

Texas. Yesterday, a divided Supreme Court allowed a new Texas law that bans abortions after six weeks to remain in place. It is the most restrictive abortion law passed in America since abortions became legal nearly 50 years ago. The bill prohibits abortions once medical professionals can say there is “a detectable fetal heartbeat,” but this detection includes embryonic cardiac activity that happens around six weeks — often before a woman knows she is pregnant (these bills are colloquially referred to as “heartbeat bills,” however, opponents of the bill have argued this language is misleading because an embryo isn’t deemed a fetus until the 11th week of pregnancy, and the detectable activity is not always an actual heartbeat). There are exemptions in the bill for medical emergencies but no exemption for rape or incest.

The court’s ruling is not a final order on the bill’s constitutionality, but it will at least temporarily allow the law to go into effect — marking a major turning point in the battle over abortion rights. At least 12 other states have enacted bans on abortion in early stages of pregnancy, but all have been blocked from going into effect. Previously, the high court has not allowed states to ban abortions until after a fetus is able to live outside the womb, which is usually around 22-24 weeks. The unsigned order came down on a 5-4 vote, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the three liberal justices in dissent.

The Texas Heartbeat Act, also known as SB 8, is particularly unique — and appears to have been successful in avoiding the same fate as other bills — because it calls for a novel enforcement scheme. In an effort to avoid being struck down by the court, the crafters of the law delegated enforcement to private parties instead of state officials. Under the law, any person in Texas can sue someone in the state who is alleged to have performed or aided in an abortion, and a successful suit can earn the plaintiff $10,000 in damages per abortion (the woman getting the abortion cannot be sued).

Critics described this mechanism as a bounty for private groups to sue abortion providers, but because state officials are banned from enforcing the law, their lawyers have argued that abortion providers weren’t entitled to an emergency order blocking it. That defense, along with the fact abortion providers are asking the court to rule on issues lower courts have not yet addressed, seems to have favored the state of Texas — at least for the moment. In the court’s majority opinion, it said abortion providers “raised serious questions regarding the constitutionality of the Texas law at issue,” but that continuing litigation raised “complex and novel” questions about legal procedure that undercut the providers’ request to halt the ban.

Writing for the minority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the bill “is a breathtaking act of defiance — of the Constitution, of this Court’s precedents, and of the rights of women seeking abortions throughout Texas.” The Supreme Court is set to hear a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade in the coming term, which begins in October.

We have covered abortion in previous issues here and here.

Below, we’ll take a look at some reactions from the right and left. Then my take.

What the right is saying.

The right is supportive of this bill, though some are concerned about how long it will be until it’s struck down by a judge.

In his Substack newsletter, Erick-Woods Erickson tried to summarize how we got here.

“The abortion providers in Texas sued a Texas judge and county court clerk and others in an attempt to cast as wide of a net as possible to challenge the Texas Fetal Heartbeat Law that bans abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected,” Woods wrote. “The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the case. It was denied. They appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Fifth Circuit denied the abortion providers' request to hold a quick hearing on the law before it could take effect. The result is that they had to file an emergency application with Sam Alito. Sam Alito chose to do nothing. The result is that the Texas law goes into effect. There will be court hearings. I'm sure a progressive judge will issue an injunction of some kind. But right now in Texas, abortions must cease when a child's heart develops in utero.

“I did not expect the Supreme Court to allow the Texas pro-life law to proceed, but they’ve done just that,” he said in a follow-up shortly after the court’s decision. “In a 5-4 decision overnight, the Supreme Court is allowing the Texas law to proceed pending current litigation. Just as notable, while John Roberts would have stopped the law from proceeding for now given the novel and new type of enforcement mechanism, Roberts patently refused to join the four liberal justices in saying the law is unconstitutional because it violated Roe and Casey… For now, the Supreme Court is allowing Texas’s law to proceed in large part because it allows private rights of action, none of which have actually been taken yet so there is nothing to deal with.”

In The National Review, Alexandra DeSanctis said the outcome was the “product of the legal strategy” pursued by the abortion providers: “waiting to challenge the Texas statute and then rushing to the Supreme Court at the eleventh hour.”

“But the outraged reaction from abortion supporters to the Texas law’s being allowed to take effect is a helpful insight into what we might expect to witness if the Court does its job and reverses the decades of legal inanity propping up the shambles of Roe,” she said, before citing some reactions from the left. “Planned Parenthood described the present situation like this: ‘Because starting today, the majority of people in Texas seeking an abortion will be denied the care they need because of politicians trying to control their bodies and their personal decisions.’

“Of course, the ‘care they need’ here refers to a procedure that intentionally ends the life of an unborn child,” DeSanctis wrote. “And rather than controlling people’s bodies and decisions, politicians are seeking to regulate a procedure that, again, intentionally ends the life of an unborn child. That Planned Parenthood disguises this reality in euphemisms is, as ever, especially telling… Contrary to this rhetoric, it’s important to note that the law in Texas imposes no criminal penalties, and none of its civil provisions apply to a woman who seeks or obtains an abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. But that fact is impossible to locate among nearly any media coverage, let alone in the rhetoric of abortion-rights groups.”

In The Washington Examiner, Tiana Lowe celebrated the news.

“In Texas, the feminist Left is freaking out over a ban on abortions after six weeks of gestation taking effect,” she wrote. “Despite the fact that pregnancies can be ascertained with home tests before a missed period, and even though that six-week embryo has a detectable heartbeat and functional brain stem, Woko Haram would have you believe that this is oppression tantamount to the Taliban. So here's a piece of advice for all of them: If you plan to have sex and you wish not to become pregnant, get some birth control. For most women in the United States, it is free.

“Even if you refuse the pill, the patch, the shot, the IUD, an over-the-counter condom, or any other pregnancy prophylactic, most pharmacies, and even some delivery apps, sell emergency contraceptives without a prescription,” Lowe wrote. “Women in America seeking family planning resources have it better than any of their counterparts on the planet today or in human history. The state either funds or mandates dozens of varieties of free contraception. Even if those fail, hospitals provide Plan B for free… You are not oppressed, and Texas's new law is not an excuse to start pretending you are.”

What the left is saying.

The left is vehemently opposed to the legislation, saying it violates Supreme Court precedent and opens the door for abortion providers to be harassed.

“There’s a sinister brilliance to the way this whole thing has gone down,” Michelle Goldberg wrote in The New York Times. “Texas fashioned an abortion prohibition whose bizarre, crowdsourced enforcement mechanism gave conservative courts a pretext not to enjoin it despite its conflict with Roe… Pregnant women themselves are exempt, but anyone who helps them, including clinic staff, friends and family, nonprofits that help fund abortions, and even taxi drivers can be held liable. If the people who file lawsuits win, they’re entitled to attorney’s fees and at least $10,000. If they lose, they’re out nothing but whatever it cost to bring the suits, because defendants can’t recoup their attorney’s fees.

“It is also an outgrowth of a Republican Party that increasingly encourages vigilantism,” she wrote. “Today’s G.O.P. made a hero out of Kyle Rittenhouse, the young man charged with killing two people during protests against police violence in Kenosha, Wis. Leading Republicans speak of the Jan. 6 insurgents, who tried to stop the certification of an election, as martyrs and political prisoners… The Texas law should be seen in this context. It deputizes abortion opponents to harass their enemies. Texas Right to Life has already launched a ‘whistle-blower’ website where people can submit anonymous tips.”

In Slate, Mark Joseph Stern said the court just “overturned” Roe v. Wade in the most cowardly manner imaginable.”

“The decision renders almost all abortions in Texas illegal for the first time since 1973.” he wrote. “Although the majority did not say these words exactly, the upshot of Wednesday’s decision is undeniable: The Supreme Court has abandoned the constitutional right to abortion. Roe is no longer good law… Random strangers can sue any ‘abettor’ to an abortion anywhere in Texas and collect a minimum of $10,000, plus attorneys’ fees. The act’s language is incredibly broad, encompassing any friend, family member, clergy member, or counselor who facilitates the abortion in any way. Every employee of an abortion clinic, from front-desk staff to doctors, is liable as well. And when an individual successfully sues an abortion provider, the court must permanently shut it down.

“Texas Republicans devised this convoluted scheme to avoid judicial review of their ban, which blatantly violates binding Supreme Court precedent protecting the right to abortion before viability (around 23 weeks),” Stern wrote. “Abortion providers tried to work around Republicans’ scheme by suing the judges and clerks tasked with executing the ban, as well as an individual who indicated that he would sue an abortion ‘abettor.’ Nonetheless, the majority claimed that these providers failed to make a ‘strong showing’ that their legal arguments against SB 8 would be ‘likely to succeed on the merits,’ complaining about the ‘complex and novel antecedent procedural questions’ of the case. After months spent rewriting the court’s own rules by awarding themselves the power to intervene in cases that present all manner of ‘novel’ legal questions—including COVID restrictions and the eviction moratorium—the conservative majority decided it was powerless to halt a direct attack on Roe. And it did so with a thinly reasoned one-paragraph order handed down in the dead of night.”

In The Washington Post, Alexandra Petri criticized the hypocrisy of “freedom” in Texas.

“Let me explain!” she wrote. “Here in Texas, your body is your own, and the government is not going to interfere. We respect you as an individual much too much. We believe you should have total bodily freedom — to carry a firearm (basically a body part; has ‘arm’ in it) or breathe infectiously on a stranger. That’s why there are no mask mandates, just this new six-week abortion ban: because we don’t want the government to interfere with people’s lives, ever, except the minor degree to which someone’s life is interfered with by having to carry a fetus to term inside themself. Which is barely an inconvenience at all.

“We believe in freedom,” Petri wrote. “Your fist must stop where my nose starts, the Alamo, pew pew, etc. Except this one minor thing that is obviously not a big deal, where you have to use your body to build another body from whole cloth, give it eyeballs and a circulatory system, undergo months and months of creeping bodily horror as your torso becomes unrecognizable to you, familiar smells become off-putting, and the recently fired ‘Jeopardy!’ man threatens your livelihood, and then at the end of this process you have a human being for whom you have to arrange a life. Compare that minor, barely palpable discomfort with the shocking, invasive horror of placing a damp strip of fabric across your nose when you enter a business establishment for three to five minutes. I shudder just imagining it.”

My take.

Newsflash: we’re not going to solve the abortion debate here, however magical this newsletter is. I’m also not just going to punt for fear of upsetting people, either. There is obviously a debate about the ethical nature of abortion. As a reader put it to me recently, even the most die-hard, pro-choice advocate would agree that once a child is born, it has a right to live. And if you draw a line to the moment before conception, there is obviously no life whose rights need to be considered. So somewhere between those two points, things change for many people. But I actually don’t think that is a debate we need to resolve for this issue (there’s my partial punt: you can read past coverage here and here).

When examining Supreme Court rulings in Tangle — or the law in general — I usually go through a few different stages. The first is the standard sniff test: does this law feel right? And I’ll be honest with you, few pieces of legislation have failed the sniff test for me as badly as this one does. A bill that allows a random person in Texas to sue a doctor in Texas for providing an abortion to a woman at six weeks? Or a cab driver for taking her there? And to have a potential financial incentive of at least $10,000 of damages if they manage to win that lawsuit? Even if the woman was raped? Any one of these things on its own would be enough to set off my alarms — together they’re horrifying.

The second thing I do is try to put away my feelings and examine the process. In this case, it looks like the abortion providers just got bulldozed by the state. In the legal sense, they appear to have been outmaneuvered: the crafting of the law was cunning in achieving its end, and the providers waited weeks to act on it, then clearly got caught flat-footed. Because of how the law was crafted, and because no provider has been sued, the court can’t yet declare it unconstitutional. However you want to cut it, it appears the abortion providers expected a different outcome from the court and were not prepared for this moment.

The third thing I try to do is cut through the legal jargon and complexity of these rulings — of which, in this case, there is a lot — and just try to simplify what’s happening. In that regard, the bill again looks pretty absurd. The precedent in this country, right now, is Roe. Roe makes it clear abortion is, at minimum, legal until a fetus is viable, usually at about 23 weeks. Yet in our second most populous state, most abortions — perhaps more than 85 percent — and many well before viability, are now illegal. Anyone who “abets” in that abortion could face financial ruin, and any citizen can make thousands of dollars by successfully suing one of those abettors. Worse, it appears they can do so with impunity, as the sued have little legal recourse to recover lost earnings or legal fees. As Stern wrote, precedent is only precedent if the court enforces it, and in this case, they haven’t. It’s head spinning.

Now, I know what many pro-lifers are thinking: Roe v. Wade is a ridiculous judicial overreach in the first place, and if you want abortion to be legal you should go and pass a Constitutional amendment or law to make it so. But that argument is actually irrelevant here. The fact is Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, is the precedent, and should be enforced. Legally. Until it no longer is the precedent, this bill is just as ridiculous as it looks.

This brings me to my final point: this all looks bad to me in a vacuum, but it’s made even worse by the fact there is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade coming in the next term this October — one that will include oral arguments, a full robust debate, and opinions from the justices on how and why they are making their rulings. If the court is going to strike down Roe v. Wade and allow states to craft their own abortion laws, that’s how they should do it. Given the stakes of this topic, it’s the minimum we deserve from our Supreme Court. Instead, we essentially have them throwing their hands up and saying they don’t know what to do, so they’ll allow a law that clearly violates constitutional precedent to go into effect by default.

I understand that for the millions of Americans who view abortion as murder, this is a day to celebrate, because who cares if ending the systematic killing of babies requires some quirky judicial maneuvering? I also know that many of those Americans have genuine, well-intentioned and empathetic motivations for that position. But this is a truly dangerous, litigious bill that is going to create chaos in Texas and, worse, create financial incentives for frivolous lawsuits, to say nothing of the impact on women and healthcare providers across the state. For me, something like this doesn’t — and shouldn’t — pass that basic sniff test.

Your questions, answered.

Q: There's a growing wave of drug decriminalization efforts in the United States, as well as some more fringe pushes for full legalization. You've written before about how you don't believe in the efficacy of prohibition, but what sort of system do you think we should move to going forward?

— Bryan, Chicago, IL

Tangle: Generally speaking, I would say basically everything I can think of should be decriminalized. I don’t say that because I want more people using drugs — just the opposite. I’m not talking about legal opioids like heroin or percocet that someone can buy at a dispensary as you can now buy cannabis in Colorado. But it seems clear to me that imprisoning people for drug use and possession is counterproductive.

Drug dealing is a different conversation, and I’m not totally sure my opinion is fully formed there. Do I want the dealers who sold my high school friends heroin to go to jail after seeing so many of them ruin their lives or die? Yes. I do. Am I certain that putting those people in prison would make the world safer? No. I’m not.

It’s also true, though, that decriminalization can lead to legalization and then make many dangerous drugs easier to access. Alcohol and tobacco, for instance, destroy lives and ruin public health every day. Making them legal has made them more accessible, and the cost to public health has been tremendous. Our society is attached to alcohol and tobacco, but they are objectively horrible for us and are great financial and health burdens on the country as a whole (they’re also, of course, big profit centers).

That’s why decriminalizing a drug — as a starting point — seems wise to me. We know that keeping something illegal, or threatening a prison sentence for using it, does not reduce its use. We know that legalizing a drug, and allowing the sale and regulation and taxation of it, can increase its use. So as a baseline, decriminalizing something so people aren’t being thrown in jail for what they put in their bodies seems good. Legalizing something is a larger conversation that requires a drug-specific debate.

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A story that matters.

Around 15 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine have been thrown away in the U.S. since March, according to a new NBC investigation. The 15.1 million doses wasted is likely an undercount, according to government data obtained by NBC News. “Four national pharmacy chains reported more than 1 million wasted doses each,” according to the report. “Walgreens reported the most waste of any pharmacy, state or other vaccine provider, with nearly 2.6 million wasted doses. CVS reported 2.3 million wasted doses, while Walmart reported 1.6 million and Rite Aid reported 1.1 million.” While the reasons for discarding the doses are not listed, common issues have included cracked vials, malfunctioning freezers, and more doses in a vial than people who want to take them. NBC has the story.


  • 85%. The estimated number of abortions that happen after 6 weeks of pregnancy in Texas.

  • 54,741. The number of abortions that took place in Texas in 2020, according to Texas Health and Human Services.

  • 40. The number of abortion clinics in Texas in 2013.

  • 24. The number of abortion clinics in Texas today.

  • 166,080. The average number of new Covid-19 cases in America every day for the last week.

  • 210, 816. The number of new Covid-19 cases recorded in America yesterday.

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I used to get stressed out reading the news and trying to stay "informed" and up-to-date on everything. Now I read this one informative newsletter every day and get a good grasp of what is top in the news, as well as a smattering of smaller updates, special interest stories/links, and stats. Each day they take the top story and explain what each side is saying about it, as well as a little summary/editorial on it. Tangle is FREE Monday-Thursday, but you should send them your $5/month for the Friday editions anyway. We need to support efforts to keep the news balanced, informative, and stress-free.

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Have a nice day.

Video of a cow outside New Orleans is going viral after it was found in a tree in the wake of Hurricane Ida. The cow was discovered in a tree in Florissant, Louisiana, east of New Orleans, in the Louisiana bayou. Rescue workers rushed to the unusual scene and successfully got the cow down, who presumably ended up in the tree thanks to the winds of Hurricane Ida — which were the fifth fastest ever recorded for a hurricane as it made landfall in the U.S. (USA Today

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Long COVID: Much More Than You Wanted To Know

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Like everyone else, I'm trying to figure out how cautious I should be around COVID. It seems like the most important concern for young vaccinated people like myself is the risk of Long COVID symptoms, so I spent a while trying to figure out what those were.

My basic conclusion is that everyone else is right, that news stories on this phenomenon seem remarkably good, and that there's not much we know for sure beyond the simple summary you've probably already heard. Insofar as anything surprised me, it was how bad the worst-case scenario would be.

Here are some of the basic things I found:

1. Long COVID is probably a lot of different things, some of which are boring and obvious, others of which are still kind of mysterious.

First, people with severe COVID that lands them in the ICU have long-lasting symptoms in multiple organ systems. This isn't surprising, and should be considered in the context of post-ICU syndrome. Basically, if anything makes you sick enough to land in the ICU, your body is going to be pretty scarred by the illness (and maybe also by the inevitable side effects of intensive care), and this will last a long time and cause many problems. EG if you’re bedridden for many weeks, your muscles waste away, and then it takes a long time for them to recover and you feel weak and fragile until you do. Or if your lungs stop working and you need mechanical ventilation, your lungs might be pretty weak for a while, and other parts of your body might not get quite the amount of oxygen they’re used to and might get damaged in a way that takes a long time to recover. There’s a similar problem where if you are sufficiently old and frail, any illness will take you down a level of functioning and you might not be able to get up a level again. See for example this article discussing how about 1/5 of elderly flu patients have “persistent functional decline” and may never regain their pre-flu level of functioning.

Second, even in young people with milder cases, COVID can sometimes cause lung damage. If you get lung damage, you’ll have at least breathing problems, and maybe other problems. Your lungs will probably heal eventually, but some kinds of lung healing cause permanent scarring; this can present as shortness of breath on exertion, or become a problem later after other lung injuries.

Third, there’s lots of persistent dysosmia and dysgeusia (inability to smell or taste). I think this one is just damage to the nasal passages, plus maybe olfactory neurons accidentally over-adjusting to this damage and forgetting to readjust once you’re better.

Fourth, COVID can probably cause a post-viral syndrome including fatigue. Post-viral syndromes are poorly understood, but might involve something like the immune system being dysregulated and staying in “fight mode” long after the virus is gone. “Chronic fatigue syndrome” is probably something like this, although this is still really controversial.

Fifth, maybe some long COVID is psychosomatic. People hate when doctors bring up the possibility of psychosomatic conditions, and I won’t deny that we tend to overuse the “psychosomatic” diagnosis like it’s going out of style - but some things really are psychosomatic. Chronic Lyme disease (“Long Lyme” rolls off the tongue nicely) is basically universally considered 100% psychosomatic by the medical establishment, although now that I’m thinking about it I wonder if maybe we should be less sure. Lots of people act like psychosomatic = not a real problem. Unfortunately, having a symptom for psychosomatic reasons sucks just as much as having it for any other reason. Sometimes it sucks more, because nobody takes you seriously. I’ll discuss the argument around psychosomatic symptoms more later.

2. The prevalence of Long COVID after a mild non-hospital-level case is probably somewhere around 20%, but some of this is pretty mild.

Giving a percent estimate is kind of meaningless, because it requires a binary yes-no decision on whether or not someone’s symptoms qualify as “long COVID”. Studies that ask “do you think you have long COVID?” tend to get low numbers, presumably because people don’t think their (mild) residual symptoms qualify. Studies that ask “do you have any of the following symptoms?” get higher numbers.

Good studies include a control group who test negative for COVID, to see how many of them have symptoms that would qualify them as “long COVID” if they’d had the disease. Then they subtract the percent of control patients who have symptoms from the number of COVID patients who have symptoms, and assume the difference is caused by Long COVID. While this is better than not doing this, it leaves open the possibility of recall bias, where people who just had COVID are more likely to think a certain symptom is relevant / worth reporting, because they know Long COVID is a thing. There’s also the possibility that people who get COVID are sicker in other ways (eg older, more comorbidities) than people who don’t, which would mean they would have more other symptoms regardless of Long COVID. Some of these studies try to control for this; none can control perfectly.

There’s also high risk of selection bias. Some percent of people with COVID (~30%?) don’t know they had it, and will not volunteer for any of these studies. These people are mostly not severe, meaning that studies that exclude them will overestimate COVID severity. Some, but not all of these studies check seroprevalence to avoid this issue.

That having been said:

Logue et al say that after ~6 months, 33% of outpatients (ie patients who didn't have to go to the hospital for COVID) had at least one persistent symptom, compared to only 5% of people in the control group (what does it mean for the control group to have persistent symptoms? Presumably they had trouble breathing / fatigue / muscle aches / etc for some reason other than COVID - there's a certain base rate of all of these problems and apparently in this study it's 5%).

The British Office of National Statistics looks at people with a confirmed COVID test three months ago, and finds that 14% report having Long COVID symptoms, compared to 2% of a COVID-less control group. This is substantially lower than the earlier study, which found 33% at 6 months. Probably this is because the previous one asked about a bunch of symptoms, whereas this one just asked “Are you having Long COVID?” Lots of people who had some minor symptom or other might not have made the connection, or might have thought that their symptom didn’t qualify for a full diagnosis.

Haverfall et al in Sweden found that 26% of people with previous non-hospital-grade COVID, and 9% of a control group, reported long COVID-esque symptoms after 2 months. After 8 months, this was down to 15% and 3%. I’m not sure why the control group decreased; maybe it was about symptoms that had lasted the whole time, and not point prevalence? Anyway, this was similar methodology to the Logue study, but finds a somewhat lower prevalence. Maybe this is because this study was on healthcare workers, who are generally high-functioning people and who probably did a good job treating their COVID infections? I don’t know, but a lot of these things are really sensitive to how you ask questions and I don’t find the small difference too mysterious.

Sudre et al got data from some kind of UK COVID app with four million users. They chose 4,000 who met various criteria and asked them about long COVID symptoms. 13% reported symptoms after a month, and 2% after three months. This is a lot less than the other studies, so what’s up? I’m not sure, but I think it might be the exclusion criteria, as shown in Supplementary Table 2. When they look at everyone regardless of criteria, they find an estimate centered in the mid 20s, and then the criteria gradually pick away at that. One especially relevant one is that they have no gap in symptom reporting; maybe if you have chronic fatigue, you’re less likely to use an app regularly. But the three month data is still surprising.

Thompson et al get data from a UK longitudinal study. Their headline finding is that between 7.8% and 17% of patients seem to show at least one Long COVID symptom. But they have no control group, so probably it is lower than this. Also, only 1.2% to 4.8% of people say their Long COVID symptoms “impact normal functioning”, which means a lot of people must have some annoying lingering symptoms that don’t really bother them that much.

3. The most common symptoms are breathing problems, issues with taste/smell, and fatigue + other cognitive problems.

From Logue; most of these patients were 6 months post-COVID at followup:

From Haverfall:

Just looking at Haverfall, the fatigue looks kind of fake - little worse in the exposures than the controls. Other studies don’t really show this pattern.

And behold the mother of all COVID symptom persistence studies, Amin-Chowdhury et al:

AC&E act as if this is reassuring - their conclusion starts with “most persistent symptoms reported following mild COVID-19 were equally common in cases
and controls” - but it really isn’t. Not only does this 8-month-out sample find high levels of the expected problems (fatigue/smell/taste/breathing), but it finds some unexpected ones too. Cases are likelier than controls to have cognitive problems and weird neurological issues. One flaw in this analysis is that it didn’t ask for premorbid functioning, so you can tell a story where unhealthy people are more likely to get COVID than healthy ones (maybe they’re stuck in crowded care homes? Maybe they put less effort into staying healthy in general?) But I don’t think this story is true - how come obviously plausibly COVID linked things (like smell problems) are significant, and obviously-not-COVID-linked things like diarrhea aren’t?

One thing this study does reassure me about is mental health. A lot of people claim that long COVID involves various mental health sequelae. This study comes out pretty strongly against it. Sure, lots of COVID patients are depressed - but so are equally many controls. The age of COVID is just a depressing time. In fact, it’s kind of weird that you can get this much fatigue, brain fog, etc without an increase in depression diagnoses.

4. Sometimes problems go away after a few months, other times they don’t

This British graph suggests that almost all symptoms are gone after 100 days, which is a lot more optimistic than our studies above.

Uncertain endpoint

This is supposedly . . . also the British Office of National Statistics (source). Why are their two graphs so different? My guess is that the top one is a preliminary version without very many patients who had COVID for longer than 12 weeks, and used some sort of model which just assumed numbers there (notice how the confidence intervals widen). The second graph better fits the studies above and is probably the real one.

That’s too bad, because the second graph says that about half of people who have long COVID symptoms after five weeks will still have them after four months. And that graph doesn’t look like it’s planning on falling much further. This kind of matches Haverfall’s study, which found a decrease of a little less than half between two and eight months. There is a very long tail of cases which are not getting better in a reasonable amount of time.

The most likely symptom to last a long time is anosmia, followed by fatigue.

How likely are these to last forever vs. get better in a few years? We’ve only had a year and a half of COVID, but we can make guesses based on other postviral syndromes. Lee et al do this work with 63 patients over three years, and find:

There’s a lot going on here. First of all, how come the severe hyposmia group starts with about the same scores as the mild-to-moderate group? I think because they classified severity objectively, and this is measuring subjective scores? Anyhow, almost everyone improves over this time period, but not everyone reaches normality (defined as a score of 80 or above). This is kind of useless because the study doesn’t tell us how much of this improvement was the first year vs. the second and so on, so we don’t know if improvements petered off or will continue forever. It does mention that people with followup longer than 2 years did better than people with shorter followup than that, but honestly I can’t conclude anything useful from this and there are no better studies.

What about fatigue? It turns out that chronic fatigue syndrome patients care a lot about this question and so there are great data. From ME-Pedia:

This is terrible. Recovery rates in the single digit percentages over the space of years. You would think at least some patients would get placebo recoveries, or forget how it felt to be well, or otherwise Lizardman themselves into fake complacency, but no. This is f@#$ing awful.

Maybe COVID won’t be this bad? One ray of hope comes from this Australian study, where doctors record the rates of recovery from postviral fatigue after various rare diseases they encounter (Epstein-Barr, Q fever, Ross River virus). They find that 35% of these patients have postviral fatigue after six weeks, but only 12% after six months, and 9% after twelve months. This sounds a lot better than chronic fatigue.

In fact, these people do the kind of weird task of figuring out how bad different diagnostic labels for fatigue are, even though some might argue that all the labels refer to the same underlying reality. They find an official diagnosis of “CFS/ME” (chronic fatigue / myalgic encephalitis) is much worse than “postviral fatigue”. Using the weird measure of “days per year of followup with diagnosis” (I’m not sure I fully understand their reasoning for why this is good), they find a median length of 80 for CFS/ME vs. 0 for PVF (…huh?). Using the more comprehensible measure of percent who still complain of fatigue after 7-12 months, they find it’s 24% vs. 10% (which super contradicts the above study saying that basically nobody with a CFS/ME diagnosis ever recovers). My guess is that this study had much lower criteria for a CFS/ME diagnosis (some doctor diagnosed it and put it on the insurance records) compared to the ones above (some specialist confirmed it by official criteria). The conclusion I draw is that, while official CFS/ME is horrible and hopeless, there are a lot of things that unofficially look kind of chronic-fatigue-ish which have pretty good prognoses. Since there’s no good reason to think post-COVID fatigue is official CFS/ME as opposed to just some chronic-ish fatigue-ish thing, probably it will have a better prognosis, more like weird Australian viruses.

…which we still don’t know, because AFAICT nobody has done any good studies on postviral fatigue lasting more than a year.

5. Psychosomatic symptoms probably aren’t the majority of long COVID.

I mean, I’m not seeing too many people claiming that they are. There are a lot more people worried that someone else might be claiming that, than people actually making the claim. Still, the Wall Street Journal opinion section is always up for slathering itself in glue and rolling around in a haystack until it becomes the straw man everyone else warned you about, and they do have an article on The Dubious Origins Of Long COVID.

They point out that long COVID was first thrust into the public consciousness in surveys run by Body Politic, who self-describe as “a queer feminist wellness collective merging the personal and the political”. I agree this is a weird source for something to come from, but Hans Asperger was a Nazi and I still use his diagnosis, so I probably have to accept these people’s as well.

More relevantly, WSJ points out that many of the people complaining of Long COVID symptoms test negative for COVID, or at least never tested positive. This complaint conflates the fact that not everyone was able to get a COVID test at all, with the fact that sometimes you get the acute COVID test after you’ve recovered from acute COVID and it’s negative, with the fact that COVID tests don’t have a 100% success rate, with the fact that yeah, okay, some people who didn’t have COVID are probably imagining Long COVID symptoms. I feel like some of the case-control studies above, which clearly show that seropositive people have higher rates of Long COVID than seronegative people, are pretty convincing here.

But also - the people with lung scarring clearly have lung scarring, and most of them have weird x-rays consistent with lung scarring. If you have lung scarring, then you have trouble breathing, you’re fatigued, and you probably have lots of other stuff downstream of that. The people with smell/taste disturbances clearly have smell/taste disturbances, testable with the stupidly named but scientifically venerable Sniffin Sticks test - and also, who even cares enough to make up olfactory problems? Fatigue and brain fog are the only symptoms here that can’t be easily objectively confirmed, and, well, do you think those Australians who got infected with Q fever and had twelve months of postviral fatigue are faking? What about all those post-Epstein Barr fatigue people? Lots of viruses cause postviral fatigue, it’s not really surprising that COVID should also.

(WSJ also spends a while arguing that CFS/ME is just a psychiatric disorder, which I think is not really in keeping with the best recent evidence. Also, as a psychiatrist, I’m very against this conclusion, mostly because if it were true, then people would expect me to cure CFS/ME patients.)

One point WSJ didn’t bring up but could have was that most Long COVID patients are women. Probably this is somewhere between 60 and 80% - I suspect on the lower end of this, because I think women are more likely to talk about these kinds of things than men, and much more likely to eg join Facebook groups. This is noteworthy, because women are traditionally more prone to psychosomatic illnesses - so much that the ancients attributed these to the uterus and called them hysteria (note shared root with eg “hysterectomy”). Women are about 2x as likely to get diagnosed with panic disorder, anxiety disorders, phobias, etc, about 2.5x as likely to get chronic Lyme disease, widely regarded as an entirely psychosomatic condition, and 3-5x more likely to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia. So the female preponderance is suspicious.

But women are also somewhere between 2x and 4x more likely to get autoimmune disorders than men (it varies by disorder - the ratio for Sjogren’s is as high as 16x). There are some pretty crazy hypotheses for why this is - for example, maybe women’s immune systems are permanently upregulated to be prepared for attempts by the placenta to secrete immune-downregulating chemicals during pregnancy, as part of the creepy shadow war between mother and fetus to regulate the maternal environment. I don’t know, do you have a better idea? Anyway, women have more autoimmune issues and more upregulated immune systems, so if there was any good way to assess gender ratio in true postviral fatigue excluding all psychosomatic cases, that would probably be female-biased too.

Probably some Long COVID cases are psychosomatic just like some cases of anything are psychosomatic, but I don’t see too many signs that this is too important in explaining the phenomenon.

…and please allow me a moment of preachiness here.

Chronic fatigue sounds really fake to anyone who doesn’t have it. I think this is because it’s related to willpower. Willpower itself would sound fake to anyone who didn’t have to worry about it. “Oh, so you can go partying with your friends whenever you want, but as soon as it comes time to write a ten page report, your ‘lack of willpower’ prevents you from doing it? A likely story!” Still, all of us (except Bryan Caplan) recognize how real and important willpower is - how having more of it is better than having less of it, and how some condition that caused you to have pathologically little of it would be a huge disaster.

In the comments section to the rough draft of this post, CJ wrote:

I will say - I was one of those types of men to scoff with skepticism at people claiming to have chronic fatigue and the like. I would have called those people lazy and would have been adamant they were faking it or feeling like crap because of unhealthy lifestyle choices. Unfortunately I have learned the hard way the severity of neurological conditions, what it feels like to have brain fog, what chronic fatigue feels like, and how difficult it can be to communicate neurological symptoms to others. I now start from a position of listening to people who are willing to open up about their symptoms and trust that they are being honest. There are millions of people suffering in silence with untreated and undiagnosed disorders - those people are not all faking it or just dealing with psychosomatic conditions. I would recommend Jennifer Brea's documentary, Unrest. Thank you for shedding some light on the subject.

Heron added:

I second the suggestion to watch 'Unrest,' and to consider the many unseen ill whose symptoms are deemed to be imagined. Until this last year, I had little patience with, and doubted, people who I saw as hypochondriacs. Then I became the thing I hated.

Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Long COVID do have similarities from what I've read, since becoming ill in August 2020. At that time, here in Northern Ireland, there was scant availability of COVID tests; after spending three days trying to get hold of one, (by which time I'd stopped teaching my post-grad online classes & I haven't worked since) I became too ill to do anything. I figured if this was COVID I'd gotten off lightly, mostly constant severe headache, inability to think, a new experience of fatigue, high temperature, insomnia, hypersomnia, paresthesia, no smell or taste etc Debilitated but not dead. Except for the fact that I still have the aforementioned symptoms a year on and whilst they fluctuate in type and severity, the fatigue, headaches and cognitive difficulties are real. A brain scan, an appointment for brain and spinal MRIs (waiting lists, even when going private [as NHS has 3-8 yr waiting lists here in NI] are lengthy), rare virtual doctors and neurologists suggest my ailments constitute a post-viral thing, maybe Long C, they can offer nothing but pills for pain. There is no test for ME/CFS yet, nor a Long C test, symptoms and presentation are so varied. Given a widespread lack of knowledge and resources regarding these ailments, you're on your own. Maybe I've developed ME, I certainly have post-exertional malaise which my very prominent neurologist hadn't heard of. Looking at the history of ME/CFS* and a dearth of research surrounding it, I hope that rather than dismiss the lives of sufferers of this or the long-lasting aftermath of COVID, that those experiencing such difficulties will be heard and learnt from. I only understood when I had no alternative.

I don’t think I ever actively pooh-poohed CFS, but like everyone else who encountered it, I underestimated just how bad it was until I met some patients with the condition. It is real and really bad. For whatever reason it is hard to think about and take seriously, but it really is as bad as people say.


6. Long COVID is probably rare in children

This matters a lot, because children are (currently) ineligible for the vaccine, and also likely to encounter the virus at school. But children usually have mild cases of COVID and don’t die from it, so it’s tempting to just not worry about them. But if they could get Long COVID, that would make it much less tempting.

Preliminary Evidence On Long COVID In Children sounds like a good paper to draw conclusions from. It says 42.6% of children with COVID experience long-term follow-up symptoms, which would be higher than the rate for adults. But it has no control group, and most of the symptoms it finds don’t seem very COVID-related (eg rashes, constipation). The most common symptom (20%) is insomnia, which better studies in adults fail to associate with real Long COVID. The rate of known long COVID symptoms (eg taste and smell problems) is only about 3-4%, and no higher or lower than anything else. Probably these kids are just having problems at the usual rate and attributing them to their recent COVID.

Blankenburg et al do the correct thing and ask a thousand children about potential symptoms, then compare the number who say yes vs. no among COVID-seropositive and seronegative subjects. They find no difference between the two groups. Both are reporting a lot of insomnia, etc. They reasonably attribute this to pandemics being a stressful event that it’s natural to lose sleep over. This is really reassuring, but it can’t rule out a somewhat rarer syndrome. The authors say that they might miss symptoms with a prevalence of less than 10%, and one of them gives his own personal guess that it’s 1%.

An English team says there’s a Long COVID rate of 4.6% in kids. But there was a 1.7% rate of similar symptoms in the control group of kids who didn’t have COVID, so I think it would be fair to subtract that and end up with 2.9%. And even though the study started with 5000 children, so few of them got COVID, and so few of those got long COVID, that the 2.9% turns out to be about five kids. I don’t really want to update too much based on five kids, especially given the risk of recall bias (ie you might notice / care about your symptoms more if you know you had COVID before getting them).

My overall conclusion here is that long COVID is rarer in children than adults, and may not exist at all. The studies tell us it’s probably somewhere less than 5% of kids, but so far we can’t conclude anything stronger than that.

7. Vaccination probably doesn’t change the per-symptomatic-case risk of Long COVID much

Here’s a complicated Twitter thread about this. Of vaccinated people who got symptomatic COVID, about a third ended up with Long COVID symptoms, the same rate as in unvaccinated people.

Of course, vaccinated people are much less likely to get symptomatic COVID. But even conditional on getting it, they’re still much less likely to go to the hospital, die, etc. It would have been nice if the same was true of getting Long COVID. But it doesn’t look that way.

(all this information is from an online poll by a sketchy group of COVID “survivor” activists. But they wrote up their poll in the scientific paper font, as a PDF and everything, so I say we count it anyway)

This NEJM study wasn’t exactly designed to look for Long COVID in vaccinated people. But they found it anyway, at a rate of 19% after 6 weeks. This also fits within the (wide) range reported for unvaccinated people. They don’t give a symptom breakdown beyond “prolonged loss of smell, persistent cough, fatigue, weakness, dyspnea, or myalgia”, which sounds like the usual set.

These studies are pretty weak, and you could argue that given that vaccines decrease the average severity of COVID infection, and infection severity is linked to Long COVID risk, we should have a strong prior on vaccines decreasing Long COVID risk. And just before publishing this, someone sent me this study, which very preliminarily finds vaccines might decrease Long COVID risk by a factor of 2. I think a factor of 2-3 is believable; one of 10 or 20, less so.

Weirdly, there are some claims that vaccines can help relieve symptoms of existing long COVID. Sounds kind of like sympathetic magic to me, but the researcher quoted in the linked article said it might “improve symptoms by eliminating any virus or viral remnants left in the body” or by “rebalancing the immune system”. So yeah, sympathetic magic.

8. Your risk of a terrible long COVID outcome conditional on COVID is probably between a few tenths of a percent and a few percent.

My original calculation went like this:

About 25% of people who get COVID report long COVID symptoms. About half of those go away after a few months, so 12.5% get persistent symptoms. Suppose that half of those cases (totally made-up number) are very mild and not worth worrying about. Then 6.25% of people who get COVID would have serious long-lasting Long COVID symptoms.

After doing that calculation, I read this essay by Matt Bell, who tries to figure out the same thing. He is much more optimistic. He agrees that about half of long COVID cases go away after a few months, but adds another 50% decrease from “few months” to “lifelong”, kind of on priors, admitting there’s not too much positive evidence for this. Then he adds another factor-of-two decrease from vaccination, based on very preliminary studies from the UK. He estimates that someone with my demographics (vaccinated man in his 30s) has a 2% risk of Long COVID conditional on getting COVID at all. Then he divides by five for the true worst case scenario, based on studies showing that a fifth of people with Long COVID report that it affects their daily activities “a lot”. So by his final number, I have an 0.4% chance of getting really terrible long COVID, conditional on getting COVID at all.

My friend AcesoUnderGlass also did a writeup of this, published after I did my first-draft calculation, which seems to be thinking of this very differently, based entirely on hospitalization rates (which of course are very low in vaccinated people our age). She accordingly concludes that risk is very low. I don’t really understand her reasoning here, but I trust her a lot and am working on trying to converge with her on this.

What’s my yearly risk of getting COVID if I try to live a normal life?

This site says only 0.1% of vaccinated Californians have gotten COVID after their vaccination. But vaccination was pretty new when that survey was done, so we might want to take this as a per one-to-two-months estimate. That would mean a risk of 0.5 - 1 percent per year. But not all these people are living normal lives, so my risk might be higher.

MicroCOVID gives me a good sense of how careful I’d have to be to stay within a risk budget of 1% COVID risk per year. When I play around with it, I think I am about 5x - 10x less careful than that, which would mean a risk of about 5%/year.

This tracker suggests my area has recently had about 1 new case per thousand people per week, which would imply 5% per year. But most of those people are probably unvaccinated, so my risk would be significantly lower than that.

I’m going to round all of this off to about 1% - 10% per year of getting a breakthrough COVID case (though obviously this could change if the national picture got better or worse). Combined with the 0.4% to 6.25% risk of getting terrible long COVID conditional on getting COVID, that’s between a 1/150 - 1/25,000 chance of terrible long COVID per year.

How does this compare to other risks? My ordinary risk of death per year, just from being a man in his 30s, is about 1/700 (though this includes drug abusers and stunt pilots, so my real risk might be lower, let’s say 1/1000). Here are some other risks, courtesy of the BMJ:

In this context, I find the 1/150 risk pretty scary and the 1/25,000 risk not scary at all, so, darn, I guess there’s not yet enough data to have a strong sense of how concerned I should be.

9. This is hard to compare to other postviral syndromes

Going into this, I wondered if we might be able to ignore Long COVID. The argument would go like this: all viral diseases have a risk of postviral syndromes. Colds, flus, mono, lots of stuff that’s going around all the time. Lots of people get those postviral syndromes, and either recover or don’t, but either way we don’t make a big deal out of it. Since COVID’s considered “newsworthy” in a way flu isn’t, we obsess over its postviral syndrome even though it’s no worse than anything else’s.

This wouldn’t make Long COVID any less bad, and maybe we would be wrong to not panic more about colds and the flu, but it would at least give us some context and make things feel less scary.

Unfortunately, I can’t find anything supporting or opposing this picture. The only relevant study is a meta-analysis by Poole-Wright et al, who (contra nominative determinism) don’t pool the studies by condition, which makes it hard to draw conclusions. I think all of their examples of postviral syndrome after flu are from severe hospitalized cases, so any comparison with COVID would be unfair. Although there do seem to be scattered reports of post-flu problems, they’ve never been formally studied or quantified.

Mononucleosis is an infectious disease caused by the Epstein-Barr virus, affecting about 1/2000 people per year in developed countries. It has a famously nasty postviral syndrome, which this paper describes as “almost one-half of the group had substantial ongoing symptoms 2 months after onset and… ∼10% had disabling symptoms marked by fatigue lasting ≥ 6 months”.

Flu is as common as COVID, but nobody really talks about it having a significant postviral syndrome so probably it’s not that bad. Mono has a worse postviral syndrome than COVID, but it’s rare enough that it doesn’t cause massive society-wide effects. COVID is right in the middle: more common than mono, and (probably) worse postviral syndrome than flu. I think it’s fair to say that we may not have encountered a condition with this exact combination of risk factors and can’t dismiss it as similar to conditions we currently ignore.

One potential analogue might be the Spanish Flu of 1918. It was an equally widespread pandemic, and seemed to have some kind of postviral syndrome. From TIME:

In what is now Tanzania, to the north, post-viral syndrome has been blamed for triggering the worst famine in a century—the so-called “famine of corms”—after debilitating lethargy prevented flu survivors from planting when the rains came at the end of 1918. “Agriculture suffered particular disruption because, not only did the epidemic coincide with the planting season in some parts of the country, but in others it came at the time for harvesting and sheep-shearing.” Kathleen Brant, who lived on a farm in Taranaki, New Zealand, told Rice, the historian, about the “legion” problems farmers in her district encountered following the pandemic, even though all patients survived: “The effects of loss of production were felt for a long time.”

The 1918 flu seemed to have lots of psychiatric effects: “Norwegian demographer Svenn-Erik Mamelund provided such evidence when he combed the records of psychiatric institutions in his country to show that the average number of admissions showed a seven-fold increase in each of the six years following the pandemic, compared to earlier, non-pandemic years.” Coronavirus doesn’t - the excellent Amin-Chowdhury study above finds nothing. Still, this is the scale of thing I’m worried about.

The worst case scenario here is really really bad. If a few percent of COVID patients get long-term unremitting genuine CFS/ME, that has the potential to overwhelm government welfare budgets and long-term depress the economy. I think there’s a 90% chance the real situation isn’t that bad, but it’s scary that we can’t entirely rule it out. Aside from the somewhat different 1918 case, I don’t think we have any historical experience of dealing with postviral syndromes at this scale.

The medium case scenario is something more like “a few percent of infected people get moderate fatigue, which doesn’t really prevent them from working, and goes away after a few years”. I don’t know whether the level of media attention paid to this would converge on “boring and nobody notices” or “giant disaster”, and I think it would be compatible with either.

10. Conclusions

1. Long COVID is many different issues without a common mechanism.

2. Some of these are straightforward and not surprising, eg lung scarring and post-ICU syndrome from severe infection, and would happen in any disease of this severity. Others seem to be more like the poorly-understood postviral syndromes associated with several other diseases. While some symptoms may be psychosomatic, most are probably organic.

3 The three major categories of symptoms are straightforward cardiovascular-pulmonary issues, straightforward smell and taste issues, and more mysterious neurological issues.

4 Although these get better with time in some people, in a significant number (maybe ~50% of people who had them at six weeks) they persist for as long as anyone has been able to measure them (a few months in the case of COVID, a year or two in the case of comparable syndromes).

5. Post-COVID fatigue is particularly concerning. This would be very bad if we analogized it to CFS/ME, and still pretty bad if we analogized it to other known postviral syndromes. There is no proof that this always gets better over the long term, although no study has looked at them for more than a few years. Facing postviral fatigue on this scale is a new problem.

6 . Children probably get Long COVID less than adults, probably at a rate of less than 5% of symptomatic cases. But we don’t know how much less, and we can’t rule out that some children get pretty severe symptoms.

7. Although vaccination decreases the risk of symptomatic COVID, it probably doesn’t decrease the risk of Long COVID per symptomatic COVID case by very much, though it might decrease it by a factor of 2-3.

8. Your chance of really bad debilitating lifelong Long COVID, conditional on getting COVID, is probably somewhere between a few tenths of a percent, and a few percent. Your chance per year of getting it by living a normal lifestyle depends on what you consider a normal lifestyle and on the future course of the pandemic. For me, under reasonable assumptions, it’s probably well below one percent.

EDIT: Here are some other people who tried to do this same analysis. I learned about all of these after I wrote the first draft of this, so you can consider the basic thought process here to be independent of them - but I edited some things to account for what I learned from them before writing the final version.

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