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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of….What Exactly?

On June 28, the morning after her eyebrow-raising theatrics at the second Democratic debate, New Age high priestess-cum-presidential aspirant Marianne Williamson retweeted this:

While Williamson’s candidacy is itself certain to disperse into nothingness, legible between the lines of the guru’s flakiness is a profound insight about the most misunderstood and misguided totem in American life: the idea that positive and/or happy thoughts foster positive and/or happy outcomes. The same belief in “mind power” that elicits groans and derision when rendered in 280 characters is woven through the fabric of American life. American culture has evolved a unique view of the mind’s relationship to the external world; not in the sense of an esoteric disquisition on the nature of consciousness, but rather in the sense of spoon-bending—a view of life wherein positive thinking enables us to bend life to our respective desires. Ergo:

  • The attitude is the action.
  • The belief is the behavior.
  • A happy outlook begets happiness.

These are intoxicating and uplifting notions—that have nothing to do with establishing priorities or setting realistic goals, and may actually, in the end, lead to disaster. Such notions also tend to be associated with a degree of self-love that is unbecoming in an adult.

One might say that the Founders laid the groundwork for all this by writing the pursuit of happiness into America’s Declaration of Independence, alongside such less capricious goals as life and liberty. And certainly since lifestyle coaches like Tony Robbins commandeered pop culture in the early 1980s, a positive mental attitude (PMA) has been framed as the sine qua non of happiness and everything else that is good in life. Which is, of course, what you’d expect from something more powerful than nuclear radiation.

Indeed, merely questioning positivity is considered sacrilegious. I learned this firsthand in 2005 when I published a book skeptical of the excesses and outright scams endemic to the $10 billion self-help and motivational industry. I did dozens of call-in shows, and callers were decidedly unhappy with me: “What kind of person criticizes positive thinking?” “Someone who has researched it,” I would reply.

In my book I had set out to answer these questions:

  • How much of the self-help liturgy had bled over into society at large? (A lot.)
  • Could the happiness gurus demonstrate any repeatable correlation between a positive mental attitude and positive outcomes? (No.)
  • Are there reasonably universal keys to happiness and fulfillment? (Well…sorta.)

Such questions become relevant anew for reasons aside from candidate Williamson. After a several-year hiatus (thanks, mostly, to the global recession), happiness and aspirational thinking are back in the spotlight.

An article in the Atlantic puckishly asks, ‟Are McMansions making everyone unhappy?” and concludes that, because suburbanites rank themselves against neighbors who own even larger McMansions, there is no getting off this hamster wheel. A Guardian piece hammers what looks like the final nail into the coffin of the familiar ‟have it all” trope championed by early feminists. The author ruefully reports that, having compared “levels of pleasure and misery in unmarried, married, divorced, separated, and widowed individuals,” an academic has found that “unmarried and childless women are the happiest subgroup in the population.” Quillette, too, has waded into the churning waters of ‟happiness science” with a piece alleging “malpractice” on the part of that same academic.

Also back on the front page is world-famous self-improvement guru Tony Robbins himself, whose signature line may be: “There’s no such thing as failure. There is only feedback.” Well, Robbins just got some feedback from his publisher, which canceled his book deal after BuzzFeed reported that he berated victims of rape and domestic violence, used racial slurs, and exposed himself to female staffers and fans. (The trifecta of professional suicide in today’s era of #MeToo and #BLM.)

The Robbins affair is the latest embarrassment for a movement that has seen its share of them since Tony became the Pope of Empowerment. But America’s obsession with incubating positivity and happiness has always amounted to less than meets the eye. For at least a half-century we’ve been putting the cart before the horse when it comes to aspirational thinking, and evidence suggests that individuals and society are both suffering for it.

It was in 1983 that 23-year-old Tony Robbins debuted his “firewalk experience,” which still defines his pricey motivational shindigs in the same way the crashing chandelier defines Phantom of the Opera. Participants would gambol across hot coals to demonstrate the triumph of mental resolve over physical pain, and that pain is a mental construct. More potent was the meta-message: Adversity itself is a construct. If you can master flaming coals, surely you can land that dream job or launch that new business or bed the hottest guy or gal around. You can find enduring happiness, no matter the obstacles.

But if firewalks work, it’s not because of the mind’s dominion over physics. Rather, the gimmick depends on physics—specifically, laws governing heat dispersion. Coals are surprisingly poor conductors, especially when covered in ash, as at Robbins events. And the balls and heels of the feet can withstand a fair amount of heat before burning, providing that people walk at a brisk pace and lift their feet into the cooler air between steps, as instructed. In short, a firewalk must be performed under controlled conditions; when that critical balance is disturbed, attendees are carted off to the ER with burns, as happened during Robbins firewalks in San Jose and Dallas.

Nevertheless, Robbins’s early firewalks crackled into an inferno of positivity that inspired scores of imitators, catching the eye of the eventual éminence grise of the movement dubbed “Happyism“: Oprah Winfrey. Oprah brought into the living rooms of her 48 million (!) weekly viewers an eclectic cast of inspirational rock stars—this week Robbins, then Williamson, then Eckhard Tolle, and so on. Their books became blockbusters overnight. Their seminars went standing room only the day they were announced.

Oprah Winfrey in 2014.

But Oprah gave viewers, in an overarching sense, permission to obsess over their own wants. This plangent message stood in stark contrast to the so-called Greatest Generation’s twin themes of service and sacrifice. Oprah spearheaded a one-woman rebellion against the behavioral tic known as codependency, begging viewers to stop tying their well-being to others’ needs. Her handpicked gurus offered new ways of thinking that upended everything Americans had been taught about prudence, planning, and deferred gratification. And they unrelentingly sold personal empowerment. You have within you the power to transcend. The gurus’ trademark themes said it all: Awaken the giant within! A course in miracles! Zero limits! Living in the now! The power of now! Your best life now! Now! Now, now, NOW!

‟Look out for No. 1,” previously said with ironic derision, became a cultural rallying cry. New Age religious leaders even found a way of making self-love sound like a Commandment. Texas pastor Joel Osteen, author of Your Best Life Now, built his estimable Lakewood Church by assuring congregants that, ‟God wants us to be prosperous!” Harvard began offering courses in Happiness Studies that wait-listed the moment they appeared in catalogs.

Then, in 2007, The Secret appeared. Arguably the most unflinching homage to self-love ever created, the book/DVD combo from Australian New Ager Rhonda Byrne also succeeded in mainstreaming beliefs once identified with, say, schizophrenia. Its core concept, the Law of Attraction, insisted that we are all “living magnets” who transmit vibes to shape life to our expectations—which is why you had to be really careful about those expectations. Byrne blamed victims of Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 for failing to emit sufficient collective positive energy to repel disaster. (Oh yes she did.) Overall, though, she preferred to accentuate the positive: “There is not anything any human cannot be, do or have…not a single thing. No limits whatsoever.”

A contributor to the project, James Arthur Ray, likened the Universe to a gargantuan genie waiting impatiently to obey your commands. And if you dared to wonder how that genie reconciled the billions of competing commands arriving from earth…bite your tongue! Granular thinking was just the kind of heresy that just might invite hurricanes or theocratic terrorists into your life.

The Secret achieved media ubiquity: Oprah, Larry King, GMA, Today, network specials. Worldwide, an astonishing 30 million people bought the book. The law of attraction became the de rigueur topic at gatherings. Derivative workshops sprang up everywhere. Corporate training managers began invoking Secret-inflected thinking at meetings: Risk aversion and contingency planning became unwelcome signs of fatalism. Increasing portions of the considerable sum that companies invested annually in training ($86 billion today) were earmarked for speakers and “wilderness programs” designed to instill impregnable positivity. In these sessions, common sense went out the window. I attended a real-estate training seminar in which the speaker assured the 250 attendees—from the same real-estate powerhouse—that all of them could be the company’s No. 1 salesperson the following year. Did they groan or burst out laughing? No, they began back-slapping one another and cheering wildly.

A year later, the economy tanked and the genie began coming for people’s jobs, homes, and retirement savings. But if the Crash of 2008 demonstrated that magical thinking wasn’t foolproof, the truth was actually worse. It became clear that the me-first, no-limits mindset popularized by Oprah and brought to its zenith by Byrne was itself a factor in America’s financial vulnerability. All of the recession’s major woes were to some degree creatures of unchecked optimism.

For decades, the nation had maintained one of the lowest personal saving rates in the free world, but, by 2007, that rate had dipped as consumers splurged every nickel they earned and then some. Americans simply stopped saving for rainy days—why plan for failure? Consumer debt skyrocketed. Unqualified buyers accepted mortgages from banks that had no business writing them, an unholy alliance that assumed ever-escalating property values. Financial firms created new classes of investments that were basically glorified Ponzi schemes relying on a circular faith in The Market and the limitless hunger for more. Within two short years, millions of people lost their homes. Thousands of retirement funds lost half their value. The unemployment rate doubled.

But some of James Arthur Ray’s disciples paid a much steeper price at his October 2009 Spiritual Warrior retreat. The climax of the $9,695 event was an extreme sweat lodge ceremony that, like a firewalk on steroids, was supposed to demonstrate the mind’s ability to overcome even the most inhospitable physical conditions. Three participants did not overcome. Ray went to jail for negligent homicide, and the gurus of positivity went into hiding.

*     *     *

Adversity focuses priorities. Few people think much about whether their marriages are optimally satisfying when the sheriff is padlocking the house or the fridge is empty. When natural disasters occur, we roll up our sleeves and help one another. This happened following the unnatural disaster of 2008. For a while, America was sensible and philanthropic. But, in more recent years, as the economy roars back and the lessons of our erstwhile profligacy fade, narcissism has retaken center stage. Once again, it’s all about you and your ability to meet your needs by sheer dint of your will. Today’s “relationships” columns showcase pieces with navel-gazing titles like, ‟The Life-Changing Magic Of Validating Your Own Feelings,” or “You Deserve More,” or “Leaving You For Me.” Collectively, such tripe makes it sound as if you’re the only person in the relationships you have.

Self-help titles again dominate nonfiction best-sellers—and they’re edgier and pander more bluntly to narcissism than ever. My favorites: You Are a Badass, Unfuck Yourself. How to Stop Feeling Like ShitChoosing Me before We.

The positivity movement increasingly infects even medicine. Each year, cancer charlatans bank billions by persuading dupes that they can beat the disease through some regimen that “harnesses the body’s positive healing energies.” Not a few cancer patients die needlessly because they defer or dispense with conventional treatments. One 2017 study pegged the overall five-year survival rate for patients undergoing conventional cancer treatment at 78 percent, as against 54 percent for those who went the touchy-feely route. Baseless positivity kills. Besides, it is offensive to tell a woman facing stage 4 ovarian cancer, with its dismal five-year survival rate of 17 percent, that what she mostly needs is to keep her spirits up and fortify her will to live. No, what she mostly needs is a world-class oncologist, perhaps a nice bucket list vacation or two, and a will.

So successful have such fraudulent appeals been at siphoning off patients that mainstream medicine has taken notice. Advertising from major cancer centers conveys outlandish expectations for the curative powers of hope, according to an NIH study. Major hospitals are also turning to so-called integrative healthcare—an amalgam of proven medicine and, well, non-medicine that appeases New Age sensibilities. This pads billings while producing a more cheerful patient with the identical prognosis as before. One industry journal titled its coverage of the phenomenon, ‟Medicine with a side order of mysticism.”

Above all, we have inspirational memes with their endless paeans to personal empowerment. On Twitter, the following quote from actor Johnny Depp recently caught my eye:

This sentiment is in keeping with a society-wide movement—most visible in college culture—to ‟mollycoddle” our young, as Johnathan Haidt and Pamela Paresky put it in an essay for the Guardian. This has plainly backfired, they argue, citing spiking rates of depression and suicide among American youth. The US suicide rate in 2016 was up 34 percent for teenage boys and an astonishing 82 percent for girls, over a baseline period of 2006–2010.

It is counterproductive to imply to young people that they live in a cocoon of never-ending fulfillment, with nary a hostile sentiment to intrude. ‟If we overprotect kids and keep them ‘safe’ from unpleasant social situations and negative emotions,” write the authors, ‟we deprive them of the challenges and opportunities for skill-building they need to grow strong. Such children are likely to suffer more when exposed later to other unpleasant but ordinary life events….” They never become antifragile, Nassim Taleb’s catchy adjective for entities that grow stronger when tested, like bones, or the immune system—or coping skills.

If we’d been paying attention, we would have already learned this lesson from America’s public schools, which made lab rats of three generations of school kids while inadvertently conducting the world’s most damning empirical study of positive thinking. The scholastic self-esteem movement eliminated everything from honor rolls to red ink as schools sought to shield underperforming students from the stigma of failure, even if it meant “temporarily” relaxing standards. The educational process was wholly reconfigured to support ego development.

In the decades since, SAT scores, grade inflation, graduation rates, America’s performance in international STEM testing, and other metrics have demonstrated that scholastic greatness is not what augmented self-esteem promotes. Worse, administrators discovered that those temporary relaxations had to be institutionalized systemically when it was found that students couldn’t succeed later in their in their academic careers, either.

The movement did, however, yield a bumper crop of entitled narcissists. As psychologist/author Jean Twenge observes in Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled…and More Miserable Than Ever Before, schools loosed on society several generations of young people who expect their needs to be met. Twenge describes a 30 percent jump in students who scored above-average for narcissism during the most intense self-esteem-building activity. Additionally, as if foreshadowing Taleb’s points about antifragility, the educational system was shielding kids from developing the resilience that allows mature adults to process adversity.

Meanwhile, psychologist Roy Baumeister told me about one of the most troubling unintended consequences of self-esteem building: “You run the risk of producing kids who can’t tolerate challenges to the façade you’ve built up in them.” Baumeister’s collaborator in one study, Brad Bushman, put it this way in Science Daily, “If kids begin to develop unrealistically optimistic opinions of themselves, and those beliefs are constantly rejected by others, their feelings of self-love could make them dangerous to those around them.” So, if you feel that you deserve a beautiful partner or a better job, but the beautiful partners and managers in your orbit disagree, then they are the ones who need an attitude adjustment. When this entitlement mindset meets underlying pathology, you get a tragic headline. This seems to be apparent in the rise of the very angry incel community.

Not every dream is achievable for every dreamer. For every man who does what he “has to do for himself” and becomes Johnny Depp, there are hundreds on the unemployment line or behind bars. Does the fact that Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Lady Gaga dropped out of college to fulfill their dreams mean that you can drop out and repeat their success? It does not. And how does one maintain cohesion in a nation where 325 million people just do what they want to do for them and refuse to “give a shit” how their behavior affects others?

*     *     * 

For 16 years, beginning in the mid-90s, the prickly Dr. Laura Schlesinger built a radio franchise on contempt: for gays, ‟shack jobs,” career-minded moms, and ‟unwed mothers.” But she must get props for popularizing at least one enduring gem: “Love is not a feeling, it is a behavior.”

“It doesn’t matter if he tells you he loves you all day long and then sweeps you off your feet at night,” she might tell a woman stuck in a relationship with a romantic but chronically unreliable man. “Does he miss mortgage payments? Does he mess around? That’s not love.”

The same is true of happiness and positivity. They’re not mere feelings. They are behaviors. And the emotional states associated with them are less causes than results. A positive mental attitude is the result of achievement, not its predisposing condition. Happiness is the result of a way of living, not the affectation of perpetual good humor that magically self-fulfills—fake it till you make it! Happiness also is “more of a stable steady state than a series of adrenaline rushes,” as Martin Seligman, the so-called father of positive psychology, told me.

Long ago, my father spoke of the paradox of happiness: that those most desperate for it run a grave risk of ending up miserable. Forever chasing the high of the moment, they live sybaritic, disorderly lives. They have strings of relationships without meaning, children without relationships; they walk out on jobs that “stop meeting their needs.” Pursuit of a more genuine happiness may entail many moments that do not feel especially happy—moments of sacrifice, self-denial, and painful compromise. As an example, you do not get pregnant and instantly have an agreeable child who gets straight A’s, lands a great job, sends you flowers, and visits on holidays, forever enriching your life. You have months of discomfort and then the pain of labor. You have tantrums and bullying and broken hearts and college to pay for. Divorces. Maybe worse.

The highway to happiness is a toll road. That is an unpopular message in these empowered times, which may explain why the childless single women in that Guardian story deem themselves “happy” by today’s narcissistic standards. But as the editor of this magazine, Claire Lehmann, tweeted in response:

Besides which, happiness-mania may in and of itself be psychologically damaging. The psychologists I interviewed for my book were unanimous in the belief that this compulsive taking of the pulse of one’s happiness cannot possibly be good for the psyche: It’s a form of neurosis that too often leaves one feeling that “you are never quite on track,” said Twenge. Or as Seligman told me: “Well-being cannot exist just in your own head. Well-being is a combination of feeling good plus having good relationships and achievement.”

Happiness marches to its own drummer. You don’t know in advance what’s going to provide enduring satisfaction. It may end up being the opposite of “your dreams.” The big worry in putting the cart before the horse in these matters isn’t that the cart doesn’t move; it’s that the impatient horse, his view of what lies ahead obscured, may push you over a cliff.


Steve Salerno is a widely published essayist and professor of journalism. His 2005 book, SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, explored the self-improvement industry’s wider footprint in society. You can follow him on Twitter @iwrotesham

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash


  1. Self help missives are like those weird exercise devices you used to see advertised on late night television.

    No one actually used those things, they were sold on the illusion that simply buying them makes one healthier.

    And so goes the self help industry. Apparently, there is money to be made, in taking money from people on the illusion that they will become stronger… mentally.

    Amway, anyone?

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  1. Weasels Ripped My Flesh says

    “Happy wife = Happy life” versus “Are you married, or are you happy?”

    Or perhaps a good compromise”

    “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?”

    • MrJD says

      That first expression is truly a terrible one.

      Much more accurate: Happy life = Happy wife.

      Explanation: Focus on making your wife happy and you’ll be miserable. Focus on making your life awesome and your wife will be happy.

    • Eric Allonde says

      Better to go with, “Happy house, happy spouse”.

    • staticnoise says

      Ask my brother in law about happy wife = happy life… You know what makes my sister and him happy? Hearing from the doctor “you are cancer free” again! Now in her fourth year after the battle. She has no hair, blind in one eye and has half a lung after cancer ravaged her body and brain. I’ll guarantee when they started their married life they never suspected such happiness could be contained in that one sentence.

      You can never know what life will throw at you. Take happiness as it comes.

  2. Kauf Buch says

    This is the sort of article that demonstrates woefully too many “academics” write as if they were paid by the pound.

    It also shows the total misunderstanding of our Founding Documents, vis a vis “pursuit of happiness.”

    In draft form. one version was, “life, liberty and property.”

    The pursuit of happiness is not about some touchy-feely Boomer nonsense, but rather the wise knowledge that, without private property, you and I are SERFS at best and slaves at worst. To enable ownership of property is to enable FREEDOM…which is – in a word – what the Founding Documents are all about.

    So, pay this clown by the pound, and then tell him to do a bit more reading about America’s founding.

    • Kauf Buch says

      To spell out what I inadvertently omitted above, “pursuit of happiness” comes from having the freedom to choose how you make your money to live – be it knitting, lawyering, selling groceries, or whatever…and thereby, make yourself “happy.” Sounds corny to today’s ears, but….

    • CoreyCroom says

      The reference to the U.S. founding documents seemed a bit tongue-in-cheek by the author and outside the actual point of the article. You’re picking at this nit pretty harshly.

      • Exactly, this was not a critique of American foundation, on the contrary it was a way of specifying it with the wisdom those people had that most today do not. You’re refuting a point nobody made, Buch.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Kauf, mate, you’re way off beam here.
      The reference to the US Constitution was but a very small part of the article, and the fact that the draft version was different to the final does not in any way prove that the Founders meant prerty instead oof happiness. Anyone who has done even the smallest bit of statutory interpretation knows that what’s in the Bill is not indicative of what’s in the Act.

    • Liam says

      The switch from property to the pursuit of happiness was a key decision in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence because it removed property in enslaved people as a foundational right for the new nation. It was not a mere detail.

  3. Way back, Tony Robbins spoke at one of our quarterly meetings. He told the audience to stand up, take their “Success Posture” and let out a roar. Most everyone ignored him. I put up my feet and took a nap. Several took intentionally silly poses. Robbins lost his shit. He called us ‘weaklings’ and ‘losers’ and stomped off the stage.

    I guess he just wasn’t motivated enough that day to succeed.

  4. Robin says

    “Life, liberty and happiness” I think is better understood when juxtaposed with other legislative prescriptions. So in Canada “Peace, Order and Good Government” and in France, “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”. Do any of these preambles or prescriptions have any impact on policy making? Does it offer an ideal to the mass of plebes to follow or is it a guiding ethos of some sort for legislators?

    I think neither is true.

    Quite a few authors have grappled with it. John Ralston Saul broached the subject, (I’m going by memory, I think it was in ‘Reflections of a Siamese Twin’), wherein he argues that POGG was almost something else… but in either case would it matter?

    “For at least a half-century we’ve been putting the cart before the horse when it comes to aspirational thinking, and evidence suggests that individuals and society are both suffering for it.”

    Society suffering from aspirational thinking? I think Nietzsche might have said the opposite. Christian thinking was aspirational and in killing it that has led to the decline of the West. I’d add also that the last half-century has seen the USA constantly at war inventing new enemies to feed it’s rapacious military-industrial complex. Promotion of consumption has always been a hallmark of market economies… is that really the fault of New Age prophets and Oprah?

    I’d also argue that it wasn’t “unchecked optimism” that led to the 2008 crash. Much more to do with Clinton deregulation of the financial industry and the weakening of the Glass-Steagall Act passed in 1933 in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash.

    As for self-help gurus and fraudsters, those have always been around. Sophistry is as old as Socrates. In fact it is probably as old as humanity itself. There have always been ‘snake oil’ salesman… but is that due to overoptimism?

    The author then moves on to schools.. ok a few critics in that field… and he repeats a lot of other people’s talking points. One of a long litany. I think he could have summed his essay up better by saying in a Jordan Peterson way that life is hard, take responsibility for it. (And clean your room!)

    • Peter from Oz says

      AUstralia and NSW also have the general blurb about peace and good government in their constitution.
      But these are different to the US formula of life liberty and theopursuit of happiness, which is an emphatic declaration, whereas the others are just a bit of a rubric to which few people pay any attention.
      I don’t think the author is suggesting that society suffers from too much aspirational thinking. In fact he would probably agree with Nietzsche. WHat we have now is not aspirational thinking but magical thinking, the idea that if we want something we will achive it merely by positive thought.

      • David of Kirkland says

        99% perspiration and 1% inspiration….

    • ga gamba says

      and he repeats a lot of other people’s talking points.

      OK, but haven’t you done so yourself? “Military-industrial complex.” “Glass Steagall Act.”

      Let’s crack one of these nuts. Need some data. The US GDP in 2018 was $20.5 trillion. The military-industrial complex has a few aspects. There are arms sales to other countries; often these are multi-year deals than include the weapon system plus maintenance, upgrades, spare parts, support equipment and tools, etc. You’ll see a headline that proclaims $100 billion in arms sales to _____, but that’s spread over many years. In 2018 the US exported weapons worth $10.5 billion. Don’t get me wrong, $10.5 billion is a lot, but in comparison to the rest of the economy, is it a lot? Though exports aren’t part of GDP, if they were we see that arms exports are about 0.05% of the economy. Corn exports were $11.13 billion, and you rarely hear anyone whingeing about the farmer-industrial complex. Plasma and vaccines were $19.48 billion. Gasoline and refined petroleum products were $78.12 billion.

      Of course, arms sales abroad aren’t the only game in town. The DoD has a large budget. In 2018 it was $647.4 billion. That’s 3.16% of GDP. Is this too much or too little? And what does the DoD buy with all this money? It can’t all be emerald-encrusted golden toilet seats for B-52s, can it?

      Military Personnel: $133.4 billion
      Operation and Maintenance: $188.2 billion
      Procurement: $133.9 billion
      R&D: $88.3 billion
      Defense Health Program and Other DOD: $36.6 billion
      Overseas Contingency Operations: $65.2 billion

      A complete line-by-line accounting of the budget is here.

      Providing service personnel with pay, non-pay benefits, and healthcare costs the taxpayer $170 billion, which is 26% of the budget. Buying things, be it aircraft carriers, pencils, and MREs is 20.6% of the budget. Running the greatest show on Earth is 29% of budget. OCO is crisis response, infrastructure and coalition support for operations in Iraq/Afghanistan, humanitarian assistance in the Middle East and North Africa, and embassy security amongst other needs abroad. Ten per cent of the budget. R&D is 13.6% of the total.

      What is all this for? I suspect most people don’t know that US is bound by treaties to defend about a quarter of humanity. These are treaties, not agreements like the Paris climate scam. Who are all these people with lives so cherished the Americans are willing to die for them? The Nato allies in Europe plus Turkey and Canada, Australia, Japan, S. Korea, the Philippines, and the Organisation of American States. Pakistan too. Ain’t that a surprise. There are defacto obligations to Israel and Taiwan. In total, 69 countries have some form of defence pact with the US, and they make up about 75 per cent of the world’s economic output. The combined population of these countries and the US itself is in excess of 2 billion; the US taxpayer spends about $324 per person defended. Is this a justifiable expense? If you’re an American, do think you’re getting $324 worth of appreciation from each? For the first 165 years of its existence the US had no defence treaties, barring a short-lived one with France. Today it has a web of alliances and obligations. China, Russia, and India have no such global commitments, though I recall India has defence arrangements with Nepal and Bhutan.

      There’s solid justification to re-evaluate these alliances. Does Europe genuinely need the US to protect it from Russia, which is the only threat it faces? The population of Europe (minus Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus) plus allied Turkey is about 640 million. Exclude the neutral states and that puts Europe’s manpower at about 600 million, though aging; Russia is about 115,000 million. The GDP of the EU and Turkey combined is about $20 trillion. Russia’s GDP is $1.6 trillion. Europe + Turkey is 5 times more populous, 12 times wealthier, possesses state-of-art technology including that for weapons, and has two nuclear powers. Surely Europe and Turkey together have the resources, skills, and people to form a potent defence alliance vice Russia, one formidable enough to give Moscow pause. But, since the end of the Cold War, many of the European states have preferred to slash military spending, downsize manpower, and reduce equipment. Today, Russia spends almost 4% of GDP on its military whereas few European Nato states are at the required 2% – many are less than 1.5%.

      Asia is altogether different. Both China and Russia are Pacific powers. China alone is far more populous than America’s allies. The Philippines’ military is a basket case. Japan and South Korea are more often squabbling about a pile of rocks than cooperating. China, Russia, and North Korea are the only nuclear powers in east Asia – Pakistan and India are nuclear powers as well. South Korea spends 2.6% of GDP on defence but Japan’s is only 1.2%. Like the US, both Japan and Korea spend a significant portion of their budgets on personnel. China’s defence spending is difficult to know, but official figures put it at 2% of GDP. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it’s much higher.

      To secure the world’s vital maritime passages, control the airspace, ensure its communications, and maintain its logistics channels to defend 1/4 of humanity the US has dozens of forward bases, 11 super carriers, 110 ships of Military Sealift Command, 123 military satellites, more than 500 aerial refuelers, more than 300 each strategic airlifters and tactical air transport plus all the whiz bang equipment that destroy things. However, not all of these are mission ready at any one time. Each has a cycle. For example, in a given cycle, a ship may be deployed, in maintenance, or not deployed but able to provide additional forward presence as requested by theatre commanders, i.e. able to “surge”. Look at the status of the Navy’s eleven super carriers in April of last year. Five were in some type of maintenance status; three were incrementally available, the fourth a new carrier that’s undergoing post-shakedown availability trials now, and the fifth undergoing a 48-month complex overhaul.

      An aircraft carrier’s surge readiness depends on the carrier and crew’s level of training. When training for deployment is complete, the carrier can be surged within 30 days. Aircraft carriers undergoing basic training immediately after a maintenance period are at a lower readiness level and normally can be surged in 90 days. America’s Navy has a “6+1 fleet” goal of having at least six super carriers deployed or able to deploy within 30 days and an additional one able to deploy in 90 days. If the US went to war with a major adversary capable of striking its ports, it may find that those carriers it relied on to surge 30 to 90 days later have been damaged or destroyed. Further, aircraft carriers don’t head off into the sea alone. An escort group is required, but if many of those ships are lost this could reduce the number of carrier battle groups performing their tactical missions. The US with 11 carriers may only have 4 or 5 underway in the battle space. Battle tanks, MLRS, jet fighters, submarines, and stealth bombers all have their cycles as well, and due to systems’ complexity the ability to build masses of war material like that during WWII no longer is realistic. The US relies on a large quantity of war material on hand and stored in forward depots to withstand the initial onslaught and sustain the fight. To build, maintain, and refresh with upgrades this capability is costly.

      If the US wants to reduce its defence spending like many of its allies have, then it needs to start pruning its obligations. Who’s volunteering to be cut? Seeing how the Europeans responded when Trump called them to the carpet for failing to honour their funding promises, it seems to me many failed to anticipate such a US president. Angela Merkel told Trump that Germany would meet its 2% obligation by 2030, which suggests to me Germany plans to wait out Trump in hope for a future US president who doesn’t give them grief and resumes tolerating Europe’s mooching.

      I’d add also that the last half-century has seen the USA constantly at war inventing new enemies to feed it’s rapacious military-industrial complex.

      Let’s take a look at the “at war” actions and whether the enemies, new and old, are invented or not.

      Korean War. UN approved response to North Korea’s unprovoked invasion of the South. Did the US invent North Korea as an enemy? Present status: US forces and UN Command still in South Korea. Since the armistice was signed, Pyongyang has repeatedly attacked South Korea at home and abroad. Present status: US forces stationed in Korea.

      Lebanon Intervention, 1958. US troops sent to Beirut to restore order. Not approved by UN. President Chamoun requested US assistance after Egypt and Syria demanded Lebanon join the United Arab Republic (UAR) and sever relations with the West. Uprisings by those loyal to the prime minister, a proponent of Lebanon joining the UAR, attempted to destabilise the government. Mission completed in three months and US troops departed. Present status: No US forces in Lebanon.

      Vietnam/Indochina War, 1960 (or 1965) to 1973. Not approved by the UN. US troops invited by South Vietnam gov’t under attack by North Vietnam-supported guerilla forces. Present status: No US forces in Vietnam. In 2018 a US super carrier made a port call to Vietnam, the first visit by a US carrier in more than four decades. Also in 2018, Vietnam participated for the first time in the US Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) military exercise. Since 2012, US provides tens of millions of dollars in military aid to Vietnam.

      Dominican Republic Intervention, April 1965 to September 1966. Not approved by UN. Civil war erupted in the country. The US sent troops to evacuate Americans and foreigners. As the conflicted worsened President Johnson changed the US mission from evacuation to intervention. The arrival of US paratroopers and Marines prompted the warring parties to sign a ceasefire. Six Organisation of American States (OAS) members deployed their forces to the country and the OAS took command of the intervention. Present status: No US forces in DR.

      Lebanon, 1982 – 84. Not authorised by UN. US Marines deployed in 1982 were part of a temporary multinational force (MNF) in Lebanon to ensure safe departure of the PLO from Lebanon and Israeli withdrawal from Beirut. PLO was safely evacuated from Beirut and MNF departed. After Lebanese president was assassinated, Israeli forces returned to Beirut. 700-800 Palestinian civilians were massacred in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. A second MNF was deployed. In 1983 Lebanon and Israel signed an agreement ending the state of war between the two countries and providing for a phased Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, contingent on the withdrawal of Syrian and Palestinian forces still outside of Beirut. The Syrians refused to leave Lebanon. Militias allied with Syria began to fire on the MNF which returned fire. The militias declared the MNF was allied with the Lebanese gov’t. In October ’83 suicide bomb attacks were successfully conducted against US and French forces. French and US air forces retaliated against Syrian and Iranian forces in Lebanon. In Feb ’84 US forces withdrew from Beirut to ships offshore. Syria, Iran, the militias, and the USSR were adversaries to the US prior to the arrival of US forces and remained so. Present status: No US forces in Lebanon.

      Grenada, Oct 1983 to Dec 1983. Not authorised by the UN. After the arrest and execution of the Prime Minister and the establishment of the Revolutionary Military Council, the US invaded and ousted the coup leaders. Cubans in Grenada were deported. The date of the invasion is now a national holiday in Grenada, called Thanksgiving Day, which commemorates the freeing of several political prisoners who were subsequently elected to office. Cuba was an adversary prior to the invasion and remained so. Present status: No US forces in Grenada.

      Panama, December 1989 to Feb ’90. Not authorised by the UN. In 1989 Noriega annulled a presidential election that would have made Guillermo Endara president. President Noriega ousted, arrested, and deported to the US to stand trial on drug trafficking charges. Present status: No US forces in Panama.

      Persian Gulf War, August 1990 to April 1991. Approved by the UN. Large multinational coalition ejects Iraqi invasion force from Kuwait. Ceasefire agreed. Saddam Hussein remained in power and opposed to the US. Even attempted to assassinate former President Bush the elder during his visit to Kuwait. Present status: US forces stationed in Kuwait.

      US intervention in the Balkans, Feb 1992 – Dec 2004. Authorised by the UN. US and Nato coalition forces battled Serbian forces to end war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbia was opposed to the US and Nato, but once the Serbian regime was changed the Serbian people sought to improve ties. Serbs aspire to join the EU but few want to join Nato. Present status: no US forces stationed in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Former Yugoslav republics Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro joined Nato.

      US intervention in Somalia, March 1993 until March 1995. Authorised by the UN. After failure of UN in Somalia to impose a ceasefire needed for humanitarian aid to be delivered, UNSECGEN requested US send forces to support UN forces already in county. The US and others deployed. After a Somali warlord killed a large number of Pakistani peacekeepers, the UN authorised all to use necessary measures against those responsible for the armed attacks and to establish the effective authority of UNOSOM II throughout Somalia. This shifted the UN mission from one of humanitarian aid to fighting warlords. After the death of many US personnel in October ’93 the US, joined by several other participating states, withdrew in March ’94. Present status: No US forces stationed in Somalia.

      US intervention in Haiti, September 1994 – 31 March 1995. Authorised by the UN. US forces ousted dictator after coup d’état overthrew elected President Aristide. Present status: US forces stationed in Haiti.

      Afghan War: 2001 to present. Authorised by the UN. Multi-national (ISAF) invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Taliban government toppled. Taliban remain opposed to US. Al Qaeda dispersed and still opposes US. Present status: ISAF forces including US remain in Afghanistan.

      Iraq War, Gulf War II, March 2003 to August 2010. Not authorised by the UN. (Or maybe was it. More below.) Multi-national force topples Saddam Hussein. Civil war ensures. This one severely damaged America’s reputation. Present status: US forces stationed in Iraq to assist war on ISIS/ISIL.

      Libya Intervention, 2011. Authorised by the UN. Nato-led enforcement of no-fly zone that crippled the Gaddafi regime and its supporters. Present status: No US forces stationed in Libya.

      War on ISIS/ISIL, August 2014 to present. Authorised by the UN. This is several coalitions (French-led, Russian-led, US-led, and Muslim States’ Coalition) of 32 countries fighting ISIS/ISIL. Present status: US forces stationed abroad to assist war on ISIS/ISIL.

      That’s fifteen. Eight were authorised by the UN. Of the remaining 7, two were requested by the host government, three were in response to coups/attempted coups/rejection of election result, and Lebanon ’82 was an multinational intervention that resulted in the safe evacuation of the PLO and due in part to the failure of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to stop attacks on Israel originating in the UN occupied zone on the Israel-Lebanon border. Fourteen of fifteen were the US responding to a situation/crisis. I think none of these may be called the US inventing an enemy. In fact, a point could be made a former enemy, Vietnam, is now a friend, though not an ally.

      The howler to many is Gulf War II, Invasion of Iraq. Certainly the US and UK had a circumstantial case, one at best supported by the UN weapons inspectors’ claim the Iraqi regime was not forthcoming and even obstructionist. In response, the UN passed unanimously (15–0) Resolution 1441 in 2002, demanding Iraq comply with its disarmament obligations to include weapons of mass destruction, which tells me many more than Bush and Blair had their suspicions Iraq was hiding WMDs. Why would they vote in favour of 1441 if they thought is was malarkey? The resolution was “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations”, which to me sounds like an ultimatum. Seems to me the Iraqi’s wagered the threat was empty and more “final opportunities” would follow, and given they had repeatedly interfered with the inspectors almost immediately after their arrival in 1991, and received a total of 16 resolutions demanding compliance to the ceasefire, it was a sound bet.

      It was a dozen years of mischief that even included Iraq expelling the arms inspectors, which of course was also a violation of the ceasefire’s Paragraphs 8 and 9, specifically 9(b)(ii): “The forming of a special commission which shall carry out immediate on-site inspection of Iraq’s biological, chemical and missile capabilities, based on Iraq’s declarations and the designation of any additional locations by the special commission itself;

      The ceasefire wasn’t only about WMDs.

      Paragraphs 16 and 18: “Reaffirms that Iraq, without prejudice to its debts and obligations arising prior to 2 August 1990, which will be
      addressed through the normal mechanisms, is liable under international law for any direct loss, damage – including environmental damage and the depletion of natural resources – or injury to foreign Governments, nationals and corporations as a result of its unlawful invasion and occupation of Kuwait;” […] “Decides also to create a fund to pay compensation for claims that fall within paragraph 16 and to establish a commission that will administer the fund;”

      Iraq failed to comply with these conditions. Though the UN Compensation Commission (UNCC) was established, and $350 billion in claims were filed by governments, corporations, and individuals, as of 2010, Iraq had only paid $18.4 billion to claimants.

      And the violations of the ceasefire continued with Paragraph 30: “Decides that, in furtherance of its commitment to facilitate the repatriation of all Kuwaiti and third-State nationals, Iraq shall extend all necessary cooperation to the International Committee of the Red Cross [IRCC] by providing lists of such persons, facilitating the access of the International Committee to all such persons wherever located or detained and facilitating the search by the International Committee for those Kuwait and third-State nationals still unaccounted for;”

      Reported Yuli M. Vorontsov in UN Security Council update report 4: “Iraq, never having cooperated fully, withdrew from the [IRCC] Tripartite Commission in December 1998.” […] “By December 2002, under considerable diplomatic pressure, Iraq resumed its participation in the Tripartite Commission, and following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Coalition Provisional Authority continued cooperation with the Commission.”

      Do people not know the meaning of ceasefire? It’s a conditional arrangement, and when a ceasefire is violated, say by the refusal of one party to comply with the conditions, a permissible outcome is the resumption of hostilities. Understand this: the 1991 Gulf War remained in effect throughout the ’90s and the early ’00s. Neither an armistice nor a peace treaty was signed. A new declaration of war was unneeded. New authorisation was unneeded. When a ceasefire is violated what happens? The final paragraph of Resolution 687, the conditions of the ceasefire, tells us. It states the victors: “Decides to remain seized of the matter and to take such further steps as may be required for the implementation of the present resolution and to secure peace and security in the region.” (Bold my emphasis.)

      Given Iraq had disregarded numerous resolutions prior to UN Security Council Resolution 678, the one authorising war with Iraq, and was disregarding the ceasefire’s conditions (Resolution 687) as well as the post-ceasefire resolutions reiterating the UN’s demand Iraq comply with the conditions of the ceasefire, Iraq demonstrated it found only actions persuasive. Therefore, the “further steps” could only be the resumption of war. Words carried no weight with the Iraqi regime.

      Moreover, the WMD claim was one that rested on solid evidence of prior Iraqi acts. Indisputably Saddam used chemical weapons against Iran and the Kurds in violation of the Geneva Protocol. War crimes include the use of chemical and biological weapons, and the UN’s Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity state that war crimes have no statute of limitations. Instead of making their case on Saddam’s proved use, for some reason the US and UK decided to press their case on unverifiable assertions by dodgy characters that Iraq still possessed chemical and biological weapons in violation of Resolution 687.

      The world got it in its head that 2003 was an entirely new war based on new claims, and this was Bush’s and Blair’s folly. It would have been wiser to assert it was the resumption of 1991’s war, justified by Iraq’s failure to comply with every condition of the ’91 ceasefire. But, because the UN tends to craft resolutions with conditions that it will not enforce, that is own members later disregard, and the public doesn’t care about, Bush and Blair sexed up the accusation. Not merely content with that, then they concocted a connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda. I think they forecast the war would be won quickly – Baghdad fell three weeks after the start of hostilities – and the public would lose interest in WMDs in the glow of victory. Then they failed to win the peace. The Western public want their wars to be won quickly and tidily, which is an unrealistic want of war, but if you’re not willing to reorient their thinking and instead play to it, well you’ve earned yourself the angered people.

      I just wrote eleven paragraphs justifying the invasion of Iraq, and to counter it a person needs only state: “No chemical weapons were found.” It’s a simple and effective reply – a devastating one in fact – because Bush and Blair made the wrong case for war, and they lied to make that wrong case. It’s like a prosecutor ignoring all the murderer’s victims to accuse the murderer of a new homicide, one without a body, and then the prosecutor gets caught fabricating evidence about the existence of the person. Just stupid.

      Ultimately, it’s for the Americans to decide whether they want to shoulder the burden of superpower status and the obligation of alliances. Perhaps they’ve had enough of that. Temperamentally, I think many lack the patience to endure what comes from it. Financially, more and more question the costs in treasure and blood, though by spending more treasure you tend to spill less of your own blood. American causalities post Vietnam are minimal. But if people complain about the expense of it all, and then complain when troops are sent into battle in HMMWVs shielded in fibreglass and canvas, they might want to figure out this contradiction.

      Cheap, fast, and good. Pick two and accept the consequences from that choice.

      • ga gamba says

        Re Haiti, Present status: No US forces stationed in Haiti. Apologies for the sloppiness.

      • Geary Johansen says

        @ ga gamba

        Great comment. Highly informative, well-reasoned and articulate arguments. Two points really. The first is that America often fails to establish War and Diplomacy as co-equal partners. The exception proves the rule, in that during the US intervention in the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke and James Pardew were exceptionally adept at pairing the threat of military force to strategic diplomatic aims.

        Tied to this is the tendency of the American political classes to have no clear objectives or strategy for exit. Above all, American military forces often find themselves in the unenviable position of occupation, as the Administration blunders from one unrealistic goal to another. Iraq could have been resolved with far less loss of life, if American politicians could have brought themselves to the unpalatable decision to hand power over to the Iraqi military in the interim, with a clear resumption of the application of military force threatened, should they fail to introduce a democratic handover of power within a pre-agreed time frame.

        My second point relates to the clear trade and enrichment advantages America receives from policing the world. No other nation in the world possesses the power to unilaterally renege on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and ensure that it’s allies continued commercial engagement with the treaties framework is minimal, but the US does. And this is largely due to the economic might they wield, from successfully enforcing a relatively stable Pax Americana for the past 70 years.

        • ga gamba says

          Thanks for the comment, GJ.

          I understand your assessment of Iraq, but given the military was Sunni and Ba’athist dominated, and this minority group was loathed by both the Shi’a and the Kurds, I think it would have been a tough case to make to the majority that the Sunni keep their influence. Even partition would have been very tricky to pull off because certainly the Kurds would have been left landlocked and the Sunni as well. Most of the major oil fields are in the southeast near Basra, which is in Shi’a territory, and in the north, which is Kurd. The Sunni would have some oil wealth, and also control of the major freshwater lakes. Then add the issue of Turkish hostility, threats, and occasional attacks on the Kurds to prevent the creation of an Kurdish nation. I don’t think anyone could have pulled off peace between the groups. Further, I don’t fully share your appraisal of a “tendency of the American political classes to have no clear objectives or strategy for exit.” They handled Japan and Germany well enough after WW2, though neither had the complex ethnic/religious dimensions of Iraq, and German and Japanese civilian relocation was also enforced. Truth be told, Japan’s unconditional surrender was a conditional once because the US agreed to allow the emperor to remain on the throne to better sell the surrender and the post-War occupation. We should recognise that there have been plenty of complaints made of America’s incomplete purging of Japanese wartime officials and insufficient number of war crimes trials.

          Like many things, what you mention is quite complex. At the foundation, countries trade (and conquer) to secure calories. Obtaining and maintaining the food supply was a major concern of the Roman Empire. Early Rome brought grain from outside of Roman territory, secured from the city-states nearby in Etruria and from afar, notably from Cumae (near Naples), Sardina, and Sicily. Later it was North Africa and Egypt that provided a lot of Rome’s grain.

          Britain was no different. I recall it experienced about 100 famines during the Middle Ages, an average of one every decade. Continental Europe was no better off. Other resources were important as well. At times in places around the world salt was worth its weight in gold; Salzburg, Austria was once one of the world’s wealthiest cities. After food, rulers sought metals and ore such as tin and copper, later iron ore and coal, and then rubber and petroleum. Of today’s strategic metals, minerals, and elements, which the US defines at 46, domestic US resources exist for 40 (87%), which is remarkably high. In several cases the US does not exploit these, whether due to lower cost external suppliers or the desire to avoid the contentious environmental legal and PR battles with activists. For example, rare earths, which is a bit of a misnomer, today China dominates world production – and it doesn’t produce the heavy rare earths. In the late ’90s the US was the number two producer. Its reservers didn’t exhaust, rather lower cost imports, chiefly Chinese, replaced domestic production. Yet, the US still possesses these resources and could resume production. When China has tried to use rare earths a cudgel, prices increased and Australian and US production become economically viable.

          Aside from the initial colonial period in North America where the settlers were on the precipice and some settlements starved to death, the United States is one of the few countries where its natural wealth runneth over. It’s odd ‘luxuries’, such as cocoa, and a few strategic minerals that the US can’t provide its own needs. The US is not commodity dependent. It’s a net exporter of food, fuels, and minerals. Its commodity imports are typically due to lower cost overseas producers, for example cheaper Brazilian beef for McDonald’s beef patties, which aligns with Ricardian principle of comparative advantage, and the luxury of being wealthy enough to import out-out-season fresh fruit and vegetables – strawberries in January. Contrast it to China. It’s a net importer of commodities, reliant on food, fuel, and minerals. S. Korea is in the same boat, and for years it attempted to achieve food self-sufficiency. I can remember each year there were no crisps (potato chips to Americans) on the store shelves because potatoes were out of season and the government wouldn’t allow their import. Imagine the productive capacity of crisp makers sitting idle, or having to be reconfigured to make something else, because the government wanted to proclaim it was self sufficient. It did the same thing with rice, and though rice didn’t disappear for periods each year, producers of rice wine (makoli and dongdongju) were forbidden to produce it for long stretches. Because it wouldn’t import bananas, local framers built greenhouses, heated them with imported and expensive fuel, and grew some of the most expensive bananas in the world for a time. When I lived in Hong Kong, which produces very little food, the shelves were always stocked with goods from around the world priced affordably because the government didn’t pursue such policies.

          In WWI Germany ceased fighting because it was on the verge of economic collapse. In 1914 Germany depended on imports for about a third of her foodstuffs, animal fodder, and fertiliser, and these were affected by, amongst other things, the blockade put in place by the British navy from November of that year. In the autumn of 1915 – harvest season – there were food riots in many German cities. By 1916 German housewives were demanding the war end because food was in such short supply. In WWII Britain faced the real threat of being denied petroleum as well as being starved into submission. Yet, Germany could have lined the US coasts with U-boats and it would have had negligible effect on the material well being of Americans. The fisherman would have been hit, the cocoa and coffee beans wouldn’t have been delivered unless trucked through Mexico, and the supply of silk stockings depleted (nylons were introduced in 1940, made up the shortfall), but the US could have ridden it out because it possessed all that it needed in great surplus. Synthetic rubber had been invented in 1910 and was commercially viable in 1930.

          I’ve written before in other comments the US was a superpower in all things but military might prior to WW2. Though we think of Britain being the manufacturing powerhouse of the 19th century, research by Dutch economists Pieter Woltjer, Ewout Frankema, and Jan-Pieter Smits find America was significantly more productive at earlier points in several sectors vis-a-vis the UK, France, and the Netherlands.

          Comparative labour productivity by industry and services UK/US, ca. 1850-1910
          UK productivity.
          1849/51: Agri 93; Mine 122; Manu 45; Const 117; Total Ind 58; Trans Svc 225; Trade Svc *; Tot Svc 142; Total Econ 96
          1859/61: Agri 99; Mine 130; Manu 37; Const 126; Total Ind 50; Trans Svc 109; Trade Svc *; Tot Svc 126; Total Econ 95
          1869/71: Agri 99; Mine 64; Manu 51; Const 122; TotalInd 61; Trans Svc 140; Trade Svc 180; Tot Svc 124; Total Econ 85
          1879/81: Agri 88; Mine 67; Manu 55; Const 83; Total Ind 61; Trans Svc 117; Trade Svc 117; Tot Svc 102; Total Econ 78
          1889/91: Agri 96; Mine 61; Manu 48; Const 69; Total Ind 54; Trans Svc 87; Trade Svc 131; Tot Svc 126; Total Econ 88
          1899/01: Agri 82; Mine 47; Manu 49; Const 86; Total Ind 55; Trans Svc 65; Trade Svc 122; Tot Svc 99; Total Econ 82
          1909/11: Agri 91; Mine 42; Manu 43; Const 48; Total Ind 45; Trans Svc 65; Trade Svc 104; Tot Svc 89; Total Econ 76

          Comparative labour productivity by industry US/UK/Netherlands/France, ca. 1909/11
          Agriculture: UK 90.8, NL 43.0, FR 33.2
          Mining: UK 41.6, NL 10.0, FR 39.9
          Manufacturing: UK 42.7, NL 28.0, FR 38.5
          Industry: UK 45.0, NL 29.7, FR 39.6
          Total Agriculture & Industry: UK 61.1, NL 34.4, FR 33.0

          Comparative UK/US GDP per capita, 1820-1913, US=100.
          From 1820 to 1880 the UK ranged between 110 and 120. Then it dropped precipitously. In the 1880s it was 95. A recovery in the 1890s put the UK at 105 for much of the decade. From thereon it fell below 100 and continued to drop to 80 by 1910.

          This was the height of British imperial might. Napoleon had been defeated. The Spanish were in decline, and other European powers didn’t try to grab its former colonies, though I think this may be mostly attributed to British power. The Dutch were long gone as a formidable rival. Germany wasn’t yet a threat. It was Russian ambitions directed to central and south Asia that worried Whitehall. Yet Britain wasn’t able to transform its military might into total economic dominance – this was withering. It could be argued that the US was a beneficiary of Pax Britannica, a free rider so to speak, yet Britain was a minor power in the Caribbean (Jamaica and West Indies), Latin America (British Guiana), and the northern and central Pacific; it had scattered island possessions in the south Pacific and its colonies in Australia and New Zealand, both of which were out of the way of US trade routes to Asia.

          From 1925 to 1940 the American balance of trade was surplus each year except 1935 when it had a small deficit. Its main exports, in descending order of value, were fuels and lubricants, automotive products, and capital goods. Immediately after the war exports surged, chiefly because it was the sole power whose industrial capacity was intact, then they grew erratically from 1953 to 1962, and at a smoothly increasing rate after that as Europe and Japan recovered. Imports did not appear at a significant level until about 1955, chiefly from Europe, then more coming from Japan in the ’60s, with Korea and Taiwan joining in the ’70s. China began its liberalisation in the early ’80s; it hit its stride in the ’90s. Imports overtook exports in 1968, causing a deficit that has been growing ever since – four decades. For about two decades after the war the share of US output consumed at home remained almost stable, greater than 97 per cent from ’61 to ’64. But, as imports approximately doubled, the share of the home market supplied domestically was reduced to 95.5 per cent in 1968. Today the value of imports are about 15% of GDP.

          It looks to me the US is reliving the British experience. But, Britain and the US are very different, which I explained above. To grow domestically Britain had to look abroad and secured the needed resources through imperialism. The US wasn’t under the same pressure, and though certainly trade enhanced its people’s quality of life, it wasn’t a do-or-die impetus.

          In hindsight, after the Cold War the US should have demanded greater participation in global security by its partners. The North Atlantic being a US/EU/UK sphere, the Mediterranean/Red Sea a UK/EU/Turkey sphere, the Pacific/Indian Ocean a Canada/US/Australia/Japan/S. Korea sphere (with India joining), and the Persian Gulf involving those who relied on its petroleum, which is everyone mentioned before. Instead, many of America’s partners decided to reduce their defence expenditures, with Europe still fixated on unification project, German unification, and the Balkans.

          America’s main post-war benefit is the dollarisation of the world economy, which means (so far) it never had to face the horror of devaluation, IMF rescue packages, etc. I remember being in India in ’91 when the government announced it only had enough dollars to pay for three weeks of imports, mostly oil – OPEC wasn’t taking rupees. It faced default due to a balance of payments crisis. This shock forced India to reform its economy.

          International traders, be they of commodities, intermediate goods, or finished ones overwhelmingly invoice in dollars. The value of these invoices is about five times the value of US imports. For example, 86% of India’s exports are invoiced in dollars though only 15% of India’s exports are to the US. Whilst China makes up 16% of India’s imports these are mainly invoiced in dollars. Some might state it’s because neither India nor China are reserve currencies, which is true, and that explains this phenomenon. Traders want a currency that is accepted everywhere without fail. Yet, in the case of Japan and UK, whose currencies are reserve currencies, only 40% of exports in the case of Japan and 51% in the case of the UK are invoiced in their own currency. For the US, 93% of its imports and 97% of its exports are dollar denominated. And what do all these traders do with their dollars? Often they sell them to the bank for their own local currency or keep them in dollar accounts for near-future use. Eventually these dollars are used to buy US gov’t debt and dollar-denominated assets. Basically, the US has ensured there are always international buyers of this (foreign investors now hold $28 trillion in dollar-denominated assets) and if you hold dollars, dollar debt, and dollar assets that last thing you want is the collapse in its value.

          Could the US achieve this without being a military superpower? I don’t know. America’s market is so large, so lucrative, so open to imports, and it imposes few barriers on cross-border currency movement, that it being an economic superpower may be sufficient. Over the years more and more countries have added the euro to its reserves, and EU is not a military superpower.

  5. So you’re saying if we purge ourselves and others of negative thoughts and stereotypes
    about certain groups, those groups won’t necessarily become equal with their counterparts?

    Holy bungus.

  6. Declan says

    The study on women are happier without children was found to have no basis when, after the article was publicized, another researcher discovered that data in the article had been completely misinterpreted.

    “Married people are happier than other population subgroups, but only when their spouse is in the room when they’re asked how happy they are. When the spouse is not present: f***ing miserable,” Dolan said, citing the American Time Use Survey, a national survey available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and used for academic research on how Americans live their lives.

    The problem? That finding is the result of a grievous misunderstanding on Dolan’s part of how the American Time Use Survey works. The people conducting the survey didn’t ask married people how happy they were, shoo their spouses out of the room, and then ask again. Dolan had misinterpreted one of the categories in the survey, “spouse absent,” which refers to married people whose partner is no longer living in their household, as meaning the spouse stepped out of the room.”

    Not only that, but if you go to google and type in ‘women are’, the auto-complete fills in ‘women are happier without children’ and the first page results are articles on Dolan’s book.

    One of the accusations in the Project Veritas expose was that Google are manipulating auto-complete results to promote certain values, the above being a case in point. Though you could also argue it suits Google not to have their employees going out having kids, so why wouldn’t they promote research that has been discovered to be false.

    • TarsTarkas says


      So in other words, the use of a euphemism (‘absent’ in place of ‘dead’ or ‘no longer living’) toasted Dolan’s entire premise.

      Down with euphemisms!

      An alternative take, of course, is that Dolan KNEW what ‘absent’ meant in the ATUS survey, and deliberately misinterpreted the results to fit his narrative.

      • mirrormere says

        I vote deliberate misinterpretation.

    • Jonny Sclerotic says

      Declan, your own googling of the subject is influencing your auto-complete.

      With a cleared cache and never having typed these words before, my auto-complete for ‘women are’ returns the following suggestions: from venus, beautiful, sacred, some kind of magic, funny get over it.

      Trust me, Google is not promoting certain values. It’s doing what it thinks you want. That’s it’s sole function.

      • Doug F says

        Jonny, this is simply not true. Look up Project Veritas and it’s interviews and demonstrations.

        • Left My Foot says

          It’s an honour to meet you Doug F, Clairvoyant-at-Large.

      • David of Kirkland says

        @Jonny, indeed I tried an the suggestions were:
        the future
        are beautiful
        are sacred
        aren’t nags

        • Jonny Sclerotic says


          I asked a friend to do the same search and he came up with a combination of yours and my suggestions, plus two more:

          Women are not rehabilitation centers
          Women are wonderful effect

          I’m amazed that Doug F would tell us that we’re liars because our data doesn’t fit with his narrative. Staggering hubris.

          FWIW Doug, I work in search (no, not for Google – they are my adversary if anything) and you have no idea what you are talking about it.

          But if, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, you remain absolutely convinced that Google is trying to brainwash you, why do you keep using it? I would give it a wide berth, Doug.

    • David of Kirkland says

      You are asserting that Google auto-complete is manipulated by some cabal within the organization to change the results to match their politics? It’s not because that’s what most people are searching for? Do you have any info to suggest this isn’t created by algorithms but by Google corporate wishes?

      • Declan says

        This morning I tried my computer with cookies cleared, and two non-personal computers (both cookie and cache cleared) neither of which I’ve used before.

        The results were; women are:

        from venus men are from mars
        happier without children
        wonderful effect

        They weren’t my allegations, but the allegations of the whistleblower in the Project Veritas video.

        • Jonny Sclerotic says

          Declan, your original comment was balanced and fair, and clearly Dolan’s study was based on wilful misinterpretation or, at a minimum, plain sloppy work.

          My only issue was with Doug F’s paranoia-laced certainty of a leftwing conspiracy at multinational capitalist organization Google. I find it hilarious that people can believe that.

          • Did you completely miss the part in the Project Veritas video where the “Head of Responsible Innovation” (what an Orwellian job title if I’ve ever heard one) said, and I quote:

            Elizabeth Warren is saying we should break up Google. And like, I love her but she’s very misguided, like that will not make it better it will make it worse, because all these smaller companies who don’t have the same resources that we do will be charged with preventing the next Trump situation, it’s like a small company cannot do that.

            Emphasis mine. I take it you haven’t actually seen the video, otherwise you wouldn’t be sticking your foot in your mouth like this. I suggest you go watch it before you speak on this subject again. You’ll at least be informed enough to join the conversation without sounding like a stooge, even if your opinions aren’t the same as mine or others. Here’s a link to the article and video that everyone is talking about:


            To summarize: A department head at Google was caught admitting that Google is behaving in a way that very strongly suggests they are staging a coup d’état against the United States of America. They are quietly and subtly abusing technology that has become ubiquitous in the American lifestyle in order to brainwash the citizens into electing a Presidential candidate of Google’s preference, while claiming to be completely unbiased and impartial in order to retain their Section 230 status.

            To summarize even further: It’s like Russiagate, only replace Russia with Google and replace speculation with actual proof.

            I agree, the methodology wasn’t clear at all during the part where they brought up those search suggestions. I also wish they had done more to attempt to demonstrate reproducibility of results. If they could show they were browsing from a “clean” browser and O/S install, maybe use a VPN and change tunnels a few times to see how results look in different regions, that sort of thing. The truth is that Project Veritas doesn’t seem to be that tech-smart… I mean, shit, they seem to think using ProtonMail is the only way to send them an encrypted email. They don’t even list a GPG key fingerprint, for crying out loud.

            The problem people here seem to have with you is that you appear to be nitpicking about this one particular failure in a much larger investigative piece that included statements made by very important people from Google when they were on hidden camera. Not only that, but this piece includes the testimony of a whistleblower who not only “works in search” like you do, they actually worked for Google in particular, so this person knows exactly what they’re talking about in terms of both what’s going on technically and culturally — much more intimately than you do.

            Mark my words, if this coup attempt had happened 200 years ago, Jen Gennai and everyone she works closely with would have been summarily rounded up and executed by firing squad. Rightfully so, at that.

            It’s no wonder that they’ve been pushing so damn hard with their advertisements lately — it coincides with campaign season! Buy a Pixel, buy a Chromebook, buy a Google Nest device, all of which will listen to every word you say within earshot and feed it to a machine learning algorithm, even when you’re not directly making a query to the device. They need to listen in on every conversation in America, because Trump must be stopped, and your submission to their surveillance technology is the key to winning this fight!

            Oh, but watch out for that evil face-aging app that sends your selfies to Russia, says the media! Yeah, it’s very important Russia doesn’t see a picture of your face (which you probably already put on social media anyway,) but it’s totally okay that Google knows every word you speak, every place you visit (online and offline, thanks to GPS), every appointment in your schedule, every word exchanged privately over email…

  7. Geary Johansen says

    The real secret to investment, especially in housing, is to look at what everyone else is doing, and do the opposite. So buy when people are at their most depressed about the housing market, and the broader economy, and sell when optimism is in the air. One of the smartest things I’ve ever heard was by Hyman Minsky: ‘Stability is Destabilizing’- a summation of the process by which confidence quickly becomes overconfidence. On housing, this is particularly pertinent given that the Chinese have begun a systemic halt on overseas investment in property, in favour of domestic investment.

    Great article, by the way, and one that focuses on a particular hobby horse of mine, the complete unmitigated disaster that is the progressive education system. I don’t blame the teachers, mind. I blame the academic bureaucracies that have trained and educated them. For years, phonics was very much optional in the British system- as though the education of young minds were an artistic endeavour designed to bring the creativity of the teacher to the fore, instead of a science to be leaned and studiously applied. With perhaps no greater damage done, than by the wilful application of the ideas of Rousseau, that enlightenment cuckoo turned absentee father, whose main observation on children seems to have been that knowledge should be summoned forth from a child’s mind, rather than imparted into it.

    And what are the intellectual consequences of this? Well, kids who grow up on this regimen don’t have the mental conditioning to read and enjoy books, for one thing. They lack the ability to do fairly simple mental maths. This is all presumably a symptom of the idea that they can always use a calculator or look things up on Google. My brother, a head chef, regularly needs to update his menu, he needs to guesstimate pricing and PMs, timings, date stamps, portion sizes on the spur of the moment, often in less time than it takes to drink a coffee, when for the younger generation this would probably require anything from three to four hours, to work through all the pitfalls. And as to Google? Well, unless you regularly fall afoul of their curation, in not being able to find detailed information on what you are looking for, then you aren’t really asking the right questions.

    On the subject of self-help my response is somewhat more mixed. There really are some interesting books out there- the six or seven P’s of marketing, The Millionaires Manual and Clear Your Desk! The last one was particularly helpful to a now very successful friend, who didn’t realise that by only having one thing on your desk at a time, you could save 8 minutes an hour at a minimum, and possibly 15 minutes, because of the human tendency to be distracted by anything in your zone of attention. But the key distinction is that all the best self-help books teach you things, or ways of looking at and categorising problems, rather than attitude or positivity.

    I watched one interviewee- I can’t for the life of me, remember who, that counselled that when confronted by someone who states they are offended by what you are saying (by which they mean shut up!)- it is important to acknowledge their discomfort and sympathise, but then go on to claim that it really is vital to have the conversation. I will have to try it someday, when I have the patience to remember it in the moment.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Can you name many investors who “do the opposite” to gain the most? There are clearly more winners who see a new trend begin and get in early. “Buy low, sell high,” is easy to say, but not so easy to do, and if you sold you stock and real estate in 2015 after a 7 year run you’d have given up a lot of money. As stocks and housing tend to go up most years, it’s unclear when you’d get in (was the last time to buy stocks and homes back in 2008?) and then out.

      • Geary Johansen says

        @ David of Kirkland

        Good point. The reason why I was able to predict the financial crash (although I initially thought it would be around 2005/2006) was because people were taking on mortgage debt, well beyond the normal ratio to earnings formula. So I probably didn’t account for how much specific knowledge plays into the general principle. But what I will say was that back in that period I felt very much like Cassandra in that only a few of my mates listened to my predictions and were prepared to wait- making at least a £100K each.

        The other thing that does my head-in, is that people spend more time looking for a new car, on average, than shopping for the best mortgage deal. Most tend to go with a lender or bank that they already have an existing relationship with. This is insane, as you can save huge amounts of money by shopping around for the best rates and terms.

      • Geary Johansen says

        @ David of Kirkland

        The smart investor at the moment should be looking to cash in on the disruption caused by Brexit. Whatever the final outcome, it is certain that the market will drastically overestimate the long term effects of a No Deal Brexit. Don’t get me wrong, it will have significant impacts and as a Brit I am exceptionally nervous- but I’ve noticed over time, that legitimate concern in some areas, can spill over into other parts of the financial market, which analysts have no business devaluing. So I would do my research, and look for companies that have the capacity to export heritage goods globally. If you’re outside the UK already, you should automatically get at least a 10% discount on currency exchanges, when we come out and you’re ready to buy.

    • Peter from Oz says

      I’ve often wondered why someone who is a successful practitoner of anything really wants to share the secrets of his or her success with the world.Why create the competition? And if you make more money from telling others how to succeed than you do in actually succeeding, then is succeeding really worth the effort?
      This is particularly the case with money-making schemes. If one has discovered a technique guranteeing investment success. surely one would just earn lots of lovely lolly using the technique. One wouldn’t need to make money by writing a book to sell the technique if the technique itself actually worked.

      • Geary Johansen says

        @ Peter from Oz

        The book thing is absolutely spot on the money. But generally people drastically over-estimate the role self-interest plays in such matters. Otherwise, Yaron Brook would be making millions on Wall Street or in the City. I think the key dividing line is between the professional and the private. Professionally, we all have to be competitive and self-interested to succeed, but personally we are free to be as altruistic as we wish, plus there’s vanity, everyone wants to appear to be in the know.

        It’s been my experience though. that most bosses actually enjoy the experience of mentoring people who are smart and willing to listen. I know it’s the smart move anyway, but it still doesn’t account for the amount of time they are sometimes willing to spend. I do take your point though- especially in pubs, there is always an instant expert willing to offer advice. I tend to avoid asking for advice from friends and family, as well, because I’ve noticed that the attempt to be objective often shifts people into a more critical frame of mind. Ask a friend or family member to look over something you’ve written and they will inevitably check grammar and spelling- even though you’ve specifically asked them to take a general overview of the piece.

        I wonder whether this is what’s happening with women entrepreneurs and diversity hires. Could the process of deliberately trying to be more objective, make one less so. Broadly speaking, this might be why female entrepreneurs are more often asked how they are going to hold onto existing business, whilst male prospective entrepreneurs are more often asked how they are going to win new business- being relaxed with the format and the prospective entrepreneur allows one to go with the gut more and evaluate the person beyond the numbers, and trying to be ‘fair’ snaps one into a critical mindset, ready to look for flaws and pitfalls.

      • MrJD says

        If you’re a zero-sum Keynesian, then helping others is self-harming.

        If you believe in free markets, then rising tides float boats.

  8. The author’s point is well-made. People who don’t know other people who are up to their eye balls in self-help new age dribble will perhaps not understand the importance of this message. Believe me, there are many people who need to hear this.

    I’ve done some research of Tolle’s teaching. It’s utterly parasitic on Christianity. His best points are ripped out of the Bible and his worst points are grafted from Buddhism and myths you learn in grievance studies departments all across the American academy. Take away the Christian ethic and world-view and his teaching flat lines into self-obsession, nihilism and ultimately, hatred of anyone with the audacity to resist the unstoppable transformation of human consciousness that MUST by historical necessity occur.

  9. mag0ne says

    I agree with the criticism of traditional self-help subjects. I’m much more a fun of Peterson’s advice: Pursue what is meaningful. If you are lucky enough to be happy for a time than you should appreciate it, because it won’t last.

  10. DiamondLil says

    The worst aspect of the “everyone’s a winner” school of child rearing is that it teaches young people a particularly cruel message: “losing any competition is intolerable, insurmountable, not survivable. You must be shielded from such loss at all costs.”

    • David of Kirkland says

      All while knowing that for most competitions, the number of winners is tiny compared to those who will lose.

  11. I divide Quillette articles into different categories. This one fit the “Cranky Quillette” category. I agree about “THE SECRET” and I eagerly await Ms Williamson and her angels travelling to Chernobyl to prove her theory. But Mr. Salerno does go overboard in the opposite direction. Nonetheless, far be it from me to interfere with his right to the pursuit of misery!

  12. Lightning Rose says

    Writers keep cranking this crap out because there is a wide and deep market for it, full stop. Demand will be supplied; supply will be demanded.

    The derivation of a lot of this is a misreading of Buddhist tenets such as the Shingon teaching that “we create our reality with acts of body, speech and mind” and that while pain exists everwhere, interpreting it as suffering is a choice we make. That these teachings are spiritual, not material, and derive from much deeper insights into the human condition than are realized today never seems to occur to anyone. Just like the shell of “yoga” degraded to a yuppies’ workout.

    “Sound-bytes” from Eastern religions were marketed into pop psychology by hippie “gurus” like the Beat poets who thought (in their drug-induced stupors), that they’d stumbled upon something unique and new!

    I think people hit the “Is this all there is?” phase when youth is slipping away, middle age is next year, and their career is stalled in place. “Positive thinking” gets you nowhere of course without positive ACTION; identify a goal, make a plan, execute that plan even if that entails bucking the conventional tide. Ask any self-employed successful businessman, he’ll tell you!

    • David of Kirkland says

      Is this significantly different than selling vitamins, or some new fashion or tech or drug that promises to make you happy? If college were free, or healthcare were free, happiness would results and you’d automatically be educated and healthy?

    • Geary Johansen says

      @ Lightning Rose

      Great comment as usual. I was watching Jordan Peterson with Russell Brand awhile back, and one thing struck me as hilarious- when discussing Joseph Campbell’s famous phrase ‘Follow your bliss’, Russell Brand observed that he later lamented, “I should have said follow your blisters.”

      The other great moment was the Alfred Maysles quote: “Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance.” Very much applicable to the times we live in, especially in relation to the outrage mobs.

  13. Don McIver says

    You can trace it even further back than 1983…to 1952 and Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking,” which certainly influenced my farmer’s wife grandmother as “Guidepost” was strewn liberally around her house.

    I do like that you touch on Joel Osteen but the article does on balance not dig much into how fundamentalist and evangelical pastors draw from the same well and that “positive thinking” seems to be non-partisan (see Politico’s reporting on how Norman Vincent Peale influenced Trump).

    As for Twenge, there are numerous articles on the problems with her research and how the conclusions she drew may not be so clear cut.

    • Even further back, to the “mind cure” movement of the late 19th century, discussed in detail by William James in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” And that probably owes a lot to Trascendentalism. I wonder if posiitive thinking is somehow rooted in the American character.

  14. Simon says

    Pilgrim’s Progress Unbound – the Ethics of the Gospel of Wealth and the Sprit of Con Capitalism

  15. Kenneth Newman says

    Cancer patients do indeed need a good attitude, mainly because it helps keep the immune system up. Disclaimer: I am stage IV.

  16. E. Olson says

    This essay changed my life. Before I read it I thought I enjoyed my career, was in blissful love with my beautiful and caring spouse, was financially comfortable, live in a spacious house with a beautiful water view, enjoy very good health, and take pride in the fact that Nakatomi Plaza thinks all my Quillette posts are brilliant.

    But after reading the essay I realized I was just too darn starry eyed and unrealistic and now I know I am underpaid and underappreciated at work, married to an ugly harpy, financially poorer than socialist Bernie Sanders, have a huge mortgage on a house that needs a new kitchen and bathroom, I realize I have lots of aches and pains in my body that I am afraid might be signals of a terminal disease, and Nakatomi Plaza hates my guts.

    My thanks to the author in setting me straight, and my only remaining question is whether he has any suicide self-help books he could recommend.

    • Geary Johansen says

      @ E. Olson

      Great comment. I particularly liked the NP reference. 🙂

    • Ray Andrews says

      @E. Olson

      Ha. Yes, it is harder to maintain self esteem without NP’s approval.

  17. Emblem14 says

    Someone who has no self esteem, no self respect and is wracked with insecurities might let other people take advantage of them and treat them like a doormat. That person could use advice that teaches them the importance of being more selfish.

    Someone who has been very lucky in life, or is naturally superior to others, or has an unjustified sense of entitlement might be completely inconsiderate of others, narcissistic and oblivious to moral obligations beyond their own personal whims. That person could use advice that teaches them the importance of being less selfish.

    The self help genre is obviously (mostly) geared toward people that feel powerless, lack control over their lives, and have emotional dependency issues. There are a lot of people like that. To others who aren’t like that, the advice that helps the first group seems pathetic and self-deluding.

    Peterson made a splash partly because his self-help speil followed a different formula – emphasizing the pursuit of meaning (rather than hedonistic happiness) through struggle and responsibility with a stoic attitude toward suffering, instead of the usual positivity gospel and self-esteem boosting coping mechanisms. This struck a lot of people as less snake oil and more true to how life really is.

    Self-indulgent individualism is a cultural bi-product of living in a society shaped by the amoral drivers and requisites of consumer capitalism, not any spiritual insight into what causes human beings to thrive. The competitive materialism, the empty performative social status games, the emphasis on hyper individualistic self expression and personal identity – these are all encouraged by an economic system that mines profit out of making these things central to our self-worth. When you think of the prevailing cultural values, how much of them come from some source of authoritative wisdom, and how much of them come from…advertising?

    If systemic forces have created an alien, psychologically corrosive culture in which we all find ourselves trapped, then of course there will be “solutions” designed to feed us the rationalizations necessary to persuade ourselves into perceiving our condition as positive. Human beings have a fascinating ability to adapt to different environments and adjust our relative expectations accordingly. Illusory narratives are a decent band-aid to existential angst. We can all contort ourselves to see the bright side, the silver lining, to make lemons out of lemonade…at least for a while. But sooner or later, the signs of perversion come out in the wash.

    • Peter from Oz says

      I disagree. It seems to me that it is the socialistic side of society that fuels this self-help garbage.The ”everyone gets a prize” ideals implanted in generations of youth by the education system is the same leveller instinct that the commuists wanted inculctaed throughout society. The fact that this is completely unsatisfying means that once the reality of life catches up with some sillier people, they will crave any means of being special.

      • Emblem14 says

        I think you’re wrong on the empirical merits – I’d bet an analysis of the self-help techniques and philosophies of the most popular best-sellers would show that most of them take a very self-centered, personal goal fulfillment approach, as opposed to a “transform the social rules so that everyone is the same” approach.

        That second approach is more popular among early education pedagogy (because the emotional pain of failure and exclusion is felt by overly maternal women to be harmful to developing children’s psyches) and college level social justice activism, which sees all the unfairness in the world, historical and present, as primarily a conspiracy of powerful groups against everyone else. But that’s not self-help as typically understood, or how this article defines it.

        It may be that this fad of collectivist identity politics is partially fueled by the inability of materialistic individualism to provide social meaning to people, (no surprise there), especially people who feel like they have been, or continue to be oppressed on the basis of their group membership. Almost every social phenomenon is a reaction or counter-reaction to something else, ad infinitum.

        But more generally…

        Consider the possibility that hyper-egalitarianism and hyper-individualism are both pathological extremes and any culture tilted too heavily toward one or the other would be a terrible hell for most of the population. Extremists push those overly simplistic prescriptions as panaceas because their personalities/psychology crave certainty and cannot tolerate nuance, complexity or mystery.

        Whether an extremist prefers a communist utopia or a Randian utopia has more to do with their own emotional sensitivities to various moral problems than any objective assessment of the pros and cons of a particular vision from a dispassionate utilitarian perspective.

        The hubris and dangerous arrogance of an extremist resides in their dumb conflation of their own personal preferences with what’s best for the whole society, and their inability to be emotionally satisfied in the conduct of their own lives unless everyone else conforms to those preferences.

    • Farris says

      Never miss an opportunity to blame capitalism and freedom. Let us all march lock step into the proven utopia of communism.

      • Emblem14 says

        Capitalism and human freedom are not synonymous. Thinking they are is foolish. As is assuming that if I criticize capitalism I must desire some kind of authoritarian collectivism. Those concepts are not on either side of a 2 dimensional axis. Thinking they are is a product of a historically contingent narrative produced in response to the Cold War. Too many people are prisoners to that narrative, and their minds remain shut to other possibilities.

  18. Caligula says

    Anyone who believes “The Secret” is beyond rational discourse. Tbe best option here is to just let such believers go on about their business (with perhaps a nod now and then if a social response is absulutely required).
    The first step in questioning self-help gunk might be to question whether happiness itself is a worthwile goal. Imagine a thought experiment: you may choose to receive an injection and, if you do, it will kill you within ten minutes. BUT during those ten minutes you will experience a subjective century of over-the-top, giddy happiness. Will you take it?

    Joy might be viewed as at least an alternative to happiness. Joy might be seen as the less-amped, time-release version, something with a deeper and more durable foundation than chasing happiness up the hedonic treadmill.

    The market for sheer medical quackery in America is vast and ever-green. There’s such a will-to-believe here that there’s probably not much to be done other than to steer believers toward quackery that is at least harmless.
    Placebo effect remains a huge medical riddle. Prescription drugs sold in the USA must demonstrate that they are both safe and effective, where “effective” mostly means stasticically significant benefits as compared with placebo. Yet with many approved drugs (esp. psych. drugs), the benefit you get may still be 80% from placebo effect. And not necessarily because the drug is not very effective but because the placebo effect is so strong.

    Placebo effect is strong enough and valuable enough that it seems not unreasonable to use it to benefit patients. Yet placebo therapy is also inherently deceptive, and continued benefits depend on patients’ (often unwarranted) belief in the efficacy of the therapy.

  19. Pelagic says

    A defense of positive thinking: The great flaw in the arc of the article is the failure to point out the collateral and systemic impacts of positive thinking, that then lead to positive outcomes. It instead examines a false premise – that ipso facto “thinking happy” makes us happy.

    It completely misses the essential foundational elements of what the best coaches are attempting to convey in this arena. Agreed, the statement, “You can do this!” or “You deserve this!” in isolation is drivel. But facing a challenge, overcoming fear, that’s another matter. The confidence of positive mental attitude toward adversity – “I got this” – does not appear out of thin air but is borne of overcoming challenges despite the inherent risks.

    As a former Navy helicopter search and rescue swimmer, SAR, our training revealed one’s response to significant physical danger while under extreme fatigue. We followed an intense regime that was systematically developed to test that response and screen for it. If you passed, it was largely by overcoming/managing fear. If you failed – physical injury aside – it was because you could not manage your fear and your body’s response to it.

    Does anyone believe that thinking positive may improve one’s ability to manage one’s fear?

    You bet it does. Managing fear begets better decisions. Better decisions beget better life. Better life means greater opportunity for self-direction toward happiness. Repeat.

    The author notes, “[no] repeatable correlation between positive thinking and positive outcomes.” Maybe a guru hasn’t proved it, but unless you live in a cubicle and all that is at stake is a papercut, positive attitude toward adversity matters immensely. Ever see the Cinderella team win it all? Distinction – positive attitude. Ever been on a twenty-mile ruck and be next to the complainer with the bad attitude? Yup. Sucks. Imagine being in Afghanistan in some lonely ville with an officer who says, “We got this,” verses, “Gents, I don’t think we will make it out alive.” Think that matters to your performance in combat? It does. Real world. Three lab coats with clipboards in a University study won’t find that truth, but it’s stone cold empirical nonetheless.

    It may help to think about the value of positive thinking as being directly proportional to the level of adversity one encounters. The more adversity the greater the value of positive thinking. [As @KennethNewman notes with stage IV above) So if one is in a government job with no drama, one cubicle and papercut as table stakes, positive thinking by the bureaucrat across the hall may be positively annoying. But if you are in a sh#^-storm, positive thinking will increase your ability to make it out in one piece. Why? Because it shifts your altitude relative to the problem, [thinking positive is almost always about drawing back and seeing the big picture and other opportunities] that gives you a chance to change your attitude when you imagine positive outcomes to the problem. This is leadership 101.

    Next, the ability to know one can handle adversity does convey a significant degree of confidence and confident people are generally happier than those who are not confident, or worse, anxious. Getting the courage to get into a grappling match with one’s demons is what the best mentors require us to do. Sometimes we need a push, other times a hard shove out of the tower. Walking on coals … gimmick? The author misses the point. That’s like saying SAR underwater conditioning swims are about how long we could hold our breath instead of forcing us to see with stunning intensity that our prior mentally imposed limits were bullshit. That’s the point of the hot coals – who cares about the physics – no one believes the mind controls physics; it’s how you approach adversity that matters. Does positive thinking help get you through the coals? Yes? Then what did you learn from that which you can apply to your other challenges? Instead, the author applies the fallacy of “appeal to extremes,” re the Johnny Depp poster – it will land you in jail to be the hero of your own story.

    It’s like the author is talking down to a timid child who has climbed on the diving board of the local community pool. He is busy telling the child not to do it. To use the ladder, and steps and slowly wade in, “watch the sharp edges.” The child may belly-flop after all. But the child has reasons all his own for doing it. Ironically, if that child makes a practice of never jumping off the diving board because of all the risks – real and imagined- he will grow up to be just the child in need of an intervention as his cautiousness will be bone-deep. Does anyone think after he becomes a psychologist (trying to find out why he was so unhappy) he’ll be happy after all those tolls paid on the author’s highway to happiness? Nope.

    The author fails to understand that the tolls to be paid are not through cautious avoidance to the dangers lurking behind every corner but the belly-flops and broken arms. Overcoming adversity is risky business, but its rewards are immense. Such activity is not remotely identified with the coddled children he bemoans.

    Now, the study and deconstruction of the character traits of “those who do”, and the then later communication of those repeatable steps/traits to those who “want to do” is what this conversation misses by a mile. Why the focus on the platitudes? The author uses too broad a brush on this important topic: whether the science of achievement is real and can be studied and if so, can those principles be conveyed, emulated and inculcated into oneself with a reasonable likelihood in the improvement of the self toward a noble goal. I suspect that whatever Mr. Robbins personal flaws, his work does demonstrate that these successes are indeed deconstructable and repeatable.

    There are hucksters and there are professionals who have studied what others have done, how they did it, and assert that if one systematically emulates the process … you will succeed. That’s the classical method. It has been working since biblical times and is the foundation of western thought.

    An inability to engage fear blocks the pursuit of happiness for far too many, they never begin the pursuit. No progress, no happiness. No meaning, no joy. There is a lot of support that positive thinking will help anyone improve their ability to overcome adversity. There is great value in that.
    The author oversimplifies the issue – perhaps because it sells books, and in that way our author is treading the same path he criticizes. In doing so, folks may miss the importance of being encouraged to overcome the fear that may be sabotaging their lives. Really, who thinks that anyone who would swallow “The Secret” whole cloth would be persuaded by this article to let it go? But rational thinkers unfamiliar with the area may be persuaded by the article to skip some of the immensely important and valuable work in the study of achievement. That would be a disservice.
    Great website, though – glad I found it.

    • Farris says


      I can’t help but wonder if your position and the author’s are mutually exclusive.
      You are correct that in the face of adversity attitude is the greatest predictor of outcome. As you well illustrate and I believe the power of a positive attitude is not even debatable.
      However and I think you would agree that positive thinking alone will accomplish nothing. One can not believe the enemy away or defeat the enemy without taking the appropriate steps to prevail. All the positive thinking in the world would not allow me to preform open heart surgery. However believing I can be a heart surgeon, can allow me to succeed in preforming the necessary steps to become a successful heart surgeon.

      • Pelagic says

        @Farris. I don’t think the article an my comments were mutually exclusive.

        And I agree with your points with one caveat. Without a plan and execution, positive thinking without action will not impact external desired outcomes – agreed. But what if one’s desired outcomes are purely internal? Simply a shift in state. From indifference or anguish, to gratitude perhaps. This may be very significant. Prayer, meditation.

        But yes, if one seeks to change an externality one will have no impact without action. To nod toward Churchill, no matter how engrossed one is in the machinations of one’s own mind, at some point one must take into account the enemy. (I don’t remember the exact quote).

        We both know that small steps can lead to bigger steps and confidence built can be put to use like a lever and tackle to move mountains. If we got the confidence to try, with no prior experience, and we succeed, we are on our way. If we fail, we try again after imagining and thinking through it. Positive is better than negative. In the main, do we have a crisis of failed attempts or one of stagnation? I think the later. So it is not that positive thinking gives confidence, but the confidence simply to try, and sometimes that is all that is needed to get one of the house to the MCAT prep course.

    • Geary Johansen says

      @ Pelagic

      Great comment and a good rebuttal of the piece. But you yourself explore the limits of positive thinking: ‘It may help to think about the value of positive thinking as being directly proportional to the level of adversity one encounters. The more adversity the greater the value of positive thinking.’

      I imagine positive thinking alone falls down, because it’s like trying to bake a cake without the flour. Positive thinking is likely useless, unless paired with the desire to improve oneself and the willingness to set defined goals.

      So in other words, I agree with Farris on this one. Welcome to Quillette by the way, home of dissidents from the mainstream culture, the world over. 🙂

      • Pelagic says


        As I suggest to @Farris, those limits were in the context of external accomplishment. No action [or flour] no impact on the external goal – no cake no matter how much one is positive it will appear just around the bend. I agree. @Lightning points this out aptly.

        However. I would not presume to think that when the table stakes are purely internal for the individual that positive thinking has no impact. As that is an individual matter and was not addressed in the article.

        Thank you for the warm welcome, cool place!

    • X. Citoyen says

      The connection you’re seeing between self-help and your SAR training is only superficial. Self-help is to stress inoculation training, resilience training, exposure therapy, and over-training what homeopathy is to medicine.

      Jumping out of a helicopter into a raging sea to recover a dummy is how you master jumping out of a helicopter into a raging sea to save a human being. Over-training with dummies makes your response automatic, so when the real situation occurs, stress won’t affect your performance. The reason SAR training works is that you’re doing the terrifying thing over and over until you can do it despite being scared shitless. The positive thinking part is to get you into the water the first time; the meat and potatoes is in the doing, and success in the doing requires high fidelity between the simulation and the real thing.

      Walking across hot coals trains you to…walk across hot coals without fear of being burned. No doubt about that. You’ll be able to impress your friends with your ability to walk across coals anywhere, anytime. But talking yourself into walking across coals, and then walking across coals is at best a metaphor for mastering a small number of situations in real life—maybe asking for a raise. It is nothing like getting a degree, for example, or getting and keeping a job or raising children or helping your wife through chemotherapy.

      I’m not knocking you for seeing a spurious connection. On the contrary, you’re a witness to the reason this stuff appeals to smart and competent people, which is one of the main reasons it’s become an industry.

      • Pelagic says


        You have great insight in the kata of training. Yes, the meat and potatoes is always the training, always the simulations and the fitness you have to bring to the table. The goal is train like you fight, fight like you train. But we include the positive attitude in the training – in short, it is baked in. Perhaps I over emphasized the fear factor without the collateral connections which are not spurious but causally related. When candidates cannot manage the fear despite “repeated exposure to being scared shitless” their mental attitude declines precipitously. It is in a shambles, physically the cannot perform anywhere near their past levels. All candidates must pass a very challenging physical entrance exam to ship, so there are baseline measurements. One can establish causation. The modeling of positive thinking to manage fear is part of the training. It provides a good deal of meaning to the training.

        If the mission was ever simply a “one off” after a full night’s rest and a tummy full of pasta, I may be inclined to think the connection of positive thinking to outcomes superficial. But the slow grind of a mission is more than the terrifying bits, it is the bone weariness before anything happens. Then its back into the water for another go in the North Atlantic before we strip out of our wetsuits with shakes already setting in. We needed that attitude. It is absolutely essential. It is the skeleton from which all the training, fitness and courage animate. I am probably not tough enough. I suppose there are folks who can do this just as well with simply the technical training. But for me and my peers we used the positive emotion not just the first night jump but every time we went out. It was part of the culture and integral to the success. So I cannot agree that cultivating positive thinking was superficial to outcomes.

        We probably are discussing different targets. You use the phrase “self-help.” I am not defending the “self-help” industry-complex writ large. My comment is critical of the the article which spans far too broad a spectrum. What are the left and right lateral limits of this continuum? Is self-help, Covey’s book? Does it include Ray Dalio’s book? Tim Ferriss? Ben Greenfield? What about Peter Drucker’s fine book, the Effective Executive – is that self-help – I saw it in the “self-help” section of a used bookstore. Do we take “The Secret” build a strawman the size of Paul Bunyan and declare there is nothing worthwhile among the continuum of “self-help”? I do not agree it is all non-sense. Anymore than one should reject religion simply because a TV preacher is a fraud. Read the source documents, make up your own mind. (I am not encouraging anyone to read “The Secret”).

        “It is nothing like getting a degree, for example, or getting and keeping a job or raising children or helping your wife through chemotherapy.” Agreed, the discipline (and love) necessary to do those things are obviously not solved by positive thinking alone. But what traits/principles can one apply to improve one’s chance of doing the hard things? Can we learn that from study? If so, let get on with it. [Or is that self-help?] Like a number of folks here have said, some people need to get out the door and get started, if positive thinking works for them, get to it.

        I agree. One need not pay a dime to any self-help guru or support the huckster aspect of the industry, neither should one presume a simple formula to psychological mindsets and dismiss the ability of a particular mindset to influence external outcomes through application.

        • MindYourBusiness says

          @Pelagic – Welcome, sir! Fine comments and well worth pondering. Come back whenever you can.

    • TJR says

      Fair point, but I suspect you and the author don’t disagree on that much, you’re just emphasising different bits.

      I’m sure we’ve all known people who are so convinced they’ll fail, or that the world is against them, that they make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      Positive thinking alone isn’t much use, but in order to get anything done you usually need some degree of positivity to start with.

      Similarly, in my experience it is usually competence that causes confidence rather than the other way round, but you usually need a bit of confidence in order to start gaining the competence in the first place.

      • Pelagic says

        All good points. To the last para: While fully aware of the folly of thinking competence in one area will correlate to competence in another, it seems we often build our life foundationally and then stretch to the new. Repeat. So to me this makes sense because we often gain skills/mindsets) that are transferrable or adaptable to the new.

        Competence can be illusory. We stretch and go into the new, we look back realize we were a long damn way from competent but we thought were then. Hangliding has a thing called “intermediate syndrome” it kills people. It is the belief that one is a truly gifted pilot because they have been soaring ridges for a few years. It should be called, “CRAZY-Dangerously over-confident.”

        So if competence is difficult to objectively confirm (without a governing body) can one self-regulate through a process? I think Tim Ferriss’ fear-setting makes sense for that type of thing initially. But my point is in the “chicken v egg” thing, I vote for stepping positively (confidently) but take small steps, the more dangerous endeavor, the smaller the steps. Like you, “but you usually need a bit of confidence [positive thinking] in order to start gaining the competence in the first place.” Exactly.

    • Lightning Rose says

      Best essay of the thread, Pelagic–many thanks!

  20. Andras Kovacs says

    Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of….What Exactly?


  21. Farris says

    Pursuing a happy life is well and good as long as one realizes a happy life is likewise impossible. Life contains failure, missteps, injuries, illness, maladies death of friends and love ones. Life along the way is going to be hard, not one extended happy party. One should strive for contentment and the strength to overcome the difficulties.
    So says Farris.

  22. David of Kirkland says

    Is the increased suicide of teens associated with positive thinking, or with opioids, mental health drugs given to children who can’t sit still, and anti-social media.
    Like the “just think positively” movement, we have the “tax the rich and give it to the poor” thinking. They’ll tell us we need more jobs for rural people, without any idea how you could do that in a meaningful way, as if there are all these great jobs ready to be had if someone just created an evil corporation using evil capital investments to think positively (rather than take risk, and come up with something novel and in demand). Free college doesn’t make people educated, just more demand for schooling, more credential seeking (and thus requiring ever more credentials for even unskilled labor), more years outside of the workforce. Free healthcare doesn’t make an obese person or a drug addict healthy.

    • Pelagic says

      “Is the increased suicide of teens associated with positive thinking, or with opioids, mental health drugs given to children who can’t sit still, and anti-social media.” What lies beneath? I suggest a profound lack meaning in their lives, the rest are symptoms. ~Victor Frankl

  23. Jesse says

    “A Guardian piece hammers what looks like the final nail into the coffin of the familiar ‟have it all” trope championed by early feminists. The author ruefully reports that, having compared “levels of pleasure and misery in unmarried, married, divorced, separated, and widowed individuals,” an academic has found that “unmarried and childless women are the happiest subgroup in the population.” Quillette, too, has waded into the churning waters of ‟happiness science” with a piece alleging “malpractice” on the part of that same academic.”

    What the hell? Why would the author quote a study to try to make a point when he is clearly aware that the study was fatally flawed? Quillette “alleged” that the study was bogus, yes–because the study was clearly bogus.

  24. Peter from Oz says

    From what I understand the vast majority of people who fall for this stuff are women.

    • MMS says

      @Oz that statement is truly sexist and unsubstantiated and also irrelevant (so what if more people who happen to be one gender or another do something or not… meaningless)…

      • Ray Andrews says


        Sexist or merely true? If it is irrelevant why do you bring it up? And note that without constant comparisons of which gender is having better success in things like STEM, the radfems wouldn’t have anything to talk about.

    • staticnoise says

      I would not doubt that. Many women – not all – have a profound lack of confidence in themselves. Honestly we men probably have a lot to do with this. We are loud and pushy, and societal norms have given us permission to be so. But I tell you a strong, confident woman who is also gracious is unstoppable. You may ask why does she have to be gracious? See previous sentence… It may not be fair but it’s reality. Woman have so many qualities that put men to shame they don’t need Tony Robbins to unlock them, they just think they do.

  25. The Ulcer says

    I wish I knew who wrote this because it is so damned pithy and applicable:

    Hard times make strong men,
    Strong men make good times,
    Good times make weak men,
    Weak men make hard times.

    Guess which cycle we’re in.

  26. Ryk Comerford says

    Not all self-help books are bad.
    Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits holds up well, I think.
    Jim Loehr’s Toughness Training For Life, had the idea stress
    can make you stronger (but not under or overstress) before Taleb wrote about it.

  27. Fionn says

    Very well-written and thought-provoking article. It reminded me a lot of this:

    There are some people in the world who are pathologically selfless and scrupulous, and ALWAYS put other people ahead of themselves, to such a degree that it is self-destructive. For THOSE people, Johnny Depp’s advice might be very beneficial and might be exactly what they need to hear.

    But there are also people who are already extremely selfish, self-absorbed and inconsiderate, for whom that message is a really bad one to receive.

  28. Surface Reflection says

    Very good article.

    As with many similar swings in culture and society, this extreme desire for “happiness” as if that can be decoupled from anything else and all consequences of every action, is another swing into one extreme – which builds up negative consequences which form a bubble – after which comes the crash.

    When you are writing about this, you are going against one of the Fundamental Faults of humanity, “tendency to seek emotional satisfaction” which readily and easily combines with “Tendency to think in binary extremes”, “Egos that slipped off balance and into extremes” and “Tendency to strongly focus on any negativity”.

    Its a witches brew. And created by our very biology and evolution. None of them can be removed because they come out of our very fundamental crucial features and abilities without which we couldn’t survive or be human. They can only be balanced – which is extremely hard. Especially when most of humanity is not even aware of these Fundamental Faults influencing our every thought and emotion. Running unchecked right under our superficial thinking in words layer.

    The answer and solution to this particular form of distortion caused by these Fundamental Faults is to try and lead a meaningful life, instead of a “happy” one. Jordan is so right there and im glad he is not the only one that sees this extreme.

  29. Kencathedrus says

    Happiness is the by-product of leading a good life.

  30. Kencathedrus says

    Is there a link between ‘Positive Thinking’ ideology and the need for Westerners to smile constantly? I have a few Russian friends, and they say it’s creepy how Westerners smile all the time. As a European who’s now living in the US, I’m still taken aback by the over-solicitousness of Americans. When I first went clothes shopping in a mall, I wasn’t sure why random strangers kept asking me if I was ok until my wife told me they actually worked there and asking how people are is just an empty pleasantry, and you are supposed to just respond with ‘fine’.

    I’m glad she told me. I was starting to feel uncomfortable divulging my psychological state to my co-workers and random strangers.

    • Howdy says

      A smile and polite concern for others used to be much more common than it is today and it was also once truly heartfelt, not “empty”.
      It is good to think of others and their well-being; and it has nothing whatever to do with “positive thinking”. Nonetheless, when you smile back it can bring a feeling of hope and peace. 🙂

      Are you aware that many Westerners think most Easterners are manic depressive, miserable jerks? Are you also aware that many Westerners think many Easterners hate everyone and that most Easterners couldn’t care less about anything but themselves?

      Having lived in various places, I have spent some time explaining Eastern quirks to Westerners who would ask, with great confusion, what they did to make the Easterner angry or what made the Easterner so bitter and miserable that he or she needed to take it out on them. (Likewise, I spent a little time explaining to Easterners that Westerners weren’t all feeble minded.)

      A lot of bad feelings have come about by a lack of understanding of other’s cultural norms. One does not have to smile, but one could try to understand instead of just deeming an entire culture “creepy”, “over-solicitousness”, and “empty”. Likewise, Westerners do better when they understand that most Easterners are probably not really manic depressive, miserable, self-centered jerks but that is just Eastern culture.

      Alas, Westerners are far on their way to actually being manic depressive, miserable, self-centered jerk themselves. Soon almost no one will be able to tell creepy West from miserable East because all will all look dejected. :`(

      East and West are all annoyed at shopping assistants in the United States, it’s not just you. However, “you are supposed to just respond with ‘fine’” if you are actually in no need of assistance. “Are you okay” is synonymous with “Can I help you”. But really, no one likes the store stalkers. (I suspect it was shop girls, not Amazon, that killed the North American mall culture.)

      Last of all, your grammatical structure, specifically your vocabulary choice, is amazing if English is your second language. I’d really guess American English as your first language. 😀

  31. Howdy says

    Who could possibly have known this would happen?

    “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come:

    For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power.

    And from such people turn away! For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

    2 Timothy 3

    (<3 God)

  32. Etiamsi omnes says

    I am an atheist but I do remember a couple of things from scripture. One of them is this saying attributed to Jesus:

    "Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! ” (Luke 13:4).

    Basically he’s saying, I think: sometimes you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Including New Orleans during Katrina or the WTC on 9-11, probably.

    • Howdy says

      Etiamsi omnes (the ironic atheist),

      He tells you exactly what he was saying if you don’t stop at “no”:
      5 …”But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

      I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but, I just don’t have the faith to be an atheist. There are a million reason for that, but one easy to understand one is the science.

      I was once an evolutionist (how could we not be when we are saturated in the ideology from birth). Pick up any book on the natural world and you are pretty much guaranteed to read the evolutionary story line as hard baked fact whether is adds to the text or not.
      I have a library and I never noticed how often humanism and evolution were forced into everything we read (and watch) until I began to study the sciences with an open mind. We were inundated from youngest childhood to “know” we evolved over long ages. We are told this is so over, and over, and over, and…you get the point. But look close and there are no proofs to back it up beyond someone’s personal interpretation of evidence that can, and does, have other interpretations. The conflicting evidence is explained by “science is always evolving, it’s to be expected”. So why are we all so dogmatic about evolution if our belief of what we know about it can change tomorrow?

      I’ve personally checked the claims of with a mind to find only what is true.
      (actually, if I am honest, I was looking for where they were wrong but I was also willing to concede that they might not be completely wrong about everything.)

      I studied the science privately and at the university and I have, to date, found no serious error in their basic positions. The theories are sound. In fact, I found them to be far more sound than the ideology of the Darwinian masses.

      The thing is, from PBS preschool programs and beginner reader books all the way to Grad school, we are flooded with evolution as if it was the water we drink or the air we breathe. No wonder people “know” evolution is a “fact”.
      Except, when you begin to study the science with an open mind to ALL the possibilities, it becomes so much less than even probable.
      Most of us just don’t want to be seen as dumb enough to believe in a Creator. It is our pride and our fear of being shunned and mocked that keeps us from seeking and grasping the truth scientifically. Then there are those of us who actually reject God as having any right over our lives. We will accuse God of wrong to justify us being a better judge of right and wrong than He. We will say if that Judaeo-Christian God is Creator and Law Giver, He is horrible and I am right to say “even if all bow to You, never will I” instead of “even if the world rejects You, I will not”.

      “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

      This doesn’t mean a dead body, it means a condemned soul, these men were all tragically lost forever, as we will all be if we do not give up following our own ways and repent by turning in submission to God.

      Best of luck to you.

  33. Etiamsi omnes says


    I wasn’t responding to or commenting on your own previous comment, which I only noticed after refreshing the screen. It’s wholly a coincidence that there two scripture quoters followed each other here. I fail to see what exactly was ironic about my previous comment ; it certainly wasn’t meant as Irony. What was intentional on my part was leaving out the part about repenting or perishing, because it wasn’t relevant to the point I was making.

    As for me, when I happen to “repent”, it’s because I acknowledge I behaved inappropriately and it causes me a sense of shame—not because there is a reward in it in some afterlife for acting good, and a punishment for acting otherwise. I believe the practice of virtue is it’s own reward, and that there is no afterlife. I don’t particularly wish to pursue idle discussions with people who use the Quillette comments section to proselytize or to show off homiletic skills.

  34. codadmin says

    Positive thinking: Here’s my Bitcoin address


  35. Pingback: Samizdata quote of the day « Samizdata

  36. Dallas says

    My experience (anecdotal) with others is that some people are happy and some people are miserable. It makes almost no lasting difference what happens to them, good or bad. They revert to their own individual ‘default’ state. I avoid the miserable.

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