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Bread and Circuses (Newsletter 035)

We often mistake advances in technology with advances in the human condition itself.
Bread and Circuses (Newsletter 035)

Greetings friends.

I wrote this before the invasion of Ukraine. When I look at the conclusion of today's letter, however, the topic seems appropriate, so I've left it unchanged. I wish you illuminating reading.

It is the fate of every generation to be mocked by its children. And rightly so. Each generation assumes it has reached the pinnacle of human performance, that its members uniquely see the folly of their ancestors' mistakes and has come up with the answers. With rapid technological advancement all around us, current generations are at particular risk of falling prey to hubris.

Our two letters this week provide antidotes for people of all generations. In Moral Letter 069 On Abiding In One Place, we discuss the power of prioritization. Having picked the most important thing to be working on, the way to drive progress is to avoid distractions and apply discipline to make incremental steps in the direction of our choosing every day.

069 - On Abiding In One Place - Moral Letters for Modern Times
Progress is inversely proportional to the breadth of your focus. Include in your scope many things, and you will make little progress. Focus on one thing, and you will advance it the most.

In Moral Letter 070 On The Will To Live, we talk about what it means to live a good life, the kind of life that anyone would value and respect. For all our technological and medical advances, we sometimes misunderstand that merely prolonging life does not necessarily mean anything about the quality of life.

070 - On The Will To Live - Moral Letters for Modern Times
The legal profession has found a way to work true magic: that is, they can speak for the dead. To that short list of things that can be guaranteed in life, death and taxes, we can add a third, lawsuits.

We often mistake advances in technology with advances in the human condition itself. The many technology advances since the Industrial Revolution began are certainly real enough. We've put satellites in space, allowing people to communicate instantly to anyone anywhere on the globe. Thanks to GPS, we can track our exact location in real time and map out how to get where we want to go. And Google has come a long way in their mission of "organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful."

The medical profession took longer to emerge from the shadow of unsound practices, but here too advances in the last hundred years have been stunning. We've decoded the human genome, and are now taking halting steps at editing the code of life itself. Global life expectancy has risen almost threefold, a combination of reduced infant mortality and the eradication of many forms of disease. Premature death in many countries now occurs largely voluntarily, or at least as a result of avoidable causes.[1]

The hard sciences have advanced the state of human knowledge to unprecedented levels. Astronomers have peered into the depths of the universe to near the origins of everything and are gazing ever further. Although modern physics still struggles with unification, it has been resoundingly successful describing a host of universal laws. Computer science has put unprecedented power in the hands of ordinary citizens, and we are already creating artificial intelligence to rival and outperform the best humans in several domains.

What can we say about the development of human nature? Never mind the last century. Let's look back a few thousand years and ask if we've also bettered basic human instincts and behavior. We generally think of ancient Rome as a brutal time. As much as a tenth of the population was enslaved, there were regular military campaigns, and an individual was at risk of dramatic changes in fortune. The premature death of children and loved ones, personal illness and injury, banishment or exile, rape and other assaults, and even death at the hands of fickle rulers or forced suicide.

In such fractious times, rulers kept their subjects docile through a combination of state handouts and entertaining diversions. You've perhaps heard the phrase "bread and circuses." It is attributed to the Roman poet Juvenal. He was writing of a Roman populace that seemed to care little for working to maintain their political system. Rather, the masses were willing to be distracted by satisfying their base desires for food and entertainment. The spectacle of gory gladiator contests kept attention focused away from government. Securing votes then by providing handouts (in the Roman case, a grain dole) is a practice that dates back more than 2,000 years.

So now let's return to modern times. Surely we're better than the Romans. Would it surprise you to know that more people were killed in the 20th century at the hands of their fellow human than in any other, indeed almost all the other centuries combined? Just three categories of mayhem accounted for some 450 million deaths (see the infographic 20th Century Death at Information Is Beautiful for the fascinating, if depressing, details):

  • War --> 131 million dead
  • Ideology --> 142 million dead
  • Murder --> 177 million dead

World Wars I and II were all-consuming global catastrophes, responsible for over 100 million deaths, with Communism in the 20th century killing almost as many. Looking at these numbers, it seems hard to argue that humankind has radically bettered itself. Certainly not compared to the pace at which we've advanced our technology.

With all humanity's knowledge at our fingertips, can we at least say that individuals are more enlightened, less prejudiced, and make better decisions than our ancestors? Here too, I think some humility is in order. Many citizens show the same propensity to be satisfied with distractions and handouts.

Today's gladiator games may occur in the halls of Congress or on many athletic fields of glory, but they are no less a distraction to a bloodthirsty public. And across the relatively wealthy countries of the OECD, total net social spending averages 20% of GDP (see OECD Social Spending). In the U.S. social spending is 50% higher than the OECD average, at almost 30% of GDP. We may no longer call it a bread dole, but it is also hard to argue that politicians aren't in the business of buying votes today.

My advice is to remember history, including recent history, and keep some perspective. Notwithstanding the marvels around us, we're the same flawed, biased, irrational humans we've always been. Assuming otherwise opens us up to the mocking of later generations.

The only upside is that we can safely assume our kids' kids will mock them too.

Be well.

  1. In the United States, the leading causes of death by a wide margin are heart disease, heavily influenced by our diet and lack of exercise, and cancer, including the materially smoking-related lung cancer. See Leading Causes of Death. Also near the top are accidental deaths, which the CDC refers to as "unintentional injuries." Most of these deaths result from drug overdoses. After more than a decade of rapidly rising deaths from synthetic opioids like Fentanyl, it is more accurate to refer to such deaths as undesired but reasonably foreseeable. As such, if not strictly voluntary, overdose deaths are at the very least the result of reckless behavior. ↩︎