by Henry Oliner
While that is not what drives me to read history, I do find some solace in reading about events decades and centuries ago that sound like they could be in today’s columns. We have faced strings of existential crisis and not only survived but thrived and progressed exponentially. It is seductive to vent and rage on the crisis de jour, especially when you can find endless confirmations on social media. With a few clicks you can signal your virtues and declare your moral supremacy. Rage is not conducive to understanding.
Instead of repeating all the reasons why we are on the edge of the end of civilization, ask how in spite of these warnings the betterment of mankind has increased 70-fold (McCloskey) in a mere few centuries in spite of wars, panics, epidemics, rebellions, economic crashes, corruptions. Life span, quality of life, democracy, availability of food, productivity, freedom have all spread globally while poverty has dropped, and war and violence have sharply declined. You would never know this from reading social media and most of the press.
In Nassim Taleb’s new book Skin in the Game, he refers to the Lindy effect; that the best predictor of continuity is survival. This is why I general insist that any book on history, politics, sociology, or economics be at least 20 years old, preferably (but not absolutely required) still in print. Before I stray from this rule I exercise a background check on the author or read multiple reviews from writers I respect. This will usually lead me to new works of established authors. I have learned to be careful in selecting books. The investment in time is too dear.
Taleb’s book clearly passed the test, but it is his fourth book I have read. He has a track record.
When I read or listen to the news, which I generally avoid, I ask if this story is likely to be relevant in a few years. In most cases it will not stand the test of time in a few weeks.