Thanksgiving Reflections

In this Thankgsiving week, I’m taking some time to reflect on the things I’m grateful for.

I am grateful for my family. My wife Elissa is awesome. She is smart, beautiful, creative, funny, makes amazing food, and writes great stories. She is also an incredible mother for our kids, nurturing them along, teaching them, and challenging them to be better.

I’m also grateful for my kids. Dan, Will, and Marie are pretty much exactly what I hoped for in kids. They’re adorable and precocious, they love us and each other, and they are making steady progress towards becoming civilized members of society.

I’m grateful for my parents and siblings (both sets!) and for my extended family: my grandparents, aunts, uncles, my 32 first cousins, and so on.

I’m grateful for the gospel. I’m thankful that Christ lived and died for me, and that thanks to him I can repent and receive the gift of eternal life. I’m grateful to have an understanding of God’s plan for me, and to know that I can be with my family forever by adhering to it. I’m thankful for the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and other revelation that teaches me of Christ. I’m thankful for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which has made a fundamental difference in my life, and its President, Russel M. Nelson, who inspired this post with his recent message on gratitude.

On the meta-level, I’m grateful for an understanding of gratitude. The hedonic treadmill is real: the default human reaction to any good thing includes gaining, almost instantly, a corresponding sense of entitlement. (I have a 5 year old – I am not just guessing here.) Happiness has a lot to do with the difference between reality and expectations. Most people are more interested in changing their stubborn reality than changing their stubborn expectations, but expectations are fundamentally internal, under the individual’s control, and reality is not. The direct appeal to “fix your attitude, stupid” is what makes Stoic philosophy great, but is hard to mentally adopt or sustain. “Be grateful” is easier on the ears and mind, provides a positive program, and gets you to a similar place.

I’m grateful for my job. Valero is an amazing company to work for. All of my supervisors have been good, and my assignments have mattered to the company and the world at large. It feels good to personally shave a femto-penny off global diesel prices, or otherwise help people get the fuels they need. The company has taken care of us financially, supplied my family with excellent medical care, supported me in getting an MBA, and helped me out after Hurricane Harvey. Through it all, the company has made it possible for me to have reasonable overall work-life balance.

I’m grateful to live in the United States. It’s not a perfect country, but there’s nowhere I’d rather belong. I can live my religion. I am largely free to live my life. The taxes are bearable, administered in a reasonably even-handed way, and not completely wasted. The National and State Park system has a lot to recommend it. NASA does some cool stuff. Operation Warp Speed is a good thing. Constitutional checks and balances have warded off disaster pretty effectively so far, and will likely continue to do so. I’m grateful for those who have sacrificed to establish and defend the country.

I’m grateful for instant gratification consumer products. It is super easy and cheap to get useful stuff! I’m not trying to go all “Black Friday” and completely suffuse Thanksgiving week with the crass contemplation of material stuff. But at the same time, the availability of high-quality and inexpensive food, clothing, household goods, tools, books, transportation, etc. etc. is a Good Thing. Capitalism is satisfying all of my needs, and most of my wants.

I’m grateful for books. There are an incredible number of great books out there to read, and most of them are cheap or free! For a small percentage of my income I can read pretty much everything I want to. I am also grateful for Project Gutenberg and the volunteers of the Mormon Texts Project for making a ton of great books free. I’m grateful for technology that makes that (and this post, and even a few other things) possible.

I’m grateful for nature. There are sure a lot of great places to walk, hike, camp, swim, and so on. The variety of terrain, landforms, rocks, plants, and animals in the world is amazing. It’s amazing how much we know about all of it, and how much we can do with it (supercomputers made of sand!). Mountains are amazing. The stars are amazing.

And I’m thankful for you, internet person. Thanks for reading. Happy Thanksgiving!

Talk: “Becoming Like Christ”

I was asked to speak in church today on Elder Scott D. Whiting’s recent conference talk, “Becoming Like Him,” for about 5 or 6 minutes. I delivered the talk in my congregation, the Sonoma Ranch Ward (meets here at noon) more or less as written below.

Good Afternoon! I’m Tom Nysetvold, and I just moved to the area for a new Valero assignment around September 1, with my wife Elissa and our kids. They are Dan, who’s 5; Will, who’s 3; and Marie, who just passed the 6 month mark. We like reading, writing, hiking, and making food. Will likes Dr. Seuss, Dan likes reading Roald Dahl, and Elissa and I are both big fans of Tolkien and Brandon Sanderson. I only have about 5 minutes, so that’s enough about us.

I was asked to speak today about Elder Scott D. Whiting’s October 2020 talk “Becoming Like Him,” which I’ll occasionally paraphrase. Elder Whiting references 3 Nephi 27:27, where Christ asked the people “What manner of men ought ye to be?” and answered “Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” We are commanded to become like Christ. Elder Whiting likened this to climbing Mount Fuji, a challenge that has to be approached one step at a time.

There’s a quote from President Oaks on this idea of becoming, which I like a lot. He said:

“…the Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.” [Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” October 2010]

The core recommendation of Elder Whiting’s talk on “becoming” is to pick a specific attribute of Christ to work on. I think a vague commitment to “be Christ-like” can end up reducing to “be nice” or “be a decent person.” It’s can be a kind of squishy concept. It’s the grown-up version of telling a toddler to “be good.” There are lots of ways to “be good.” There’s only one way to “obediently and quietly stay in your room after bedtime.” The specificity has value.

A narrower commitment to develop a specific Christ-like attribute, with harder lines around it, can help us precisely because it is narrower and better-defined. The attribute can remind us that the bar is high and firm. In a footnote, Elder Whiting shares an observation from minister Charles Sheldon:

If our definition of being a Christian is simply to enjoy the privileges of worship, be generous at no expense to ourselves, have a good, easy time surrounded by pleasant friends and by comfortable things, live respectably and at the same time avoid the world’s great stress of sin and trouble because it is too much pain to bear it—if this is our definition of Christianity, surely we are a long way from following [in] the steps of Him who trod the way with groans and tears and sobs of anguish for a lost humanity; who sweat, as it were, great drops of blood, who cried out on the upreared cross, ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?

So to truly follow the challenging path marked out by Christ, we need to do more than be decent – we need to become like him, in a specific attribute-by-attribute way. Elder Whiting explains the value of choosing one specific attribute to focus on:

“By focusing deeply on one needed attribute, as you progress in obtaining that attribute, other attributes begin to accrue to you. Can someone who is focusing deeply on charity not increase in love and humility? Can someone who is focusing on obedience not gain greater diligence and hope? Your significant efforts to gain one attribute become the tide that raises all boats in the harbor.”

Introspection and discussion with family or close friends can help determine an attribute to focus on. Elder Whiting also says “it is vital that we also ask our loving Heavenly Father what we are in need of and where we should focus our efforts. He has a perfect view of us and will lovingly show us our weakness. Perhaps you will learn that you need greater patience, humility, charity, love, hope, diligence, or obedience, to name a few.”

This makes sense to me – I’ve chosen an attribute to work on myself, and I think the specificity will help me. I invite you to do the same.

As we focus on a specific attribute, we will be able to see examples of it in others and in the scriptures. It can provide a lens to view the world, sharpening our vision.

We really can make progress. Elder Whiting references the scripture mastery classic, Ether 12:27:

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.

As always, we need not run faster than we have strength, but we must be diligent. Elder Whiting warns us that:

The commandment to be like Him is not intended to make you feel guilty, unworthy, or unloved. Our entire mortal experience is about progression, trying, failing, and succeeding. As much as my wife and I may have wished that we could close our eyes and magically transport ourselves to the summit, that is not what life is about.

You are good enough, you are loved, but that does not mean that you are yet complete. There is work to be done in this life and the next. Only with His divine help can we all progress toward becoming like Him.

I know that focusing on a specific attribute can help us learn of Christ and become more like him. I know that as we strive to become like Christ, we can know that we’re heading in the right direction, and we can feel the peace he has promised to his disciples. I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God and that President Nelson is God’s prophet today, and that they will help us as we work to gain Christ’s attributes. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

I thought this went all right. Five or six minutes is a shorter window than I’m historically used to, with the service shortened for the pandemic, but I think I did a reasonable job of explaining something that is both true and important. Hard to gauge crowd reaction when everyone is wearing a mask, but if anyone keeled over dead from boredom, they did it discreetly. The “talk on a talk” prompt is always a bit constraining–this is not my most original writing–but in this case I really did like the source talk, and I thought the key recommendation to pick an attribute of Christ and work on developing it was a worthy topic.

Persuasive Art and Schiller’s Aesthetics

Also Tolkien, Peter Kreeft, Inception, Jordan Peterson, and the relative value of fiction vs. nonfiction.

One of my new year’s resolutions this year was to read a Harvard Classics volume after every few other books. As part of this, I read “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man,” a 1794 piece by German literary figure Friedrich Schiller. Aesthetics has always struck me as a pie-in-the-sky area of philosophy—yes, I’m an engineer—but Schiller made it fascinating by convincingly relating aesthetic experience to persuasion. In getting me to think about how art can persuade, he raised my relative value for fiction vs. nonfiction (reading and writing).

Schiller posits a dichotomy between sensory pleasures and rational imperatives. Some things (think chocolate) appeal primarily to the senses, in a pretty direct way, without much rational engagement. And some things (think mathematical proofs or moral imperatives) appeal to logic, without much sensory engagement. Neither sphere involves freedom; you don’t really make a conscious choice of whether to enjoy chocolate or not, nor can you choose whether a logical proof is valid or not. So working purely in either sphere doesn’t give scope for human freedom. It also isn’t likely to lead to lasting change, as sensory responses are fickle, and people tend to resist or ignore cold logical argument. As he says (full book free on PG here),

This medium situation in which the soul is neither physically nor morally constrained, and yet is in both ways active, merits essentially the name of a free situation, and if we call the state of sensuous determination physical, and the state of rational determination logical or moral, that state of real and active determination should be called the aesthetic.

This medium situation in which the soul is neither physically nor morally constrained, and yet is in both ways active, merits essentially the name of a free situation, and if we call the state of sensuous determination physical, and the state of rational determination logical or moral, that state of real and active determination should be called the aesthetic.

So art, in Schiller’s telling, operates at the intersection of the two spheres. The viewer (reader, listener) is not bludgeoned into submission by the argument, nor are they just passively consuming a sensory experience. The art blends sensory appeal and rational messaging in a way that results in something greater. When confronted with a work of art, someone can simultaneously appreciate the sensory experience, think about the rational argument, and freely react to both. So great art tends to be thought-provoking and ultimately persuasive. Thus Schiller:

In vain will you combat their maxims, in vain will you condemn their actions; but you can try your moulding hand on their leisure. Drive away caprice, frivolity and coarseness from their pleasures, and you will banish them from their acts, and at length from their feelings. Everywhere that you meet them, surround them with great, noble, and ingenious forms; multiply around them the symbols of perfection, till appearance triumphs over reality, and art over nature.

This is one answer to the question: how can you persuade someone to change their world view—actually change their mind on questions of basic importance? Obviously this question is of interest to anyone who thinks they have knowledge or insight worth sharing with the world. Many people proceed as if logical or empirical argument is the trick, but that rarely seems to work (even a little bit) for deep issues like views of human nature, belief in God, core political beliefs, etc.

Schiller’s answer is that you change someone’s view by appealing to them on multiple levels, without compelling them on any. You can open their mind with beauty while also suggesting something to their logical faculties.

To come at this from a different angle, the movie “Inception” (which is art in my book) discusses how to durably implant an idea in someone’s head: basically the question we are talking about here.

The protagonist’s key trick is doing it in such a way that the subject thinks they came up with the idea. This happens in the context of an experience, the multi-layer dream, that combines sensory and argumentative elements. The target wouldn’t buy a purely argumentative appeal (dismantle your father’s business empire because it would probably be better for you, not to mention for the world) or a purely sensory appeal (step 1: trippy dream, step 2: …, step 3: dismantle father’s empire/profit). But when the subject doesn’t realize he is being persuaded, the argument wrapped in a sensory experience works, like Schiller says.

Going deeper, consider that the movie “Inception,” as a work of art, is also itself an act of inception that durably spreads Christopher Nolan’s thinking, using exactly the technique the protagonist in the movie uses. It’s a movie where YOU are meant to dream about a reality where people have dreams within dreams within dreams, and just like Leonardo DiCaprio is planting ideas partway down that stack without his target noticing, Christopher Nolan is slipping in ideas all along the stack without you noticing. This works, again, because of the blended sensory and logical information. And so millions of people came away from the movie with a slightly deeper subliminal theory of how people change their minds. And of course Christopher Nolan’s answer is much the same as Schiller’s.

But does artistic inception work? Artists think they are influencing people, and people think they are being influenced by artists, but it’s hard to nail down. In principle you could do a study where a bunch of undergraduates’ positions on various philosophical questions are evaluated before and after experiencing various works of art, and thus hack your way to p=0.05, a PhD in psychology, and a haunting suspicion that your findings will not replicate. But what I’m really interested in are long-term subconscious effects from freely encountered artistic experiences, on a margin where quality (production value) is held constant but philosophical orientation varies. That’s not really a scientifically accessible question. However, I humbly assert that Schiller is right, and art does influence people.

I offer The Lord of the Rings as a classic example. (Obviously the book, not the movies.) I recently read Catholic scholar Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings. Kreeft marshals a book’s worth of examples to show that LotR is shot through with Christian themes: its heroes are Christian heroes, its events follow Christian patterns, and so forth. And thus without ever preaching, it has relevance to a host of topics. Kreeft quotes C. S. Lewis: “It is a master key; use it on what door you like.” Few readers will explicitly consider the underlying philosophy, but nonetheless, they’re subliminally absorbing it.

And if the artist has philosophical depth, that tends to leak into the story regardless of authorial intent. Kreeft gives one example:

If the reader at first does not realize the centrality of death to the story, and then later, upon reflection, does, Tolkien himself seems to have gone through the same two stages of awareness. He writes that “it is only in reading the work myself . . . that I become aware of the dominance of the theme of Death” (Letters, no. 208, p. 267). Aware not only of death but of immortality, and the contrast between true and false immortality, “the hideous peril of confusing true ‘immortality’ with limitless serial longevity” (ibid.).

There is subliminal philosophy leaking all over: from the writer into the book, and from the book into the reader. This may also be how “Inception” ended up with the themes I discussed above. I don’t suppose that Christopher Nolan sat down and wrote on his notepad “todo: communicate my philosophy of aesthetics and cognition via a blockbuster movie,” but I do imagine that he is more thoughtful than your average guy, and that his musings about all sorts of things are working their way into his movies.

The whole idea of subliminally absorbing a worldview from art feels a little bit squishy. But where else do worldviews come from? Obvious suspects include physical environment, genetics, family environment, school, peers, and the broader cultural environment. If we’re thinking about how to convince people, a genetic component (however large or small) can be set aside. Wholesale modification of others’ physical environment has been tried, but I don’t think many individuals wield great influence through that channel, and those who do very often generate adverse side-effects (think Robert Moses). There are impersonal aggregate factors like demography and economic change, but again, tough to influence others by changing them, at least in any predictable, specific, positive way.

The other cultural and interpersonal factors largely reduce to “people get their worldviews from other people,” so where did those people get them? Ultimately from some combination of art and direct argument. So now you’re back to picking between direct argument and art, and it isn’t so hard to imagine that art has a great deal of influence.

I also believe that God influences human affairs. From the not-yet-struck-down status of various humans, I conclude that God does not intend to dispense cold, logical proof of his own existence. His methods are more along the lines Schiller proposes. Beauty in the world, in scripture, and in art opens souls to the influence of the Holy Spirit, and related truths (true knowledge of the world, true scripture, truth expressed in art) then suggest His existence. Thus we read that “all things denote there is a God,” and that the word of the Lord is given “line upon line; here a little, and there a little.” Without compelling anyone to believe, he draws people in. Great religious art works the same way; I have felt God’s influence through the work of Jorge Cocco, for instance. I view all this as further support for the idea that art and beauty are powerful influences.

Obviously this is not just a descriptive theory; it has implications for how we ought to try to influence. Thought experiment: consider person 1, who engages with the Bible almost wholly on a logical or imperative level, and person 2, who engages with it almost wholly on an aesthetic level—mentally playing around with the stories. Who would be more influential? Person 2 is Jordan Peterson. Person 1 is the pedantic missionary who expects to convert someone by argument, one Biblical verse at a time.

And of course to really convince in Schiller’s method, art really has to be art. Browbeating allegory doesn’t work for this purpose; a certain degree of playfulness is required. And the artist need not necessarily insert any particular theme; if he has interesting knowledge in his soul, it will tend to end up in his work. Aiming at influence is not necessarily a good way to make art, but aiming at art can be a good way to influence.

Internalizing all of this, I have become more interested in reading fiction relative to nonfiction. I’m also more interested in maintaining high standards for the fiction I read, as I increasingly recognize that reading a work of fiction lets its author pull on you in all sorts of ways. Since the most important influence could be exactly the one I don’t realize is happening, picking worthy authors also gains importance. I’ve also become even more enthusiastic about my wife’s writing, and more tempted to try my own hand at writing fiction. Finally, this experience helps validate my original Harvard Classics goal; I would not have picked up Schiller’s work if it hadn’t been part of the Harvard Classics bundle, but I’m glad I did.

Refinery Inspection, Putting Your Eyes On It, and Your Eternal Soul

Let’s tell a completely fictional story that bears no resemblance to actual refinery events.

Once upon a time, there was a refinery desalter. It was a fairly good-size pressure vessel, perhaps 15’ in diameter and 100’ long, in which water and salt settled out from crude oil before it went through its first distillation. This isn’t a spot in the refinery you would normally expect to see a lot of corrosion; it isn’t particularly hot (so immune to various mechanisms that require a lot of temperature/activation energy), everything is liquid (no possibility of preferentially condensing nasty stuff out of a vapor), the contents are relatively benign, and so forth. And on top of its required minimum thickness—something more than an inch of steel—the vessel was built with a healthy corrosion allowance, or so its documentation claimed.

One day, after this vessel had been in service for some years, a contract inspector was tasked with using an ultrasonic thickness probe to measure its thickness. He turned in a written report stating the thickness of the vessel was X. Unfortunately, on comparison with the vessel documentation, X was not just less than the expected thickness based on any plausible fabrication error or subsequent corrosion rate. It was also less than the required safe thickness for the vessel.

Fortunately, me the company engineer and especially Dustin Loden the company inspector had not been born the preceding day. So they told the inspector his result didn’t make sense and sent him back out to look again. Lo and behold, the vessel (reportedly) got thicker! But still not thick enough to be quite reasonable. The inspector was sent back out again, with his supervisor, to check. On the third try, the thickness turned out to be consistent with the vessel having minimal corrosion, as expected. Subsequent internal and ultrasonic inspections also found minimal corrosion.

One thing that isn’t part of the story is what the contract inspector did to get the numbers he reported. Perhaps the first time he wrote in what he thought was a plausible thickness while sitting in his truck; it’s comfier there! Then the second time he actually tried to measure it but failed to adjust for the temperature of the vessel, and the third time his supervisor did it for him. Perhaps he accidentally measuring the thickness of the wrong vessel. Perhaps he fat-fingered the wrong number when entering his original report. Perhaps the first time he did his level best but had an equipment bug, the second time he recalibrated his equipment, and the third time he better interpreted his machine’s readout.

It is surprisingly hard to establish the exact truth, even on relatively simple questions. The story above is just one example; reporting maintenance progress is fraught with related issues. The foreman tells his company superintendent that the welding is 90% done, an hour or so before shift change. Then the superintendent tells the refinery coordinator it ought to be done at shift change. Then the coordinator tells the project manager at the shift change meeting that “it’s done about now,” and the manager tells the world “it’s done.” Meanwhile a problem arose half an hour before shift change and now there’s still a shift of work to go. Then the night shift spends all night trying to get to where the day shift said they already were, and in the morning, it’s clear that the schedule has slipped and we’re six figures behind where we thought we were.

Then there are other inspection problems. One great thing about radiography (think X-rays, although in practice gamma rays are used) is that other people can look at the film an inspector generates and see for themselves whether a weld looks good, although expert interpretation is still required. Some of the fancy ultrasonic methods (shear wave, phased array, etc.) suffer by comparison because the operator can’t always readily show others the basis for his assertions. Some of the ultrasonic outputs can be hard to interpret, and the interpretation may rely on how the image changes as the inspector moves the probe, which is hard to document. So any time a shear wave tech sees a high-consequence problem (you need to spend $100K repairing this), the first response is likely to get a second opinion, ideally from “the guy we trust.” (There may only be one.)

Even when an inspector looks at a vessel, says “it’s bad,” and brings back a picture that looks bad, the case is not closed. Lighting and other aspects of the photography make a huge difference to the final image, and “bad” is relative.

In all these cases, it takes work to get your arms around the truth. (As good economists know, information is costly.) The dynamic is like the fog of war. Whether you’re working against men, their creations, or nature, a novel problem with time pressure is going to involve a struggle for truth and understanding. Novelty means you can’t run a pre-planned response and don’t have complete information, and the time pressure demands immediate action despite this. In such situations, lots of information is conveyed man to man, and its quality is uneven.

It’s the sort of thing that can make a man skeptical. And in fact it does generate a premium for firsthand knowledge. People qualify reports about field conditions or field progress by stating whether or not they have “put their eyes on it.” Good engineers and company inspectors are constantly going out to see progress or problems for themselves. “Trust, but verify” is the order of the day.

So now, shifting gears, consider: where else are these dynamics at work?

Well, this is also how your life works. Life is a novel problem (YOLO) with high stakes (your soul, if any) and time pressure (death has likely come a few minutes closer since you started reading this, although lifestyle changes from taking my later claims seriously will hopefully offset that).

You will probably be all right whether you decide on cookie dough ice cream or mint chocolate chip; life’s stakes are not always high. But they often are. Marriage is high-stakes; having a happy 60th wedding anniversary (congrats to my grandparents) is quite a bit different from divorce as a lifestyle (shed a tear for Nicolas Cage). Likewise for your basic attitudes toward life; despair and spiritual confidence lead very different places. If you have even the tiniest suspicion that God might exist, or even expect something out of you, that’s another good high stakes question to figure out.

In all of these cases it doesn’t take a genius to identify the goal: fix the refinery and profit, have a happy existence. But you need a lot more information to get there from here. The default pathway is to stay where you’re sitting, complacently accept some kind of lowest-common-denominator view, and see how things turn out. Your couch has all the spiritual answers you need to somehow muddle through to old age. This leaves spiritual ‘“profit” on the table, but some people seem to be fine with that.

If you want to really influence things for the better, though, you will have to do some work and find out for yourself how things really are. Then you’re left deciding who and what to trust. It may be a lot of work to go “put your eyes on” the truth, figuring it out for yourself, to your own satisfaction. But a good faith effort to dig into an issue goes a long way. Not only can you discover the truth; you can learn who already had it—who you can trust in the future.

So enough with hypotheticals, and on to conclusions where I have personally made the effort and I’m satisfied that I have the truth—I have “put my [spiritual] eyes on it,” as it were. There is a God and he expects things from us. He has said “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matt. 7:7) and this is true; truth is there for the getting and will be revealed by the Holy Spirit to those who faithfully, sincerely look for it. Jesus Christ is the savior of the world, and the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Book of Mormon are his word. I’ve studied all of these many times, and I have felt peaceful assurance from the Holy Ghost that they are true. Based on that, I know that Christ loves us, understands us, and provides guidance for us, not least through his authorized church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. And thus I have pretty clear guard-rails for my high-stakes life decisions, and I can get further knowledge through prayer and study as I need it.

I have spent two years preaching this (as a missionary) and 10% of my lifetime income (tithing) on supporting its spread. Consider, further, that I voluntarily sit in meetings (for free!) in support of teaching this. But unfortunately, spiritual knowledge is not like X-ray film—no one else can look directly at my mind and see whether the Holy Ghost has confirmed the truth of the Book of Mormon, for instance. That is my report, but if you really want to know for sure, you would need to “put your eyes on it” by reading and praying about it yourself. Please do. This would be a good place to start. Or better yet, talk to me; I enjoy answering questions (yes, work folks, I’m not just that way about refinery stuff). I can also put you in touch with your friendly social-distanced local missionaries, who I think are now on every video chat system known to man.

All of which is to say: never trust anything anyone in a refinery says, except for me, this one time, about religion.

Saudi Arabia, 2040

Saudi Arabia will be interesting to watch over the next couple decades.

Oil prices have been crazy lately, between the whole Saudi-Russia dispute and COVID-19 demand destruction. Zooming out and looking past all that, I think the long view of oil market dynamics has interesting implications for the future of Saudi Arabia. Similar historical cases suggest a number of ways this could go.

In a competitive world with short oil project life-cycles, the cheapest sources of oil would be exploited first, and oil prices would tend to equilibrate out at a level where producing the most expensive barrel had a small economic return. Oil prices could move significantly as the most expensive barrel changed. But eventually, at any given level of OPEC/Saudi production, there will be an equilibrium price where supply and demand balance at that level of production.

It seems like $55 oil has been about right the last couple years. It keeps the major multinational oil companies doing frontier development, it keeps fracking going, it allows oil sands operations to turn a profit, and so forth. When more super-low-cost oil suddenly comes on line, whether because of geopolitics or geological surprises or whatever, prices and marginal fracking will decline to accommodate the cheap barrels. A drop in demand (COVID-19!) has a similar impact, shifting the world along the geological cost curve. But within a few years, natural decline of the world’s existing oilfields will tend to push the price upwards until typical projects, particularly fracking, can again offset natural decline.

It feels like there is a lot of supply elasticity around these prices, meaning that a relatively small increase in price will eventually result in a pretty large increase in output. If the market was in equilibrium and Saudi then decided to produce +2MMBPD vs. status quo forever, there would initially be a price bloodbath, resulting in reduced investment in projects across the globe, but after 5 years the marginal barrel might well end up being a fracked barrel at $53/BBL (vs. $55 if Saudi had done nothing). If the market was balanced and Saudi suddenly reduced 2MMBPD, there would tend to be a spike in prices, with correspondingly frantic activity in the Permian. But at the end of 5 years, marginal barrel would still be a fracked barrel, maybe at $57/BBL. Obviously these are cartoon numbers, but it is striking how many oil companies quote budget price sets or breakevens in the $50-$60/BBL range, and how much fracking output has been able to expand with prices in that ballpark.

With genius-level subtlety and planning, Saudi could potentially exploit the dynamics of the situation and yo-yo the market back and forth, in such a way that the price spikes filled their coffers whilst the dips keep fracking at bay, and mid-term average prices work out above a fracked barrel equilibrium. However, short fracking project cycles and American firms’ ability to hedge output make this harder. Long-run, Saudi is only likely to get $50-60/BBL, no matter what they do, and to the extent they act optimally they will probably tend to end up at or close to maximum production.

If the elasticity of supply was much lower, or supply slower to adjust, might be a different story. Around 2010 (pre-shale), the marginal barrel might have been an oil-sands or deepwater mega-project that took 7 years to come online. But that world is gone. (Or at least that is my impression, and my lazy Googling did not find credible recent estimates of long-run oil supply elasticity, so impressions are all I’ve got.)

So what does Saudi look like 20 years from now at $50-60/BBL?

Their budget needs $80/BBL to break even, so they will never again have a balanced budget without significantly higher taxes or lower spending. There doesn’t seem to be much to tax aside from the oil. They can go on a long time running up their debt to some high percentage of GDP, but sooner or later the money will stop, and they will have to cut back and start acting more like a normal country. To the extent the social contract is based on distributing oil money, that will be hard to do.

The situation reminds me of Argentina, where natural resources (under-exploited ranching land) generated great wealth for a period of time in the early 20th century. It was in the top 10 richest countries for a time. But ranch land eventually stopped being such a jackpot. Meanwhile cultural and institutional factors had remained sort of typical for the region, so the post-resource-wealth economy dropped down the global league tables until it also reached a near-typical level for the region.

So what does “typical for the region” look like for Saudi, neglecting the oil jackpot? Consider its neighbor Yemen, which had a 2018 GDP of $895 per capita. That would be a long way to fall. But of course Saudi is trying to diversify, and rightly so. Historically successful diversification has not been the typical experience in commodity-rich countries, or in Saudi specifically, but hopefully they break the mold. I would love to buy some cheap Saudi manufactured goods to go with my cheap Saudi oil.

However, assume for a moment that Saudi keeps struggling to diversify, and continues under fiscal (and thus political) stress.

Could Saudi go the way of Venezuela? In this case, shrinking oil wealth upsets a high-spending social contract, political repression results, the oil company gets bled dry under management of steadily deteriorating quality, and production declines through the years until a former powerhouse fades into irrelevance.

How about Libya? There, internal strife has resulted in on-again, off-again production as conflicting groups seek to control key infrastructure. This is harder to imagine; Saudi production (unlike Libya’s) might be “too big to fail,” and the U. S. tends to take an interest in it. But if production drops, Saudi could eventually become like Iran; a country that produces a lot, but remains dispensable.

On the other hand, maybe MbS can orchestrate an economic miracle and turn Saudi into Singapore-in-the-desert, a country that leverages a few initial advantages to achieve world-beating economic success. This looks like quite a challenge. It’s hard to imagine putting much non-oil-linked manufacturing in Saudi; wages are too high. Megaproject-based economic development is one of the knobs MbS really can turn, but there’s no straighforward path from megaprojects to an organic, vibrant economy. But MbS does seem to acknowledge the challenge he’s facing and has his “Vision 2030” plan to meet it, so let’s hope he can make it work.

Perhaps the best hope is that Saudi can just muddle through. Many of these same points could have been made in the 1980s, when Saudi was also running huge budget deficits, yet here we are, so maybe things just keep on going in a comparable vein. Maybe oil prices do get back to $80+ in the long run. Maybe MbS can gracefully trim spending. Maybe diversification goes better than we might expect from history. As at least some of these issues shake out the right way and things go on being OK, compound growth goes onwards, and the country prospers.

Cultural change is also a wild-card, although a fair degree of continuity is a good bet. Elsewhere on the spectrum of conceivable results, maybe a growing group of American-educated Saudi royals eventually brings the American Way to a populace that has decided, after decades of marinating in global internet culture, that they are just about OK with that. Fukuyama’s End of History finally arrives in earnest, and in 2040 we all sit around watching Marvel’s attempt to do for Arabia what “Black Panther” did for Africa. Maybe the trend of secularization slowly deepens and Wahhabism ends up sort of like the Church of England.

All of this is to say that I don’t know what will happen, but the potential variance in outcomes seems pretty large. (Much more so than for, say, Sweden—official 2040 slogan, “still a pretty good place!”) It’ll be interesting to watch.

Church Pandemic Preparedness, or the Apocalypse Bros

As the tide goes out, institutions that were swimming naked get revealed. Think about the Centers for Disease Control (so under control!), or any number of businesses that have apparently been operating with no capital cushion, within spitting distance of bankruptcy. Meanwhile, some other institutions ought to be gaining status, for being particularly well prepared and resilient.

There are some self-evident general principles here, that apply to both individuals and institutions. For example, this is not a good time to have debt or rental payments. It is not a good time for a high-trust, just-in-time, dispersed supply chain. It is not a good time to be operating on the too-clever-by-half razor’s edge.

It is a great time to have equity funding, a cash cushion, and outright ownership of your key assets (house, real estate required for your organization to function). It’s a great time to have been holding some strategic inventory. It’s great to be in a position to avoid contributing to panics, whether by selling securities or purchasing essentials.

For bonus points, it’s nice to be in a position to not just maintain continuity, but actually help other people. Would also be good to have taught other people preparedness while it could still make a difference. Finally, points for having taken some kind of reasonable approach to social distancing, without panicking, but towards the leading edge of the response.

So there are some report card categories. And sitting somewhere right around the top of the class is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The Church avoids debt and saves against a rainy day. It owns its real estate; making rent is not a concern. It has a century-long tradition of storing grain; stockpiles many other essentials (including medical supplies); and also maintains some in-country production of many key food items. And it budgets in a way that allows it to maintain a substantial cushion for disruptive times. (Ensign Peak Advisors, anyone?)

The Church teaches this stuff to its members by precept, not just example. Any member of the Church who is about to be foreclosed on in a TP-less McMansion had plenty of over-the-pulpit warning; members are taught to have a three-month emergency supply and minimize debt.

Meanwhile the Church has economic stabilization baked in. Members who do face a liquidity crunch can benefit from the Church welfare program, drawing on those stockpiled essentials and financial resources. Job search? There’s help there too. Affordable online education? Yep.

For a cherry on top, the Church seems to have been ahead of the curve throughout the response. Medical equipment previously stored at multiple locations (not just panic-bought stuff!) was sent to China in January, before the WHO “public health emergency” announcement hit (timeline for government actions). On Feb. 27 international travel in April from any location was being discouraged by the Church, a couple days before the initial U.S. travel restriction announcement that applied to only a few locations. Home centered church is old news, and all worship services were suspended worldwide effective March 12, shortly before the CDC recommended no gatherings of 50 or more people.  Beating the government to the draw on this sort of thing isn’t necessarily that high of a bar, but still, it has been cleared.

“Latter-Day Saints” is to KJV English as “Apocalypse Bros” is to the vernacular, so none of this should really be a shock. And it might be nicer to live in a world that wasn’t an object lesson in the Church’s wisdom. But as long as I’m stuck at home I can at least take some pride in being part of an institution so well-suited for our times.

Book Review – “Willful: How We Choose What We Do”

If you want to know what Chicago PhD economist hedge-fund-guru-cum-academic Richard Robb has concluded after pondering deeply the intersection of personal agency and rational choice economics, this book is for you.

This book may not be for you.

But I really liked it!

So let’s talk about it. This tightly written, brief book sits at the intersection of economics and philosophy. It will be very interesting to a very specific set of readers: people who have a decent grounding in rational choice and behavioral economics, and are troubled by those fields’ implied imperative to optimize life in a utilitarian, mechanistic way. I believed in the great importance of personal agency before this book, and I also believed that rational choice economics has very broad applicability, and this helped me mesh those ideas together and relieve some dissonance between them.

The book picks a few key cracks in the utilitarian model and wedges them open to show that even a perfectly rational, optimizing, calculating homo economicus will necessarily exercise personal agency. He will tend to choose “for-itself” (author’s term) to e.g. take on challenges for their own sake, show uncalculated mercy, occasionally act out of character, and so forth. The book also explores practical implications for policy: situations where a standard economic approach explains a lot, but recognizing people’s agency does more.

One centerpiece is an interesting, difficult to summarize discussion of optimizing utility over time. Unlike in an economics model, we don’t sit outside time and make a single strategy that then executes. As we continuously make strategies, our time horizon is constantly shifting, and our strategy is constantly being evaluated against the new horizon. Given this, you need implausible assumptions in order to build a model where people will both adopt, and then maintain upon future re-evaluation, a single fixed strategy to maximize expected utility. At the end of the day, the justification for doing any given thing will contain an element of personal choice—not just choice to optimize based on preferences, but choice to do it “just because” or “for-itself.”

Another interesting discussion centers on the parable of the Good Samaritan, who doesn’t necessarily succeed at being an “effective altruist” along the rational economic lines: potentially a lesser degree of care for a greater number of people might have resulted in a higher benefit measured in quality-adjusted life years. Did he have to pay the innkeeper so much, with an open-ended commitment to pay more? And obviously the Samaritan can’t lavish this degree of care on every beggar he meets; he would never have made it out of town onto his journey. But he chose “for-itself” to care for the man, and it seems obvious that this was a good thing to do.

I think this book has some fascinating implications for theology as well. (Not explored in the text, but here goes.) God, as an omniscient being with a perfect ability to calculate utilitarian courses of action, might seem to be in a very tight box: since he can determine the optimal course, he would execute it; end of story. Reasoning along those lines you tend to end up with a Deist clockmaker god, who initializes the system and then lets it run, without a lot of room for e.g. answering specific prayers. But God, acting as a personal being, is within scope for many of the book’s arguments, which tend towards the conclusion that he not only can but must exercise agency. So then you end up with a God who can act in a “for-itself” manner, showing mercy for its own sake, as in Isaiah 48:11—“For mine own sake, even for mine own sake, will I do it: for how should my name be polluted? and I will not give my glory unto another.”

Similarly the Holy Ghost typically inspires people to for-itself action, as in John 3:8—“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” (I have not heard many reports of the spirit inspiring people to re-parameterize their utilitarian calculations.) And Christ originated the parable of the Good Samaritan and lived accordingly. At the same time, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost obviously smile on institutions that help people (e.g. consider your favorite faith-sponsored charity—mine being Latter-Day Saint Charities) and it seems hard to deny that all else equal, they would like these to be administered in a cost-effective way. So their actions fit well within Robb’s framework that respects rational choice, while limiting its scope. End of theological aside.

I guess most of this seems sort of obvious (of course people just do stuff sometimes!); it takes a special kind of economics education to get to where it isn’t. But this book sketches out a nice synthesis where the importance of “for-itself” choice is still clear on the far side, after broadly accepting rational choice economics, not just on the near side.

I heard about the book on EconTalk and felt sort of inspired (in a for-itself way, retrospectively) to pick it up. Glad I did.

Justifying moral principles by analogy with Russian roulette

I recently read Nassim Taleb’s book Skin in the Game. Taleb is an entertaining practical philosopher: he has a handful of principles that he has considered deeply, he measures the world against them, and he coaches the reader in how to do likewise, all in an idiosyncratic and readable style. (As a Lebanese-American Orthodox Christian, self-made multi-millionaire, and lover of the Western canon, he’s an interesting guy.) Anyway, he makes a distinction between time probability and ensemble probability, roughly as follows:

Say one hundred people each play Russian roulette one time, with a billion dollar prize for survivors; you get about 83 billionaires and 17 deaths. This is ensemble probability. Some people might choose to play.

Now say one person plays the same game a hundred times. They are 99.99999879% likely to end up dead. This is time probability. Sounds a bit worse. They may have billions of dollars when they die; in a quick few thousand simulations in Excel, average person got $5B or so before dying, and there were at least a couple people who made it into the $40Bs. But then they end up ruined, out of the game.

Assume you are an eternal being, because you are, so you get to live indefinitely with your decisions. Repentance and lasting positive change are possible, but lasting negative change is also out there. There are some deep holes, with sides that are as slippery on the way back up as they are on the way down. Since you are repeating choices many times, you need to think in terms of time probability, not ensemble probability.

In this environment you should be extremely wary of any choice that brings with it a chance of ruin. Put your spiritual pennies in the Vanguard index fund,[1] rather than playing the game of Russian roulette, even if the odds of ruin are one in a thousand instead of one in six. Steady accumulation works better the longer you have—it is positively great over eternity. But if you play Russian roulette occasionally, over the long run of eternity, you will eventually find ruin. And Taleb would probably observe that the long run is shorter than you think, you don’t really know the odds, and they will often be worse than supposed.

There are lot of ways to spin the cylinder. Many vices will not be disastrous for many people much of the time, but any activity that is addictive to a substantial portion of the population and can lead to bad spiritual outcomes[2] ought to be suspect. Some people seem to get away with a lot of questionable choices (e.g. regarding friends, interactions with the opposite sex, entertainment, substance abuse) without obvious immediate consequences. Most people can drink without becoming alcoholics, or gamble without creating problems for their families. But taking the first step down any of these roads makes you fragile.

On the other hand, the strait and narrow way calls for you to accumulate experiences and attributes that will inevitably pay off in the long run. Building a family that will last forever requires some slow, grinding work at times, but you won’t regret it. Missionary and other service to others, such as will tend to your own spiritual development, also tends to be slow, quiet, and rewarding in the end. I’m reminded of Isaiah’s line that “In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

So rather than evaluating a single decision, you can ask “would a long series of decisions like this create a possibility of ruin?” Because if there is a possibility, and you play with it for eternity, it is going to be realized.

If you strive to avoid all possibility of spiritual ruin, you sort of arrive in reverse gear at a complete commitment to Christ, because anything else could (and therefore eventually will) lead you astray. Thus “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).

My personal conclusion from all this is that I ought to beware of careerism and videogames, each of which has ruined people and has a certain appeal to me. (I distinguish careerism from work—work consistent with supporting a family is praiseworthy; work in pursuit of self-validation and career advancement is where people can go off the rails.) I also want to approach parenting with a duly precautionary mindset.

Finally, if you have made it this far, welcome to the blog. We shall see what happens with it.

Footnotes

1. Taleb would not really recommend the spiritual Vanguard S&P 500 index fund; if I recall his Black Swan book, his recommendation would be more along the lines of 85% spiritual T-bills and 15% exotic spiritual derivatives designed to generate fixed downside but open-ended (and undervalued) upside. And perhaps this does have its spiritual analogy. Missionary work is like Taleb’s derivatives in that it translates fixed-ish costs (hours of effort) into uncertain but potentially gigantic returns: “And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!” (Doctrine and Covenants 18:15.) But I digress.

2. Chocolate is addictive to part of the population, as anyone ought to be able to see by browsing the cereal aisle, but fortunately it seems to be spiritually benign. (And I can stop anytime that I want.)