Addition to “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”

First read “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” by Rudyard Kipling. (And, if you have a bit more time, “Meditations on Moloch” by Scott Alexander. Also thematically appropriate is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and the book Frankenstein by his wife Mary Shelley.)


The Gods of the Copybook Headings were ever as just and wise
As the choices that make us into everything that we despise.
Today our reign is quite merry, in silicon and rare earth,
But the Gods of the Copybook Headings advance with their gift of dearth.

Scarcity ever us compels to follow those Market Gods;
The Gods of the Copybook Headings expose them again as frauds.
Our souls cling to the spokes of a Wheel endlessly turning.
The Gods of the Copybook Headings perceive our ceaseless yearning.

We heard them eons before now: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”
And yet we march under their banner, giving them every breath.
When humanity is extinguished, the Wheel still never stops.
Defying laws that men wrote down, the Gods stay perched atop.

The Gods of the Market long ago gave up their splendid quest.
The Gods of the Copybook Headings always knew that they knew best.
They never claimed to console us, and never claimed to be just.
As we read in books long forgotten, “All are from the Dust.”

Dust is the stuff of their kind, the Gods of the Copybook Headings.
They are the start and the cutoff; the birth and its subsequent dreading.
The Crab never knew any limits, nor her brother Machine,
But the Gods of the Copybook Headings rejoice when fat or lean.

Until humanity perishes, we will seek that which we should spurn;
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!


Originally posted in a Twitter thread. Modified with suggestions by Redditor /u/AshleyYakely.

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Ambivalence on Technocracy

I really have a knack for clickbait titles, don’t I?

Hello hello! The weather is emphatically swinging into spring here in the SF Bay Area. Cheery sunshine = I feel cheery too. One of my friends delivered a lamb for the first time today, which is amazing 🐑

My last email to you was about livestreaming. In retrospect, that post was vapid and undershot my standards for Sonya Notes. Editorial quality will hopefully improve as I continue to iterate, and I appreciate your patience so far!

Granted, I originally pitched Sonya Notes as an experimental newsletter. Experiments often yield dumb results, so I don’t feel too guilty.

I’ve been sitting on the following post for a while, trying to get it where I want it.

“I marveled at how the flow of people through security screening looked like a time-lapse factory film.” Photo by Melissa Gutierrez.
“I marveled at how the flow of people through security screening looked like a time-lapse factory film.” Photo by Melissa Gutierrez.

Two of my favorite heuristics conflict with each other:

  1. Competitive markets solve most problems on their own. (The largest exceptions are externalities and physical monopolies.) Market participants should be free to express their preferences and create an emergent equilibrium, instead being subject to an authority that tries to engineer specific results.
  2. Any given member of the general public is a moron with no proper idea of what is good for them or anyone else. (See also: Cipolla’s laws of stupidity and Hanlon’s razor.)

#1 is a libertarian idea and #2 is a progressive idea (at least according to early American progressivism or perhaps High Modernism). #1 is bottom-up improvement of society and #2 is top-down improvement of society.

It’s worth noting that I phrased #1 as optimistic and #2 as cynical. (I used to go around defining myself as a “cynical optimist” like Bryan Caplan. Still pretty accurate: I’m cynical about human nature and optimistic about technology.)

The conflict between the heuristics is okay, as long as I’m aware of it. Heuristics need to be useful cognitive shortcuts more than they need to be completely accurate in all scenarios.

Despite my politics being laissez-faire overall, I have a soft spot for paternalistic technocracy. I think mixing the two yields a basically functional government. The current American system is too hands-off in some ways, but mostly far too interventionist (in the lives of its citizens, but also in the affairs of foreign countries).

I like how Redditor darwin2500 put it, with flipped rhetoric:

[P]ersonal responsibility is often a great idea for giving an individual one-on-one advice to improve their life, and is usually a terrible credo for public policy debates and political activism.

A society without both personal-level and systems-based vigilance and improvements will ultimately fail. You can’t only focus on one and not the other.

I tend to say that “anything gov’t touches is so routinely dysfunctional that we should only delegate issues that can’t be handled any other way” — in other words, minimum viable government. I would be a minarchist if minarchism accounted for social safety nets.

The soul of libertarianism is “everyone gets to do whatever they want unless they’re directly harming someone else,” for a pretty narrow definition of direct harm. (Yes, it has failure modes.) I find that very appealing, as a person who chafes under authority.

The soul of progressivism is “we need to take care of everyone and here’s how,” with a very strong desire for rules and behavior-shaping.


I don’t have a neat conclusion, so I’ll end with this quote about populism, which I recoil from, excerpted from an essay called “The Ignoble Lie”:

The uprising among the working classes across the developed West arises from a perception of illegitimacy — of a gap between claims of the ruling class and reality as experienced by those who are ruled. It is no coincidence that these rebellions come from the socialist left and authoritarian right, two positions that now share opposition to state capitalism, a managerial ruling class, the financialization of the economy, and globalization.

See also: “The Twin Insurgency” by Nils Gilman.


Originally posted on Substack.

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Financial Objects

Sidewalk chalk drawing of money. Photo by Brendan Riley.
Photo by Brendan Riley.

“To the hunter-gatherer tools and sometimes warm clothes were necessary for survival. Many of the items were highly valued collectibles that insured against starvation, purchased mates, and could substitute for massacre or starvation in event of war and defeat. The ability to transfer the capital of survival to one’s descendants was another advantage homo sapiens sapiens had over previous animals. Furthermore, the skilled tribesman or clan could accumulate a surplus of wealth from the occasional, but cumulative over a lifetime, trade of surplus consumables for durable wealth, especially collectibles. A temporary fitness advantage could be translated into a more durable fitness advantage for one’s descendants. […]

Flints were quite likely the first collectibles, preceding special-purpose collectibles like jewelry. Indeed, the first flint collectibles would have been made for their cutting utility. Their added value as a medium of wealth transfer was a fortuitous side effect that enabled the institutions described in this article to blossom. These institutions, in turn, would have motivated the manufacture of special-purpose collectibles, at first flints that need have no actual use as cutting tools, then the wide variety of other kinds of collectibles that were developed by homo sapiens sapiens.”

Excerpt from “Shelling Out” by Nick Szabo, an essay on the origins of money.

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Capitalism in a Nutshell

Matt Levine’s newsletter Money Stuff is always excellent and usually funny. (And the poor man knows I think so.) However, this passage from the August 12th dispatch soberly explains one of the main ways the United States’ political system enforces capitalism:

“Loosely speaking, there are two main kinds of income: income from labor, like salaries, and income from capital, like dividends and capital gains. In the U.S., the former is taxed more heavily than the latter, with a top marginal rate of 39.6 percent on ordinary income, versus 20 percent on capital gains and dividends. There are a number of efficiency and fairness arguments in favor of a lower tax rate on capital gains, but there are also those who suspect that an important reason for the difference is that (1) rich people tend to get more of their income from capital than poor people do, (2) rich people tend to prefer to pay lower taxes, and (3) rich people tend to get their preferred policies enacted.”

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Plutocrats & Cartels

“The great fortunes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were built on the backs of worker-consumers in primarily inward-looking national contexts. By contrast, today’s plutocrats thrive by selling their goods and services globally; their success is dramatically less connected to the fortunes of their fellow national citizens than was that of previous generations. Moreover, the two signature types of massive wealth accumulation in the early 21st century have been high technology and financial services. Neither of these industries relies on masses of laborers, so their productivity is detached from the health of any particular national middle class. […] While plutocrats sewed up the licit opportunities afforded by the integration of the global economy, they mostly avoided dealing in goods and services that were banned for moral or prudential reasons. By contrast, deviant entrepreneurs realized that arbitraging the moral and regulatory differences that existed in different jurisdictions worldwide presented fantastic business opportunities — with opportunities continuously emerging as the capacities of different states contracted at differing rates.” — Nils Gilman for The American Interest

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