Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S5. EPISODE 12
Featuring Scott Barry Kaufman
What is vulnerable narcissism? Is #trauma a trend? And what psychological traits define our times? Psychologist and author Scott Barry Kaufman guides us through an examination of why, what, and who we are, advocating for a holistic understanding of intelligence and creativity.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I am joined as always by my co-host, Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. We spend a lot of time on this podcast talking about politics. We talk about culture, we talk about culture wars. We’ve ranged far and wide. We probably haven’t done quite enough on science. We’ve talked to astrophysicists, we’ve done some on artificial intelligence, but today we’re going to talk to a cognitive psychologist about what’s going on in the mind. Who are we? What is the learning of these fields and research over the past decades? How has that illuminated human consciousness, human intelligence, how we think, how we act, who we are? And we probably should have these conversations a little bit more, but we’re really excited to have one today. So, Emma, tell us who we’re gonna talk to.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Today we’re talking to Scott Barry Kaufman. He’s a cognitive scientist and humanistic psychologist, and his work explores the depths of human potential. As such, he’s also the founder and director of the Center for Human Potential. He hosts a podcast called The Psychology Podcast, and is author, editor of nine previous books, including Transcend, Wired to Create, and, most recently, Choose Growth: A Workbook for Transcending Trauma, Fear, and Self-Doubt.
ZK: Welcome to What Could Go Right?, Scott. You have an interesting career. One thing I was struck by ’cause you wrote a book a bunch of years ago called Ungifted, which is a great title, and I think you had been put into some special learning programs as a kid. And one of the things you were trying to show in the book is, and in your work, is that the way in which we’ve scanned for what we call intelligence is flawed, and it funnels people into a very particular pathway. And we would do much better in looking at this differently. So I want you to talk about that. I’m also interested in the degree to which, even though your background, my background, Emma’s background, are in what we would call sort of traditional elite education, higher education, whether or not the result of all those mechanisms that you talk about that’s screened for intelligence end up creating, if not hothouse flowers in those particular environments, then a kind of a particular type of intelligence that then leaves by the cultural and social wayside all sorts of other intelligences that we could all benefit much more from and are therefore, I suppose, underutilizing.
Scott Barry Kaufman (SK): Hmm, interesting. Well, you know, the field of human intelligence is really rich and fascinating, exciting. There are a lot of misconceptions about it. The whole idea of different types of intelligence. There is something called general intelligence. Some people are generally smarter than others. That’s a real fact. You can go on Twitter if you want to test that hypothesis [laughs] see if it’s true or not. There are some people who are able to reason and process information quicker and learn quicker across multiple situations, kind of devoid of the content or the domain.
With that said, there are group factors. There are different components of general intelligence, such as visual, spatial, verbal, and it goes on. I think that we all have our patterns of strengths, of cognitive strengths and weaknesses, but on average, there is meaning in IQ. It’s not a meaningless construct, and I’ve never argued that it is. I think there’s a lot of nuance with the field of intelligence, and a lot of my research is trying to show that nuance and also not use IQ testing as a way of limiting potential, but only using that information as a way to activate potential in all people. So I don’t like how a lot of the policy decisions have been made regarding IQ testing and K–12. That’s something I’ve definitely criticized, but I do still think that the intelligence matters.
EV: Scott, I’m curious if you have any other pet peeves having done so much research across self-actualization, human intelligence, psychology. I mean, it’s hard to summarize everything that you’ve looked at. Any other pet peeves when it comes to concepts that have traveled into the mainstream that you feel like is not actually helpful or are misconceptions that are harmful?
SK: Oh, yeah. I mean, there’s many. One, that intelligence is the same thing as creativity or imagination. They’re very different. They’re correlated. People who score higher on IQ tests do tend to, on average, score better at diversion thinking, but the correlation is not extremely high. And a lot of people who are very smart intellectually don’t have a great imagination or are not very high in the personality trait, openness to experience. That’s a separate trait. I also really can’t stand this chart that seems to go around about what you’re capable of achieving in your life based on various IQ bands. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the psychologist Jordan Peterson, but—
EV: Unfortunately, or fortunately, I don’t know. [laughs]
SK: He’s obsessed with these bands and has done videos that I think cause a lot of damage showing—He’s like, this is what you’re capable of in life if your IQ is this to this, this to this, you could—If it’s between this band and this band, sewage work is the best for you. If it’s within this band and this band, then you can maybe consider being a doctor or a lawyer, et cetera, et cetera. And I can’t tell you how many young men have emailed me panicking over these Jordan Peterson videos that they are not able to do things, anything in life. I try to help as much as I can by responding compassionately. They’ve never actually tested their IQ. They’re just freaking out over a Jordan Peterson video. Who is anyone else to tell you what you’re capable of unless you try?
EV: I was gonna ask that. Who actually knows their IQ? I don’t know what my IQ is. [laughs] I’ve never tested my IQ.
SK: Most people don’t. They try to guess. I think there are a lot of self-limiting beliefs that people have, people getting in their own way. Yeah, I’m just a big believer in just going for your dreams, as corny as it sounds.
ZK: And as far as taking tests, you know, Emma, you mentioned before we got on that you had taken Scott’s tests on his website, which don’t require an email. I like taking online IQ tests and enneagram tests. I mean, it’s a fun way to procrastinate when you have to do something else. So I’ve taken any number of online IQ tests, and what’s fascinating about those is how completely different they all seem in what they’re asking and how they’re assessing. I haven’t done the ones where you have to then pay for your results. I do stop at that point where you like—
EV: You have a boundary. [laughs].
EV: So, Scott, I wanna move to your book Transcend, which I read recently. You take the very infamous Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that pyramid that everyone’s familiar with, and you redo the pyramid into a sailboat. So I have a two-part question. First, tell us about the sailboat, because I think it’s really interesting. And then after that, I really wanna talk about vulnerable narcissism, and what that is.
SK: Sure. So the sailboat model is my re-imagining of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from a static sort of pyramid where it depicts life as some sort of video game that you have to reach some level before you can get to the next level, and then you never have to worry about the lower level of needs ever again, is just not in line with the reality of human development. And also, Maslow never drew a pyramid. So it’s also a misrepresentation of Maslow’s work. I think the sailboat’s a better reflection of the journey of self-actualization. We’re in this sea of the unknown, trying to reach some port that we have in our mind, some goal, some dream, higher level dream. And waves can come crashing down us at any point. We can get holes in the boat and then get stuck and feel insecure. But we ultimately have to open up the sail if we want to grow and move. So there’s these different components of the sailboat that I think relate and map on nicely to security versus growth.
EV: Can you talk a little bit about where those needs are in relation to the sailboat? What’s the boat, what’s the sail, where are we going.
SK: [laughs] Yeah, well, where we’re going is up to you, my friend. But I can say the rest of it. So the boat itself comprises the needs for security, the need for connection, the need for self-esteem, and then the growth of the sail is the need for exploration, the need for love, and the need for purpose. I think the deep integration of love, exploration, and purpose nicely represents what growth is, and that the needs for security, connection, and self-esteem nicely reflect the stability of feeling like you’re in your own body, that you’re connected to your body, that you have a strong foundation to move around the world. It’s catastrophic when your self-esteem is so uncertain that you really need to rely on everyone else for your own self-esteem. And that really gets us in the territory of vulnerable narcissism, as you mentioned, which is a great example of this chronically uncertain self-esteem that can lead to violence outwardly as well as inwardly.
ZK: So vulnerable narcissism, maybe define that for people.
SK: Oh, I think a lot of people think of narcissism as grandiose narcissism, which is like chest thumping, I’m the best, I’m inherently superior to others, entitlement. But researchers are getting to some more finely grain nuanced. For instance, you can do tests now, and we do this in our studies, where you don’t just ask questions on this psychological entitlement scale. If I was on the Titanic, I should be the first person to have a lifeboat. That’s actually a question on the Psychological Entitlement Scale.
ZK: Wait, and there are people who say yes?
SK: Well, it’s a 1 to 7 rating, and oh, yeah.
ZK: How would one determine what your ranking in that order should be?
EV: Well, if you’re a narcissist, I guess [laughs], it’s very obvious.
SK: Yeah. If you score high in psychological entitlement, you’ll put a 7 to that question. That’s the point. Yeah. [laughs].
ZK: Really? Wow.
SK: But the thing is, you can more finely grained, not just ask that question, but you can say different reasons for the entitlement. So if I was on the Titanic, I should be the first person to have a lifeboat because… And the first one is grandiose narcissism, which is because I’m inherently superior to everyone else on the boat. But then there’s another one, number two, which is…because I’ve suffered in the past more than anyone else on the boat. And that’s vulnerable narcissism. Vulnerable narcissism is feeling like you’re entitled to special privileges because you believe you have suffered more than others and you deserve it, or you own perceived fragility. Like I am more fragile, I’m more sensitive than anyone else on this boat.
ZK: That’s wild. It’s funny, I didn’t know about this test. I mean, it’s hard to picture a situation in which you sort of feel like you have a greater right to live than 2,000 other souls because you’ve been more harmed, but I guess that is in fact a real place.
SK: Hello, Israel-Palestine conflict. [laughs] Are you watching the news? You watching the news?
ZK: That is absolutely a legit response, that my pain is worth way more than other people’s pain, or my suffering is worth way more than other people’s suffering, which I know we do all the time. It’s another magnitude to do it with that level of consciousness, right? It’s one thing to act on it. It’s actually the stating of it on a test that I find is of another order entirely because you have to be conscious enough when you’re writing something down on a test.
SK: Well, the thing is, I mean, it’s anonymous. People, they do tell the truth when it’s on an anonymous survey. Today, in The Atlantic, there’s a whole article that features my work on the Dark Triad. People who are high in Dark Triad, they’re honest about their traits and characteristics. They have insight into it. Dark Triad people know they’re Dark Triad. They’re actually proud of it, which is the point of that. They’re proud of it. They’re not ashamed of it. You’re really speaking from a worldview of a Light Triad person, which maybe it’s hard for you to see the world through the eyes of a Dark Triad person. But Dark Triad people are very proud of their assholery.
EV: Okay. So maybe now we have to stop and explain what’s Dark Triad and what’s Light Triad, and if we should all be happy that Zachary is apparently Light Triad. [laughs]
ZK: Or maybe I just want people to think that I’m Light Triad.
EV: Maybe. Are you a vulnerable narcissist? That’s the next thing we gotta check.
SK: Well, that would be Machiavellianism, which is one part of the Dark Triad. Dark Triad comprises Machiavellianism—which is manipulation of others, maybe manipulating other people’s perceptions of you—, narcissism, and psychopathy. Actually, some have argued that the Dark Tetrad exists, which is sadism, everyday sadism. Everyday sadism is that you go around your everyday life really enjoying and getting pleasure from humiliating and embarrassing people.
EV: And the Light Triad?
SK: The Light Triad is a whole different world. It’s like a breath of fresh air. [laughs] When I meet a Light Triad person, I’m like, I wanna be your friend. So Light Triad people tend to score high in the opposite of Machiavellianism, we call it Kantianism. Another aspect of the Light Triad is humanism, so treating people, every individual, with dignity and respect. And then there’s faith in humanity, which is the third one, third member of the Light Triad, which is, even though you recognize human imperfections, you still believe at the end of the day that people are basically good at heart. So you haven’t gone over into cynical world quite yet.
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
ZK: For me, just like you did with the Maslow and sort of refining or progressing an earlier theory, you’re building upon a lot of other work. You’re building on things that a lot of human beings have tried to articulate, maybe in a more atomized way and bringing it together in a more what’s called a unified field theory of human consciousness. And I think there’s always great value to that. The challenge of distilling types, right? Well, one, there’s kind of the 80/20, meaning if you get most of the bell curve of humanity, but what about the outliers, right? So that’s always a question. Can any theory incorporate the outliers? What does one do about that? Do you just accept that there are always gonna be individuals who do not fit any particular box easily?
SK: Yes, absolutely. I mean, what we do is—They’re not boxes. The research suggests that you can classify within each person their constitution of light versus dark traits. In fact, we have a scale online. You can go to selfactualizationtest.com. You can take the test, and it’ll say how much Yoda is within you and how much Darth Vader is in you using their scales. So we’ve published papers looking at the proportion of within each person, that you’re light over dark, and very few people are pure dark. We estimate about 7% of the human population. Now they cause all the havoc in the world, right? But it’s amazing what only 7% of the human population can do for the rest of the 93%. But with that said, 50% are a mix of light and dark traits. So that’s true. But interestingly enough, about 43% are pure white. So that’s kind of cool.
EV: That’s nice. That’s a sweet thing to think about.
SK: Yeah. Look, I think most people really do mean well. I think that when you trigger or activate their defenses, people turn into assholes, and that’s part of human nature. But I think as long as you don’t activate their defenses in an extreme way, I think most people really want to do good in the world and want to at least be seen as good. [laughs]
EV: I mean, my feeling about this is a piggybacking onto what Zachary said, which is, am I now supposed to avoid Dark Triad people? Is it like if you have some Dark Triad in you, that that’s something you’re supposed to be working on, like a self-improvement project? What do I do with this in my day-to-day life, I guess.
SK: From which perspective?
EV: I guess there’s a few different ones, right? I guess if you find out that you’re entirely Light Triad, you can be like, yes, great person. I’m gonna float off into heaven now. But can we use the knowledge of let’s say you’re Light Triad and you wanna avoid Dark Triad people. Is that what would make sense? Or, from the opposite perspective, let’s say you find out you’re full of Dark Triad traits, but a sliver of you wants to not do that anymore. Can you work on that, or is that just how you are?
SK: I mean, I think with all personality traits, I don’t think it comes down to something that’s immutable. Throughout the course of your day, your personality is really your patterns of behaviors and thinking and motions. We’re not talking about like you are this—There’s no one who’s an introvert 24/7. There’s no one who’s an extrovert 24/7. There’s no one who’s an asshole 24/7, no one who’s a good person 24/7. I think a lot of scorers on the Light Triad, a downside for them is they tend to be people pleasers. And I’ve really been really interested in helping people pleasers recognize how much they’re causing so much suffering to themselves by not being able to set appropriate boundaries and to not always immediately spring to action every time they feel empathy for something.
ZK: Yeah. That sort of brings to mind the Buddhist life is suffering or the pain aversion principle that seems to motivate a huge swath of human behavior. Not to be morbid, just to be frank, right? We’re all mortal. We all have to face the prospect of death and the attempt to chronically avoid the potential pain of that or the potential pain of anything else creates all sorts of massive issues, including what you just said, which is, if it’s not pain inflicted upon others, it could well be pain inflicted upon oneself, right?
SK: Oh, definitely. I’ve been really interested in incels, who are involuntary celibate men. And they’re linked to vulnerable narcissism. Most incels are not violent against others. Most of them have suicidal ideation and are anxious and depressed. So I think vulnerable narcissism tends to lead to more internalization, whereas grandiose narcissism tends to lead to more externalization of violence.
EV: Is it possible to have a vulnerable narcissistic culture or a highly insecure culture or something like that? Are we in one? [laughs]
SK: Hello, this gen [laughs], whatever this gen is called now, Z. Yeah. I think we’re living in the age of vulnerable narcissism.
EV: Okay. Wow.
SK: Yeah. I’ve said that before. Whereas I think in the ’80s, the self-esteem movement shifted into the grandiose narcissism age. Now, I think it’s shifted into a vulnerable narcissism age. There was a time where young kids felt entitled to everything because they felt—my high self-esteem, praise me, I get the award, I want the trophy, I deserve the trophy because I’m better than everyone else. But now, everyone wants the trophy because they’re a person of color, or their gender, or whatever sort of intersectionality wheel it is, a victimhood or suffering that means I deserve a greater piece of the pie. I think you really are seeing that now. Now I recognize what I’m saying might be controversial, and you might not wanna touch what I said with a 50-inch pole, but I think that’s the truth.
ZK: This question of grandiosity, and yes, it’s true, there are definitely people who will hear what you just said and react viscerally without necessarily thinking through the reactions. We live in a world of increasingly subcategories of people, each of whom are claiming some degree of preeminence of. And as a side note, the thing about intersectionality, and for those who are not steeped in academic jargon, it’s the idea of—My cynical way of describing intersectionality is that no one could agree about whether race, gender, class, or all these things was the primary negative motive cause of history. And so we’ll just all agree that it’s all of them. That’s my brief and not-so-picty explanation of intersectionality.
But the question about grandiosity and culture, you could argue that the United States in particular, and the British Empire in the 19th century, any great imperial state, has been fueled by its own self-delusion and grandiosity, which has both allowed it to do great harm to others, but it’s also fueled it to push the boundaries of scientific innovation and creativity and change. So it’s like when you aggregate this to a collective level, how do you separate out—This is a little like Emma’s question before about is all Dark Triad dark in its consequences. How do you separate out—We seem to celebrate heroically grandiose narcissistic figures.
SK: Great point, Zachary. Really great point. We do. I mean, we don’t celebrate them, we elect them into office. [laughs] I mean, it’s not like we just celebrate, we make decisions that put them in positions of power. But also, look, research shows they’re more attractive for meets, at least at first. And then you get to about the nine-month mark of dating, and the narcissistic spell breaks, and you’re like, holy shit, I’m with an actual asshole, not someone who’s charming and amazing.
There is something within us that is attracted to people with supreme confidence because we want more of that ourselves. So we align ourselves and try to be close to it as much as possible, thinking it’ll rub off on us in some way. But what often tends to happen is they really exploit us, and use us, and we find out someday that our dream that it’ll rub off on us and we’ll become more confident actually leads to a situation where we’ve been taken advantage of and we’re the schmuck or that’s how we feel. So I think that’s the reality of the matter. I’m dropping some truth bombs on you guys today. I assume that’s what you wanted, that’s why you invited me on your podcast.
EV: [laughs] Of course. I mean, I think it’s really interesting to talk about this also in relation to trauma culture. I’m always caught in this tension between, it really on the one hand is helpful, all these like pop psychologists on Instagram talking about trauma. There’s a lot of ideas that have been personally helpful to me. On the other hand, if a Walmart person talks about their trauma, I’m just gonna jump out the window. [laughs] Am I alone here?
SK: Oh, no, that’s the topic of my next book. [laughs]
EV: Do you wanna give us somewhat of a preview?
SK: Well, I haven’t announced it or talked about it yet anywhere, but that’s a major theme of my next book, I should say. Look, there’s a difference between experiencing trauma in your life and #trauma. What I want to take on is #trauma. People who feel the need to stay and wallow within their self pity so that they can get as much attention as possible from their social media friends and get clout over it is a whole different story. Research actually shows an interesting, and I wrote about this for Psychology Today, zero correlation between those who are actually highly sensitive people and score high on HSP scales and high sensitivity signalers. [laughs] High sensitivity signalers are people who—they’re not actually highly sensitive, but they signal in every situation like, oh my God, I can’t deal with that or I need to get out of that thing, that homework is too hard for me because I’m a highly sensitive person. [laughs] And those people tend to score high in the Dark Triad traits.
EV: Mm. So that’s the deal with that. The highly sensitive signalers are also Machiavellian.
SK: They tend to be. Most people who’ve gone through legitimate trauma don’t want to talk about it incessantly. I have a lot of compassion, of course, [laughs] for—I don’t wanna sound like and come across here like I don’t have compassion. People who’ve gone through horrible, terrible things, there is a process to help them heal and to move forward with their lives. But most of those people don’t enjoy constantly ruminating and talking about it on social media. They don’t do it in a way where they’re like, hey, everyone, look at me, I’ve had trauma. Aren’t you so proud of me? It doesn’t make any sense. Yeah.
ZK: I mean the reality is anything that happens to any of our loved ones and friends is deeply impactful to us, right? Or a subset of us. If my mother has cancer, if my children have struggles, that’s a major issue, but it is not a major issue for others other than us, right? It’s like my trauma is a major issue for me. To expect it to be a major issue for someone else is a stretch. To expect some compassion if it comes up is something else entirely. But I think there is a fetishizing of trauma collectively. Look, these things may be cultural pendulums insofar as things that have been ignored and neglected which is excessive in one direction then gets excessively attended to another. And you use the Kantian imperative, we could use the Hegelian imperative. Maybe this is all just human beings in a continual state of Hegelian evolution. We have a thesis, and then we have an antithesis, and then we have a synthesis, and then that becomes—You know, it’s like a thing. I don’t know.
SK: Yeah. Well, related to this is the idea of triggering. And I have said on social media, and it pisses off a lot of people, your triggers are your responsibility. You can’t expect that everyone should tiptoe around you and mind read all of your traumas and all of your past history of triggers. You have to take a certain sense of responsibility for changing your environment in ways. You are the one with the knowledge of what triggers you. So I don’t like this idea of like let’s say someone gets triggered over something, and then they blame it on someone else, and say, I was traumatized. I shouldn’t have to do that, or you shouldn’t look at me that way. There’s a certain sense of responsibility, I think, that people aren’t taking in this trauma-obsessed and trauma-blamed—People are blaming everything on their traumas. Down to like I have back pain. Oh, I read the body keeps the score, so my back pain have to be related to that time when I was three years old and whatever happened to me.
It’s really out of control, and it’s out of control in a way that’s not in line with the science. A lot of the science shows that there’s a lot of things that we do with trauma that it is really just a narrative. All there are are potentially traumatizing situations, PTSs, or experiences, PTEs, potentially traumatizing experiences, but doesn’t mean the trauma is the narrative and how you’ve interpreted it and your memory of it. Just memory is not a direct recollection of anything. It’s reconstruction. It’s a reconstruction from everything we know in cognitive science. So there’s a lot of nuance here that I just think gets lost on #trauma.
EV: Yeah. I mean, people are really reactive about this issue. I shared a piece from Freddie deBoer in our Progress Network newsletter recently, and I’ve only ever gotten as heated a reaction to something when I questioned some impact of climate change. That was also during the pandemic, so I think people were feeling a little bit stir-crazy, but yeah, I was kind of shocked. They were like, you are not taking seriously those persons punching down on people with trauma. And I was like, I don’t think they’re punching down on people with trauma. I think that we’re just losing, in pop culture, the ability to get beyond this.
ZK: I mean, there’s a whole backlash against the body keeps the score now and about what the basis of that was. And maybe this is partly the way of just like there was a backlash against Maslow’s hierarchy, or, in your case, an evolution of it. But there is this human tendency. We like simple frameworks and we like easy answers, and they’re comforting. In our contemporary world, a lot of what had been filled by religion as a simple framework was filled by a lot of, I guess, pop theories because they simplify what’s complex or they’re comforting answers to difficult problems, but they don’t tend to stay for very long. They tend to move on. I’m curious about your work in terms of the choice not to be in academia, the choice not to be a professor.
SK: I see being a tenured faculty member very limiting for certain kinds of people and very empowering and wonderful for other kinds of people. I am the kind of person who values my freedom more than anything else in my life. I value my intellectual freedom. I value my creative expression. I love writing books, which are viewed less excitingly with the tenure committee than scientific papers. I love public outreach. Always loved that. In graduate school, while I was getting my PhD, I had the opportunity to write a blog for Psychology Today, and I loved it. And my advisor had a meeting with me. He thought it was an intervention. He said, we need to have an intervention. He said, you’re not gonna get tenure someday if you keep writing Psychology Today articles. And I said, fuck tenure then. I said that. So I was like, then I’m out. And I never looked back. And here I am, I make a full-time living doing a podcast.
My grandmother always said I’m very stubborn. I like to call it integrity. [laughs] I like to call it authenticity and integrity. My grandmother calls it stubbornness. Maybe she has a point, but if you tell me, you can’t do what you love to do, I will immediately react in the opposite direction and say, then I’m out with all of you guys. Does that make sense?
ZK: Most people defend tenure and defend the academic system as preserving the very things that you just said you value and aren’t in it, like freedom of expression and autonomy.
SK: What? You think there’s freedom of intellectual expression in academia right now?
ZK: My experience too of a lot of academia was that it wasn’t necessarily the antithesis of that, but it definitely was not the preserve of that.
SK: Universities are a breeding ground right now for intellectual suppression. [laughs] Was that controversial?
EV: I think amongst a certain kind of people, it’s not controversial. Not being in academia, my question is always, how much of that feeling is based in reality as far as like, this really is across the board in all universities at a high percent, and how much of it is it exists, it’s an issue, so we’re gonna pull it out and be like, hey, there’s something going on here.
SK: It depends on what topics you’re studying. Intelligence research I don’t think is very well-funded or appreciated. Genetics research can be. There are certain topics that if you study them, they’re suppressed because they don’t fit within a left ideology and 90% are on the left in academia. I’m not saying I’m not on the left, but I’m just saying that, I’m just stating a fact of what the situation is.
EV: It’s interesting that you have to caveat that when you say it, but I guess that’s the time we’re in.
SK: I also think it’s a real shame that if you study certain research topics, you’re put within a certain political camp. That really bothers me as well. That really bothers me as well. Regardless of my political leanings, I like to think that I am a progressive human being and want and love helping people change, that’s what I mean by progressive, in a positive way. Yet if I study IQ or intelligence, people are like, you’re a eugenicist. It’s like, what? [laughs] What? Are you kidding me? Have you read my books? Anyway. They’re all about helping people flourish, but people just make automatic judgment calls.
ZK: Well, Scott, we could have had a multi-hour conversation with you. We didn’t even get into-
SK: I loved it.
ZK: -the right brain, left brain fiction, which we’ll just leave as you can look up what Scott’s written about that. I was crushed that my casual use of that easy dichotomy is proving to be facile at best and incorrect at worst. But life goes on, and I will have learned my lesson accordingly. You have a wide range of work, really interesting writings about creativity and consciousness that will all have to wait to a subsequent conversation.
SK: Well, we could talk again someday. I really appreciate what you both are doing. And I sense that you all are truth seekers, which is why I dropped a lot of truth bombs today.
ZK: Scott, thank you so much for joining us today. And I encourage all of you to go take the free test on his site. Emma, what’s the URL if they wanna go look it up?
EV: selfactualizationtest.com. I took like four of them today. They were really fun. [laughs]
ZK: All right. Thank you, man.
EV: Thank you, Scott.
SK: Thank you guys.
EV: We’ll be right back after this break.
Welcome back to What Could Go Right?
ZK: That ended up being more of a controversial discussion than I think I expected, which is good, by the way. Good controversial, not bad controversial, but I do think there’s a lot that we talked about and a lot that Scott pointed to that will push people’s buttons. And I think it’s important. Look, I do tend to agree with, I think we’re all primarily responsible for our own triggers. And by responsible, I don’t mean it’s our fault. I mean it’s our responsibility to navigate them more than it is the responsibility of others to anticipate them, which is different than having told a friend group, this is an issue for me and them continually—Right? We’re not talking about rank insensitivity and disrespect, but if you don’t know someone, you don’t know where their background, you don’t know where they’re coming from, obviously, then the bar should be much higher to assume ill intent or to assume triggering intent. And I think it’s a really important point. It’s obviously one that’ll—X number of people listening right now are probably gonna go, no, no, no, no, that’s ridiculous, or think that that is blithely indifferent to whatever it’s blithely indifferent to.
EV: I mean, my position about trigger warnings is that it supports the idea that we’re talking about in the end about never getting over trauma. If you had something happen in your life and immediately after you don’t want to read about that topic, you don’t want to talk about that topic, you don’t wanna encounter that topic, I think that’s totally fair. But a certain amount of years later, not that anyone’s on a timeline, but trauma is meant to be integrated and processed and not sat in. So I don’t think we should design a world that is implicitly telling people to stay in that period right after something really bad happens because then you just are also implicitly communicating that people don’t have the kind of resilience to get over even the worst of the worst of the worst. And I think that that’s not a good idea to communicate that.
ZK: All right, well, on that note, we probably should have appended a trigger warning to the beginning of the podcast saying that this podcast will question trigger warnings, but we didn’t do that. All right, so let us turn to, if not news you can use, then at least news that you could use to hear.
EV: [laughs] I like that. Exactly.
All right, Zachary, we are starting off with something that is very validating to me personally because in What Could Go Right podcast history, we are going to be proven right about our economic predictions. So Congressional Budget Office and the Federal Reserve both put out some thoughts and anticipated stats out. We’re at the end of 2023, looking forward to 2024 at the time. Now we’re in 2024, and the good news is they think that we are probably going to avoid a recession, that we are going to have that mythical soft landing
Audio Clip: Inflation has been much better behaved in the second half of the year. Headline inflation is down to 3.1% in November from 9.1% in June of last year. Core prices rose last month 0.3% from October. That’s a 3.5% annualized rate. Is inflation vanquished?
Audio Clip: It’s certainly meaningfully coming down. And I see no reason on the path that we’re currently on why inflation shouldn’t gradually decline to levels that are consistent with the Fed’s mandate and targets.
EV: The Congressional Budget Office projects the economy will grow 1.5% in 2024, smaller than they originally thought, but that’s gonna bounce back to 2.5% growth in 2025. Inflation hopefully going down to 2.1%. They think that the unemployment numbers are going to rise. So 2023, they’re at 3.7%. They think they’re gonna go to 4.4%. Fed’s a little bit more optimistic, they think they’re gonna go to 4.1%, but altogether that’s painting a picture that is rosier than what most people were describing six months ago, except for us. So go us.
ZK: So the weird thing about recessions is they don’t get called until usually well after they’re over and done, and they’re called by the National Bureau of Economic Research, called as in when are things determined to have been a recession. That determination usually happens a year plus after there has been a recession. So people feel a recession long before one is officially declared. Although if it’s bad enough and there’s really strongly negative GDP growth for two consecutive quarters, which is one of the definitions, then, obviously, that’s more evident. Although even then, GDP gets revised and revised and revised and revised over the subsequent years.
So it is possible that we were briefly in a recession. What if there was a recession and no one noticed kind of thing. It is certainly clear that we have avoided what most people thought was unavoidable, which is that in the most aggressive Fed cycle of interest rate increases since the early 1980s, that we would inevitably have some sort of recession, unemployment would go up, wage growth would go down. And for the time being, that hasn’t happened. I think it’s more luck, luck in the sense of the Fed’s gotten lucky by, in my view, being overly aggressive and it not having the negative consequences.
But that being said, here we are, and it’s been pretty wild that that’s been avoided. The one thing that’s also wild is how many people are convinced, utterly convinced, that unemployment is up, wages are down, and we’re in a recession, meaning, contrary to all numbers, a large percentage of people, particularly people under 30, think that things are quite different than they are, which either means the numbers are completely wrong or people’s perceptions of reality are skewed by all sorts of legitimate insecurities about the future, the political situation, war in the Middle East, and just sort of like post-COVID weird uncertainty time.
EV: Personally, I’m in the camp that thinks that that’s mostly from inflation, that people are looking around still and are having sticker shock and are just kind of waiting for prices to go down. I think if prices go down, people will feel better generally about the economy. But certainly, I heard on the radio the other day in the States, someone was like, there are so many people looking for jobs right now. And I was like, someone did not tell this lady that. I mean, I’m sure there are people looking for jobs, but someone has not told her that the employment rate is super low, particularly for historically the neediest people in the US, so.
ZK: Yeah, and part of the problem is lessening inflation doesn’t actually mean the prices are going down. It just means that the rate at which they’re going up is going down, and that’s gonna be a problem in 2024.
EV: All right, let’s move on from the economy. We’ll see what happens this year. I have a story from the last moments of 2023, and I am anticipating significant pushback on this, but I’m going to bring it to you anyway. So people may not know that in 2008 there was a convention on cluster munitions. So cluster munitions being the kind of explosive device that has several smaller explosive devices in it. So it sort of explodes these little bomblets everywhere, which sounds awful. And the second awful thing about them is that a lot of them when they land, they don’t explode immediately. So they can be hidden somewhere and explode months, years later and harm civilians even a long time after an act of war. And in 2008, 112 countries agreed to destroy their cluster munition stockpiles, clear the cluster munition remnants—so kind of like the mine clearing that has taken up until now, for instance, in Cambodia, it’s a similar process—and assist victims of cluster munitions.
The last of the 112 countries that agreed to this did clear their stockpiles at the very end of 2023, that was Peru. And the other countries that agreed to this convention that achieved this in 2023 were Bulgaria, Slovakia, and South Africa. So that’s everyone that signed on to the convention in 2008. They have achieved their goals. The big massive caveat to that is that the countries that you would really care about most about producing and using and having cluster munitions are not party to this agreement. So the kind of big baddies of the world, including the US, Russia, India, Israel, North and South Korea, Singapore, Turkey, Poland, all these places that have kind of, I don’t how to say this, maybe particular reason to have weapons on hand, they have not agreed to this. They still have lots of cluster munitions.
Audio Clip: White House National Security Spokesman John Kirby says Ukraine’s forces have made notable progress in their offensive against heavily entrenched Russian troops in the South. CBS’s Debora Patta traveled to the eastern front lines for a rare look at the use of cluster munitions supplied by the United States.
Audio Clip: The controversial US-supplied cluster munitions, which sometimes fail to explode, endangering civilians long after a war is over. Artillery Commander Musikant says they are crucial because they can cover a wide area using only one shell.
EV: I think this one can risk sounding very Pollyannaish, where it’s like 112 countries that weren’t at war anyway and probably will not go to war have destroyed their weapons, but these other ones that are have not.
ZK: But in general, I do think that these sort of stops and starts toward a world that is less armed to the teeth, or certainly less armed to the teeth with certain types of weapons, which has been part of the international dialogue since the end of World War I, I don’t think we should look at this cynically just because it remains an uphill struggle to get the large armed countries that really matter, like the United States, China, Russia, to back off of those weapons because we live in real time. So everything is messy and noisy, and there’s a lot of one step backs that you are aware of, even if you can sometimes be aware of the two steps forward. That is if you even believe in the two steps forward, one step back equation.
And so yeah, I would say to those who say, well, come on, who cares if 100 countries that aren’t even making the weapons destroy the weapons they’ve bought from the countries that are still making them and could potentially use them? Nonetheless, a global move that says, hey, this is not—If there is just war, you don’t need cluster munitions to fight one, and so we’re just not gonna accept this just like we haven’t accepted the use of biological and chemical agents, let alone nuclear, so.
EV: I didn’t realize when we started the good news portion of the podcast that it would involve talking about so much morbid, macabre, depressing stuff.
ZK: Yeah. Well, we’ve always said that it is good news within context and also it’s more of a recognition of acknowledging movement even in a really ugly set of human realities is still necessary, that expecting purity and brightness and daisies as the definition of the human condition is ridiculous, but recognizing change and motion, even within challenge and ugliness is part of the task and requires some effort.
EV: Yeah, well said. That’s it for today.
ZK: All right. Thank you all for listening. We will be back next week.
EV: What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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