Invert -- always invert
On making sure we're not the useful idiots we've been warned about
Charlie Munger has spent a lot of time thinking about thinking, and he deserves credit for popularizing (at least within financial circles) the notion attributed to the mathematician Carl Jacobi: "Invert, always invert". In other words: When faced with a meaningful problem, rather than facing it directly, ask how to achieve the opposite outcome. Jacobi applied this thinking to math, while Munger applies it more broadly to life.
■ Taking that approach to the widest possible angle raises some fascinating questions. For instance: Instead of asking, "Will America win in a great-power competition with China?", the inversion might look something like, "What would you do if you wanted to undermine America?"
■ If you wanted to undermine America, you might encourage eating the seed corn. That might take the form of spending exorbitantly for the purpose of short-term gratification or for things that will be here today and gone tomorrow, rather than paying as you go for things that are easily consumed. (The United States has a $28 trillion Federal debt, or about $85,000 per person.)
■ If you wanted to undermine America, you might amplify the narcissism of small differences. The more people find themselves squabbling over what are ultimately relatively minor differences, the easier it is to make them skeptical of anything that looks like cooperation. (There are Americans profiting from unhinged calls for "national divorce" and differences like urban vs. rural or red state vs. blue state are often treated as insurmountable divides rather than the relatively small distinctions they really are when compared with much of the rest of the world.)
■ If you wanted to undermine America, you might suggest that the country's problems are too big to overcome. Hopelessness is a powerful poison, and a country sapped of its sense of endurance may be tricked into apathy or fatalism about its decline. (Serious people write opinions in major publications with titles like "Is the United States too big to govern?" and government institutions have made large and visible unforced errors on critical issues.)
■ If you wanted to undermine America, you might try to make it appear flaky about its commitments. If allies and potential allies don't believe that a country has the institutional will to follow through on its commitments, it can be left weakened by isolation instead of empowered by cooperation. (One poll found that majorities of the British, Germans, and French consider American politics "broken", and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan left allies disappointed.)
■ If you wanted to undermine America, you might point its divisions within rather than without. The classic maxim of "divide and conquer" applies as easily to the modern day as it did in the past. (Russian disinformation operations in particular have sought to stoke divisions among Americans, not so much for specific political gain as for their broader capacity to weaken.)
■ People don't have to deliberately intend to undermine America to take actions that have that effect. It isn't just the obvious adversaries and the useful idiots who cause harm. We have to be conscious that even when we think we're on the right side of matters, we might still be contributing to the wrong half of the ledger in the balance of power.
■ As uncomfortable as some of these inversions may be, the good news is that we have no reason to dwell on the mistakes made up until the present. There is no compulsion to continue making the choices that undermine -- and all of the reason in the world to devote our energies to doing the opposite. Calvin Coolidge advised, "So far as each individual is concerned all he can do is to take the abilities he has and make the most of them. His power over the past is gone. His power over the future depends on what he does with himself in the present. If he wishes to live and progress he must work." So it is true as well for a great country that wishes to endure for centuries to come.