Sobering Drug Tales that didn’t make it into “Higher”

The following are three drug tales and a few Vin Mariani ads that we cut from our recent post
Higher than the Shoulders of Giants, because they were too long or didn’t fit.

From Was Dr. Carl Koller driven from Vienna in 1885?

After his colleague, Dr. Fritz Zinner, called him an impudent Jew in public in the General University Hospital of Vienna, Koller reacted by hitting the man in the face. A duel with heavy sabres was the outcome; Koller was unharmed, whilst his opponent received two deep gashes. Such duels were strictly forbidden at that time already, but were nonetheless still executed. In consequence, Koller’s hopes of obtaining a position in the Eye Department, for which he was very well qualified, and of an academic career in Vienna were dashed and he had to emigrate.

Tidbits on the history of MDMA per Wikipedia

American chemist and psychopharmacologist Alexander Shulgin reported he synthesized MDMA in 1965 while researching methylenedioxy compounds at Dow Chemical Company, but did not test the psychoactivity of the compound at this time.

While not finding his own experiences with MDMA particularly powerful, Shulgin was impressed with the drug’s disinhibiting effects and thought it could be useful in therapy. Believing MDMA allowed users to strip away habits and perceive the world clearly, Shulgin called the drug window. Shulgin occasionally used MDMA for relaxation, referring to it as “my low-calorie martini”, and gave the drug to friends, researchers, and others who he thought could benefit from it. One such person was Leo Zeff, a psychotherapist who had been known to use psychedelic substances in his practice. When he tried the drug in 1977, Zeff was impressed with the effects of MDMA and came out of his semi-retirement to promote its use in therapy. Over the following years, Zeff traveled around the United States and occasionally to Europe, eventually training an estimated four thousand psychotherapists in the therapeutic use of MDMA. Zeff named the drug Adam, believing it put users in a state of primordial innocence.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, “Adam” spread through personal networks of psychotherapists, psychiatrists, users of psychedelics, and yuppies. Hoping MDMA could avoid criminalization like LSD and mescaline, psychotherapists and experimenters attempted to limit the spread of MDMA and information about it while conducting informal research.

In an early media report on MDMA published in 1982, a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesman stated the agency would ban the drug if enough evidence for abuse could be found. By mid-1984, MDMA use was becoming more noticed. Bill Mandel reported on “Adam” in a 10 June San Francisco Chronicle article, but misidentified the drug as methyloxymethylenedioxyamphetamine (MMDA). In the next month, the World Health Organization identified MDMA as the only substance out of twenty phenethylamines to be seized a significant number of times.

After a year of planning and data collection, MDMA was proposed for scheduling by the DEA on 27 July 1984 with a request for comments and objections. The DEA was surprised when a number of psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and researchers objected to the proposed scheduling and requested a hearing. 

Sensational media attention was given to the proposed criminalization and the reaction of MDMA proponents, effectively advertising the drug. In response to the proposed scheduling, the Texas Group increased production from 1985 estimates of 30,000 tablets a month to as many as 8,000 per day, potentially making two million ecstasy tablets in the months before MDMA was made illegal. By some estimates the Texas Group distributed 500,000 tablets per month in Dallas alone. According to one participant in an ethnographic study, the Texas Group produced more MDMA in eighteen months than all other distribution networks combined across their entire histories. 


Urged by Senator Lloyd Bentsen, the DEA announced an emergency Schedule I classification of MDMA on 31 May 1985. The agency cited increased distribution in Texas, escalating street use, and new evidence of MDA (an analog of MDMA) neurotoxicity as reasons for the emergency measure. The ban took effect one month later on 1 July 1985 in the midst of Nancy Reagan‘s “Just Say No” campaign.

As a result of several expert witnesses testifying that MDMA had an accepted medical usage, the administrative law judge presiding over the hearings recommended that MDMA be classified as a Schedule III substance. Despite this, DEA administrator John C. Lawn overruled and classified the drug as Schedule I. Later Harvard psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon sued the DEA, claiming that the DEA had ignored the medical uses of MDMA, and the federal court sided with Grinspoon, calling Lawn’s argument “strained” and “unpersuasive”, and vacated MDMA’s Schedule I status. Despite this, less than a month later Lawn reviewed the evidence and reclassified MDMA as Schedule I again, claiming that the expert testimony of several psychiatrists claiming over 200 cases where MDMA had been used in a therapeutic context with positive results could be dismissed because they weren’t published in medical journals.

Kary Mullis describes his first time taking LSD in his autobiography, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field:

At Georgia Tech, I had a wife and a little girl. I had short hair and I studied all the time. My senior year I made perfect grades. I studied physics and math and chemistry to the point where I would never have to study them again. And all I knew about drugs was what I read in magazines like Time and Life. I learned that marijuana was a dangerous addictive drug and that I should stay away from it. On the other hand, I learned that LSD was a miracle that just might enable scientists to understand the workings of the brain, could be the cure for alcoholism, and, just incidentally, might prevent World War III. Psychiatrists were prescribing it for their patients. In 1966 LSD had not yet been made illegal. Respected, well known people were admitting that they had experimented with LSD. The Luce family, the publishers of

Time and Life, were so intrigued by the scientific potential of LSD that they funded the research of Harvard professor Timothy Leary.

A person who loved playing with chemicals as much as I did just couldn’t help but be intrigued by LSD. The concept that there existed chemicals with the ability to transform the mind, to open up new windows of perception, fascinated me. I considered myself to be a serious scientist. At the time it was still all very scholarly and still legal. There was no tawdry aura over it. People weren’t blaming their kids’ problems on it yet. Hippies had just started to differentiate themselves from beatniks and the difference seemed to be fewer years and more hair on the hippies. And they stayed in college.

In 1966 I wanted to try LSD. My wife, Richards, helped me pack up the Impala, we put our daughter Louise in the back seat, and we drove to Berkeley for graduate school. It was the first time I’d been to California and it surprised me. I had not expected that the trees would be different. I didn’t know that the Pacific Ocean was always cold. I didn’t expect San Francisco to be foggy in the summer. I thought there would be naked girls. I certainly didn’t know that I would be changed so profoundly.

I didn’t want to take LSD alone. I had learned that from magazines. The first week of class I became friendly with the only guy in my class with long hair, Brad. I figured he would have LSD. Brad was smart. He appreciated the fact that I could calculate how long it would take the moon to fall to the Earth. He had graduated from Oberlin College, where they knew it was possible to do such a calculation but they wouldn’t be so crass as to actually learn how.

Brad had experimented with psychedelic drugs and agreed to guide me through my first trip. He suggested that before I took LSD, I should smoke some marijuana because it might give me some idea of how my consciousness would be changed. Marijuana scared me, I told him. Everything I’d read about it said that it was a bad drug, an addictive drug — one toke and you’re a slave for life.

He persuaded me to smoke a “joint,” as he called it. Within moments my fear disappeared. I was laughing. Brad and I talked about wise things for hours. At some point, Brad left. I looked at Richards, my wife, with new eyes. She was the same Richards, but not to me. I grabbed her in a primitive way, rolled her onto our enhanced bed, and felt the surging power of bliss.

A week later I said, “Brad’s going to come over tonight. I’m taking acid.” Richards said she would make a nice dinner.

During dinner, Brad gave me what was called a double-domed 1000 microgram Owsley. He had bought it for five dollars. It was soon to become illegal. I didn’t finish dinner. I started laughing. I got up from the table and realized, on the way to the couch, that everything I knew was based on a false premise. I fell down through the couch into another world.

Brad put Mysterious Mountain by Hovhaness on the stereo and kept playing it over and over. It was the perfect background for my journey. I watched somebody else’s beliefs become irrelevant. Who was that Kary Mullis character? That Georgia Tech boy. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t anything. I noticed that time did not extend smoothly—that it was punctuated by moments—and I fell down into a crack between two moments and was gone.

My body lay on the couch for almost four hours. I felt like I was everywhere. I was thrilled. I’d been trapped in my own experiences—now I was free. The world was filled with incredibly tiny spaces where no one could find me or care what I was doing. I was alone. My mind could see itself.

Brad had given me 1000 micrograms because he wanted me to have a thorough experience. I think he said “blow your ass away.” With 100 micrograms you feel a little weird, you might hallucinate, and you can go dancing, but you know you’re on acid. You’re aware that you’re having a trip and the things that you see are hallucinations. You know that you should not respond to them. When you take 1000 micrograms of LSD, you don’t know you’ve taken anything. It just feels like that’s the way it is. You might suddenly find yourself sitting on a building in Egypt three thousand years ago, watching boats on the Nile.

After four hours Brad told me we were going to take a ride in the car. I didn’t know what a car was. We got inside this thing and it started moving and I started to panic. I didn’t want to be in a car. I didn’t like movement, I just wanted to find a quiet place. Eventually we stopped in Tilden Park by a fountain. I got some water. It was cold and fluid but it wasn’t the water I knew. It left trails and it was alive. I didn’t know Brad, I didn’t know my wife. When they got me back in the car I understood I was inside a vehicle. I knew it had a key that made it work, but I didn’t want it to. I was sitting in the back seat, and we started down Marin Avenue, which drops 800 feet in four blocks. Berkeley was below and I was dizzy. I reached over from the back seat and pulled out the key. Brad took back the key, told me to behave, and drove home.

About five o’clock in the morning I began to come back to earth. The most amazing aspect of the entire experience was that I landed back in the middle of my normal life. It was so sweet to hear the birds, to see the sun come up, to watch my little girl wake up and start playing. I appreciated my life in a way I never had before.

On the following Monday I went to school. I remember sitting on a bench, waiting for a class to begin, thinking, “That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever done.”

I wrote a long letter to my mother. I often wrote to my mother to tell her what I was thinking about. As I was writing the letter, I began to realize that for the first time in my life, there were some things that I might not be able to explain to her. But I tried.

My mother responded by sending me an article she’d torn from the Reader’s Digest. It said that taking LSD was bad for your brain and will cause flashbacks for the rest of your life. She entreated me not to do it anymore. I wrote back that it was too late. It had already changed me.

I wanted to understand what had happened. How could 1000 micrograms—one thousandth of a gram—of some chemical cause my entire fucking sensorium to undergo such incredible changes? What mechanisms inside my brain were being so drastically affected? What did these chemicals do to my visuals? I wanted to know how it worked. I wanted to know more about neurochemistry.

Berkeley had a classic biochemistry department, meaning it consisted of professors who specialized in the chemical mechanisms underlying all life. They didn’t know much about mammals, besides their wives and students, and they weren’t interested in neurotransmitters. I was on my own. I knew that my brain was behind my eyes. I learned that no one knew very much about how it functions. We knew which parts of the brain controlled certain things, but we didn’t know how or why. It seemed pretty obvious to me that neuroactive drugs might help us find out. These chemicals caused a really interesting interaction between psychology, biochemistry, and anatomy, but we didn’t know why. There was good reason to expect that we might learn something about mental illnesses, which might be caused by an imbalance in the chemistry of the brain.

Drug laws don’t have much to do with science or health. Opium was made illegal in California because Chinese dock workers in San Francisco were taking jobs away from Irish dock workers who preferred to be drunk than opiated. Opium dens were raided and Chinese workers were arrested. Conveniently, they couldn’t report for work in the morning. They moved north.

Marijuana was declared illegal after the end of Prohibition in 1938 because the opium/alcohol cops needed something to police or they’d lose their jobs. To gain public support, marijuana was depicted as a dangerous drug that caused black and Mexican men to lust after white women. It wasn’t the drug. Black men and Mexican men didn’t suddenly develop a need for white women; white men suddenly developed a need, after 1938, for jobs. Alcohol was back in; marijuana was shortly going to be out. People who wanted to be into prohibition would now prohibit marijuana. The same people, and maybe their children, would be happy to make a living prohibiting LSD.

LSD somehow got connected with the anti–Vietnam War movement. Drugs had to be the reason that the youth of America had long hair, wore beads, enjoyed sex, and didn’t think it was a good idea to go to a foreign country and kill the locals. Psychedelic drugs were made illegal.

I Want to Believe the Sexy van Leeuwenhoek is Out There

Old friends and doctoral students in the sciences, MENO and SALVIATI, are discussing the state of science funding. 

Meno: There are lots of ways to have a good life. Research isn’t even an easy way.

Salviati: No, it’s a pretty shit way, and would be even if you were divinely gifted. There are interesting side-effects, but it’s not exactly the good life. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek had the right idea — first he became a rich merchant in the sale of cloth, then while fiddling with lenses in his spare time, was the first to discover microorganisms, and more or less invented the field of microbiology.

Meno: Yeah, what’s the modern day version of that?

Salviati: We know that Dr. H [a scholar of their mutual acquaintance, who became very wealthy from oil investments before pursuing graduate school — Ed.] could have done it, and you wouldn’t need to be nearly as wealthy as he was. I do wonder if the option used by Leibniz and Leonardo is still open, of finding a rich patron. It would be easier today than it was for them — you wouldn’t need to find a king or a duke, there are plenty of people today rich enough to support a scientist.

Meno: A science sugar daddy.

Salviati: Yes, but you can’t say that. Hm – Actually, I think you could probably do very well by finding the smartest and most capable camgirls, and doing some kind of OnlyFans science accelerator setup.

Meno: Once you’re doing sex work to fund your research, maybe just teach instead?

Salviati: Camgirls can make like $100,000 a month.

Meno: Really??

Salviati: It’s true, though only the most successful. More usual is around $40/hour, but even that’s quite a good wage. And camgirls, or successful sex workers more generally, might be expected to be especially gifted scientists.  Camgirls are not the only profession that this would work for, of course. Any job with good pay and flexibility could do the same. But camgirls are notable for the flexibility of their profession, and their abilities are especially likely to be underestimated by society at large. You’re selecting heavily for people who are open to doing something rather unorthodox, and this kind of free-thinking is essential to the scientist. Further, by going to the most successful camgirls, you’d be selecting people who have already demonstrated ability to set up what is essentially a very successful small business.

Meno: I gotta get into that.

Salviati: If you try, I wouldn’t hold it against you.

Meno: You first.

Salviati: Most of them, of course, do not make that much. But also most people do not win major international scholarships, as you have, my friend.

Meno: And only I shall do both.

Salviati: The noted camgirl / philosopher / hetaira known as Aella, a sort of latter-day Phryne or Aspasia, has collected much data that may be relevant. Here she finds that on OnlyFans, those with a college degree make more money than those without — and those with a master’s degree or higher do even better. Note that the bars are by percent ranking — as in, who is in the top 5% of people on the site? — and so a shorter bar means more success, and more money.

Salviati: Here she finds that while most people on OnlyFans do not make much money, the most successful take in several thousand dollars per month. She herself has made $100,000 in a month on at least one occasion. 

Salviati: She says “the big change is around 0.7-0.8%”, and with around a million people on OnlyFans, that is about seven or eight thousand camgirls making a small fortune every month. If only one in a thousand of these women also have the ability to be great scholars, then there are several of them; and I would wager, it is more than one in a thousand. 

 van Leeuwenhoek and Aella in exactly the same pose, and very nearly the same outfit. Ok, has anyone seen both of them at the same party?

Meno: I suppose the first step is to get hot, is it not?

Salviati: If you want to become a successful cammer, Meno, I can hardly stand in your way, but this is not what I had in mind. I was thinking you could recruit talented camgirls, bring them together, and offer them scientific training. They’re fully-funded, having no need of patronage — they have patronage already. 

Meno: In exchange for them funding your research?

Salviati: No, sort of as a science accelerator.

Meno: What do you mean?

Salviati: Well, would you say that society overvalues or undervalues the scientific ability of camgirls?

Meno: Society undervalues their scientific ability, certainly.

Salviati: I could hardly agree more. Society clearly undervalues their ability. When society misses ability in this way, it means there is unappreciated value waiting to be created. There’s value just lying around. The greatest amount of untapped value belongs to the camgirls, of course, and it would be their place to gain from it. But when something is undervalued, it also means that there is a space for those who, unlike the rest of society, recognize skill and virtue when they see it, and invest in it when no one else will. You and I have little money, but we do have the benefit of our skills, experience, and scientific training that is unavailable to many. We could — for example — go to top camgirls who also seem gifted and capable, especially those with science backgrounds. We could offer to connect them to camgirls of similar interest and abilities, and for a modest fee, offer them whatever scientific training we can give, and begin collaborations with them. The camgirls could do it themselves, naturally, but someone would need to coordinate this and it could equally well be us, since we could also offer them some training (especially statistics training). Together you could get a house or two in a remote area with good internet. They can keep camming to make money — van Leeuwenhoek didn’t quit his job as a cloth merchant! — and then you all collaborate to cure cancer or something.

Meno: This sounds like more work and less payoff than getting an academic job.

Salviati: Look, you’re the one who called patrons “science sugar daddies.” I’m just agreeing with you.

Meno: Hahaha – I appreciate the idea. It’s important to ideate on ways to reach the goal, which is sufficient money and freedom to pursue science.

Salviati: Yes

Meno: There’s no guarantee that an academic job provides the best tradeoffs, but it does seem to provide a reasonable standard to beat.

Salviati: I just wonder if the kind of guy who would pay a woman $20/month to look at her nudes wouldn’t pay her $100/month to look at her nudes AND support her research. There will be some people who will pay to see nudes, and some people will pay to support their favorite scientist or artist. There will also be people who do both, and I wonder if they won’t put up even more money than they would in either case alone. To put in stupid stats terms, I look at Patreon and OnlyFans and wonder if there might be a significant interaction.

Meno: I think you may be optimistic about the scientific skill of camgirls. I’m sure they’re better scientists than people might expect, but good scientists are rare.

Salviati: All that needs to happen is for it to be undervalued, I think, and for there to be a lot of them, which there are. I guess I’m a big believer in the effect of what can be called “scenes”. If there are many untapped geniuses, and we bring them together, what they produce together will be much greater than what they could ever produce apart. Paul Graham at one point wrote about what he calls the case of the Milanese Leonardo. He says, “Practically every fifteenth century Italian painter you’ve heard of was from Florence, even though Milan was just as big. People in Florence weren’t genetically different, so you have to assume there was someone born in Milan with as much natural ability as Leonardo. What happened to him?” Or we can consider “The Martians”, the nickname for a group of scientists from Hungary. They all grew up in the same parts of Budapest, went to the same high schools, and eventually went to America where among other things they led the Manhattan Project.

Meno: I’m not sure I see why they only have to be undervalued in science, rather than good at science.

Salviati: That might be the weak link. It depends on how seriously we take the “Milanese Leonardo” argument. Now, you and I agree that the two of us have at least some chance to make a great discovery. Where does that promise come from in us? Are you and I in the top .01% in terms of natural ability? Or in the top 5% plus our connections, the scenes we are a part of?

Meno: Regardless, being near the top is what matters, right? If I think someone’s IQ is 70 but it’s actually 80, I’ve undervalued them but they’re not going to produce good science.

Salviati: You’re right that it’s not strictly about undervaluation. But there are thousands of sex workers, in fact hundreds of thousands. Not everyone has it in them to be a great scientist, but a great scientist can come from anywhere. If we believe that camgirls are undervalued for their scientific skills — a safe assumption — then there are likely camgirls with the potential to be great scientists, and who society has missed. Another PhD student I know recently told me (though I omit their name in case they are hesitant), “sex workers know more about the human condition than any psychologist, change my mind” … Oh yeah that was after I said “Time to start my own journal, with blackjack and hookers”

Meno: I think I’m going to do the postdoc I was recently offered, rather than try to turn thousands of sex workers into scientists, but I see the appeal.

[Crowd boos]

Salviati: This seems more like a good opportunity for sex workers who want to be van Leeuwenhoek than it does for us. But I would be happy to consult for sexy van Leeuwenhoek, so maybe there is some profit to be made on our side.

Meno: The real key… is to become the sexy van Leeuwenhoek.

Salviati: Sadly I am not sexy enough. But I want to believe the sexy van Leeuwenhoek is out there.


Links for April 2021

“THOUGH TOMMY IS A MALE SQUIRREL HE HAS TO WEAR FEMININE CLOTHES BECAUSE TAIL INTERFERES WITH HIS WEARING PANTS,” Life Magazine reported defensively in 1944. “The Bullis family … took him on the road in their Packard automobile, where he … gave uninspiring radio interviews. … At the height of his fame his fan club numbered 30,000 members. … When he died in 1949 he was stuffed and mounted … and his nightmarish fate pursued him even into the grave.” Apparently the interview was along with FDR, so perhaps it was more entertaining than they say! Unfortunately we can’t find it. We also learned that in his journeys Tommy was “accompanied by a bulldog that had gold teeth and wore a fez. ‘He may very well have gotten the dog stuffed, too,’ Jim said. If so, its whereabouts are unknown.” The article also calls avocado “avocado pear” — truly the past is a foreign country.

In case you were wondering: yes, mice CAN hallucinate, and they hallucinate more than average when you give them ketamine. Apparently this is the kind of finding you need to get published in Science these days.

All you need to do to get into Nature, on the other hand, is brew cannabis using hacked beer yeast. The resulting beer is probably illegal but we’re guessing the yeast itself is not. Can you make sourdough with this stuff? What are the limits on this discovery? ARE there any limits??? 

The kids are more than all right, they’re playing 5-Dimensional Chess With Multiverse Time Travel. If you’re not afraid of the next generation yet, you should be.

Totally unrelated, Kelsey Piper at Vox argues compellingly that voting rights should be extended to young people regardless of age. How young? To “every American citizen who can successfully fill out a ballot.” We’ve made similar arguments about age in the past, but this is even more radical, and we approve. 

In 1997 Jim Kardach of Intel was reading Frans G. Bengtsson’s historical novel about 10th-century vikings The Long Ships in between working on wireless data transfer. When it came time to name the technology, he named it after King Harald Bluetooth and invented a logo based on the runes for H and B. Similarly, the peace symbol was originally for Nuclear Disarmament and is a combination of the flag semaphore characters for N and D.  

Also at the intersection of new and very old is the 🧿 Nazar Amulet Emoji, representing an eye-shaped amulet believed to protect against the evil eye.

You remember all those stories about the vibrator being invented to treat hysteria? Probably outright lies, invented in the ‘90s. The NYT reports: Everything You Know About the Invention of the Vibrator Is Wrong 

Werner Herzog interviewed by Jenkem, a skateboarding magazine. “I am puzzled because I am not familiar with the scene of skateboarding,” he says. “At the same time, I had the feeling that, ‘Yes, that is kind of my people.’ … You have to accept trial and error. And I see them doing a certain jump or trying to slide on a metal rail, and they do it 25 times and fail. The 26th time, they fail. The 30th time, they fail. It’s good that you accept failure and you don’t give up, and finally you land the right jump and you keep sliding and screeching down a handrail.”

Did you hear about the garden gnome shortage?

In other international news, a Russian man ‘trapped’ on Chinese reality TV show has finally been voted off, and the story is truly pitiable. “His lack of enthusiasm played out in half-hearted singing, rapping and dancing alongside the other, more eager contestants. … he urged the public to vote him out, saying he did not want to be among the 11 winners of the show, who are contractually obliged to form a boy band. ‘Don’t love me, you’ll get no results,’ he said on one episode. But viewers took to his dour persona and kept him in the running for nearly three months. … Fans, some earnest and some ironic, dubbed him ‘the most miserable wage slave’ and celebrated him as an icon of ‘Sang culture’, a popular concept among Chinese millennials referring to a defeatist attitude towards everyday life. ‘Don’t let him quit,’ one viewer commented on a video of a dejected-looking Mr Ivanov performing a Russian rap. ‘Sisters, vote for him! Let him 996!’ another fan commented, using the Chinese slang for the gruelling work schedule that afflicts many young employees, especially in digital start-ups.”

Sometimes it feels like everything has already been discovered, like there’s no possibility of progress in the modern world. But progress is alive and well, at least in the realm of pro NES Tetris, where a new technique has been discovered that is faster than Hypertapping!

Peer review doesn’t always work great. But you know what does work great, all the time, with definitely no problems ever? That’s right — tinder! This is the pitch for, which describes itself as, “Tinder, but for papers & preprints.” We can’t tell if this is brilliant or moronic. 

Higher than the Shoulders of Giants; Or, a Scientist’s History of Drugs


The United States used to introduce new constitutional amendments all the time. But after the 26th Amendment in 1971, we stopped coming up with new amendments and haven’t added any since. (The 27th Amendment doesn’t really count — while it was ratified in 1992, it was proposed all the way back in 1789. It’s also only one sentence long and really boring.)

Global GDP used to grow faster and faster all the time — the time it took the global economy to double in size showed a pretty clear linear trend. This was the rule until about 1960-1980, when economic growth suddenly stagnated. Global GDP is still going up, but it’s now growing at a more or less constant rate, instead of accelerating. 

Productivity and hourly wages used to be tightly linked — if you’re creating more value for your employer, they will be willing to pay you more. However, around 1970, these two trends suddenly decoupled. You may have seen graphs like this: 

There used to be less than 1 lawyer per 1000 Americans, though that number was slowly increasing. That is, until about 1971, when it suddenly shot up. Now there are about 4 lawyers for every 1000 Americans. In some parts of the country, the ratio can be as high as 10 per 1000. This is (unsurprisingly) true in New York but also unexpectedly true in our home state of Vermont, which has 5.8 lawyers per 1000 people. It’s ok though, I hear they can’t enter your home unless you invite them in. 

It used to be that about 100 out of every 100,000 people in the population were in prison. That is, until about 1971, when that rate started climbing. Now about 700 out of every 100,000 Americans are incarcerated.

There are even signs that scientific progress has been slowing down since — you guessed it! — about 1970 (see also this paper). 

This is only a small selection of the many things that seem to have gone terribly wrong since about 1970. For a more complete picture, check out the excellent Wake Up, You’ve Been Asleep for 50 Years and WTF Happened In 1971?, which are our sources for most of the trends described above. 

So yeah, what the F did happen in the early 1970s? When dozens of unexplained trends all seem to start in the same year, it seems like more than coincidence — you start wondering if there might be a monocausal event

“The break point in America is exactly 1973,” says economist Tyler Cowen, “and we don’t know why this is the case.” One possible culprit is the 1973 oil embargo, because many of these trends have to do with energy. But Cowen doesn’t think this holds water. “Since that time, the price of oil in real terms has fallen a great deal,” he says, “and productivity has not bounded back.” 

Another possible culprit is the US going off the gold standard in 1971, part of the set of measures known as the Nixon shock (also the name of our new Heavy Metal band). This makes some sense because many of these trends have to do with the economy. But it’s not clear if this is a good explanation either, as many of these trends seem to be global, and most of the world is not on the US dollar. The US is admittedly a pretty big deal, but we’re not the only economy in the world.

But it’s also possible that all this comes from a different policy that Nixon signed into law the year before: the 1970 Controlled Substances Act.


The early history of coffee is shrouded in mystery. Legends of its discovery date as far back as the 9th century CE, but whenever it was discovered, it’s clear that it came from Africa and had reached the Middle East by 1400. The first coffeehouse in Istanbul opened around 1554, and word of coffee began reaching Europe in the middle 1500s. Even so, it took Europeans about a hundred more years to really take note — the first coffeehouse in Christendom didn’t open until 1645, when one popped up in Venice.

Only five years later, in 1650, the first coffeehouse in England opened in Oxford. There is nothing new under the sun, so unsurprisingly it was very popular with students and intellectuals. Early patrons included Christopher Wren and John Evelyn, and later additions included Hans Sloane, Edmund Halley, and Isaac Newton, who according to some stories, “are said to have dissected a dolphin on a table in the coffeehouse before an amazed audience.” Coffee is a hell of a drug. 

The first coffeehouse in London opened in 1652 in St. Michael’s Alley in Cornhill, operated by a Greek or Armenian (“a Ragusan youth”) man named Pasqua Rosée. The coffee house seems to have been named after Roseé as well, and used him as its logo — one friend who wrote him a poem addressed the verses, “To Pasqua Rosée, at the Sign of his own Head and half his Body in St. Michael’s Alley, next the first Coffee-Tent in London.”

The Royal Society, the oldest national scientific institution in the world, was founded in London on 28 November 1660. The founding took place at the original site of Gresham College, which as far as we can tell from Google Maps, was a mere three blocks from Rosée’s coffeehouse. Some accounts say that their preferred coffeehouse was in Devereux Court, though, which is strange as that is quite a bit further away. But this may be because Rosée’s coffeehouse was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.

In 1661, Robert Boyle published The Sceptical Chymist, which argues that matter is made up of tiny corpuscules, providing the foundations of modern chemistry. In 1665, Robert Hooke published Micrographia, full of spectacularly detailed illustrations of insects and plants as viewed through a microscope, which was the first scientific best-seller and invented the biological term cell. By 1675, there were more than 3,000 coffeehouses in England. In 1687, Newton published his Principia

As the popular 1667 broadside News from the Coffe House put it: 

So great a Universitie

I think there ne’re was any;

In which you may a Schoolar be

For spending of a Penny.

This trend continued into the following centuries. As just one example, Voltaire (1694-1778) reportedly consumed a huge amount of coffee per day. No, REALLY huge. Most sources seem to suggest 40 to 50 cups, but The New York Times has it as “more than 50 cups a day.” Perhaps the cups were very small. Wikipedia says “50-72 times per day”, but we can’t tell where they got these numbers. I ask you, what kind of drugs would this man be on, if he were alive today?

Do we really think this mild stimulant could be responsible for the Scientific Revolution? Well to be entirely clear, we aren’t the first ones to make this argument. Here’s a Huffington Post article reviewing several books and essays on the same idea, including one by Malcolm Gladwell. And in Weinberg and Bealer’s The World of Caffeine, the authors tell us that the members of the Royal Society, “had something in common with Timothy Leary, the Harvard professor who experimented with LSD, in that they were dabbling in the use of a new and powerful drug unlike anything their countrymen had ever seen. Surviving recorded accounts confirm that the heavily reboiled sediment-ridden coffee of the day was not enjoyed for its taste, but was consumed exclusively for its pharmacological benefits.”

Today we tend to take coffee in stride, but this stimulant didn’t seem so mild at the time. In 1675, King Charles II briefly banned coffeehouses in London, claiming they had “very evil and dangerous effects.” We don’t know the exact details of the public response, but it was so negative that the king changed his mind after only eleven days! Ten years later, coffee houses were yielding so much tax revenue to the crown that banning them became totally out of the question. 

Merchants panicked over an imagined danger to the economy, one writing, “The growth of coffee-houses has greatly hindered the sale of oats, malt, wheat, and other home products. Our farmers are being ruined because they cannot sell their grain; and with them the landowners, because they can no longer collect their rents.” The owner of the second coffeehouse in London, James Farr, was prosecuted by his neighbors in 1657, “for making and selling a sort of liquor called coffe, as a great nuisance and prejudice to the neighborhood, etc.”

On the less official side of things, the 1674 anonymous WOMEN’S PETITION AGAINST COFFEE REPRESENTING TO PUBLICK CONSIDERATION THE Grand INCONVENIENCIES accruing to their SEX from the Excessive Use of that Drying, Enfeebling LIQUOR (which possibly deserves to be read in full, if only for the 1674 use of “cuckol’d” and “dildo’s”) declared, among other things:

Never did Men wear greater Breeches, or carry less in them of any Mettle whatsoever. There was a glorious Dispensation (’twas surely in the Golden Age) when Lusty Ladds of seven or eight hundred years old, Got Sons and Daughters; and we have read, how a Prince of Spain was forced to make a Law, that Men should not Repeat the Grand Kindness to their Wives, above NINE times in a night … the Excessive Use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE …has…Eunucht our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent, as Age, and as unfruitful as those Desarts [sic] whence that unhappy Berry is said to be brought.

It’s not like these concerns disappeared as people got used to it. As late as the early 1900s, physicians were still raving about the dangers of this terrible drug. As the wonderful (and sadly defunct) site History House reports:

In the spectacularly titled Morphinism and Narcomanias from Other Drugs (1902), one T. D. Crothers, M.D. tells a few tales of delirium induced by coffee consumption. He also remarks, not unlike analogies to marijuana made by current drug crusaders, that, “Often coffee drinkers, finding the drug to be unpleasant, turn to other narcotics, of which opium and alcohol are the most common.” Similarly, in A System of Medicine (1909), edited by the comically degreed Sir T. Clifford Allbutt (K.C.B., M.A., M.D., LL.D., D. Se., F.R.C.P., F.R.S., F.L.S., F.S.A., Regius Professor of Physic [Internal medicine] in the University of Cambridge), some contributors announce their distaste for caffeine: “We have seen several well-marked cases of coffee excess… the sufferer is tremulous, and loses his self-command… the speech may become vague and weak. By miseries such as these, the best years of life may be Spoilt.”

High doses of caffeine cause odd behavior in test animals. Rats will bite themselves enough to die from blood loss, prompting Consumers Union to observe, “Some readers may here be moved to protest that the bizarre behavior of rats fed massive doses of caffeine is irrelevant to the problems of human coffee drinkers, who are not very likely to bite themselves to death.”

Neither did the science-coffee connection disappear with Newton and Hooke. Researchers still consume more coffee than any other profession. The mathematician Alfréd Rényi quipped, “A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems,” and he and his colleagues, including Paul Erdős, drank copious amounts. At one point, when trying to explain why Hungary produces so many mathematicians, one of the reasons Erdős gave was, “in Hungary, many mathematicians drink strong coffee … At the mathematical institute they make particularly good coffee.” 

The first webcam, great ancestor to all those Zoom calls you’ve been having, was developed by University of Cambridge computer scientists so they could watch the coffee pot without having to leave their desks.  

And while it’s very popular, coffee isn’t the only way to get your sweet, sweet caffeine fix. Consider the connection between Tea and the British Empire. [cue Rule, Britannia!

Hey Jared we have a piping hot tip for you

Caffeine in one form or another continued to be the stimulant of choice until the middle of the 19th century, when the Germans made an even more exciting discovery.


When the Spanish arrived in South America, they noticed that some of the natives had the refreshing habit of chewing on the leaves of a local plant, “which make them go as they were out of their wittes.” At first the Spaniards were concerned but then they realized it was pretty great, and started using it themselves — for medicinal purposes, of course. 

Even so, chemistry was not fully developed in the 1600s (they needed to wait for the coffee to hit), so despite many attempts it took until 1855 for the active ingredient to be purified from coca leaves. This feat was accomplished by a German named Friedrich Georg Carl Gaedcke. With this success, another German chemist (Friedrich Wöhler) asked a German doctor who happened to be going on a round-the-world trip (Carl Scherzer) to bring him back more of these wonderful leaves. The doctor came back a few years later with a trunk full of them, which the second chemist passed on to yet a third German chemist, Albert Niemann, who developed a better way of purifying the new substance, which he published as his dissertation. (Sadly he never got to enjoy the substance himself, as he discovered mustard gas the same year and died the year after that, probably from working too closely with mustard gas.)

And with this series of developments, pure cocaine was injected directly into the German nervous system.

A typical example of the effects of cocaine on the German scientific body can be found in a man you might have heard of — Sigmund Freud, who has the same birthday as one of the authors. Having recently moved on from his earlier interest in trying to find the testicles and/or ovaries of eels (don’t laugh, it was a major scientific question of the day!), he found himself VERY EXCITED by the possibilities of this new treatment, which had just become available to physicians.

“Woe to you, my Princess, when I come,” wrote Sigmund Freud to his future wife, Martha Bernays, on June 2, 1884. “I will kiss you quite red and feed you till you are plump. And if you are forward, you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn’t eat enough, or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body. In my last serious depression I took cocaine again and a small dose lifted me to the heights in a wonderful fashion. I am just now collecting the literature for a song of praise to this magical substance.”

He didn’t just use cocaine to intimidate (???) his fiancée, though. Freud also found that it had professional applications. “So I gave my lecture yesterday,” he wrote in a letter a few months earlier, “Despite lack of preparation, I spoke quite well and without hesitation, which I ascribe to the cocaine I had taken beforehand. I told about my discoveries in brain anatomy, all very difficult things that the audience certainly didn’t understand, but all that matters is that they get the impression that I understand it.” We see that not much has changed since the 1880s. 

Freud wasn’t the only one who was excited by this new discovery, of course. Only two years later, a bedridden Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a 30,000-word novella that he completed in about three days. Many accounts suggest that Stevenson was high on cocaine during this brief, incredibly productive period, possibly recreationally, or possibly because it was simply part of the medicine he was taking. This claim is somewhat contested, but we’re inclined to believe it — you try writing 30,000 words in three days, by hand, while bedridden, without the help of a rather good stimulant.

One Italian, Paolo Mantegazza, was so enthusiastic about the new substance that he actually developed a purification process of his own in 1859. Over the next several decades, he founded the first Museum of Anthropology in Italy, served in the Italian parliament, published a 1,200-page volume of his philosophical and social views, at least three novels, and several scientific books and papers (this paper from 2008 claims that he founded the field of sexual medicine), including one in which he wrote:

“I sneered at the poor mortals condemned to live in this valley of tears while I, carried on the wings of two leaves of coca, went flying through the spaces of 77,438 words, each one more splendid than the one before. An hour later, I was sufficiently calm to write these words in a steady hand: God is unjust because he made man incapable of sustaining the effect of coca all lifelong. I would rather have a life span of ten years with coca than one of 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 centuries without coca.”

We should note that while Mantegazza was very productive in these decades, he was also a vivisectionist and a racist. Clearly not everyone should have access to cocaine of this quality.

A different Italian looked at cocaine and saw not poor mortals condemned to live in the valley of tears, but economic opportunity. He happened to read a paper by Mantegazza on the substance, and was inspired. This man was Angelo Mariani, and in 1863 he “invented” cocawine, by which we mean he put cocaine in wine and then sold it. 

Apparently this was more than just a good idea., a reputable source if ever we’ve seen one, tells us, “If cocaine is consumed on its own, it yields two principal metabolites, ecgonine methyl ester and benzoyleconine. Neither compound has any discernible psychoactive effect. Cocaine co-administered with alcohol, however, yields a potent psychoactive metabolite, cocaethylene. Cocaethylene is very rewarding agent in its own right. Cocaethylene is formed in the liver by the replacement of the methyl ester of cocaine by the ethyl ester. It blocks the dopamine transporter and induces euphoria. Hence coca wine drinkers are effectively consuming three reinforcing drugs rather than one.”

Mariani is notable less for taking cocaine himself, and more for being possibly the most influential drug pusher of all time. His enticing product, called Vin Mariani, soon became a favorite of the rich, powerful, and highly productive, unleashing the creative potential of cocaine on the world.


A good catalogue of its influence can be found in the literally thousands of celebrity endorsements it received, and which were proudly displayed in its ads. “Testimonials from eminent personages were so numerous that Mariani, as great a public relations man as he was a chemist, published them in handsome leather-bound volumes—replete with portraits and biographical sketches of the endorsers.” Many of these names and endorsements seem to have been lost to time, but here are a few you might recognize. 

Presumably you have heard of the Pope. Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius X both enjoyed Vin Mariani, and Pope Leo XIII liked it so much that he often carried a hip flask of the wine. He even awarded Mariani a Vatican Gold Medal, “to testify again in a special manner his gratitude.” He also appeared on a poster advertisement endorsing the wine, and later called Mariani a “benefactor of humanity”. AP news reports that the chief rabbi of France liked it too. 

Sarah Bernhardt, famous actress and subject of the most entertaining Wikipedia entry of all time, said, “My health and vitality I owe to Vin Mariani. When at times unable to proceed, a few drops give me new life.” Jules Verne, one of the fathers of science fiction, wrote, “Vin Mariani, the wonderful tonic wine, has the effect of prolonging life.” Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who you will know as the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, wrote, “this precious wine will give me the strength to carry out certain other projects already formed.” Alexander Dumas is said to have enjoyed it as well, but we can’t find a quote. 

In 1892, Thomas Edison contributed the almost maddeningly vague note, “Monsieur Mariani, I take pleasure in sending you one of my photographs for publication in your album.” Edison was already quite famous by this point, and it’s not clear how long he had been enjoying the effects of Vin Mariani, but we can make an educated guess. 

Vin Mariani was invented in 1863, and we know that by 1868, Edison had a reputation for working “at all hours, night or day”. His famous Menlo Park lab was built in 1876, and soon began producing inventions at a steady rate — the phonograph in 1877, his work on electric lights about 1880, motion picture devices in 1891, and so on. 

In 1887, one writer noted, “he scarcely sleeps at all, and is equally as irregular concerning his eating”. The same account quotes a “co-laborer” of Edison’s as saying, “he averaged eighteen hours [of work] a day. … I have worked with him for three consecutive months, all day and all night, except catching a little sleep between six and nine o’clock in the morning.” In 1889, when he was 42, he told Scientific American that he slept no more than four hours a night. Given that we know he enjoyed Vin Mariani, we think this is good evidence of just how much he must have been drinking. 

Mariani claimed to have collected over four thousand such endorsements from various celebrities. It’s only natural that he also collected endorsements from physicians. In one of his ads, he trots out the following: “In cases of morphinomania, Dr. Dujardin-Beaumetz has pointed out the advantage to be obtained with the Vin Mariani, and following him, Dr. Palmer, of Louisville, and Dr. Sigmaux Treaux [sic] of Vienna, have obtained excellent results with this therapeutic agent.” Yes, you saw that right — that last name there is a botched attempt to spell “Dr. Sigmund Freud”. Maybe Mariani was high on his own supply after all.

While Mariani deserves credit as the man who got cocaine to the masses, the Germans were the ones who first purified the cocaine, and the ones who undoubtedly put it to the best scientific and medical use.

[content warning for the next several paragraphs: descriptions of 19th-century medical experimentation]

It’s easy for a modern person to miss the fact that aside from alcohol and getting held down by surgical assistants, there were few anaesthetics at this point in history. Laughing gas (nitrous oxide) was discovered in 1776, but the Americans took a long time to figure out that it could be used for anything other than killing animals and getting high, and were still struggling with the idea that it might have medical applications. 

Furthermore, laughing gas is a general anaesthetic, not a local anaesthetic, and a weak one at that. It was totally unsuitable for delicate operations like eye surgery. 

People had already noticed that a dose of cocaine will numb your nose, lips, or tongue. Even so, it took the combined powers of Sigmaux Treaux Sigmund Freud and his friend Karl Koller, an ophthalmology intern, to make this breakthrough. Koller was interested in finding a local anaesthetic for eye surgery, and he had already tried putting various chemicals, including morphine, into the eyes of laboratory animals, with no success. Separately, Freud was convinced that cocaine had many undiscovered uses. So in 1884, when Freud left to go pay a visit to Martha, he left Koller some cocaine and encouraged him to experiment with it. 

While Freud was away, Koller made his discovery. Amazingly, in his papers Koller describes the exact moment when he made the connection:

Upon one occasion another colleague of mine, Dr. Engel, partook of some (cocaine) with me from the point of his penknife and remarked, “How that numbs the tongue.” I said, “Yes, that has been noticed by everyone that has eaten it.” And in the moment it flashed upon me that I was carrying in my pocket the local anesthetic for which I had searched some years earlier.

Dr. Gaertner, an assistant in the lab where Koller worked, continues the story in more detail:

One summer day in 1884, Dr. Koller, at that time a very young man … stepped into Professor Strickers laboratory, drew a small flask in which there was a trace of white powder from his pocket, and addressed me … in approximately the following words: “I hope, indeed I expect that this powder will anesthetize the eye.” 

“We’ll find out that right away”, I replied. A few grains of the substance were thereupon dissolved in a small quantity of distilled water, a large, lively frog was selected from the aquarium and held immobile in a cloth, and now a drop of the solution was trickled into one of the protruding eyes. At intervals of a few seconds the reflex of the cornea was tested by touching the eye with a needle… After about a minute came the great historic moment, I do not hesitate to designate it as such. The frog permitted his cornea to be touched and even injured without a trace of reflex action or attempt to protect himself, whereas the other eye responded with the usual reflex action to the slightest touch. The same tests were performed on a rabbit and a dog with equally good results. … 

Now it was necessary to go one step further and to repeat the experiment upon a human being. We trickled the solution under the upraised lids of each other’s eyes. Then we put a mirror before us, took a pin in hand, and tried to touch the cornea with its head. Almost simultaneously we could joyously assure ourselves, “I can’t feel a thing.” We could make a dent in the cornea without the slightest awareness of the touch, let alone any unpleasant sensation or reaction. With that the discovery of local anesthesia was completed. I rejoice that I was the first to congratulate Dr. Koller as a benefactor of mankind.

The final proof came on August 11, 1884, when Koller performed the first successful cocaine-aided cataract surgery. Koller was only 25 when he made this discovery, a Jewish medical student so poor that he had to ask a friend to present the findings for him, since he could not afford the train fare to go to the ophthalmology conference in Heidelberg that year. 

The finding was received with worldwide amazement and enthusiasm. “Within three months of this date,” says one paper, “every conceivable eye operation had been attempted using cocaine, in every part of the world.” The idea spread “not just into ophthalmology, but wherever mucous membranes required surgery—in gynecology, proctology, urology, and otolaryngology.”  Encyclopedia Britannica says that this finding “inaugurated the modern era of local anesthesia.”

In fact, cocaine got such an amazing reputation as a local anaesthetic that the suffix -”caine” was back-formed from the name, and was used form names of new local anaesthetics as they were discovered, like amylocaine, lidocaine, bupivacaine, prilocaine, and procaine (aka novocaine).

[content warning: more descriptions of 19th-century medical experimentation]

As the technique developed further, people started using cocaine as an anaesthetic in spinal operations. The first was an American named James Leonard Corning, who also happened to be a big fan of Vin Mariani. In 1885, he performed a spinal injection of cocaine on a dog (why?), and found that this left the dog temporarily unable to use its legs. 

Encouraged by this finding, he soon decided to give a similar injection to a patient who had recently been referred to him for “addiction to masturbation”. Corning gave the man cocaine as a spinal injection of some sort (there is scholarly debate over what sort!). After 20 minutes, he noticed that “application of [a wire brush] to the penis and scrotum caused neither pain nor reflex contraction.” Whether this was a successful treatment for the unfortunate patient is not recorded.

A German surgeon named August Bier independently came up with the idea in 1898. He and his assistant August Hildebrandt performed the procedure on several patients as part of routine surgeries, until one day in August 1898, when for reasons that remain unclear, they decided to experiment on each other.

“Hildebrandt was not a surgeon and his ham-fisted attempts to push the large needle through Bier’s dura proved very painful,” begins one account, not at all what you would expect from the rather dry-sounding volume Regional Anaesthesia, Stimulation, and Ultrasound Techniques. It continues, “The syringe of cocaine and needle did not fit well together and a large volume of Bier’s cerebrospinal fluid leaked out and he started to suffer a headache shortly after the procedure.” Probably because of the flawed injection, Bier was not anaesthetized at all.

Bier of course was a surgeon, and so when it was his turn to give Hildebrandt the injection, he performed it flawlessly. Soon Hildebrandt was very anaesthetized. To test it, reports Regional Anaesthesia, “Bier pinched Hildebrandt with his fingernails, hit his legs with a hammer, stubbed out a burning cigar on him, pulled out his pubic hair, and then firmly squeezed his testicles,” all to no effect. In a different account, this last step was described as “strong pressure and traction to the testicles”. They also pushed a large needle “in down to the thighbone without causing the slightest pain”, and tried “strong pinching of the nipples”, which could hardly be felt. They were thrilled. With apparently no bad blood over this series of trials, the two gentlemen celebrated that evening with wine and cigars, and woke up the next morning with the world’s biggest pair of headaches, which confined them to bed for 4 and 9 days, respectively. You can read the account in its thrilling original German here.

(Why genital flagellation has such a central role in the climax of both of these stories is anyone’s guess.)

Despite the wild tale of the discovery, this represented a major medical advancement, which made many new techniques and treatments a possibility. Spinal anaesthesia is now a common technique, used in everything from hip surgery to Caesarean sections. Soon Bier and others had developed various forms of regional anaesthesia, which made it safe to perform new and more delicate operations on the arms and legs.

A more prosaic discovery, but no less important, was made by Richard Willstätter in 1898. At the time there was some academic debate about the chemical structure of cocaine, and there were a couple competing theories. Willstätter proved that they were both wrong, came up with the correct structure, and demonstrated that he was correct by synthesizing cocaine in the lab. This was not only the first artificial synthesis of cocaine, but the first synthesis of an organic structure that we’re aware of.  

We’re tempted to wink and ask why he was so motivated to develop a synthetic cocaine, but we’ve looked through Willstätter’s autobiography, and he very clearly states at one point, “although I always possessed cocaine from my youth on, I never knew the temptation to experience its peculiar effects myself.” Maybe this was because by 1894 they had discovered that cocaine had some side effects (even the diehard Freud was off it by 1904), or maybe because he was a nice Jewish boy who wouldn’t mess around with that sort of thing (though Dr. Karl “pins-in-the-eyes” Koller was also Jewish). In any case, his early fame was closely related to the rise of cocaine, and he went on to win the 1915 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Just like England was the center of learning in the enlightenment, Germany was the center of scientific advancement in the second half of the 19th century, especially in the natural sciences. Anyone who wanted to study biology, chemistry, or physics had to learn German, because that’s the language all the best volumes and journals were printed in. 

Around 1897, the great Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal wrote, “it must be admitted that Germany alone produces more new data than all the other nations combined when it comes to biology. … A knowledge of German is so essential that today there is probably not a single Italian, English, French, Russian, or Swedish investigator who is unable to read monographs published in it. And because the German work comes from a nation that may be viewed as the center of scientific production, it has the priceless advantage of containing extensive and timely historical and bibliographic information.”

“We can only speculate as to how twentieth century history would be different if the Germans had discovered marijuana instead of cocaine,” writes History House (they wrote about the history of drugs a lot, ok?).

This persisted until the two World Wars, when German scientific dominance ended. In a footnote to the 1923 edition of his book, Ramón y Cajal notes that other countries had begun, “competing with, and in many cases surpassing, the work of German universities, which for decades was incomparable.” 

One explanation is the obvious one: that the wars destroyed Germany’s ability to do good science. (Also they kicked out all the scientists who were Jewish, gay, communists, etc.) But another explanation is that America began to discover new drugs of her own. 


There were other drugs of course, to fill the gap between German scientific dominance and the third drug revolution of the 1950s and ’60s. Cocaine had already become illegal in the United States in 1914, so people were on the lookout for alternative highs.

In contrast to his rival Edison, Nikola Tesla doesn’t drink cocaine wine. Tesla didn’t smoke — he didn’t even take tea or coffee. “I myself eschew all stimulants,” he once told Liberty magazine in 1935. “I am convinced that within a century coffee, tea, and tobacco will be no longer in vogue.” Perhaps this was because of his amazing, and apparently substance-unaided, ability to visualize designs in his mind’s eye. Tesla said elsewhere that when he first designed a device, he would let it run in his head for a few weeks to see which parts would begin to wear out first.

Tesla did, however, LOVE to drink. “Alcohol … will still be used,” he said. “It is not a stimulant but a veritable elixir of life.” When Prohibition came around in the United States, Tesla did break the habit, but he wrote that the law would, “subject a citizen to suffering, danger and possible loss of life,” and suggested that damages from the resulting lawsuits against the government would soon exhaust the treasury. 

(And what was the worst of these vices according to Tesla, the one more dangerous than rum, tobacco, or coffee? Nothing less than chewing gum, “which, by exhaustion of the salivary glands, puts many a foolish victim into an early grave.”)

Obviously Tesla was wrong about the cost of reparations from Prohibition. But is it a coincidence that Prohibition was the law of the land for the decade running up to the Great Depression? Was it a coincidence that the Great Depression began to turn around in March 1933, the same month that President Roosevelt signed the first law beginning the reversal of Prohibition? Probably it is, but you have to admit, it fits our case surprisingly well. 

While Alcohol is a depressant, perhaps it stimulates the curious spirit in some number of our fellow creatures, as it seems to have done for Tesla. Again from History House:

Washington’s taste for Madeira wine shows up [in his accounts] with mindnumbing regularity: from September 1775 to March 1776, Washington spent over six thousand dollars on booze. … Revolutionary War-era persons drank a phenomenal amount. We have here an account of a gentleman’s average consumption: “Given cider and punch for lunch; rum and brandy before dinner; punch, Madeira, port and sherry at dinner; punch and liqueurs with the ladies; and wine, spirit and punch till bedtime, all in punchbowls big enough for a goose to swim in.”

The other drug as old as time has also been associated with scientific productivity. One contributor to the 1971 book Marihuana Reconsidered, who wrote under the pseudonym “Mr. X”, said that he often enjoyed cannabis, found that it improved his appreciation for art, and even made him a better scientist. In the late ‘90s, after his death, Mr. X was revealed to be Carl Sagan. On the topic of his professional skills, he said: 

What about my own scientific work? While I find a curious disinclination to think of my professional concerns when high – the attractive intellectual adventures always seem to be in every other area – I have made a conscious effort to think of a few particularly difficult current problems in my field when high. It works, at least to a degree. I find I can bring to bear, for example, a range of relevant experimental facts which appear to be mutually inconsistent. So far, so good. At least the recall works. Then in trying to conceive of a way of reconciling the disparate facts, I was able to come up with a very bizarre possibility, one that I’m sure I would never have thought of down. I’ve written a paper which mentions this idea in passing. I think it’s very unlikely to be true, but it has consequences which are experimentally testable, which is the hallmark of an acceptable theory.

Marijuana doesn’t help everyone be a better scientist — some people just get paranoid, or just fall asleep. But it’s especially interesting that Sagan found it hallucinogenic, because the third drug revolution was all about hallucinogens. 

The history of hallucinogens is pretty weird, even by the standards of how weird drug history normally is. Hallucinogens are relatively common, and in theory we could have discovered them at any point in the past several thousand years. But aside from occasional mishaps involving ergot poisoning, hallucinogens didn’t play much of a role in human history until the middle of the 20th century. 

Like the coca plant, Psilocybin mushrooms (“shrooms”) grow in the dirt and have been around forever. Unlike the coca plant, they grow all over the world, and have always been readily available. Indigenous groups around the world have used them in ceremonies and rituals, but they weren’t used as a recreational drug until 1955

Europeans certainly had access to these shrooms for thousands of years, but the first well-documented report of psilocybin consumption in Europe was a case described in the London Medical and Physical Journal in 1799, of a man who picked Psilocybe semilanceata (“liberty cap”) mushrooms in London’s Green Park and had them for breakfast with his four children. First the youngest child, “was attacked with fits of immoderate laughter, nor could the threats of his father or mother refrain him.” Then the father, “was attacked with vertigo, and complained that every thing appeared black, then wholly disappeared.” Soon all of them were affected. The doctor who made the report didn’t see this as a potential good time, or a way to expand the mind — he refers to the effect as “deleterious”.

While it has been enjoyed by many people, we can’t find much evidence of mercantile, economic, or scientific discoveries associated with the use of shrooms. This may not be the drug’s fault, since it was banned so soon after being brought to popular attention. 

But there is one major cultural development linked to psilocybin. In his book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, Paul Stamets describes a discussion he had with Frank Herbert, author of Dune, in the 1980s. Herbert showed him a new method he had developed for growing mushrooms on newly-planted trees, which at the time everyone thought was impossible. They kept talking, and:

Frank went on to tell me that much of the premise of Dune — the magic spice (spores) that allowed the bending of space (tripping), the giant worms (maggots digesting mushrooms), the eyes of the Freman (the cerulean blue of Psilocybe mushrooms), the mysticism of the female spiritual warriors, the Bene Gesserits (influenced by tales of Maria Sabina and the sacred mushroom cults of Mexico) — came from his perception of the fungal life cycle, and his imagination was stimulated through his experiences with the use of magic mushrooms.

Dune is the best-selling science fiction novel of all time, winner of the Hugo and the very first Nebula award, and one of my personal favorites. Even if this were the only thing shrooms had inspired, it would be a pretty big deal.

The other major naturally-occurring hallucinogen seems to have had a wider impact, and has a laundry list of famous users and associated creations. This drug is mescaline, the active ingredient in peyote cactus. As with cocaine, the Germans were the first to discover mescaline, but unlike cocaine, they didn’t seem to do anything with it. Possibly this was because they thought of it as a poison. The chemist who first isolated it wrote, “mescaline is exclusively responsible for the major symptoms of peyote (mescal) poisoning.” Well, he was almost right.

The first recreational use of the drug we found was from Jean-Paul Sartre, who took mescaline in 1929 while attending the École Normale Supérieure. He had a bad trip, during which he hallucinated various sea creatures. When he came down, he found that the hallucinations persisted, though he didn’t seem to be very worried by this:

Yeah, after I took mescaline, I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class. I got used to them. I would wake up in the morning and say, “Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?” I would talk to them all the time. I would say, “O.K., guys, we’re going into class now, so we have to be still and quiet,” and they would be there, around my desk, absolutely still, until the bell rang.

[Interviewer asks: A lot of them?]

Actually, no, just three or four.

He eventually ended up getting treated for this by Jacques Lacan, who suggested the crabs represented loneliness. When he was feeling depressed, Sartre would instead get the “recurrent feeling, the delusion, that he was being pursued by a giant lobster, always just out of sight… perpetually about to arrive.”

This experience seems to have influenced Sartre’s work — for example, in his play “The Condemned of Altona,” one of the characters claims to communicate with people from the thirtieth century, who have become a race of crabs that sit in judgment of humanity. Is this a precursor to the Carcinization Meme?

are you feeling it now mr krabs

Other authors have had similar experiences, except more positive, and without the crustaceans. Aldous Huxley took mescaline in 1953, and wrote his book The Doors of Perception about the experience. From then on he was a proponent of psychedelics, and they came to influence his final book, Island, published in 1962. Sadly the mescaline cannot be responsible for his most famous novel, Brave New World, because it was published decades earlier, in 1932. It also can’t be held responsible for his 1940 screenplay adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

But mescaline clearly deserves some credit for Ken Kesey’s 1962 book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and for Ken Kesey in general. Kesey was working as an orderly at a psych hospital and decided to make some money on the side by testing drugs for the CIA as part of project MKUltra, who gave him both mescaline and LSD (we’ll get to this drug in a second, don’t you worry). The combination of these drugs and his job as an orderly led him to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was an instant smash hit — there was a play the next year, with Gene Wilder in a major role, and the film adaptation in 1975 won five Oscars. 

Ken Kesey went on to basically invent modern drug culture, hippie culture, and Bay Area California. Ken Kesey and his drugs were also largely responsible for Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, and thus indirectly responsible for the Ben & Jerry’s flavor Cherry Garcia, “the first ice cream named for a rock legend”.

Mescaline was also a force behind Philip K. Dick’s 1974 Hugo- and Nebula-nominated novel, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. In a letter that is more than a little reminiscent of the cocaine-driven Robert Louis Stevenson, he says:

At one point in the writing I wrote 140 pages in 48 hours. I have high hopes for this. It is the first really new thing I’ve done since EYE IN THE SKY. The change is due to a change that overtook me from having taken mescalin [sic], a very large dose that completely unhinged me. I had enormous insights behind the drug, all having to do with those whom I loved. Love. Will love.

If you want to REALLY understand this story, you probably have to read Dick’s undelivered speech, How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later. It doesn’t mention the mescaline but it certainly captures… something. 

Most of his other famous works — The Man in the High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (aka Blade Runner), We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (aka Total Recall), Minority Report, etc. — were written before this, and so probably were not affected by mescaline. That’s ok though, because we know that up to 1970 Dick was on amphetamines nearly full-time.

And finally of course there is the great king of the psychedelics, LSD, which started to become prominent around the same time. LSD was actually invented some decades earlier. It was first synthesized in 1938 by Swiss (but notably, German-speaking) chemist Albert Hofmann. He was looking for a new respiratory and circulatory stimulant, but when he tested the new chemical in lab animals, it showed none of the desired effect — though the animals did become “restless” — and was abandoned for five years. 

But Hofmann had a “peculiar presentiment” that there might be more to LSD than met the eye, and so in 1943 he synthesized some more. On April 19th, he arranged to take what he thought would be a tiny dose, in case the substance was poisonous, a mere 250 micrograms. Instead, he went on the mother of all trips, and had his famous bicycle ride home. Subsequent tests showed that a fifth of that original dose was sufficient to produce strong trips in lab assistants — LSD had arrived.

The inventor had no question about what his discovery meant, or what it was for. In a speech on his 100th (!!!) birthday, Hofmann said, “I think that in human evolution it has never been as necessary to have this substance LSD. It is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be.” Okie dokie.

For a drug that got only a couple decades in the sun, LSD has a pretty impressive track record. Francis Crick, one of the people who discovered the structure of DNA, probably took LSD and may have been tripping when he was doing some of his DNA work, though this isn’t well-attested. Douglas Englebart, inventor of the mouse and the guy who did The Mother of All Demos, took LSD some time in the early 60’s. Time magazine wrote approvingly of LSD’s ability to treat mental illnesses as early as 1955.

The Beatles were already extremely popular before they first took acid in 1965, but it clearly influenced their music from then on. This in turn influenced much of the music made in the second half of the 20th century. You may be surprised to learn that they took it for the first time by accident; to be more precise, someone dosed them without their consent. You see…

In the spring of 1965, John Lennon and George Harrison, along with their wives Cynthia Lennon and Patti Boyd, were having dinner over their dentist’s house when they were first “dosed” with LSD.

Dentist John Riley and his girlfriend, Cyndy Bury, had just served the group a great meal, and urged their distinguished guests to stay for coffee, which they reluctantly did…

Riley wanted to be the first person to turn on the Beatles to acid, so the couples finished their coffee, and then Riley told Lennon that the sugar cubes they used contained LSD, a powerful new drug with incredible hallucinogenic effects.

Lennon said, “How dare you fucking do this to us!”

As George remembered, “The dentist said something to John, and John turned to me and said, ‘We’ve had LSD.’ I just thought, ‘Well, what’s that? So what? Let’s go!'”

Eventually they escaped their dentist and ended up at George’s house. John “was beginning to reconsider his attitude toward acid,” in part because he was excited that “George’s house seemed to be just like a big submarine.”

Once they came down, John and George decided the other two Beatles needed to try LSD as well. “John and I had decided that Paul and Ringo had to have acid,” said George Harrison, “because we couldn’t relate to them any more. Not just on the one level, we couldn’t relate to them on any level, because acid had changed us so much.” 

This was easier said than done — Paul didn’t want to try it — but they threw a big house party with Peter Fonda, David Crosby, and various others where they all (except Paul) dropped acid, George fell in the swimming pool, they watched Cat Ballou (with a laugh track), they all got in the shower and passed around a guitar, normal party stuff. Paul didn’t take LSD that night but he took it shortly after, at which point he said it “explained the mystery of life.” The resulting insights helped form their next albums: Revolver, and of course, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The Beatles are just one example, of course. Pink Floyd, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and many other bands were all trying out LSD at around the same time. Bob Dylan took LSD (“Who smokes pot any more?” he asked in 1965) and he went on to win a Nobel Prize. The new drug influenced culture in many ways. The real question here is, who has dinner at their dentist’s house?

Another question is, why didn’t we discover how to use psychedelics earlier? Shrooms, at least, have been available for a long time. Why weren’t Leibniz, Galileo, and Shakespeare all tripping out of their minds?

We think there might be two reasons. Unlike stimulants, which have a pretty reliable effect, hallucinogens often have different effects on different people. And also unlike stimulants, it seems you often have to use hallucinogens in just the right way in order to unlock their creative potential. Coffee or cocaine make you more focused and more productive, even more creative, in the moment. But it’s very rare to be able to produce anything while high on psychedelics. 

In an interview in 1960, Aldous Huxley said:

But you see (and this is the most significant thing about the experience), during the experience you’re really not interested in doing anything practical — even writing lyric poetry. If you were having a love affair with a woman, would you be interested in writing about it? Of course not. And during the experience you’re not particularly in words, because the experience transcends words and is quite inexpressible in terms of words. So the whole notion of conceptualizing what is happening seems very silly. After the event, it seems to me quite possible that it might be of great assistance: people would see the universe around them in a very different way and would be inspired, possibly, to write about it.

The same insight was discovered by the Beatles. “We found out very early,” said Ringo Starr, “that if you play it stoned or derelict in any way, it was really shitty music, so we would have the experiences and then bring that into the music later.”

LSD helped Doug Englebart come up with the idea of the computer mouse, but he had the idea when he was down — the only thing he invented while actively tripping seems to have been a potty training tool.

Even CNN Business, the most unlikely of sources, says: “The last thing [a programmer should do] is take LSD and then code. It’s more subtle: ‘if you have issues in your life or anything, you’re going to think about them [while high], and think about them in a different perspective.’”

So much, so usual, right? “Drugs help you be creative” — you’ve heard this one before. By itself, it’s not very original as a thesis.


… and what can we say, but that science and the economy never recovered? 

The 1970 Controlled Substances Act invented five “schedules” or categories for regulating drugs. The most extreme level of regulation was Schedule I, for drugs that the feds decided had high potential for abuse, no accepted medical uses, and that were “not safe to use, even under medical supervision”. Into Schedule I went LSD, marijuana, mescaline, psilocybin, and many others. 

The next level of regulation was Schedule II, for drugs that the feds felt also had high potential for abuse, limited medical uses, and high risk of addiction. Into Schedule II went cocaine and amphetamines. 

Less exciting (for the most part) drugs went into Schedules III, IV, and V. 

Leaving out caffeine and alcohol was the only thing that spared us from total economic collapse. Small amounts of progress still trickle through; drugs continue to inspire humanity. This mostly happens with LSD, it seems, probably because the potential of that drug has not been as exhausted as the potential of cocaine and coffee. 

Steve Jobs famously took LSD in the early 70’s, just after the crackdown was revving up. “Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life,” he said. “LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important — creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.” 

Bill Gates has been more coy about his relationship with acid, but when an interviewer for Playboy asked him, “ever take LSD?” he pretty much admitted it. “My errant youth ended a long time ago,” he said in response to the question. “There were things I did under the age of 25 that I ended up not doing subsequently.”

So it seems like LSD had a small role in the lead-up to both Apple and Microsoft. These aren’t just two large companies — these are the two largest publicly-traded companies in the world. Apple is so big it accounts for almost 10% of the GDP of the United States (!!!), and about 7% of the value of the S&P 500. That is very big.

Economic growth is not objectively good by itself. But part of the question here is, “what happened to economic growth around 1970?” When the companies in the global #1 and #2 positions were both founded by people who used LSD, it makes you want to pay attention. It makes you wonder what Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin might have tried (though it might not be LSD).

It isn’t just the guys at the top, of course. In 2006, Cisco engineer Kevin Herbert told WIRED magazine that he “solved his toughest technical problems while tripping to drum solos by the Grateful Dead.” According to WIRED, Herbert had enough influence at Cisco that he was able to keep them from drug testing their employees. “When I’m on LSD and hearing something that’s pure rhythm,” says Herbert, “it takes me to another world and into another brain state where I’ve stopped thinking and started knowing.” We’re not sure where he is now, but he was still giving interviews advocating for LSD in 2008.

This is all business, but the impacts are not strictly economic. The big scientific breakthrough made on LSD after the drugs shutdown of 1970 is perhaps the most important one of all, Kary Mullis’s invention of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in 1983.

PCR is basically the foundational method of all modern biochemistry/biomedicine. The New York Times called it, “highly original and significant, virtually dividing biology into the two epochs of before PCR and after PCR.” The scientific community agrees, and Mullis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 for his invention, only seven years after he originally demonstrated the procedure.

Everyone knew that Mullis was big into psychedelics. “I knew he was a good chemist because he’d been synthesizing hallucinogenic drugs at Berkeley,” said one of his colleagues. And Mullis himself makes it pretty clear that LSD deserves a lot of the credit for his discovery. “Would I have invented PCR if I hadn’t taken LSD? I seriously doubt it,” said Mullis. “I could sit on a DNA molecule and watch the polymers go by. I learnt that partly on psychedelic drugs.” If this is even partially true, most progress in bioscience in the past 40 years was made possible by LSD. It may also have inspired Jurassic Park

(We also want to mention that Mullis was really weird. In addition to being a psychology and sociology denialist, HIV/AIDS denialist, and global warming denialist, he also claims he was visited by a fluorescent “standard extraterrestrial raccoon”, which spoke to him and called him “doctor”. Maybe this is because the first time he took acid, he took a dose of 1,000 micrograms, four times Hofmann’s original monster dose of 250 micrograms and about 10-20 times a normal dose. It really is possible to take too much LSD.)

Drugs continue to influence culture as well, of course, but none of those impacts seem to be as big as the Beatles. Michael Cera is a good actor, but we don’t know if his taking mescaline on-camera for the film Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus counts as a major discovery. We do appreciate that they included a crab, however. 


Some accounts of scientific progress suggest that it happens based on foundational technologies, sometimes called “General Purpose Technologies”. For example, Tyler Cowen and Ben Southwood say: 

A General Purpose Technology (GPT), quite simply, is a technological breakthrough that many other subsequent breakthroughs can build upon. So for instance one perspective sees “fossil fuels,” or perhaps “fossil fuels plus powerful machines,” as the core breakthroughs behind the Industrial Revolution. Earlier GPTs may have been language, fire, mathematics, and the printing press. Following the introduction of a GPT, there may be a period of radical growth and further additional innovations, as for instance fossil fuels lead to electrification, the automobile, radio and television, and so on. After some point, however, the potential novel applications of the new GPT may decline, and growth rates may decline too. After America electrified virtually all of the nation, for instance, the next advance in heating and lighting probably won’t be as significant. Airplanes were a big advance, but over the last several decades commercial airliners have not been improving very much.

… [An] alternate perspective sees general technological improvement, even in such minor ways as ‘tinkering’, as more fundamental to the Industrial Revolution – and progress since then – as more important than any individual ‘general purpose’ breakthroughs. Or, if you like, the General Purpose Technology was not coal, but innovation itself.

So the foundational technologies driving innovation can be either literal technologies, new techniques and discoveries, or even perspectives like “innovation.”

When we cut off the supply and discovery of new drugs, it’s like outlawing the electric motor or the idea of a randomized controlled trial. Without drugs, modern people have stopped making scientific and economic progress. It’s not a dead stop, more like an awful crawl. You can get partway there by mixing redbull, alcohol, and sleep deprivation, but that only gets you so far.

There have been a few discoveries since 1970. But when we do develop new drugs, they get memory-holed. MDMA was originally discovered in 1912, but it didn’t start being used recreationally until about the mid-1970s. Because of this, it originally escaped the attention of the DEA, and for a while it was still legal. By 1985, the DEA made sure it was criminalized. 

Of course, people do still do drugs. But the question is who can do drugs, and who has access to them. When coffee was introduced, any student or lowlife in London could get a cup. Cocaine was more expensive, but doctors seem to have had relatively easy access, and Vin Mariani made the substance available to the masses. LSD has always been pretty cheap, and otherwise broke grad students seem to have had no trouble getting their hands on literally mindbending amounts. For a while, the CIA was paying people to take it!

Now that drugs are illegal, only a small percentage of the population really has reliable access to them — the rich and powerful. This is a problem because drugs only seem to unlock a great creative potential in a small number of people. “I don’t think there is any generalization one can make on this,” said Aldous Huxley. “Experience has shown that there’s an enormous variation in the way people respond to lysergic acid. Some people probably could get direct aesthetic inspiration for painting or poetry out of it. Others I don’t think could.” If we want drugs to help drive our economy and our scientific discovery, we need to make them widely available to everyone, so anyone who wants to can give them a try.

Not everyone needs drugs to have great breakthroughs. “I do not do drugs,” said Salvador Dalí, “I am drugs.” (Though Freud was one of his major influences, so drugs were in his lineage nonetheless.) Einstein doesn’t seem to have done drugs either, but like Dalí, he probably was drugs. 

But right now, we are losing the talent of people in whom drugs would unlock genius. A small number are still rich enough and privileged enough to both take drugs and get away with it. Anyone who has that potential, but who is currently too poor or too marginalized, will never get access to the drugs they need to change the world. Even the rich and well-connected may not be able to get the amount of drugs they need, or get them often enough, to finish their great works. Not everyone is Kary Mullis, able to synthesize their own LSD. Who knows what discoveries we have missed over the last 50 years.

We’ve heard a lot of moral and social arguments for legalizing drugs. Where are the scientific and economic arguments? Drugs are linked with great scientific productivity. Genome sequencing is the last big thing to happen in science, and it happened courtesy of LSD.

Drugs are also an enormous market. Commodity trading in drugs was so important to the origin of modern investing that today the ceiling of the New York Stock Exchange is decorated with gold tobacco leaves. Right now the markets for illegal drugs are not only unregulated, they’re untaxed. They’re probably immensely inefficient as well. We can more or less guarantee that your new cocawine startup will have a hard time getting VC backing. 

“It’s very hard for a small person to go into the drug importing business because our interdiction efforts essentially make it enormously costly,” said conservative economist Milton Friedman in 1991. “So, the only people who can survive in that business are these large Medellin cartel kind of people who have enough money so they can have fleets of airplanes, so they can have sophisticated methods, and so on. In addition to which, by keeping goods out and by arresting, let’s say, local marijuana growers, the government keeps the price of these products high. What more could a monopolist want? He’s got a government who makes it very hard for all his competitors and who keeps the price of his products high. It’s absolutely heaven.”

We’ll also note that America’s legal system is infamously slow and backed up. It’s easy to imagine that this is because the legal system is choking itself, trying to swallow all these drug cases, leaving no room to deal with anything else. In 1965, annual marijuana arrest rates were about 18,000. By 1970 they had increased tenfold, to 180,000. By 2000 the number was about 730,000 annually. As a result, we no longer have a functioning legal system. 

So maybe things began to crawl in 1970, when we began to take the steam out of our engine of progress. The first big shock was the Controlled Substances Act, but it wasn’t the last. 


Above, we quoted economist Tyler Cowen on foundational technologies. “The break point in America is exactly 1973,” he says elsewhere, “and we don’t know why this is the case.” Well, we may not know for sure, but we have a pretty good guess: The Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, was founded on July 1, 1973.

Before the DEA, enforcement of drug laws was sort of jumbled. According to the DEA’s own history of the period, “Previous efforts had been fragmented by competing priorities, lack of communication, multiple authority, and limited resources.” Nixon called for “a more coordinated effort,” and a few years later the DEA was born. Now there was a central authority enforcing the new laws, so perhaps it is not surprising that 1973, rather than 1970, was the break point. 

What about other countries? The trends since 1970 are global, not limited to the US. It’s not like the DEA is running around the rest of the world enforcing our drug laws on other countries, right? Well, first of all, the DEA is running around the rest of the world enforcing our drug laws on other countries.

Perfectly normal US law enforcement agents in… Afghanistan

Second, the rest of the world has largely followed the United States in criminalizing recreational drug use. This is regulated by a number of United Nations treaties. As a result of these treaties, most of the drugs that are illegal in the US are also illegal in most members of the United Nations.

Cocaine is illegal in most countries, including Canada, New Zealand, China, India, Japan, and Thailand. In Saudi Arabia, you can be executed for it. In Singapore, importing or exporting many drugs carries a mandatory death sentence.  

Friendly Singapore warning card about the death penalty for drug traffickers!

LSD was made illegal by the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and it remains illegal in all 184 states that are party to the convention. 

The Netherlands has a reputation for being very drug-friendly, but this is largely undeserved. While they do tolerate some drugs (a policy known as gedoogbeleid), most drugs technically remain illegal. “Soft drugs” like marijuana, hash, and “magic truffles” (NOT shrooms — apparently these are different) are tolerated. Note the exact wording from this government website, though: “Although the sale of soft drugs is a criminal offence, coffee shops selling small quantities of soft drugs will not be prosecuted.” 

“Hard drugs”, including cocaine, magic mushrooms, and LSD are still very much illegal. Even for soft drugs like marijuana, however, you can’t possess more than a small amount for personal use. Producing any amount of any drug — including marijuana! — remains illegal. So even in this notorious drug haven, most drugs are still illegal and heavily restricted.

Any country that broke from this pact and really legalized drugs would see an explosion in their economy, and soon we expect, breakthroughs in their arts and sciences. But the UN wouldn’t like that, and you might wake up to find the DEA burning product in your backyard. So for now, with a small number of exceptions, these substances remain illegal. 


We hear a lot of talk these days about decriminalizing marijuana. This is the right thing to do, but it won’t be enough. Legalizing marijuana is not going to cut it.

Legalizing other drugs is more like it. When asked how he thought America would change if drugs were legalized, Milton Friedman said:

I see America with half the number of prisons, half the number of prisoners, ten thousand fewer homicides a year, inner cities in which there’s a chance for these poor people to live without being afraid for their lives, citizens who might be respectable who are now addicts not being subject to becoming criminals in order to get their drug, being able to get drugs for which they’re sure of the quality. …

I have estimated statistically that the prohibition of drugs produces, on the average, ten thousand homicides a year. It’s a moral problem that the government is going around killing ten thousand people. It’s a moral problem that the government is making into criminals people, who may be doing something you and I don’t approve of, but who are doing something that hurts nobody else. 

Friedman was a conservative’s conservative. He was an advisor to Reagan and to Thatcher. You can hardly get more impeccable conservative credentials than that! But when he looks at drug prohibition, he literally calls it socialism.

Everyone knows that hippies love drugs and want to legalize them. That much is not surprising. What is surprising is that conservatives are so firmly against drugs. It just doesn’t make any sense. Judge Juan Torruella of the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1984. In 1996, he said:

Prohibition’s enforcement has had a devastating impact on the rights of the individual citizen. The control costs are seriously threatening the preservation of values that are central to our form of government. The war on drugs has contributed to the distortion of the Fourth Amendment wholly inconsistent with its basic purposes. …

I detect considerable public apathy regarding the upholding of rights which have been cherished since this land became a constitutional Republic, when it comes to those accused of drug violations. Now I will grant you that people that sell drugs to children and the like are not very nice people, and I do not stand here or anywhere in defense of such heinous conduct. However, we must remember that we do not, and cannot, have one constitution for the good guys and another for the bad ones.

Paul Craig Roberts, an economist who served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy under Reagan, said in The Washington Times in 2001:

The conservatives’ war on drugs is an example of good intentions that have had unfortunate consequences. As often happens with noble causes, the end justifies the means, and the means of the drug war are inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution and our civil liberties.

Think about it. In the name of what other cause would conservatives support unconstitutional property confiscations, unconstitutional searches, and Orwellian Big Brother invasions of privacy? …

It is a personal tragedy for a person to ruin his life with alcohol, drugs, gambling or any other vice. But it is a public tragedy when government ruins the lives of millions of its citizens simply because it disapproves of a product they consume.

The “war on drugs” is, in truth, a war on the Constitution, civil liberties, privacy, property, freedom and common sense. It must be stopped.

Legalizing drugs is the right thing to do — from a moral point of view, from an economic point of view, from a scientific point of view. But legalizing drugs won’t be enough. We need new drugs. We need to taste drugs that no one has ever heard of, mysterious new combinations of drugs that no one’s ever tried before. Scientific and economic progress — great discoveries and major companies — comes on the heels of drug discovery. 

Is the Controlled Substances Act really responsible for the general decline since 1970? We’re not sure, but what is clear is that drugs are foundational technologies, like the motor, combustion engine, semiconductor, or the concept of an experiment. New drugs lead to scientific revolutions. Some of those drugs, like coffee, continue to fuel fields like mathematics and computer science, even some hundreds of years later. With apologies to Newton, “If I seem higher than other men, it is because I am standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Investigation: Were Polish Aristocrats in the 1890s really that Obese? by Budnik & Henneberg (2016)


A friend recently sent us a chapter by Alicja Budnik and Maciej Henneberg, The Appearance of a New Social Class of Wealthy Commoners in the 19th and the Early 20th Century Poland and Its Biological Consequences, which appeared in the 2016 volume Biological Implications of Human Mobility.

A better title would be, Were Polish Aristocrats in the 1890s really that Obese?, because the chapter makes a number of striking claims about rates of overweight and obesity in Poland around the turn of the century, especially among women, and especially especially among the upper classes.

Budnik & Henneberg draw on data from historical sources to estimate height and body mass for men and women in different classes. The data all come from people in Poland in the period 1887-1914, most of whom were from Warsaw. From height and body mass estimates they can estimate average BMI for each of these groups. (For a quick refresher on BMI, a value under 18.5 is underweight, over 25 is overweight, and over 30 is obese.) 

They found that BMIs were rather high; somewhat high for every class but quite high for the middle class and nobility. Peasants and working class people had average BMIs of about 23, while the middle class and nobles had average BMIs of just over 25.

This immediately suggests that more than half of the nobles and middle class were overweight or obese. The authors also estimate the standard deviation for each group, which they use to estimate the percentage of each group that is overweight and obese. The relevant figure for obesity is this: 

As you can see, the figure suggests that rates of obesity were rather high. Many groups had rates of obesity around 10%, while about 20% of middle- and upper-class women were obese. 

This is pretty striking. One in five Polish landladies and countesses were obese? Are you sure?

To begin with, it contradicts several other sources on what baseline human weight would be during this period. The first is a sample of Union Army veterans examined by the federal government between 1890-1900. The Civil War was several decades before, so these men were in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. This is in almost the exact same period, and this sample of veterans was Caucasian, just like the Polish sample, but the rate of obesity in this group was only about 3%. 

Of course, the army veterans were all men, and not a random sample of the population. But we have data from hunter-gatherers of both genders that also suggests the baseline obesity rate should be very low. As just one example, the hunter-gatherers on Kitava live in what might be called a tropical paradise. They have more food than they could ever eat, including potatoes, yams, fruits, seafood, and coconuts, and don’t exercise much more than the average westerner. Their rate of obesity is 0%. It seems weird that Polish peasants, also eating lots of potatoes, and engaged in backbreaking labor, would be so more obese than these hunter-gatherers. 

On the other hand, if this is true, it would be huge for our understanding of the history of obesity, so we want to check it out. 

Because this seems so weird, we decided to do a few basic sanity checks. For clarity, we refer to the Polish data as reported in the chapter by Budnik & Henneberg as the Warsaw data, since most (though not all) of these data come from Warsaw.


The first sanity check is comparing the obesity rates in the Warsaw data to the obesity rates in modern Poland. Obesity rates have been rising since the 1890s [citation needed] so people should be more obese now than they were back then.

The Warsaw data suggests that men at the time were somewhere between 0% and 12.9% obese (mean of categories = 7.3%) and women at the time were between 8.8% and 20.9% obese (mean of categories = 16.2%). In comparison, in data from Poland in 1975, 7% of men were obese and 13% of women were obese. This suggests that obesity rates were flat (or perhaps even fell) between 1900 and 1975, which seems counterintuitive, and kinda weird. 

In data from Poland in 2016, 24% of men were obese and 22% of women were obese. This also seems weird. It took until 2016 for the average woman in Poland to be as obese as a middle-class Polish woman from 1900? This seems like a contradiction, and since the more recent data is probably more accurate, it may mean that the Warsaw data is incorrect.

There’s another sanity check we can make. Paintings and photographs from the time period in question provide a record of how heavy people were at the time. If the Warsaw data is correct, there should be lots of photographs and paintings of obese Poles from this era. We checked around to see if we could find any, focusing especially on trying to get images of Poles from Warsaw.

We found a few large group photographs and paintings, and some pictures of individuals, and no way are 20% of them obese.

We begin with Sokrates Starynkiewicz, who was president of Warsaw from 1875 to 1892. He looks like a very trim gentleman, and if we look at this photograph of his funeral from 1902, we see that most of the people involved look rather trim as well:

In addition, a photograph of a crowd from 1895:

And here’s a Warsaw street in 1905: 

People in these photographs do not look very obese. But most of the people in these photographs are men, and the Warsaw data suggests that rates of obesity for women were more than twice as high. 

We decided to look for more photographs of women from the period, and found this list from the Krakow Post of 100 Remarkable Women from Polish History, many of whom seem to have been decorated soldiers (note to self: do not mess with Polish women). We looked through all of the entries for individuals who were adults during the period 1887-1914. There are photographs and/or portraits for many of them, but none of them appear to be obese. Several of them were painters, but none of the subjects of their paintings appear obese either. (Unrelatedly, one of them dated Charlie Chaplin and also married a Count and a Prince.)

If rates of obesity were really 20% for middle and upper class women, then there should be photographic evidence, and we can’t find any. What we have found is evidence that Polish women are as beautiful as they are dangerous, which is to say, extremely.

Anna Iwaszkiewicz with a parrot in 1914


If we’re skeptical of the Warsaw data, we have to wonder if there’s something that could explain this discrepancy. We can think of three possibilities. 

The first is that we have a hard time imagining that whoever collected this data got all these 19th-century Poles to agree to be weighed totally naked. If they were wearing all of their clothes, or any of their clothes, that could explain the whole thing. (It might also explain the large gender and class effects.) 

Clothing weighed a lot back then. Just as one example, a lady’s dolman could weigh anywhere between 6 and 12 pounds, and a skirt could weigh another 12 pounds by itself. We found another source that suggested a lady’s entire outfit in the 1880s (though not Poland specifically) would weigh about 25 lbs.

As far as we can tell, there’s no mention of clothes, clothing, garments, shoes, etc. in the chapter, so it’s quite possible they didn’t account for clothing at all. All the original documents seem to be in Polish and we don’t speak Polish, so it’s possible the original authors don’t mention it either. (If you speak Polish and are interested in helping unravel this, let us know!)

Also, how did you even weigh someone in 1890s Poland? Did they carry around a bathroom scale? We found one source that claims the first “bathroom” scale was introduced in 1910, but they must have been using something in 1890. 

Sir Francis Galton, who may have come up with the idea of weighing human beings, made some human body weight measurements in 1884 at London’s International Health Exhibition. He invited visitors to fill out a form, walk through his gallery, and have their measurements taken along a number of dimensions, including colour-sense, depth perception, sense of touch, breathing capacity, “swiftness of blow with fist”, strength of their hands, height, arm span, and weight. (Galton really wanted to measure the size of people’s heads as well, but wasn’t able to, because it would have required ladies to remove their bonnets.) In the end, they were given a souvenir including their measurements. To take people’s weights, Galton describes using “a simple commercial balance”.

Some of the “anthropometric instruments” Galton used.

Galton also specifically says, “Overcoats should be taken off, the weight required being that of ordinary indoor clothing.” This indicates he was weighing people in their everyday clothes (minus only overcoats), which suggests that the Polish data may also include clothing weight. “Stripping,” he elaborates, “was of course inadmissible.”

Card presented to each person examined. Note “WEIGHT in ordinary-in-door clothing in lbs.” in the lower righthand corner.

Also of interest may be Galton’s 1884 paper, The Weights of British Noblemen During the Last Three Generations, which we just discovered. “Messrs. Berry are the heads of an old-established firm of wine and coffee merchants,” he writes, “who keep two huge beam scales in their shop, one for their goods, and the other for the use and amusement of their customers. Upwards of 20,000 persons have been weighed in them since the middle of last century down to the present day, and the results are recorded in well-indexed ledgers. Some of those who had town houses have been weighed year after year during the Parliamentary season for the whole period of their adult lives.”

Naturally these British noblemen were not being weighed in a wine and coffee shop totally naked, and Galton confirms that the measurements should be, “accepted as weighings in ‘ordinary indoor clothing’.” This seems like further evidence that the Warsaw data likely included the weight of individuals’ clothes. 

Another explanation has to do with measurements and conversions. Poland didn’t switch to the metric system until after these measurements were made (various sources say 1918, 1919, 1925, etc.), so some sort of conversion from outdated units has to be involved. This chapter does recognize that, and mentions that body mass was “often measured in Russian tsar pounds (1 kg = 2.442 pounds).” 

We have a few concerns. First, if it was “often” measured in these units, what was it measured in the rest of the time? 

Second, what is a “Russian tsar pound”? We can’t find any other references for this term, or for “tsar pound”, but we think it refers to the Russian funt (фунт). We’ve confirmed that the conversion rate for the Russian funt matches the rate given in the chapter (409.5 g, which comes out to a rate of 2.442 in the opposite direction), which indicates this is probably the unit that they meant. 

But we’ve also found sources that say the funt used in Warsaw had a different weight, equivalent to 405.2 g. Another source gives the Polish funt as 405.5 g. In any case, the conversion rate they used may be wrong, and that could also account for some of the discrepancy.

The height measurements might be further evidence of possible conversion issues. The authors remark on being surprised at how tall everyone was — “especially striking is the tallness of noble males” — and this could be the result of another conversion error. Or it could be another side effect of clothing, if they were measured with their shoes on, since men’s shoes at the time tended to have a small heel. (Galton measured height in shoes, then the height of the heel, and subtracted the one from the other, but we don’t know if the Polish anthropometers thought to do this.)

A third possibility is that the authors estimated the standard deviation of BMI incorrectly. To figure out how many people were obese, they needed not only the mean BMI of the groups, they needed an estimate of how much variation there was. They describe their procedure for this estimation very briefly, saying “standard deviations were often calculated from grouped data distributions.” (There’s that vague “often” again.) 

What is this technique? We don’t know. To support this they cite Jasicki et al. (1962), which is the book Zarys antropologii (“Outline of Anthropology”). While we see evidence this book exists, we can’t find the original document, and if we could, we wouldn’t be able to read it since we don’t speak Polish. As a result, we’re concerned they may have overestimated how much variation there was in body weights at the time.

These three possibilities seem sufficient to explain the apparently high rates of obesity in the Warsaw data. We think the Warsaw data is probably wrong, and our best guess for obesity rates in the 1890s is still in the range of 3%, rather than 10-20%.

Links for March 2021

We cannot more highly recommend Tim Carroll’s pen-and-paper game Lineage, “a game about telling the story of a Royal family through the ages.” You and up to five friends (or enemies, I don’t judge) play as historians, piecing together the records of several generations of a great and powerful family. The resulting stories are prone to hilarity and tragedy, and are also “a handy world building tool for game masters, authors, and admirers of the sorts of diagrams that lurk in the appendices of thick fantasy novels.” While it was developed with royal families in mind, Tim notes that royals are not the only ones with insane family trees, and it could also be used to tell the stories of other kinds of families. Also interesting is that it was developed in the context of thinking about one-player role playing games. 

Apparently Regina George from Mean Girls was based on Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross. I knew she seemed familiar. Also, why is she named “Queen George”? Is Mean Girls an allegory for the Revolutionary War?

Relevant to recent discussions on alternative ways to structure the government: Thomas Jefferson thought that the constitution should automatically expire as soon as new generations make up a majority of the population, at which point the country should come up with a new constitution. McGill University political philosopher Víctor M. Muñiz-Fraticelli writes, “If a constitution is discussed, negotiated, and approved by citizens who are, necessarily, contemporaries, what normatively binding force does it retain for future generations who took no part in its discussion, negotiation, or approval?”

We’re glad to see Senator Sanders endorse almost the exact argument we made in our post about the Senate:

I come from one of the most rural states in America, and I lived in a town of 200 people for a couple of years. And I think there is not an appreciation of rural America or the values of rural America, the sense of community that exists in rural America. And somehow or another, the intellectual elite does have, in some cases, a contempt for the people who live in rural America. I think we’ve got to change that attitude and start focusing on the needs of people in rural America, treat them with respect, and understand there are areas there are going to be disagreements, but we can’t treat people with contempt.

The dead but amazing was the home of some of the best history writing of all time. A gem from the archives: Rah Rah, Rasputin. Here’s the pull quote. While their comrade was preparing to poison Rasputin: “…Felix’s friends were upstairs listening to Yankee Doodle Dandy, the only record they owned, over and over and over. Really.”

Zoom Escaper is a tool to help you escape Zoom meetings and other videoconferencing scenarios. It allows you to self-sabotage your audio stream, making your presence unbearable to others.” We do not officially endorse Zoom Escaper, but we do think you should know about it. Please enjoy responsibly. There’s also Zoom Deleter, which does what it says on the tin. 

Trust in the media is at an all-time low. Unusual proposal for a solution: replace journalists with CEOs, who are (apparently) much more trusted than journalists, especially the CEO of the company respondents work for. We appreciate how original this take is — we’ll also note that, if they want to go by this metric, scientists are even more trusted as a group, by at least 10 points.

Of course, scientists have their own limitations. In Questionable Practices by Researchers and Teenage Wizards, psychologist Sacha Epskamp compares Questionable Research Practices (QRPs) to his experiences as a teenager cheating at Magic the Gathering (MTG) in order to beat his older brother. I also sometimes cheated at card games when I was very young (by high school I knew better) — could that be part of why I find open science issues so intuitive?

Update from last month: NYU professor Todd Gureckis continues to impress with his attempts to improve video lectures based on insights gleaned from watching YouTubers. If any YouTubers read this, we would be very interested to hear what you think.

Honda makes capsaicin-impregnated duct tape to keep rodents from chewing on wires and hoses. “The report also noted that Honda was the target of a class-action lawsuit over its use of soy-based wraps in various vehicles, with the suit alleging that the delicious soy coatings in 2012-2015 models attracted rodents.”

We rather liked this video essay about Wes Anderson’s style of filmmaking.

Just how much of an environmental impact do cryptocurrencies really have? We’re still not sure, but we liked this attempt from Visakan Veerasamy to come up with some numbers. We’d be interested to see more analyses along these same lines — send them our way if you have them!

Introducing The People’s Bill


In a recent speculative post about tricameral legislatures, we explored a couple different ways you could elect members of a legislative body. 

The clear winner was electing representatives by lottery, drawing them randomly from the pool of all adult citizens or all voters, for a fixed term (formally known as sortition). Since election is by random selection, as long as the chamber has enough members, it’s guaranteed to be largely representative in terms of gender, race, religion, age, profession, and so on. Representatives would be ordinary people, instead of career politicians.

Now, while it’s very fun to sit in our armchairs and speculate about political science, the truth is that we don’t have much influence on how the branches of government are organized. The United States will not be switching to a Tricameral system or electing representatives by sortition any time soon. Neither will any other country in the world, is our guess. Despite centuries of research on various voting systems, lots of countries are still using first-past-the-post voting. It’s hard to imagine this will be much different.

We don’t have the power to make this happen. But we do have the power to set up a website. 


So today we’d like to introduce a little idea we call The People’s Bill. Why do we trust politicians, lowest of the low, to write our laws for us? We’re Americans, by God. We can write our own laws.

The idea is pretty simple. We could set up a website, with a text form that anyone could edit, and the People could write whatever bill they want. 

If you’re concerned that only Americans should be able to write American laws, then we could limit editing privileges to IP addresses from within the US. But there are ways around this, of course, and why not take good ideas from the rest of the world? 

To keep it getting obscenely long, as bills often do, we would set up a character limit. As a red-blooded American I obviously want to set the limit to 1,776 characters, but that’s probably not long enough (by this parenthetical, this post has already passed 1,776 characters). Setting it up to be 100 tweets long would also be amusing, but that’s only 2,800 characters. But we notice that the Declaration of Independence is about 8,000 characters long, depending on version, so let’s go with that.

People would have a month to debate and draft as much as they want, within those limits. Then, at the end of every month, the bill would be finalized, and closed to editing. A permanent snapshot would be taken, and automatically emailed to all 100 senators and 435 representatives, with instructions that this is the Will of the People et cetera et cetera. 

If you have any experience with online assignments, you know that closing an assignment at midnight can get pretty crazy. To help prevent a furious final dash to make edits at 11:59 PM the night before, we wouldn’t take the final snapshot at midnight. Instead, we would randomly select a time on the day in question, keep that random deadline a secret, and take the final snapshot then. 

With this system, there’s no question what bills people want passed. Every member of Congress gets an email about it every month, containing a bill that the People wrote and that contains a curated list of what they want passed into law. It may not end up being the bill the country needs. But it’s hard to imagine it won’t end up being the bill we deserve.


You may be feeling skeptical that people can coordinate on the internet, let along coordinate to produce anything of value. But we think there’s reason to believe that this isn’t such a problem.

First of all, open-source software is an unqualified success. Linux was started by one Finn at the tender age of 21, and thanks to decades of collaborative writing from the community, now contains several million lines of code. Apache is free, open-source, and serves about 25% of all websites. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance your browser is one of these success stories — Firefox is fully open-source and the open-source Chromium project forms the base for both Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge. 

Of course, all of these had some kind of central leadership. Linus Torvalds coordinated the development of Linux at some level, even if he didn’t write all the code himself.

But people are perfectly capable of coordinating themselves, given the chance. Consider Reddit’s 2017 April Fools’ Day project, called Place. This project started with a canvas 1000 pixels wide by 1000 pixels tall, for a cool one million pixels total. For 72 hours, Reddit users could place a new pixel every 5-20 minutes, in any of sixteen different colors. Despite there being no top-down organization or authority, the redditors soon organized themselves and the canvas into stunning displays of coordination. The final canvas included dozens of national flags, logos, memes, a rainbow road, a Windows 95 taskbar, a recreation of the Mona Lisa (though she appears to be flipping us the bird), and a complete rendition of The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis The Wise, courtesy of r/prequelmemes. You can see the final canvas in all its maddening glory here, a timelapse of its evolution here, and the Wikipedia page for the project here.  

Of course, Wikipedia itself may be the greatest of all crowdsourced endeavors. It is the largest encyclopedia in the world, and probably the best. In high school, our teachers told us not to cite Wikipedia as a source, as it was too unreliable. Today, media giants like Facebook and YouTube use Wikipedia entries in the fight against fake news. All courtesy of any random yahoo with an internet connection. 

All right, so ordinary people can make open-source software, collaborate to create giant pixel-art renditions of copypastas and Renaissance masterpieces, and can even create the largest encyclopedia in all of history. Can ordinary people really write laws, though? Laws aren’t like pixel art, or even encyclopedia pages, right?

Indeed they’re not. First of all, making good pixel art is really hard, probably harder than writing laws. Second, history shows us that normal people can write perfectly good laws — you don’t need to be a lawyer or career politician. Why would you?

On our tricameralism post, one commenter mentioned Ezra Klein’s interview of Hélène Landemore (NYT,, a political scientist. We’ll have to resist quoting it at length here; seriously, give it a read or a listen. 

Particularly interesting were the stories she told about ordinary citizens writing laws for themselves. Here’s one:

Iceland decided to rewrite its constitution in 2010. And they decided to use a very innovative, inclusive, participatory method. They started with a national forum of 950 randomly-selected citizens that were tasked with coming up with the main values and ideas that they wanted to see entrenched in the new document.

And then they had an election to choose 25 constitution drafters, if you will, among a pool of nonprofessional politicians, because they had been convinced, after the 2008 crisis, that they were all corrupt. So by law, they were excluded from participating in this election. And those 25 decided to work with the larger public by publishing their drafts at regular intervals, putting them online and collecting some feedback through a crowdsourced sort of process. And then they put the resulting proposal to a nationwide referendum. Two-thirds of the voting population approved, and then parliament killed it and never turned it into a bill.


Will the People’s Bill fix our current political system? Honestly, we doubt it. Like the constitution drafters in Iceland, we fully expect Congress will kill the People’s Bill every time it comes around. Most months it will probably never get proposed; if it ever is proposed, most of the ideas in the bill will probably never make it into law. 

There are reasons to try this idea anyways. First of all, if Congress ignores the suggestions of the People, this will be another way of making it clear where their priorities lie (as if you needed any more convincing, but still).

Second, writing our own bill every month, even if it never becomes law, gets people involved in democracy. It’s a chance for people to discover they can write laws that are just as good as the laws written in Albany, Austin, Tallahassee, Denver, and Washington. Will the People’s Bill be messier than bills written by politicians? Yes, but it will also be more original, and more creative. Will the People’s Bill contain allusions to The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis The Wise? Almost certainly.  

Laws on the books are unclear and poorly written; perhaps at times intentionally so. If you have no experience writing laws yourself, you might be tempted to assume the problem is with you. But if you’ve written parts of the People’s Bill for three years running, maybe you’ll look at a piece of federal legislation and say, “You call this a law? My grandmother could write a better law than this!” And maybe you’d be right, because maybe she helps write the People’s Bill too. 

If we’re lucky, this new and well-deserved confidence will inspire more ordinary people to run for office, question the legal status quo, and so on. It lowers the barriers to entry, and encourages people to open their minds to new approaches to governance.

Third, it will help loosen the grip of the laws on our mind. It’s one thing to understand intellectually that laws were written by morons just like you and me, but it’s a whole other thing to actually be one of the morons writing the law. The US legal code wasn’t handed down on Mount Sinai. People wrote those laws, and sometimes they will be flawed, backwards, or just plain stupid. Americans used to have a much healthier disrespect for the law, and it’s time we brought that back.  

Fourth, and finally, there are a lot of great policy ideas out there, but as a country we tend to discuss the same few ideas over and over again — like an otter chasing its tail, only much less cute. The People’s Bill would be an opportunity to discuss great policy ideas that aren’t even on the radar right now. To discover good ideas that are considered normal in other places and times, but that aren’t on the docket here. Some of them will sound crazy, and some of them might even be crazy. But some ideas that sound crazy right now will end up being policy twenty years from now. Whatever else you might think of the idea, it seems like a safe bet that randos on the internet can beat United States Senators at coming up with out-of-the-box ideas.


We haven’t set up the website for The People’s Bill yet, because in the true democratic spirit of the project, we want to get suggestions about how to set it up; how the website should be structured, what software we should consider, and so on. Below are a few of our thoughts, but we’re sure you will have other suggestions, and we really want to hear your ideas.

A very straightforward option would be to set this up using MediaWiki. Wikis have talk pages, edit histories, and make it relatively simple to manage users and permissions. Every month we could set up a new page for that month’s bill, and lock the page at the end of the month. This would probably be the easiest way to set up the site.

However, a wiki wouldn’t allow people to draft different bills in parallel, and wouldn’t make it easy to compare different drafts of the same bill. There wouldn’t be any way to figure out which version of the bill has the most popular support — whoever edited the wiki most recently would always have the final say. So another option would be to use something like a forum. Different bills could be in different threads, and users could vote on which bills they like. At the end of the month, the top thread would be sent to Congress, and the rest would be locked, starting the cycle all over again. You could literally just use a subreddit for this, or you could build some kind of custom forum setup.

We could dream up more esoteric options too, though they would probably require more effort. You could link up Git to some kind of forum interface, allowing people to both vote on and branch bills as they saw fit, with all branches appearing as their own posts on the forum, complete with comments, vote tallies, and so on.

Some of these systems are more chaotic than others. A single wiki page, for example, would be sort of maddening. Anyone could wander in at any time and change the entire bill. Anyone could wander in at any time and revert the bill to a previous version. In contrast, a more forum-like approach might force the bill into reasonable sections and subsections, which could be clearly debated. This has obvious benefits, but this country already has a method for writing bills in the normal way — it’s called Congress.

We might even want to make The People’s Bill as chaotic as possible. Some months the bill might end up being the first 8,000 characters of the script of Bee Movie, but that’s a risk we’re willing to take. Just imagine Ted Cruz getting that bill in his email. 

Whatever we use, we want to make sure that it’s easily accessible. It should be easy to use and easy to join — we literally want your grandma to help draft these bills. Anyone with an internet connection should be able to join up, without too much trouble. So while esoteric systems might have some nice features, we have to balance that against wide engagement. It’s only democratic.

Thanks to Taylor Hadden and Casey Jamieson for giving feedback on a draft of this post. 

Drugs Fun, Heroin Still Dangerous

Carl Hart is a parent, Columbia professor, and five-year-running recreational heroin user, reports The Guardian. “I do not have a drug-use problem,” he says, “Never have. Each day, I meet my parental, personal and professional responsibilities. I pay my taxes, serve as a volunteer in my community on a regular basis and contribute to the global community as an informed and engaged citizen. I am better for my drug use.”

Hart makes it pretty clear he thinks drug use is a good thing. Good not only for himself, but for people in general. “Most drug-use scenarios cause little or no harm,” he says, “and some reasonable drug-use scenarios are actually beneficial for human health and functioning.” He supports some basic safeguards, including an age limit and possibly an exam-based competency requirement, “like a driver’s licence.” But otherwise, he thinks that most people can take most drugs safely.

The article mentions Hart’s research in passing, but doesn’t describe it. Instead, these claims seem to be based largely on Hart’s personal experiences with drugs. He’s been using heroin for five years and still meets his “parental, personal and professional responsibilities”. He likes to take amphetamine and cocaine “at parties and receptions.” He uses MDMA as a way to reconnect with his wife

When Hart wondered why people “go on [Ed.: yikes] about heroin withdrawal”, he conducted an ad hoc study on himself, first upping his heroin dose and then stopping (it’s not clear for how long). He describes going through an “uncomfortable” night of withdrawal, but says “he doesn’t feel the need or desire to take more heroin and never [felt] in any real danger.”

This is fascinating, but it seems like there’s a simple individual differences explanation — people differ (probably genetically) in how destructive and addictive they find certain substances, and Hart is presumably just very lucky and doesn’t find heroin (or anything else) all that addictive. This is still consistent with heroin being a terrible drug that ruins people’s lives for the average user.

Let’s imagine a simplified system where everyone either is resistant to a drug and can enjoy it recreationally, or finds it addictive and it ends up destroying their life. For alcohol, maybe 5% of people find it addictive (and become alcoholics) and the other 95% of us can enjoy it without any risk. In this case, society agrees that alcohol is safe for most people and we keep it legal. 

But for heroin, maybe 80% of people would find it addictive if they tried it. Even if 20% of people would be able to safely enjoy recreational heroin, you don’t know if it will destroy your life or not until you try it, so it’s a very risky bet. As a result, society is against heroin use and most people make the reasonable decision to not even try it.

Where that ruins-your-life-percentage (RYLP) stands for different drugs matters a lot for the kinds of drugs we want to accept as a society. Certainly a drug with a 0% RYLP should be permitted recreationally, and almost as certainly, a drug that ruined the lives of 100% of first-time users should be regulated in some way. The RYLP for real drugs will presumably lie somewhere in between. While we might see low-RYLP drugs as being worth the risk (our society’s current stance on alcohol), a RYLP of just ten or twenty percent starts looking kind of scary. A drug that ruins the lives of one out of every five first-time users is bad enough — you don’t need a RYLP of 80% for a drug to be very, very dangerous.

Listen, we also believe in the right to take drugs. We take drugs. Drugs good. Most drugs — maybe all drugs — should be legal. But this is very different from pretending that many drugs are not seriously, often dangerously addictive for a large percentage of the population. 

As far as we know, drugs like caffeine and THC aren’t seriously addictive and don’t ruin people’s lives. There’s even some fascinating evidence, from Reuven Dar, that nicotine isn’t addictive (though there may be other good reasons to avoid nicotine). But drugs like alcohol and yes, heroin, do seem to be seriously addictive, and recognizing this is important for allowing adults to make informed choices about how they want to get high off their asses.

Hart’s experience with withdrawal, and how he chooses to discuss it, seems particularly clueless. It’s possible that Hart really is able to quit heroin with minimal discomfort, but it’s confusing and kind of condescending that he doesn’t recognize it might be harder for other people. When people say things like, “I find heroin very addictive and withdrawal excruciating,” a good start is to take their reports seriously, not to turn around and say, “well withdrawal was a cakewalk FOR ME.”

This seems to be yet another example of the confusing trend in medicine and biology, where everyone seems to assume that all people are identical and there are no individual differences at all. If an exercise program works for me, it will work equally well for everyone else. If a dietary change cures my heartburn, it will work equally well for everyone’s heartburn. If a painkiller works well for me when I have a headache, it will work equally well for the pain from your chronic illness. The assumption seems to be that people’s bodies (and minds) are made up of a single indifferentiable substance which is identical across all people. But of course, people are different, and this should be neither controversial nor difficult to understand. This is why if you’re taking drugs it’s important to experiment — you need to figure out what works best for you.

This is kind of embarrassing for Carl Hart. He is a professor of neuroscience and psychology. His specialty is neuropsychopharmacology. He absolutely has the statistical and clinical background necessary to understand this point. At the risk of being internally redundant, different people are different from each other. They will have different needs. They will have different responses to the same drugs. Sometimes two people will have OPPOSITE reactions to the SAME drug! Presumably Carl Hart has heard of paradoxical reactions — he should be aware of this.

On the other hand, anyone who sticks their finger in Duterte’s eye is my personal hero. We should cut Hart some slack for generally doing the right thing around a contentious subject, even if we think he is dangerously wrong about this point.

Less slack should be cut for the article itself. This is very embarrassing for The Guardian. Hart is the only person they quote in the entire article. They don’t seem to have interviewed any other experts to see if they might disagree with or qualify Hart’s statements. This is particularly weird because other experts are clearly interested in commenting and the author clearly knows that they might disagree with Hart. They might have asked for a comment from Yale Professor, physician, and (statistically speaking) likely marijuana user, Nicholas Christakis, who would have been happy to offer a counterbalancing opinion. The Guardian was happy to print that Hart is critical of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “in particular of its director, Nora Volkow”, but there’s no indication that they so much as reached out to NIDA or to Volkow for comment (incidentally, here’s what Volkow has to say on the subject).

We can’t be sure, but it’s even possible they somewhat misrepresented Hart’s actual position. It’s disappointing but not surprising when a newspaper doesn’t understand basic statistics, and it would be unfair to hold them to the same standard we hold for Carl Hart. But it is fair to hold them accountable for the basics of journalistic practice, and it seems to us like they dropped the bong on this one.

Links for February 2021

When it comes to consuming media on the internet, the Wadsworth Constant is your friend. You should have skipped the first clause of this paragraph. Maybe the second half of the paragraph really.

You’ve probably heard of The Dyatlov Pass incident, where nine hikers died in the Ural Mountains under mysterious circumstances. Well, the mystery appears to have been solved using computer simulation methods developed to animate the Disney film Frozen, combined with data from research at General Motors, where they “played rather violently with human corpses”.

Back near the beginning of the pandemic, Ada Palmer wrote a post over at her blog Ex Urbe, in response to the question, “If the Black Death caused the Renaissance, will COVID also create a golden age?” This piece is perhaps even more interesting now that we’ve seen how the first year of the pandemic has played out. If you haven’t read it yet, you should! 

We love this piece of speculative burrito fiction. The fiction is speculative, not the burritos. At least, we’re pretty sure it’s fiction. 

Exciting new developments in education: NYU cognitive science professor Todd Gureckis, in an effort to learn how to make more engaging video lectures, studies the masters: YouTubers. The results are already pretty impressive, and we suspect they will get even more engaging over time. 

[Morpheus Voice] You think it’s the year 2021, when in fact it’s still early fall 1993. We have only bits and pieces of information, but what we know for certain is that in the early ’90s, AOL opened the doors of usenet, trapping the internet in Eternal September. Whatever date you think it is, the real date (as of this writing) is Sunday September 10043, 1993. 

You probably know about Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, but DID YOU KNOW ABOUT THE BUTT MUSIC???

Tricameral Legislatures


In a recent post, we argued that the US Senate is actually a pretty liberal institution, even when it happens to be controlled by conservatives, because it helps safeguard minority opinions against the majority.

That said, there’s a lot to dislike about Congress. The big sticking point in our book is gridlock. If a bill is popular in the House and the Senate doesn’t like it, that bill is never making it to graduation. The same is true for a bill popular in the Senate that the House can’t stand. There are too many opportunities for individual officials to obstruct the process. If the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader decides to stomp on a bill that everyone else likes, there’s not much anyone can do about it.

Right now, every legislature in the world is either unicameral — a single group of legislators make all the laws — or bicameral — two groups or chambers of legislators each write and pass laws and then duke it out. 

Unicameral legislatures are pretty straightforward, but they have a number of drawbacks. There are many ways to elect legislators, but you’ll probably have reason to regret your decision, whatever you choose. If your legislators are all noblemen (as was once the case in countries like the UK) most of your population doesn’t have representation. If your legislators are elected proportionally, based on population (as is the case in the US House of Representatives), you end up with a populist system that makes it easy for the majority to abuse any minority. Regardless of how you determine who gets to be a legislator, if you only have one chamber, there’s always the chance that something will go wrong in that chamber, and they’ll pass some really stupid laws. 

Having two chambers mitigates these issues, especially when the chambers are elected in different ways. A populist chamber that tries to pass anti-minority laws can be blocked by a chamber that better represents minorities. A chamber of elites that tries to pass a discriminatory law can be blocked by a populist chamber. This system of checks and balances has obvious benefits compared to letting a single chamber run everything, and this is a large part of why many legislatures are bicameral. Unfortunately, this leads to political gridlock.


So why stop at two?

One chamber is tyranny. A second chamber introduces checks and balances, but leads to political gridlock. A third chamber can introduce further checks and balances, and break the deadlock to boot.

In the two-chamber system, a bill can be introduced by either chamber, but it needs the approval of both chambers to be sent to the executive branch to be signed into law. This creates a bottleneck. 

In a three-chamber system, we can relax that requirement. Any of the three chambers can propose a bill, and if they can get one of the other chambers to approve it, then it goes to the executive. If we have three chambers, A, B, and C, a law can be passed by A & B, B & C, or A & C working together. That way if one of the chambers is deadlocked on an issue, or one powerful legislator is trying to keep a bill from being passed, the other two chambers of congress can just work around it. 

Currently in the US government, a presidential veto can only be overridden by a 2/3 majority vote in both the House and the Senate. In a three-chamber system, there could be more than one option. A veto could be overridden by a 2/3 majority vote in the two chambers that originally approved it, or by a simple majority vote in all three chambers.

You could extend these principles to a system with 5, 7, or even more chambers, but three is complicated enough.

This isn’t an entirely new idea — tricameralism has been tried a few times before. But the most recent major attempt was apertheid-era South Africa, so it seems like a fair bet that we can do better.


The main distinction between the three chambers would be in how they are elected.

Let’s imagine how this could play out in an ideal scenario. One of the chambers should have proportional representation, like in the US House of Representatives. We also think it’s a good idea for one of the chambers to have intentionally disproportionate representation, like the US Senate, though it doesn’t necessarily need to be by state. 

How should the third chamber be organized? We have some ideas.


As we argued in our earlier piece on the Senate, disproportionate representation can be good because it can protect minority groups from the whims of the majority. This doesn’t make all that much sense when the representation is by state — residents of North Dakota are not what we normally mean by “minority” — but maybe we can take this and run with it.  

When we talk about minorities, we usually mean ethnic or religious minorities. So one thing we could do is make a chamber where every ethnic group or every religious group gets equal representation. For example, in a religious legislature, there might be 10 seats for Christians, 10 seats for Muslims, 10 seats for Sikhs, 10 seats for atheists, and so on. This would mean that even if, for example, the majority of a country were atheists, religious minorities would still have a stake in writing the laws of the country. 

This may sound outlandish to Americans, but this is pretty much how Lebanon’s legislative branch is set up. As an extremely diverse country with a history of sectarian violence, Lebanon’s parliament was designed so that there will always be 64 Christian and 64 Muslim (plus Druze) representatives.

This approach protects minorities in a very structural way, which is great. There are a couple reasons to dislike this idea, however. First of all, the boundaries between different ethnic groups and different religions are pretty unclear. Do Catholics and Protestants count as “the same religion” for the purposes of allocating seats in this new chamber? How about Mormons? Do atheists and agnostics get separate representation? What if someone invents a new religion? How many representatives go to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Will the chamber be taken over by Satanists?

Second, building a legislative body around something like race or religion puts the power to decide these questions in the hands of the government. We like government pretty ok, but we don’t think it should be deciding which religions “count” as separate religions.

Third, we think that dividing people up this way supports ideas like racial essentialism, which are basically a form of racist pseudoscience.

Ultimately it seems that this is a system that might work in some places (including Lebanon), but is politically dicey overall.

Native Americans

If there’s one group in America that really deserves more representation, it’s Native Americans. 

This chamber would be really simple. There are 574 federally recognized tribal governments in the United States, and each government would get a seat, electing their representative however they wanted to. 

We do notice that 231 of these tribes are located in Alaska, however. Many of them seem to have populations of only a couple hundred people, which seems a little bit disproportionate even by the standards of disproportionate representation. Probably the thing to do would be to give each of the twelve Alaska Native Regional Corporations the same level of representation. 

Native American tribes are, at least nominally, sovereign nations, and maybe it sounds weird to give a sovereign government a say in writing our laws. Well…

Foreigner-Only Chamber

There’s an old joke that the President is mayor of the United States and Dictator of the World. The President has little more than advisory power at home, but can more or less rule the globe with an iron fist. This seems unfair. 

There’s another old joke about making Israel the 51st state, which is that they would object on the grounds that they’d only get 2 votes in the Senate. Good idea, why not.

America should take its role as a superpower more seriously. American laws influence the whole world, so maybe we should give the rest of the world some say in our laws. They already get ambassadors, so why not representatives. What’s more, America is home to millions of immigrants, who can’t vote and don’t get any representation.

In this chamber, each of the 195 or so countries of the world would send one representative, who would vote on laws just like any normal member of Congress. Naturally, the USA would get one representative in this chamber as well, and it would probably make sense to have that representative serve as the president of that chamber, as the Vice President does for the Senate.

This may seem like handing over the reins to foreign powers, but this chamber can’t pass any laws on its own. To pass a law, it would have to work with either the House or the Senate, so everything still has to be approved by an all-American body. And anyways, the President can still veto any law they want.

In addition, this chamber gives us a surprisingly strong carrot & stick for international relations. Any country would jump at the chance to have a say in setting American policy. Offering a seat, or threatening to take it away, is something that foreign powers would take seriously. If we threatened to kick Russia out, they would pay attention, and it’s interesting to think what North Korea might agree to if we hinted we might give them a seat in Congress. If this chamber existed today, I would say we should kick Myanmar out right away.

This system does seem like it might be a little hackable. After all, what’s to stop a country from breaking up into many smaller countries to get more votes? On reflection, however, if other world governments want to balkanize themselves to get more representatives, that’s ok with us, especially since plenty of regions already want to do this.

Age Bracket

A problem with most governments is that they are the tyranny of the old over the young. This is perverse because young people will live to see the full consequences of the laws passed today, while old people may not. Old men declare war, but it’s young men who have to fight and die. Again, this seems pretty unfair.

It’s true that (in the US) young people can vote and run for many offices once they turn 18 (though maybe it should be even younger). But it’s also true that the average age of congress is 58 years old, and about 40% of them are over 65. Only one member of congress is under 30, the 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), but he doesn’t seem particularly representative of his age bracket.

I’ve heard that taxation without representation is bad, and while we could in theory be doing better, the fact of the matter is Americans ages 18-29 have only one representative in the House and no representation at all in the Senate. 

In our third chamber, representation could be by age bracket. Decades seems like the natural breakdown here, so we might assign 10 seats to people in their 20’s, 10 seats to people in their 30’s, and so on. Representatives would be elected for 2-year terms, and the main qualification would be that you would need to be in the proper age bracket on election day. If I ran as a 29-year-old and won, I would serve out my term as a representative for 20-somethings. Once my term was up I could run for the same chamber, but because I would then be 31, I would have to run as a representative for 30-somethings.

It’s not clear how far we should take this — the elderly deserve representation too, but we probably don’t want to mandate a voting block of representatives in their 90’s. Because other chambers tend to skew old, maybe it would make sense to have a cutoff at retirement age. Let’s imagine we raise the retirement age to 70 (possibly a good idea on its own), and so the final bracket in this chamber would be 70+. If an 80-year old ran for a seat in this chamber, she would be running to represent everyone age 70 and up.

Legal scholar @tinybaby, proposes a similar system, saying, “each state should have an allocation of 100 years of age for their senators. you can send two 50 year olds but if you want dianne feinstein in the senate you gotta send a 13 year old too”. All we can say is that this is an even more creative solution.


With some of these systems, it’s hard to know how to slice and dice the population for representation. This is how we end up with things like gerrymandering, which no one likes except politicians.

A solution to this is to use metrics that are easy to measure and hard to fake. For example, we could have a chamber composed entirely of the 100 tallest people in the country. Wait, that’s just basketball players. Ok, why not the NBA (& WNBA) winning teams for that year? At least we’ll know that these representatives are good at something. 

People already complain about politicians spending too much time dunking on each other, and not enough time on policy. If this is going to happen anyways, let’s at least make the dunking literal.

Party-Breaking Chamber

America seems to have a problem passing laws, even when they’re laws that most Americans approve of. Most Americans support some form of single-payer healthcare. Two-thirds of Americans, including 55% of Republicans, support legalizing marijuana. 93% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans support background checks on firearm sales at gun shows. Support for expanded background checks is high even among members of the NRA. And of course, more than 80% of Americans want stimulus checks in response to the pandemic. Or you know, any kind of stimulus at all, please. Despite this, none of these policies have become law, and none of them seem to be coming any time soon.

One explanation for this standstill is the constant partisan bickering. According to this explanation, our representatives are too busy dunking on each other (see above) and scoring points for their parties to actually do their jobs. 

If this is the case, one solution would be a chamber that forces the two parties to work together.  This chamber would look a lot like the Senate — each state would elect and send two representatives. The twist is that every state would have to send both a Republican and a Democrat, so the chamber would always be 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans.

We’ll take another page out of Lebanon’s playbook here. In Lebanon, all elections are by universal suffrage, so a Christian candidate needs to court votes from Muslim voters in their district, and vice-versa. The same would happen for this chamber — representatives would be elected in a general election, not a primary, so they would benefit from getting votes from members of the other party. Like every state, Massachusetts would have to send one Republican, and the Republican they chose would undoubtedly be the one who best figured out how to appeal to liberal voters.

This precludes all the usual fights over who controls what branch of government, at least for this chamber. In this chamber, no party is ever in control — it’s always 50/50.

If the votes in this chamber were by simple majority, then because both parties have 50 seats, either party would be able to pass any law they wanted to. That’s not what we want, so in this chamber, laws can only be passed by a two-thirds majority. As a result, you literally cannot pass a law in this chamber unless it’s strongly supported by both parties.

No more fighting over the most controversial issues of the nation. Leave that to the House and the Senate. In this chamber, there’s no point trying to pass a law unless you think it has a chance at broad appeal — and the hope is, this would encourage them to aim for the policies that most Americans already want.


There are lots of humans in America, but there are even more animals. They deserve representation too, from the greatest moose to the lowliest grasshopper. They deserve some kind of… animal house. That’s the whole joke, sorry.


There’s another old problem with democracy, which is that you can only elect people who are running for office. These people are naturally power-hungry; you can tell because they’re running for office. Who would want to vote for that guy? As Douglas Adams put it: 

“The major problem — one of the major problems, for there are several — one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

The problem with elections is you’re electing someone who decided to run. They want power, and that means you can’t trust them.

There are also many people who we like and trust, but who wouldn’t want to run for Senate or wouldn’t do a good job if they did, people like (depending on your political views) Adam Savage, John Oliver, Oprah (or Oprah for men, Joe Rogan), Cory Doctorow, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s ghost. Not all of these people are living American citizens, but you get the idea. I don’t know if many of these people would make good legislators. I think most of them would even turn down the job. But there’s some political savvy there that we’re letting go to waste.

So let’s cut the Gordian knot on this one by combining these two issues into a solution. We want to find people who would be good at governing but who would never think of running, and we want to take advantage of the political savvy of people who wouldn’t make good legislators or wouldn’t even take the job in the first place. 

So what we do is we elect clever people as nominators, and let them nominate people they think would be good for the job. In this chamber, you can’t run for a position. What you can do is run to nominate people to this chamber. If you win, you get to nominate people for a few — let’s say three — positions. Assuming they accept the nomination, the people you choose serve out a normal term in congress. 

To keep this from being politics-as-usual, there would need to be some limits on who could run as a nominator and who could be nominated. The whole benefit of this system is to bring in genius from outside the normal political world, people who would normally be too humble to run. We can’t have this system filled up with career politicians, because the whole point is that constantly bringing in new people is a good way to flush out the swamp. 

To begin with, nominators can’t have been elected to any state or federal position. If they win, and nominate people to this chamber, they are barred from politics, and can’t run for any position or hold any office in the future. This keeps them from being consistent kingmakers.

Similarly, we want the members of this chamber to be intelligent outsiders, so nominees can’t have been previously elected to any federal position. We think state and lower elected positions might be all right, as this would be a good way to elevate someone gifted from local politics to the national stage. Unlike nominators, however, nominees should be able to run for office in the future. They can’t be nominated to this chamber again, but if they do a really great job and everyone agrees they’re a wonderful politician, it’s clear they would be able to do well in the the House or Senate, and they should be allowed to run for other offices.

This does sound a little strange, but many of our most important federal officials are already appointed. In fact, one of the main powers of the president is appointing officials like ambassadors, cabinet positions, federal judges, and many others. In some ways, the president is really just a super-nominator position. This chamber is simply taking the good idea of appointing officials, making it more democratic, and extending it to Congress.

Normal People

One of our favorite things about the idea of nomination is that it’s a way to get normal people, who can’t or wouldn’t run for office, involved in government directly. We liked this so much that it got us thinking about other ways you might be able to get normal people involved in government.

Originally we played around with different ideas about how to find normal people who could be elevated to office. A chamber composed of the most viral tiktokers that year? A chamber of the mods of the 20 subreddits with the most subscribers? A chamber of the best dolphin trainers? These are very democratic ideas, but we couldn’t find a way to make them work. All these ideas would be immediately captured by people seeking to gain office, which defeats the porpoise, and reddit would be in charge of our electoral security, which seems like a big ask. There’s also surprisingly strong circumstantial evidence that Ghislaine Maxwell was the moderator of several major subreddits, so maybe this isn’t such a great idea after all.

These people are more normal than Ted Cruz politicians, but reddit mods and twitch streamers are not exactly normal either. They’re regular people, but they’re not all that representative.

True Lottery

So instead, why not a chamber elected by lottery? In this chamber, representatives are randomly drawn from the population of all adult citizens, or maybe all registered voters.

Most of these people would have no experience in government. To account for this, each member of this chamber would be elected for terms of 6 years, but with the terms staggered, so that every two years only one-third of the members would be replaced by lottery. (This is exactly how the Senate does it.) This means that while every one of these representatives was randomly drawn from the population, at any given time one-third of them would have at least four years of experience, one-third of them would have at least two years of experience, and one-third of them would be incoming freshmen.

A member could theoretically be elected to this chamber more than once, but because election is by lottery, the chances of this happening are pretty damn slim (though given how weird the world is, it would probably still happen at some point). However, like the nomination idea above, these randomly-elected legislators might do such a good job that they would go on to be directly elected to other branches of government.

While you might be concerned about a chamber filled with randomly selected Americans, this chamber still can’t pass laws without the help of either the House or the Senate. It’s true their views will probably be more diverse than the views held in the House and the Senate, but you say that like it’s a bad thing. 

In some ways, this encompasses many of the other ideas we described above, and does a better job of it. A chamber elected by true lottery will not only be balanced in terms of demographics, it will actually be representative. The distribution of gender, age, race, education, religion, profession, and so on in this chamber will all be nearly identical to the United States in general. Gerrymandering literally can’t affect it, since it’s a random sample. It’s hard to imagine a better way of getting diverse voices in politics.

The US is currently paralyzed by partisan bickering, but most Americans are less partisan than their representatives are, and might be more interested in getting things done for the country than scoring points for their party. 

The US currently has a hard time passing laws that 70% of Americans approve of. Maybe a chamber of normal Americans would help these popular ideas finally become law.