Feelin’ pretty psyched

When I started my independent consulting and speaking business in March 2020 (I have always had impeccable timing in my life, it’s a character trait), I had a vague sense that one of the qualities that differentiated my approach from other analysts was my sense of optimism.

Now, by optimism, I don’t mean a willful naivete to pretend like everything is going great in the world when, clearly, there are serious problems we face as a species, let alone as companies, nations, and individuals.

I simply mean that I felt there was ample opportunity even amid disruption (whether of the political, economic, cultural, or everyday variety)—and that, on balance, the world still offers more of the former than the latter.

You can’t glean that sentiment from the headlines in any newspaper, anywhere in the world. Indeed, one of the questions I get most often when giving presentations or briefings to clients is, “How do you stay sane?”—the implication being that spending one’s time thinking about global politics must lend itself more to a penchant for self-destruction than a sterling bill of mental health.

A few months ago, two scholars (Adam Mastroianni at Columbia Business School and Daniel T. Gilbert at Harvard) published a paper in Nature entitled, “The illusion of moral decline.” Like me, these scholars had an anecdotal sense that everyone felt the world was going to hell in a handbasket. They decided to hack into that gut feeling and produced some incredible insights.

Indeed, what they found validated this optimist’s sense of the world. According to their survey data, people all over the world—not just in the United States—believe that morality has declined, and with it the social fabric that links modern human societies. And yet, when asked specifically about the morality of their contemporaries (i.e., their friends, families, and personal networks), survey respondents were far more sanguine.

Mastroianni and Gilbert explain this conundrum with reference to two psychological phenomena: “biased exposure effect” and “biased memory effect.”

Biased exposure effect is shorthand for the human tendency “to seek and attend to negative information about others.” (Conrad called this the “fascination of the abomination,” which has a better ring to it than “biased exposure effect.”)

Biased memory effect is when we look back at events in the past and misremember them for being better than they were. (This kind of “golden age” thinking got its best treatment in Midnight in Paris, the only Woody Allen movie I have ever enjoyed.)

In other words: Humans pursue negative information and consume it like junk food, but sitting on their couches decades in the future, they look back on the past and remember it as the time when things were good: “The problem is these millennials and Gen Z’ers today and how society is falling apart due to the collapse of social norms and blah blah blah.”

I would argue that this kind of thinking has infected the discipline of geopolitics like a disease. Most analysts in my field focus on negative risks. When will China invade Taiwan and what will happen? What will it mean if the dollar loses its status as a reserve currency? Is Mexican President AMLO going to usurp the constitution and become a dictator?

Case in point: Peter Zeihan—a former colleague at Stratfor and a far better-known analyst than I—recently published a best-seller entitled, “The End of the World Is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization.”

Not only is the world not ending, but thinking it is so inevitably moving toward such a conclusion strips us of the agency that has proven every Malthusian-style catastrophist wrong in the long run.

To be clear—I pay close attention to risks too, and they abound, as the Russia-Ukraine war clearly demonstrated to anyone that still doubted the relevance of geopolitics in the 21st century. But I also pay close attention to the opportunities that disruption creates.

The mental map I use to understand the world today has nothing to do with the Cold War or either of the World Wars, everyone’s favorite metaphor for the end of the world as we know it. Instead, I look back to the world of the 1890s—a time of rising and falling great powers, of tremendous technological innovation, of revolutionary change in how we store and use energy, and of global cultural effervescence—and see similarities with the new era beginning in global geopolitics.

In practical terms, this means that now is not a time to be crouched in a fetal position yearning for “the good ole days.” Now is the time to be “making moves” as we millennials like to say. There will be time for doom and gloom later. There are plenty of disturbing trends on the horizon, the most serious of which are U.S.-China relations, nuclear proliferation, and climate change. They aren’t going anywhere, and future generations will face difficult challenges unraveling these threads.

But here, today—these are the good times. I think future generations will look back and long for this decade, in the same way that I long for the 90s and my parents longed for the 60s. This optimism is harder to sell than fascination with the abomination, but it has the virtue of being a more accurate portrayal of what is happening in the world.

And that, dear friends, is all I really care about. Being accurate. And that is what geopolitics is all about—cutting through the noise and the ideologies and the stale narratives and grasping, however tenuously, a sense of the Truth, and using that understanding to prepare for what the future holds, both good and bad.

And so here I am, almost 15 years after initially setting out on this geopolitical journey, spreading the gospel of geopolitics to audiences, corporate clients, and the investors I work directly with as a partner at Cognitive Investments.

If you think your audience might find my perspective valuable, don’t hesitate to reach out. You now know where to find me.

— Jacob

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