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The Mind of the Good Ruler: How Empathy Drives Governance

The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II (1797-1870) did something very peculiar for a ruler of a state: he left us a personal diary. It was a collection of handwritten notes that cover all the period of his rule as Grand Duke, up to when he was deposed in 1859. It was published in 1987. It is a fascinating document (unfortunately existing only in Italian, as far as I know) that allows us a rare chance of a glimpse of how the mind of a ruler works -- in this case a good ruler.   Why are our leaders so bad? Maybe it is us who always choose the worst possible persons for the job? But are they bad at the start, or do they go bananas as things go on? It would be nice to be able to understand what goes on inside the head of leaders, but they are people notoriously capable of cheating just about anyone, including themselves. And the main tool of the cheater is to hide what he is thinking.  Maybe we could know more if we could have the personal diary of some of those powerful figures, but they don't usually keep diaries. That's probably part of their habit of keeping hidden what they really think. But sometimes we do have documents that open a view for us inside the head of these people. I already discussed the case of Benito Mussolini on the basis of the diary kept by his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano. Mussolini was an almost paradigmatic bad leader and here I would try to contrast his approach to ruling with another figure of leader who, under many respects, was [More]

The Mind of the Good Ruler: Governance and Empathy

 The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II (1797-1870) did something very peculiar for a ruler of a state: he left us a personal diary. It was a collection of handwritten notes that cover all the period of his rule as Grand Duke, up to when he was deposed in 1871. It was published in 1987. It is a fascinating document (unfortunately existing only in Italian, as far as I know) that allows us a rare chance of a glimpse of how the mind of a ruler works -- in this case a good ruler.   Why are our leaders so bad? Maybe it is us who always choose the worst possible persons for the job? But are they bad at the start, or do they go bananas as things go on? It would be nice to be able to understand what goes on inside the head of leaders, but they are people notoriously capable of cheating just about anyone, including themselves. And the main tool of the cheater is to hide what he is thinking.  Maybe we could know more if we could have the personal diary of some of those powerful figures, but they don't usually keep diaries. That's probably part of their habit of keeping hidden what they really think. But sometimes we do have documents that open a view for us inside the head of these people. I already discussed the case of Benito Mussolini on the basis of the diary kept by his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano. Mussolini was an almost paradigmatic bad leader and here I would try to contrast his approach to ruling with another figure of leader who, under many respects, [More]

The Mind of the Good Ruler: How to Govern a State as if it were a Family.

 The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II (1797-1870) did something very peculiar for a ruler of a state: he left us a personal diary. It was a collection of handwritten notes that cover all the period of his rule as Grand Duke, up to when he was deposed in 1871. It was published in 1987. It is a fascinating document (unfortunately existing only in Italian, as far as I know) that allows us a rare chance of a glimpse of how the mind of a ruler works -- in this case a good ruler.   Why are our leaders so bad? Maybe it is us who always choose the worst possible persons for the job? But are they bad at the start, or do they go bananas as things go on? It would be nice to be able to understand what goes on inside the head of leaders, but they are people notoriously capable of cheating just about anyone, including themselves. And the main tool of the cheater is to hide what he is thinking.  Maybe we could know more if we could have the personal diary of some of those powerful figures, but they don't usually keep diaries. That's probably part of their habit of keeping hidden what they really think. But sometimes we do have documents that open a view for us inside the head of these people. I already discussed the case of Benito Mussolini on the basis of the diary kept by his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano. Mussolini was an almost paradigmatic bad leader and here I would try to contrast his approach to ruling with another figure of leader who, under many respects, [More]

Famines as Military Weapons: Is Europe in Danger?

 A Dutch girl photographed at the time of the "hongerwinter", the famine that hit The Netherlands in 1945, during WW2.  In the West, we tend to think of famines as events of the remote past that will never return, a view typified by Steven Pinker in his 2011 book "The Better Angels of our Nature." This attitude is often accompanied by sneers at Paul Ehrlich who, in 1968, had predicted extensive worldwide famines that were soon to occur. Even when famines are discussed as a real possibility, they are seen as affecting only those remote countries where hordes of dark-skinned or slant-eyed people already live in near-starvation conditions. We forgot how close in time was an age in which hunger was a fact of life and famines a common occurrence. The last important famine in Europe was in the Netherlands in 1946 -- that was less than a hundred years ago, not in the Middle Ages. Our lack of historical memory is the reason why we see books such as "One Billion Americans" by Matthew Yglesias, where the author happily neglects the problems involved with supplying food and energy to a U.S. population three times larger than it is nowadays. The real problem with assessing the possibility of future famines is that they are often man-made, that is actively created by human actions. Starving an enemy is a time-honored strategy that works beautifully. We have a detailed report of how it was put into practice by the Romans at the time of the Siege of [More]

Famines as a Military Weapon: Is Europe in Danger?

 Above, a Dutch girl photographed at the time of the "hongerwinter", the famine that hit The Netherlands in 1945, during WW2. One of the best ways to make wrong predictions consists of extrapolating from a too small set of data. You see that when people speak of the "Pause" in global warming, but it is a very general rule. About famines, in 1968 Paul Erlich predicted extensive worldwide famines that were soon to occur in his book "The Population Bomb" (1968)  That didn't happen and, instead, famines declined worldwide to the point that an optimistic view of the future became prevalent. In 2011, in his book "The Better Angels of our Nature" Steven Pinker argued for the opposite of Ehrlich's predictions, that there will be no more major famines in the world for the foreseeable future.In this post, I argue that both Ehrlich's and Pinker's predictions were affected by the classic mistake of extrapolating from too few data. Ehrlich was influenced by the famines of the 1950s and 1960s, in particular by the Chinese famine of 1959-1961 that killed a number of people estimated in the range of tens of millions. Pinker, instead, was influenced by the lull in famines of the past 30 years or so, that can't be considered as a rule in human history. But can famines return for real? In the West, when we discuss this subject, we tend to think of famines as events of the remote past that will never return. Or, if they will, they will affect only those remote countries [More]

How Poor Leadership can Create Collapse or Make It Faster: Lessons from European History

The damage that a bad leader can generate is simply fearsome, especially if that leader has a lot of power and he is nearly impossible to remove from his position. If then that leader controls a large military apparatus, even including nuclear weapons, then the disasters that can happen are beyond the imaginable. If you, like me, doubt the competence of our current leaders, there is plenty to be worried about. The problem seems to be that our system of choosing leaders guarantees to propel to the top all sorts of power-mongering psychopaths. And as the power we manage increases, going from nuclear weapons to the control of the Web, the chances for truly disastrous damage created by an incompetent leader also increase. Maybe there should be a science of incompetent leaders that might be a branch of the more general "science of evil." In this post, I propose a brief exploration of this field that starts with the idea that the past is the way to understand the future. So I repropose a theme that I had already examined: that of Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) (1808-1873) one of the best examples we have of an incompetent leader who ruined the state he was leading. At that time, fortunately, there were no nuclear weapons available and Luis Napoleon himself was not so aggressive and bloodthirsty as other famously bad leaders. Nevertheless, the damage he generated was considerable and we can learn something from his story. Napoleon 3rd: how to destroy an empire in the making. [More]

How Poor Leadership can Create Collapse or Make It Faster: Lesson from European History

The damage that a bad leader can generate is simply fearsome, especially if that leader has a lot of power and he is nearly impossible to remove from his position. If then that leader controls a large military apparatus, even including nuclear weapons, then the disasters that can happen are beyond the imaginable. If you, like me, doubt the competence of our current leaders, there is plenty to be worried about. The problem seems to be that our system of choosing leaders guarantees to propel to the top all sorts of power-mongering psychopaths. And as the power we manage increases, going from nuclear weapons to the control of the Web, the chances for truly disastrous damage created by an incompetent leader also increase. Maybe there should be a science of incompetent leaders that might be a branch of the more general "science of evil." In this post, I propose a brief exploration of this field that starts with the idea that the past is the way to understand the future. So I repropose a theme that I had already examined: that of Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) (1808-1873) one of the best examples we have of an incompetent leader who ruined the state he was leading. At that time, fortunately, there were no nuclear weapons available and Luis Napoleon himself was not so aggressive and bloodthirsty as other famously bad leaders. Nevertheless, the damage he generated was considerable and we can learn something from his story. Napoleon 3rd: how to destroy an empire in the making. [More]

Hastening the Cliff: How Poor Leadership can Create Collapse or Make It Faster

The damage that a bad leader can generate is simply fearsome, especially if that leader has a lot of power and he is nearly impossible to remove from his position. If, then, that leader controls a large military apparatus, even including nuclear weapons, then the disasters that can happen are beyond the imaginable. If you, like me, doubt the competence of our current leaders, there is plenty to be worried about. The problem seems to be that our system of choosing leaders guarantees to propel to the top all sorts of power-mongering psychopaths. And as the power we manage increase, going from nuclear weapons to mind control by the Web, the chances for truly disastrous damage created by an incompetent leader increase. Maybe there should be a science of incompetent leaders that might be a branch of the more general "science of evil." In this post, I start with the idea that the past is the way to understand the future and so I repropose a theme that I had already examined: that of Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) (1808-1873) one of the best examples we have of an incompetent leader who ruined the state he was leading. At that time, fortunately there were no nuclear weapons available and Luis Napoleon himself was not so aggressive as other famously bad leaders. Nevertheless, the damage he generated was considerable and we can learn something from this story. Napoleon 3rd: how to destroy an empire in the making.  The armies of Napoleon Bonaparte went through many victories and [More]

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