Over the past few years, I’ve lived in over 30 countries in the world. Some for more than a year, most for a couple of months, others for less than a month (“so you didn’t live there”, cool fuck off).
During that time I’ve spent a lot of time on the extremes of how people live and the different ways societies organize themselves
– from a village in the Himalayas where people don’t use money (my friend wrote a nice article about this)
– lived with Buddhist monks in a monastery in a Tibetan region of India
– spent months in cities around the world including Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Bogota, Bangkok, Hanoi, and New Delhi each with its vibe and culture.
– visited a lot of obscure countries that most people wouldn’t be able to point to on a map. I rode a bike around most of Laos, hitchhiked across Cambodia, and Been to Albania 4 times, Azerbaijani immigration looked at me questioning cause I went there directly after Armenia, lived in a cave in Tunisia, etc etc.
Throughout all of this and especially the past 2 years, there’s been one idea I’ve found fascinating and it’s the idea of what makes and keeps a high-trust society.
What is a high trust society?
I first heard this idea on a podcast in a negative way where someone was talking about how most of the western world has become low-trust societies and as people lose their shared reality they can no longer function together as a society.
I grew up in India and there’s a joke I’ve said for a long time which is that “the people most racist towards Indians are other Indians”. Anyone who visits India probably sees that it’s a low-trust environment (especially in cities) as well as a zero-sum nature of looking at the world (slowly changing in some communities like tech).
I won’t bat the drum on low-trust societies cause I think most people reading this are part of a low-trust society and feel the consequences. Everyone’s written enough about how the two “sides” of America don’t agree, polarization across the world, etc, etc.
However, let me go share my experiences with the high-trust societies I see in the world today and how I spend most of my life in them.
How did I start paying attention to high trust vs low trust societies?
I spent most of 2020-21 in Argentina, so not only was I in the country with the world’s 2nd longest lockdown but also I experienced 50% inflation in a year. (Crying about Single digit inflation? Pst… lightweight you ain’t seen nothing yet😉.)
God Damn it Jeremy why do you make everything about money🙄 I thought we were talking about trust and love and happiness and community…
Give me 5 mins and I think you’ll be happy I bought inflation into this picture.
In economics, there’s an idea about time preference best described as “do you value something today or something more in the future”.
If the mortgage rate is 3% and inflation is 7% why wouldn’t you go into debt to buy something today even if you can’t afford it?
In an inflation society caused by debt being money that incentive applies to relationships as well. “If your kids are hungry because your government has made your money valueless, do you still care about your relationship with your cousin 5 years from now or are you willing to destroy a 40 year relationship to fulfill needs in the present?”
or another version of this is “if there’s inflation a wine maker has 3 things he can do. 1. Raise prices 2. Use lower quality produce/water down his wine 3. Shrink size of product.
Most companies are hesitant to do 1 so they always start with 2 and 3 (cause that’s what their competitors do) and later do 1 as well. So the producer loses trust with his customers as over time they notice 2 and 3, but those are just the incentives forced on him due to inflation”.
Inflation especially hyperinflation destroys trust in society and I noticed that as an undertone in the culture during my time in Argentina. It’s a great country with a lot of great people it’s one of my favorite country in the world but I notice how the incentives driven by the money cause society to be less trustful of each other.
Money is best described as a communication platform and if your money is broken you can’t plan for the future or even communicate value between actors.
On the other extreme I feel the same way about Sweden. My girlfriend is Swedish and Sweden seems like the “heaven” to many outsiders but people don’t realize how messed up it in from the inside.
Sweden has hyperinflation as well, just like Argentina but only if you look at apartments. Stockholm is probably the worst city in the world for Airbnbs and rentals, why? Failure of communication of money.
BTW if you say it’s not “hyperinflation” it’s “high inflation” cause it’s asset prices or “technically according to academics” hyperinflation is ‘50% a month’ kindly fuck off and grow up and stop living in theory.
- The state controlled rental market is broken and has a 11 year waiting list for people who want to rent.
- so everyone who wants a nice place to live has to buy a house (or pay a bombshell amount they can’t afford.)
- so everyone is in debt to their eyeballs to buy their house.
- Sweden has the 4th highest household debt to income in the world.
- In 2020 houses grew by 10% and another 20% in 2023. (Thank you QE!)
So what happens to Sweden as their hyperinflation is happening in housing? Basically the same thing that’s happened in sf, Vancouver and a lot of the world.
For starters people can no longer plan for the future. Let’s say you’re a young entrepreneur who decides to buy a house in 2019 to rent on Airbnb.
Over the past 2 year you realize you made 20x more money by just the appreciation of your house. So you do one of two things.
1. You either leave your second house completely empty, because the monthly amount may be a lot but it’s still nothing compared to the money you make from the house going up.
2. You run the place but you become annoyed with every guest you have, you start treating them as scum cause you believe you should be paid more based on the value of the house. “Why do I need to work when I can get a stimulus check from the government – appreciation of housing has the same effect”.
and even if you do rent the place for an absurd amount of money, 50% of it goes to taxes and the rest barely covers your mortgage. So both the landlord and the tenant aren’t happy.
End result: 10% of homes are empty + everyone is in debt to their eyeballs and can’t stand still + very few people renting apartments (on airbnb or otherwise) and the ones who do are annoyed that they have to deal with tenants (low trust).
The reason I talk so much about money is because that the foundational language and if our communication protocol fail we have issues doesn’t matter if you’re in Argentina or in Sweden.
Side Note: How value is created.
I recently read Human Action by Ludwig Von Mises. It’s a long read, but if you want a shorter version (6 hours vs 30 hours) of the ideas listen to the Max on the What is money podcast.
However there’s one aspect about “Value” that’s relevant for this discussion.
Trade isn’t the exchange of two goods of equal value. Value of goods are subjective not objective.
Trade occurs when someone values the good more than the other person, and the other person values the money (optionality on future goods) more than the good.
Think of a farmer, he values the ability to save money to send his kid to the city 5 years from now more than the extra eggs he has. The person buying the eggs values the eggs more than the money he exchanges for it.
So both people by trading end up with something that they value more than what they started with. That’s how value is created.
Numerically: person A starts with $10 “objective worth” of eggs. Person B starts with $10 “objective worth” of milk. Person A has extra eggs but not enough milk so “subjectively values” the milk at $11 (and vice versa for person B). So trade happens and both people get something they value more. Aka $10+$10+trade=$11+$11 ($2 of subjective value was created).
And in reality subjective value is the only value that exists in the world and objective value only exists in the mind of academics.
If the things traded were “equal” in value, why would you ever exchange something. You only exchange something you have for something else when you value it more than what you have.
Back to apartments in Sweden. When money fails, no one is happy.
The person renting the apartment doesn’t feel like they’re getting “value” for the money they pay and have animosity towards the person they’re renting the apartment from. (Landlords are leeches)
The landlord doesn’t feel like he is getting enough rent based on the valuation of the house and is stressed all the time cause of the massive mortgage payments that they have to pay every month. The Sword of Damocles hangs above every landlords neck.
No one is happy cause no one on either side of the trade believes that they’re getting value.
Another reason no one is happy is cause 4 people are involved in the transaction instead of 2.
- bank (being paid monthly for the large mortgage)
- Government (taking 50% of the money the tenent pays the landlord in taxes)
So actual transfer of money between tenent and landlord is only 100%-50%(taxes)-45%(debt service)=5% of rental amount.
Diamonds in the rough
So that means in our well connected globalized world that would mean the whole of society is getting lower trust cause money is failing globally along with the fact that Facebook and other polarizing technology are global?
“If the California government is collapsing into anarchy of course the whole of the world is collapsing right? Has to be right?”
Surprising this is not true at all.
There is a tiny exception of groups I’ve found to be high trust or getting better.
1. Tribes disconnected completely from society and their consequences (duh!)
but 2. Is more interesting.
2. For starters smaller government and/or low debt societies along with places, people and culture who are more “tough” as well as the fact that things are better for them now vs a few years ago. Usually these places have a strong national identity or cultural identity.
Colombia: sure 2020 with Covid is bad but compared to 2000 life in Colombia for Colombians is so much better.
Albania/Serbia and lots of former Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe: At least nato or Russia is not fucking bombing us.
Tiny villages: villages often more resistant to becoming low trust. Over time even villages get low trust but not as quickly as the cities.
However there’s another factor that comes into play with a lot of the few very High trust communities that exist.
There’s a HUGE in-group mentality and they’re very very suspicious of outsiders entering the group. So the most high trust people in between themselves tend to be the most low trust towards outsider. (Colombia/latam is a bit less with this than Balkans).
Side note: There’s a huge distinction between “suspicion” and “animosity”. When I’m in a village in the mountains of Georgia I’m the only person for miles with melanin 😂, but I’ve never been to a high trust place where there’s ever been any animosity to me. People are suspicious and people are curious (of course) but there is no animosity.
To an insecure person “suspicion” would feel the same as “racial animosity” or racism but the reality isn’t that at all.
It’s very different than racism and I’ve had a hard time to explain this to people that haven’t experienced it. Or gone through the effort to do anything more than have short interactions.
When you sit down and talk to them, they treat a Canadian with the same suspicion as a Kenyan.
The best way I know how to describe this is kind of patriotism/culturism that not racist towards outsider but will treat people in the out group with neutrality while treating people in the in group with positivity.
But since we humans judge things relatively, the “neutrality” can sometimes feel like “negativity”. Which is why many people (especially ‘people people’) feel lonely in these places because it feels like there’s a barrier between you and other people and you have to prove yourself a lot before you break into that barrier. (I sometimes refer this as the “Russian wall” aka the emotional wall that’s most clearly seen in a Russian emotions before and after you get to know them.)
Personally I’ve always loved the neutrality cause I’m more of an introvert at times. So I don’t often need the “positivity” from other people but enjoy being surrounded by it even when it’s not directed towards me.
I’ll actually share my low to high trust spectrum here before continuing this article cause my conclusion will make the remaining of the article easier to grasp.[HIGH TRUST]Tribe in Amazon/Disconnected from society|Small village in a high trust country with a national/cultural identity| Small village in a low trust country/region | town/city (small = higher trust) in a high trust country | city in a low trust country | anarchy/war zone [LOW TRUST]
The reason I share the above is to illustrate the point that a “small village in a low trust country” still can have more trust than a “big city in a high trust country”.
Not everything is about “leave your country and live in Georgian mountains like Jeremy”, your strategy of getting more “high trust” might be leaving San Francisco and moving 30 minutes outside Austin or moving from Delhi to Goa or London to Lisbon or Madrid to Bogota.
How resources & land affect trust
As I write this section I just spent the past week in Serengeti in the middle of Africa, and as many times before in life I’m reminded as how the terrain creates the social/ecosystem dynamics when you see how wild animals interact with each other.
Humans especially apartment dwelling city folks have the perception that their environment doesn’t dictate their behavior, that they’re individuals and aren’t affected by things around that.
They’re 3 different angles I’d like to take to completely obliterate any remains you might have of that belief.
1. Why Karma evolved in India
India has a state called Uttar Pradesh, this story applies to the entire region but I’ll use the state specifically for the illustration.
Over the past 10s of thousands of years the region of Uttar Pradesh has gone through cycle of cycle of “low population + lots of resources -> high population + not enough resources -> people suffer and die creating low population again and the cycle continues”
I read about this in a book and I can’t find the source (hit me up if you do). But in the above situation over thousands of years, what do you get? Basically the idea of karma ends up being evolutionary useful.
How else do you emotionally deal with the times of struggles if you don’t have a narrative that can make it easier to deal with?
My girlfriend who has traveled more than me used to believe that “poor people seem to be happier with less” as she met a lot of people in Latin America, and lots of Asia. that is often true in places like Colombia, Costa Rica, Myanmar etc etc.
India especially the city poor of India, completely destroyed that belief. Cause for the first time in her life she saw abject poverty, without any hope in people’s eyes.
Another example I’ve shared recently with people was that during March/April 2020 I visited Reddit.com/r/india and one of the most surprising reality was people who were posting pictures of slightly clear blue skies and saying how for the first time in their lives they have seen a blue sky.
I’ve often not shocked by much but it did shock me by a lot to realize that they’re probably thousands and maybe millions of people living in Indian cities in their 20s and 30s who had never even seen a blue sky until Covid. Take a moment and think about that.
If you don’t have a belief that has some level of “acceptance” how do you survive with a life like that?
Most Indians aren’t zero sum because of religion or corruption (those are factors) but it’s basic incentives based on scarcity of resources. It’s hard to have high trust outside village or families when scarcity is the name of the game.
The above is obviously changing over the past years but the history of India as a region is what drives a lot of the culture.
When resources are abundant, it’s easier to trust more people with those resources cause you can afford to lose some here and there.
An example I remember using to illustrate this point was the flower markets of Belgrade. Belgrade is the capital of Serbia and in the capital city, 10 mins from the city center and 5 mins from the government headquarters is an ordinary flower market in an ordinary park.
Do you know what they do with the flowers and potted plants in the night? They just leave them there, some cover them but most just leave them and come back to sell them the next day. Some nights there’s a security guard, but really most nights there’s no one.
Imagine that. This isn’t the trust of society in a tiny village where stuff like this is common, this is the trust of society in a capital city of a country the size of Portugal.
Europe thanks to its terrain and demographics (in certain areas) benefits from abundance. The above example is the America of the 50s and the Europe of the 70s most people have seen portrayed in movies as the “good old times” when we didn’t lock our doors all the time, we trusted people and wasn’t socially isolated.
But why does Serbia have that high trust but not London? Well for starters, Serbia is young, like really young.
Like seriously you won’t believe this but Serbia as a country the way it’s now was founded in 2006.
They’re people reading this who have mortgages that are older than Serbia. So by being young they don’t have the baggage that Sweden has, for example it’s a low debt society. Along with the fact that “Serbians are Serbs” but a Swede feels embarrassed/ashamed to identify as a Swede due to their European guilt. (But that’s a whole other article)
3. How Islam evolved as being evolutionary useful (for a while)
where did Islam as an organized belief start and evolve?
In the middle of a desert. What’s true in a desert? Extreme scarcity is the nature of the game.
So let’s say you live in an oasis, and a stranger comes and drinks some of your water. Due to extreme limited supply, a stranger drinking some of your water can lead to your child dying.
So having a very strong in-group vs out-group mentality is very useful in that environment. The person who believes in “turning the other cheek” ended up with their genetic line destroyed very quickly.
So the extreme in Wahhabism could have been evolutionary useful in certain situations.
So Islam as a religion evolved to be extreme in the sense of “negativity” to outsiders and not neutrality unlike most modern high trust regions. This of course is changing in the modern world.
(Note: I’m not saying any of this is good or bad, nor am I justify any actions taken on behalf of the beliefs. I’m just trying to understand if they ever were a time when it could’ve been useful instead of trying to just say it’s “stupid/dumb/crazy” and dismiss the existence of such beliefs.)
So start with the premise that even extreme Wahhabism was evolutionary useful at some point in time.
Secondary, that “point of time” wasn’t that long ago.
The above pictures were Riyadh 84 years ago. In terms of evolution of religions and beliefs that a very very short time, never forget that it took Christianity centuries and wars that killed millions to get to the mostly harmless version we have today.
Considered one of the most destructive conflicts in European history, combined estimates of military and civilian deaths range from 4.5 to 8 million, while it has been suggested that up to 60% of the population died in some areas of Germany. – Thirty Years War
Side note: this was supposed to be another article but I wrote a bit about religion a while back that might be useful to add here. Skip this section if you’d rather focus on the “high trust” topic.
I’ve had long discussions on religion and I always find that secular Europeans tend to be the people who find this topic the hardest to genuinely grasp.
Most secularist tend to look at religion more from cultural/tradition perspective than a belief perspective. Jews are a good example to illustrate this, most western Jews are Jewish in the sense that they keep their culture and traditions but don’t pay much attention to the ideology.
Bret Weinstein has a good conversation on this.
Another perspective which is like is the Jordan Peterson, “I live like god exists, I’m not certain if the resurrection was a literal human being coming up from the death” (Ps. Watch his biblical series)
I believe everyone should watch the Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson discussions. Here’s the first one:
People who grow up with that being their reality often fail to realize that that’s not the ideology globally.
“No one would actually believe in 72 virgins, they have to be angry due to some political/economical reason”
This is where I’ve noticed that people who grew up in highly religious backgrounds like me find it easier to understand the world we’re living (“No one literally wants Jeff Bezos’s head on a spike” yes some of them do).
This is actually where stuff like “Islam is a religion of peace/war” makes no sense, because for the most part western secular Muslims aren’t that different from secular Cristians. So it’s not a question of religions against each other, it’s ideology vs secularism.
6 years ago I didn’t think much about Islam cause growing up I knew less than 10 people during my entire childhood who were Muslims.
Since then a couple of things happened that changed that:
- I worked as a volunteer building toilets for Rohingya refugees in Nepal in 2016 and helped teach English to their kids.
- I’ve spent over 3 years living in Muslim countries* over the years. ie. Turkey, Tunisia, Indonesia (outside Bali), Albania, Bosnia, Maldives, Malaysia and Azerbaijan
- Heard 100 hours of discussions from a variety of different people from Sam Harris, Maajid Nawaz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Douglas Murray and a variety of other people.
*Muslim countries defined as Islam is the religion of >50% of population.
Recently I talked to my cousin who is becoming a Jesuit priest (I told you I come from a religious family🤷♂️) about how I look at Islam and it opened his mind to a perspective that he never knew about:
Islam isn’t a monolithic
If you just read the news it’s easy to look at Islam as one monolith religion and put down the differences between sects down just to ‘politics’ and not religion.
This is actually where my travels have helped me see such an incredibly diverse perspective.
Looking at the people of Turkey, Indonesia, Tunisia, Albania and Saudi Arabia as a monolithic “Muslim” is a crazy mindset that only some who hasn’t traveled could have.
Even just in a small country like Tunisia the gap between the secular Muslims in a town like modern La Marsa and a desert town like Tozeur.
Most young people in La Marsha were indistinguishable to me from secular Muslims I meet who grew up in a country like France and in fact it was a group of local Muslims who hosted the Christmas party for the few foreigners in town.
While the young people I met in Tozeur were much more traditionally religious and that’s just 450 kms away.
Similar in the Balkans, Montenegro is a Eastern Orthodox Christian country and Albania is a Muslim majority country but if you take a bus across the border (as I’ve done 4 times) you won’t really notice that at all, you’d be focusing more on the annoying fact that you have to use a different currency rather than the fact that country is ‘Muslim’.
One of the most perspective I got from knowing people from all across these cultures is funnily that they all kinda hate Saudi Arabia.
It’s kinda a hate-pragmatic relationship that most Muslims countries have with Saudi Arabia, it’s kinda like if you know that someone might be a rapist but they have a private jet so you let it slide cause they let you borrow it. (**cough**Bill gates/Clinton/Larry summers**Epstein**cough**)
It’s not that of a stretch to say that the majority of the “bad” aspect of Islam are related to Saudi Arabia, that’s not just my belief, that’s a belief shared by a majority of secular Muslims living in Muslim countries too.
Even though 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 plus Osama Bin Laden himself were Saudi, the U.S. government has forcibly resisted any attempt to investigate the Saudi regime for involvement in the attack and instead invaded and bombed other countries in retaliation.
Oppression and Beliefs
One of the most impactful one of my lives was being invited to have lunch with Rohigya refugee family back in 2016 as a thank you for helping them build up their camp.
However as I talked more to the kids and the leader of the family reaction I found out something that shocked me that I’d like to share.
The refugees were offered free schooling for their kids and they were pulling their kids to send them to the mosque.
Logically your first reaction would be similar to mine which is “how can you be stupid, the way you move forward and help your kids have a better future is by letting them learn in school”
However, if you take a breath and realize their experiences you start looking at things from a different perspective.
They were prosecuted in their home country, had to flee between 3 countries (Myanmar->Bangladesh->India -> Nepal), had to spend time in prison and bribe officials to escape. All because of their religion.
If your entire life you’ve been prosecuted for who you are, are you just going let go of that part of your identity or are you going to hold onto it even stronger?
I’m not justifying the parents taking the kids out of school to send them to the mosque, I’m just sharing a perspective that made me understand where they come from and how the desire to hold onto their religion gets stronger not weaker the more it’s oppressed.
Timur Kuran talking about Turkey (in one of my favorite podcasts of the past years) explains this well (starts at the 1:34:20).
It’s much easier for a Muslim in the Tunisia to be secular vs a refugee in Nepal or a marginalized Muslim in India. Marginalization of people leads to them holding onto their beliefs harder instead of developing them and adapting them and is rarely a good strategy.
But the Quran says …
One of the most popular discussions on the topic of Islam always comes down to what the book says.
People use it to argue both for both for why it’s a “good” or “bad” religion.
Like most things in life it’s not white or black.
For starters, the Bible tells you to stone adulters, kill gays and so many other aspects other than “love your neighbor as yourself”.
So interpretation > the word. The change of the Christian church over the years is a clear illustration of this.
However with the Quran this gets a little tough.
Disclaimer: I’m not a scholar on any of these subjects, I’m reading translations and using other trusted sources to come to my conclusions.
With a lot of the Quran, there’s a logic that I can best simplify as “The words given to Mohammad are the words of God and if you change those words you’re betraying God”.
Many people use that idea as the reason why reformation of the religion is hard. Because according to the Quran the person who takes the word “literally” is the most “real Muslim”.
And the secular Canadian muslim that thinks gay rights and Islam are compatible isn’t a “real muslim”.
One of my favorite series of videos on this subject has been the debates between Ayana Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz.
In their first debate in 2011, where they had opposing beliefs there was an incredible moment when Zeba Khan (who would probably flee from sharia law in a second) asked the question “who are you to say that I’m not a real Muslim?” when Ayaan implied that.
To me it reminds me of the idea of westerners having luxury beliefs that aren’t tied to reality.
But coming back to my point, seeing Maasjid grow and get a deeper perspective over the years in the debates after that, where today he sounds more similar to Douglas Murray is a simple illustration that you can change your beliefs.
If you want to understand this topic well, I suggest watching the following conversations in this order and go further down the rabbit hole.
- Is Islam a religion of peace
- Islam: A Religion of Violence Or Peace?
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali & Maajid Nawaz
- Islam and the Future of Tolerance – Sam Harris & Maajid Nawaz
- The parasite mind – Gad Saad
The above people and the rabbit hole they’ll lead you down can share a perspective on this than I ever could.
Getting Higher Trust
As I shared earlier in this article, you don’t have to leave your country and move with tribes in the Amazon to have higher trust. Moving out of a big city to a town will probably be an improvement to most people.
The latest episode of the Made you think podcast where they dive into the book The Quest of the Simple Life by William Dawson is a good listen.
Each of the three peoples has a different strategy for having more simplicity, trust and community that works for each one of them. There’s no one “perfect” strategy cause people are unique and have their own preferences and desires.
For example, I tend to be someone who keeps to myself and spend more time with books than people and don’t crave social interactions that much.
So it’s often possible for me to spend months in countries where I have no friends or can’t even speak the local language past a few greetings, I rarely feel any lack of community. Now I know other people for whom the above sounds like torture.
I also live in extremes, I like working with “cutting edge internet businesses” like I shared in “zoom out” while living among farmers who use the internet to message their kids once a week. I thrive in extremes like that where I get the best of both worlds.
Pick your own sweet spot that works for your personality and preferences and stop letting the media make the “perceived world’s problems= your problems”.