In this episode, Brian Beckcom speaks with Ben Hunt. Ben is the creator of Epsilon Theory and the inspiration behind Second Foundation Partners. Over 100,000 professional investors across 180 countries read Ben’s work. As Chief Investment Officer, Ben is responsible for the company’s investments and portfolios, as well as producing a constant stream of important articles about thinking clearly and rationally.
Ben was a political science professor for 10 years, first at New York University and then at Southern Methodist University.
Ben also founded and then later sold two successful technology companies.
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Brian and Ben discuss:
- Ben’s core belief that humans are driven by unstructured information, narratives, and storytelling
- The real world vs. the “narrative world”
- The welding shut of the American mind
- Gell-Man amnesia and the importance of finding “critical distance”
- Urban protests, LARPing, and the romanticization of a post-apocalyptic world
- BITFD: Burn It The Fu*k Down
- The hallmark of leadership: Discipline
- Rethinking the way in which we express our Identity
- And other topics
Ben Hunt was born and raised in Alabama. He attended Vanderbilt University, where he earned a bachelors’ degree in political science, government, and computer science. Ben then attended Harvard University, where he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, political science, and government. After graduating, Ben spent a decade in academia as a political science professor at New York University before starting a couple of his own software companies, which he later sold. Ben then decided to conquer financial markets, serving as the Chief Risk Officer and Chief Investment Strategist for Salient, one of the country's top asset management boutiques. Today Ben is the co-founder and writer for Epsilon Theory, a website, and newsletter that examines markets through the lenses of game theory, history, philosophy, and sociology. To connect with Ben or learn more about his philosophy, visit https://www.epsilontheory.com/.
Read the show notes!
Brian Beckcom: Welcome to the Lessons From Leaders podcast. I'm your host, Brian Beckcom. Thank you to everybody for liking, sharing, rating, and interacting with the podcast. Each episode seems to get more likes, listens, and shares. So, thank you very much for that.
I timed the next episode to release as close to the election as possible. That's because my next guest is one of the clearest thinkers I have ever had the pleasure of reading from or talking to. I'm talking about Ben Hunt of Epsilon Theory. Ben was born and raised in Alabama; he attended Vanderbilt University, where he earned degrees in Government Political Science and Computer Science.
He earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy in Government at Harvard and has spent a decade as a Professor at New York University and Southern Methodist University. Ben started and sold two successful software companies and is now the creator of Epsilon Theory. Ben is the inspiration behind Second Foundation Partners. It's where over a hundred thousand professional investors across 180 countries go to read his work.
In the episode, Ben and I talk about the true underlying drivers of human behavior, including unstructured information, narratives, and stories. We talk about the real versus the narrative world, The Welding Shut of the American Mind, and the importance of finding critical distance.
We also talk about Ben's acronym, BITFD, which stands for burning it the fuck down. He coined the acronym based on his opinion that we need massive change in our markets, capital economy, and government.
We talk about protest, rejecting violence, and rethinking the way we express our identity.
For example, not expressing our identity through politics and how it has become an epidemic over the last 10 years. I know a lot of people that put their politics above their religion, quite literally.
We talk about getting back on track, thinking clearly, and accurately about American affairs' in their current state. This was a phenomenal episode. Ben is a nice guy, a brilliant person, and I think you're really going to like this episode.
It's a perfect time to release this episode, shortly before the election. If you want to think clearly, listen to or read this episode now.
Brian Beckcom: Hey, everybody Brian Beckham here. My guest on today's show is Ben Hunt of Epsilon Theory. Hello Ben, how the heck are you doing today?
Ben Hunt: I am doing well, I can't complain, Brian. Thanks for having me on the show; I am really glad to be here.
Brian Beckcom: As you know, we are currently going through difficult times in the nation as we're shooting this podcast. A lot of things are happening, such as crazy politics, pandemic, and racial relations issues. Before we get into an absolutely fascinating conversation about you and your work, how has your family been doing with all that’s going on?
Ben Hunt: Well, thanks for asking Brian. You know, the family's doing great. I've got four daughters ranging in age from 16 to 23. A couple of them are out of the house, and a few are still here. With having four daughters, the family has always been filled with estrogen, but everyone is happy and safe. How are you doing, Brian?
Brian Beckcom: That's great to hear; I'm doing good as well. I talked to a friend of mine yesterday, who was a pro basketball player with two sons. He joked that when he turns 75, he was going straight to the nursing home, and I told him how my daughter was going to take care of me when I get old.
You know Ben, you and I actually have a little bit of something in common. I just released a podcast episode about an hour ago with Jackie Sherrill. It's a super great episode where we discussed how he won two national football championships under the coaching of Bear Bryant and later went on to coach at A&M University.
With you being a big Alabama football fan and myself an Aggie fan, we've got a big game matchup this week.
Ben Hunt: We sure do, Brian. As you know, I'm from Alabama, originally, and my Grandfather played on the Alabama football team in 1919, 1920, and 1921. So, back in the day, you could say I grew up in the church of Bear Bryant.
Now that you, Aggies are over at the SEC conference, it will be a good matchup. I haven't forgiven you guys for how Johnny Football wrecked us in the 2012 Texas A&M vs. Alabama matchup.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah, Johnny Manziel was fun to watch.
Brian Beckcom: Well, Ben, one of the reasons I wanted to have you on Lessons from Leaders Podcast is because of the work you've been doing over the last five or six months and throughout your entire career. It has been extremely impressive to me, and I want to talk about your writings, ideas, and the narratives you're trying to get out in the world.
Before we get into that, who is Ben Hunt? Tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got your start, and how you ended up where you are today.
A Common Thread
Ben Hunt: Well, I keep wondering what I'm going to be when I grow up, and I suspect you're the same way. Those of us who've got that entrepreneurial bug can't help ourselves, and it has been the driving impetus during the different things that I've done.
I was a professor for 10 years after receiving my Ph.D. from Harvard in Political Economy and Government. Commonly referred to as political science, which is quite the oxymoron as most social sciences are.
I left academia to create a software company; from there, I got into financial markets. Started first with investing in private capital and then transitioned into public capital markets with a hedge fund. And that's been my life for the last 15 years now as an investor.
I also started to write about investing, focused not only on the markets but also on politics and our lives as citizens.
The common thread throughout my academic career, the software company, and the investments has been my core belief, that the human-animal is driven by the unstructured information, communications, stories, narratives, and messages that other humans tell us thousands of times a day. And I believe that we are hard-wired and socially trained to respond to those messages in predictable ways.
Whether we're talking about political science and how we respond as voters to the messages presented by politicians, or how we respond as investors to messages from central bankers or the CEO of companies. In general, how we respond to others is the common thread throughout all of my experiences.
Another example is how a poker player responds to the other players and not just to the cards they're dealt with. How do they respond to the messages presented to you around a poker table, such as other players betting and body language? That's precisely the same in any sort of social situation, politics, or markets.
So that's the common thread and what I like to write about. It comes into play with what I'm doing now with a series of writings called Epsilon Theory. It's also the research that we did as part of starting the company, both the study and the writing.
Brian Beckcom: Having degrees in computer science, philosophy, and law, I've been interested in ethics related to technology for a long time. My philosophy study was primarily focused on consequentialism and utilitarianism and the relative merits of both their strengths and weaknesses.
You were talking earlier about compulsion, and that word resonates with me. It has been obsessed with the study of stories, narratives, cognitive psychology. As a trial lawyer, I have to know what persuades people, and I'm embarrassed to say, until the 2016 election, I was not as familiar with how the human mind works as I should have been.
I can remember exactly when I got obsessed with it. After listening to the debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, my wife and I thought Hillary Clinton won. I was getting texts from my Dad and Brother, who thought the exact opposite. And I started thinking, how is it possible that people of good faith and intelligence can literally watch the exact same thing and come to entirely different conclusions? It ended up leading me down a two or three-year compulsion to figure out how, how this was possible. I don't want to describe your writing inaccurately. Still, to me, a lot of your writing lately is on this very fundamental idea.
Ben Hunt: That's exactly what is related to Brian. There are specific archetypes. Once you start thinking about these stories, these memes, these narratives, whatever terminology you want to use here, they all relate to the memetic theory's core. Once you start thinking of them in that sense, it can change your whole perspective on the different dimensions that we live in as social human beings.
The Narrative World
Ben Hunt: We also live in something that I like to call the narrative world, which is as alive and as impactful on our lives as the real world. We don't have the rods and cones in our eyes to see the narrative world, and that's at the core of the research that we do.
With the advanced technological tools available today, AI tools, for example, It's not a question of artificial intelligence but one of brute force computing power.
We use these tools to create the visualizations related to graph theory and network theory that we can see with our physical eyes. It enables us to see the narrative world's wavelength. And with so many things, seeing is believing. Once you see it, you suddenly now see it everywhere.
Brian Beckcom: It's impossible not to see it. I spent the quarantine reading about mathematics and physics. I got the chance to read The Selfish Gene By Richard Dawkins, and I was blown away. What caught my attention was how he introduces the concept of the meme. Just like you've said before, memes are like genes. They're self-replicating, they can go from person to person, group to group, and they have an impact on the real world.
Brian Beckcom: When I was preparing for this podcast, I was trying to figure out where we even start? Maybe a good place to start would be with your article that came out recently about The Welding Shut Of The American Mind. Tell us a little bit about the conceit or the hypothesis behind that particular point of view, as expressed in your article.
Ben Hunt: The article is a riff on The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom written in the late eighties. It takes on this notion of what we're describing and how it relates to Memes, stories, and narratives as actual entities. And how they affect us just like a virus would and how they have real-world impacts
Before we describe the logical impact on our individual brain processes information, I want to bring in another author for context: a southern biologist, Harvard graduate, and the world's greatest expert on ants, EO Wilson.
You're probably wondering how EO Wilson and his study on ants connect to do us as humans? In some of his later works, Wilson wrote about why certain narratives and messages impact us so much. Particularly a book called The Social Conquest, and it points to four incredibly successful species on planet earth. There's ants, termites, bees, and there are homo sapiens, the human being. Not coincidentally, all four of those species have something in common. They are all technically classified as Eusociality Social Animals.
There are these different scientific requirements to be a social animal. The most important one being that we immerse ourselves in interspecies communications. We are always talking to each other. Human beings use words, ants, bees, and termites and use chemicals pheromones, but it's exactly the same concept.
We're constantly giving messages to each other, and in a very real sense, we are hard-wired. We are biologically evolved to respond to these messages. We're not as deterministic in our responses as an ant bee or a termite, but as a species in the scientific sense of the word, we are.
It's problematic at times for exactly the reasons we're about to talk about, the welding shut of the American mind. The way that these memes and these messages can be used against us intentionally. So, it's important to understand that we are such a successful species because we can learn from other humans.
We have this ability, both hard-wired and specially trained, to pick up on the messages, the unstructured texts, and the data other humans are giving to us. It's our great strength as a species. But, what is happening today, particularly with the advance of technology, is that the ability our hard-wired and our socially trained mindsets is being used against us. I think that's It's being exploited to intentionally move us in one way or another. It's at the heart of what I'm trying to describe as the welding shut of the American mind.
Bloom's book is one that everyone should read, because like Dawkins's book, there are parts that can potentially change the way you see the world. Those three books certainly changed the way I saw the world.
Brian Beckcom: I would throw a fourth & fifth book in there that I'm sure you've read. Those books are by Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens and Homo Deus. They talk a lot about why humans became the dominant species, and it comes down to telling stories and believing fiction.
The Welding Shut of The American Mind
Ben Hunt: Basically, we are giant termites with opposable thumbs big enough to control fire. And that's enough to rule the world, so to speak. But this is also to the point of all these authors you're describing; this is nothing new. It's something that successful politicians and leaders have known for thousands of years.
What is different today is that everyone now understands that the creation of a story in a compelling narrative is as or more important than what you do in the real world. You see this so much with corporate CEOs, for example.
The hallmark of a successful CEO today doesn't hinge solely on operating margins or performing better quarter over quarter. It comes down to telling a story about your company that clicks with investors, your employees, and customers. Being able to accomplish that with your story is the hallmark of success today.
The other biggest contributing factor is that our communication modes, particularly social media and other network technology, allow these messages to be shaped and augmented in ways that have predictable impacts on human beings. You see this nowhere more than we see it in the political debate in the United States today. This is what I refer to regarding the welding shut of the American mind.
To Allen Bloom's point, academia and culture's openness in the seventies and the eighties was actually less about an opening and more like a closing of perspective. I think that's all true; I wanted to talk about something a little more than that in the article, The Welding Shut of The American Mind.
The fact that everyone's in on it, no matter what area of your life, you're constantly getting hit by stories and narratives from others. It's compounded by the advance in technology that allows them to be created and distributed much more easily. This has effectively created more than the closing of a door and more of welding on the door of our minds.
As an economic term, a door that has been welded shut is considered as an equilibrium. It doesn't open up on his own; you got to blow the door open. How do you do that with a mind once it's been welded shut?
The process that identifying is a very logical one. Many people tend to think of a narrative as being touchy-feely or how it relates to a specific sentiment. It goes back to the way we're hard-wired, and we respond to a specific narrative.
What is happening both from the left and the right is the intentional creation of very specific narratives in the form of memes or adverts as an example. This leads a mind directly down an essentially programmed path to the point where it becomes a logical consistency to act on or have a conviction of certain topics one way or another.
It's all over the place now, especially in the political sense. It's happening on both sides of the line. If you disagree on or haven't been infected with the syllogism yet, you think it's all crazy nonsense.
This is something that happens over and over again in human history. In today's sense, the instruments and the number of people who are trying to use those instruments against you, it's never been greater.
Brian Beckcom: Have you watched The Social Dilemma yet?
Ben Hunt: Yeah, I have.
Technology of Persuasion
Brian Beckcom: As a computer science guy, I've been interested in technology for 30 years now. I was basically aware of what Jared Linear and Tristan Harris and all those types of people have been saying for a very, very long time. Tell me if I do not understand you correctly, Ben, what I hear you saying is that the mechanisms to persuade people through crafted narratives have existed for a very long time. But, the technology available today supercharges the ability to persuade large groups of people. Do I understand you correctly?
Ben Hunt: Yes, that's very much what I'm getting at, and I'll tell you a relative story.
When I was running my hedge fund, we had a position in a company that made slot machines for casinos, a company called Scientific Games. The headquarters of the company is located in Rhode Island. I remember going on a trip to visit the company, and while I was there, they took me to where they are designing new slot machines.
I remember thinking that it was pretty interesting as it shared similarities to social media.
It got me thinking about how they design everything that does into the final product. Such as the payout structure, the graphics, and the overall motif of the game. More intriguingly, how do you design a slot machine to train a human being to pull that lever or push those buttons with the overall intent of maximizing the number of coins going in while minimizing the amount going out?
In their testing lab, they had their testers wired up to machines that tracked the physical impact on the brain, movements of your eye, and your blood chemical levels. This was 15 years ago and done for a fraction of the budget spent today on understanding how human physiology interacts with the content delivery mechanisms.
Another example of this is the investing app named Robin Hood. The UX for Robin Hood is designed to play like a computer game. When you start using the app, you might buy or sell a stock or two. You'll then be asked to level up by trading options. And this type of narrative is becoming more prevalent in other areas than just social media.
Brian Beckcom: It's the gamification of everything
Ben Hunt: Yeah. Everything is becoming gamified in the same sense. Businesses are now strategizing what compelling story or imagery they can communicate to consumers to get them to do what they want you to do. Which is to trade more on Robinhood, to put more coins into that slot machine, or watch more Facebook posts so they can sell more advertising.
It's not just social media; it something that has been going on for decades. Now, everyone is in on the act. Whatever you're doing in your life as a human being today, you constantly contact these entities.
Brian Beckcom: I would argue that it's asymmetric warfare. I don't know if warfare is the right term. Still, you've got billion-dollar corporations with giant, deep learning machines pitted against our little brains, and it's not a fair fight.
Ben, the question I would have for you is when the mind gets welded shut, what do you do next? What do you do about that?
Ben Hunt: Well, frankly, there's not a lot you can do once it's been welded shut. What we can do is to try to prevent more minds from being welded shut. I think it's possible and is one reason I left the asset management firm to start my own independent company.
What one can do is to insulate themselves from the effects. By being more aware of these things, you can create a bit of intellectual distance. Once you step back and see what's really going on, you'll start to see the same thing taking place everywhere.
Brian Beckcom: It's ridiculous. I couldn't agree with that more. Once I started looking into this, I couldn't unsee it. There's a science fiction writer named Neil Stevenson, who I like a lot, he wrote a book called Fall; or Dodge in Hell. The beginning of that book talks about how there are essentially two categories of people. Some people have had their minds completely and totally welded shut by technology and social media. It depicts how these people think there's been a nuclear attack on the Moab facility in Utah. It is later revealed that it didn't even happen. While I was reading it, it really got me thinking that we, as a society, are headed in that same direction. Shortly after I finished reading it, I thought to myself that we are already at that point.
Ben Hunt: We're already there; you are so right. It's what I tried to write about in The Epsilon Theory. And the goal of creating intellectual and emotional distance from both corporations and political parties. None of this is meant to say to go off the grid or not participate in the world.
Brian Beckcom: Let's not go too far with this, let's interact with the world, but let's do it maturely and wisely.
Reclaiming Your Distance
Ben Hunt: Distance. Reclaiming your distance has been the hardest thing to do. And I fail at this every day. I'll read some tweets, or I'll read something online. No one's perfect at this, and it does require constant self-reflection. But, there are some simple ways to do it. For example, when something's making me mad or aggravated, I step back and try to give myself a little bit of distance.
I want to share with you something I learned from listing to Michael Crighton. He's an author with a long list of books, such as Westworld, Jurassic Park, Disclosure, and many others. He invented that whole scientific thriller genre.
During one of his talks, he spoke about narrative and how we are hard-wired to respond. He goes on to talk about a physiological event he refers to as Gell-Mann Amnesia. It's related to reading a story or article on a subject your knowledge on. How as you read it, you know it to be completely false. Even though you knew the article to be wrong, as soon as you turn the page and read another story with a topic you're not very familiar with, you will consider it to be more accurate. This is what he considers to be the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.
It's that amnesia, the inability to step back, read a situation with some critical distance. It's so hard for us to do as human beings. But it's never been more necessary to find that critical distance with all the messages we can get barraged by. Otherwise, we lose ourselves, and that's the intent of the people who wrote those messages.
Brian Beckcom: Can I ask you a fundamental first principles question? I understand what you're saying about creating critical distance. I do this through meditation, which has helped me create distance between my thoughts and emotions.
Fundamentally though, how do you remember to do that? How do you keep reminding yourself to ask those kinds of critical questions?
Ben Hunt: Well, let me say this, Brian, the hallmark of meditation, is creating that internal distance. And so whether you find it through a technique like meditation, or you find it from a lifetime of being immersed in it. It's hard to describe Brian, but sometimes I feel I can see the weaving behind a story or something that I'm hearing.
I wish I had some formula I could give you on the top 10 tips for thinking critically. But for me, personally, it's always a struggle. It's been a lifetime to develop in seeing what's behind the words you're actually reading.
Trained to Think
Brian Beckcom: Perhaps another reason you've developed the ability to think critically is from your financial markets experiences. For example, if you don't think clearly in that market, there is a real-world cost.
I was talking to a friend of mine, and we were discussing school reopening. He's on the school board in Forth Worth, and I was so impressed by how clearly his thought about it was. I asked him, "why can't everybody think as clearly as he did?". He reminded me that as an engineer and lawyer, I'd been trained to think a certain way and that not everybody's been trained to think the same way.
Ben Hunt: I think your point about how you are trained to think is so important, Brian. My wife's a lawyer, my brother's a lawyer, and you're a lawyer. While you're attending law school, you are being trained to think like a lawyer. The same thing applies to medical school. You're, trained to think like a doctor, and I don't mean that pejoratively.
Brian Beckcom: It's a different style of thinking for sure.
Ben Hunt: What I find common in most successful people in the investment world, they have been trained to think strategically. The same thing can be said about a poker player and other games that require strategic thought.
People who are raised or trained to think to be successful in those sorts of strategy games, those games of interactive strategic thinking, have the type of thinking required to be successful investors.
So I love your notion of how you're trained to think. My rule of thumb is, if you grew up playing poker, I bet you're going to be a good investor.
Why am I Reading This Now?
Brian Beckcom: To put a concrete example on this, early in the pandemic, I was worried about two things. One was most people's inability to grasp the concept of exponential growth. The other fear was people would draw the wrong conclusions about how dangerous the spread of the virus could be because we could put proactive prevention in place that slowed it tremendously. I was afraid that they would think it must not have been that big of a deal. I am seeing that happen right now. I see people drawing the wrong conclusions about these issues.
We talked earlier about the article you wrote, "Why Am I Reading This Now?" and how that article had to do with senators getting upset over a Chinese science fiction writer and Netflix releasing a movie on it.
I'm sure you've read The Three-Body Problem. A book about an orbital mechanics program for calculating the relative momentum, inertia, and movement of bodies using Newtonian mathematics and physics. This is essentially an unsolvable problem and has nothing to do at all with Chinese propaganda unless I'm totally missing it.
Ben Hunt: You're not missing it all; in fact, it's what I was writing about. The author Liu Cixin, who wrote the book, really created the best novel written since Isaac Asimov wrote The Foundation trilogy. It's a phenomenal work of art.
And there is an unanswered question regarding the issue the author has. He is not outspoken about, but he's an unapologetic apologist for the Chinese government when asked. In particular, their treatment of the weaker minority in the West of China.
It's a pretty reprehensible view to have. Does it mean his work shouldn't be turned into a movie or series on Netflix? My opinion is that it shouldn't have that impact. Well-meaning people can disagree, right?
For example, suppose we're talking about the 1930s in Germany. Would I want to have a retrospective of Leni Riefenstahl? In that case, the answer's no. I think she was a good artist, but her work of art was directly for the Germans Nazi state's glorification at the time.
So she's on one spectrum, and Liu Cixin is at another end of the spectrum. But in the article "Why Am I Reading This Now?" I don't think that the five senators who were writing a letter to Netflix were concerned about what side of the spectrum Liu Cixin falls into; they wanted a talking point. They wanted to create welding shut process to use against Netflix.
Brian Beckcom: They're not asking, is this Chinese communist propaganda, or is it a very elegant, philosophical treatise about ontology and epistemology. Those are not the questions they were asking.
Ben Hunt: Exactly right, it wasn't a good faith effort to explore these types of questions. So that's an example of what we're describing to ask yourself so that you can step back from it. And by asking yourself that, it helps keep you from getting drawn in and becoming trapped in these syllogisms.
Brian Beckcom: You've written a few articles about identifying and describing the problems we're faced with. But Lucifer's Hammer actually offers some ideas about changing the narrative. So, let's talk a little bit about the main idea you were trying to get across with Lucifer's Hammer.
Ben Hunt: If you're of a certain age, you may remember the names Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. They wrote the Sci-Fi novel called Lucifer's Hammer. It was about a comet striking the earth and the post-apocalyptic world that came after that. I remember that the book is thinking about the whole post-apocalyptic world scenario that didn't sound so bad. Which is what so many teenage boys or perpetual teenage boys think about. In fact, I still do. I think about how I would defend myself in the hypothetical post-apocalyptic world, where that motorcycle gang comes to take over my farm. It's always terribly romantic, self-sufficient, and meritocratic.
Brian Beckcom: Have you read The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
Ben Hunt: Cormac McCarthy's is one of my all-time favorite authors, and The Road is a hell of a book.
Brian Beckcom: It's such a tough-love story!
Ben Hunt: Yes, that's exactly right. It's a tough-love story. The context of the love story as you're describing is what a post-apocalyptic world would be like. To quote Thomas Hobbs, "life is nasty, brutal and short.
In so much of the protest movement, we have today, particularly the after-hours protest movements of Antifa, The Proud Boys, and the cosplay that goes on. These urban protests and violence are really LARPing playing out in the real world.
That is not what a revolution actually looks like. It's really just play-acting, and it makes me so mad because it's encouraged by political parties. After all, they think it would be a competitive advantage to put all of their effort and momentum into halting that co-play, LARPing, and urban violence.
And it makes me mad because, If we get to a point where the real thing happens. We're going to learn pretty soon that it is just like The Road. It's not like Lucifer's Hammer; it's not this romantic, libertarian, meritocratic post-apocalyptic scenario.
You don't have to go too far back in history to get many examples of that. So, you say, well, what can you do? What action is required here? First, it's about recognizing what's happening in the messages that are being played out and to create that intellectual distance. So, you don't find yourself, in a sense, aiding and abetting the violence. But when it comes to action, I am an enormous believer in social change. It is not just veneered social change, but like we were talking earlier about getting out of these cozy equilibria that don't allow for incremental change. So I'm all for political activism, and my vote is only a part of my political life.
I believe very strongly that in this world where narratives are compelling and dominant, nonviolence has never been more important in social activism. In my view, it not just the right thing to do; it's also the smart thing to do.
For example, think about the protest in Portland recently, where the Navy Vet took a beating by federal officers. Think about how powerful that was. That was a veteran who strongly believes in their principles, the constitution and took a beating to show that. It's truly a narrative that works; that's a meme that works. You have to take a step back and think about how you should act as a political activist in a world dominated by a narrative.
Two can play at the game of creating messages that resonate in other citizens' hearts and minds. So that's what that article is talking about and what I mean about taking action. It doesn't fit with your 13-year-old boy romantic version of what being a rebel is all about. This is the way to win a political struggle and be active politically in the world we have today.
Burn it The Fuck Down
Brian Beckcom: I would be remiss if I did not ask you about the acronym that you kind of made that famous. BITFD, Burn it The Fuck Down. When you first hear that, it has certain connotations, but explain what you mean when you say BITFD.
Ben Hunt: So the catchphrase I had for a long time was, "they're not even pretending anymore." And that changed frankly, with Epstein's death in prison. I don't know if it was suicide, I don't know if it was more, here's my point. I don't care. I don't care.
There's this wonderful scene in the movie The Godfather. Where Vito is meeting with the five families, and he's got to bring his son Michael back home from Italy. And, they're making peace at this meeting of the five families.
Vito says, "I forgive the murder of my son, I forgive this, and we're going to make peace. But, here's what I do not forgive. I'm going to bring my son, Michael, back home to the United States. And suppose some accident happens to him, such as getting hit by lightning or being arrested, or hanging himself in his cell. In that case, he says, I'm a superstitious man; this I do not forgive."
I got to tell you, I'm a superstitious man too. It doesn't matter to me whether it was murder or suicide. A non-corrupt state's job was to keep Epstein alive for trial. He was not alive for trial, and by definition, that cannot happen in a non-corrupt state. So the first time I used that phrase, burn it the fuck down was after that. I was shaken by the event of the fact that his death.
Brian Beckcom: The phrase that I started using after the Epstein deal was, "they're doing it right in front of our faces in public." They're literally doing it right in front of us, and it's to the point now where it's so close to us that we can't even see what's going on.
Ben Hunt: Yeah, it's so close you can't focus on it.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. Exactly.
Ben Hunt: Another point of what I mean about getting that distance, right. You've got to be able to step back so that you have a field of vision where you can focus on this because it is happening right in front of our eyes.
They're not pretending anymore. It's concentrated institutions of wealth and power. It's not what I like to call "smiley-face authoritarianism." It's not the Jackboots stomping on your face in 1984.
It's that smiley face button telling you a story, a narrative to put you back to sleep. It's saying move along, nothing to see here, folks. That's what I want to burn down. I remember with George Floyd, there were some riots in Atlanta.
I remember this rapper Killer Mike comes on and explains that when we say "burn it down, we want to burn down the system. We're not talking about burning down people's damn homes. You know, give me a break here. "And that's the type of leadership it's going to take.
In your series, you talk about leadership. The most challenging aspect of leadership is to aggressively reject violence as part of your efforts. It's something that The Black Lives movement has totally failed at, and I'm not saying that the BLM leadership embraces violence. Still, I think they're okay with it, frankly. Not only do I believe that it is wrong, but I also think it's not smart. It's not practical.
Brian Beckcom: I agree with you a hundred percent about what you're saying here, but how do we deal with the agent provocateurs?
For example, how do you deal with the cop in Portland who was caught on video busting out windows? Clearly, he was trying to provoke a reaction. That worries me just as much as the BLM not speaking out against violence as strongly as they should.
So how do you deal with the agent provocateurs?
Ben Hunt: Whenever you are the underdog, you must have discipline. This is true for whether you're a sports team or a social justice movement. It's cynicism known for being effective.
You've got to have more discipline than the stronger team you're up against. It's the hardest thing to do. Do you know why? Because discipline isn't fun, discipline is a real drag.
It's a lot more fun to throw a brick through a window. It's a lot more fun to throw a punch but disciplines a real drag. Yet that is the one thing that you've got to have as that underdog organization. Think back when we're talking about when Bear Bryant was at A&M. It was infamously known that discipline was required there.
We think of the Army as being disciplined, and they are. For the very reason of being disciplined not for how they shoot the gun, but for how they don't shoot the gun.
Brian Beckcom: That's right.
Ben Hunt: You want to discipline a leader? Think about MLK and Gandhi. Those guys maintained discipline. But that's what's required; that is the hallmark of leadership for the underdog. Whether you're talking about a protest movement, or are you talking about a sports team.
Brian Beckcom: Ben, we've gone slightly over our time, and I have one or two more questions if you don't mind. A good friend of mine, Ryan Kruger, heard you were going to be my guest, and he wanted me to ask you a two-part question.
Over the next six, eight, twelve months, number one, what are your plans to try to get the American democracy heading in the right direction. Number two, how do you feel things will change, generally speaking, over the next six, 12, 18 months?
Ben Hunt: So I'll say the good news first. I think people are waking the fuck up. Whether it's from COVID, whether it's this election, whatever alarm is going off in your head right now, it's waking a lot of people up.
The challenge here is that people will wake up, cast their votes, and then go back to sleep. Both political parties are going to try to get you back to sleep. The challenge, and what I want to be working on is to rally and organize people who've woken up. Help them realize and be unsatisfied with the participation in the prescribed forms of democratic or GOP chutes they want to put you through.
That means finding the ways and stories that tell people about an alternative. That we don't have to express our identity through a political party or through a corporation. Teach them about expressing their individuality with the people in their lives that don't treat them as a means to an end. It's the same type of people who will treat you as an autonomous human being and demand the same in return. It's about what you can do in this world to make it a better place.
These changes won't happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up. It always does and is the way that societies are always made better. It happens from the bottom up by determined people who's got each other's back and who share a belief in both small liberal and conservative virtues. We got to keep those fires alive.
Brian Beckcom: Prudence and progress, that's what I would describe those two as.
Ben Hunt: Right on, brother, liberty, and justice for all. These words actually mean something, and when they are expressed from the bottom up, it's what saves this world for generations to come.
For me personally, it's continuing to do these bottom-up actions wherever I can. We've got a hundred thousand people in the Epsilon theory pack right now, and we may have a book coming out at the end of this year to take this message to a broader audience. And, that's the plan, that the plan man.
Brian Beckcom: Ben, this has been an intellectual feast for me, and I hope that you would consider me to be a part of your pack.
I started this podcast because I got sick of seeing everybody complaining all the time and all the negativity. So contribution to the solution was to demonstrate to people that you can have good challenging conversations and not be an asshole to each other.
As I said, at the very beginning, I cannot think of a better guest on these topics than you, Ben Hunt. I could not be more impressed with what you're doing. One of the reasons you're such a great leader is because you take a strong position on what you believe in despite getting along a lot of criticism from many different people.
I absolutely love reading every one of your articles and encourage you to do a little more podcasting. Because some people don't want to read as much, and you've got so many good ideas that I want to spread as far as possible.
So, Ben Hunt of Epsilon Theory, ladies and gentlemen, what a great show. Ben, thank you so much for your time.
Ben Hunt: Thanks for having me on, Brian. This was a blast for me, and I love it. You know, you're part of the Epsilon theory pack, but I got to tell you, Brian, I'm honored to be part of your path. So, thanks. Thanks for it.
Brian Beckcom: Thank you, Ben. I do have to say one more thing, beat the hell out of Alabama!
Ben Hunt: Roll Tide Roll.
Brian Beckcom: See you later, my friend.
Ben Hunt: Thank you, sir.