Posted on January 16th, 2013 1 comment
As I was going to and fro on the Internet, and walking back and forth on it, I stumbled across a site that has made the content of every issue of H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury available online. It’s a wonderful resource if you’re interested in the politics, history, literature, etc., of the 20′s and 30′s, or just want to read something entertaining. The Sage of Baltimore was a great editor, and he won’t disappoint. He was at the helm of the magazine from the first issue in January 1924 until December 1933. The site actually includes issues up to 1960, but the content went downhill after Mencken left, and the Mercury eventually became something entirely different from what he had intended. Many other interesting periodicals are available at the site, as well as books and videos. You can visit by clicking on the hyperlinks above or point your browser to:
Posted on July 23rd, 2012 No comments
We tend to be strongly influenced by the recent past in our predictions about the future. After World War I, any number of pundits, statesmen, and military officers thought the next war would be a carbon copy of the one they had just lived through, albeit perhaps on a larger scale. The German government’s disastrous decision to declare war in 1914 was likely influenced by the quick and decisive German victories in 1864, 1866, and 1870. The Japanese were similarly mesmerized by their brilliant success against the Russians in 1904-05 after an opening surprise attack against the Russian fleet lying at anchor at Port Arthur, and assumed history would repeat itself if they launched a similar attack against Pearl Harbor.
Sometimes startling events force the reevaluation of old ideas and paradigms, such as the German armored Blitzkrieg or the destruction of powerful battleships from the air in World War II, or, more recently, the sudden collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union from 1989-91. We are always fascinated by such events, yet few of us grasp their significance as they are happening. Our tendency is always to look backwards, to fit the revolutionary and the unprecedented into the old world that we understand rather than the new one that we can’t yet imagine. So it was after the dropping of the first atomic bombs. It certainly focused the attention of public intellectuals, unleashing a torrent of essays full of dire predictions. For many, the future they imagined was simply a continuation of the immediate past, albeit with new and incredibly destructive weapons. It was to include the continued inexorable push for world dominion by totalitarian Communism, centered in the Soviet Union, and world wars following each other in quick succession every 15 to 20 years, about the same as the interval between the first two world wars.
Such a vision of the future was described by James Burnham in “The Struggle for the World,” published in 1947. Burnham was a former Marxist and Trotskyite who eventually abandoned Marxism, and became one of the leading conservative intellectuals of his day. His thought made a deep impression on, among others, George Orwell. For example, he had suggested the possibility of a world dominated by three massive totalitarian states, constantly at war with each other, in an earlier book, “The Managerial Revolution,” published in 1941. These became Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia in Orwell’s “1984.” The notions of “doublethink”, the totalitarian use of terms such as “justice” and “peace” in a sense opposite to their traditional meanings, and the rewriting of history every few years “so that history itself will always be a confirmation of the immediate line of the party,” familiar to readers of “1984,” were also recurrent themes in “The Struggle for the World.”
Burnham, born in 1905, had come of age during the stunning period of wars, revolutions, and the birth of the first totalitarian states that began and ended with the world wars of the 20th century. He assumed that events of such global impact would continue at the same pace, only this time in a world with nuclear weapons. As a former Marxist, he knew that the Communists, at least, were deliberately engaged in a “struggle for the world,” and was dismayed that U.S. politicians at the time were so slow to realize the nature of the struggle. He also correctly predicted that, unless they were stopped, the Communists would develop nuclear weapons in their Soviet base “in a few years.” This, he warned, could not be allowed to happen because it would inevitably and quickly lead to a full scale nuclear exchange. His reasoning was as follows:
Let us assume that more than one (two is enough for the assumption) power possesses, and is producing, atomic weapons. Each will be improving the efficiency and destructive potential of the weapons as it goes along. Now let us try to reason as the leaders of these powers would be compelled to reason.
Each leader of Power A could not but think as follows: Power B has at its disposal instruments which could, in the shortest time, destroy us. He has possibly made, or is about to make, new discoveries which will threaten even more complete and rapid destruction. At the moment, perhaps, he shows no open disposition to use these instruments. Nevertheless, I cannot possibly rely on his continued political benevolence – above all since he knows that I also have at my disposal instruments that can destroy him. Some hothead – or some wise statesman – of his may even now be giving the order to push the necessary buttons.
Even if there were no atomic weapons, many of the leaders would undoubtedly be reasoning today along these lines. Atomic weapons are, after all, not responsible for warfare, not even for the Third World War, which has begun. The fact that the political and social causes of a war are abundantly present stares at us from every edition of every newspaper. The existence of atomic weapons merely raises the stakes immeasurably higher, and demands a quicker decision.
But to assume, as do some foolish commentators, that fear of retaliation will be the best deterrent to an atomic war is to deny the lessons of the entire history of war and of society. Fear, as Ferrero so eloquently shows, is what provokes the exercise of force. Most modern wars have been, in the minds of every belligerent, preventive: an effort to stamp out the fear of what the other side might be about to do.
The existence of two or more centers of control of atomic weapons would be equal to a grenade with the pin already pulled.
According to Burnham, the resulting nuclear war or wars would lead to the collapse of Western Civilization. In his words,
If, however, we are not yet ready to accept passively the final collapse of Western Civilization, we may state the following as a necessary first condition of any workable solution of the problem of atomic weapons: there must be an absolute monopoly of the production, possession and use of all atomic weapons.
One wonders what direction world history might have taken had someone like Burnham been President in 1950 instead of Truman. He would have almost certainly adopted MacArthur’s plan to drop numerous atomic bombs on China and North Korea. We were lucky. In the end, Truman’s homespun common sense prevailed over Burnham’s flamboyant intellect, and the nuclear genie remained in the bottle.
However, in 1947 the U.S. still had a monopoly of nuclear weapons, and, for the reasons cited above, Burnham insisted we must keep it. He suggested that this might best be done by establishing an effectual world government, but dismissed the possibility as impractical. The only workable alternative to a Communist conquest of the world or full scale nuclear war and the end of Western Civilization was U.S. hegemony. In Burnham’s words,
It is not our individual minds or desires, but the condition of world society, that today poses for the Soviet Union, as representative of communism, and for the United States, as representative of Western Civilization, the issue of world leadership. No wish or thought of ours can charm this issue away.
This issue will be decided, and in our day. In the course off the decision, both of the present antagonists may, it is true, be destroyed. But one of them must be.
Whatever the words, it is well also to know the reality. The reality is that the only alternative to the communist World Empire is an American Empire which will be, if not literally worldwide in formal boundaries, capable of exercising decisive world control. Nothing less than this can be the positive, or offensive, phase of a rational United States policy.
As a first step to empire, Burnham proposed the union of Great Britain and the United States, to be followed, not by outright conquest, but by firm assertion of U.S. predominance and leadership in the non-Communist world. Beyond that, the Communist threat must finally be recognized for what it was, and a firm, anti-Communist policy substituted for what was seen as a lack of any coherent policy at all. Vacillation must end.
Fortunately, when it came to the nuclear standoff, Burnham was wrong, and the “foolish commentators” who invoked the fear of retaliation were right. Perhaps, having only seen the effects of dropping two low yield bombs, he could not yet imagine the effect of thousands of bombs orders of magnitude more powerful, or conceive of such a thing as mutually assured destruction. Perhaps it was only dumb luck, but the world did not stumble into a nuclear World War III as it had into the conventional world wars of the 20th century, and the decisive events in the struggle did not follow each other nearly as quickly as Burnham imagined they would.
Burnham also failed to foresee the implications of the gradual alteration in the nature of the Communist threat. At the time he wrote, it was everything he claimed it to be, a messianic secular religion at the height of its power and appeal. He assumed that it would retain that power and appeal until the battle was decided, one way or the other. Even though he was aware that the masses living under Communism, other than a dwindling number of incorrigible idealists, were already disillusioned by “the God that failed,” he didn’t foresee what a decisive weakness that would eventually become. In the end, time was on our side. The Communists, and not we, as Lenin had predicted, finally dropped onto the garbage heap of history “like a ripe plum.”
However, Burnham wasn’t wrong about everything. To win the struggle, it was necessary for us to finally recognize the threat. Whatever doubt remained on that score, at least as far as most of our political leaders were concerned, was dissipated by the North Korean invasion of the south. Our policy of vacillation didn’t exactly end, but was occasionally relieved by periods of firmness. In the end, in spite of a media dominated through most of the struggle by Lenin’s “useful idiots” and the resultant cluelessness of most Americans about what we were even trying to do on the front lines of the “clash between the cultures” in places like Vietnam, we prevailed.
It was a near thing. Burnham feared that, even after losing the opening battles of the next war to a United States with a monopoly of nuclear weapons, the Communists might regroup, abandon their vulnerable cities, and transform the struggle into a “people’s war.” His description of what would follow was eerily similar to what actually did happen, but in a much smaller arena than the whole world:
They would transform the struggle into a political war, a “people’s war,” fought in every district of the world by irregulars, partisans, guerillas, Fifth Columns, spies, stool pigeons, assassins, fought by sabotage and strikes and lies and terror and diversion and panic and revolt. They would play on every fear and prejudice of the United States population, every feeling of guilt or nobility; they would exploit every racial and social division; they would widen every antagonism between tentative allies; and they would tirelessly wear down the United States will to endure.
Though the result would be not quite so certain, perhaps, as if the communists also had atomic weapons, they would in the end, I think, succeed. Because of the lack of a positive United States policy, because it would not have presented to the world even the possibility of a political solution, its dreadful material strength would appear to the peoples as the unrelieved brutality of a murderer. Its failure to distinguish between the communist regime and that regime’s subject-victims would weld together the victims and their rulers. Americans themselves would be sickened and conscience-ridden by what would seem to them a senseless slaughter, never-ending, leading nowhere. The military leadership would be disoriented by the inability of their plans based on technical superiority to effect a decision. The failure to conceive the struggle politically would have given the communists the choice of weapons. From the standpoint of the United States, the entire world would have been turned into an ambush and a desert. In the long night, nerves would finally crack, and sentries would fire their last shots wildly into the darkness, and it would all be over.
Change “the world” to Vietnam and it reads like a history instead of a premonition. Tomorrow is another day, and I doubt that any of us will prove better at predicting what the future will bring than Burnham. We have lived through an era much different, more peaceful, and more sedate in the pace of events than the one he experienced between 1914 and 1945. We should beware of assuming, as he did, that the future will bear any resemblance to the immediate past. The world is still full of nuclear weapons, some of them already in the hands of, or soon to be in the hands of, dictators of suspect rationality. Some of our intellectuals soothe our fears with stories about the “vanishing of violence,” but as Omar Khayyam put it in the “Rubaiyat,” they could soon be “cast as foolish prophets forth, their mouths stopped with dust,” through some miscalculation or deliberate act of malice. As the Boy Scouts say, “be prepared.”
Posted on May 7th, 2012 No comments
Jakob Augstein is the quintessential European version of what would be referred to in the US as a latte Liberal. Heir to what one surmises was a significant fortune from his adopted father, the Amerika-hating founder of Der Spiegel magazine, Rudolf Augstein, he nevertheless imagines himself the champion of the poor and downtrodden. His writing is certainly not original, but he is at least a good specimen of the type for anyone interested in European ideological trends. His reaction to the recent election in France is a good example.
As those who occasionally read a European headline are aware, that election resulted in the victory of socialist Francois Hollande over his austerity-promoting opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy. While certainly noteworthy, such transitions are hardly unprecedented. No matter, the ideological good guys won as far as Augstein is concerned. He greets Hollande’s seemingly unremarkable victory with peals of the Marseillaise and Liberty leading the people:
It is not just a piece of political folklore that France is the land of the revolution. No other European country has such a lively tradition of protest. La lutte permanente, the constant struggle, is part and parcel of the French civilization. In France, the centralized state historically formed an alliance with the people against feudalism. Now the time has come for that to happen again. The fact that the French picked this particular time to vote a socialist into the Elysee Palace is no coincidence. A revolutionary signal will now go forth from France to all of Europe. The new feudal lords who must be resisted are the banks.
Great shades of 1789! Break out Madame Guillotine. What can account for such an outburst of revolutionary zeal in response to what is ostensibly just another garden variety shift from the right to the left in European politics? It is, of course, “austerity,” the course of belt-tightening prescribed by Sarkozy and his pal, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, for Greece and some of the other more profligate spendthrifts in the European Union. Has austerity worked? Augstein’s answer is an unqualified “No.”
…Can one overcome a recession by saving? The answer is: No. those who save during a recession deepen the recession.
I personally rather doubt that anyone knows whether austerity “works” in a recession or not. Modern economies are too complex to simplistically attribute their success or failure to one such overriding factor and, in any case, serious austerity measures haven’t been in effect long enough to allow a confident judgment one way or the other. Certainly the opposites of austerity, such as the recent “stimulus” experiment in the US, haven’t been unqualified successes either, and have the disadvantage of leaving the states that try them mired in debt.
No matter, Augstein goes on to teach us some of the other “lessons” we should learn from the events in France. It turns out that some of these apply to Augsteins’s own country, Germany. The German taxpayers have forked over large sums to keep the economies of Greece and some of the other weak sisters in Europe afloat. Germany’s robust economy has served as an engine to pull the rest of Europe along. German’s should be patting themselves on the back for their European spirit, no?
Not according to Augstein! As he tells it, what Germans should really be doing is hanging their heads in shame.
The Germans are poster boys of the market economy. Never have interest rates been more favorable for Germany. It’s a gift of the market at the expense of the rest of Europe. She (Merkel) isn’t concerned about the European political legacy of Adenauer and Kohl. Those are such western ideas, that mean little to the woman from the east. Driven by cheap money from the international finance markets, the German export industry has scuttled European integration – and Merkel lets them get away with it.
Ah, yes, the socialists of the world have no country. We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we? If you’re successful, you must be evil. The proper response is guilt. Poor Germans! They just can’t ever seem to catch a break. Somehow they always end up in the role of villain.
According to Augstein, without the support of France, Germany and her “saving politics” are now isolated in Europe. What’s that supposed to mean? That Germans are now supposed to fork over even greater funds, this time with no strings attached in the name of “European integration?” If I were a German taxpayer, I know what my response would be: “Let the other Europeans spend and spend to their heart’s content, just as long as they don’t reach into my pocket to do it.”
Well, we’ll just have to wait and see how this flight back to socialism turns out. Who am I to say? I’m no economist. There’s an election in Germany next year. If the socialists return to power there as well, things might really get interesting. We’ll finally find out just how European socialists plan to go about ending austerity after they’ve run out of other people’s money to spend.
Posted on February 11th, 2012 No comments
I don’t think so! Less than a century after H. L. Mencken wrote that the Uplift was a purely American phenomenon, there may now be even more of the pathologically pious in Germany per capita than in the U.S. They all think they’re far smarter than the average human being, they all see a savior of mankind when they look in the mirror, and almost all of them are cocksure that nuclear power is one of the Evils they need to save us from. Just last November tens of thousands of them turned out in force to block the progress of a spent fuel castor from France to the German radioactive waste storage site at Gorleben. The affair turned into a regular Uplift feeding frenzy, complete with pitched battles between the police and the peaceful protesters, who were armed with clubs and pyrotechnics, tearing up of railroad tracks, etc. It’s no wonder the German government finally threw in the towel and announced the country would shut down its nuclear power plants.
At least the decision took the wind out of their sails for a while. As Malcolm Muggeridge once said, “nothing fails like success” for the Saviors of Mankind. Success tends to leave them high and dry. At best they have to go to the trouble of finding another holy cause to fight for. At worst, as in the aftermath of their fine victory in establishing a Worker’s Paradise in Russia, they’re all shot.
It would seem the “bitter dregs of success” were evident in a recent article on the website of the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, entitled “Electricity is Becoming Scarce in Germany.” Der Spiegel has always been in the van of the pack of baying anti-nuclear hounds in Germany, so I was somewhat surprised by the somber byline, which reads as follows:
The nuclear power shutdown has been a burden for Germany’s electric power suppliers in any case. Now the cold wave is making matters worse. The net operators have already had to fall back on emergency reserves for the second time this winter, and buy additional electricity from Austria.
That’ s quite an admission coming from the Der Spiegel, where anti-nuclear polemics are usually the order of the day. Even the resolutely Green Washington Post editorialized against the German shutdown, noting, among other things,
THE INTERNATIONAL Energy Agency reported on Monday that global energy-related carbon emissions last year were the highest ever, and that the world is far off track if it wants to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, after which the results could be very dangerous.
So what does Germany’s government decide to do? Shut down terawatts of low-carbon electric capacity in the middle of Europe. Bowing to misguided political pressure from Germany’s Green Party, Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed a plan to close all of the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022.
European financial analysts (estimate) that Germany’s move will result in about 400 million tons of extra carbon emissions by 2020, as the country relies more on fossil fuels. Nor is Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, who ominously announced that Germany has put coal-fired power “back on the agenda” — good for his coal-rich nation directly to Germany’s east but terrible for the environment and public health.
…and so on. Not exactly a glowing endorsement of the German Greens optimistic plans to replace nuclear with solar in a cloudy country that gets cold in the winter and lies on the wrong side of the 50th parallel of latitude. Poland’s prime minister is right to worry about being downwind of Germany. In spite of the cheery assurances of the Greens, she currently plans to build 26 new coal-fired power plants. It’s funny how environmental zealots forget all about the terrible threat of global warming if its a question of opposing nuclear power. But Poland has a lot more to worry about than Germany’s carbon footprint.
It’s estimated that 25,000 people die from breathing coal particulates in the U.S. alone every year. The per capita death rate in Poland, directly downwind from the German plants, will likely be significantly higher. Then there’s the radiation problem. That’s right, coal typically contains several parts per million of radioactive uranium and thorium. A good-sized plant will release 5 tons of uranium and 10 tons of thorium into the environment each year. Estimated releases in 1982 from worldwide combustion of 2800 million tons of coal totaled 3640 tons of uranium (containing 51,700 pounds of uranium-235) and 8960 tons of thorium. China currently burns that much coal by herself. The radiation from uranium and thorium is primarily in the form of alpha particles, or helium nuclei. Such radiation typically has a very short range in matter, because it slows down quickly and then dumps all of its remaining energy in a very limited distance, the so-called Bragg peak. On the one hand that means that a piece of paper is enough to stop most alpha radiation. On the other it means that if you breath it in, the radiation will be slammed to a stop in your sensitive lung tissue, dealing tremendous damage in the process. Have you ever heard of people dying of lung cancer who never smoked a day in their lives? If you’re looking for a reason, look no further.
No matter. As Stalin said, one death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic. Germany’s Greens will continue to ignore such dry statistics, and they will continue to strike noble poses as they fight the nuclear demon, forgetting all about global warming in the process. For them, the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.
Posted on March 7th, 2011 1 comment
Back in the day, coverage of U.S. military operations in the German media consisted mainly of a melange of self-righteous posing and predictions of imminent doom. For example, according to Der Spiegel, Germany’s number one news magazine, in an article published less than two weeks before the fall of Baghdad, the U.S. Army was “stuck in the sand,” it faced a “worst case scenario,” the Iraqis were fighting “much harder than expected,” and the war was likely to last “for months,” and then only if the troops already on the ground received “massive reinforcements.” Unabashed when all these prophecies of doom turned out to be so many fairy tales, Spiegel immediately shifted gears to the usual fare comparing Iraq to Vietnam that Americans became familiar with in their own media. Inevitably, as well as being another Vietnam, Iraq was a “quagmire.” By 2006, Spiegel was confidently assuring its readers, in lockstep with the NYT and WaPo, that, “The Iraq strategy of the Bush Administration has failed.”
Fast forward to the next President. The winds of insurrection are blowing in the Middle East and North Africa. In Libya, however, the revolutionary wave has been checked, at least for the time being, by the stubborn refusal of Muammar Qaddafi to play his assigned role and bow out gracefully. Meanwhile, the U.S. President seems in no hurry to take any “unilateral action,” and seems to have a distinct aversion for any action more forceful than declaring that Qaddafi’s bloody massacres of his own people are “unacceptable.” Oddly enough, Der Spiegel seems to have changed its tune. According to the headline of an interview with delegate to the European parliament Martin Schulz, the “opportunism (Taktiererei) of the European states is a scandal.” Schulz thinks that “a military intervention in Libya may be considered as a last resort.” Spiegel has a long history of expressing its editorial opinion via such “expert” mouthpieces. It would seem the Schulz interview is no exception. For example, according to the bolded opening paragraph of another article under the headline, “Qaddafi’s Counteroffensive puts the West under Pressure,” we read,
Intervene or watch and wait? After ever more violent battles, Libya threatens to sink into civil war, and with it into chaos. There is increasing pressure to intervene, and it is falling above all on western states. Meanwhile, Germany, the EU, and the USA are standing idly by.
All this sounds harmless enough by US standards. For the German media, though, it’s positively jingoist. In the past, their MO has always been to wait until we actually do take action, then print a stream of articles about civilian casualties, bombings of hospitals and old folks homes, allusions to Vietnam and “quagmires,” the selfish motives of the U.S and its evil corporations which, in this case as in Iraq, would undoubtedly be oil, etc., etc. But Obama isn’t playing along. By all appearances, it’s starting to get under their skin. A byline of the above article refers to the U.S. as the “Helpless World Power #1.” The U.S. military is portrayed as “skeptical” about intervention, and “playing for time” to avoid it. Pentagon spokesman is using the excuse of Libyan air defenses “more effective than those of the Iraqis in 2003,” to explain this “stalling.” In a word, Der Spiegel is positively egging us on to send in the cavalry.
Somehow, I have a sneaking suspicion that the German media, along with the rest of that of “old Europe,” would turn on us with a vengeance as soon as the first boot of the first U.S. GI touched Libyan soil. I have a better idea. Let’s just stay out of it. Give peace a chance! If the Europeans are so worried about the fate of the Libyan people, I’m all in favor of letting them have a go at saving them, but without our assistance. There are occasions when I feel positively comforted by the fact that Barack Obama, and not John McCain, is our President. This is one of them.
Posted on February 18th, 2011 2 comments
Ever since the fall of Louis Philippe’s July Monarchy set off a round of sympathetic insurrections in Europe, revolutions have tended to appear in waves. The recent uprisings in the Middle East are no exception. The reaction to them among liberals and conservatives will be familiar to anyone who experienced the cold war. In those days, conservatives tended to support “anti-Communist” dictators against popular uprisings, and liberals tended to support the “democratic movements” against these “corrupt dictators,” even if their leaders happened to be Pol Pot or Ho chi Minh. Now, thanks to the Internet and other modern means of spreading the word, the related narratives on the left and right are similar, but more uniform, pervasive, and predictable than ever.
In the case of Egypt, for example, conservatives seldom write anything concerning recent events there without raising the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Liberals, on the other hand, are cheering on the insurgency, scoffing at the suggestion that it could ever be hijacked by Islamist radicals. For the most part, the proponents of the two narratives possess little or no reliable information on the balance of political forces in Egypt, and certainly not enough to support the level of certainty with which they represent their points of view. As with earlier revolutions, the notion that even the best informed human beings are sufficiently intelligent to reliably predict the eventual outcome is merely another one of our pleasant delusions.
In fact, the belief of the vast majority of those on either side of the issue that the point of view they support with such zeal was arrived at independently via the exercise of their own intellectual powers is also a delusion. The utter sameness of these “independent opinions,” as like to each other as so many peas in a pod, and their almost inevitable association with an assortment of other “independent opinions” of like nature, demonstrate their real character as ideological shibboleths that define the current intellectual territory of the in-groups of the left and the right.
What, then, of Egypt? Who can say? The political history of the Middle East, the rarity and evanescence of democratic governments in the region, the traditional role of the military as a quasi-political party holding all the trump cards, and the lack of experience in or ideological attachment to popular government do not encourage optimism that a modern democratic government will emerge from the current chaos. Still, as noted above, none of us has the intellectual horsepower to predict with certainty what will happen, although of all the guesses being made, some of them will surely be lucky. One can only suggest to the Egyptian people that, given the outcome of some of the other “popular movements” that were greeted with similar euphoria during the past century, it would behoove them to be very careful whom they allow to lead them.
Posted on January 25th, 2011 No comments
Philosopher Nassim Taleb is famous for his theories regarding black swans, described in his book of that name as events of large magnitude and disproportionate consequence that are unexpected and unpredictable. According to the summary of his ideas on his webpage,
We don’t understand the world as well as we think we do and tend to be fooled by false patterns, mistake luck for skills (the fooled by randomness effect), overestimate knowledge about rare events (Black Swans), as well as human understanding, something that has been getting worse with the increase in complexity.
The collapse of the Soviet Union has my vote for the greatest Black Swan of the 20th century. As Taleb predicted, once it happened, it immediately became a basis for “overestimating our knowledge about rare events.” Transformed in the public imagination from an unprecedented and unpredicted anomaly into a commonplace, it now serves as the basis for all sorts of fanciful predictions, the most prominent of which are probably the recurring reports of China’s eminent demise. Insty just linked another typical example penned by Lawrence Solomon. According to the first two paragraphs:
In 1975, while I was in Siberia on a two-month trip through the U.S.S.R., the illusion of the Soviet Union’s rise became self-evident. In the major cities, the downtowns seemed modern, comparable to what you might see in a North American city. But a 20-minute walk from the centre of downtown revealed another world — people filling water buckets at communal pumps at street corners. The U.S.S.R. could put a man in space and dazzle the world with scores of other accomplishments yet it could not satisfy the basic needs of its citizens. That economic system, though it would largely fool the West until its final collapse 15 years later, was bankrupt, and obviously so to anyone who saw the contradictions in Soviet society.
The Chinese economy today parallels that of the latter-day Soviet Union — immense accomplishments co-existing with immense failures. In some ways, China’s stability today is more precarious than was the Soviet Union’s before its fall. China’s poor are poorer than the Soviet Union’s poor, and they are much more numerous — about one billion in a country of 1.3 billion. Moreover, in the Soviet Union there was no sizeable middle class — just about everyone was poor and shared in the same hardships, avoiding resentments that might otherwise have arisen.
Right. Except for the fact that the Chinese economy today does not parallel that of the latter-day Soviet Union (how prominent were Soviet consumer goods in the U.S. market in 1988?), the mentality of China’s citizens has nothing in common with the descriptions of pervasive despair in the Soviet Union so poignantly described by David Remnick in Lenin’s Tomb, and the rest of these “obvious” parallels amount to a broad comparison of apples and oranges. Such stuff might have figured prominently in Taleb’s book if it had been written a little earlier. In a chapter about World War I, for example, he describes how no one expected it before it happened, and everyone suffered from the illusion they had known about it and predicted it all along after the fact. They then used it as the basis for all kinds of delusional predictions, almost none of which came true. Copious examples can be found in the intellectual journals of the decade following the war.
Meanwhile, predictions of China’s doom have become something of a cottage industry for some writers. Gordon Chang, for example, wrote a book in 2001 predicting China’s collapse not later than 2011, and spend the intervening years writing articles proving inductively and deductively that it must be true. China’s leaders apparently didn’t read the book. We have arrived at 2011, and China’s governing class seems to be as alive and kicking as ever. Black Swans can always happen, but I will not be too astounded if they are still around and still cheating their “inevitable” fate in 2021.
China’s rise is itself a Black Swan of sorts. She was a basket case in the 1920′s, and still patronized as little removed from a third world country as recently as the 1980′s. Many in the West are uncomfortable with her sudden rise to superpower status. However, it’s unlikely she will be toppled by wishful thinking. In the long term, her government is in a state of unstable equilibrium. It does not govern by the consent of the governed, and bases its legitimacy on a failed alien philosophy which its economic policy entirely contradicts. However, Rome’s government was similarly unstable during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Somehow she managed to stagger on for another four centuries and more.
Posted on September 25th, 2010 No comments
Now they’re demanding a triple kowtow from one of our allies. Turkey has noticed the same thing. They’re demanding an apology from another of our allies for daring to react to a deliberate Turkish provocation. I’m surprised they bother with our allies. Why not just demand an apology directly from the US government? After all, we are without peers when it comes to groveling before our enemies. Vietnam would do well to take heed as China bullies her in the South China Sea. If she leans on us for support, she will be leaning on a weak reed. She should have learned that from her own history.
Posted on June 22nd, 2010 No comments
Whenever the nation goes on the warpath, hearts on the left fondly turn to thoughts of Vietnam. Remember what they said about about the prospects of the Bush surge succeeding in Iraq? The Volokh Conspiracy came up with a great list of reminders a while back. I quote them here again to help keep the memory fresh.
The only real question about the planned “surge” in Iraq — which is better described as a Vietnam-style escalation — is whether its proponents are cynical or delusional. — Paul Krugman, NYT, 1/8/07
There is nothing ahead but even greater disaster in Iraq. — NYT Editorial, 1/11/07
What anyone in Congress with half a brain knows is that the surge was sabotaged before it began. — Frank Rich, NYT, 2/11/07
Keeping troops in Iraq has steadily increased the risk of a bloodbath. The best way to reduce that risk is, I think, to announce a timetable for withdrawal and to begin a different kind of surge: of diplomacy. — Nicholas Kristof, NYT, 2/13/07
W. could have applied that to Iraq, where he has always done only enough to fail, including with the Surge — Maureen Dowd, NYT, 2/17/07
The senator supported a war that didn’t need to be fought and is a cheerleader for a surge that won’t work. — Maureen Dowd, NYT, 2/24/07
Now the ”surge” that was supposed to show results by summer is creeping inexorably into an open-ended escalation, even as Moktada al-Sadr’s militia ominously melts away, just as Iraq’s army did after the invasion in 2003, lying in wait to spring a Tet-like surprise. — Frank Rich, NYT, 3/11/07
Victory is no longer an option in Iraq, if it ever was. The only rational objective left is to responsibly organize America’s inevitable exit. That is exactly what Mr. Bush is not doing and what the House and Senate bills try to do. — NYT Editorial, 3/29/07
There is no possible triumph in Iraq and very little hope left. — NYT Editorial, 4/12/07
… the empty hope of the “surge” … — Frank Rich, NYT, 4/22/07
Three months into Mr. Bush’s troop escalation, there is no real security in Baghdad and no measurable progress toward reconciliation, while American public support for this folly has all but run out. — NYT Editorial, 5/11/07
Now the Bush administration finds itself at that same hour of shame. It knows the surge is not working. — Maureen Down, NYT, 5/27/07
Mr. Bush does have a choice and a clear obligation to re-evaluate strategy when everything, but his own illusions, tells him that it is failing. — NYT Editorial, 7/25/07
The smart money, then, knows that the surge has failed, that the war is lost, and that Iraq is going the way of Yugoslavia. — Paul Krugman, NYT, 9/14/07
A nice collection, no? Hope springs eternal, though. With any luck we’ll be defeated in Afghanistan.
Posted on June 21st, 2010 No comments
Oh, I agree, Obama seems inept, weak, and lacking in any detectable skills as a leader. But was Bush really all that much better? He certainly didn’t stop the cancerous growth of big government. He launched a completely unnecessary war of aggression in Iraq, freeing the country of a bloody dictator in the process. For that, most Iraqis are probably more or less as grateful as the journalist who threw his shoes at W. The war cost us and continues to cost us blood and treasure that we can ill afford. He got us into another war in Afghanistan that was certainly more justifiable, but failed to take the perfectly sound advice of Donald Rumsfeld to pack up and leave quickly when it was over. Instead, we embarked on a neocon’s wet dream of “nation building,” with the predictable result that we are still bogged down there, with the left and right in cordial agreement that we face almost inevitable defeat.
Other than that, as the recent “peace flotilla” stunt reminded us, he completely failed to understand the burgeoning threat of a resurgent and politicized Islam that has now become the main contender to fill the ideological vacuum left by the demise of Communism. The evidence is all still out there on the Internet. For example, he strongly backed Turkey’s entry into the EU, as can be seen in this story that appeared in the Washington Post back in October, 2006. Fortunately, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel had other ideas. (Of course, the Turks, with one of the fastest growing economies in the world, are probably jumping for joy that they didn’t stumble into the EU’s economic black hole, but that’s another story.) Read the article, and you’ll see how thoroughly Bush was bamboozled by Turkey’s Islamist prime minister Erdogan. It was “in our interests” for the rapidly radicalizing Turks to become a part of Europe. The U.S. and its Turkish “strategic partner” were “focusing on ways to counter extremism.” Bush nodded sagely as Erdogan inveighed against the use of terms like “Islamic terrorism.”
In a word, I wouldn’t exactly put nostalgia for Bush in the U.S. in the same category as nostalgia for Stalin in Russia, but it still doesn’t make a lot of sense. The choice between Bush and Obama is basically the choice between being internationally hated or internationally despised. Take your pick.