Do We Really Need New Nukes?

If an article that just appeared in the LA Times is any indication, the agitation for jump-starting the nuclear weapons program at the Department of Energy (DOE) and the three nuclear weapons laboratories (Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia National Laboratories) continues unabated. Entitled “New nuclear weapons needed, many experts say, pointing to aged arsenal,” it cites all the usual talking points of the weaponeers. For example,

Warheads in the nation’s stockpile are an average of 27 years old, which raises serious concerns about their reliability, they say. Provocative nuclear threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin have added to the pressure to not only design new weapons but conduct underground tests for the first time since 1992.

“It seems like common sense to me if you’re trying to keep an aging machine alive that’s well past its design life, then you’re treading on thin ice,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman-elect of the House Armed Services Committee. “Not to mention, we’re spending more and more to keep these things going.”

Thornbury also offered support for renewed testing, saying, “You don’t know how a car performs unless you turn the key over. Why would we accept anything less from a weapon that provides the foundation for which all our national security is based on?”

Such comments are entirely typical. They would make a lot of sense if the U.S. nuclear weapons program existed in a vacuum. However, it doesn’t. It exists in a world with several other major nuclear powers, and they all have the same problems. Under the circumstances, the fact that such problems exist and are shared by all the nuclear powers is less significant than the question of which nuclear power is best equipped to deal with them. The question of who will benefit by the building of new weapons and a resumption of nuclear testing depends on the answer to that question. If one country has a significant advantage over its rivals in dealing with a common problem as long as the status quo is maintained, then it would be very ill-advised to initiate a change to the status quo that would allow them to catch up.  At the moment, the United States is the country with an advantage. As noted in the article,

The U.S. has by far the greatest archive of test data, having conducted 1,032 nuclear tests. Russia conducted 715 and China only 45.

Beyond that, we have the ability to conduct tests with conventional explosives that mimic what goes on in the initial stages of a nuclear explosion, and superb diagnostics to extract a maximum of data from those tests. Perhaps more importantly, we have an unrivaled above ground experimental, or AGEX, capability. I refer to machines like Z at Sandia National Laboratories, or the NIF at Livermore, which are far more capable and powerful than similar facilities anywhere else in the world. Those who say they can’t access physical conditions relevant to those that occur in exploding nuclear weapons, or that they are useless for weapon effects or weapon physics experiments, either don’t know what they’re talking about or are attempting to deceive.

As far as the NIF is concerned, it is quite true that it has so far failed to achieve its fusion ignition milestone, but that by no means rules out the possibility that it ever will. More importantly, the NIF will remain a highly useful AGEX facility whether it achieves ignition or not. Indeed, before it was built, many of the weapons designers showed little interest in ignition. It would merely “muddy the waters,” making it more difficult for the diagnostics to precisely record the results of an experiment. The NIF could access weapons-relevant conditions without it. In fact, in spite of its failure to achieve ignition to date, the NIF has been a spectacular success as far as achieving its specifications are concerned. It is more than an order of magnitude more powerful than any previously existing laser system, its 192 laser beams are highly accurate, and its diagnostic suite is superb.

Another problem with the resumption of testing is that it will lead to the development of weapons that are much more likely to be used. Once the nuclear genie is out of the bottle, it will likely prove very difficult to put it back in. For example, again quoting the article,

John S. Foster Jr., former director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and chief of Pentagon research during the Cold War, said the labs should design, develop and build prototype weapons that may be needed by the military in the future, including a very low-yield nuclear weapon that could be used with precision delivery systems, an electromagnetic pulse weapon that could destroy an enemy’s communications systems and a penetrating weapon to destroy deeply buried targets.

The commonly heard narrative at DOE goes something like this: “We need to develop small, precise, penetrating nuclear weapons because they will be a much better deterrent than the existing ones. Potential enemies are unlikely to believe that we would ever use one of the high yield weapons that are all that remain in the current arsenal. They would be far more likely to believe that we might use a small bunker buster that would minimize the possibility of significant collateral damage.” The problem with that narrative is that it’s true. We would be far more likely to use such a weapon than the ones in the current arsenal, and there would be no lack of voices within DOE and DoD calling for its use if an appropriate opportunity ever arose.

I can understand the agitation for a resumption of testing. It’s a lot sexier to make things that go boom than to serve as custodians for an aging pile of existing nukes. Unfortunately, the latter course is the wiser one. By resuming nuclear testing we would really be unilaterally surrendering a huge advantage, playing into the hands of our enemies and destabilizing the nuclear landscape at the same time.

German Media Update: The Honeymoon is Definitely Over

Times have changed in Germany since Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize and spoke before 200,000 enraptured fans in Berlin.  Only 6,000 turned out to hear him when he returned last year.  Meanwhile, the media there, particularly since the recent events in Ukraine, has been resurrecting themes that were familiar during the Cold War.  The political left is beginning to turn to Russia, and the political right is decrying the weakness of the Obama Administration.  For example, while the overall tone of the main news magazine, Der Spiegel, has been anti-Russian, Jakob Augstein, whose column “When in Doubt, to the Left,” appears there regularly, wrote a couple of days ago:

Media and political pundits want to breathe new life into an old “face of the enemy” (Feindbild):  the evil Russian.  As far as Russia is concerned, the West is in once again stuck in the same rut as in the cynical days of yesteryear, when US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger publicly expressed his hope that the superpower in the East would go under “with a whimper, not with a bang.”  Hillary Clinton just compared Putin to Hitler.  That’s how one recommends oneself in the US as a potential Democratic presidential candidate.  Meanwhile, the Russia policy of the two East Germans Merkel and (German President) Gauck is as resentful as if they were exploiting their offices for private trauma therapy.

Meanwhile the polls are showing that the public isn’t inclined to tag along.  A majority of Germans do not consider Putin unreasonable for viewing the Crimea as a Russian sphere of influence.  (As opposed to Putin) the tendency to ignore and violate borders is a characteristic of the West.  It constantly seeks to fish in troubled waters (“periklitieren”), to use one of Bismarck’s favorite expressions, outside of its own sphere of influence.  Or, more to the point, it claims the whole world as its sphere of interest.  That’s just the problem.

The West can never get enough, and is therefore insatiable… The Asians have finally drawn their own conclusions:  the lamb must now itself become the wolf.

It’s clear from the reader comments that appeared after a recent Spiegel article on the crisis that Augstein hasn’t misrepresented German attitudes.  The article itself, entitled, “The Ukraine:  Obama Expresses Scorn for Ukraine as a Regional Power,” includes the understated byline, “This isn’t how de-escalation should look.”   Some typical examples:

The ineffectual US President dares to shoot his mouth off like this?  He never seems to come up with anything concrete and positive except stupidities… I demand that his Nobel Peace Prize be revoked. (whiteelephant1)

The US is clearly on the path of escalation… It would be nice if the German media would adopt a more critical attitude, and not always just go along with everything the US/EU says.  Putin isn’t the danger.  The danger comes from those who now sense an opportunity to finish Russia once and for all.  That’s what this is really about.  (mc6206)

Very nice, Mr. Obama, just keep playing with fire.  After all, thank God there’s a buffer zone between Russia and your homeland in case Russia loses its nerve.  It’s called EUROPE!  (Korf)

If Russia is just a “regional power,” and one has more important problems to deal with, why these hysterical attempts to isolate Russia and portray her in a bad light.  Who is supposed to be swallowing such stupidities from Obama?  (itf)

Well, we’re not exactly seeing a return to the last super-eruption of anti-Americanism in Germany that reached its climax about 15 years ago, but the honeymoon is clearly over.

UPDATE:  Der Spiegel just published its take on an interview with former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt that appeared in the weekly newspaper, Die Zeit.  Schmidt is a highly intelligent man whose memoirs are well worth reading, and who can hardly be described as anti-American.  Der Spiegel headlines the interview, “Former Chancellor Schmidt Defends Putin’s Ukraine Policy.”  The byline reads, “Helmut Schmidt finds the actions of Russia in the Crimea ‘completely understandable,’ and considers sanctions ‘dumb stuff’ (dummes Zeug).  No doubt the situation in Ukraine is dangerous – however, in the former Chancellor’s opinion, the West is at fault.”

A few excerpts from the article in Der Spiegel:

Schmidt was highly critical of the way in which the Crimea crisis has been handled in the West.  He referred to the sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union and the USA as “dumb stuff.”  In Schmidt’s opinion, attempts to impose further sanctions would be misguided.  For the most part they would have merely symbolic value, “but they would affect the West just as much as the Russians.

Schmidt’s words provide support to those taking part in the debate in Germany who favor looking at things from the Russian point of view.  Former Chancellor and party colleague Gerhard Schröder recently spoke in similar terms.

According to Schmidt, the situation in Ukraine is “dangerous, because the West has worked itself into a frenzy.”  (literally, “has become terribly excited”)  As a result, “the overwrought reaction in the West has naturally led to a similar overwrought reaction in Russian public opinion and politics.”  Referring to the (reserved) policy of Chancellor Angela Merkel the 95-year old said, “In this case praise for the caution of the German Chancellor is appropriate.”

So far the editorial narrative at Der Spiegel has been mainly anti-Russian.  However, there has been a shift to a more circumspect approach lately, with articles critical of right wing nationalists in the current Kiev regime, taking note of western media darling Yulia Timoshenko’s hateful tirade against Putin in an overheard telephone conversation in which she said she was “ready to pick up a machine pistol and shoot this piece of crap in the head,” suggesting the use of nuclear weapons to kill Russians, and so on.  It is noteworthy that the German Green Party, which has tacked to the right in recent years, immediately condemned Schmidt’s comments, while the Party of the Left, positioned to the left of the German Socialist Party (SPD), praised his remarks.

 

Kerry, the Democrats, and the Demagoguing of Global Warming

Secretary of State John Kerry appeared quite concerned about global warming during a recent visit to Indonesia, telling students,

The bottom line is this: it is the same thing with climate change. In a sense, climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even the worlds most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.

A bit later, Harry Reid and his fellow Democrat senators pulled an all-night talkathon to sound the climate change alarm.  According to Reid, climate change is “the worst problem facing the world today.”  All this left reporter Susan Davis at USA Today scratching her head:

The Democratic effort is cause for some confusion because these senators are calling for action in a chamber they control but without any specific legislation to offer up for a vote, or any timetable for action this year.

As noted at Hot Air, the talkathon and Kerry’s bloviations were nothing but PR stunts:

In other words, this is nothing but a stunt — and transparently so. Senate Democrats control all of the Senate committees, and what comes to the Senate floor. Boxer herself is the chair of the committee on environmental affairs, and could push through legislation any time she wants to the floor.

In other words, it’s business as usual when it comes to environmental activism.  The pose is everything, and the reality is nothing.  The reality is that Kerry, Reid, and the rest are transparently indifferent to the problem of climate change, except as it serves them as a political tool.  If they really cared about it, they would have put a stop to illegal immigration long ago.  The carbon foot print per capita of the United States is four times that of Mexico, and the ratio is much greater for most of the other countries of origin.  If they really cared, they would put a stop to Nuclear Regulatory Commission stonewalling of innovative nuclear plant designs, not to mention grossly excessive litigation hurdles for plant construction.  If they really cared, they would get behind the shale-energy revolution which has cut 300 million tons of US greenhouse gas emissions by replacing heavily polluting coal with natural gas, a contribution greater than that of all the worlds solar and wind power installations combined.  In other words, they don’t care.

It’s sad, because climate change actually is a potentially serious problem.  Kerry is just blowing hot air himself when he makes statements like,

We should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists and science and extreme ideologues to compete with scientific fact.

The idea that someone like Kerry could distinguish “shoddy scientists” from “scientific fact” when it comes to climate change is beyond ludicrous.  What qualifies him to even make such a statement?  Certainly not the faintest understanding of current climate models.  The most powerful computers on earth couldn’t even come close to achieving a deterministic solution of the problem.  It involves billions of degrees of freedom in atmospheric and ocean conditions, and the necessary initial conditions are mostly either unknown or of limited accuracy.  The only way we can even begin to address the problem is with serious (and potentially inaccurate) data interpolation, and probabilistic computer models, the equivalent of “throwing dice” on a vast scale to see which numbers come up.  The statistical noise alone in such models renders it impossible to speak of “scientific facts” when it comes to climate change, but only a range of possible outcomes.  In other words, Kerry’s crude “alarmism” is an easy mark for the climate “denialism” on the other end of the ideological spectrum.  That’s too bad, because denying that any problem exists is just as bad as demagoguing it.

We may not be able to speak of “scientific facts” when it comes to climate change.  We do know, however, that solar radiation passing through a simplified model of the atmosphere and striking an “average” patch of the earth’s surface will raise the temperature of that atmosphere in proportion to the concentration of greenhouse gases.  The best computer models we have are not perfect, but they’re not useless either, and they predict that significant warming will occur over the coming decades.  In other words, we can’t speak of “facts” or certainty here, but we can say that there is a substantial risk that significant human-induced climate change will occur.  The effects might be benign, outweighed by the same factors that have driven variations in the earth’s climate throughout its history.  They might also be disastrous.  Given that earth is the only planet we have to live on at the moment, it seems foolhardy to rock the boat.

Under the circumstances, Kerry, Reid, and the rest might want to think twice about the value of crying “wolf” to score cheap political points, when it’s clear that they have no intention of seriously addressing the problem.  Particularly at the end of a 15 year pause in the rate of increase of global temperatures, the result, already much in evidence, will be an increase in cynicism and skepticism that the problem is real.  The resulting reluctance to sacrifice other priorities to address it may come back to haunt the alarmists if, as the boy in the story discovered, the “wolf” turns out to be real.

What to do?  Some of the most effective solutions are precisely what the alarmists who bray the loudest don’t want to do.  End significant immigration to countries with the most emissions per capita, for one.  Lead in the introduction and adoption of more efficient and safer nuclear technologies and the expansion of nuclear capacity instead of blocking it for another.   Instead, the wildly misnomered “Greens” in Germany are shutting down the nuclear plants in that country, with the entirely predictable result that Germany is currently planning to build 26 new, heavily polluting, coal-fired power plants to replace them.  Divert heavy subsidies for existing solar and wind technologies to investment in green technology research and development.  As those famously “green” Germans discovered once again, taxing the poor to finance the solar energy hobbies of the rich in a cloudy country whose capital lies above the 52nd parallel of latitude is a dubious proposition.  The cost of electricity there after years of massive subsidies to solar and a nuclear shutdown is now twice as high as in heavily nuclear France.  As noted in an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the burden of these skyrocketing costs is falling disproportionately on the backs of those least able to afford them.

Beyond that, we might want to get serious about finding another habitable planet, and developing the technology to get there.  We’ve been doing a lot of rocking the boat lately.  It would behoove us to have an alternative in case it eventually tips over, and the sooner the better.

coal-power-plant

 

 

 

Moral Artifacts of the Shutdown

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good.  The government shutdown is making life miserable for federal employees and government contractors, but it’s the greatest show on earth for students of human nature.  Ingroup/outgroup behavior, first described in formal academic terms by Sir Arthur Keith, Freudianized by Ardrey as the Amity/Enmity Complex, and probably the most important “root cause” of human warfare throughout the ages, can be observed in its crudest forms on both the left and the right of the ideological spectrum.  As Keith put it,

Seeing that all social animals behave in one way to members of their own community and in an opposite manner to those of other communities, we are safe in assuming that early humanity, grouped as it was in the primal world, had also this double rule of behavior.  At home they applied Huxley’s ethical code, which is Spencer’s code of amity; abroad their conduct was that of Huxley’s cosmic code, which is Spencer’s code of enmity.

To judge by the partisan political blogs, Keith’s early humanity was quite successful in passing those traits along to later humanity.  Typically, commenters in such forums are firmly convinced that the “others” are not just misguided and mistaken.  They are perceived as disgusting, stupid, and deliberately evil.  For example, from the comment section of the left wing Talking Points Memo in response to an article about who’s to blame for the shutdown,

The hillbilly homegrown terrorists know what they’re doing, and the whole point is to shut the country down and cause pain for the people they don’t like (aka “other Americans”).

Republicans don’t believe in polls.  Or science.  Or math.  Or medicine… I’m not really sure what they do believe in besides the “invisible hand” of the market and the concept that an “invisible man in the sky” has chosen them specifically to spread gun-love and lecture poor people, minorities and women on why they are inferior.

Republicans hate the black man in the White House and that hatred trumps everything else.  They will force default just to spite us.

…and from an article on the shutdown on Powerline, a similarly partisan blog on the right wing of the spectrum,

170 years ago it was whether a certain race of people should be enslaved; today it is whether our entire population should be shackled and softly enslaved by an overly oppressive government.

My (grand)father’s Democrat Party didn’t have Marxist garbage like Van Jones nor feral types like Alan Grayson.  Since I would never answer to such garbage we’re back in 1850’s America.

I do think a tipping point has been reached when you have the specter of the federal government literally barricading (a deliberate solecism on the right, playing on the President’s name) state roads, to prevent people from getting a view, a corrupt attorney general literally stepping into states, to disallow them to institute basic voting safeguards.  A labor department literally blocking the gates of a company in South Carolina, because they didn’t pay proper respects to another political group.  This government is harming real people now, for no more reason than thin skinnedness and spite.

Notice the symmetry?  As usual, both sides can see the other’s spite and hatred, but not their own.  For example, from the Powerline comments,

Conservatives think that liberals are wrong, but liberals think that conservatives are evil.

Readers of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind will recognize his “inner lawyer” at work here, busily rationalizing moral emotions.  As usual, Haidt’s “rational tail” is hard at work wagging the “emotional dog.”

We are less than a year away from the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I, and there are some interesting commonalities between the shutdown and that conflict.  Since humans were/are involved in both conflicts, it is not surprising to find the human traits associated with status seeking and dominance figuring as important factors in both.  Students of history will recall that the relevant suite of emotions went by the name of “honor” in World War I.  Prior to that conflict, Austria-Hungary had directly challenged Russia by annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908.  Russia, recently weakened by the 1905 Revolution and defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, had been forced to back down, and was perceived, both by herself and others, as having acted weakly.  In 1914, Austria challenged Russia again, mobilizing against her ally, Serbia, and shelling Belgrade.  This time, however, Russia was determined not to lose face.  Her leaders imagined all sorts of dire consequences if she backed down again, ignored the immeasurably more dire consequences of not backing down, and ordered their own army to mobilize.  That got the ball rolling in Germany, and the rest is history.

In the last government shutdown during the Clinton Administration, the Republicans also backed down, in part because of polls showing the public blamed them for the mess, and were humbled just as the Russians were in 1908.  Now the Republicans face their own 1914.  In what they probably perceive in more or less the same way as the Russians perceived the shelling of Belgrade, their political enemies forced through a program they bitterly opposed without a single Republican vote.  Now they, too, refuse to back down, and the Democrats are just as determined not to lose face.  One must hope that the outcome won’t be quite as drastic for the Republicans and Democrats as it was for Russia and Austria-Hungary.

 

Morality and Gay Marriage

As I was walking through the lobby at work the other day, I overheard a dispute about gay marriage.  It ended when the “pro” person called the “anti” person a bigot, turned on her heel, and walked away in a fog of virtuous indignation.  “Bigot” is a pejorative term.  In other words, it expresses moral emotions.  It is our nature to perceive others in terms of “good” ingroups and “evil” outgroups.  In this case, the moral judgment of the “pro” person was a response to the, perhaps inaccurate, perception that one of the “con” person’s apparent outgroup categories, namely gays, was inappropriate.  Inappropriate outgroup identification is one of the most common reasons that individuals are considered “evil.”  Examples include outgroup identification by virtue of sex (“sexism” unless directed at older males or directed at women by a Moslem), race (“racism” unless directed at whites), and Jews (“antisemitism” unless directed at Jews who believe that the state of Israel has a right to exist).

The culturally moderated rules may actually be quite complex.  Paradoxically, as I write this, one may refer to “old, white males” in a pejorative sense, thereby apparently committing the sins of racism, sexism, and age discrimination in a single breath, without the least fear that one’s listener will strike a pious pose and begin delivering himself of a string of moral denunciations.  Such anomalies are what one might expect of a species which has recognized the destructiveness of racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, and other particular variants of a behavioral trait, namely, the predisposition to categorize others into ingroups and outgroups, or what Robert Ardrey called with a Freudian twist the “amity/enmity complex,” but is not yet generally conscious of the general trait that is the “root cause” of them all.  We will continue to play this sisyphean game of “bop the mole” until we learn to understand ourselves better.  Until then, we will continue to hate our outgroups with the same gusto as before, merely taking care to choose them carefully so as to insure that they conform to the approved outgroups of our ingroup.

As for the heated conversation at work, was there an objective basis for calling the “con” person a bigot?  Of course not!  There never is.  Moral judgments are subjective by their very nature, in spite of all the thousands of systems concocted to prove the contrary.  There is no way in which the “pro” person’s moral emotions can jump out of his/her skull, become things in themselves independent of the physical processes that gave rise to them in the “pro” person’s brain, and thereby acquire the ability to render the “con” person “truly evil.”

The same applies to the moral emotions of the “con” person.  For example, he/she could just as easily have concluded that the “pro” person was a bigot.  In this case, the inappropriate choice of outgroup would be Christians.  While one may quibble endlessly about the Bible, it does not seem irrational to conclude that it specifies that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that gay sexual activity is immoral.  Of course, as an atheist, I don’t specialize in Biblical exegesis, but that seems to be a fair reading.  Indeed, the moral judgment of the “con” person would seem to be the least flimsy of the two.  At least the “con” person can point out that an omnipotent and vengeful Super Being agrees with him, and might take exception to the arguments of the “pro” person, going so far as to burn them in unquenchable fire for billions and trillions of years, just for starters.  It is, of course, absurd that such a Super Being would have moral emotions to begin with.  Why would it need them?

In a word, both “pro” and “con” may have a point based on the generally accepted rules of the game.  However, no moral judgment is rational.  Moral judgments are, by their nature, emotional and subjective.  They would not exist in the absence of evolved behavioral predispositions, which, in turn, only exist because they promoted the survival and procreation of individuals.  In view of these facts about what they are and why they exist, the idea that they could somehow acquire an independent and collective legitimacy is absurd.

What to do in the case of gay marriage?  My personal inclination would be to handle the matter in a way that leaves the society I have to live in as harmonious as possible, while, to the extent possible, removing any grounds for the pathologically pious among us to inconvenience the rest of us with their moralistic posing.  What is marriage?  One can argue that, originally, it was a religious sacrament before it was co-opted by the modern state.  It does not seem reasonable to me that the state should take over a religious sacrament, arbitrarily redefine it, and then denounce religious believers as bigots because they do not accept the new definition.  That violates my personal sense of fairness which, I freely admit, has no normative powers over others whatsoever.  On the other hand, the state now applies the term “marriage” to determine whether one can or cannot receive any number of important social benefits.  It also violates my personal sense of fairness to deny these benefits to a whole class of individuals because of their sexual orientation.  Under the circumstances, I would prefer that the state get out of the “marriage” business entirely, restricting itself to the recognition of civil unions as determinants of who should or should not receive benefits.  Unfortunately, such a radical redefinition of what is commonly understood as “marriage” is not likely to happen any time soon.

Under the circumstances, the least disruptive policy would probably be for the state to recognize gay marriage as a purely and explicitly secular institution, while at the same time recognizing the right of Christians and other religious believers to reject the validity of such marriages as religious sacraments should their idiosyncratic version of the faith so require.  It would take some attitude adjustment, but that’s all to the “good.”  In any case, I would prefer that we at least attempt to resolve the matter rationally, rather than by the usual method of trial by combat between conflicting moralities, with the last morality standing declared the “winner.”

The Unlucky Soothsayers

The election is history and the unlucky soothsayers I referred to in my last post are eating crow. To paraphrase Billy Joel in one of his songs, “they didn’t have quite enough information.” For the edification and amusement of my readers, here are some of Tuesday’s losers.

Noted Republican strategist Karl Rove. He thought the polls suggested that more Republicans and fewer Democrats would show up to vote than in 2008.  He was wrong.

Fox News talking head Dick Morris. He didn’t think as many minorities and single women would show up as in 2008. Here’s his alibi for the day after.

In an article entitled, “Reflections on Mittmentum,” the ever hopeful Roger Kimball, who blogs for PJmedia, wrote the day before the election,

My own sense of the matter, as I have said here on many occasions, is that Mitt will not only win but win handily.  The final tally, I suspect, will show Mitt the victor with something like 330 electoral votes.

The day after, a chastened Kimball wrote,

But I misread and misread badly both the mood of the country and the depth of support for Obama’s failed policies. I will doubtless get around to rejoining Ron in the battle, but a little hiatus for reflection will not come amiss.

That is certainly a sentiment his fellow prophets will agree on.  Soothsayers over the water also got their comeuppance on Tuesday.  Christopher Carr of Australia’s conservative mag, The Quadrant, had assured his readers,

On November 6, 2012, Mitt Romney will be elected President of the United States by a comfortable margin.  It will not be a cliffhanger, despite the chorus of conventional wisdom.

Carr added that, because of his choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate, and his strong performance in the debate, Romney’s victory was assured.  In his post mortem after the results were in, he sadly concluded,

Mitt Romney played Mr. Nice Guy. President Obama played the demagogue. But nice guys finish last.

In Germany, Der Spiegel’s token conservative pundit, Jan Fleischhauer, also had it wrong.  In an article entitled “Bad, Bad Romney,” a satirical dig at the usual German version of reality in which the Republicans are bad guys and the Democrats good guys, he writes,

In the media the battle for the White House is already decided; Mitt Romney… has no chance.  Unfortunately, wishful thinking isn’t much help in a democracy.  The Republicans may not have the press on their side – but they have the numbers.

Not one to dwell on his mistake, Mr. Fleischhauer penned another article entitled “Our Obama-Love is Infantile” a couple of days after the election analyzing the “root causes” of German anti-Americanism.  It was probably more useful to his readers, noting, for example, that Germans have been hopefully and confidently predicting the downfall of the United States for the last 40 years.  In fact, it’s probably been longer than that.  I note in passing that, in reading the many comments after the articles on the U.S. elections on German webzines, there are a lot more Germans pointing to the faults of their own country and condemning the ubiquitous destructive criticism of the United States than there were, say, ten years ago.  The usual received wisdom according to which the U.S. is the decaying embodiment of evil imperialism, run by shadowy financiers, and inhabited by Bible-thumping Christian versions of the Taliban, is still there in abundance.  However, more nuance is gradually being added by those who ask questions such as why, if we are so evil, and Germany such a paradise, so many Germans are looking around for the best shortcut to a Green Card.

One thing that both the lucky and the unlucky pundits will likely agree on is that the electorate is fractured along racial and gender lines as never before.  Political ingroups in the U.S. are rapidly becoming less defined by ideology, and more defined by demography. Romney won the vote of white males over thirty by a massive majority. Obama won the black, Hispanic, Asian, and single female votes by similarly huge majorities. His majorities trumped Romney’s.  It seems that similarly constituted Democratic majorities will continue prevail more frequently than not in national elections for a long time to come.  To the extent that political and economic issues mattered in this election, they mattered less in their own right and more as cultural attributes associated with race and gender than in past elections. The Benghazi debacle was a huge deal for white males over thirty. It was a non-issue for young black women.

Obama, Romney, and the British Debacle at El Alamein

In an article entitled “Hitler’s Second Front,” that appeared in the November 1942 issue of the Atlantic Review, one T. H. Thomas confidently predicted disaster for the British forces in North Africa.  In his words,

Roughly speaking, Rommel is sixty miles or so away from winning the war.  There looms up close at hand the prospect of a decisive victory – one which would involve an irreparable disaster to the Allied conduct of the war.

In the mustering of forces for this battle, the enemy has now the advantage of position.  At one time British convoys could still take the direct sea route to Alexandria, but German dive bombers then appeared over the central Mediterranean.  By now it has actually become Mare Nostrum.  The British forces in Africa and the British fleets had no planes with which to strike back in kind.  British factories do not produce them.

British tanks were hopelessly outclassed by the Germans:

These actions (earlier fighting in north Africa) also brought into the field German medium tanks armed with 75’s (i.e., 15 pounders) against British tanks carrying nothing larger than 2-pounders.  The effective range of the German guns is said to be over three times that of the 2-pounders.  This contrast has dominated the fighting in Egypt since that day.  The British 2-pounder is an excellent tank against infantry positions.  In the naked landscape of Libya, mechanized warfare develops the situation of duels between tank and tank, or tanks against anti-tank artillery.  On this footing, the heaviest British tanks were hopelessly outranged.

Victory, was out of the question for the British.  It was merely a question of hanging on for dear life until the various nostrums proposed by Mr. Thomas could be applied:

The narrow front at El Alamein has become the keystone of the whole arch of Allied resistance east of Suez.  Here, as on every other front, the pressing task is to avoid defeat – the question as to how the war is to be won does not yet arise.

As it happens, on this day 70 years ago, just as Thomas’ prophecy of doom was appearing on the newstands, the question of how the war was to be won did arise.  Rommel’s “hopelessly superior” forces had been smashed by a British offensive after nearly two weeks of brutal fighting.  The remnant was in speedy retreat, leaving Hitler’s Italian allies, who had fought well at El Alamein, helplessly mired in the desert without food, ammunition or fuel.  Quoting from the Wiki article on the battle:

It had not been the first time that the Allies had had numerical superiority in men and equipment in the Western Desert, but never had it been so complete and across all arms. Furthermore, in the past—except in field artillery—they had struggled with the quality of their equipment. But with the arrival of Sherman tanks, 6-pounder anti-tank guns and Spitfires in the Western Desert, the Allies at last had the ability to match the opposition.

Allied artillery was superbly handled. Allied air support was excellent in contrast to the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica which offered little or no support to ground forces, preferring to engage in air-to-air combat. This overwhelming air superiority had a huge effect on the battle…

In the end, the Allies’ victory was all but total. Axis casualties of 37,000 amounted to over 30% of their total force. Allied casualties of 13,500 were by comparison a remarkably small proportion of their total force. The effective strength of Panzer Army Africa after the battle amounted to some 5,000 troops, 20 tanks, 20 anti-tank guns and 50 field guns.

So much for Mr. Thomas’ prophecies of doom.  The Atlantic described him as follows:

A military hitorian who served with distinction on the staff at GHQ in the First World War, T. H. Thomas is well qualified to appraise the developments of the war.

I have no information on what became of him after he penned the article, although I didn’t put a great deal of Google time in searching for him.  If he had written the same stuff in Germany or the Soviet Union, no doubt he would have been shot as a defeatist.  However, the Allies were remarkably tolerant of pacifists and defeatists during the war.  I suspect that such tolerance played a major role in the rapid collapse of France, and may have cost Hitler’s other enemies dearly if he had not been so completely outmatched by the forces arrayed against him.  Be that as it may, there were many other T. H. Thomases writing similar disinformation about Hitler and the phenomenon of Naziism, the likelihood of war, the probable outcome of the war, etc., during the 30’s and 40’s.  I know of none whose careers suffered significantly as a result.  Apparently they just swept their past mistakes under the rug, and kept writing more of the same.

Fast forward 70 years, and a new generation of pundits has been busily enlightening readers as to the reasons why either Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney will inevitably win the election.  Half of them, more or less, will be wrong, and the other half, more or less, will be lucky.  Given the number of pundits and the laws of probability, a random few will be very lucky, predicting not only the outcome, but the exact tally of votes in the electoral college.  No doubt these lucky ones will be celebrated as geniuses, at least until the next election.  Except for Cassandra, successful fortune tellers have always prospered.  However, those who put too much faith in them would do well to recall the example of Mr. Thomas.

On the Military Value of Horses and Bayonets

President Obama’s snarky response to Mitt Romney’s observation about the dwindling number of ships in our navy in their final debate seems to have gone viral over the last couple of days.  Here is the quote for those of you who, like me, become nauseous when watching political debates:

Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets

I have no comment on who out-snarked whom but, having attended the military academy at West Point and served in the military for a while thereafter, I can at least throw in a few anecdotes.  Touching on horses, the old riding hall (Thayer Hall) was still there in my day, and remains there now.  However, it was converted to classrooms in 1956.  The contractors made a very competent job of it, because there was little left to remind one of its old function when they were done, and it served its new mission very well.  The building had a high wall facing the Hudson river next to the old riding field, and they used to march us down there to practice our “command voices” by shouting “Ma! Mo! Ma! Mo!” at the wall and listening to the echo.

As for bayonets, my father, who served in Patton’s Army in World War II, said they routinely threw them away as so much useless extra weight on their way across Germany.  However, we were still trained in their use in my day (the late 60’s).  They were considered good for morale, and I could probably still perform a convincing imitation of “butt stroke series number one” and “butt stroke series number two,” growling fiercely at the end as I plunged my blade into the heart of an imaginary enemy.  There’s no doubt that bayonet training helped to get us in shape during “Beast Barracks,” the first two months of every cadet’s career.  Try double timing with an M-14 with fixed bayonet at port arms to some field in the hot sun and then performing all the traditional gyrations for an hour or so, and you’ll understand why.

When asked, “What’s the purpose of the bayonet?” the proper response was to shout at the top of one’s lungs, “To Kill!”  When we returned to the barracks after training at the double-time, we would chant, “To kill! To kill!” in cadence with our steps, holding our weapons with fixed bayonets at full port arms in front of us.  Apparently some of the more tender-hearted officer’s wives on base were quite shocked to hear this, and complained to the Superintendant.  As a result, our class was the last to learn that the purpose of the bayonet was “To Kill.”  Its new purpose sounded rather more innocuous, but unfortunately I no longer recall what it was.

Of course, bayonets were included in our parade equipment, and we used to fix them on our weapons during marching drill.  Once, while we were marching in platoon formation, one of the more inept plebes (first year men) happened to be marching behind me.  At the command of “Present Arms!” he swung his M-14 a bit too far in front of him, plunging it up to the hilt through my fatigue shirt and cutting a nice scratch along my back.   After struggling for a while, he finally managed to extract it.  I’m sure the incident wasn’t “funny” to him, as plebes who became “famous” in that way came in for some nasty hazing in those days, but I still always smile when I think about it.  As for parades, bayonets add a nice touch as they glitter in the sun when the Corps of Cadets marches out onto the plain.  By all means, take one in if you’re ever in the area.

While bayonets may no longer be as useful as they were at Yorktown, the mystique about them remains.  As I recall, there were plans in my day to mount bayonet studs on the noses of Army helicopters.  I’m not sure if they were ever actually carried into effect.

Of Rights and the Radicalism of Benjamin Franklin

As I noted in another post a couple of months ago, Benjamin Franklin wrote the following to his friend, the great financier of the Revolution, Robert Morris, in December 1783, while Minister Plenipotentiary of the infant United States in Paris,

The remissness of our people in paying taxes is highly blameable, the unwillingness to pay them is still more so.  I see in some resolutions of town meetings, a remonstrance against giving Congress a power to take, as they call it, the people’s money out of their pockets, though only to pay the interest and principal of debts duly contracted.  They seem to mistake the point.  Money justly due from the people is their creditor’s money, and no longer the money of the people, who, if they withhold it, should be compelled to pay by some law.  All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his matchuat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public convention.  Hence the public has the right of regulating descents, and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it.  All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual, and the propagation of the species, is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes, is the property of the public, who, by their laws, have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall desire such a disposition.  He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire, and live among the savages!  He can have no right to the benefits of society, who will not pay his club towards the support of it.

Today such a comment would position Franklin as a radical well to the left of Paul Krugman, but, so far as I can tell, neither Morris nor the editor of the American Quarterly Review who published the letter along with a number of other interesting pieces of diplomatic correspondence 50 years later, thought the comment in the least extreme.  That may be because it seemed so out of the question at the time that anyone would be seriously inconvenienced by such a doctrine.  The U.S. government, both in Franklin’s day and 50 years later, was both miniscule and frugal by today’s standards.  As Franklin put it in another letter written in 1778 to a couple of Englishmen who had sent him an insulting missive ridiculing the very possibility that the American colonies could survive as an independent republic,

The weight, therefore, of an independent empire, which you seem certain of our inability to bear, will not be so great as you imagine; the expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small.  A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed, determining, as we do, to have no offices of profit, nor any sinecures, or useless appointments, so common in ancient or corrupted states.  We can govern ourselves a year for the sum you pay in a single department, for what one jobbing contractor, by the favour of a minister, can cheat you out of in a single article.

Obviously, he was not looking ahead to the day when we, too, would become an “ancient and corrupted” state with a budget that dwarfs anything ever heard of in 1778.  An interesting aspect of Franklin’s first quote above is his discussion of rights.  He believes that the state, or at least a democratic state, has a right to take at need whatever property a person has over and above that necessary to preserve life and support the family.  I doubt that many citizens of the United States today would agree that such a right exists.  This begs the question of how and if rights may acquire legitimacy.

In fact, rights are like good and evil, in that they can never acquire objective legitimacy.  They have no independent existence other than as the perception of phenomena that occur in the brains of individuals.  As such, it makes no sense to ask whether they are legitimate or illegitimate, justified or not justified.  There can be no basis for making such a judgment for things that are the outcomes of mental processes of individual brains.  There is no way that they can jump out of those brains and become things in themselves.  It is no more possible to assign qualities such as legitimate or illegitimate to them than to a dream.  Franklin was therefore wrong to claim that “the people” have a right to confiscate wealth without qualification, and his modern day opponents would be equally wrong to claim that individuals have a right to keep a greater share of their wealth than Franklin admits.  Such claims assume the independent existence of rights.  However, they have no such existence.  The drawing up of lists of rights, whether human or animal or otherwise, are efforts in futility unless the nature of rights is properly understood.  It is impossible for them to be self-evident.  To the extent that they exist at all, they exist as conventions within groups, and they are effective only to the degree to which they are accepted and defended.

When people are asked to explain why they believe some right or moral judgment is legitimate, they commonly respond either by citing the authority of a God, or by claiming that they would serve some greater good.  In the first case, one is simply arguing that absolute power and legitimacy are interchangeable.  The second amounts to basing one good on another good, which, in turn, can only be justified by citing yet another good beyond it.  One can continue constructing such a daisy chain of goods ad nauseum, but no link in the chain can ever stand by itself.  The qualities “legitimate” and “illegitimate” are irrelevant to the moral intuitions of individuals because it is impossible for those intuitions to acquire such qualities.

I do not claim that human societies can exist without such concepts as “good,” “evil,” and “right.”  I merely suggest that they are likely to be most effective and useful in regulating our societies if they are properly understood.

H. L. Mencken’s Last Post

H. L. Mencken, the great Sage of Baltimore, edited the American Mercury from its inception in January 1924 through the issue of December 1933.  It was always a worthwhile read while he was at the helm, published without pictures except for the advertisements, two columns to a page.  There were articles about politics, science, religion, the arts, and whatever happened to strike Mencken’s fancy, along with occasional poems and short stories.  Mencken continued the fascinating monthly review of newly released books that he had begun in The Smart Set, which he had edited during its heyday with George Jean Nathan.  Every issue of the Mercury included an “Americana” section, made up of unwittingly comical extracts from newspapers and magazines across the country, and usually including a slap or two at the Ku Klux Klan, at least until that organization’s power and influence began to wane.  Indeed, while he never patronized them, few if any individuals did more to promote respect for African Americans than Mencken.  He frequently published the work of W. E. B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, Carl van Vechten, and many other black intellectuals.  However, he did not alter the typically snide and sarcastic attitude he reserved for everyone else when speaking of them, and so was later condemned for “racism.”  No good deed goes unpunished.

The final issue of the Mercury with Mencken as editor was as irreverent as the rest.  There was an article entitled “Musical Slaughter House,” by one Edward Robinson, identified as “a piano teacher from New York, who condemned attempts to nurse The Metropolitan Opera through the Great Depression by appeals for charitable donations, noting, for example, that,

The list of the company’s productions would alone earn complete damnation in the eyes of even moderately civilized music-lovers, for the essential artistic contribution of the Metropolitan has been to preserve operas like “Aida” and “Pagliacci” from an oblivion that should have been theirs on the night they first appeared.

There was a piece on the radical socialist paper, The Masses, by journalist Bob Brown, with the less than complimentary take-off on its name, “Them Asses.”  Brown occasionally wrote for The Masses, and his article is actually quite complimentary, at least by the standards of the Mercury.  There were some fascinating vignettes on the workings of a radical sheet during the heyday of socialism, and biographical sketches of editor Max Eastman, a confidante of Trotsky, and other contributors.

Mencken was one of the foremost unbelievers of his day, so it was only fitting that his final edition of the Mercury should include an article about atheism.  Entitled “Atheism Succumbs to Doubt,” its theme was that atheist activism was on the decline for lack of opposition.  Noting that,

Not one believer in a thousand appears to know the difference between the Nicene and the Athanasian creeds.  To the overwhelming majority Christianity is simply a ritual associated with sacred concerts on Sunday and chicken dinners at irregular intervals, the whole sustaining a variety of more or less useful funds and institutions.

The author concludes,

The faithful of romantic inclination dabble in theosophy or Bahaism.  Are they excommunicated?  Nay, even the village atheist would be welcomed into the fold if he’d be willing to subscribe to the Y.M.C.A. and hold his tongue.  So the God-Killers marching forth to battle nowadays find the enemy’s camp deserted, Daniel’s lions dead of old age, and the Shekinah departed unto the Ozarks.

He makes the intriguing claim that American infidels had been vastly more robust and influential 50 years before, in the heyday of the great atheist speaker and writer, Robert G. Ingersoll.

It was not always thus.  The God-Killers of half a century ago were taken seriously and took themselves seriously… In those days hundreds of atheistic pamphlets were published and sold in the United States.  They bore such titles as “Why Don’t God Kill the Devil?” “The Myth of the Great Deluge,” “Where Is Hell?” “Death-Beds of Infidels,” “Faith or Fact,” “The Devil’s Catechism,” and “When Did Jehoshaphat Die?”  John E. Remsburg, author of the last-named, proved by the Bible and arithmetic that this King of Israel died on sixteen different dates.  Today nobody knows or cares that Jehoshaphat ever lived.

Fast forward another 75 years, and another crop of “God-Killers” has appeared on the scene, commonly referred to as the New Atheists.  As readers of The God Delusion, penned by Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous of the lot, will have noted, he cannot turn his gaze our way without imagining an “American Taliban” behind every bush, and is as innocent of any knowledge of this flowering of American atheism as a child.  Perhaps some nascent Ph.D. in history should take the matter in hand and document the doings of the “God-Killers” of the 1880’s, not to mention their rise and fall and rise again since the days of such famous infidels as Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.

Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany at the end of January, 1933, and Mencken, who was known as a Germanophile, took up the phenomenon of Nazism in the “Library” section of his last issue.  Noting five titles on the subject as “a few of the first comers among what promises to be a long procession of Hitler books,” he proceeded to outline the implications of the rise of Hitler a great deal more soberly and presciently that most of the journals of the day.  Typical of the stuff appearing at the time was a piece that appeared in the Century some months earlier whose author, rich in the wisdom of journalists, assured his readers that there was not the slightest reason to be concerned about Hitler or the hijinks of his followers.  Mencken was not so sanguine.  Echoing what John Maynard Keynes and many others had foreseen immediately in 1919, he wrote,

The most surprising thing about him (Hitler) it seems to me, is that his emergence should have been surprising.  He was, in fact, implicit in the Treaty of Versailles.

He goes on to note some inconvenient truths about Hitler’s anti-Semitism that are as true now as they were then:

His anti-Semitism, which has shocked so many Americans, is certainly nothing to marvel over.  Anti-Semitism is latent all over Western Europe, as it is in the United States… (The Jew) is an easy mark for demagogues when the common people are uneasy, and it is useful to find a goat.  He has served as such a goat a hundred times in the past, and he will probably continue in the role, off and on, until his racial differentiation disappears or he actually goes back to his fatherland.  In Germany, as in Poland, Austria and France, he has been made use of by demagogues for many years, precisely as the colored brother has been made use of in our own South.

Germanophile or no, Mencken has no illusions about what the rise of Hitler may portend, and doesn’t mince words in explaining it to his readers:

In such matters what is done cannot be undone; the main question, as I write, is how long the orgy will last, and whether it will wear itself out or have to be put down by external force.  If the latter is resorted to, and it takes the form of military pressure, we are probably in for another World War.

During the entire decade he was editor, the Mercury reflected Mencken’s own cynical attitude, sometimes insightful and sometimes shallow as it was.  Then, as now, authors craved seeing their work in print, and adjusted the style of the stuff they submitted to suite his taste accordingly.  As a result, the paper always had a distinctly Menckenian flavor during his reign.  In his final editorial, we find Mencken at his most optimistic, assuring his readers that nothing would change:

In case there be any among those readers who fear that the change of editorial administration will convert the magazine into something that it is not they may put their minds at ease.  In its basic aims and principles there will be little change.  Hereafter, as in the past, it will try to play a bright light over the national scene, revealing whatever is amusing and instructive, but avoiding mere moral indignation as much as possible.

The Mercury was to be taken over by Henry Hazlitt, who “was my first and only choice for the post he takes, and I am completely convinced that he will make a first-rate magazine.”  Alas, it was not to be.  Hazlitt didn’t see eye to eye with the publisher, and resigned within four months.  The Mercury was taken over by Mencken’s former assistant, Charles Angoff, and took a sharp turn to the left.  After the fashion of the political and intellectual journals of the time, it became a forum for authors who were cocksure that the demise of capitalism was just around the corner, and differed mainly in the degree of mayhem they deemed necessary for the inevitable transition to socialism.  There were several similar jarring changes before the final demise of the paper in 1980.

No matter, the Mercury of Mencken’s day is as fascinating as ever for those seeking relief from the unrelenting political correctness and overbearing piety one often finds in its modern equivalents.  There are usually a few copies available on eBay for interested readers at any given time, although prices have been trending upwards lately.

H. L. Mencken