Of Ingroups and Outgroups and Niall Ferguson

I’ve mentioned the work of historian Niall Ferguson in the context of what used to be called the Amity/Enmity Complex before.  Simply put, the term was used to describe that ubiquitous tendency of our species to perceive the rest of mankind in terms of ingroups, to which we belong and with which we associate Good, and outgroups, to which “others” belong, and with which we associate Evil.  Ferguson just did something that was guaranteed to land him in an outgroup.  He started rattling and prying at one of the boards of which the ideological box that a particular ingroup lives in was built.  He accomplished this feat by publishing an article in Newsweek critical of Barack Obama, who happens to be the human icon of the Good for the ingroup in question, consisting of a substantial faction of the ideological left.

Ferguson doesn’t exactly have a history of ingratiating himself with the left.  He was an advisor to McCain in 2008, has been critical of Obamacare and government fiscal policy, and is certainly an outlier to the right among his fellow Harvard professors.  Perhaps the furious response to his latest piece reflects the fact that it appeared in Newsweek, which doesn’t exactly have the reputation of being an organ of the right.  If he’d published the same piece in, say, National Review, I doubt that the bees would have come swarming out of their hive in quite such massive numbers.  In any case, here are some of the responses to his latest, beginning with Alex Pareene at Salon;

Niall Ferguson is an intellectual fraud whose job, for years, has been to impress dumb rich Americans with his accent and flatter them with his writings. It’s a pretty easy con, honestly, if you’re born shameless and British (or French).

Maybe it’s a rich people thing, but I never thought Ferguson was particularly flattering towards Americans.  For example, in his War of the World, we come in for some harsh criticism touching such matters as our pervasive habit of shooting enemy prisoners of war, our bombing of civilians in World War II, our less than generous response to the European persecution of Jews and other minorities before the war, and any number of other real or perceived shortcomings.  Moving right along, here’s another take by Noah Smith:

I have been known to tease a fellow blogger or two, but there is really only one writer who makes me truly mad, and that is British historian Niall Ferguson. I will explain exactly why he makes me so mad at the end of this post. First, though, I want to say a few words about Mr. Ferguson’s cover story in Newsweek magazine, entitled “Hit the Road, Barack”. I should note that it imposes a heavy psychic cost for me to do so, since it requires that I actually read Niall Ferguson. But the public duty to expose BS and promote truth and intellectual honesty overrides such selfish concerns.

and another by James Fallows:

Yes, I know, you could imagine many sentences that would follow that headline (As a Harvard Alum, I Apologize). But here is what I have in mind right now:  A tenured professor of history at my undergraduate alma mater has written a cover story for Daily Beast/Newsweek that is so careless and unconvincing that I wonder how he will presume to sit in judgment of the next set of student papers he has to grade.

I won’t presume to judge between Ferguson and his detractors on matters of fact.  As usual in such cases, the main differences between them depend, not on the facts themselves, but on how they are spun.  For example, most of the broadsides against Ferguson I’ve seen so far take issue with the following quote from Newsweek:

Certainly, the stock market is well up (by 74 percent) relative to the close on Inauguration Day 2009. But the total number of private-sector jobs is still 4.3 million below the January 2008 peak.

It is cited as one of Ferguson’s “lies,” even though it is factually correct, because it doesn’t have the right spin.  For example, Matthew O’Brien writes,

Ferguson’s fact is deliberately misleading. A better way to make the argument he says he wants to make would be something like, “Private sector payrolls have added 427,000 jobs since Obama took office, but we are nowhere near out of our deep hole — despite this growth, private sector payrolls are still 4.18 million jobs below their January 2008 peak.”

Ferguson counters with some spin of his own,

Both these statements are true. I picked the high point of January 2008 because it seems to me reasonable to ask how much of the ground lost in the crisis have we actually made up under Obama. The answer is not much. You may not like that, but it’s a fact.

Which version you prefer is probably a pretty good indication of which of the contending ingroups you inhabit.  You be the judge, dear reader.  While you’re at it, maybe you can tell me who was really guilty of starting World War I as well.  I merely offer Ferguson’s article and the furious response thereto as another data point for students of the group behavior of our species.

The Rise of The Cliodynamicists

Those who’ve read science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy will recall the character of Hari Seldon, a scientist/prophet who developed the mathematical discipline of psychohistory, which enabled him to both predict and guide future events.  He taught that the future would be punctuated by “Seldon Crises,” which mankind would have to successfully negotiate if the good guys were to win in the end.  There have been many would be Hari Seldons in real life, among whom Karl Marx was probably the most prominent.  The latest variation on the theme is known as cliodynamics, defined by the journal of that name as “…a transdisciplinary area of research integrating historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases.”

According to a recent paper by cliodynamicist Peter Turchin entitled, “Dynamics of political instability in the United States, 1780–2010,” the Republic has so far successfully negotiated three Seldon Crisis analogs, and will encounter the next one around 2020.  The article includes a graph purporting to show how a composite of riots, lynchings, and terrorism peaked in the three earlier events, which occurred around 1870, 1920, and 1970, at neat 50-year intervals.  One enduring constant in history has certainly been the enduring popularity of fortune tellers.  There have been so many of them that some fraction of their predictions are bound to come true, or at least nearly true, thereby “proving” the general validity of the trade for the next generation of soothsayers.  This latest “scientific” version may be similarly “proved,” but I doubt it has a significant leg up over Nostradamus or the Mayan calendar.

Notice, for example, that the three earlier peaks happened to coincide with major wars, all of which had been predicted many years in advance of the time they actually happened, but none of which were provably inevitable, and, at least in the first two cases, were sparked, not by “macrosociological” cycles, but, in one instance, by the election of Abraham Lincoln, and in the next by the assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary.  A peak seems to be missing for 1820, and bona fide insurrections like Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion that were certainly much remarked on by people at the time they happened are missing from the data.  Similar “peaks” in other countries haven’t happened at neat intervals, nor have they been separated at anything like 50 years.  For example, in France, major revolutions occurred in 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1870, with enough miscellaneous mayhem mixed in at random intervals between to make the U.S. “peaks” of 1920 and 1970 look like child’s play.

Well, what of it?  At worst the cliodynamicists may inspire a few people to take an interest in history, and at best they may significantly shorten the period of chaos between the rise and fall of galactic empires.

Hari Seldon

Someone Tell Der Spiegel: Germans Can’t Vote in U.S. Elections

Well, actually that’s only technically true.  Any potential Obama voter who can afford the fare and tell a red state from a blue state becomes an honorary U.S. citizen as soon as they set foot on these shores.  They can vote as often as they like, as long as they don’t do it all in the same precinct.  Still, I had to chuckle when I glanced at the website of Der Spiegel this morning.  They are so in the tank for Obama they make MSNBC look like the soul of objective journalism.  Here are the stories I found in a quick glance through:

Headline:  Candidate Embarrassing  Byline:  Stiff as a board, clueless, artificial.  Republican Presidential candidate exposed many of his weaknesses on his European tour.

Headline:  Romney Enrages Palestinians (have they ever not been enraged?)  Byline:  Romney campaigns on his foreign tour – and arouses the Palestinians against him in the process.

Headline:  Romney’s Blundering Tour through Europe  Byline:  The U.S. candidate for President booked a week of blunders and slip-ups in Europe.  Things just aren’t going right for the Republican.

Headline:  Stepping in it On Tour  Byline:  The Palestinians accuse him of racism, the British are cross, and Polands Solidarnosc doesn’t like him.

Headline:  Romney Advisor Curses Reporters in Warsaw  Byline:  There’s no end to the criticism directed at Romney’s foreign tour – now one of his advisors lost his cool.

And mind you, that’s just what I saw in a quick glance on a single day.  Actually, it’s a huge improvement.  Back in the last years of the Clinton and first years of the Bush Administrations, Der Spiegel’s website was so full of vile, quasi-racist anti-American rants that it was often difficult to wade through it all and find any news about Germany.  They only gave it up when a few people across the pond started to notice, and the editors realized they were putting all those prestigious international prizes for “objective journalism” in jeopardy.  They still occasionally throw out some red meat to the Amerika haters, but only enough to keep them on life support.

Nuclear Power, Thorium, and the Role of Government

Nuclear power is an attractive candidate for meeting our future energy needs.  Nuclear plants do not release greenhouse gases.  They release significantly less radiation into the environment than coal plants, because coal contains several parts per million of radioactive thorium and uranium.  They require far less space and are far more reliable than alternative energy sources such as wind and solar.  In spite of some of the worst accidents imaginable due to human error and natural disasters, we have not lost any cities or suffered any mass casualties, and the horrific “China Syndrome” scenarios invented by the self-appointed saviors of mankind have proven to be fantasies.  That is not to say nuclear power is benign.  It is just more benign than any of the currently available alternatives.  The main problem with nuclear is not that it is unsafe, but that it is being ill-used.  In this case, government could actually be helpful.  Leadership and political will could put nuclear on a better track.

To understand why, it is necessary to know a few things about nuclear fuel, and how it “burns.”  Bear with me while I present a brief tutorial in nuclear engineering.  Nuclear energy is released by nuclear fission, or the splitting of heavy elements into two or more lighter ones.  This doesn’t usually happen spontaneously.  Before a heavy element can undergo fission, an amount of energy above a certain threshold must first be delivered to its nucleus.  How does this happen?  Imagine a deep well.  If you drop a bowling ball into the well, it will cause a large splash when it hits the water.  It does so because it has been accelerated by the force of gravity.  A heavy nucleus is something like a well, but things don’t fall into it because of gravity.  Instead, it relies on the strong force, which is very short range, but vastly more powerful than gravity.  The role of “bowling ball” can be played by a neutron.  If one happens along and gets close enough to fall into the strong force “well,” it will also cause a “splash,” releasing energy as it is bound to the heavy element’s nucleus, just as the real bowling ball is “bound” in the water well until someone fishes it out.  This “splash,” or release of energy, causes the heavy nucleus to “jiggle,” much like an unstable drop of water.  In one naturally occurring isotope – uranium with an atomic weight of 235 – this “jiggle” is so violent that it can cause the “drop of water” to split apart, or fission.

There are other isotopes of uranium.  All of them have 92 protons in their nucleus, but can have varying numbers of neutrons.  The nucleus of uranium 235, or U235, has 92 protons and 143 protons, adding up to a total of 235.  Unfortunately, U235 is only 0.7% of natural uranium.  Almost all the rest is U238, which has 92 protons and 146 neutrons.  When a neutron falls into the U238 “well,” the “splash” isn’t big enough to cause fission, or at least not unless the neutron had a lot of energy to begin with, as if the “bowling ball” had been shot from a cannon.  As a result, U238 can’t act as the fuel in a nuclear reactor.  Almost all the nuclear reactors in operation today simply burn that 0.7% of U235 and store what’s left over as radioactive waste.  Unfortunately, that’s an extremely inefficient and wasteful use of the available fuel resources.

To understand why, it’s necessary to understand something about what happens to the neutrons in a reactor that keep the nuclear chain reaction going.  First of all, where do they come from?  Well, each fission releases more neutrons.  The exact number depends on how fast the neutron that caused the fission was going, and what isotope underwent fission.  If enough are released to cause, on average, one more fission, then the resulting chain reaction will continue until the fuel is used up.  Actually, two neutrons, give or take, are released in each fission.  However, not all of them cause another fission.  Some escape the fuel region and are lost.  Others are absorbed in the fuel material.  That’s where things get interesting.

Recall that, normally, most of the fuel in a reactor isn’t U235, but the more common isotope, U238.  When U238 absorbs a neutron, it forms U239, which quickly decays to neptunium 239 and then plutonium 239.  Now it just so happens that plutonium 239, or Pu239, will also fission if a neutron “falls into its well,” just like U235.  In other words, if enough neutrons were available, the reactor could actually produce more fuel, in the form of Pu239, than it consumes, potentially burning up most of the U238 as well as the U235.  This is referred to as the “breeding” of nuclear fuel.  Instead of just lighting the U235 “match” and letting it burn out, it would be used to light and burn the entire U238 “log.”  Unfortunately, there are not enough neutrons in normal nuclear reactors to breed more fuel than is consumed.  Such reactors have, however, been built, both in the United States and other countries, and have been safely operated for periods of many years.

Plutonium breeders aren’t the only feasible type.  In addition to U235 and Pu239, another isotope will also fission if a neutron falls into its “well” – uranium 233.  Like Pu239, U233 doesn’t occur in nature.  However, it can be “bred,” just like Pu239, from another element that does occur in nature, and is actually more common than uranium – thorium.  I’ve had a few critical things to say about some of the popular science articles I’ve seen on thorium lately, but my criticisms were directed at inaccuracies in the articles, not at thorium technology itself.  Thorium breeders actually have some important advantages over plutonium.  When U233 fissions, it produces more neutrons than Pu239, and it does so in a “cooler” neutron spectrum, where the average neutron energy is much lower, making the reactor significantly easier to control.  These extra neutrons could not only breed more fuel.  They could also be used to burn up the transuranic elements – those beyond uranium on the table of the elements – that are produced in conventional nuclear reactors, and account for the lion’s share of the long-lived radioactive waste.  This would be a huge advantage.  Destroy the transuranics, and the residual radioactivity from a reactor would be less than that of the original ore, potentially in a few hundred years, rather than many thousands.

Thorium breeders have other potentially important advantages.  The fuel material could be circulated through the core in the form of a liquid, suspended in a special “salt” material.  Of course, this would eliminate the danger of a fuel meltdown.  In the event of an accident like the one at Fukushima, the fuel would simply be allowed to run into a holding basin, where it would be sub-critical and cool quickly.  Perhaps more importantly, the United States has the biggest proven reserves of thorium on the planet.

Breeders aren’t the only reactor types that hold great promise for meeting our future energy needs.  High temperature gas cooled reactors would produce gas heated to high temperature in addition to electricity.  This could be used to produce hydrogen gas via electrolysis, which is much more efficient at such high temperatures.  When hydrogen burns, it produces only water.  Such reactors could also be built over the massive oil shale deposits in the western United States.  The hot gas could then be used to efficiently extract oil from the shale “in situ” without the need to mine it.  It is estimated that the amount of oil that could be economically recovered in this way from the Green River Basin deposits in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado alone is three times greater than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.

Will any of this happen without government support and leadership?  Not any time soon.  The people who build nuclear reactors expect to make a profit, and the easiest way to make a profit is to build more conventional reactors of the type we already have.  Raise the points I’ve mentioned above, and they’ll simply tell you that there’s plenty of cheap uranium around and therefore no need to breed more fuel, the radioactive danger of transuranics has been much exaggerated, etc., etc.  All these meretricious arguments make sense if your goal is to make a profit in the short run.  They make no sense at all if you have any concern for the energy security and welfare of future generations.

Unless the proponents of controlled fusion or solar and other forms of alternative energy manage to pull a rabbit out of their collective hats, I suspect we will eventually adopt breeder technology.  The question is when.  After we have finally burnt our last reserves of fossil fuel?  After we have used up all our precious reserves of U238 by scattering it hither and yon in the form of “depleted uranium” munitions?  The longer we wait, the harder and more expensive it will become to develop a breeder economy.  It would be well if, in this unusual case, government stepped in and did what it is theoretically supposed to do; lead.

The Theology of Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum threw the Left a meaty pitch right down the middle with his comments about “theology” to an audience in Columbus.  Here’s what he said:

It’s not about you.  It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your job. It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.  But no less a theology.

The quote seems to lend credence to the “Santorum is a scary theocrat” meme, and the Left lost no time in flooding the media and the blogosphere with articles to that effect.  The Right quickly fired back with the usual claims that the remarks were taken out of context.  This time the Right has it right.  For example, from Foxnews,

Rick Santorum said Sunday he wasn’t questioning  whether President Obama is a Christian when he referred to his “phony theology”  over the weekend, but was in fact challenging policies that he says place the  stewardship of the Earth above the welfare of people living on it.

“I wasn’t suggesting the president’s not a  Christian. I accept the fact that the president is a Christian,” Santorum  said.

“I was talking about the radical environmentalist,”  he said. “I was talking about energy, this idea that man is here to serve the  Earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And  I think that is a phony ideal.

I note in passing a surprising thing about almost all the articles about this story, whether they come from the Left or the Right. The part of Santorum’s speech that actually does put things in context is absent. Here it is:

I think that a lot of radical environmentalists have it backwards. This idea that man is here to serve the earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth. Man is here to use the resources and use them wisely. But man is not here to serve the earth.

I can understand its absence on the Left, but on the Right? Could it be that contrived controversies are good for the bottom line? Well, be that as it may, I’m not adding my two cents worth to this kerfluffle because I’m particularly fond of Santorum. However, he did touch on a matter that deserves serious consideration; the existence of secular religions.

In fact, there are secular religions, and they have dogmas, just like the more traditional kind. It’s inaccurate to call those dogmas “theologies,” because they don’t have a Theos, but otherwise they’re entirely similar. In both cases they describe elaborate systems of belief in things that either have not or cannot be demonstrated and proved. The reason for this is obvious in the case of traditional religions. They are based on claims of the existence of spiritual realms inaccessible to the human senses. Secular dogmas, on the other hand, commonly deal with events that can’t be fact-checked because they are to occur in the future.

Socialism in it’s heyday was probably the best example of a secular religion to date.  While it lasted, millions were completely convinced that the complex social developments it predicted were the inevitable fate of mankind, absent any experimental demonstration or proof whatsoever.  Not only did they believe it, they considered themselves superior in intellect and wisdom to other mere mortals by virtue of that knowledge.  They were elitists in the truest sense of the word.  Thousands and thousands of dreary tomes were written elaborating on the ramifications and details of the dogma, all based on the fundamental assumption that it was true.  They were similar in every respect to the other thousands and thousands of dreary tomes of theology written to elaborate on conventional religious dogmas, except for the one very important distinction referred to above.  Instead of describing an entirely different world, they described the future of this world.

That was their Achilles heal.  The future eventually becomes the present.  The imaginary worker’s paradise was eventually exchanged for the very real Gulag, mass executions, and exploitation by a New Class beyond anything ever imagined by the bourgeoisie.  Few of the genuine zealots of the religion ever saw the light.  They simply refused to believe what was happening before their very eyes, on the testimony of thousands of witnesses and victims.  Eventually, they died, though, and their religion died with them.  Socialism survives as an idea, but no longer as the mass delusion of cocksure intellectuals.  For that we can all be grateful.

In a word, then, the kind of secular “theologies” Santorum was referring to really do exist.  The question remains whether the specific one he referred to, radical environmentalism, rises to the level of such a religion.  I think not.  True, some of the telltale symptoms of a secular religion are certainly there.  For example, like the socialists before them, environmental ideologues are characterized by a faith, free of any doubt, that a theoretically predicted future, e.g., global warming, will certainly happen, or at least will certainly happen unless they are allowed to “rescue” us.  The physics justifies the surmise that severe global warming is possible.  It does not, however, justify fanatical certainty.  Probabilistic computer models that must deal with billions of ill-defined degrees of freedom cannot provide certainty about anything.

An additional indicator is the fact that radical environmentalists do not admit the possibility of honest differences of opinion.  They have a term for those who disagree with them; “denialists.”  Like the heretics of religions gone before, denialists are an outgroup.  It cannot be admitted that members of an outgroup have honest and reasonable differences of opinion.  Rather, they must be the dupes of dark political forces, or the evil corporations they serve, just as, in an earlier day, anyone who happened not to want to live under a socialist government was automatically perceived as a minion of the evil bourgeoisie.

However, to date, at least, environmentalism possesses nothing like the all encompassing world view, or “Theory of Everything,” if you will, that, in my opinion at least, would raise it to the level of a secular religion.  For example, Christianity has its millennium, and the socialists had their worker’s paradise.  The environmental movement has nothing of the sort.  So far, at least, it also falls short of the pitch of zealotry that results in the spawning of warring internal sects, such as the Arians and the Athanasians within Christianity, or the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks within socialism.

In short, then, Santorum was right about the existence of secular religions.  He was merely sloppy in according that honor to a sect that really doesn’t deserve it.

 

Of Statistical Mirages and Public Employee Compensation in Wisconsin

It has never been advisable to take the statistics thrown out in the heat of political battles other than with a grain of salt.  As the old saying goes, “Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.”  There are many ways to slip in the lie.  For example, one can introduce variations in the way that common terms are understood, or compare apples and oranges, or simply imply that facts have a significance that lacks any reasonable justification.  The battle between the Left and Right in Wisconsin over public unions has generated some interesting examples. 

One of the most egregious comes from the left, although the right is hardly without sin in these matters.  Specifically, Ezra Klein of Journolist fame is citing a study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) that purportedly “proves” that Wisconsin public workers are actually under-compensated compared to their counterparts in the private sector.  The basis for his claim is a nice graph included in the study comparing public and private sector compensation as a function of educational attainment.  In all these comparisons except at the high school level, the public sector workers seem to be taking a huge hit, amounting to a deficit of anywhere from a quarter to a third compared to the private sector.  However, Ezra’s post quotes a couple of paragraphs from the EPI source document citing some caveats regarding this rather striking graph.  For example, at the very end of the quote, which appears in somewhat finer print than the bulk of the post, we learn that,

Controlling for a larger range of earnings predictors—including not just education but also age, experience, gender, race, etc., Wisconsin public-sector workers face an annual compensation penalty of 11%. Adjusting for the slightly fewer hours worked per week on average, these public workers still face a compensation penalty of 5% for choosing to work in the public sector.

There is no explanation of why these controls weren’t factored in when the bar graph referred to above, which seems to show that public sector workers make a much greater sacrifice in order to serve the people of Wisconsin, was created.  It happens that one can find some possible reasons for the discrepancy if one “Googles” the EPI.  It turns out that Ezra somehow forgot to mention that the organization describes itself as “non-partisan but progressive.”  For those who happen not to be astute followers of US politics, those who deem themselves “progressives” are rather more likely to be found on the side of the public sector workers than the Republican party in Wisconsin.   Ezra also forgot to mention that the source of a big chunk of the EPI’s funding is unions.  Perhaps he thought it was too insignificant to mention.

The cost to the state of public pensions is, of course, one of the major bones of contention between Wisconsin governor Walker and the public sector unions.  It would, therefore, seem a matter of some importance to calculate this cost with some rigor, and to explicitly document the method used in any document citing that cost.  Unfortunately, the EPI source document does not do so.  It merely states that,

Retirement benefits account for 8% of state and local government compensation costs compared with 2.5% to 4.9% in the private sector.

It is unfortunate that the details of the method used to arrive at this 8% figure are not described.  It seems rather dubious on the face of it.  For example, Wisconsin teachers who retire after 30 years service will draw 48% of their top pay in pension for the rest of their lives.  It would seem plausible to assume that “top pay” is rather larger than “average pay.”  A teacher hired at the age of 25 would reach retirement age at 55.  At this age, the average life expectancy for US males is about 25 years, and for females about 28.  Any way you figure it, the cost of providing a pension of 48% of top pay for over a quarter of a century dwarfs the 8% figure cited by EPI.  Throw in the fact that this figure does not include retiree health and other non-cash benefits, and the discrepancy gapes even wider.  On the other hand, the average teacher will likely work for less than the required 30 years.  The EPI article does not mention how these and other seemingly salient factors are included in the data.  Apparently, its figure is based on the amount of money the state is currently setting aside to fund the pensions, a wildly inaccurate metric for determining what they will eventually actually cost.  Given that the organization is anything but an unbiased third party, this would seem to be a rather prominent red flag to anyone tempted to cite them as a source.

In a word, dear reader, to credit statistics thrown out by ideologues is to skate on thin ice.  Their main value lies in pointing the way to source material.  Should you really be so bold as to seek to isolate a small fragment of something as evanescent as the truth, you will have to endure the tedious task of sifting through a great deal of that source material on your own.

A Shooting and a Narrative

There is no such thing as news.  There is only narrative.  The significance of most of what passes for news is derived from the attention the media pays to it rather than its intrinsic importance.  A case in point is the remarkable, ongoing obsession of the news media on both the left and right with the shootings in Arizona.  In this case the feeding frenzy was set in motion by the left.  Even though there have obviously always been people on both ends of the spectrum who have no life outside of politics, I was still taken aback by their desperate attempts to seize on this issue like so many drowning men grasping at straws.  Evidently their resounding defeat in November was even more galling than I imagined.  They made no secret of the fact that they were waiting with bated breath for some incident they could construe as evidence of the “violent nature” of the Tea Party movement, conservative talk radio, and the rest of their pet bogeymen.  They admitted as much. As their reaction to the shootings makes clear, they were very eager indeed. They’re acting for all the world like so many Communists marching behind the coffin of a murdered “martyr” in days gone by. All that’s missing is the red flags.

Some examples of their overwrought reaction can be found here, here, and here, all based on zero evidence that there was any link whatsoever between the shooter and the Tea Party movement, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, or anyone else on the right. The “objective” CNN even went so far as to write a panegyric of Sheriff Dupnik, now infamous for his ham-handed attempts at political exploitation of the murders, as the soul of wisdom, complete down to everything but his birth in a log cabin.  I doubt we’ll be seeing more of the same from those quarters, as in the meantime the good sheriff has been giving off such a stench that even the stalwarts of the left have begun holding their noses.

The left’s seizing at this particular straw was, obviously, ill-considered.  Other than not bothering to come up with any evidence to back up their accusations, only to find out after the fact that there was none, they set their own hypocrisy on a pedestal for the right to take pot shots at.  After all, the left doesn’t commonly engage its opponents in reasoned discourse.  Its forte’s have always been demonization, virtuous indignation, and a style of “eliminationist rhetoric” all its own.  They gave the other side a perfect opportunity to point that out, as they did with relish, for example, here, here and here.

There is little that can demonstrate the extent to which the left overshot its mark in its crudely insensitive attempts to exploit the Arizona deaths and the grave wounding of Gabrielle Giffords than the reaction of the foreign media.  Germany’s for example, is usually reliably leftist, often taking its talking points directly from the New York Times.  It is all the more remarkable that the Washington correspondent of Der Spiegel, Marc Hujer, penned an article entitled “America’s Insane Debate,” in which he wrote, among other things, 

The very people who got so upset about the tone of debate in the past year, about the rhetoric of the Tea Party, the harsh words of the Right, the unabashed caricatures of Obama as Hitler, are now poisoning the debate themselves with shameless insinuations. Without learning the facts, they seek the guilty behind the attack, and commonly find them on the right, in the Tea Party, in Republican Party chief Michael Steele and Tea Party heroine Sarah Palin.

The language chosen by Sarah Palin and other Tea Partiers was doubtless raw and over the top, but doesn’t come close to providing any proof for the claim that they motivated the shootings in Arizona. Indeed, what is known about the shooter at this point gives no indication that he is a member of the Tea Party movement, or a fan of Palin, or that he has any clear political convictions at all. His favorite books included the Communist Manifesto, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and Peter Pan, a weird collection. However, there is no indication that his act was motivated by politics.

The massive criticism directed at Sarah Palin is delusional, and not just because it’s a baseless accusation. The attempt to weaken Palin in this way could accomplish the opposite.

That’s strong stuff coming from a source that’s usually reliably critical of the right, in the U.S. as well as in Germany.  The left in this country might do well to take heed for their own good.  Perhaps more worrisome than their baseless accusations is what they propose as a cure; a further dismantling of the Bill of Rights.  In this case their targets are the first and second amendments to the Constitution.  If the history of the last hundred years is any guide, we have more reason than ever before to continue to fight against any diminishing of those rights.

Vignettes from 1925

These are from various articles and authors in the May 1925 issue of H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury.

Politics:

What shall the end be? Will that race of men who for a thousand years have asserted the “right of castle,” rejected governmental interference in domestic affairs, proclaimed the right of the free man to regulate his personal habits and to rear and govern his children in accordance with the law of conscience and of love, now become subject to a self-imposed statutory tyranny which from birth to death interferes in the smallest cocerns of life? Shall we endure a legal despotism, the equivalent of which would have provoked rebellion amongst the Saxons even when under the Norman heel?

I doubt not these statutory bonds will be eventually broken. The right of the free man to live his own life, limited only be the inhibition of non-infringement upon the rights of others, will again be asserted. But before that day arrives, will the splendid symmetry of our governmental structure have been destroyed?

Alas, my friend, there is yet no light at the end of the tunnel.  Next, from an article about the Mexican border towns entitled “Hell Along the Border,”

I have studiously observed the viciousness and even the mere faults of decorum in Juarez, largest of the corrupting foci, in season and out for a least twelve seasons. I have had my glimpses at the life of the equally ill-reputed Nogales, Mexicali and Tia Juana. I have been in confidential communication with habitual visitors to Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros, Piedras Negras, and Agua Prieta. And I can find in all these towns no sins more gorgeous than those enjoyed by every Massachusetts lodge of Elks at its annual fish-fries prior to 1920.

Regarding the evangelical clergy, the televangelists of the day, immortalized by Sinclair Lewis in his Elmer Gantry,

The net result, as I say, is to inspire those of us who have any surviving respect for God with an unspeakable loathing. We gaze on all this traffic and, without knowing exactly why, we feel a sick, nauseated revulsion. We feel as we felt when we were children, and had a bright glamorous picture of Santo Claus, with his fat little belly and fairy reindeer, and then suddenly came on a vile old loafer ringing a bell over an iron pot. It seems a blasphemous mockery that men can preadch such vulgar nonsense, call it religion, and then belabor the rest of us for not being washed in the blood of the Lamb.

Concerning the latest in the hotel trade,

Whatever I might write were the latest wrinkle would not be the latest wrinkle by the time these lines get into type. But one of the latest, certainly, is radio service in every chamber.

Of anthropology, from an article entitled “The New History,”

The anthropologists have paralleled the achievements of the archeologists by making careful studies of existing primitive peoples. Ten years ago we possessed in this field only the chatty introduction by Marett, and Professor Boas’ highly scholarly but somewhat difficult little book, “The Mind of Primitive Man.” Today we have admirable general works by Goldenweiser, Lowie, Kroeber, Tozzer, Levy-Bruhl and Wissler with several more in immediate prospect. These deal acutely and lucidly with primitive institutions.

As the cognoscenti among my readers are no doubt aware, this was written on the very threshold of anthropology’s spiral into the dark ages of the Blank Slate, from which it has only recently emerged.  The good Professor Boas played a major role in pushing it over the cliff.

Concerning the value of morality in regulating society,

Once we give up the pestilent assumption that the only effective sanctions for conduct are those of law and morals, and begin to delimit clearly the field of manners, we shall be by way of discovering how powerful and how easily communicable the sense of manners is, and how efficiently it operates in the very regions where law and morals have so notoriously proven themselves inert. The authority of law and morals does relatively little to build up personal dignity, responsibility and self-respect, while the authority of manners does much… I also venture to emphasize for special notice by the Americanizers and hundred-per-centers among us, the observation of Edmund Burke that “there ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. For us to love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”

and finally, from the collection of anecdotes Mencken always included under the heading Americana,

Effects of the Higher Learning at Yale, as revealed by the answers to a questionnaire submitted to the students there:

Favorite character in world history: Napoleon, 181; Cleopatra, 7; Jeanne d’Arc, 7; Woodrow Wilson, 7; Socrates, 5; Jesus Christ, 4; Mussolini, 3. Favorite prose author: Stevenson, 24; Dumas, 22; Sabatini, 11; Anatole France, 5; Cabell, 5; Bernard Shaw, 4. Favorite magazine: Saturday Evening Post, 94; Atlantic Monthly, 24, New Republic, 3; Time Current History, 3. Favorite political party: Republican, 304; Democratic, 84; none, 22; Independent, 3. Biggest world figure of today: Coolidge, 52; Dawes, 32, Mussolini, 3; Prince of Wales, 24; J. P. Morgan, 15; Einstein, 3; Bernard Shaw, 3. What subject would you like to see added to the curriculum: Elocution and Public Speaking, 24; Business course, 8; Deplomacy, 7; Drama, 4.

Times change in 85 years.

Of Thanksgiving, Socialism, and Historical Revisionism

 An interesting piece recently appeared in the New York Times entitled, “The Pilgrims were… Socialists?” Written by Kate Zernike, the NYT article was apparently intended as a response to the custom on the right of drawing attention to the relative success among the pilgrims of private ownership of land as opposed to the original communal arrangement, citing it as an example of the impracticality of socialism.  As such, it was unusually weak, even for the NYT, whose authors have long since ceased trying to preach to anyone but the choir. 

To get to the bottom of the story, let’s consider what the pilgrim sources actually said about the transition from communal to individual plots referred to above.  Although mentioned by colonist Edward Winslow and others, the most complete account is probably that in Governor William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, so I will quote him at some length.

According to Bradford, (Chapter 4 of the History)

All this will no supplies were heard of, nor did they know when they might expect any. So they began to consider how to raise more corn, and obtain a better crop than they had done, so that they might not continue to endure the misery of want. Aty length after much debate, the Governor, with the advice of the chief among them, allowed each man to plant corn for his own household, and to trust to themselves for that; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. So every family was assigned a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number with that in view – for present purposes only, and making no division for inheritance – all boys and children being included under some family. This was very successful. It made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could devise, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better satisfaction. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to plant corn, while before they would allege weakness and instability; and to have compelled them would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

The failure of this experiment of communal living, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times – that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For in this instance, community of property (so far as it went) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit and comfort. For the young men who were most able and fit for service objected to being forced to spend their time and strength in working for other men’s wives and children, without any recompense. The strong man or the resourceful man had no more share of food, clothes, etc., than the weak man who was not able to do a quarter the other could. This was thought injustice. The aged and graver men, who were ranked and equalized in labor, food, clothes, etc., with the humbler and younger ones, thought it some indignity and disrespect to them. As for men’s wives who were obliged to do service for other men, such as cooking, washing their clothes, etc., they considered it a kind of slavery, and many husbands would not brook it. This feature of it would have been worse still, if they had been men of an inferior class.

If (it was thought) all were to share alike, and all were to do alike, then all were on an equality throughout, and one was as good as another; and so, if it did not actually abolish those very relations which God himself has set among men, it did at least greatly diminish the mutual respect that is so important should be preserved amongst them. Let none argue that this is due to human failing, rather than to this communistic plan of life in itself. I answer, seeing that all men have this failing in them, that God in His wisdom saw that another course was fitter for them.

In brief, it would seem that one would have to be foolhardy to challenge the assertion by conservatives that the early history of the pilgrims demonstrates the superiority of individual to communal ownership, or socialism.  They are merely letting Bradford speak for himself.  Be that as it may, the meme has been more visible than usual this year, and that apparently stuck in someone’s craw at the Times.  In any event, the editors decided to stick their necks out, knowing that most of the readers that remain to them would simply close their eyes and swallow. 

The article begins with a de rigueur swipe at the Tea Party movement:

In the Tea Party view of the holiday, the first settlers were actually early socialists. They realized the error of their collectivist ways and embraced capitalism, producing a bumper year, upon which they decided that it was only right to celebrate the glory of the free market and private property.

Here we see the convenient but bogus view on the left of the Tea Party as a monolithic whole, with a uniform view of all things.  I can think of no past association of human beings that has in any way qualified as a “movement” to which that description is less appropriately applied.  The Tea Party movement is a lose association of people who generally favor a smaller role of government in their lives, but who in no way can be said to uniformly believe some common orthodox doctrine, or even to agree on who their “leaders” actually are.  On the left, however, the Tea Party has been racked and squashed into a quintessential outgroup in keeping with the time-honored tradition of our species. 

The author then goes on to create some strawmen, who go well beyond Bradford’s simple claim about the superiority of private property to communal ownership to claim that the pilgrims embraced capitalism, and held their first Thanksgiving to “celebrate the glory of the free market and private property.”  The problem is that she can cite no examples on the right in which such claims are actually made, nor can I find any in a shakedown of the usual subjects.  For example, Rush Limbaugh’s offering for this year can be found here.  In it, he quotes Bradford at length, and mentions capitalism only once, and then merely as a system usually associated with private property.  There is nothing there to the effect that Thanksgiving was originally a “celebration of the glory of the free market and private property.”  Rather, according to Limbaugh, the pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving to “thank God for their good fortune.”

There is no more sign of Zernike’s “Tea Party version,” on the websites of Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Powerline, Instapundit, or any other conservative or libertarian blog I can find.  She claims that her “Tea Party version” appears in a one day course entitled “The Making of America,” by one W. Cleon Skousen, but there is no reference to Thanksgiving in the link she provides.  She also claims it appears in a post entitled “The Great Thanksgiving Hoax,” which celebrates the work of libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises, but here, again, there is no sign of the TP Version.  Zernike takes the trouble to pull a quote out of context from the latter:

Thus the real reason for Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story, is: Socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them.

In fact, the posts author, Richard Maybury, explicitly states that the first Thanksgiving was not held for that reason earlier in the post.  The statement above reflects his contention that the celebration would not have continued to the present day but for the abundance made possible by the change in system, not some revisionist interpretation of the intent of the pilgrims themselves as implied by Zernike.

The rest of the article is more of the same.  Zernike takes issue with Bradford himself:  

…historians (here the usual anonymous ‘experts’ make their usual appearance) say the Pilgrims were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism.

Since the pilgrims themselves saw the difference in systems as one between property held in common and helf by private owners, apparently they never read the books of the expert historians. 

“It was directed ultimately to private profit,” said Richard Pickering, a historian of early America and the deputy director of Plimoth Plantation, a museum devoted to keeping the Pilgrims’ story alive.

True, as far as the shareholders were concerned, but completely beside the point as it relates to the distribution of property in the colony itself.

The arrangement did not produce famine. If it had, Bradford would not have declared the three days of sport and feasting in 1621 that became known as the first Thanksgiving. “The celebration would never have happened if the harvest was going to be less than enough to get them by,” Mr. Pickering said. “They would have saved it and rationed it to get by.”

Again, this flies in the face of the source accounts of Bradford and others, who explicitly and repeatedly asserted that the harvests of 1621 and 1622 were not “enough to get them by,” and who noted in passing that grain was, in fact, rationed.  It always helps to actually read the book.

The competing versions of the story note Bradford’s writings about “confusion and discontent” and accusations of “laziness” among the colonists. But Mr. Pickering said this grumbling had more to do with the fact that the Plymouth colony was bringing together settlers from all over England, at a time when most people never moved more than 10 miles from home. They spoke different dialects and had different methods of farming, and looked upon each other with great wariness.

Again, completely at odds with Bradford’s own account, according to which the cause of the grumbling was the system of distribution, and in no way supports Pickering’s fanciful revisionist version.

Bradford did get rid of the common course — but it was in 1623, after the first Thanksgiving, and not because the system wasn’t working. The Pilgrims just didn’t like it. In the accounts of colonists, Mr. Pickering said, “there was griping and groaning.”

This in the teeth of Bradford’s own, explicit assertion, quoting Plato, that the original system, in fact, didn’t work, and that the new system initiated a new era of abundance.

The real reason agriculture became more profitable over the years, Mr. Pickering said, is that the Pilgrims were getting better at farming crops like corn that had been unknown to them in England.

This “real reason” seems to have escaped Governor Bradford, who was actually there, but was, apparently, not as clever at ferreting out hidden causes as Mr. Pickering.  Before finally fading away with a homily about the Iraq war, Ms. Zernike continues,

The Tea Party’s take on Thanksgiving may have its roots in the cold war.

and, once again quoting the ubiquitous Mr. Pickering,

“What’s going on today is a tradition of conservative thought about that early community structure,” Mr. Pickering said.

No, in fact, no “tradition of conservative thought” is necessary.  All that’s needed is to actually read Bradford’s History, where the assertion that private ownership proved superior to communal ownership is simply and clearly stated.  It’s hard to imagine why anyone would even bother to dispute the point, unless, of course, in spite of its abject failure wherever it’s been tried, they still retain a defiant faith in socialism.  I don’t doubt that, while it’s quite extinct among Chinese Communists, and even North Korean absolute monarchists, it lives on in blithe disregard for the events of the last 50 years in the breasts of a subspecies of American journalists.

For that matter, it seems to live on in Europe as well.  As often happens, the usual suspects at Der Spiegel have picked up on the NYT article, repeating it almost word for word in places, and then adding some thigh-slapping embellishments of their own for their credulous readers, ever eager as they are to read anything that portrays Americans as “weird,” “absurd,” or “crazy.”  In an article written by Marc Pitzke entitled, “Tea Party and Thanksgiving: How the Pilgrim Fathers Abolished Socialism,” he serves up the usual “Tea Party as monolith” gambit, and then assures his fans that the “Tea Party thesis,” has been “gleefully plucked to pieces” in Ms. Zernike’s lame offering.  Taking care not to let Bradford speak for himself on the matter of communal versus private ownership, he, too, quotes the omniscient Mr. Pickering’s irrelevancies about shareholders.   Aware of the lack in Germany of any source of information that could seriously challenge the mainstream narrative about things American, Pitzke goes Ms. Zernike one better, describing the Tea Party movement, which represents a quarter of US citizens, give or take, as an “arch conservative” group, and, better yet, “a rebellious wing of the Republican Party.”

In pointing out the absurdities of the Left, it would be unfair to leave the impression that the Right is any better.  Their fanciful assertions that Ronald Reagan or, in the case of Catholics, the pope, defeated Communism single-handedly, and that Thomas Jefferson was a good Christian, are at least as dubious.  And the moral of the story?  Read the source material and make up your own mind.

START and the Resurrection of the Reliable Replacement Warhead

The Reliable Replacement Warhead is a really bad idea that never seems to go away.  Congress has wisely condemned it, and it was explicitly rejected in the nation’s latest Nuclear Posture Review, but now the RRW has popped up again, artificially linked to the New Start arms control treaty, in a couple of opeds, one in the New York Times by former UN ambassador John Bolton, and another in the Wall Street Journal by R. James Woolsey, former arms control negotiator and Director of the CIA.  Bolton writes, “Congress should pass a new law financing the testing and development of new warhead designs before approving New Start,” and Woolsey chimes in,

…the administration needs to commit to replacing and modernizing our aging nuclear infrastructure as well as the bombers, submarines and ballistic missiles – and the warheads on them – that provide our ultimate guarantee of national security. The Senate’s resolution of ratification should, for example, require the president to commit to specific modernization plans so we can be sure these programs will have his full support. The administration has particularly resisted warhead modernization, beginning with its Nuclear Posture Review last year. This led 10 former directors of the nation’s nuclear weapons labs to write to the secretaries of Defense and Energy urging them to revisit that misguided policy. The secretaries should commit to doing so.

In fact, one hopes they have enough sense not to follow that advice.  What Bolton and Woolsey are referring to when they speak of “modernizing” weapons isn’t the continued refurbishment of old weapons, or the adding of new conventional packaging around them, as in the case of the B61-11, to make them more effective for earth penetration or some other specific mission.  They are speaking of a new design of the nuclear device itself.  At the moment, the RRW is the only player in that game.

Going ahead with the RRW would be self-destructive at a number of levels.  In the first place, it’s unnecessary.  There is no reason to doubt the safety and reliability of the existing weapons in our arsenal, nor our ability to maintain them into the indefinite future.  A reason given for building the RRW is that low yield versions could be designed that would be “more effective deterrents,” because enemies would consider it a lot more likely that we would actually use such a weapon against them, as opposed to our existing high yield weapons.  The problem with that logic is that they would be right.  Given the alacrity with which we went to war in Iraq, it is not hard to imagine that we would be sorely tempted to use a mini-nuke to take out, say, a buried and/or hardened enemy bunker suspected of containing WMD’s.  Any US first use of nuclear weapons, for whatever reason, and regardless of the chances of “collateral damage,” would be a disastrous mistake.  It would let the nuclear genie out of the bottle once again, serving as a perfect pretense for the use of nuclear weapons by others, and particularly by terrorists against us.  Those who think the Maginot line of nuclear detectors we are installing at our ports, or the imaginary difficulty of mastering the necessary technology, will protect us from such an eventuality, are gravely mistaken. 

The building of a new weapon design would also provide a fine excuse for others to modernize their own arsenals.  It is hard to imagine how this could work to the advantage of the United States.  Our nuclear technology is mature, and it would simply give the lesser nuclear powers a chance to catch up with us.  More importantly, it would almost inevitably imply a return to nuclear testing, thereby negating a tremendous advantage we now hold over every other nuclear power, namely, our above ground experimental (AGEX) capability.  In the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Z pulsed power machine at Sandia, the DAHRT radiographic test facility at Los Alamos, and a host of other experimental facilities, we possess an ability to study the physics that occurs in conditions near those in nuclear detonations that no other country comes close to matching.  It would be utterly pointless to throw that advantage away in order to build a new nuclear weapon we don’t need.

It does not surprise me that 10 former directors of the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories signed a letter calling on the Secretaries of Energy and Defense to revisit our RRW policy.  It would certainly serve the interests of the nuclear weapons laboratories.  It is much easier to attract talented physicists to an active testing program than to serve as custodians of an aging stockpile, and new designs would mean new money, and the removal of any perceived existential threats to one or more of the existing labs on the basis of their redundancy.  The problem is that it would not serve the interests of the country. 

Let the RRW stay buried.  The nuclear genie will return soon enough as it is.