Masters of reality, not big thinkers

March 26th, 2017

Joel Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth attempts to answer the big question: Why did science and technology (and, with them, colonial power) spread west to east in the modern age, instead of another way around?

He reminds us that the skirmishing of philosophers and their ideas, the preoccupation of popular historians, is in many ways a sideshow — that the revolution that gave Europe dominance was, above all, scientific, and that the scientific revolution was, above all, an artisanal revolution. Though the élite that gets sneered at, by Trumpites and neo-Marxists alike, is composed of philosophers and professors and journalists, the actual élite of modern societies is composed of engineers, mechanics, and artisans — masters of reality, not big thinkers.

Mokyr sees this as the purloined letter of history, the obvious point that people keep missing because it’s obvious. More genuinely revolutionary than either Voltaire or Rousseau, he suggests, are such overlooked Renaissance texts as Tommaso Campanella’s “The City of the Sun,” a sort of proto-Masonic hymn to people who know how to do things. It posits a Utopia whose inhabitants “considered the noblest man to be the one that has mastered the most skills… like those of the blacksmith and mason.” The real upheavals in minds, he argues, were always made in the margins. He notes that a disproportionate number of the men who made the scientific and industrial revolution in Britain didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge but got artisanal training out on the sides. (He could have included on this list Michael Faraday, the man who grasped the nature of electromagnetic induction, and who worked some of his early life as a valet.) What answers the prince’s question was over in Dr. Johnson’s own apartment, since Johnson was himself an eccentric given to chemistry experiments — “stinks,” as snobbish Englishmen call them.

As in painting and drawing, manual dexterity counted for as much as deep thoughts — more, in truth, for everyone had the deep thoughts, and it took dexterity to make telescopes that really worked. Mokyr knows Asian history, and shows, in a truly humbling display of erudition, that in China the minds evolved but not the makers. The Chinese enlightenment happened, but it was strictly a thinker’s enlightenment, where Mandarins never talked much to the manufacturers. In this account, Voltaire and Rousseau are mere vapor, rising from a steam engine as it races forward. It was the perpetual conversation between technicians and thinkers that made the Enlightenment advance. ted talks are a licensed subject for satire, but in Mokyr’s view ted talks are, in effect, what separate modernity from antiquity and the West from the East. Guys who think big thoughts talking to guys who make cool machines — that’s where the leap happens.

Revolutions are produced by rising expectations

March 25th, 2017

As Louis C.K. says, right now everything is amazing and nobody is happy:

Each citizen carries on her person a computer more powerful than any available to a billionaire two decades ago, and many are using their devices to express their unbridled rage at the society that put them in our pockets.

(That’s Adam Gopnik, discussing Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger.)

How to Gain New Skills

March 24th, 2017

In his How to Gain New Skills guide for students, Ulrich Boser (Learn Better) discusses an experiment that took place years ago at a Catholic all-girls school in New York City:

As part of the experiment, the girls were taught how to play darts for the first time, and the two psychologists conducting the study divided the young women into some groups. Let’s call members of the first group “Team Performance,” and they were told that they should learn the game of darts by trying to throw the darts as close to the center of the board as possible. In other words, the researchers informed the women that the best way to win was to rack up some points.

The psychologists also pulled together another group of young women. Let’s call them “Team Learning Method,” and they learned to play darts very differently. The researchers had these girls focus on the process of gaining expertise, and the women started by focusing on how exactly to throw the darts, mastering some basic processes like “keep your arm close to your body.” Then, after the women showed some proficiency, they were encouraged to aim at the bull’s eye, slowly shifting from some process goals to some outcome goals like hitting the target.

Finally, there was the control group. Their instructions? The researchers told them to learn to “do their best.” In other words, these young women could take any approach that they wanted to learning darts. Let’s think of this group as “Team Conventional Wisdom.”

To learn more about the experiment, I met up with Anastasia Kitsantas, who ran the study together with psychologist Barry Zimmerman. While the experiment took place some years ago, Kitsantas still has the darts stashed away in her office at George Mason University, and on a rainy afternoon, she pulled out the little yellow missiles from an office cabinet to show them to me, laying the darts out like an important relic from some forgotten South American tribe.

Kitsantas held onto the darts because of the study’s surprisingly large outcomes, and by the end of the experiment, the young women on Team Learning Method dramatically outperformed the others, with scores nearly twice as high as Team Conventional Wisdom. The women also enjoyed the experience much more. “Several of the students asked me to teach them more about darts after the experiment. They kept asking me for weeks,” Kitsantas told me.

The best basketball player in the world is not the tallest

March 23rd, 2017

Even a strong predictor of outcome is seldom able to pick out the very top performer, Stephen Hsu notes — e.g., taller people are on average better at basketball, but the best player in the world is not the tallest:

This seems like a trivial point (as are most things, when explained clearly), however, it still eludes the vast majority. For example, in the Atlantic article I linked to in the earlier post Creative Minds, the neuroscientist professor who studies creative genius misunderstands the implications of the Terman study. She repeats the common claim that Terman’s study fails to support the importance of high cognitive ability to “genius”-level achievement: none of the Termites won a Nobel prize, whereas Shockley and Alvarez, who narrowly missed the (verbally loaded) Stanford-Binet cut for the study, each won for work in experimental physics. But luck, drive, creativity, and other factors, all at least somewhat independent of intelligence, influence success in science. Combine this with the fact that there are exponentially more people a bit below the Terman cut than above it, and Terman’s results do little more than confirm that cognitive ability is positively but not perfectly correlated with creative output.

Strong Predictor Graph

In the SMPY study probability of having published a literary work or earned a patent was increasing with ability even within the top 1%. The “IQ over 120 doesn’t matter” meme falls apart if one measures individual likelihood of success, as opposed to the total number of individuals at, e.g., IQ 120 vs IQ 145, who have achieved some milestone. The base population of the former is 100 times that of the latter!

America Had a Government Before the Constitution

March 22nd, 2017

America had a government before the Constitution, Tyler Cowen reminds us, as he discusses the original Articles of Confederation, the foundational document for American government from 1781 to 1789:

It is noteworthy just how weak the office of the president is in the Articles. There is a presiding council drawn from state congressional delegate-nominated members, and the president leads this council. But he is not allowed to serve any more than one year out of three. In some regards this resembles the current system of Switzerland, and it really does check executive power.

The legislature is set up to have only one house, with equal representation for all states and term limits on delegates (each state gets one vote but two to seven delegates). While I wouldn’t opt for such a system today, in an era plagued by gridlock, gerrymandering and out-of-touch professional politicians, I can’t say it sounds crazy.

More worrisome is that the Articles themselves can’t be changed without the unanimous approval of the states. Overall, it is striking how much today’s European Union resembles some features of this system. The Articles worked out in America because they were born into chaos and later able to evolve into a stronger federal government without requiring actual unanimity. It is hard to imagine contemporary Europe traversing the same route, since the continent has some quite settled national governments. They are now reasserting their powers and reversing governance at the pan-national level.

But I would say that the Articles, for all their formal flaws, are badly underrated. They are a brilliant construction for a power vacuum, given that the relevant parties in the 1780s couldn’t agree on very much, but nonetheless needed some path forward.

In other words, think of the Articles as an early business plan or charter for a startup. The point isn’t to get everyone’s roles and responsibilities right on first crack, but rather to make sure that the institution survives and that continued growth is possible.

By this metric, the Articles were an unprecedented success. Keep in mind that many European thinkers of the time thought that America was hopelessly disunited and that its system of government was due to collapse. The Articles proved them wrong by serving as a bridge from the Revolution to the later development of America as a fully fledged nation.

It is sometimes forgotten just how fruitful the Articles period was for laying the foundations for the further growth of the country. A system of relatively egalitarian and transferable property rights was codified for the settlement of external lands. Most importantly, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 determined that future settlements could be incorporated into the country as states rather than subordinate territories or colonies. The independence and sovereignty of the initial founding states allowed them to support such policies, without fearing much dilution of their power or influence.

These decisions were part of a broader constitutional order for the United States, and that broader order was very much one of dynamic growth (Article XI welcomes Quebec to the United States, should it wish to join). It is a common criticism of the Articles that they didn’t allow for the effective funding of the federal government. But Article VIII lays out clearly that the states have a responsibility to send money to Congress, and it even specifies the relevant formula, namely proportionality to land value.

I remember being taught that the Articles denied Congress any powers of taxation; it could only request money from the states. That distinction seems subtle, when the states have unanimously agreed to Article VIII:

All charges of war, and all other expenses that shall be incurred for the common defense or general welfare, and allowed by the United States in Congress assembled, shall be defrayed out of a common treasury, which shall be supplied by the several States in proportion to the value of all land within each State, granted or surveyed for any person, as such land and the buildings and improvements thereon shall be estimated according to such mode as the United States in Congress assembled, shall from time to time direct and appoint.

The taxes for paying that proportion shall be laid and levied by the authority and direction of the legislatures of the several States within the time agreed upon by the United States in Congress assembled.

I didn’t realize the original plan was for the “federal” government to “tax” the states based on land value. I would suggest giving each state votes proportional to its tax contribution.

Addicts wake up “sick” and need to “make money”

March 21st, 2017

Addicts wake up “sick” and need to “make money”:

Some neighborhood bodegas — the addicts know which ones — will pay 50 cents on the dollar for anything stolen from CVS. That is why razor blades, printer cartridges, and other expensive portable items are now kept under lock and key where you shop. Addicts shoplift from Home Depot and drag things from the loading docks. They pull off scams. They will scavenge for thrown-out receipts in trash cans outside an appliance store, enter the store, find the receipted item, and try to return it for cash. On the edge of the White Mountains in Maine, word spread that the policy at Hannaford, the dominant supermarket chain, was not to dispute returns of under $25. For a while, there was a run on the big cans of extra virgin olive oil that sold for $24.99, which were brought to the cash registers every day by a succession of men and women who did not, at first sight, look like connoisseurs of Mediterranean cuisine. Women prostitute themselves on Internet sites. Others go into hospital emergency rooms, claiming a desperately painful toothache that can be fixed only with some opioid. (Because if pain is a “fifth vital sign,” it is the only one that requires a patient’s own testimony to measure.) This is generally repeated until the pain-sufferer grows familiar enough to the triage nurses to get “red-flagged.”

The culture of addiction treatment is marked by an extraordinary level of political correctness:

Several of the addiction professionals interviewed for this article sent lists of the proper terminology to use when writing about opioid addiction, and instructions on how to write about it in a caring way. These people are mostly generous, hard-working, and devoted. But their codes are neither scientific nor explanatory; they are political.

The director of a Midwestern state’s mental health programs emailed a chart called “‘Watch What You Call Me’: The Changing Language of Addiction and Mental Illness,” compiled by the Boston University doctor Richard Saltz. It is a document so Orwellian that one’s first reaction is to suspect it is a parody, or some kind of “fake news” dreamed up on a cynical website. We are not supposed to say “drug abuse”; use “substance use disorder” instead. To say that an addict’s urine sample is “clean” is to use “words that wound”; better to say he had a “negative drug test.” “Binge drinking” is out — “heavy alcohol use” is what you should say. Bizarrely, “attempted suicide” is deemed unacceptable; we need to call it an “unsuccessful suicide.” These terms are periphrastic and antiscientific. Imprecision is their goal. Some of them (like the concept of a “successful suicide”) are downright insane. This habit of euphemism and propaganda is not merely widespread. It is official. In January 2017, less than two weeks before the end of the last presidential administration, drug office head Michael Botticelli issued a memo called “Changing the Language of Addiction,” a similarly fussy list of officially approved euphemisms.

In 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings

March 20th, 2017

“People have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States.” — Max Noel, FBI (ret.)

As Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage explains, in 1968, many radicals absolutely believed that the United States was getting ready to collapse:

SDS leadership is disproportionately well-off Jewish kids at elite universities. The kind of people who create Facebook.

Well, in 1968 you can’t go to the Bay Area & create a killer app, so if you want to disrupt stuff you literally have to start a revolution. And that’s the equation: Paranoid fervor of chemtrail-sniffers + Silicon Valley’s faith in its ability to change the world = the Weather Underground.

When it shakes out, two of the big SDS movers and shakers are John “JJ” Jacobs and Bernadine Dorne. Their goal: to take over SDS entirely. Because, remember, organization is critical. SDS is a nationwide organization. And college campuses are receptive to radical messages.

How receptive? In fall of 1968, there were 41 bombings and arson cases on college campuses. We’re not talking letters under doors or vandalism, here. We’re talking about Molotov cocktails setting shit on fire. Here’s how radical SDS was: Burrough notes that Weatherman’s opponents for leadership in SDS elections were “Progressive Labor,” who were literal Maoists. To distinguish themselves, Weatherman called for white radicals to live like John Brown: ie, to kill the enemies of black liberty.

The election was nuts; Weatherman literally expelled their opponents from the party before the vote, so SDS split. But Weatherman occupied the national office, which meant they could evaluate SDS members as potential recruits.

The FBI was up SDS’s ass, and Weatherman’s. They harassed the core cadre. Beat them. Threatened them. This does not dissuade revolutionaries. Weatherman started doing crazy stuff with SDS: street brawls, public nudity, sexual orgies, ordering established couples to break up. If you think it sounds like a cult, you’re right. This is literally cult indoctrination stuff. They were remaking people, seeking the hardest of hardcore.

[...]

In the end, the Weather’s fugitives turned themselves in with little trouble. To give you an idea: Bill Ayers was scott-free. Cathy Wilkerson did a year. Bernardine Dohrn got three years probation and a $1500 fine. The radical lawyers, accessories to Weather’s bombings? Nada. Zip. Zero.

They did pretty well afterwards. Bernardine Dohrn was a clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern University for more than twenty years. Another Weatherman, Eleanor Stein, was arrested on the run in 1981; she got a law degree in 1986 and became an administrative law judge. Radical attorney Michael Kennedy, who did more than any to keep Weather alive, has been special advisor to President of the UN General Assembly. And, of course, Barack Obama, twice President of the United States, started his political career in Bill Ayers’s living room.

This is the difference between the hard Left & hard Right: you can be a violent leftist radical and go on to live a pretty kickass life. This is especially true if you’re a leftist of the credentialed class: Ph.D. or J.D.

The big three takeaways for me about Weatherman, when it comes to political violence in America as we might see it in 2016:

  1. Radicalism can come from anywhere. The Weathermen weren’t oppressed, or poor, or anything like that. They were hard leftists. That’s it.
  2. Sustained political violence is dependent on the willing cooperation of admirers and accomplices. The Left has these. The Right does not.
  3. Not a violent issue, but a political one: ethnic issues involving access to power can both empower and derail radical movements.

The story gets much, much crazier.

I’m reminded of The Baader Meinhof Complex and Carlos.

Please remember this perverse outcome

March 19th, 2017

Charlie Munger was not impressed with academic psychology, but he was impressed with Robert Cialdini‘s Influence:

Cialdini had made himself into a super-tenured “Regents’ Professor” at a very young age by devising, describing, and explaining a vast group of clever experiments in which man manipulated man to his detriment, with all of this made possible by man’s intrinsic thinking flaws.

I immediately sent copies of Cialdini’s book to all my children — I also gave Cialdini a share of Berkshire stock [Class A] to thank him for what he had done for me and the public. Incidentally, the sale by Cialdini of hundreds of thousands of copies of a book about social psychology was a huge feat, considering that Cialdini didn’t claim that he was going to improve your sex life or make you any money.

Part of Cialdini’s large book-buying audience came because, like me, it wanted to learn how to become less often tricked by salesmen and circumstances. However, as an outcome not sought by Cialdini, who is a profoundly ethical man, a huge number of his books were bought by salesmen who wanted to learn how to become more effective in misleading customers. Please remember this perverse outcome when my discussion comes to incentive-caused biases a consequence of the superpower of incentives.

Cialdini’s Pre-Suasion came out recently.

Collecting psychology experiments as a boy collects butterflies

March 18th, 2017

Charlie Munger was always interested in psychology, but he didn’t turn to psychology textbooks for a long, long time:

Motivated as I was, by midlife I should probably have turned to psychology textbooks, but I didn’t, displaying my share of the outcome predicted by the German folk saving: “We are too soon old and too late smart.” However, as I later found out, I may have been lucky to avoid for so long the academic psychology that was then laid out in most textbooks. These would not then have guided me well with respect to cults and were often written as if the authors were collecting psychology experiments as a boy collects butterflies — with a passion for more butterflies and more contact with fellow collectors and little craving for synthesis in what is already possessed. When I finally got to the psychology texts, I was reminded of the observation of Jacob Viner, the great economist; that many an academic is like the truffle hound, an animal so trained and bred for one narrow purpose that it is no good at anything else. I was also appalled by hundreds of pages of extremely not scientific musing about comparative weights of nature and nurture in human outcomes. And I found that introductory psychology texts, by and large, didn’t deal appropriately with a fundamental issue: Psychological tendencies tend to be both numerous and inseparably intertwined, now and forever, as they interplay in life. Yet the complex parsing out of effects from intertwined tendencies was usually avoided by the writers of the elementary texts. Possibly the authors did not wish, through complexity, to repel entry of new devotees to their discipline. And, possibly, the cause of their inadequacy was the one given by Samuel Johnson in response to a woman who inquired as to what accounted for his dictionary’s mis-definition of the word “pastern.” “Pure ignorance,” Johnson replied. And, finally, the text writers showed little interest in describing standard antidotes to standard, psychology-driven folly, and they thus avoided most discussion of exactly what most interested me.

Meaning, even a very small meaning, can matter a lot

March 17th, 2017

Dan Ariely’s studies can be darkly humorous:

In their first experiment, Ariely’s team asked college students to find sets of repeated letters on a sheet of paper. Some of the students’ work was reviewed by a “supervisor” as soon as it was turned in. Other students were told in advance that their work would be collected but not reviewed, and still others watched as their papers were shredded immediately upon completion.

Each of the students was paid 55 cents for completing the first sheet, and five cents less for each sheet thereafter, and allowed to stop working at any point. The research team found that people whose work was reviewed and acknowledged by the “supervisor” were willing to do more work for less pay than those whose work was ignored or shredded.

In a second experiment, participants assembled Bionicles, toy figurines made by Lego. The researchers made the Bionicle project somewhat meaningful for half of the students, whose completed toys were displayed on their desks for the duration of the experiment, while the students assembled as many Bionicles as they wished. “Even though this may not have been especially meaningful work, the students felt productive seeing all of those Bionicles lined up on the desk, and they kept on building them even when the pay was rather low,” Ariely said.

The rest of the participants, whose work was intended to be devoid of meaning, gave their completed Bionicles to supervisors in exchange for another box of parts to assemble. The supervisors immediately disassembled the completed figurines, and returned the box of parts to the students when they were ready for the next round. “These poor individuals were assembling the same two Bionicles over and over. Every time they finished one, it was simply torn apart and given back to them later.” The students in the meaningful and non-meaningful conditions were each paid according to a scale that began at $2.00 for the first Bionicle and decreased by 11 cents for each subsequent figurine assembled.

“Adding to the evidence from the first experiment, this experiment also showed that meaning, even a very small meaning, can matter a lot,” Ariely said. Students who were allowed to collect their assembled Bionicles built an average of 10.2 figurines, while those whose work was disassembled built an average of 7.2. Students whose work was not meaningful required a median level of pay 40 percent higher than students whose work was meaningful.

“These experiments clearly demonstrate what many of us have known intuitively for some time. Doing meaningful work is rewarding in itself, and we are willing to do more work for less pay when we feel our work has some sort of purpose, no matter how small,” Ariely said. “But it is also important to point out that when we asked people to estimate the effect of meaning on labor, they dramatically underestimated the effects. This means, that while we recognize the general effect of meaning on motivation, we are not sufficiently appreciating its magnitude and importance.”

Cloaks, Daggers, and Dice

March 16th, 2017

South by Southwest included a talk called Cloaks, Daggers, and Dice, which examined how the CIA uses games:

In “Collection,” Clopper’s first CIA game, teams of analysts work together to solve international crises against a ticking clock. His second title, “Collection Deck,” is a Pokémon-like card game in which where each card represents either an intelligence collection strategy or a hurdle like red tape or bureaucracy.

[...]

Also speaking on the panel was Volko Ruhnke, who is an intelligence educator at the CIA and a freelance game designer. Ruhnke said he is particularly interested in one type of game: a simulation tabletop game to train analysts and help with analytic tasks. It could help forecast complex situations by forcing players to handle multiple scenarios simultaneously.
Ruhnke himself created a commercial board game to simulate the Afghanistan conflict and walk players through military, political, and economic issues in the region. It gives players “a much more dynamic understanding of the issues of modern Afghanistan,” Ruhnke said, adding that a similar game could be of use internally at the CIA as well.

Volko Ruhnke is famous — in the wargaming community — for designing the card-driven wargames Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001–? and Wilderness War. He was also the original designer of GMT Games’ COIN series, which includes Cuba Libre, A Distant Plain, and Liberty or Death: American Insurrection.

Neoliberal management may reduce productivity

March 16th, 2017

Chris Dillow suggests some ways that neoliberal management may reduce productivity:

Good management can be bad for investment and innovation. William Nordhaus has shown that the profits from innovation are small. And Charles Lee and Salman Arif have shown that capital spending is often motivated by sentiment rather than by cold-minded appraisal with the result that it often leads to falling profits. We can interpret the slowdowns in innovation and investment as evidence that bosses have wised up to these facts. Also, an emphasis upon cost-effectiveness, routine and best practice can deny employees the space and time to experiment and innovate. Either way, Joseph Schumpeter’s point seems valid: capitalist growth requires a buccaneering spirit which is killed off by rational bureaucracy.

As Jeffrey Nielsen has argued, “rank-based” organizations can demotivate more junior staff, who expect to be told what to do rather than use their initiative.

The high-powered incentives offered to bosses can backfire. They can incentivize rent-seeking, office politics and jockeying for the top job rather than getting on with one’s work. They can crowd out intrinsic motivations such as professional pride. And they can divert (pdf) managers towards doing tasks that are easily monitored rather than ones which are important to an organization but harder to measure: for example, cost-cutting can be monitored and incentivized but maintaining a healthy corporate culture is less easily measured and so can be neglected by crude incentive schemes.

Empowering management can increase opposition to change. As McAfee and Brynjolfsson have shown, reaping the benefits of technical change often requires organizational change. But well-paid bosses have little reason to want to rock the boat by undertaking such change. The upshot is that we are stuck in what van Ark calls (pdf) the “installation phase” of the digital economy rather than the deployment phase. As Joel Mokyr has said, the forces of conservatism eventually suppress technical creativity.

Pizzas, Loudspeakers and Moms

March 15th, 2017

US psy ops are drawing away members of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army with flyers and recorded messages from their families:

Leaflet campaigns saw widespread use in the Vietnam War, and the psyop team still relies on a 1960s military publication called the “Low, Medium and High Altitude Leaflet Dissemination Guide.” The guide was intended to add science to the art of tossing paper out of a moving plane, and it describes how to fit a message to a particular leaflet size and how to account for wind, air density and aircraft speed in planning a drop.

In Central Africa, the psyop team estimates it has dropped half a million leaflets over the past six months. Mr. Kony, according to defectors, tells his followers the leaflets are poisonous to the touch. He also warns them that the Americans can spy on rebels through the leaflets.

Mr. Ocitti’s family-tracking allows the psyop team to put rebels’ actual family photos on leaflets. Defectors sometimes turn themselves in with U.S.-made leaflets hidden in their pockets.

The nine strategic consequences of Chinese racism

March 15th, 2017

A rather unusual report evaluates the nine strategic consequences of Chinese racism:

First, virulent racism and eugenics heavily inform Chinese perceptions of the world. United States decision-makers must recognize that China is a racist state, much closer to Nazi Germany than to the values upheld in the West. Most often, the Chinese do not even recognize their racism as a problem. They believe that racism is a Western phenomenon and that Westerners are obsessed with race. This obsession is seen by the Chinese to be a strategic vulnerability of the West, whereas China is not affected by racism.

Second, racism informs their view of the United States. From the Chinese perspective, the United States used to be a strong society that the Chinese respected when it was unicultural, defined by the centrality of Anglo-Protestant culture at the core of American national identity aligned with the political ideology of liberalism, the rule of law, and free market capitalism. The Chinese see multiculturalism as a sickness that has overtaken the United States, and a component of U.S. decline.

Third, racism informs their view of international politics in three ways. First, states are stable, and thus good for the Chinese, to the degree that they are unicultural. Second, Chinese ethnocentrism and racism drive their outlook to the rest of the world. Their expectation is of a tribute system where barbarians know that the Chinese are superior. Third, there is a strong, implicit, racialist view of international politics that is alien and anathema to Western policy-makers and analysts. The Chinese are comfortable using race to explain events and appealing to racist stereotypes to advance their interests. Most insidious is the Chinese belief that Africans in particular need Chinese leadership.

Fourth, the Chinese will make appeals to Third World states based on “racial solidarity,” that is, the need of non-white peoples to unite against Western imperialism and racism. Racial solidarity claims are easy for Chinese to accomplish since the Chinese can make strategic racist claims. For example, they can frame international politics in terms of a “racial balance of power,” and cast appeals to the Third World along the line of: now is the time for non-whites to dominate international politics.

Fifth, Chinese racism retards their relations with the Third World. Chinese racism makes it difficult for China to advance a positive message in the Third World, especially Africa, but also in Latin America and the Middle East. The Chinese have a hierarchical representation of looking at other groups, darker skin is lower class, and race matters. In this sense, the racial stereotypes of the Africans commonly found within Chinese society suggest that this population is backward and dirty, and prone to crime, particularly violent crime. These beliefs surface regularly in China’s relations with the Third World and these beliefs, coupled with clannish and ruthless Chinese business practices, generate enormous resentment in the Third World.

Sixth, Chinese racism, and the degree to which the Chinese permit their view of the United States to be informed by racism, has the potential to hinder China in its competition with the United States because it contributes to their overconfidence. This overconfidence is a result of ethnocentrism and a sense of superiority rooted in racism. The Chinese commonly believe that they are cleverer than others, and so may shape events in an oblique manner or through shi, the strategic manipulation of events. This conceit among the Chinese that they can manipulate others is supremely dangerous for Asian stability. At the same time, it is a great advantage for the United States to play upon that overconfidence. An overconfident China will continue to make the mistakes it is presently in the South China or East China Sea disputes. That is, making threats, issuing demands, heavy-handed shows of force, are generated by China’s overconfidence.

Seventh, as lamentable as it is, Chinese racism helps to make the Chinese a formidable adversary. There are three critical consequences that result from this. The first is the sense of unity the Chinese possess. Second, it allows the Chinese to have a strong sense of identity, which in turn permits them to weather adversity, and to be focused and secure confidence that the rest of the nation is with them. Third, China is not plagued by self-doubt or guilt about its past.

Eight, the Chinese are never going to go through a civil rights movement like the United States. This is because, first, they have no freedom of the press, freedom to petition their government, freedom to assemble, all of which are necessary to support a civil rights movement. Second, there is no political drive or consciousness for equality in Chinese thought. Equality is associated with Maoism and rejected in today’s China, where inequality is accepted and celebrated. In addition, there is no notion of civil rights in Chinese political thought or, practically, in jurisprudence.

Ninth, China’s treatment of Christians and ethnic minorities is poor. The government recognizes that religion is able to do many positive acts in a society, and they do see the need for people to have a moral, religious grounding provided by religion since a moral framework may be lost in the demands of a market economy. The current debate is an echo of the one they had in the 1800s, how do they preserve the essence of what is Chinese in an era dominated by Western ideas. Yet, the government is fearful of religion in the sense that uncontrolled religion may be a threat; a challenge to Beijing’s authority. Not surprisingly, the treatment of ethnic minorities is equally bad.

Kerensky’s Missed Opportunity

March 14th, 2017

One hundred years ago Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, ending 300 years of Romanov rule of Russia, and this so-called February Revolution presents one of the great what-ifs of history:

If this revolution — which actually took place in early March 1917 according to the West’s Gregorian calendar (Russia adopted that calendar only later) — had succeeded in producing a constitutional democracy in place of the czarist empire as its leaders hoped, the world would be a very different place.

If the leading figure in the provisional government, Aleksandr Kerensky, had seized on an opportunity presented by a now-forgotten vote in the German Reichstag, World War I might have been over before American troops reached Europe. In this alternative history, Lenin and Stalin would be obscure footnotes, and Hitler would never have been more than a failed painter.

Aleksandr Kerensky reviewing the troops in 1917

What is surprising, to anyone who has absorbed the standard victor’s view — according to which the Allies were fighting a defensive war to liberate small states — is that Britain was disingenuous about its war aims, while France declined to state them at all. The reason is that those aims were too discreditable to avow openly. In a series of secret treaties, they agreed in the event of victory to carve up the empires of their defeated enemies.

From the Russian viewpoint, the big prize was the Turkish capital, Constantinople, now called Istanbul; this was promised to Russia in a secret agreement in 1915. The subsequent publication of this and other secret treaties by the Bolsheviks did much to discredit the Allied cause.

Kerensky could have repudiated the deals made by the czarist empire and announced his willingness to accept the Reichstag formula of peace without annexations or indemnities. Perhaps the German High Command would have ignored the offer and continued fighting (as it did when the Bolsheviks offered the same terms after the October Revolution at the end of 1917). But the circumstances were far more favorable in July than they were at the end of 1917. As the Kerensky offensive demonstrated, the Russian Army, while demoralized, was still an effective fighting force, and the front line was far closer to the territory of the Central Powers. Moreover, Kerensky commanded credibility with the Western Allies that he could have used to good effect.

Kerensky’s determination to continue the war was a disaster. Within a few months, the armed forces were in open revolt. Lenin, who was transported across Germany in a sealed train with the High Command’s acquiescence in the hope that he would help to knock Russia out of the war, seized the opportunity. The provisional government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution. This Bolshevik Revolution consigned the February Revolution to historical oblivion.

After accepting a humiliating treaty imposed by the Germans, Russia was soon embroiled in a civil war more bloody and brutal than even World War I. By its end, the Bolshevik government, launched as a workers’ democracy, was effectively a dictatorship, enabling the ascendancy of a previously obscure Bolshevik, Joseph Stalin, who would become one of the great tyrants of history. On the other side, the German High Command’s rejection of peace similarly led to defeat, national humiliation and the emergence of the 20th century’s other great tyrant, Adolf Hitler.

We cannot tell whether a positive response from Kerensky to the Reichstag peace initiative would have achieved anything. But it is hard to imagine an outcome worse than the one that actually took place.