I enjoyed this feel-good story out of Houston:
In 1979, the Israeli-Palestinian situation was fluid, David Brooks says, but the surrounding Arab world was relatively stagnant:
Now the surrounding region is a cauldron of convulsive change, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a repetitive Groundhog Day.
Here’s the result: The big regional convulsions are driving events, including the conflict in Gaza. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become just a stage on which the regional clashes in the Arab world are being expressed. When Middle Eastern powers clash, they take shots at Israel to gain advantage over each other.
Look at how the current fighting in Gaza got stoked. Authoritarians and Islamists have been waging a fight for control of Egypt. After the Arab Spring, the Islamists briefly gained the upper hand. But when the Muslim Brotherhood government fell, the military leaders cracked down. They sentenced hundreds of the Brotherhood’s leadership class to death. They also closed roughly 95 percent of the tunnels that connected Egypt to Gaza, where the Brotherhood’s offshoot, Hamas, had gained power.
As intended, the Egyptian move was economically devastating to Hamas. Hamas derived 40 percent of its tax revenue from tariffs on goods that flowed through those tunnels. One economist estimated the economic losses at $460 million a year, nearly a fifth of the Gazan G.D.P.
Hamas needed to end that blockade, but it couldn’t strike Egypt, so it struck Israel. If Hamas could emerge as the heroic fighter in a death match against the Jewish state, if Arab TV screens were filled with dead Palestinian civilians, then public outrage would force Egypt to lift the blockade. Civilian casualties were part of the point. When Mousa Abu Marzook, the deputy chief of the Hamas political bureau, dismissed a plea for a cease-fire, he asked a rhetorical question, “What are 200 martyrs compared with lifting the siege?”
In the late 1960s, John B. Calhoun placed four breeding pairs of mice into a Mouse Utopia, free of predators and full of food and water.
The population grew exponentially — for a while. For the first 620 days, the population doubled every 55 days. Then, the doubling slowed down. Then, growth stopped, and the dysfunction began.
In the original paper, Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population, Calhoun draws these conclusions:
The results obtained in this study should be obtained when customary causes of mortality become markedly reduced in any species of mammal whose members form social groups. Reduction of bodily death (i.e. ‘the second death’) culminates in survival of an excessive number of individuals that have developed the potentiality for occupying the social roles characteristic of the species. Within a few generations all such roles in all physical space available to the species are filled. AT this time, the continuing high survival of many individuals to sexual and behavioural maturity culminates in the presence of many young adults capable of involvement in appropriate species-specific activities. However, there are few opportunities for fulfilling theses potentialities. In seeking such fulfilment they compete for social role occupancy with the older established members of the community. This competition is so severe that it simultaneously leads to the nearly total breakdown of all normal behaviour by both the contestors and the established adults of both sexes. Normal social organization (i.e. ‘the establishment’) breaks down, it ‘dies’.
So far, that sounds almost like Peter Turchin’s notion of elite overproduction.
Young born during such social dissolution are rejected by their mothers and other adult associates. This early failure of social bonding becomes compounded by interruption of action cycles due to the mechanical interference resulting from the high contact rate among individuals living in a high density population. High contact rate further fragments behaviour as a result of the stochastics of social interactions which demand that, in order to maximize gratification from social interaction, intensity and duration of social interaction must be reduced in proportion to the degree that the group size exceeds the optimum. Autistic-like creatures, capable only of the most simple behaviours compatible with physiological survival, emerge out of this process. Their spirit has died (‘the first death’). They are no longer capable of executing the more complex behaviours compatible with species survival. The species in such settings die.
You may be wondering about his references to the first death and the second death. They’re Biblical references — with which he opens his scientific paper — in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1973:
I shall largely speak of mice, but my thoughts are on man, on healing, on life and its evolution. Threatening life and evolution are the two deaths, death of the spirit and death of the body. Evolution, in terms of ancient wisdom, is the acquisition of access to the tree of life. This takes us back to the white first horse of the Apocalypse which with its rider set out to conquer the forces that threaten the spirit with death. Further in Revelation (ii.7) we note: ‘To him who conquers I will grant to eat the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God’ and further on (Rev. xxii.2): ‘The leaves of the tree were for the healing of nations.’
Anyway, the Mouse Utopia experiment is usually interpreted in terms of social stresses related to overcrowding, but, Bruce Charlton points out, there’s another explanation:
But Michael A Woodley suggests that what might be going on is mutation accumulation, and deleterious genes generating a wide range of maladaptive pathologies, incrementally accumulating with each generation; and rapidly overwhelming and destroying the population before any beneficial mutations could emerge to ‘save; the colony from extinction.
So the bizarre behaviours seen especially in Phase D — such as the male ‘beautiful ones’ who appeared to be healthy and spent all their time self grooming, but were actually inert, unresponsive, unintelligent, uninterested in reproduction — are not adaptations to crowing, but maladaptive outcomes of a population sinking under the weight of mutations.
The reason why mouse utopia might produce so rapid and extreme a mutation accumulation is that wild mice naturally suffer very high mortality rates from predation.
Democracy, like all things, is good only in moderation, Eric Falkenstein says — it is a means and not an end:
Taken to an extreme it is highly dysfunctional, as decisions are not helped by making them mass plebiscites or town hall meetings. Go to a school board meeting and watch how quickly thoughtful discussions get sidetracked. Philip Howard’s Rule of Nobody outlines an interesting consequence to increasing public participation in big decisions. As the number of stakeholders grows each interest group seeks its own group’s ends without moderation, they are single-issue advocates nobly advancing their righteous cause (e.g., Native Americans, aquifers, unions), and so veto action unless they are basically paid-off. The result is that usually nothing happens, and so the days when we could build the interstate highway system, the Hoover Dam, or the Empire State Building in only a year, are over. Small ‘d’ democratic control of property leads to stasis, why government spending today is mainly on transfer payments and studies, not roads and bridges.
Rome’s was a surprising example of successful ethnic assimilation, Randall Collins suggests:
After about 60 BC, most of the famous authors and politicians had been born outside of Rome: Cicero, Catullus, Virgil, Horace, Livy, and Ovid all came from remote parts of Italy. During the following centuries of the Roman Empire, virtually none of the famous names were born at Rome, and they came not only from Italy but from the provinces. At least in the wealthy and educated classes — the only people that we hear about in the histories — ethnic distinctions had disappeared. Latin became the universal language throughout the western provinces; all traces of local cultural identities disappeared. In the eastern part of the Empire, where the provinces had been under Greek-speaking rulers, Greek continued to be spoken but Latin was used in official matters. With the end of a few areas of die-hard resistance, one hears no more of ethnic nationalist movements. The upper classes and the upwardly mobile, at any rate, lived their lives as Romans.
And They All Lived Happily Ever After?
Well, not exactly. The rich kept on getting richer, the poor more displaced from anything except seeking handouts. Generals became politicians and vice versa. Although the ethnic citizenship issue was settled, the struggles turned into civil wars over personal power, until domestic peace was finally established by a hereditary monarchy.
When anthropologist Franz Boas died in 1942, his Boasian school had been defined by Ruth Benedict, in her book Patterns of Culture:
The word “define” may surprise some readers. Wasn’t Boas a Boasian? Not really. For most of his life he believed that human populations differ innately in their mental makeup. He was a liberal on race issues only in the sense that he considered these differences to be statistical and, hence, no excuse for systematic discrimination. Every population has capable individuals who should be given a chance to rise to the limits of their potential.
He changed his mind very late in life when external events convinced him of the need to fight “racism,” at that time a synonym for extreme nationalism in general and Nazism in particular. In 1938, he removed earlier racialist statements from his second edition of The Mind of Primitive Man, and the next year Ruth Benedict wrote Race: Science and Politics to show that racism was more than a Nazi aberration, being in fact an ingrained feature of American life. Both of them saw the coming European conflict as part of a larger war.
This is one reason why the war on racism did not end in 1945. Other reasons included a fear that extreme nationalism would lead to a second Hitler and a Third World War. How and why was never clear, but the fear was real. The two power blocs were also competing for the hearts and minds of emerging nations in Asia and Africa, and in this competition the West felt handicapped. How could it win while defining itself as white and Christian? The West thus redefined itself in universal terms and became just as committed as the Eastern bloc to converting the world to its way of life. Finally, the rhetoric of postwar reconstruction reached into all areas of life, even in countries like the U.S. that had emerged unscathed from the conflict. This cultural reconstruction was a logical outcome of the Second World War, which had discredited not just Nazism but also nationalism in general, thereby leaving only right-wing globalism or left-wing globalism. Ironically, this cultural change was weaker in the communist world, where people would remain more conservative in their forms of sociality.
Ruth Benedict backed this change. She felt that America should stop favoring a specific cultural tradition and instead use its educational system to promote diversity. To bring this about, she had to reassure people that a journey through such uncharted waters would not founder on the shoals of unchanging human nature.
Andrea Castillo presents a gentle introduction to neoreaction (for libertarians):
I first learned of these rapscallions after one Steve Sailer left a comment on an old Ümlaut article poking fun at Malcolm Gladwell. The article he had linked was interesting enough, so I added his blog to my RSS feed. Another fellow libertarian! Why not?
But something was amiss. Interspersed among the interesting enough commentary on movies, politics, and demography was uncomfortable discussions of international PISA scores and potshots at feminism—thoughts far from the libertarian brand. I left the comfortable sterility of my RSS reader to do some digging and found a treasure trove of top-shelf heterdox samizdaty badness. His website quickly primes you for what to expect: “Immigration – Darwinism – Race – Sports – Gender – IQ – Mexico – Genetics – Politics – Crime – Interracial Marriage.” Oh my. This intrepid Sailer clearly left no stone unturned. Then of course came the dust-ups with Bryan Caplan. But Steve Sailer was really just an early layer. Things got weirder from there.
Liberals consider Piketty’s book a must-read, but only, Eric Falkenstein says, because, like Marx’s Capital, it’s a great safety blanket for Liberal prejudices:
The end-game is exactly what progressive conventional wisdom (e.g., the common New York Times or Harvard professor view) has been preaching for over 50 years: enlarge the state. The key point is a highly credentialed academic wrote a long book proving that some abstruse mathematical inequality (r>g) implies we need to raise taxes on the rich and regulate wealth more democratically. It’s really the debating tactic called ‘spreading’, which is top put forth so many arguments, none sufficient or necessary, that you can always claim victory. For example I could question his many empirical assertions, such as how could German inflation have averaged only 14% from 1913-1950 (p. 545) given inflation was 10^10 in 1923, or how depreciation affects his r/g=C/I steady state equilibrium, but that would leave another 20 assertions unstained, and so those who want to euthanize renteirs can retain faith in their big picture.
Piketty is a modern progressive, best defined as someone who thinks intellectuals should run everything as the vanguard of the people, which is why academics, journalists, and writers are predominantly progressive. Hayek noted that scribes have always been egalitarian, probably always lamenting the fact that the idiots in power don’t write nearly as well as them, and thus, are objectively less qualified but via some tragic flaw in the universe, end up in power. It forms the common reverse dominance hierarchy so common today, where obsequious, hypocritical yet articulate and confident leaders pander to the masses and rule via democracy, focusing their envious eyes on those who aren’t interested in that game, such as those concerned with business, religion, or their own family. As Piketty notes, “if we are to regain control of capitalism we must bet everything on democracy” (p. 573), he says from his inegalitarian and very undemocratic position at the Paris School of Economics.
It never occurs to them that the main problem with subjecting markets to democratic control is that those who end up wielding power will be incompetent or tyrannical, and that ‘the people’ have never ruled directly, only their various proxies. Every totalitarian government of the 20th century has rested on at least the perception of massive popular support, which is why they have all ruled in the name of The People. An unchecked democracy becomes mob rule, which becomes tyrannical and highly illiberal, why the Founding Fathers, so familiar with Greek history, were careful to put checks and balances in the US constitution and emphasize the republican nature of government.
Rome’s illegal alien problem came to a head after 146 BC, Randall Collins says, when Rome emerged as the hegemon, the dominant state in Mediterranean world:
Partisan factions developed in the Roman elite itself; conservative defenders of the old Republic, but also a “democratic” party in favor of redistributing public land, handouts to the poor, and widening the franchise. These were not merely idealists; they had a strong practical concern, that the basis of the old Roman army — self-sufficient small farmers — was disappearing and needed to be revived. This the reformers never did achieve; but army reform and franchise reform tended to go in tandem. Leading liberals often came from the ranks of the most successful generals, like Marius and Caesar. The first famous reformers were the Gracchus brothers, who ran for the highest office under proposals to extend the Roman franchise to at least some of the nearby Italian allies. Tiberius Gracchus was killed by a crowd of angry senators in 132 BC, as was his brother Gaius ten years later.
The younger Gracchus did succeed in passing a law instituting the dole: the state undertook to import grain to sell to citizens of the capital below market prices. Handouts by the liberal state became permanent, no conservatives being strong enough to brave the crowds’ demand for the staple of food. Rome created the early welfare state, in effect a massive food stamp program. Poor citizens were never supported to the level of the prosperous classes but their numbers as a political force kept them going for centuries on the public dole. Supplying “bread and circuses” became the path to popularity by subsequent Roman politicians. The elite undertook to keep the people entertained by sports and other spectacles, in stadiums and colosseums that Americans imitate today.
Although franchise reform was defeated, one political crisis after another kept opening loopholes for more resident aliens to become citizens. Around 100 BC, Marius reformed the army; eliminating the old militia in which all land-owning citizens were called each year, and putting in its place a standing army recruited from the impoverished proletariat. Soldiers were now long-term volunteers, supported by regular pay, and rewarded by allotment of lands when their 16-year tour was up. Such armies were much more expensive, and generals had to be capitalists in their own right to raise an army, and aggressive conquerors of new territory in order to pay for it. Marius’ nephew, Julius Caesar, would become the great master of this path to success — a liberal reformer who made an alliance between some of the richest capitalists and the urban poor.
In the meantime, full-scale war broke out over the question of the franchise. In 91 BC, another liberal reformer, Livius Drusus, ran on a program to give the Roman franchise to all Italians. He was murdered before the vote, giving rise to the Social War that went on from 91–88 BC. It was so called because the Latin word socii meant allies — the war of the long-suffering second-class non-citizens. This time the aliens had strong support, in the liberal faction of the Roman elite, and their new-style popular generals. The Social War dragged on for three years, fought in communities all over Italy. It ended in a compromise, since foreign provinces were taking the opportunity to revolt; peace terms offered Roman citizenship to all those who laid down their arms. Another bloody civil war went on down to 83 BC between the conservative general Sulla and the liberal Marius; the democrats were defeated but in the aftermath the franchise was conceded throughout Italy. Both sides had come to depend too much upon non-citizen communities for soldiers and support; and so many Romans from high ranking families were killed and expropriated in partisan purges that it brought considerable opportunities for upward mobility.
With Julius Caesar, the pattern was repeated on a larger scale, this time outside of Italy. Caesar recruited large numbers of Gauls, Spaniards and others into his legions; and during his conquests he bargained with friendly tribes by offering some form of citizenship. By the time of his assassination in 44 BC, Caesar was planning to erase the distinction between Italy and the foreign provinces. When peace was reestablished in the reign of Augustus Caesar in 27 BC, all this came to pass. Henceforward, Senators were appointed from all over the Empire, irrespective of origin. The highest offices were open to any citizen, without distinction of ethnicity or geography (of course there were other criteria, such as being rich, and above all a supporter of the ruling faction); emperors themselves came from all parts of Italy and the distant provinces.
Liberals are completely amnesiac about how they’ve been running education for a long, long time, Steve Sailer notes:
For instance, I went to a Catholic parochial school with nuns, and there was a little knuckle-rapping still going on in the mid-1960s. But by the time I got to St. Francis de Sales’ 7th grade in 1970, the younger teachers had staged a coup and organized a junior high school teaching collective that was more relevant. Most of my schooling in 1970-72, as far as I can remember, consisted of listening in class to album sides from Abbey Road, Deja Vu, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar for examples of symbols and metaphors, and sitting in a circle and rapping about how the deaths of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morison bummed us out.
And this was at a prim parochial school. I went to public Millikan Junior High for summer school those years and it looked like Dazed and Confused. Granted, St. Francis de Sales is just over Coldwater Canyon from the Sunset Strip, so we were probably a year or two out in the lead of the rest of the country, but your junior high school probably went through the same changes within a half decade.
Maybe the reason that scientists are having a hard time creating artificial intelligence, Scott Adams suggests, is because human intelligence is an illusion:
You can’t duplicate something that doesn’t exist in the first place. I’m not saying that as a joke. Most of what we regard as human intelligence is an illusion.
I will hedge my claim a little bit and say human intelligence is mostly an illusion because math skills are real, for example. But a computer can do math. Language skills are real too, but a computer can understand words and sentence structure. In fact, all of the parts of intelligence that are real have probably already been duplicated by computers.
So what parts of intelligence are computers failing to duplicate? Answer: The parts that only LOOK like intelligence to humans but are in fact just illusions.
For example, science knows that we make decisions before the rational parts of our brains activate. So if you make a computer that thinks first and then decides, you haven’t duplicated human intelligence. If you want your computer to think like people it has to start with an irrational set of biases, make decisions based on those irrational biases then rationalize it after the fact in ways that observers think are stupid. But no one would build such a useless computer, or even try.
I laughed about the recent reports of a computer that passed the Turing test by pretending to be a teenager that was such an airhead jerk that he never answered questions directly. That fooled at least some of the observers into thinking a real teen was behind the curtain instead of a computer. In other words, the researchers duplicated human “intelligence” by making the computer a non-responsive idiot. Nailed it!
Certainly the eras that gave us our scientific and intellectual heritage were very unequal, Eric Falkenstein notes, with not just an aristocracy but often slavery:
If some inequality is inevitable, how much is too much or too little? When the West was beginning its industrial revolution and creating an unprecedented growth in productivity and social welfare, giving us the railroad, electricity, indoor plumbing, the internal combustion engine, etc., Piketty notes wages were ‘objectively miserable’ in the 19th century as if they could have been higher but for elite cupidity, and the Belle Époque evokes the specter of exploitation. The fact that the average height was rising and infant and maternal mortality rates were falling at an unprecedented rate after stagnating for centuries if not a millenium, supposedly means little. So too the great increase in technology that economist Robert Gordon notes was not only unprecedented, but singular, never to be achieved again. In Piketty’s mind it’s an unbearably time, reminding me of the scene in Monte Python’s Life of Brian where John Cleese says, apart from the aqueduct, sanitation, peace, roads, etc., “what have the Romans done for us?”
Rome’s city population swelled from an influx of non-citizens — favor-seekers, merchants, professionals, entertainers — including many slaves and ex-slaves:
Somewhat surprisingly, being a slave in an important Roman family was a path to upward mobility, since slaves did most of the household and administrative work (being a slave in agriculture or mining was a different story) and many of them were eventually freed as an incentive for loyal service.
Since old Roman conservatives looked down on business, ex-slaves became part of the growing capitalist class. Most important of all was a class of capitalists who leased the state’s public land, since they had the capital to achieve economies of scale in working large plantations, mines, timber, and importing the food supply to feed the population of Rome. It was a minimalist state in most respects. Rome owned vast properties but had few public officials, and they were appointed to very short terms. Hence most public enterprises were leased out; capitalists undertook to collect taxes, advancing cash for state needs and squeezing what they could out of subject peoples.
The New Testament gives us a glimpse of these Roman citizens out in the provinces: Jesus offended local ethnic loyalties by converting tax collectors; and Paul himself was a Roman citizen. Since the most important state organization was the army, the biggest state-related business was supplying it with weapons, armor, food, ships, and harbors. Rome thus developed its “military-industrial complex”, similar to the US since late 20th century in outsourcing as much as possible to private contractors.
Eric Falkenstein returns with a look at Piketty’s terrifying dystopia:
Growth was 3.8% in Europe in the Les Trente Glorieuses (“The Glorious Thirty”) of 1945-75, when marginal taxes and taxes on inheritance were higher, and income became more equally distributed
To him, the implication is obvious. Raise taxes back to what they were in the good old days of Les Trente Glorieuses to reduce inequality. The point of the tax is not so much to increase revenues but rather to “expose wealth to democratic scrutiny” (p. 471) and thus ”regulate capitalism” (p.518). As with all really popular nonfiction, it hits the zeitgeist because many think democracy and equality are paramount unalloyed objectives, a so a big book scientifically proving these noble objectives are under a vicious assault is highly welcome; nothing rallies the troops like news of an attack. Plus, the new tactic is refreshingly more feasible, as making the rich poorer is a lot easier than making the poor richer.
However, the good times he cherishes are what econometricians would call an overidentified event: there are several different correlates that could statistically ‘explain’ the 1950s. When I was growing up it was common for progressives to caricature the 1950s as a period of bigotry, materialism, and conformism, now those same progressives consider this a golden age; What if the key to reducing inequality is bigotry? Maybe econometrics shows we need to decimate, in the original Roman sense, our young men every other generation to make them hard working and less whiny.
Most importantly for his case is the fact that because marginal taxes, and inheritance taxes, were so high, the rich had a much different incentive to hide income and wealth. He shows marginal income and inheritance tax rates that are the exact inverse of the capital/income ratio of figures, which is part of his argument that raising tax rates would be a good thing: it lowers inequality. Those countries that lowered the marginal tax rates the most saw the biggest increases in higher incomes (p. 509). Perhaps instead of thinking capital went down, it was just reported less to avoid confiscatory taxes? Alan Reynolds notes that many changes to the tax code in the 1980s that explain the rise in reported wealth and income irrespective of the actual change in wealth an income in that decade, and one can imagine all those loopholes and inducements two generations ago when the top tax rates were above 90% (it seems people can no better imagine their grandparents sheltering income than having sex, another generational conceit).
For example, he writes that Lilian Bettencourt, the richest woman in France and heiress to the L’Oreal fortune (mentioned often, she serves as the archetype of the rich), never reported more than a $5MM annual income on a $30B fortune, a 0.02% annual return. Given his assumed 5% return on capital, and that given Bettencourt’s true returns have been above this average, this implies that it is clearly possible for reported income to stray from actual income by a factor of 100 for a long time. Given this feasibility and the incentives given by changing marginal tax rates and various corporate laws, it seems highly possible the whole U-shaped pattern in capital/income and top-decile-income/total income is just people sheltering their income at various intensities given the tax rate over the past century.
1. I commend you and rejoice in the fact that you are persistent in your studies, and that, putting all else aside, you make it each day your endeavor to become a better man. I do not merely exhort you to keep at it; I actually beg you to do so. I warn you, however, not to act after the fashion of those who desire to be conspicuous rather than to improve, by doing things which will rouse comment as regards your dress or general way of living.
2. Repellent attire, unkempt hair, slovenly beard, open scorn of silver dishes, a couch on the bare earth, and any other perverted forms of self-display, are to be avoided. The mere name of philosophy, however quietly pursued, is an object of sufficient scorn; and what would happen if we should begin to separate ourselves from the customs of our fellow-men? Inwardly, we ought to be different in all respects, but our exterior should conform to society.
3. Do not wear too fine, nor yet too frowzy, a toga. One needs no silver plate, encrusted and embossed in solid gold; but we should not believe the lack of silver and gold to be proof of the simple life. Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard; otherwise, we shall frighten away and repel the very persons whom we are trying to improve. We also bring it about that they are unwilling to imitate us in anything, because they are afraid lest they might be compelled to imitate us in everything.
4. The first thing which philosophy undertakes to give is fellow-feeling with all men; in other words, sympathy and sociability. We part company with our promise if we are unlike other men. We must see to it that the means by which we wish to draw admiration be not absurd and odious. Our motto, as you know, is “Live according to Nature”; but it is quite contrary to nature to torture the body, to hate unlaboured elegance, to be dirty on purpose, to eat food that is not only plain, but disgusting and forbidding. 5. Just as it is a sign of luxury to seek out dainties, so it is madness to avoid that which is customary and can be purchased at no great price. Philosophy calls for plain living, but not for penance; and we may perfectly well be plain and neat at the same time. This is the mean of which I approve; our life should observe a happy medium between the ways of a sage and the ways of the world at large; all men should admire it, but they should understand it also.
(Hat tip to Sebastian Marshall.)