Poor spending habits explain the persistence of the wealth gap

July 22nd, 2018

There is arguably no racial disparity more striking than the wealth gap, Coleman Hughes argues:

While the median white household earns just 65 percent more income than its black counterpart, its net worth is fully ten times as high. And, unlike income, which individuals earn in their own lifetimes, wealth accrues over generations, and whites are more than three times as likely as blacks to inherit money from their families. In the public debate on racial inequality, the wealth gap is among the sharpest arrows in the progressive quiver.

[...]

Although it is true that the median income of white men more than tripled between 1939 and 1960 (rising from 1,112 dollars to 5,137 dollars), the median income of black men more than quintupled (rising from 460 dollars to 3,075 dollars).9 Black women, too, saw their incomes grow at a faster rate than white women over the same timespan.10 Baradaran makes the same mistake in her description of life for blacks in the 1940s and 50s: “poverty led to institutional breakdown, which led to more poverty.”11 But between 1940 and 1960 the black poverty rate fell from 87 percent to 47 percent, before any significant civil rights gains were made.12

[...]

If wealth differences were largely explained by America’s history of favoring certain groups over others, then it would be hard to explain why Asian-Americans, who were never favored, are on track to become wealthier than whites.

Nor can historical racism explain wealth disparities between groups of the same race. A 2015 survey of wealth in Boston found that the median black household had only 8 dollars of wealth. Newsweek reported this fact under the heading “Racism in Boston.” But the 8 dollar figure only pertained to black Bostonians of American ancestry; black Bostonians of Caribbean ancestry had 12,000 dollars of wealth, despite having identical rates of college graduation, only slightly higher incomes, and being equally black in the same city.

Similar disparities emerge when people are grouped by religion. A 2003 study found that Jewish households had a 7-to-1 wealth advantage over Conservative Protestant households, despite the fact that Protestants have been favored over Jews for most of American history. Because facts like these discredit the assumption that government favoritism drives wealth accrual, they don’t make it into the progressive narrative. When all the facts are included, the story changes: wealth is not handed from the top down. It is produced by a bottom-up process involving millions of individuals bringing their skills, habits, and knowledge — attributes which vary from group to group — to bear on valuable tasks.

[...]

No element of culture harms black wealth accrual more directly than spending patterns. Nielsen, one of the world’s leading market research firms, keeps extensive data on American consumer behavior, broken down demographically. A 2017 Nielsen report found that, compared to white women, black women were 14 percent more likely to own a luxury vehicle, 16 percent more likely to purchase costume jewelry, and 9 percent more likely to purchase fine jewelry. A similar Nielsen report from 2013 found that, while only 62 percent of all Americans owned a smartphone, 71 percent of blacks owned one. Moreover, all of these spending differences were unconditional on wealth and income.

To what extent do poor spending habits explain the persistence of the wealth gap? Economists at the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania asked this question after analyzing 16 years of nationally representative data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey. Consistent with the Nielsen data, they found that blacks with comparable incomes to whites spent 17 percent less on education, and 32 percent more (an extra $2300 per year in 2005 dollars) on ‘visible goods’ — defined as cars, jewelry, and clothes. What’s more, “after controlling for visible spending,” they concluded that the “wealth gap between Blacks and Whites, conditional on permanent income, declines by 50 percent.” To be clear, that 50 percent figure doesn’t pertain to the total wealth gap, but to the proportion of the gap that remains after income is taken into account — which was 40 percent. The upshot: the fact that blacks spent more on cars, jewelry, and clothes explained fully 20 percent of the total racial wealth gap.

To make matters worse, spending patterns are just one part of a larger set of financial skills on which blacks lag behind. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis followed over 40,000 families from 1989 to 2013, tracking their wealth accumulation and financial decisions. They developed a financial health scale, ranging from 0 to 5, that measured the degree to which families made “routine financial health choices that contribute to wealth accumulation” — e.g., saving any amount of money, paying credit card bills on time, having a low debt-to-income ratio, etc. At 3.12, Asian families scored the highest, followed by whites at 3.11, Hispanics at 2.71, and blacks at 2.63.

Next, they asked if education accounted for the differences in financial habits by limiting the comparison to middle-aged families with advanced degrees. Surprisingly, they found that the racial gap in financial health-scores didn’t shrink; it widened. Highly-educated Asian families scored 3.49, comparable whites scored 3.38, comparable Hispanics scored 2.94, and comparable blacks remained far behind at 2.66. Thus, the study authors concluded, neither “periodic shortages of time or money” nor “lower educational attainment” were the driving forces behind the differences in financial decision-making.

When a flash-bang grenade isn’t enough

July 21st, 2018

Flash-bang grenades are great, but what if you want to deliver 14 flash-bang grenades from 1,000 meters away?

“Currently the armed forces are unable to deliver non-lethal effects at extended ranges,” Michael Markowitch, an engineer involved in designing the munition, said in an Army press release in 2016. “Our goal was to develop a mortar that would be capable of delivering a non-lethal payload at ranges typical of mortar systems.”

“We took our inspiration for our design from the family of illumination mortars. They use parachutes attached to an illumination candle to slow its descent and illuminate an area. The team determined that similar designs could be used to control the descent of the metal parts,” Markowitch added.

This first field-test occurred during this year’s Rim of the Pacific exercise, which occurs every two years and involves more than 20 nations and dozens of warships.

The modified round is compatible with existing 81 mm mortar tubes and flies through the air like a standard mortar. The round’s effective range is between 450 and 1,500 meters.

When the round is roughly 250 meters above the target, a time-delay fuse detonates. The mortar’s nose and tail sections separate and the 14 nonlethal cardboard-encased submunitions are released.

Parachutes also release from the mortar’s nose and tail, and the mortar floats to the ground while the flash-bang grenades fall, stabilized by drag ribbons.

The nonlethal cartridges are designed to detonate simultaneously, covering an area of roughly 30 meters. Each cartridge, like the M84 stun grenade, emits a roughly 180-decibel bang and a flash of more than one million candela within five feet of the initiation spot.

Flash-Bang Mortar Dispersion

Developers of the system have also shown interest in adding infrared or ultraviolet ink to the mortar in order to paint anyone near the detonation. This could help soldiers identify people in a crowd who may disperse from the impact site, according to the Defense Department release.

In the end, it all depended on petroleum

July 20th, 2018

The failure of Barbarossa is really quite straightforward, Philip Andrews argues:

In the end, it all depended on petroleum.

Moscow was not important to Stalin. He was quite prepared, and had indeed planned, to retreat with as much industry as possible behind the Urals, and continue the fight from there — so long as he was able to receive petroleum supplies from the Caucasus across the Caspian.

The Germans knew about Moscow’s unimportance to the Soviets (Leningrad was far more symbolic, having been the birthplace of the Revolution). The German military attaché in Moscow had told the German high command as much, but they ignored him. The German high command had a fixation with major cities, and was determined to waste time and resources besieging cities that had no intrinsic military value to Stalin.

The Germans never had enough resources for the kind of war they went to fight in the Soviet Union. Firstly, most of their army was horse-drawn, and most of the transport that was mechanised was requisitioned from the occupied countries. Germany, at the start of the war, had the lowest level of transport mechanisation of any Western power. They relied far more on horses than France, Britain or the US. They did not have resources to mechanise their army sufficiently to launch a strategic war against Russia.

Secondly, in order to cripple Soviet industry and the transport infrastructure, they would have had to have developed a strategic bomber force on the lines of the British and Americans. After the death of General Wever, just before the war, they abandoned the idea of the strategic bomber altogether in favour of the Ju 88, which was never intended for strategic bombing. Thus, they never had the ability to bomb behind the Urals or to reach the Caucasus.

Thirdly, they would have needed a much stronger armoured mechanised force than the mere 20 or so panzer divisions with which they invaded Russia. Also, they should have designed their armour with wide tracks for Russia’s road-less conditions, and with sufficient armament to have taken on the T-34 and the KV-1. As it was, their intelligence on the Soviet Union and its resources, especially manpower potential, was abysmal to non-existent.

One possible winning strategy for them would have been to have invaded only the Ukraine, with a blocking force at the Pripet marshes. They could have granted independence to the Ukrainians, set up an anti- Communist puppet government, and used the Ukrainians to help fight the Soviet army. Meanwhile, German armoured and mechanised forces could have had to make a dash for the Caucasus and the oilfields.

The strategic bombers the Germans never had, could have been used to destroy the oil transfer points on the Caspian to prevent Stalin from receiving oil supplies — without, however, destroying the fields themselves. Once the panzer forces had arrived in the Caucasus, say about six months after the invasion, they may have been able to capture the fields intact, or at least to deny them to the Soviets.

At that time, the Caucasus oilfields were the only source of oil the Soviets had. If this ‘Ukrainian’ strategy had been planned for from the outset — with an appropriate build-up of bomber and panzer forces — the Germans may have been able to force Stalin to the negotiating table by denying him his oil supplies. They should have done this rather than waste good pilots and aircraft in futile battles over Britain.

This at least is my take on Barbarossa. I believe that Hitler had a very strong intuition about the importance of going for the Caucasus straightaway, but his tunnel-visioned and hidebound generals believed in conventional warfare and conventional targets like cities. It was they, rather than he, who believed that the Russians would collapse under the weight of the blitzkrieg and that the war would be over in a few months.

Israel significantly relaxes gun license regulations

July 19th, 2018

Israel will significantly relax its regulations governing gun licenses, a move that would instantly allow hundreds of thousands of Israelis to acquire a firearm:

According to Haaretz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan will allow any Israeli who underwent level 07 rifle training in the IDF to apply for a gun license. All infantry soldiers are certified as 07, in addition to all combat squad commanders and the majority of IDF officers. The vast majority of IDF soldiers aren’t combat soldiers and are certified as level 02.

While the police do not oppose the move, it requested that the mandatory training course be expanded to four and a half hours from the current two. The updated guidelines are a direct result of efforts by the Knesset’s Gun Lobby head Likud MK Amir Ohana, who has long pressed for Israel to relax its tightly regulated firearms industry in order to allow citizens to protect themselves from terrorism.

“A civilian carrying a weapon is more of a solution than a threat, and doubles as assistance for the security forces,” Ohana told Haaretz, pointing out that “in 11 attacks in just the Jerusalem area, they neutralized the threat.”

“Sending the citizens of Israel to protect themselves with pizza trays, selfie sticks, guitars and umbrellas is a crime of the state against its citizens. A law abiding citizen, who has the basic skill required, is entitled to be able to defend himself and his surroundings.”

Why not carry ammunition cans?

July 18th, 2018

The US Army is moving away from the current Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) to the new and improved Army Combat Readiness Test (ACRT):

This new six-event test will keep the two-mile run from the current Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), but scraps the push-ups and sit-ups in favor of leg tucks, a medicine ball power throw, three-rep max dead lift, “T” push-ups, and a shuttle sprint-drag-carry.

[...]

The ACRT, for example, is comparatively much more time intensive than the APFT. Each set of equipment allows approximately five soldiers to complete the full six-event ACRT in seventy-five minutes. In an infantry battalion with ten sets of equipment and eight hundred soldiers, completing the ACRT will take sixteen days — three work weeks — if limited to normal morning PT hours. Since the current APFT throughput is only limited by the number of available graders, an entire battalion can easily complete the APFT in a single PT session. While there are ways a battalion could adjust to make executing the ACRT more efficient, the financial cost is more significant.

Beyond consuming more time, the ACRT transition is going to be expensive. A battalion’s set of equipment, or ten ACRT sets, is estimated at $12,000. With hundreds of battalions across the Army — combined with geographically dispersed units like the more than 1,100 ROTC campus locations, 1,600 recruiting stations, or US Army personnel stationed in embassies worldwide that need their own sets — startup costs for the ACRT could easily reach into the tens of millions of dollars, if not higher. That’s a big budget pill to swallow after almost four decades of a nearly cost-free physical fitness assessment. That also doesn’t address associated costs of equipment replacement over time, or potentially reconfiguring on-base fitness facilities to allow soldiers to train for these news tasks.

While the ACRT has been sold as a means to reduce soldier injuries, the new test introduces physical tasks that require proper training and monitoring, such as the dead lift and medicine ball power throw. According to the Army Public Health Center, musculoskeletal injuries account for 70 percent of all medically non-deployable personnel, and weight-bearing and exercise-related activities account for roughly 50 percent of all non-combat injuries. Many of those injuries result from overtraining and improper exercise.

[...]

Several ACRT tasks tie directly to physical requirements in combat — this is arguably its biggest advantage over the APFT. The shuttle sprint-drag-carry in particular includes a weighted sled pull that resembles evacuating a casualty, and the kettle bell carry simulates moving with ammunition cans. To save money and even better replicate combat conditions, the Army could replace ACRT-specific equipment with items readily available in the force.

Rather than purchasing kettle bells to simulate carrying ammunition, why not carry ammunition cans? Rather than selling all of the huge number of ammunition cans the Army goes through to the public (a very common practice), it would be easy to fill them with a set amount of weight and use them for the test. Also, rather than investing in a new type of sled to pull around a couple 45-pound plates, why not use the standard-issue SKEDCO litter system? Standardizing the weight is simple, and using the SKEDCO would reinforce an actual tactical task.

The physical strength of nations varies considerably

July 17th, 2018

I was watching the latest CrossFit documentary on Netflix, The Redeemed and the Dominant, and this reminded me of Anatoly Karlin’s piece on the (physical) strength of nations, which looks at the stereotype that Northerners are stronger than Southerners:

The average Germanic seems to be around 15 years “younger” than the average Italian or Spaniard in terms of hand grip strength. These are remarkably big differences, around 1 S.D.’s worth. Average German, Swede, or Pole might have a 15 SQ (strength quotient) advantage over the average South European.

For context, there is a ~2.5 S.D. difference in male and female grip strength.

Women have around 60% of the hand grip strength of men. Huge difference… but remarkably, seems to be about equal to the difference between developed Anglo-German/Slavic Europe and the Indian subcontinent!

Why do so many of these studies focus on grip strength? Because it is easy to measure, changes the least as people age (hand grip is the last to go), and is exercised more or less universally.

My best guess is that in terms of S.D.’s it goes something like this in terms of hand grip strength (Flynn! denotes members of those ethnicities that dwell in First World environments).

  • +1 Icelanders
  • +0.5 Steppe!East Asians (i.e.Mongols)
  • 0 Balto-Slavic-Germanics, Flynn!WestAfricans
  • -.5 East Asians
  • -1 Mediterraneans, Flynn!Indians, WestAfricans
  • -2 Indians

Icelanders, with a mere 300,000 people, dominate the world strongman competitions. They have won 9 Gold medals, more than any other country other than the US, which has won 11 (and has ONE THOUSAND times its population).

Icelandic women have also won four years of the past decade’s worth the Crossfit Games.

Selling Ghost Gunners has been a lucrative business

July 16th, 2018

Crypto-provocateur Cody Wilson recently won his legal battle — the Department of Justice quietly offered him a settlement to end a lawsuit he and a group of co-plaintiffs had pursued since 2015 — and now posting gun designs online is recognized as free speech:

The Department of Justice’s surprising settlement, confirmed in court documents earlier this month, essentially surrenders to that argument. It promises to change the export control rules surrounding any firearm below .50 caliber — with a few exceptions like fully automatic weapons and rare gun designs that use caseless ammunition — and move their regulation to the Commerce Department, which won’t try to police technical data about the guns posted on the public internet.

[...]

Now Wilson is making up for lost time. Later this month, he and the nonprofit he founded, Defense Distributed, are relaunching their website Defcad.com as a repository of firearm blueprints they’ve been privately creating and collecting, from the original one-shot 3-D-printable pistol he fired in 2013 to AR-15 frames and more exotic DIY semi-automatic weapons. The relaunched site will be open to user contributions, too; Wilson hopes it will soon serve as a searchable, user-generated database of practically any firearm imaginable.

[...]

In the meantime, selling Ghost Gunners has been a lucrative business. Defense Distributed has sold roughly 6,000 of the desktop devices to DIY gun enthusiasts across the country, mostly for $1,675 each, netting millions in profit.

[...]

With the rule change their win entails, Defense Distributed has removed a legal threat to not only its project but an entire online community of DIY gunmakers. Sites like GrabCAD and FossCad already host hundreds of gun designs, from Defense Distributed’s Liberator pistol to printable revolvers and even semiautomatic weapons. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in doing things yourself, and it’s also a way of expressing support for the Second Amendment,” explains one prolific Fosscad contributor, a West Virginian serial inventor of 3-D-printable semiautomatics who goes by the pseudonym Derwood. “I’m a conservative. I support all the amendments.”

[...]

Inside is a far quieter scene: A large, high-ceilinged, dimly fluorescent-lit warehouse space filled with half a dozen rows of gray metal shelves, mostly covered in a seemingly random collection of books, from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Hunger Games. He proudly points out that it includes the entire catalog of Penguin Classics and the entire Criterion Collection, close to 900 Blu-rays. This, he tells me, will be the library.

And why is Defense Distributed building a library? Wilson, who cites Baudrillard, Foucault, or Nietzsche at least once in practically any conversation, certainly doesn’t mind the patina of erudition it lends to what is essentially a modern-day gun-running operation. But as usual, he has an ulterior motive: If he can get this room certified as an actual, official public library, he’ll unlock another giant collection of existing firearm data. The US military maintains records of thousands of the specs for thousands of firearms in technical manuals, stored on reels and reels of microfiche cassettes. But only federally approved libraries can access them. By building a library, complete with an actual microfiche viewer in one corner, Wilson is angling to access the US military’s entire public archive of gun data, which he eventually hopes to digitize and include on Defcad.com, too.

Athletes were quite ready to take the bargain

July 15th, 2018

There’s a well-known survey in sports, known as the Goldman Dilemma:

For it, a researcher, Bob Goldman, began asking elite athletes in the 1980s whether they would take a drug that guaranteed them a gold medal but would also kill them within five years. More than half of the athletes said yes. When he repeated the survey biannually for the next decade, the results were always the same. About half of the athletes were quite ready to take the bargain.

Only recently did researchers get around to asking nonathletes the same question. In results published online in February, 2009 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, exactly 2 of the 250 people surveyed in Sydney, Australia, said that they would take a drug that would ensure both success and an early death. “We were surprised,” James Connor, Ph.D., a lecturer at the University of New South Wales and one of the study’s authors, said in an e-mail message. “I expected 10-20 percent yes.” His conclusion, unassailable if inexplicable, is that “elite athletes are different from the general population, especially on desire to win.”

(Hat tip to @TweetWivMe.)

Liquid fluorine is spectacular

July 14th, 2018

There was a time when rocket designers felt comfortable proposing propellants that would be considered insane today:

One of these was fluorine, an oxidizer so powerful that it will oxidize oxygen. Liquified it is denser than LOX and provides a higher specific impulse than LOX when burned with the same fuels. On paper, liquid fluorine is spectacular. In reality, fluorine is toxic and just about all of the combustion compounds are toxic (burn it with hydrogen and you get hydrofluoric acid, which will eat your bones). Fluorine has the added bonus that it will merrily combust with a whole lot of structural materials, so you have to be careful in your design and preparation for tanks, pumps, lines, etc.

Consequently, it was important to know your stuff. To that end, Douglas Missile & Space Systems Division produced a Fluorine Systems Handbook.

Spending the currency whose value was built out of the sweat and blood and human labor

July 13th, 2018

I haven’t kept up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I found Aaron Bady’s analysis surprisingly deep:

The MCU cycle began when Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were created in 2008, in the last year of Bush’s presidency. They are set against the backdrop of wars—in Iraq, in Afghanistan—that never seemed to end, and as such, are fables about the military industrial complex, artifacts from an era when people were still talking about “blowback,” when we still remembered (or cared) that the CIA had helped to create the conditions for Al Qaeda, and when “end the war” was a thing people promised, said, and demanded. To watch them now is to remember a time when we could still remember a time before we were at war, forever, with terror.

And so, those very first movies gave us Iron Man’s discovery that he is his own worst enemy, that Bruce Banner’s experiments have created a monster: himself. They are stories that take the salience of these stories for granted. Like Christopher Nolan Batman movies, which came to us around the same time, they are stories that ask a single, basic question: what if we are the enemy we’ve been searching for?

Since the answer, unavoidably, is yes, the next phase gave us The Avengers: with Thor and Captain America in 2011—leading up to The Avengers in 2012—the movies started to tell a larger story, about building a team of super-heroes out of this disparate set of “special” individuals; as fucked up as they all were, separately, maybe, together, they could be something… more? These are still stories in which the enemy we are searching for might turn out to be us, of course; they are still movies where anxiety about the self gets exorcized by violent combat with a double, just as Iron Man fought an even more iron man and The Incredible Hulk fought a bigger, more incredible hulk. And they are right to be anxious! What is Nazi-fighter Captain America, after all, but a genetically-modified Aryan super soldier? What is Thor’s quest to be “worthy” if not a conquering despot’s desire to justify the unjustifiable, to insist that he rules for some reason other than force? On some level, these movies always know that their protagonists are hypocrites, that the things they are fighting are basically themselves. S.H.I.E.L.D. vs. H.Y.D.R.A… what really is the difference?

But they are also stories in which “we” comes to take an interesting centrality, where the individual might be saved by the group, by friends, by family, by work. What if—in the course of human events—we the people could come together and form a union of super-special people? What if together we can become more than the sum of our individuality?

Alas! It only lasts as long as the alien invasion, and by the time we eat the shawarma, there’s not much to talk about. In Iron Man 3 (2013), we learn that terrorism really is just the MIC tail wagging the democratic dog; in Thor: The Dark World (2013), we learn that the Asgardians really are just conquering bastards; in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) we learn that S.H.I.E.L.D. and H.Y.D.R.A. actually are the same thing; in Age of Ultron (2015), we learn that keeping the peace with drone armies is a truly terrible idea, and it’s the only thing that Tony can think of; it’s the only thing ANYONE can think of. By the time of Civil War (2016), we’ve learned that “Us” is an unstable combination, that blowback is still real, and that no one really transcends their deep flaws. Even the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies tell a version of this story: if the first (2014) is about finding a new family, the second (2017) will be about remembering just how toxic family can be, and how long-lasting its wounds are.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, as the Avengers broke up and as the movies started to proliferate beyond narrative control—Ant-Man? Doctor Strange? Black Panther?—the people making them started to think about the next story they would tell. And so, it turned out that in the margins of these stories of American Empire—always the subtext for the original Avengers—they had begun planting the seeds for a different story, particularly in the post-credit sequences; there were hints and rumors and whispers of the larger story that was already taking place just off-screen, that had been from the beginning, a complex and nuanced and revelatory story—the very Grandest of Grand Narratives—about how a dude named Thanos was trying to acquire the six Infinity Stones so he could blow up the universe. This would be their big idea, their magnum opus, their greatest and most consequential story.

[...]

To pick a few random examples: Thor: Ragnarok was about emigrants fleeing a lost home, about how you carry home with you wherever you go. Spider-Man: Homecoming was about choosing not to be an Avenger, but simply to be a modest, humble, neighborhood hero (and also to be a kid). Black Panther was about blackness undefined by, conquered by, enslaved by, or beholden to whiteness. Guardians of the Galaxy is about finding a family among other people whose families hurt them.

Infinity War—as Gerry Canavan observed to me—destroys each of these stories completely. It does not develop them, build on them, or bring them to a climax; it simply eats them up. Thor: Ragnarok ended with the remnants of Asgard sailing bravely into the future in a kind of space ark; Infinity War begins with that space Ark having been blasted to hell (and though Thor later says something about how “half” his people were killed, come on). Peter Parker ended his movie by declining to join the Avengers; in this movie, he joins the Avengers almost immediately. Black Panther is about a place where everyone is black, the white guys are not that important, and Wakanda’s survival is the most important thing; Infinity War has T’Challa deciding to sacrifice Wakanda in battle without any trace of the prickly and regal insularity that has been the entirety of his character up to that point. Guardians of the Galaxy was about finding a family and staying together; in Infinity War, Thor arrives and they break up the group immediately.

My point is that there’s a conflict between the accumulative narrative impulse to see these movies as one continuous story and the sprawling impulse that lets them maintain different styles and themes and even narrative logics. If the MCU has been good because they let different voices tell different types of stories—and to the extent that it is good, it is because of that—Infinity War is bad because it smashes them all into indistinguishable paste. The Collector said that a powerful person “can use the stones to mow down entire civilizations like wheat in a field”; this is a good description of how Infinity War relates to its constituent stories: it harvests them.

Let me put it this way: There’s an extractive, exploitative relationship between the Avengers “team up” movies and the standalone single-hero stories, the same relationship we see between the Infinity Stone MacGuffins and the stories that the various Marvel movies have built around them. The Infinity Stones are the real story, the big picture, the driving force behind their master-narratives in the same way that capital always thinks it’s the “job creator.” But this is exactly backwards, in exactly the way extractive relations of exploitation tend to condition their beneficiaries to misunderstand what is happening: The Infinity Stones and the “team up” movies are spending the currency whose value was built out of the sweat and blood and human labor of the standalone movies. Infinity War is the moment when profits are extracted from the richness and depth of their stories, skimmed off and collected and sold: “Look, we killed Spider-Man, Black Panther, Bucky, Gamora, Loki!” they say; “Look how it makes you feel!”

Display invites attention

July 12th, 2018

Heather E. Heying discusses toxic femininity:

Sex and gender roles have been formed over hundreds of thousands of years in human evolution, indeed, over hundreds of millions of years in our animal lineage. Aspects of those roles are in rapid flux, but ancient truths still exist. Historical appetites and desires persist. Straight men will look at beautiful women, especially if those women are a) young and hot and b) actively displaying. Display invites attention.

Hotness-amplifying femininity puts on a full display, advertising fertility and urgent sexuality. It invites male attention by, for instance, revealing flesh, or by painting on signals of sexual receptivity. This, I would argue, is inviting trouble. No, I did not just say that she was asking for it. I did, however, just say that she was displaying herself, and of course she was going to get looked at.

The amplification of hotness is not, in and of itself, toxic, although personally, I don’t respect it, and never have. Hotness fades, wisdom grows — wise young women will invest accordingly. Femininity becomes toxic when it cries foul, chastising men for responding to a provocative display.

Where we set our boundaries is a question about which reasonable people might disagree, but two bright-lines are widely agreed upon: Every woman has the right not to be touched if she does not wish to be; and coercive quid pro quo, in which sexual favors are demanded for the possibility of career advancement, is unacceptable. But when women doll themselves up in clothes that highlight sexually-selected anatomy, and put on make-up that hints at impending orgasm, it is toxic — yes, toxic — to demand that men do not look, do not approach, do not query.

Young women have vast sexual power. Everyone who is being honest with themselves knows this: Women in their sexual prime who are anywhere near the beauty-norms for their culture have a kind of power that nobody else has. They are also all but certain to lack the wisdom to manage it. Toxic femininity is an abuse of that power, in which hotness is maximized, and victim status is then claimed when straight men don’t treat them as peers.

Creating hunger in men by actively inviting the male gaze, then demanding that men have no such hunger — that is toxic femininity. Subjugating men, emasculating them when they display strength — physical, intellectual, or other — that is toxic femininity. Insisting that men, simply by virtue of being men, are toxic, and then acting surprised as relationships between men and women become more strained — that is toxic femininity. It is a game, the benefits of which go to a few while the costs are shared by all of us.

The best design uses gears from the middle of the list

July 11th, 2018

I was recently reminded of Feynman’s anecdote about an early wartime engineering job he had, and I finally got around to pulling my copy of Surely You’re Joking off the shelf to transcribe it:

Near the end of the summer I was given my first real design job: a machine that would make a continuous curve out of a set of points — one point coming in every fifteen seconds — from a new invention developed in England for tracking airplanes, called “radar.” It was the first time I had ever done any mechanical designing, so I was a little bit frightened.

I went over to one of the other guys and said, “You’re a mechanical engineer; I don’t know how to do any mechanical engineering, and I just got this job…”

“There’s nothin’ to it,” he said. “Look, I’ll show you. There’s two rules you need to know to design these machines. First, the friction in every bearing is so-and-so much, and in every gear junction, so-and-so much. From that, you can figure out how much force you need to drive the thing. Second, when you have a gear ratio, say 2 to 1, and you are wondering whether you should make it 10 to 5 or 24 to 12 or 48 to 24, here’s how to decide: You look at the Boston Gear Catalogue, and select those gears that are in the middle of the list. The ones at the high end have so many teeth they’re hard to make. If they could make gears with even finer teeth, they’d have made the list go even higher. The gears at the low end of the list have so few teeth they break easy. So the best design uses gears from the middle of the list.”

I had a lot of fun designing that machine. By simply selecting the gears from the middle of the list and adding up the little torques with the two numbers he gave me, I could be a mechanical engineer!

Forty-five things learned in the gulag

July 10th, 2018

For fifteen years the writer Varlam Shalamov was imprisoned in the Gulag for participating in “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist activities”:

He endured six of those years enslaved in the gold mines of Kolyma, one of the coldest and most hostile places on earth. While he was awaiting sentencing, one of his short stories was published in a journal called Literary Contemporary. He was released in 1951, and from 1954 to 1973 he worked on Kolyma Stories, a masterpiece of Soviet dissident writing that has been newly translated into English and published by New York Review Books Classics this week. Shalamov claimed not to have learned anything in Kolyma, except how to wheel a loaded barrow. But one of his fragmentary writings, dated 1961, tells us more.

Here’s what he learned:

1. The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

2. The main means for depraving the soul is the cold. Presumably in Central Asian camps people held out longer, for it was warmer there.

3. I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).

4. I realized that the feeling a man preserves longest is anger. There is only enough flesh on a hungry man for anger: everything else leaves him indifferent.

5. I realized that Stalin’s “victories” were due to his killing the innocent — an organization a tenth the size would have swept Stalin away in two days.

6. I realized that humans were human because they were physically stronger and clung to life more than any other animal: no horse can survive work in the Far North.

7. I saw that the only group of people able to preserve a minimum of humanity in conditions of starvation and abuse were the religious believers, the sectarians (almost all of them), and most priests.

8. Party workers and the military are the first to fall apart and do so most easily.

9. I saw what a weighty argument for the intellectual is the most ordinary slap in the face.

10. Ordinary people distinguish their bosses by how hard their bosses hit them, how enthusiastically their bosses beat them.

11. Beatings are almost totally effective as an argument (method number three).

12. I discovered from experts the truth about how mysterious show trials are set up.

13. I understood why prisoners hear political news (arrests, et cetera) before the outside world does.

14. I found out that the prison (and camp) “grapevine” is never just a “grapevine.”

15. I realized that one can live on anger.

16. I realized that one can live on indifference.

17. I understood why people do not live on hope — there isn’t any hope. Nor can they survive by means of free will — what free will is there? They live by instinct, a feeling of self-preservation, on the same basis as a tree, a stone, an animal.

18. I am proud to have decided right at the beginning, in 1937, that I would never be a foreman if my freedom could lead to another man’s death, if my freedom had to serve the bosses by oppressing other people, prisoners like myself.

19. Both my physical and my spiritual strength turned out to be stronger than I thought in this great test, and I am proud that I never sold anyone, never sent anyone to their death or to another sentence, and never denounced anyone.

20. I am proud that I never wrote an official request until 1955.

21. I saw the so-called Beria amnesty where it took place, and it was a sight worth seeing.

22. I saw that women are more decent and self-sacrificing than men: in Kolyma there were no cases of a husband following his wife. But wives would come, many of them (Faina Rabinovich, Krivoshei’s wife).

23. I saw amazing northern families (free-contract workers and former prisoners) with letters “to legitimate husbands and wives,” et cetera.

24. I saw “the first Rockefellers,” the underworld millionaires. I heard their confessions.

25. I saw men doing penal servitude, as well as numerous people of “contingents” D, B, et cetera, “Berlag.”

26. I realized that you can achieve a great deal — time in the hospital, a transfer — but only by risking your life, taking beatings, enduring solitary confinement in ice.

27. I saw solitary confinement in ice, hacked out of a rock, and spent a night in it myself.

28. The passion for power, to be able to kill at will, is great — from top bosses to the rank-and-file guards (Seroshapka and similar men).

29. Russians’ uncontrollable urge to denounce and complain.

30. I discovered that the world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards. Ninety-five percent of cowards are capable of the vilest things, lethal things, at the mildest threat.

31. I am convinced that the camps — all of them — are a negative school; you can’t even spend an hour in one without being depraved. The camps never gave, and never could give, anyone anything positive. The camps act by depraving everyone, prisoners and free-contract workers alike.

32. Every province had its own camps, at every construction site. Millions, tens of millions of prisoners.

33. Repressions affected not just the top layer but every layer of society — in any village, at any factory, in any family there were either relatives or friends who were repressed.

34. I consider the best period of my life the months I spent in a cell in Butyrki prison, where I managed to strengthen the spirit of the weak, and where everyone spoke freely.

35. I learned to “plan” my life one day ahead, no more.

36. I realized that the thieves were not human.

37. I realized that there were no criminals in the camps, that the people next to you (and who would be next to you tomorrow) were within the boundaries of the law and had not trespassed them.

38. I realized what a terrible thing is the self-esteem of a boy or a youth: it’s better to steal than to ask. That self-esteem and boastfulness are what make boys sink to the bottom.

39. In my life women have not played a major part: the camp is the reason.

40. Knowing people is useless, for I am unable to change my attitude toward any scoundrel.

41. The people whom everyone — guards, fellow prisoners — hates are the last in the ranks, those who lag behind, those who are sick, weak, those who can’t run when the temperature is below zero.

42. I understood what power is and what a man with a rifle is.

43. I understood that the scales had been displaced and that this displacement was what was most typical of the camps.

44. I understood that moving from the condition of a prisoner to the condition of a free man is very difficult, almost impossible without a long period of amortization.

45. I understood that a writer has to be a foreigner in the questions he is dealing with, and if he knows his material well, he will write in such a way that nobody will understand him.

Mercantilism was never about economics

July 9th, 2018

Mercantilism was never about economics, Ben Landau-Taylor explains:

I believe mercantilist policies were the central government’s solution to the problem of taxation. While modern governments can impose taxes almost arbitrarily, early modern governments could not. Royalty made money from the farmland they owned, but as the economic center of gravity moved from the farms to the towns, this became less important, and they needed more money. The royalty lacked the local knowledge and “boots on the ground” to collect taxes outside of their demesne, and so had to act through the local power holders. In the manors, this meant acting through the nobility. (That’s a complicated topic beyond the scope of this piece, so I’ll just gesture at the British Parliament and the civil wars that accompanied its origins as an example of the power struggles this provoked.) In the towns, this meant acting through the guilds.

It wasn’t practical to simply extort money from the guilds, so they ended up in a more symbiotic relationship with the state. Essentially, the deal was that that the state would use force to shut down the guild’s competition, and in return the guild would pay taxes and help administrate their collection. In other words, the state would sell a monopoly to the guild. The guild would then submit to the collection of tariffs, or to paying duties on their merchandise, or some other tax on their transactions. (Notably, I know of no cases in this period where income or wealth were taxed directly. States couldn’t get away with that until later.) Jean-Baptiste Colbert pursued this policy more brazenly and systematically than anyone else I’ve looked at.

Through this lens, the mercantilist policies make more sense. The focus on money was because the purpose was to collect money, and so the central government wanted to bring more money into the country and track it as precisely as possible. The hodgepodge of regulations follows no systematic rule of economics, but does follow the pattern of a symbiotic trade between the state and the guilds. For example, a punitive tariff on imported wine will raise some money for the state, and more importantly, it is a favor to the domestic winemaker’s guild (which pays taxes, unlike foreign winemakers). Granting a monopoly to a favored shipping company makes no sense as an economic policy, but does make sense as a taxation policy.

Of course, whenever the state is pursuing a course of action, there will arise a demand for intellectual arguments that the state policies serve the common good, and thinkers will arise to fill this demand. Such thinkers made arguments for mercantilist policies, and some then generalized these arguments and made further recommendations. However, I have seen no evidence that these thinkers were influential or their recommendations adopted, and suspect that they had negligible effects.

Nevertheless, these intellectuals made a convenient foil for Adam Smith and his peers. By casting them as his foes, Smith was able to demolish them and demonstrate his superiority, thereby associating his own program with progress and rationalism, and leaving his opponents no intellectual ground to retreat to. (Smith was a capable persuader with sophisticated models of his audience, although many of his peers were not.) I think the real story is that Smith’s program was possible because his true foes, the guild merchants, were no longer necessary to the state due to the institutionalization of taxation infrastructure and/or the nascent factory system. However, because every historian of economics has read Smith, his account is widely known; and because his narrative of progress and rationalism matches modern sensibilities, his account is widely accepted.

Protection in the Nuclear Age

July 8th, 2018

Jesse Walker of Reason mocks an old civil defense film that I think I remember:

If I said I was about to show you a government film about how to survive a nuclear war, you’d probably guess that it came from the 1950s, that golden age of absurdly optimistic civil defense films. But Protection in the Nuclear Age was released in 1978, and it was made with an aesthetic that those of us who were in school in that era will recognize quickly. Some moments in these animations of pre- and post-apocalyptic life aren’t that different, in form if not content, from a 1970s guidance counselor’s collection of posters about emotions.

Like that guidance counselor, the movie strains hard to stay positive. “Defense Department studies show that even under the heaviest possible attack, less than five percent of our entire land mass would be affected by blast and heat from nuclear weapons,” the narrator claims at one point. “Of course,” he adds mildly, “that five percent contains a large percentage of our population.” But those people just might have time to flee to the rest of the country, which “would escape untouched — except possibly by radioactive fallout.” Oh, you and your little caveats.

In the early 1980s, it was hip to be extremely pessimistic about these things.