How Japan has almost eradicated gun crime

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

The BBC naively explains how Japan has almost eradicated gun crime:

Japan has one of the lowest rates of gun crime in the world. In 2014 there were just six gun deaths, compared to 33,599 in the US. What is the secret?

If you want to buy a gun in Japan you need patience and determination. You have to attend an all-day class, take a written exam and pass a shooting-range test with a mark of at least 95%.

There are also mental health and drugs tests. Your criminal record is checked and police look for links to extremist groups. Then they check your relatives too — and even your work colleagues. And as well as having the power to deny gun licences, police also have sweeping powers to search and seize weapons.

That’s not all. Handguns are banned outright. Only shotguns and air rifles are allowed.

The law restricts the number of gun shops. In most of Japan’s 40 or so prefectures there can be no more than three, and you can only buy fresh cartridges by returning the spent cartridges you bought on your last visit.

Police must be notified where the gun and the ammunition are stored — and they must be stored separately under lock and key. Police will also inspect guns once a year. And after three years your licence runs out, at which point you have to attend the course and pass the tests again.

This helps explain why mass shootings in Japan are extremely rare. When mass killings occur, the killer most often wields a knife.

It’s quite reassuring that mass-killers there use other tools.

It’s also impressive how Japan’s gun-control laws keep Japanese-Americans from committing gun crimes. (Some estimates place Japanese-American gun crime rates even lower than the Japanese rate.)

How to Age Disgracefully in Hollywood

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

The main problem facing today’s aging women is not sexism, Camille Paglia argues, but the lingering youth cult of the 1960s:

Traditional mating patterns have been disrupted: Marriage is postponed by extended education and early career demands. Because of easy divorce, middle-aged women are now competing with younger women for both men and jobs — and thus are resorting to costly interventions to look 20 years younger than they are.

If aging stars want to be taken seriously, they must find or recover a mature persona. Stop cannibalizing the young! Scrambling to stay relevant, Madonna is addicted to pointless provocations like her juvenile Instagrams or her trashy outfit with strapped-up bare buttocks and duct-taped nipples at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Gala in May. She has forgotten the legacy of her great precursor, Marlene Dietrich, who retained her class and style to the end of her public life.

Populists are not fascists

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Comparisons between the United States today and Germany in the 1930s are becoming commonplace, Niall Ferguson, but there’s a better analogy:

Journalists are fond of saying that we are living in a time of “unprecedented” instability. In reality, as numerous studies have shown, our time is a period of remarkable stability in terms of conflict. In fact, viewed globally, there has been a small uptick in organized lethal violence since the misnamed Arab Spring. But even allowing for the horrors of the Syrian civil war, the world is an order of magnitude less dangerous than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, and a haven of peace and tranquility compared with the period between 1914 and 1945.

This point matters because the defining feature of interwar fascism was its militarism. Fascists wore uniforms. They marched in enormous and well-drilled parades and they planned wars. That is not what we see today.

So why do so many commentators feel that we are living through “unprecedented instability?” The answer, aside from plain ignorance of history, is that political populism has become a global phenomenon, and established politicians and political parties are struggling even to understand it, much less resist it. Yet populism is not such a mysterious thing, if one only has some historical knowledge. The important point is not to make the mistake of confusing it with fascism, which it resembles in only a few respects.

He lists the five ingredients for populism:

The first of these ingredients is a rise in immigration. In the past 45 years, the percentage of the population of the United States that is foreign-born has risen from below 5 percent in 1970 to over 13 percent in 2014—almost as high as the rates achieved between 1860 and 1910, which ranged between 13 percent and an all-time high of 14.7 percent in 1890.

So when people say, as they often do, that “the United States is a land based on immigration,” they are indulging in selective recollection. There was a period, between 1910 and 1970, when immigration drastically declined. It is only in relatively recent times that we have seen immigration reach levels comparable with those of a century ago, in what has justly been called the first age of globalization.

Ingredient number two is an increase in inequality. Drawing on the work done on income distribution by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, we can see that we have recently regained the heights of inequality that were last seen in the pre-World War I period.

The share of income going to the top one percent of earners is back up from below 8 percent of total income in 1970 to above 20 percent of total income. The peak before the financial crisis, in 2007, was almost exactly the same as the peak on the eve of the Great Depression in 1928.

Ingredient number three is the perception of corruption. For populism to thrive, people have to start believing that the political establishment is no longer clean. Recent Gallup data on public approval of institutions in the United States show, among other things, notable drops in the standing of all institutions save the military and small businesses.

Just 9 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the U.S. Congress—a remarkable figure. It is striking to see which other institutions are down near the bottom of the league. Big business is second-lowest, with just 21 percent of the public expressing confidence in it. Newspapers, television news, and the criminal justice system fare only slightly better. What is even more remarkable is the list of institutions that have fallen furthest in recent times: the U.S. Supreme Court now has just a 36 percent approval rating, down from a historical average of 44 percent, while the Presidency has dropped from 43 percent to 36 percent approval.

The financial crisis appears to have convinced many Americans—and not without good reason—that there is an unhealthy and likely corrupt relationship between political institutions, big business, and the media.

The fourth ingredient necessary for a populist backlash is a major financial crisis. The three biggest financial crises in modern history—if one uses the U.S. equity market index as the measure—were the crises of 1873, 1929, and 2008. Each was followed by a prolonged period of depressed economic performance, though these varied in their depth and duration.

In the most recent of these crises, the peak of the U.S. stock market was October 2007. With the onset of the financial crisis, we essentially replayed for about a year the events of 1929 and 1930. However, beginning in mid to late 2009, we bounced out of the crisis, thanks to a combination of monetary, fiscal, and Chinese stimulus, whereas the Great Depression was characterized by a deep and prolonged decline in stock prices, as well as much higher unemployment rates and lower growth.

The first of these historical crises is the least known: the post-1873 “great depression,” as contemporaries called it. What happened after 1873 was nothing as dramatic as 1929; it was more of a slow burn. The United States and, indeed, the world economy went from a financial crisis—which was driven by excessively loose monetary policy and real estate speculation, amongst other things—into a protracted period of deflation. Economic activity was much less impaired than in the 1930s. Yet the sustained decline in prices inflicted considerable pain, especially on indebted farmers, who complained (in reference to the then prevailing gold standard) that they were being “crucified on a cross of gold.”

We have come a long way since those days; gold is no longer a key component of the monetary base, and farmers are no longer a major part of the workforce. Nevertheless, in my view, the period after 1873 is much more like our own time, both economically and politically, than the period after 1929.

There is still one missing ingredient to be added. If one were cooking, this would be the moment when flames would leap from the pan. The flammable ingredient is, of course, the demagogue, for populist demagogues react vituperatively and explosively against all of the aforementioned four ingredients.

Populists are not fascists:

They prefer trade wars to actual wars; administrative border walls to more defensible fortifications. The maladies they seek to cure are not imaginary: uncontrolled rising immigration, widening inequality, free trade with “unfree” countries, and political cronyism are all things that a substantial section of the electorate have some reason to dislike. The problem with populism is that its remedies are wrong and, in fact, counterproductive.

What we most have to fear—as was true of Brexit—is not therefore Armageddon, but something more prosaic: an attempt to reverse certain aspects of globalization, followed by disappointment when the snake oil does not really cure the patient’s ills, followed by the emergence of a new and ostensibly more progressive set of remedies for our current malaise.

Building a 21st Century FDA

Monday, January 16th, 2017

Building a 21st Century FDA shouldn’t be hard:

A 2010 study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology by researchers from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas found that the time from drug discovery to marketing increased from eight years in 1960 to 12 to 15 years in 2010. Five years of this increase results from new regulations boosting the lengths and costs of clinical trials. The regulators aim to prevent cancer patients from dying from toxic new drugs. However, the cancer researchers calculate that the delays caused by requirements for lengthier trials have instead resulted in the loss of 300,000 patient life-years while saving only 16 life-years. If true, this is a scandal.

How much higher are the costs of getting a new drug through the FDA gantlet? A new study, “Stifling New Cures: The True Cost of Lengthy Clinical Drug Trials,” by Manhattan Institute senior fellow Avik Roy points out that in 1975 the pharmaceutical industry spent about $100 million on research and development (R&D) before getting a new drug approved by the FDA. By 1987, that had tripled to $300 million and that has since quadrupled to $1.3 billion. But even these figures may be too low. Roy cites calculations done by Matthew Herper of Forbes, who divides up the R&D spending of $802 billion by 12 big pharma companies since 1997 by the 139 drugs that have since gotten FDA approval to yield costs of $5.8 billion per drug.

Currently, new pharmaceuticals typically go through Phase I trials using fewer than 100 patients to get preliminary information on the drug’s safety. Phase II trials involve a few hundred subjects and further evaluate a new drug’s safety and efficacy. Phase III trials enroll thousands of patients to see how well it works compared to either placebo and/or other therapies and to look for bad side effects.

“The biggest driver of this phenomenal increase has been the regulatory process governing Phase III clinical trials of new pharmaceuticals on on human volunteers,” notes Roy. Between 1999 and 2005, clinical trials saw average increases in trial procedures by 65 percent, staff work by 67 percent, and length by 70 percent.

Not only do FDA demands for bigger Phase III clinical trials delay the introduction of effective new medicines, they dramatically boost costs for bringing them to market. Roy acknowledges that pre-clinical research that aims to identify promising therapeutic compounds absorbs 28 percent of the R&D budgets of pharmaceutical companies. Setting those discovery costs aside, Roy calculates that the Phase III trials “typically represent 90 percent or more of the cost of developing an individual drug all the way from laboratory to market.”

Peter Turchin on the Fall of Rome

Sunday, January 15th, 2017

There is no question that the Roman Empire reached its peak under the “five good emperors,” Peter Turchin explains:

There are literally dozens of quantitative measures for imperial might that all agree with each other: territorial extent, overall population, internal peace and political stability, economic activity proxied by shipwrecks and the amount of industrial pollution, monument building, production of literature and art … After the death of the last “good emperor” in 180 all these indicators headed south. Together they tell us a much more quantitative and nuanced history than an artificial binary construct of “the Fall of Rome”. As a single example, here’s the trajectory of the volume of imports of particularly fine ceramics from Africa to Italy:

Roman Importation of African Red Slip Ware

If we follow these trajectories, we will learn that there were peaks and valleys. For example, a key indicator, social and political instability, went up after 180 and stayed high to the end of the third century. However, there were several peaks on top of this elevated level, recurring at roughly 50-year intervals. Such dynamical richness doesn’t fit the narrative of a “collapse.”

Most of the fourth century was relatively peaceful, but then the western half really disintegrated. The center of gravity moved east, to Byzantium, which experienced its own decline in the seventh century. Which was followed up by more cycles.

Thus, a much better question is not why Rome collapsed, but why the Roman Empire experienced those massive waves of social and political instability, accompanied by political fragmentation, population decline, and (later) dramatic loss of literacy, disappearance of monumental buildings, decrease of economic activity etc.

Turchin, of course, explains this through his structural-demographic theory:

Growing political instability is first and foremost a result of elite overproduction leading to excessive intra-elite competition and conflict. This main driver is supplemented by mass mobilization of non-elites resulting from popular immiseration and by failing fiscal health of the state.

The other stuff is much more fake

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

Maureen Dowd asked Peter Thiel if Mr. Trump and Mr. Musk are similar:

“I’m going to get in trouble, but they are, actually. They’re both grandmaster-level salespeople and these very much larger-than-life figures.”

He recalls a story from his and Mr. Musk’s PayPal days, when Mr. Musk joined the engineering team’s poker game and bet everything on every hand, admitting only afterward that it was his first time playing poker. Then there was the time they were driving in Mr. Musk’s McLaren F1 car, “the fastest car in the world.” It hit an embankment, achieved liftoff, made a 360-degree horizontal turn, crashed and was destroyed.

“It was a miracle neither of us were hurt,” Mr. Thiel says. “I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, which is not advisable. Elon’s first comment was, ‘Wow, Peter, that was really intense.’ And then it was: ‘You know, I had read all these stories about people who made money and bought sports cars and crashed them. But I knew it would never happen to me, so I didn’t get any insurance.’ And then we hitchhiked the rest of the way to the meeting.”

Thiel learned a few things while tag-teaming with Hulk Hogan against Gawker in court:

“There’s some resonances between Hogan beating Gawker and Trump beating the establishment in this country,” Mr. Thiel says. Hulk Hogan was “this crazy person” who didn’t seem like the best plaintiff, but “he didn’t give up.”

Using two wrestling terms he learned, Mr. Thiel says that many people assumed Mr. Trump was “kayfabe” — a move that looks real but is fake. But then his campaign turned into a “shoot” — the word for an unscripted move that suddenly becomes real.

“People thought the whole Trump thing was fake, that it wasn’t going to go anywhere, that it was the most ridiculous thing imaginable, and then somehow he won, like Hogan did,” Mr. Thiel says. “And what I wonder is, whether maybe pro wrestling is one of the most real things we have in our society and what’s really disturbing is that the other stuff is much more fake. And whatever the superficialities of Mr. Trump might be, he was more authentic than the other politicians. He sort of talked in a way like ordinary people talk. It was not sort of this Orwellian newspeak jargon that so many of the candidates use. So he was sort of real. He actually wanted to win.”

An Introduction to the European New Right

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

When Ash Milton first came upon Neoreaction, his only experience with the non-libertarian, non-conservative Right had come from the Nouvelle Droite, or the European New Right:

The ENR was birthed in 1968, the year of the student uprisings which became iconic in French political culture. The term “68ers” is used to describe the generation which led the social, sexual, and cultural revolutions of these last few decades. Its intellectual core was in the Research and Study Group for European Civilization (Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne, or GRECE), founded by Alain de Benoist and others. These thinkers shared a broad intellectual heritage, including the German Conservative Revolutionaries, Oswald Spengler’s cyclical and organic vision of history, the Italian traditionalist Julius Evola, and other intellectual currents. It distinguished itself from the mainstream right by levelling critiques against not just communism, but also free market capitalism and American cultural hegemony, considering them two sides of the same materialist coin. This led to a renewed focus on political theory and the role of culture in the realm of politics.

Specifically, the ENR aimed to promote a “Gramscianism of the Right“, adapting the theories of Antonio Gramsci that political change goes hand in hand with — and usually follows — cultural and social change. In the words of Het Vlaams Blok leader Filip Dewinter, “the ideological majority is more important than the parliamentary majority.” Prior to 1968, reactionaries had taken the line that, even with cultural decline, the common people were still inherently conservative in their temperaments even if they were sometimes enticed to revolutionary causes. We can see this echoed today in the “silent majority” and “Main Street” rhetoric of modern conservatives. The ENR’s aim was to break with what can be called the time-machine reactionary view: that defeat of revolutionary elites would enable to restoration of a traditional order. 1968 and its era were a proof to the ENR that the culture itself would have to be retaken before change could come at the political level. This led it to pursue a project of “metapolitics”; its thinkers scorned party and even “radical” activism, preferring to rethink philosophical foundations and create cultural memes to counter the ’68er ideology of Social Progress.

Mossad does not play nice

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

When it comes to protecting Israel’s national security, Mossad does not play nice:

The death of Mohammed al Zoari in a hail of gunfire in the coastal city of Sfax came at the zenith of a complex operation involving as many as eight Tunisian nationals and an unknown number of others, who Tunisian officials said were foreign agents. Although the hit carried the hallmarks of other Mossad operations, Israel has hinted at, but not acknowledged, its involvement.

“If someone was killed in Tunisia, he’s not likely to be a peace activist or a Nobel Prize candidate,” said Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. “We will continue to do in the best possible way what we know how to do — that is to protect our interests.”

From the streets of Europe to the Middle East, Israel’s agents time and again have found their mark, with their victims dispatched in novel ways, from bombs under beds to lone figures targeted on dark streets with silenced Beretta .22s. I’ve often wondered if somewhere inside the Mossad there is a secret office that mulls over plots from fiction novels and uses them to plan real-world missions.

The operation aimed at al Zoari was a little less byzantine than ones found in a spy novel, despite the number of Tunisians under investigation for their roles in it. Reports have surfaced that al Zoari, known as “The Engineer” by his Hamas brethren because of his expertise in building unmanned aerial vehicles, was working to develop an armed underwater drone that would have targeted Israeli oil and gas platforms in the Mediterranean Sea. His murder as he sat in his car in front of his home set off waves of protest in Tunisia, whose citizens have been witness to Israeli justice before.

In 1988, Fatah operative Khalil al-Wazir, aka Abu Jihad, was assassinated in his home in Tunis in a spectacular Israeli commando raid. I was an agent with the U.S. State Department at the time, and the hit, which came without warning from Israel, took us by surprise. This was a vivid example of one of many occasions that confirmed that there really are no friendly intelligence services and that nation-states will do whatever they think is necessary to protect themselves. On a practical level, the Israelis would not have jeopardized the lives of their agents by sharing their tactical plans with another country, because too many things could go wrong. This was no different than the U.S. decision to carry out its operation in Abbottabad to kill Osama Bin Laden without prior warning to the Pakistanis.

In 1996, the Israelis killed a Hamas bombmaker, also called “The Engineer.” We got into a fair amount of trouble when we fulfilled the Palestinian Authority’s request for help in investigating the murder, which included examining the crime scene. Neither the State Department’s foreign service officers nor the Israelis cared for that decision. But from my perspective as a counterterrorism agent, I figured we would learn something by our involvement, and we did. In the aftermath of the hit, we discovered that an informant for the Israelis had given a cell phone to the bombmaker. When he answered the phone, an explosive hidden inside detonated, blowing off his hand and half of his head, killing him instantly. The gruesome crime scene photos are still vivid in my memory.

There might be something amiss with our institutions of higher education

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

There might be something amiss with our institutions of higher education, Paul A. Rahe suggests:

Forty years ago, when I was in my last year as a graduate student at Yale, I taught in a program called Directed Studies. It was a one-year boot camp for the very best entering freshmen. It consisted of three year-long courses: History and Politics One, Literature One, and Philosophy One. In each class, the students started at the beginning — with, say, Herodotus, the Jewish Bible, and the pre-Socratics — and ended in the 20th century — with, say, Heidegger, T. S. Eliot, and Wittgenstein. Twenty years ago, I returned as a visiting professor to teach History and Politics One in the same program. I was by no means the only visitor. The director could not find in the Yale faculty enough instructors ready and willing to do the job. Teaching the very best students in the college a survey of the tradition of political rumination was beyond the capacity of all but a handful of those on the Yale University teaching staff. The old liberal arts curriculum, which is still intact here at Hillsdale, produced citizens with a broad range of knowledge and a general familiarity with our cultural tradition. Today you cannot assume such knowledge on the part of a distinguished university’s faculty.

The Problem With Trump’s Admiration of General Patton

Saturday, December 31st, 2016

The problem with Trump’s admiration of General Patton is, apparently, that Patton was conservative and anti-Communist:

His success in wartime has, over the years, whitewashed the rest of his character. His views on race and America’s role in the world were retrograde even in the 1940s — and so forcefully articulated that it’s hard to understand why contemporary Americans have such an easy time admiring him. His life isn’t just an example of winning — it’s an object lesson in how hard it is to transfer skills from a ruthless campaign to the complex tasks of real governance.

Patton came from a long line of soldiers. He was home-schooled on the classics until age 12. Like Trump, Patton came from money; he lived well off the battlefield, with a string of polo ponies accompanying him on stateside postings. He fought in Mexico, was gravely wounded in WWI, gained fame leading the Allied invasion of Casablanca in 1942, successfully led the Seventh Army invasion of Sicily and swept into Germany as a conqueror at the helm of the Third Army.

Patton, whom reporters dubbed “Old Blood and Guts,” was a happy warrior. At a somber December 19, 1944, command meeting following the massive German attack that began what would be known as the Battle of the Bulge, Patton saw a tactical opportunity. “This bastard has put his cock in a meat grinder and I’ve got the handle!” he said.

Patton’s rescue of cornered GIs at Bastogne erased his most famous blunder of the war, which occurred in two hospital tents in Sicily in 1943 when he infamously confronted two traumatized soldiers and slapped them. Patton had no concept of the disease that was then called shell shock, and we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Wars were about winning and glory, and his subsequent apologies, ordered by his friend and superior, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, were entirely pro forma. He told colleagues that the soldiers were cowards and that the slapping — he also brandished a pistol at one of the soldiers — had saved their souls. “It is rather a commentary on justice when an Army commander has to soft-soap a skulker to placate the timidity of those above,” Patton wrote in his diary.

Eisenhower resisted calls to fire Patton, whom he viewed as a “problem child” who was “indispensable to the war effort and one of the guarantors of our victory.” To Patton’s disappointment, Ike refrained from giving him the highest commands he craved. Still, he had a huge following in the military and among the public, which he stoked with frequent appearances in the press.


The U.S. Army’s mission in Germany was to govern and start rebuilding a former enemy nation, a country gutted by its war machine and deflated by its surrender. Part of the task, President Harry Truman and Eisenhower agreed, was to “denazify” the country, which meant re-education, the fostering of democratic institutions and the punishment of Nazi war criminals to set an example for the would-be Hitlers of the future. Patton was astonishingly indifferent to this mission. He spent much of his time writing his wartime memoirs, hunting and fishing with subordinates, and riding in the countryside with his groom, Baron von Wangenheim, an Olympian equestrian and die-hard Nazi whom remnants of the SS had implanted in Patton’s staff to keep an eye on him and feed his lust for a war against the Soviet Union.

It was hard enough to get the streets cleared and keep Germans from starving to death; Patton wasn’t interested in denazification or creating a lesson for future tyrants. He thought it was “madness” to imprison Nazis, good soldiers who were much more valuable as future allies against the Soviets than the Jewish survivors he was charged with protecting and feeding.

Disturbingly, Patton had zero sympathy for the Holocaust victims living in wretched, overcrowded collection camps under his command. He was unable to imagine that people living in such misery were not there because of their own flaws. The displaced Jews were “locusts,” “lower than animals,” “lost to all decency.” They were “a subhuman species without any of the cultural or social refinements of our times,” Patton wrote in his diary. A United Nations aid worker tried to explain that they were traumatized, but “personally I doubt it. I have never looked at a group of people who seem to be more lacking in intelligence and spirit.” (Patton was no friend to Arabs, either; in a 1943 letter, he called them “the mixture of all the bad races on earth.”)

The orders from above — Eisenhower wanted him to confiscate the houses of wealthy Germans so Jewish survivors could live in them — embittered Patton. His beloved Third Army was decaying as troops decamped for home, discipline vanished, and meanwhile, “the displaced sons-of-bitches in the various camps are blooming like green trees,” he wrote a friend.

He saw journalists’ criticism of his handling of the Jews and the return of Nazis to high official positions as a result of Jewish and Communist plots. The New York Times and other publications were “trying to do two things,” he wrote, “First, implement Communism, and second, see that all business men of German ancestry and non-Jewish antecedents are thrown out of their jobs.”

As reports on the conditions in Bavaria began to alarm Truman, Eisenhower came down from Frankfurt on September 17 to join Patton on a tour of the camps where Jewish refugees were housed. He was horrified to find that some of the guards were former SS men. During the tour, Patton remarked that the camps had been clean and decent before the arrival of the Jewish “DPs” (displaced persons), who were “pissing and crapping all over the place.” Eisenhower told Patton to shut up, but he continued his diatribe, telling Eisenhower he planned to make a nearby German village “a concentration camp for some of these goddam Jews.”

While Eisenhower ordered him to stop “mollycoddling Nazis,” Patton lashed out at journalists and others he viewed as enemies. “The noise against me is only the means by which the Jews and Communist are attempting and with good success to implement a further dismemberment of Germany,” he said.

Patton’s callousness, anti-Semitism and indifference to the job of re-education were bad enough, but what really worried Eisenhower and Truman was Patton’s desire to start another war. The Soviet Union had been a close U.S. ally against the Nazis, but Patton was an early, fervent anti-Communist who loathed “Genghis Khan’s degenerate descendants” and felt Roosevelt had surrendered too much European turf to the Russians. He was obsessed with pushing them back out of Germany.

The Atlantic is now trying to tar human genetics with the “racist” brush

Friday, December 30th, 2016

The Atlantic is now trying to tar human genetics with the “racist” brush:

Modern geneticists now take pains to distance their work from the racist assumptions of eugenics. Yet since the dawn of the genomic revolution, sociologists and historians have warned that even seemingly benign genetics research can reinforce a belief that different races are essentially different—an argument made most famously by Troy Duster in his book Backdoor to Eugenics. If a genetic test can identify you as 78 percent Norwegian, 12 percent Scottish, and 10 percent Italian, then it’s easy to assume there is such thing as white DNA. If scientists find that a new drug works works better in African Americans because of a certain mutation common among them, then it’s easy to believe that races are genetically meaningful categories.

If a drug works better on one race than another, then, yes, it is easy to believe that races are genetically meaningful categories — easy for a very good reason.

The Trump Matrix

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Anyone who tells you what a Trump administration will do is either bluffing or a fool, Ross Douthat says:

What we can do, for now, is set up a matrix to help assess the Trump era as it proceeds, in which each appointment and policy move gets plotted along two axes. The first axis, the X-axis, represents possibilities for Trumpist policy, the second, the Y-axis, scenarios for Trump’s approach to governance.

The policy axis runs from full populism at one end to predictable conservative orthodoxy on the other. A full populist Trump presidency would give us tariffs and trade wars, an infrastructure bill that would have Robert Moses doing back flips, a huge wall and E-Verify and untouched entitlements and big tax cuts for the middle class. On foreign policy it would be Henry Kissinger meets Andrew Jackson: Détente with Russia, no nation-building anywhere, and a counterterrorism strategy that shoots, bombs and drones first and asks questions later.

In an orthodox-conservative Trump presidency, on the other hand, congressional Republicans would run domestic policy and Trump would simply sign their legislation: A repeal of Obamacare without an obvious replacement, big tax cuts for the rich, and the Medicare reform of Paul Ryan’s fondest dreams. On foreign policy, it would offer hawkishness with a dose of idealistic rhetoric – meaning brinkmanship with the Russians, not a rapprochement, plus military escalation everywhere.

The second axis, the possibilities for how Trump governs, runs from ruthless authoritarianism at one end to utter chaos at the other. Under the authoritarian scenario, Trump would act on all his worst impulses with malign efficiency. The media would be intimidated, Congress would be gelded, the F.B.I. and the I.R.S. would go full J. Edgar Hoover against Trump’s enemies, the Trump family would enrich itself fantastically — and then, come a major terrorist attack, Trump would jail or intern anyone he deemed a domestic enemy.

At the other end of this axis, Trump and his team would be too stumbling and hapless to effectively oppress anyone, and the Trump era would just be a rolling disaster — with frequent resignations, ridiculous scandals, Republicans distancing themselves, the deep state in revolt, the media circling greedily, and any serious damage done by accident rather than design.


A populist-authoritarian combination might seem natural, with Trump using high-profile deviations from conservative orthodoxy to boost his popularity even as he runs roughshod over republican norms.

But you could also imagine an authoritarian-orthodox conservative combination, in which Congressional Republicans accept the most imperial of presidencies because it’s granting them tax rates and entitlement reforms they have long desired.

Or you could imagine a totally incompetent populism, in which Trump flies around the country holding rallies while absolutely nothing in Washington gets done … or a totally incompetent populism that ultimately empowers conventional conservatism, because Trump decides that governing isn’t worth it and just lets Paul Ryan run the country.

Peter Thiel Is Molding Tech’s Ties to Trump

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist and conservative libertarian, has long been a misfit in Silicon Valley, Rolfe Winkler and John D. McKinnon note, and now he is playing a central role in shaping the Valley’s relationship with a president most of them didn’t want:

Mr. Thiel’s ascendancy as one of the president-elect’s trusted advisers is a surprising twist that shifts Silicon Valley’s political power center. Mr. Thiel is already playing an important role as a member of Mr. Trump’s transition team, helping recruit people to fill some 4,000 jobs in the administration and helping craft policy that could impact the most highly valued sector of the American economy.

He is also working closely with Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. Together, the two helped broker the meeting in New York scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, when about a dozen chief executives from Apple Inc., Alphabet Inc. and other tech rivals with a combined market value of over $2 trillion parade into Trump Tower to meet with the president-elect. Mr. Trump is expected to emphasize job creation and making the government run more efficiently, according to a person familiar with the meeting agenda.

Now Silicon Valley will need to contend with a president who has railed against globalization and threatened to dismantle free trade, issues that are important to the tech industry. Mr. Thiel, a fierce contrarian, largely agrees with Mr. Trump’s views.


Mr. Thiel has spoken out against free trade and remains skeptical of globalization—worrisome for a tech industry that gets most of its revenue overseas. He wrote in his 2014 book, “Zero to One,” that globalization enables the developing world to copy existing technologies, which he says is unsustainable and inferior to finding new technology solutions. He also riles some free-speech advocates by bankrolling wrestler Hulk Hogan’s invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media, which ultimately went bankrupt.

But Mr. Thiel could also be an ally for Silicon Valley, especially as an advocate of entrepreneurism after co-founding PayPal Inc. and making a fortune through his venture firm Founders Fund with well-timed investments in internet companies, notably Facebook Inc., where he sits on the board. Mr. Thiel says government can play a central role supporting big tech projects such as the Apollo space program. He views monopolies as a positive force for the economy, which could portend weaker antitrust enforcement, and he expects Mr. Trump to push for less regulation and more fiscal stimulus which could help businesses, he said in the interview.

“Everyone in Silicon Valley is better off having Peter in the room because he will offer a perspective around innovation and venture capital and startups that no one else right now on the transition team can offer,” said Venky Ganesan, a managing director of Menlo Ventures and chairman of the National Venture Capital Association. It is unclear how much influence Mr. Thiel will ultimately have. He isn’t expected to take an official role with the new administration, and some people who know him say he might not even spend much time in Washington.

Some observers expect Mr. Thiel to focus on overhauling government spending in areas including science, technology and defense. Higher education may also be a target. He argued in the Journal’s November interview that there is an “education bubble” and offers grants to young entrepreneurs so they can skip college and build a company.

Mr. Thiel has recruited several associates to help with the transition at agencies like the Treasury, Defense and Commerce departments.

Inequality and Skin in the Game

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

There’s inequality, Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes, and then there’s inequality:

The first is the inequality people tolerate, such as one’s understanding compared to that of people deemed heroes, say Einstein, Michelangelo, or the recluse mathematician Grisha Perelman, in comparison to whom one has no difficulty acknowledging a large surplus. This applies to entrepreneurs, artists, soldiers, heroes, the singer Bob Dylan, Socrates, the current local celebrity chef, some Roman Emperor of good repute, say Marcus Aurelius; in short those for whom one can naturally be a “fan”. You may like to imitate them, you may aspire to be like them; but you don’t resent them.

The second is the inequality people find intolerable because the subject appears to be just a person like you, except that he has been playing the system, and getting himself into rent seeking, acquiring privileges that are not warranted — and although he has something you would not mind having (which may include his Russian girlfriend), he is exactly the type of whom you cannot possibly become a fan. The latter category includes bankers, bureaucrats who get rich, former senators shilling for the evil firm Monsanto, clean-shaven chief executives who wear ties, and talking heads on television making outsized bonuses. You don’t just envy them; you take umbrage at their fame, and the sight of their expensive or even semi-expensive car trigger some feeling of bitterness. They make you feel smaller.

There may be something dissonant in the spectacle of a rich slave.

The author Joan Williams, in an insightful article, explains that the working class is impressed by the rich, as role models. Michèle Lamont, the author of The Dignity of Working Men, whom she cites, did a systematic interview of blue collar Americans and found present a resentment of professionals but, unexpectedly, not of the rich.

It is safe to accept that the American public — actually all public — despise people who make a lot of money on a salary, or, rather, salarymen who make a lot of money. This is indeed generalized to other countries: a few years ago the Swiss, of all people almost voted a law capping salaries of managers. But the same Swiss hold rich entrepreneurs, and people who have derived their celebrity by other means, in some respect.

Further, in countries where wealth comes from rent seeking, political patronage, or what is called regulatory capture (by which the powerful uses regulation to scam the public, or red tape to slow down competition), wealth is seen as zero-sum. What Peter gets is extracted from Paul. Someone getting rich is doing so at other people’s expense. In countries such as the U.S. where wealth can come from destruction, people can easily see that someone getting rich is not taking dollars from your pocket; perhaps even putting some in yours. On the other hand, inequality, by definition, is zero sum.

In this chapter I will propose that effectively what people resent — or should resent — is the person at the top who has no skin in the game, that is, because he doesn’t bear his allotted risk, is immune to the possibility of falling from his pedestal, exiting the income or wealth bracket, and getting to the soup kitchen. Again, on that account, the detractors of Donald Trump, when he was a candidate, failed to realize that, by advertising his episode of bankruptcy and his personal losses of close to a billion dollars, they removed the resentment (the second type of inequality) one may have towards him. There is something respectable in losing a billion dollars, provided it is your own money.

In addition, someone without skin in the game — say a corporate executive with upside and no financial downside (the type to speak clearly in meetings) — is paid according to some metrics that do not necessarily reflect the health of the company; these (as we saw in Chapter x) he can manipulate, hide risks, get the bonus, then retire (or go to another company) and blame his successor for the subsequent results.

Weigh and deliver

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

Long before the invention of coins, the earliest written legal codes, like the Sumerian “Code” of Ur-Nammu, required defendants adjudged guilty to “weigh and deliver” the specified amount of silver:

Prior to the rise of efficient competitive markets, prices for goods were often specified by custom or law rather than negotiated. This served to conserve transaction costs in a high transaction cost culture where exchange relationships resembled bilateral monopolies more closely than they resembled spot markets. Bargaining costs were high, and indeed bargaining failure often resulted in violence and destruction rather than merely in no deal. This made focal points of negotiation, such as customary prices and customary compensation amounts for specific injuries, a quite valuable and ubiquitous part of most Neolithic and earlier cultures. When specified by law, these rules setting prices were often intermingled with laws specifying legal penalties and used the same set of units: in the Mesopotamian and Anatolian law codes prior to coinage, most commonly weights of silver and volumes of barley.

One can also think blood-money-type fixed damages (compensation) and fines as customary prices for injuries. As with customary prices for goods, customary prices for injuries conserved on the transaction costs of bilateral monopoly negotiations, in this case negotiations to settle legal disputes. Today this is solved, to the extent it is, by each side predicting what damages or punishments they expect a court to assess, and negotiating accordingly.

As kings and chiefs gained power, fines paid to them for criminal acts replaced compensation to victims. In some cases a separate set of laws (for example tort laws) arose alongside the criminal law, or was evolved from the previous compensation culture, maintaining some compensation for victims. Subsequently law usually evolved away from monetary compensation and towards punishments for deterrence. A chief concern of criminal law became estimation of deterrence value. The king had incentives to perform punishments both as a public good and a public show. To allow themselves and their public to assess the deterrence value of punishments, there were two major strategies:

“Eye for an eye”-type laws, which focus on comparing the punishment to the crime’s injury (often similar to the injury to maximize perceived fairness, but sometimes also more severe than the injury for extra deterrence value). In some of the non-silver compensation rules in the Mesopotamian and Hittite law codes described above, barley, slaves, or other goods are substituted for silver because in order to correspond to an injury involving barley, slaves, etc.: like for like.

Measured punishments, which, like monetary compensation for injury, allow the severity of different crimes to be compared and ranked, for example whipping (number of lashes) and prison sentences (length of time), our dominant modern form of criminal punishment.

As suggested above (and for reasons to be explicated in future posts), compensation according to a standard amount of a standard wealth good (pre-coinage money), the outcome of coercive negotiations between clans, was very likely the dominant form of measured punishment during the vast majority of the time and in the vast majority of cultures from the dawn of our species to today.