How the Left “Blew It” on Gun Control

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

Baum may be a gun guy, but he’s also liberal. He explains — in Mother Joneshow the Left “blew it” on gun control:

You will hear people say gun owners are accessories to murder, and it’s just the wrong way to talk about people. I spent my whole life among liberal Democrats who are so achingly careful to say all the right, supportive things about Hispanics, immigrants, gays, transsexuals, and blacks, and they will say the most godawful things about gun owners, calling them “gun nuts” or “penis compensators.” The gun represents a worldview that we on the left do not share. The gun represents individualism over collectivism, American exceptionalism over internationalism. It’s a totem of the other tribe and we don’t like the other tribe. The tragedy is, we seem to think by attacking the totem we’re going to weaken the opposing tribe, but it’s just the opposite. Republicans love it when we do this sort of thing. It’s their best organizing tool. Gun owners are kind of a free-fire zone for lefties.


I personally have met very few gun owners who oppose background checks. But very few of them, even the ones that don’t want an AR-15 with a 30-round magazine, believe that limiting the amount of rounds in a magazine is going to contribute materially to public safety. What worries them is being told you are not to be trusted with these things, and that is really offensive because gun owners derive a tremendous amount of pride from being able to live alongside very dangerous things, use them effectively, and not hurt anyone. When a politician or a pundit who obviously has very little experience or no experience with guns, like Charles Schumer or Dianne Feinstein, says to your ordinary gun owner, “You cant be trusted with more than 10-round magazine,” it really strikes the wrong chord.

Letting Kids Shoot Guns Is Good for Them

Saturday, September 20th, 2014

Marksmanship builds concentration, confidence, and trust, Dan Baum says, which is why letting kids shoot guns is good for them:

It’s a terrible time to say this, right after a 9-year-old girl killed her instructor with an Uzi, but shooting guns can be great for kids.

Of course, there’s shooting and there’s shooting. Handing a loaded submachine gun to a small child is patently crazy. Sadly, Charles Vacca, the instructor in Arizona, both paid for that mistake with his life and inflicted on the unnamed girl a life sentence of horror and regret. Lest anybody think that the gun-owning and gun-rights communities are defending Vacca’s judgment, rest assured that they’re not. I watch the gun blogosphere as part of my work, and even the most hard-core gunnies are appalled and infuriated.

What the shooting community worries about is that people will conflate this tragedy with proper marksmanship training for children. A lot happens in a good shooting class before a kid touches a gun. The first class often involves nothing but drilling on the rules of gun safety. When it comes time to shoot, that’s done prone, for stability, and the guns are long-barreled, single-shot .22s with minimal recoil. Kids are given one cartridge at a time, and any deviation from the rules — a muzzle moving in the wrong direction, a finger on the trigger too early — stops the whole class for more drilling. Compare that to an unschooled 9-year-old in standing position with a short-barreled, full-auto gun and a magazine holding 32 rounds of powerful, 9mm ammunition. It’s the difference between leading a child in circles on the back of a docile pony and sending her alone around a track on the back of a thoroughbred.

Shooting a rifle accurately requires children to quiet their minds. Lining up the sights on a distant target takes deep concentration. Children must slow their breathing and tune into the beat of their hearts to be able to squeeze the trigger at precisely the right moment. Holding a rifle steady takes large-motor skills, and touching the trigger correctly takes small motor skills; doing both at once engages the whole brain. Marksmanship is an exercise in a high order of body-hand-eye-mind coordination. It is as far from mindless electronic diversion as can be imagined.

Other activities build skills and concentration, too — archery, calligraphy, photography, painting — but shooting guns is in a class by itself precisely for the reason highlighted by last week’s accident: it can be deadly.

A single-shot .22, while easier to control than an Uzi, can kill you just as dead. So how can such rifles possibly be appropriate for use by children? Again, context is everything. Under proper instruction, shooting is a ritual. You do this for this reason and that for that reason, and you never, ever alter the process, because doing so is a matter of life and death. Learning to slow down and go through such essential steps can be valuable developmentally. The very danger involved gets children’s attention, as it would anybody’s. But there’s an added benefit to teaching children to shoot: it’s a gesture of respect for a group that doesn’t often get any.

Invite a child to learn how to shoot and the message is: I trust your ability to listen and learn. I trust your ability to concentrate. I welcome you into a dangerous adult activity because you are sensible and trustworthy. For young people accustomed to being constrained, belittled, ignored and told “no,” hearing an adult call them to their higher selves can be enormously empowering. Children come away from properly conducted shooting lessons as different people, taller in their shoes and more willing to tune into what adults say.

While traveling around the country talking to gun owners, I met several who told me that when their teenage sons or daughters were going “off the rails” — drinking, experimenting with drugs and getting poor grades — they started taking them shooting. The very counterintuitive nature of the invitation — giving guns to druggies? — snapped the children into focus. The chance to do something as forbidden and grownup as shooting overcame their resistance to spending time with dad or mom. The discipline and focus that marksmanship required, combined with its potential lethality, not only brought these adolescents back from self-destructive habits but deepened the bonds of trust between them and their parents.

Again, it has to be done right. You don’t buy a girl a rifle and let her keep it in her room; you keep it locked up and let her use it only under supervision. You don’t let a boy new to shooting touch a gun until he’s been well schooled in the safety rules. You don’t ever let people shoot guns they can’t handle. But when done right, marksmanship training can be just what a young mind and spirit needs.

Social justice was on the side of the enemy

Saturday, September 20th, 2014

Gen. DePuy felt that the reporters in Vietnam who worked with the combat troops were fine:

I liked them, and I thought they were fair enough, and very brave, and as good as combat reporters have ever been. I am thinking about Arnett, Pappas and the like. I think the problem was not with the reporters so much as it was with the editors back in the United States. I have a theory which may not hold water, but it seems to me that something happened fairly early on, maybe even as early as 1962, ’63, or ’64, which resulted in the intellectual elements of our society — and this included a lot of the editors, television correspondents, and even some of the reporters — somehow getting the impression that social justice was on the side of the enemy. This happened early on and then was repeated again later, with the American public. In other words, I see it as two waves.

The first wave was amongst the reporters and the intellectuals coming to the conclusion that somehow or another we were guilty of some form of political aggression and were being heavy-handed about it. Conversely, there was a love affair with the idea of the brave freedom fighter in black pajamas making monkeys out of the establishment. Then, that whole thing was repeated when American troops went over. When the American troops first went over, the American people, the man on the street, was told that there was a communist menace, and that we were going over to cope with it. Therefore, at that time, the enemy was the problem. The enemy was evil. Then, through the bombardment of television and articles written by a lot of the intellectuals who had already been through this process earlier with the ARVN, it seems to me that the average American got to the point where he wondered on which side lay the purity of social justice. Now that we know about the aims and activities of the North Vietnamese and their direction of the effort from the very beginning, all of this was nonsense.

Coming to America

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

There are about 100 times more blacks in the U.S. today than arrived via the slave trade. In fact, between 2000 and 2010, the number of legal black African immigrants in the United States doubled, to one million.

How Gangs Took Over Prisons

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

California had prisons for nearly a century before the first documented gang — or security threat group — appeared, but now gangs run prisons — and the street, too:

Another common misconception about prison gangs is that they are simply street gangs that have been locked up. The story of their origins, however, is closer to the opposite: the Mexican Mafia, for example, was born at Deuel Vocational Institution, in Tracy, California, in 1956, and only later did that group, and others, become a presence on the streets. Today, the relation of the street to the cellblock is symbiotic. “The young guys on the street look to the gang members inside as role models,” says Charles Dangerfield, a former prison guard who now heads California’s Gang Task Force, in Sacramento. “Getting sentenced to prison is like being called up to the majors.”

But Skarbek says the prison gangs serve another function for street criminals. In a 2011 paper in American Political Science Review, he proposed that prison is a necessary enforcement mechanism for drug crime on the outside. If everyone in the criminal underworld will go to prison eventually, or has a close relationship with someone who will, and if everybody knows that gangs control the fate of all inmates, then criminals on the street will be afraid to cross gang members there, because at some point they, or someone they know, will have to pay on the inside. Under this model, prison gangs are the courts and sheriffs for people whose business is too shady to be able to count on justice from the usual sources. Using data from federal indictments of members of the Mexican Mafia, and other legal documents, Skarbek found that the control of prisons by gangs leads to smoother transactions in the outside criminal world.

Gangs effect this justice on the inside in part by circulating a “bad-news list,” or BNL. If your name is on a BNL, gang members are to attack you on sight — perhaps because you stole from an affiliate on the outside, or because you failed to repay a drug debt, or because you’re suspected of ratting someone out. Skarbek says one sign that the BNL is a rationally deployed tool, rather than just a haphazard vengeance mechanism, is that gangs are fastidious about removing names from the list when debts are paid.

A Small Mistake

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

When Mao died, The Economist made a small mistake describing his legacy:

In the final reckoning, Mao must be accepted as one of history’s great achievers: for devising a peasant-centered revolutionary strategy which enabled China’s Communist Party to seize power, against Marx’s prescriptions, from bases in the countryside; for directing the transformation of China from a feudal society, wracked by war and bled by corruption, into a unified, egalitarian state where nobody starves; and for reviving national pride and confidence so that China could, in Mao’s words, ‘stand up’ among the great powers.

The emphasis is David Friedman’s:

The current estimate is that, during the Great Leap Forward, between thirty and forty million Chinese peasants starved to death.

Rule by the Middle Class

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Jerry Pournelle raised the subject of the difference between a Democracy and a Republic, and a commenter calling himself Porkypine offered this “loose collection of related thoughts”:

The original Greek democracies notoriously suffered from poor impulse control, choosing all sorts of famously destructive policies by show of hands in public assemblies of whatever eligible voters chose to show up.

Athens deciding to invade Sicily in the heat of the moment is the classic example. (The campaign was both largely pointless and a badly-led overextended cluster-foxtrot disaster, of course.)

Republics, governments run by representatives rather than directly by the citizens, designed to filter, delay, and damp down popular enthusiasms were of course the answer arrived at by subsequent generations (not least of these the post-kingdom pre-empire Romans.)

And democratic republics, like the one our Founders designed in 1787, of course choose those representatives by popular vote — though it’s often overlooked that ours did this at first via an electorate sharply limited in one interesting way (I’ll get back to this.) They also voted indirectly, in the case of the President via state-selected electors, and for Senators via their state legislatures. Our original republic further used an innovative system of internal checks and balances to prevent abuses and excess concentrations of power. It all worked quite well too, for as long as we resisted the impatient power-hungry tinkerers.

A vastly oversimplified description, of course, but I think that’s the gist of the difference you were alluding to?

I believe there are some interesting additional points to be made in the modern context, however, relevant both to fixing our disastrous foreign policies of recent decades, and to fixing what’s happening to our original republic now.

Early Greek democracy’s problem was not only a structure that allowed impulsive decisions. This was, I think, compounded by narrow and easily manipulable information channels. It was far too easy for demagogues to feed those electorates a slanted picture of some given situation, with little or no option for timely reality checks. (This is not something I’ve seen discussed much — though perhaps, hence our Founders’ emphasis on a free press?)

The Roman Republic did quite well for a while, but by the time of Marius it had gotten into a bind — a combination of expansion of military commitments, and shrinkage in the militarily-eligible portion of the population (military and political eligibility were determined by a minimum-property qualification) was causing a shortage of soldiers.

Marius solved this by opening up recruitment to landless wage-workers, while at the same time setting things up so that the troops’ hopes of land grants at the end of a military campaign depended directly on their field commander. This combination, as you’ve pointed out, led in fairly short order to the end of the Roman Republic. Rome itself survived and even prospered for some centuries after, but the Roman Empire had a chronic problem with soldiers selecting governments rather than vice-versa.

That grave policy error aside, I suspect that the Roman Republic’s failure to foster its essential middle-classes, “those with the goods of fortune in moderation”, was also a major element of that Republic’s fall. I’ll get back to this.

Meanwhile, though, fast-forward two millennia.

“Liberty” was a standard trope in US political rhetoric from the start.

“Freedom” seems to have largely replaced it sometime in the last century, but without so far doing excessive harm to clarity of public policy discussion.

“Democracy”, on the other hand, has progressed from the Founders’ clear understanding that “there never was a democracy that did not commit suicide”, to currently in US public rhetoric being up there with motherhood and apple pie. Enough of the voting public no longer have a clue about the distinction between “democracy” and the democratic republic this country was for much of its first two centuries that public figures who even hint that pure one-man-one-vote “democracy” might not be an unalloyed good might as well also admit they molest children.

I suspect this change happened during the 20th century, and I suspect it was pushed deliberately by various “progressives” — Woodrow Wilson’s and FDR’s rhetoric comes to mind — as one way to legitimize direct central progressive bypass of old republican institutions via the new means of centralized mass communications propaganda. (See previous remarks about democracy’s vulnerability to narrow and easily manipulable information channels.) But, that’s an educated guess. Proving it would be a matter for more research than I have time for now (paging Jonah Goldberg!) More on these suspicions also in a bit.

Unfortunately, our current policy makers apparently also no longer understand the distinction between pure democracy and a competent-electorate representative republic. This has led to mindless US support for undiluted majority-rule democracy in recent years, with various disastrous results. Egypt, for instance, would have become a classic case of “one man, one vote, once” with the Muslim Brotherhood (think Hamas in business suits) in charge, except the Brotherhood was too impatient and failed to neutralize the Egyptian Army first.

Turkey, on the other hand, seems now effectively run by a Muslim Brotherhood branch that was patient enough to spend the last decade completing the neutralization of the Turkish Army (with ongoing Western approval and even help.) This is the same Turkish Army which since Ataturk had a central political role in ensuring secular middle-class (minority) rule in Turkey. This point needs emphasizing: All those decades when Turkey was gaining its (rapidly-fading) reputation as the exemplar of a modern efficient westernized Moslem nation, it was being ruled by its secular middle-class minority via its Kemalist (IE, aggressively atheist) Army.

Post “leading from behind” Libya meanwhile can’t even muster the social coherence for a new one-man-one-vote-once dictatorship and has descended into violent anarchy.

It is becoming glaringly obvious that the guide star to steer policy decisions in such cases is not “democracy”. Nor, less obviously, is it necessarily “democratic republic” — any number of nations over the years have gotten terrible results despite modeling their government structures on ours — much of South America, among others.

I submit that the correct guiding goal for our policymakers is, rule by the middle class.

The middle class, “those with the goods of fortune in moderation”, almost by definition consists of those with the habit and discipline of looking at the long-term in making important decisions. (Without that, they won’t long remain middle class.) On the evidence, this extends to making sound long-term political decisions.

Consider: The US was founded with voting largely restricted to property-owners — effectively, to the middle-class and up. (Yes, yes, yes, largely to white male middle-class and up. No, no, no, I’m not here supporting those other early-days franchise restrictions.) By the time property qualifications were largely dropped, the majority of the US population had reached the middle class. (The early-to-mid-period US also had a thriving and very decentralized free press, by the way.)

Germany and Japan, post-WW2, meanwhile, were both relatively easy to reform into stable majority-rule representative democracies, both because their recent examples to the contrary were so horrible and because both countries already had or were very near middle-class majorities.

South Korea provides a usefully different example. Post WW2, South Korea was largely a peasant economy; its middle and upper classes a small minority. Democratic forms were imposed by the US occupiers, but South Korea was fortunate (or more likely some involved were wise enough) that the series of effective autocracies that resulted tended to focus on fostering and expanding South Korea’s middle class, to the point where South Korea eventually had a middle-class majority and was actually ready to transition to competent majority rule.

In Egypt, Turkey, and Libya, on the other hand, the middle classes are to varying degrees minorities, and the results of one-man-one-vote bad.

Tunisia was the exception to the “Arab Spring” turning out so badly, and that is very likely related to its middle class having apparently crossed over to majority status in recent decades.

I submit that in places where the middle class is a small minority, imposing doctrinaire democracy is a recipe for disastrous one-man-one-vote-once. If the locals are lucky they’ll merely get kleptocracy, if not, rule by murderous fanatics.

A realistic US policy in such cases would be exerting influence to foster some flavor of autocracy that will adopt a policy of growing the local middle class to the point where it’s ready to rule as a majority.

It occurs to me that the US actually did pursue something like that policy from the end of WW2 through the mid-seventies, although generally not defended as such. A case in point: The Shah’s Iran. The Shah was explicitly a secular pro-middle-class modernizer, but also explicitly anti one-man-one-vote. Iran’s majority was ill-educated peasants, like all such highly susceptible to demagoguery, and the Shah was no doubt aware what majority rule in Iran would lead to. After a prolonged western campaign successfully delegitimized the Shah as anti-democratic, well, we all know what it did in fact lead to.

A more recent example of what not to do is the 2010 US acquiescence in Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s refusal to hand over power despite losing his majority in Iraq’s parliament. Maliki’s by-then obvious Shia-uber-alles divisiveness aside, the US broke Iraq’s old government, and it was up to us to use our influence to keep the Iraqis from then immediately breaking their new one — to lead them (by the nose if necessary) through a practice exercise in peaceful transfer of power.

The current Islamic State is a direct consequence of that US policy failure (along with our simultaneous over-hasty troop withdrawal.)

Iraq, for what it’s worth, looks to me already fairly close to being majority middle-class, and could probably get there with less than a generation of competent economic and political management. It won’t, alas, get the needed guidance from us, on the evidence. We seem to have neither the political-class competence nor the patience for that sort of thing anymore.

Closer to home, I would say that the relationship between US education and economic policies that have been undermining our middle classes for decades (more and more are massively mal-educated and easily demagogued, while many are falling out of the middle classes entirely) and the current extreme shakiness of what’s left of our original republic hardly needs detailed exposition.

As for the “why” of this, the proper question is “cui bono” — who benefits — and the obvious answer is, the progressives that have been working to remove small-r republican restrictions on their power for a century now. Their obvious goal is to form a permanent voting majority either bribed (by them) from the public treasury or ignorant enough to be swayed (by them) via mass propaganda. Once they succeed, prudent middle-class rule is at an end. We’re just about there now.

The keys I see for saving our future as a free self-governing people are: To expand and decentralize information channels so centralized manipulation and mass-control becomes harder (if not impossible), and to expand rather than contract the size of the genuine middle class (IE those with middle-class virtues: Prudence and forethoughtfulness along with sufficient knowledge to apply these effectively) via sensible economic and education policies.

In other words, the progressives’ centralization and seizure of modern media and education systems would be cause for despair, save for the internet. We have hope, for as long as the internet too has not been centralized and seized.

In that regard, I find it more than a little worrying that our government and our internet moguls are in hot competition to create the tools to do exactly that. For just one example, data security and strict privacy ought to be the default in a basic smart phone, not an extra that costs thousands. Consider that if AT&T had data-mined landline calls the way Google and Apple data-mine smart phones and emails, AT&T’s management would have vacationed at Club Fed, not Fiji or Burning Man.

To sum up, the wisdom of nation-building abroad may be debatable, but when we do attempt it (or less debatable, when we encourage the locals to attempt it) we should not guarantee failure by ignoring the essential makeup of a competent electorate.

And we most especially should not attempt the very-much-needed nation-rebuilding here at home in a manner guaranteed to fail, no matter what progressive dogma we outrage in the process…

Resenting Super-Wizards

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Scott Adams (Dilbert) has dubbed the coming decades the Age of Magic because our smartphones and other technology will soon allow us to navigate our environment as if we are wizards:

Doors will identify us as we approach and unlock for the right wizards only. Lamps will respond to wizard hand signals from across the room. Cars will drive themselves. You get the picture. In about ten years you won’t need to physically touch anything you want to control. Your location and identity will be continuously broadcast from your smartphone, and because of that your environment will respond to your preferences as if by magic.

But here’s the interesting thing. People will have different levels of magic based on income. The top 1% will be like super-wizards, able to control their environments with both technology and money. If you are rich, you have access to more services, apps, clubs and businesses. Additional doors literally open for you as you approach. Stores offer you more services and even special sale prices. Self-driving taxis are never far from you because their central brain recognizes you as a frequent user. Or perhaps you paid extra to never wait more than two minutes for your taxi.

I won’t bore you with a million examples because I think you get the point. The environment will someday snap to attention when a rich person enters the room but it will ignore anyone who can’t afford a smartphone or can’t afford the services of businesses that allow you to control them via hand gestures and verbal command. Rich people will someday walk among the public like super-wizards.


My point is that if you think the resentment about the top 1% is bad now, imagine how bad it will be when the rich have super-wizard powers and the rest of society does not. In 2014, a top one-percenter can blend in with the crowd. In ten years that might be nearly impossible because the environment will change as rich people enter the space.

To that, I say, “Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.”

Six Great Things an Independent Scotland Could Do

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Nathan Lewis suggests six great things an independent Scotland could do:

Britain, today, is basically Spain or Italy plus the financial industry centered in London. Britain has been in decline for a long time. Eventually, the financial industry will locate elsewhere, most likely Shanghai.

Or, perhaps, Scotland. I think Scotland could again become a world leader in commerce and finance, as it was in the 18th century – along with other unlikely places like Holland, Hong Kong, Japan and Switzerland … or New York … who also had their time in the sun, until they blew it.

But, first Scotland would have to get off the sinking British ship. Here are six great things an independent Scotland could do to become one of the most prosperous places on Earth:

1) Get a rational tax system. There are two basic questions to answer regarding taxes. One is: how much, as a percentage of GDP, do we want to raise in the form of tax revenue? I suggest that about 15% (total government) is a good number, which can provide most of the government services we value today, while also presenting a very manageable burden upon the private economy. Singapore (14%) and China (17%) serve as good examples here.

The second question is: how to raise this amount of revenue in a fashion that causes the least harm and distortion to the private economy? Hong Kong’s flat-tax environment again provides an excellent example, although there are other modalities that could work, including systems based mostly on consumption-related taxes.

2) Get a rational currency policy. As a small country, with a high degree of trade, Scotland would have difficulty with a fully-independent currency. The exchange-rate fluctuation with other major world currencies would be troublesome. However, Scotland could adopt an “open currency” model – in other words, people could officially use any currency they see fit.

Into this “open currency” environment, Scotland’s government (or private entities with government sanction) could introduce gold-based currencies, which people could also use as they wished – or not use, if that is appropriate. In this way, Scotland would be providing an alternative to today’s fiat-currency madness, which people could adopt voluntarily if they felt it was helpful. Or, they could stick with dollars, euros and pounds if they felt that was best. After a few decades, I think many would find that Scotland’s gold-based solution was superior, and would either adopt the Scottish “gold sovereign” as an international currency, or imitate it.

3) Remake public social services. I’ve argued that Japan’s current fiscal problems, related to public pensions, healthcare, and other welfare services, are mostly characteristic of welfare programs that were invented in the late 19th century, and were appropriate for the 1950s and 1960s, but are no longer appropriate today. Independence would be a chance to introduce new public policy structures that are appropriate to today’s reality of long lifespans and low birthrates, without being too expensive. Hong Kong, formerly part of the British Empire, provides universal public healthcare at a cost of 3% of GDP.

4) Get a “competitive advantage” versus other financial centers. Financial surveillance and taxes in the U.S. are becoming intolerable to about everyone. Europe is not much better; besides, people are at risk of being “bailed-in” at any moment. Switzerland was once a haven for wealth and free finance, but that is not so true today. There’s a great market need for a place today that could be what Switzerland, or New York, was in the past. Singapore seems to provide about the best alternative at this point, along with places like the Cayman Islands.

5) Get a great environmental policy. Scotland used to have one of Europe’s great fisheries. In the 13th century, the natural oyster beds of the Forth covered over 129 square kilometers. Alas, by 1957, the Firth of Forth was found to have no oysters at all; they had been harvested to biological extinction. The nice thing here is that oysters (or other fishing) are no longer an important industry, so nobody cares if you ban fishing altogether. Perhaps, after forty years or so, Scotland will have again one of the most bountiful marine environments in Europe, if not the world.

Today, prosperity and abundance don’t necessarily have an environmental cost at all. The coal-burning factories of 19th-century Scotland need not be recreated. Additional progress could be made by phasing out personal automobiles by way of high taxes on petroleum and cars, much like Singapore or Britain today. Essentially, this would be a return to the train-centric arrangements of Scotland in, for example, 1890. Although Scotland is a major oil and gas producer, domestic energy efficiency would allow both greater energy independence and also more revenue from export sales.

6) Respect freedom and liberty. Tired of the surveillance state of Britain, the U.S., and (following close behind) the Eurozone? Move to Scotland.

This should be a familiar list. Indeed, it was the Scottish “political philosophers” who put much of it into words, a long time ago. The world then was also characterized by oppressive, militaristic statism, notably in the case of Louis XIV of France (1638-1715) and also James II of England (1633-1701). The Scots took a different path, and began their first era of world-beating success.

Scotland (population 5.3 million) could become much like Singapore (5.4 million) or Hong Kong (7.2 million), or even Monaco (36,000), a popular alternative to oppressive statism and economic decline throughout the developed world.

Along the way, Scots could get rich.

Catastrophe 1914

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

While reading Catastrophe 1914, by Max Hastings, Vox Day has noticed a few things:

  1. Civilian leadership usually appoints the wrong commanders.
  2. The main thing lacking in military leaders, from the highest level to the lowest, is a willingness to accept the risk of defeat. Nothing assures failure like indecisiveness.
  3. Advances in communications technology increases the amount of civilian interference into war operations.
  4. Civilian leadership seldom has a clear objective in mind.
  5. Military commanders regard “the book” as an intrinsic excuse and therefore have a tendency to cling to it.
  6. A historian’s take on a given war is strongly influenced by his nationalist sympathies.
  7. The temptation to interfere with a strategic plan once it is put into action appears to be almost overwhelming.

Tarot Counselors

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Robin Hanson recently watched a demonstration of Tarot card reading:

The reader threw out various associations of the cards she threw down, and watched the subject carefully for reactions, moving the interpretation closer to the options in which the client seemed to be more engaged. Though the subject was a skeptic, she admitted to finding the experience quite compelling.

Contrast such life readings to school career counselors. Such counselors usually refer to statistics about the income or gradations rates of broad categories of people given certain types of careers, colleges, or majors. Such advice may be evidence based but it seems far less compelling to students. It is not connected to salient recent personal experiences or the subjects, or to outcomes in which they are very emotionally engaged. It is clear but uncertain, in contrast to the certainty and ambiguity of Tarot readings.

It seems obvious to me that many students would be more engaged by more Tarot like career counseling. It also seems obvious that many parents and other citizens would loudly object, as this would be seen as unscientific and lower the status of this school, at least among elites. Even if the process just took on the appearance of Tarot readings but mainly gave the usual career counseling content.

The high status of science seems to push many people to have less compelling and engaging stories of their lives, even if such stories are more accurate.

Playing the Steppe Warfare Game

Monday, September 15th, 2014

The only way to dismantle a nomadic empire is to play the steppe warfare game as well as they do:

That meant changing both the strategic aims and tactical principles Chinese armies usually relied on in extended campaigns. Sunzi’s judgment that “one who excels in employing the military subjugates other people’s armies without engaging in battle, captures people’s fortified cities without attacking them, and destroys other people’s states without prolonged fighting. He must fight under Heaven with the paramount aim of ‘preservation’” was sensible in the context it was written — a world of agrarian warfare in an interstate system of two dozen petty kingdoms that lacked the means to sustain extended operations — but it was suicidal on the steppe. “Preservation” cannot be the paramount aim of an army operating on the steppe. A nomad that gets away is a nomad that will fight you on a later day. Conversely, nomadic peoples had very little in terms of lands, cities, or possessions worth plundering or preserving. A nomadic empire’s greatest wealth was its people. Warfare between nomadic confederations were ultimately wars over people, where one side would do everything in its power to slaughter as much as the enemy as they could and capture, forcibly resettle, and incorporate into their own military anybody left over.

The Han followed the same basic strategy. The aim of generals like Wei Qing and Huo Qubing was to kill every single man, woman and child they came across and by doing so instill such terror in their enemies that tribes would surrender en masse upon their arrival. By trapping the Xiongnu into one bloody slug match after another the Han forced them into a grinding war of attrition that favored the side with the larger population reserves. The Xiongnu were unprepared for such carnage in their own lands; within the first decade of the conflict the Han’s sudden attacks forced the Xiongnu to retreat from their homeland in the Ordos to the steppes of northern Mongolia. Then came a sustained — and successful — effort to apply the same sort of pressure on the Xiongnu’s allies and vassals in Turkestan and Fergana. By sacking oasis towns and massacring tribes to the east, the Han were able to terrorize the peoples of Turkestan into switching their allegiance to China or declare their independence from the Xiongnu.

The Xiongnu were left isolated north of the Orkhorn. Under constant military pressure and cut off from the goods they had always extorted from agrarian peoples in China and Turkestan, the Xiongnu political elite began to fracture. A series of succession crises and weak leaders ensued; by 58 BC the Xiongnu’s domain had fallen into open civil war. It was one of the aspiring claimants to the title of Chanyu that this conflict produced who traveled to Chang’an, accepted the Han’s suzerainty, and ended eighty years of war between the Han and the Xiongnu.

How did the Chinese transform an enemy whose realm stretched thousands of miles across Inner Asia into a mere tributary vassal? They did it through eighty years of flame and blood and terror. Any narrative of Han-Xiongnu relations that passes over these sixty years of grueling warfare is a dishonest depiction of the times.

The Han Logistics Machine

Saturday, September 13th, 2014

The logistics machine the Han created to defeat the Xiongnu is one of the marvels of the ancient world, T. Greer explains:

Each of the Han’s campaigns was a feat worthy of Alexander. Alexander only pushed to India once. The Han launched these campaigns year after year for decades. The sheer expanse of the conflict is staggering; Han armies ranged from Fergana to Manchuria, theaters 3,000 miles apart. Each campaign required the mobilization of tens of thousands of men and double the number of animals.

A New US Army Air Corp

Friday, September 12th, 2014

The President has said that he will destroy the Caliphate, but there hasn’t been much shock or awe yet, Jerry Pournelle notes:

Of course one can only send what one has. What is really needed is Delta Force ground units with several squadrons of Warthogs (A-10 Thunderbolt). Actually, P-47 Thunderbolts would do, but we don’t have any of those. Ground units with adequate sir support under and air supremacy umbrella is generally successful in any kind of war, whether the enemy is the Wehrmacht of the North Vietnamese Army of 1972 when it invaded the South. Note that in that campaign, the North Vietnamese lost over 100,000 in killed, disabled, or captured; the US lost under 500 troops total in battles involving more enemy armor than many World War II engagements.

What is really needed is to form a new United States Army Air Corps with a 3-star general in command; its mission would be to design, develop, procure, train, and generally plan operations of air weapons suitable for support of the field army. That structure would provide a career path for those who wish to specialize in air/ground war. Of course USAF will never allow this, although they don’t understand or want the ground support operations mission, even though that is what is decisive in this kind of war.

USAF has one of the world’s best civil engineering capabilities: they build and operate bases. Perhaps the Army could borrow USAF construction units to build bases in Peshmurga controlled Iraq; the Army would have to provide security. Under present USAF/US Army turf treaties, the Army has to use helicopters, which are far more vulnerable to ground based opposition. This gives hot USAF pilots more missions, since air supremacy (which includes elimination of ground based anti-air weapons) is an Air Force specialty and they are very good at it. The problem is that when it comes to any budget crises, it’s the Thunderbolts that go first, leaving the Army stuck with vulnerable helicopters.

An American ground/air expeditionary force with unified command structure sounds like the Marines, but they don’t have optimum ground army support aircraft either.

Four squadrons of Warthogs and a regiment of Green Berets would eliminate the Caliphate in short order, recapturing or destroying the expensive weapons we gave the ineffective Iraqi forces which threw them down in their retreat from ISIS. Of course it would be hard on the areas that must be reconquered, but so is occupation by the Caliphate.

Regarding the President’s speech, in the wake of our operations since Benghazi, I am not sure that the Caliphate has been impressed. Had dawn come up over Iraq to reveal massive air strikes including carpet bombing by B-52’s, along with a maximum effort from Navy and Marine aircraft, the result might be different.

We have Delta Force, the CIA teams, and the Green Beret forces; we have ground support aircraft, and we have an Air Force that, once it is told unmistakably that the mission is to support our Legionnaires who will guide the Peshmerga, can do this job. Of course that is expensive. Perhaps we can take some of the profits from the oil fields we will liberate. I am sure the Kurds will be glad to share that revenue with us. And the sight of a US-Kurdish cooperative venture resulting in victory should provide a salutary lesson to the new Iraqi government – as well as give Iran something to think about.

Of course nothing of this sort will happen under President Obama. One does wonder what Vice President Biden would do if put in charge. At least he has said that we will pursue the Caliphate to the gates of Hell.

Ask Peter Thiel Anything

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

Peter Thiel is doing a Reddit AMA. Some highlights:

  • Most people deal with aging by some strange combination of acceptance and denial. I think the psychological blocks to thinking about aging run very deep, and we need to think about it in order to really fight it.
  • The zero-sum world [The Social Network] portrayed has nothing in common with the Silicon Valley I know, but I suspect it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of the dysfunctional relationships that dominate Hollywood.
  • Start with focusing on a small market and dominate that market first.
  • What did you think when you first met Elon Musk? Very smart, very charismatic, and incredibly driven — a very rare combination, since most people who have one of these traits learn to coast on the other two.
    It was kind of scary to be competing against his startup in Palo Alto in Dec 1999-Mar 2000.
  • Is Palantir a front for the CIA? No, the CIA is a front for Palantir.
  • If technology involves doing more with less, than US health care (like US education) is the core of “anti-technology” in this country: For the last four decades, we have been spending more and more for the same (or even for less).
  • At 22, I didn’t think it was important to meet people.
  • In your view, has the Thiel Fellowship been a success? Yes, on both a micro and a macro scale.
    Micro: the 83 fellows have collectively raised $63 million, and a number of their companies are tracking towards solid Series B venture rounds. Almost all of them did and learned far more than they would have in college.
    Macro: we started an important debate about the education bubble. Student debt is over $1 trillion in this country, and much of that money has gone to pay for lies that people tell about how great the education they received was.
  • I like the genre of past books written about the future, e.g.: Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis; JJ Servan-Schreiber, The American Challenge; Norman Angell, The Great Illusion; Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age.
  • In the Soviet Union, chess was considered a sport — and I think that’s the one thing the communists got right.
  • I don’t agree with the libertarian description of the NSA as “big brother.” I think Snowden revealed something that looks more like the Keystone Kops and very little like James Bond.
  • Most people believe that capitalism and competition are synonyms, and I think they are opposites. A capitalist accumulates capital, and in a world of perfect competition all the capital gets competed away: The restaurant industry in SF is very competitive and very non-capitalistic (e.g., very hard way to make money), whereas Google is very capitalistic and has had no serious competition since 2002.
  • PayPal built a payment system but failed in its goal in creating a “new world currency” (our slogan from back in 2000). Bitcoin seems to have created a new currency (at least on the level of speculation), but the payment system is badly lacking.
    I will become more bullish on Bitcoin when I see the payment volume of Bitcoin really increase.
  • What is your view on Neoreaction? Sounds like a self-contradiction — if you’re reactionary, why do you need the “neo?”
  • I think there’s been a Gresham’s Law in science funding in this country, as the political people who are nimble in the art of writing government grants have gradually displaced the eccentric and idiosyncratic people who typically make the best scientists. The eccentric university professor is a species that is going extinct fast.
  • If our great expectations about the future are not realized, then we need to save way more than we are doing today. China (with 40% savings) is perhaps more “rational” than the US (with about 0% savings), at least in a world of general stagnation.
  • Sociopathic investor behavior that worked shockingly well in the 1980s and 90s will work much less well in today’s more transparent and founder-centric world.
    As an investor, I think one must always maintain a certain amount of humility. There is only so much we can do to help the companies in which we invest. And because of this, the act of making the investment (rather than the ability to fix things later) remains by far the most important thing we do.
  • A sense of mission is critical, but I think the word “social” is problematically ambiguous: it can mean either (1) good for society, or (2) seen as good by society.
    In the second meaning, it leads to me-too copycat companies. I think the field of social entrepreneurship is replete with these, and that this is one of the reasons these businesses have not been that successful to date.
  • Biggest mistake ever was not to do the Series B round at Facebook.
    General lesson: Whenever a tech startup has a strong up round led by a top tier investor (Accel counts), it is generally still undervalued. The steeper the up round, the greater the undervaluation.
  • Yes, I think [Henry] George is a really interesting thinker. The idea that we should tax land heavily (and perhaps not tax anything else at all) is very interesting, since many of the bad monopolies in our society involve the unholy coalition of urban slumlords and pseudo-environmentalists.
  • I think Andreessen is half-right: Snowden is both a hero and a traitor.
    It is really unfortunate that there were no internal checks in our system, and so it took something like Snowden breaking all the rules for us to have a serious discussion about the NSA.
  • Even when one understands that exponential growth and exponential forces are incredibly important, it is still hard to internalize this. PayPal was growing at 7%/day at the time of the launch (Oct 99-Apr 2000, from 24 users to 1 million), and we did not fully fathom the rocket we were riding.
  • I do not find myself fully on the side of any of our political leaders — because none of them are fully on my side.