The End of Innocence

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Steve Blank, prompted by a tale of PR companies posting positive reviews for their clients’ apps, shares an anecdote that illustrates the end of innocence:

When I was in my mid 20’s working at ESL, I was sent overseas to a customer site where the customers were our three-letter intelligence agencies. All of us knew who they were, understood how important this site was for our country, and proud of the work we were doing. (Their national technical means of verification made the world a safer place and hastened the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.)

As a single guy, I got to live in a motel-like room on the site while the married guys lived in town in houses and tried to blend in with the locals. When asked what they did, they said they worked at “the xxx research facility.” (Of course the locals translated that to “oh do you work for the yyy or zzz intelligence agency?”)

One warm summer evening I got invited over to the house of a married couple from my company for a BBQ and after-dinner entertainment — drinking mass quantities of the local beer. The quintessential California couple, they stood out in our crowd as the engineer (in his late 20’s, respected by his peers and the customer) had hair down to his shoulders, sharply contrasting with the military crewcuts of the customers and most of the other contractors. His wife, about my age, could have been a poster child for the stereotypical California hippie surfer, with politics that matched her style — anti-war, anti-government, anti-establishment.

One of the rules in the business was that you didn’t tell your spouse, girlfriend, significant other who you worked for or what you worked on — ever. It was always a welcome change of pace to leave the brown of the unchanging desert and travel into town and have dinner with them and have a non-technical conversation about books, theater, politics, travel, etc. But it was a bit incongruous to hear her get wound up and rail against our government and the very people we were all working for. Her husband would look at me out the corner of his eyes and then we’d segue the conversation to some other topic.

That evening I was there with three other couples cooking over the barbie in their backyard. After night fell we reconvened in their living room as we continued to go through the local beer. The conversation happened to hit on politics and culture and my friend’s’ wife innocently offered up she had lived in a commune in California. Well that created a bit of alcohol-fueled cross-cultural disconnect and heated discussion.

Until one of the other wives changed a few lives forever with a slip of the tongue.

One of the other wives asked, “Well what would your friends in the commune think of you now that your husband is working for intelligence agencies x and y?”

As soon as the words came out of her mouth, I felt time slow down. The other couples laughed for about half a second expecting my friend’s wife to do so as well. But instead the look on her face went from puzzlement in processing the question, to concentration, as she was thinking and correlating past questions she had about who exactly her husband had been working for. It seemed like forever before she asked with a look of confusion, “What do you mean agencies x and y?”

The laughter in the room stopped way too soon, and the room got deathly quiet. Her face slowly went from a look of puzzlement to betrayal to horror as she realized that that the drunken silence, the dirty looks from other husbands to the wife who made the agency comment, and the wives now staring at their shoes was an answer.

She had married someone who never told her who he was really working for. She was living in a lie with people she hated. In less than a minute her entire worldview had shattered and coming apart in front of us, she started screaming.

This probably took no more than 10 seconds, but watching her face, it felt like hours.

I don’t remember how we all got out of the house or how I got back to the site, but to this day I still remember standing on her lawn staring at strange constellations in the night sky as she was screaming to her husband, “Tell me it isn’t true!”

The next day the site supervisor told me that my friend and his wife had been put on the next plane out of country and sent home (sedated) along with the other couple that made the comment. By the time I came back to the United States, he was gone from the company.

It’s been thirty years, but every once an awhile I still wonder what happened to the rest of their lives.

Strategy a Function of Skill

Monday, August 24th, 2009

The ideal strategy is a function of skill:

Simon Ramo identified the crucial difference between being a good at ‘amateur’ tennis, and professional tennis: for the best of the best, you need good ‘winning’ shots; to be a good ‘average’ player, you need to merely lower your failure rate. In expert tennis, 80% of the points are won, while in amateur tennis, 80% are lost.

Erik Falkenstein brings this notion into the world of investing:

I think this is relevant to investing, in that for retail investors, who don’t have an edge, they should prioritize the following: minimize costs and diversify. For that select few with an edge, the focus is on fundamentals (financial statements, business model), and though you minimize costs and diversify to the degree you can, it isn’t a priority.

In Battle, Hunches Prove to Be Valuable

Monday, August 24th, 2009

In battle, hunches prove to be valuable, and now researchers are studying what that means:

“On one route sweep mission, there was a noticeable I.E.D. in the middle of the road, but it was a decoy,” said Lt. Donovan Campbell, who in 2004 led a Marine platoon for seven months of heavy fighting in Ramadi and wrote a vivid book, “Joker One,” about the experience. “The real bomb was encased in concrete, a hundred meters away, in the midst of rubble. One of my Marines spotted it. He said, ‘That block looks too symmetrical, too perfect.’ ”

Lieutenant Campbell had the area cleared and the bomb destroyed.

“Unless you know what rubble in that part of Iraq looks like, there’s no way you’d see that,” he said. “I had two guys, one we called Hound Dog, who were really good at spotting things that didn’t fit.”

The men and women who performed best in the Army’s I.E.D. detection study had the sort of knowledge gained through experience, according to a preliminary analysis of the results; but many also had superb depth perception and a keen ability to sustain intense focus for long periods. The ability to pick odd shapes masked in complex backgrounds — a “Where’s Waldo” type of skill that some call anomaly detection — also predicted performance on some of the roadside bomb simulations.

“Some of these things cannot be trained, obviously,” said Jennifer Murphy, a psychologist at the Army Research Institute and the principal author of the I.E.D. study. “But some may be; these are fighters who become very sensitive to small changes in the environment. They’ll clear the same road every day and notice ridiculously subtle things: this rock was not here yesterday.”

Why Do We Call Galileo Galilei by His First Name?

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Why do we call Galileo Galilei by his first name?

Because that’s how he referred to himself. At the time of Galileo’s birth in 1564, surnames were optional in Italy. In daily interactions, an Italian would use the name his parents gave him at birth — what we’d now call a first name — and, if further clarification were required, add on his father’s name (like di Antonio, or “son of Antonio”), his birthplace (Romano, or “from Rome”), his occupation (Pannetierre, meaning “baker”), or a traditional family surname (if one existed, like Galilei).

The Italian astronomer’s name is unusually confusing because both Galileo and Galilei were surnames used by his family for generations. (An equivalent might be “William Williams.”) This was not a particularly common practice at the time. Moreover, the name Galileo itself, although not completely unique, was quite rare. This is part of the reason we continue to use his first name only — it’s unambiguous.

In Renaissance Italy, individuals didn’t even stick with the same second, or identifying, name throughout their lives. Many used their family surnames one day and place of birth the next, depending on the circumstances. Take Leonardo da Vinci. Because Vinci was a very small town, calling himself Leonardo from the town of Vinci left little room for confusion — unless, of course, he was in Vinci at the time. (Leonardo was a common name.) In that case, the artist would probably have called himself Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, making reference to his father. Once he became famous, he often signed his name simply “Leonardo.” Galileo referred to himself sometimes by first name only, sometimes as Galileo Galilei, and sometimes as Galileo Galilei Linceo (a nod to his alliance with a progressive group of scientists, which served, in part, as a kind of honorific). Also, because the convention was so casual, some individuals weren’t consistent with spelling or construction. Negri, Negro, de Negro, or Neri might all refer to the same person.

The governments of the various Italian city-states eventually grew frustrated by their citizens’ constantly shifting last names — without standardization, it was difficult to levy taxes or enforce military registration requirements. Beginning in Galileo’s lifetime, therefore, laws swept through Italy requiring parents to record both first and last names for their children. If a family had a traditional surname, they usually used that. If not, they resorted to town of origin or occupation, and then these names were passed down through the generations. For the first time, a person named da Vinci might not actually be from Vinci. A man named Ferrari might not be a blacksmith. Italians also had to record their names upon marriage and death with either church or state authorities, depending on the area. Italy was a bit of a latecomer in this regard. Many nearby countries, like France and Germany, had systematized surnames generations earlier. This is probably why we don’t refer to Johannes Kepler, Galileo’s colleague and regular correspondent, or Nicolaus Copernicus, who pre-dated Galileo, as Johannes and Nicolaus.

How do Afghani drug lords spend their absurd earnings?

Monday, August 24th, 2009

How do Afghani drug lords spend their absurd earnings? It’s not practical to spend it all abroad:

So Afghanistan’s drug lords import loaded Lexus Land Cruisers with tinted windows and video entertainment systems. They throw parties. Haji Jumah Khan’s parties were highly alcoholic, lasted all night, and featured prostitutes flown in from Russia. Mainly, though, they build stuff — they remake the country to accommodate their acquired appetites. The pioneering Khan bought a town (land, buildings) in southern Helmand Province and transformed it into a rejuvenating way-station for his drug runners, who could pause after their travails and walk, self-reflectively, along the shores of a big artificial lake.

“Narcotecture” is the term used in Afghanistan to describe what the drug lords build. The Sherpur neighborhood in Kabul has the greatest concentration of narcotecture, but the phenomenon is national. Square blocks are razed, ancient family compounds are razed, and narco-palaces, sometimes several on a single vast lot, go up. The mansions may have twelve bathrooms, four kitchens, and rooftop parking lots. Many are fenced and armored; all are guarded.

Stylistically, narcotecture is incoherent and dizzyingly busy. Residences are composed of clashing globe-spanning elements: Asian pagoda tiers and eaves curving to points, Greek temple columns, mirrored skyscraper glass, medieval-castle balustrades and parapets, Persian pillars and arches, arabesque wrought-iron balcony railings, confectionary plasterwork. Some are straight imitations: a White House is under construction in Sherpur.

Inside: three-thousand-dollar Italian chandeliers, basement swimming pools, neon lighting systems that saturate floors. One mansion, according to Monocle magazine, has neon floors in alternating colors: blue on the second floor, pink on the first floor, and a “tutti-fruiti mélange” in the basement.

These structures look down upon, usually, squalor, the condition in which most Aghans live. A private residence with fourteen bathrooms may occupy the same unpaved street as tin-sheet huts and bomb-wrecked, squatter-occupied buildings exposed to unchanneled flows of sewage.

You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Nick Waanders employed a creative variant of the kanban to get his game-development team to focus on what really mattered — call it, You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry:

It’s hard to convince a team of 100 people that the programmers can’t simply “fix” the performance of the engine, and that some of the ways people had gotten used to working to needed to be changed. People needed to understand that the performance of the game was everybody’s problem, and I figured the best way to do this is with a bit of humor that had a bit of hidden truth behind it.

The solution took maybe an hour. A fellow programmer took four pictures of my face — one really happy, one normal, one a bit angry, and one where I am pulling my hair out. I put this image in the corner of the screen, and it was linked to the frame rate. If the game ran at over 30 fps, I was really happy; if it ran below 20, I was angry.

After this change, the whole FPS issue transformed from, “Ah, the programmers will fix it,” to, “Hmm, if I put this model in, Nick is going to be angry! I’d better optimize this a little first.” People could instantly see if a change they made had an impact on the frame rate, and we ended up shipping the game at 30 fps.

Politicians are like drum majors

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

Politicians are like drum majors, Eric Falkenstein says:

To many unaccustomed to what marching bands do, it seems they rule the roost. In fact, they merely are little garnishes, of what composers, and directors, and first chairs, have done. So too politicians, they are, and desire to be, inkblots, whatever you read into them as long as it’s positive.

Colonialism works too well

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

The US State Department — with its satellites in the “international community” — could rule the Third World, if it wanted to, Mencius Moldbug asserts — but the current situation is a perfect reflection of bureaucratic imperatives:

Bureaucracies tend to maximize their impact. They are often quite shy about expanding their authority, especially if it is formal authority — because once you take authority over something, you have essentially taken responsibility for it. Bureaucracies are not fond of responsibility. Who wants to be responsible for the Third World?

Perhaps the dirtiest secret of decolonialization is that bureaucracies prefer the postcolonial model to the colonial model, “advice” and “aid” to actual rule, because the postcolonial model generates more jobs. Vastly more Westerners are involved in failing to run the Third World, than ran thee same countries successfully when they were colonies.

For example, to run Egypt — a country of 10 million people, then — Cromer had about 1000 British civil servants. If you count all the Western diplomats, development experts, NGOistas, and the like, for whom the present parlous state of Egypt provides employment, how many do you get? A lot more than 1 per 10,000 Egyptians, I suspect. How many Westerners are employed in bandaging and rebandaging the permanent ulcer of Africa? Um, a lot.

The Third World, as a government program, is just another permanent money hole on the balance sheet of the developed world. Just as with any business they operate, governments — Western governments — have turned their colonies into operations whose goal is to employ as many civil servants as possible. Any type of efficiency or success is a menace to these programs, not a boon.

Good government is always small government, and small government does not scale as a jobs program. If you have one Canadian Cromer running Guantanamo City like a startup, there is no room for everyone’s students to go to Toronto and get jobs. You probably don’t need more than a hundred Canadians to rule Guantanamo City. Colonial regimes are simply too good — they achieved remarkable and unprecedented bureaucrat-to-subject ratios.

Whereas if the Canadians say “yes” to the Guantanamo People’s Party, allows elections, and thus replaces the professional Canadian administrators with illiterate Haitian demagogues, they create a jobs boom in the Guantanamo-advising business. For every administrative position that disappears, ten will be created in aid and development assistance. It may not be in the interest of Canada, or Guantanamo City, to bring about this change — indeed, it isn’t. But it is surely in the interest of whatever Canadian agency is running Guantanamo City.

Thus the practical problem with “charter cities” is that no one wants them: not the host regime, not the international regime. For both, they simply work too well. Colonialism had to die not because it didn’t work, but because it worked too well.

The Ethics of Golf

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

I’m not inclined to ponder the ethics of golf, but Steve Sailer is:

Now, you might think that what would actually be most interesting from an ethical perspective about golf is that it’s the most prominent sport in which players are required to referee themselves on the honor code. In 1984, I watched Arnold Palmer knock himself of contention on the next to last hole of the United States Senior Open by calling a penalty on himself that absolutely no one else saw or even could have seen. In sharp contrast, the culture of most other big time sports encourages players to cheat when the ref isn’t looking.

What prompted Sailer to consider the topic was a recent New York Times Magazine column, in which “ethicist” Randy Cohen asks, is golf unethical?

Last week in Berlin, the International Olympic Committee’s executive board voted to recommend that golf be included in the 2016 Games; the full membership will vote in October. In July, in Caracas, the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez denounced golf as “a bourgeois sport,” and officials have taken steps to close two courses. The joys or miseries of playing the game aside, when it comes to assessing golf’s underlying ethos, who is more persuasive, Chávez or the I.O.C.?

I can’t imagine taking Chávez seriously — but Cohen can:

While it would be oversimplifying either to uncritically exalt or utterly damn the culture of golf, on balance Chávez has the stronger case. The golf community, like most others, is neither monolithic nor immutable, but the current customs and values of big-time professional golfers, those most likely to dominate Olympic play, seem remote from the Olympic ideal. …

American golfers are even more homogeneous and more conservative than their global colleagues, Selcraig asserts, citing a Sports Illustrated survey of 76 P.G.A. tour players: 91 percent endorsed the confirmation of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.; 88 percent supported the invasion of Iraq; and 0 percent had seen “Brokeback Mountain.” Not science, perhaps, but not unrevealing.

As stated on an official Olympic Web site, “the goal of the Olympic Movement” — it is a movement, not just a gateway to a Wheaties box — “is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination … with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” The culture Selcraig describes is more redolent of a gated community than amiable international populism.

As Sailer remarks, the ethical issue for golf is whether it wants to lower itself to the level of the Olympics.

Dumb Zombie Models

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

Anomaly UK also noted the recent paper providing a mathematical model of a zombie outbreak, but he went one step further than most of us who simply chuckled and then moved on:

The problem with it is that it’s stupid. It’s not stupid because it’s a stupid idea, or a waste of time, or the wrong approach, or anything like that, it’s just done really badly.

Basically, the authors make some simple assumptions about the rate at which the dead rise from graves, the rate at which they turn humans into zombies, and the rate at which humans kill them, and show that in any outbreak the zombies will kill everyone. They add a few slightly more subtle tweaks, and show that the zombies will still kill everyone.

Their conclusions rest entirely on one assumption that they make at the beginning and never defend, which is that dead people turn into zombies without any provocation, at a rate proportional to the number of dead people. That is, the number of new zombies rising in a given night is proportional to the number of people who have ever died (and not already risen). Even if you kill a zombie, it just goes back to being a dead person and will rise again in due course (proportional to the model parameter ?).

Well, duh. Obviously in those circumstances the human race will be replaced by zombies. It really doesn’t take a lot of mathematics to work that out.

Good Forecasts Will Strike Most People as Too Simple

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

Good forecasts will strike most people as too simple, Eric Falkenstein notes — so put a little squiggle at the end:

The issue was put well in a test by Tversky and Edwards in 1966 (“Information versus reward in binary choices,” Journal of Experimental. Psychology 71, 680–683). Subjects were shown a succession of cards, each card either red or blue. 70% of the cards were blue, and 30% red; the color sequence was random. The subjects, asked to bet on each succeeding card, would guess blue around 70% of the time, and red about 30% of the time. They didn’t realize that their betting pattern did not have to resemble the observed sequence of cards. On each round, blue is the most likely next card. The best strategy is not betting a mostly-blue pattern resembling the mostly-blue sequence, but betting all blue.

Under conditions of uncertainty, your optimal forecast pattern doesn’t resemble a typical sequence, because optimally you should assume every random disturbance equals zero, when we know it will actually be merely distributed around zero.

Probabilistically, the more detail, the more unlikely; in practice, convincing scenarios have a lot of specificity, like a good novel. But novels are fiction, and the future is not. Thus, 4 variable Vector-Auto-Regressions outdo 400-equation macro models, and default models with 4 inputs out-do CFA worksheets that examine 50 different accounting ratios. This is obviously non-intuitive, not natural, as demonstrated by Tversky and Edwards, but also if you look at the standard tools to evaluate credit risk which give you so much information.

Thus, paradoxically, a good model should be a tougher sell than an overfit model. If the great unwashed (but white collar) masses like your ‘model’, you are probably going to fail if your goal is to predict well. A good model should cause unsophisticated people (i.e., most people) to think your model is insufficiently complex, because, intuitively, it is missing components X, Y and Z we see in actual data. But adding X, Y and Z merely increases the mean-squared error. Modeling ‘feature creep’ comes from giving people what they want, rather than what they need.

Democracy for Guantanamo City

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

Mencius Moldbug has a question for Paul Romer, who is currently promoting the notion of charter cities:

Suppose your good Mr. Castro says yes, and you get your Guantanamo City up and running, with its Haitian population and Canadian proconsuls. It is, of course, a smashing success, with investment galore.

And then, in ten years, a mob of Haitians gathers in the beautifully landscaped central square, wearing coloured rosettes and throwing rotten eggs, all chanting a single demand: democracy for Guanatanamo City. The Canadians, all in a tizzy, call you. It’s the middle of the night in Palo Alto. You pick up the phone. “What should we say?” the Canadians ask. “Yes, or no?”

If they say yes — what, in ten years, will be the difference between Guantanamo and Haiti? If they say no — what do they say next? You’ll notice that you have no answer to this question. Hell has little pity for those who decide to forget history.

The charter-city proposal fails, Moldbug asserts, because it will never be tried, and if it is it won’t work:

Why is the Third World a kleptocracy, rather than a capitalist utopia? Let’s take Cuba, renowned worldwide for the purity of its revolutionary ideology. In their promotion of European and Canadian tourism, the Castros have proven canny, avaricious and unromantic businessmen, fine evidence that they were always just thugs and never believed in the whole caper to begin with. Even without Professor Romer, it’s quite clear that the Chinese model is extremely profitable and effective. Cuba doesn’t need Guantanamo, and it doesn’t need Canadians — it has no shortage of competent administrators. It could set up a special economic zone anywhere. Why doesn’t it?

The answer is that the existence of any such entity would constitute an immediate political threat to their regime. Why does socialism abhor private corporations? Because a corporation is a power structure which is not subject to official authority. In a Communist propaganda state, dependent on the continuous mass adulation of its subjects, no such independence is tolerable.

In more kleptocratic regimes, such as are found in Africa, the problem is even simpler and cruder: everyone in government steals. Anyone in government who does not steal is a threat, because his hands are clean while everyone else’s are dirty. He might go to the Americans, and they might make him President. And any enterprise which cannot be stolen from is a threat, because every other enterprise will demand the same privilege.

If Professor Romer expects these types of regimes to cede him a tract of uninhabited land, he is dreaming. All Third World nations are saturated with anticolonialist religion, which will trivially recognize his proposal for exactly what it is, and provides the best possible basis for directing political violence against it. That’s how the Third World got to be the Third World, after all.

The Land Ironclads

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

H.G. Wells’ The Land Ironclads famously predicted the modern tank — in 1903, well before the first tank saw combat in 1916 — but it also predicted trench warfare and stormtrooper tactics:

The young lieutenant lay beside the war correspondent and admired the idyllic calm of the enemy’s lines through his fieldglass.

‘So far as I can see,’ he said at last, ‘one man.’

‘What’s he doing?’ asked the war correspondent.

‘Field-glass at us,’ said the young lieutenant.

‘And this is war?’

‘No,’ said the young lieutenant, ‘it’s Bloch.’

‘The game’s a draw.’

‘No! They’ve got to win or else they lose. A draw’s a win for our side.’
They had been there a month. Since the first brisk movements after the declaration of war things had gone slower and slower, until it seemed as though the whole machine of events must have run down. To begin with, they had had almost a scampering time; the invader had come across the frontier on the very dawn of the war in half-a-dozen parallel columns behind a cloud of cyclists and cavalry, with a general air of coming straight on the capital, and the defender horsemen had held him up, and peppered him and forced him to open out, to outflank, and had then bolted to the next position in the most approved style, for a couple of days, until in the afternoon, bump! they had the invader against their prepared lines of defence.

He did not suffer so much as had been hoped and expected: he was coming on, it seemed, with his eyes open, his scouts winded the guns, and down he sat at once without the shadow of an attack and began grubbing trenches for himself, as though he meant to sit down there to the very end of time. He was slow, but much more wary than the world had been led to expect, and he kept convoys tucked in and shielded his slow-marching infantry sufficiently well to prevent any heavy adverse scoring.

‘But he ought to attack,’ the young lieutenant had insisted.

‘He’ll attack us at dawn, somewhere along the lines. You’ll get the bayonets coming into the trenches just about when you can see,’ the war correspondent had held until a week ago.

The young lieutenant winked when he said that.

When one early morning the men the defenders sent to lie out five hundred yards before the trenches, with a view to the unexpected emptying of magazines into any night attack, gave way to causeless panic and blazed away at nothing for ten minutes, the war correspondent understood the meaning of that wink.

‘What would you do if you were the enemy?’ said the war correspondent, suddenly.

‘If I had men like I’ve got now?’


‘Take those trenches.’


‘Oh — dodges! Crawl out half-way at night before moon-rise, and get into touch with the chaps we send out. Blaze at ‘em if they tried to shift, and so bag some of ‘em in the daylight. Learn that patch of ground by heart, lie all day in squatty holes, and come on nearer next night. There’s a bit over there, lumpy ground, where they could get across to rushing distance — easy.

In a night or so. It would be a mere game for our fellows; it’s what they’re made for…. Guns? Shrapnel and stuff wouldn’t stop good men who meant business.’

The Insidiousness of Government Solutions

Friday, August 21st, 2009

The Atlantic‘s American Murder Mystery is about the demolition of Memphis’s public-housing projects, as part of a nationwide experiment to free the poor from the destructive effects of concentrated poverty:

Memphis demolished its first project in 1997. The city gave former residents federal “Section8” rent-subsidy vouchers and encouraged them to move out to new neighborhoods. Two more waves of demolition followed over the next nine years, dispersing tens of thousands of poor people into the wider metro community.

If police departments are usually stingy with their information, housing departments are even more so. Getting addresses of Section 8 holders is difficult, because the departments want to protect the residents’ privacy…. Janikowski merged his computer map of crime patterns with Betts’s map of Section8 rentals…. the match was near-perfect… She knew right away that this would be a “hard thing to say or write.” Nobody in the antipoverty community and nobody in city leadership was going to welcome the news that the noble experiment that they’d been engaged in for the past decade had been bringing the city down, in ways they’d never expected.

This leads Erik Falkenstein to discuss the insidiousness of government “solutions”:

The idea began with Lyndon Johnson’s Kaiser Commission on Urban Housing, which mistakenly believed that the private housing market created poverty, and the ills associated with it, by making housing too expensive. Thus, by reducing housing expenses via vouchers, and spreading the poor around the community, poverty, and the social ills associated with it, would fade away. That’s the theory. It turns out, the main problem of poor people is not a lack of money, but the temperance, diligence, thrift and other bourgeois virtues needed to be good citizens and neighbors. They bring their bad habits with them, statistically.

Given that it took 40 years to document this, this means that any big policy started today, will probably not be amenable to empirical analysis in my lifetime. Less than the 70 years of communism in the Soviet Union, but same scale. That’s the big risk to big top-down ideas.

But the insidiousness comes from the way the government, from federal down to city level, hid this data for decades because they didn’t want people to discriminate against section 8 areas or their residents. This means, if they put a high concentration of people with high criminality next to your house, they didn’t want you to know, based on the assumption that the poor’s behavior was either due to a lack of housing (which section 8 addresses directly), or the ‘stereotype effect’ from people who see them as poor. But the theory was wrong, and so all those millions of people had to deal with this problem themselves, and if they asked questions in local papers, they were labeled racist, or anti-poor.

The English word for "charter city" is colony

Friday, August 21st, 2009

The English word for “charter city” is colony, Mencius Moldbug notes:

The fundamental observation of colonialism is that non-European societies thrive under normal European administration, at least in comparison to their condition under native rule. This observation was obvious during the colonial period. Since, it has only grown more so — at least, to those who can handle the truth.

If this observation is “condescending,” so is Professor Romer’s proposal. If it is invalid, so is Professor Romer’s proposal. If it is neither, Professor Romer’s 18 minutes should be invested in introducing, explaining, and defending the original observers — not on passing it off as his own “radical idea.”

The most casual inspection of history reveals the observation’s truth. By any comparison with colonial government, precolonial regimes provided extremely poor service. Spend a little time with the Ashanti or the Mahrattas. So have postcolonial regimes. Rent a room at the Grande Hotel Beira sometime. If you remain trapped in your outdated, 20th-century thinking and prefer statistics to intuition and narrative, the observation is still so obvious that it is impossible for me to imagine any set of governance metrics which could conceal it.

Moreover, Professor Romer’s other distinctions are obviously without substance. The claim that there is any serious distinction between a “colony” and a “charter city” founded on “uninhabited land” is preposterous. Many great colonial cities, such as Bombay, Calcutta, and Singapore, were founded on uninhabited land. So in general were the original colonies of the antique era — the Phocaeans didn’t conquer Marseilles, they created it.

And so was Hong Kong, a Crown Colony of the British Empire. Which, built on uninhabited land, by some miracle survived almost intact into the 21st century. It is not that the fluke of history which preserved this living fossil “reduced world poverty.” It’s that the destruction of all the world’s other Hong Kongs — ie, “decolonialization” — created “world poverty” as we know it.

More precisely, decolonialization created the Third World. The project of Professor Romer’s own intellectual and political establishment, the American and Americanized “scientific” experts in growth and development. What we need here is not a “radical idea.” It is a simple apology. Alas, hell will freeze over before.

Moldbug cites Time magazine’s Come Back, Colonialism, All Is Forgiven:

“The river is the artery of Congo’s economy,” [river-raft "pilot" Malu-Ebonga "Le Blanc" Charles] says. “When the Belgians and the Portuguese were here, there were farms and plantations — cashews, peanuts, rubber, palm oil. There was industry and factories employing 3,000 people, 5,000 people. But since independence, no Congolese has succeeded. The plantations are abandoned.” Using a French expression literally translated as “on the ground,” he adds: “Everything is par terre.”

In 1955, Time described the Boom in the Jungle:

There was plenty of darkness in the Congo during the 19th-century “scramble for Africa,” when Baudoin’s great-granduncle, Leopold II, staked out his monarchical claim to the uncharted Congo Free State. Leopold’s rubber gatherers tortured, maimed and slaughtered until at the turn of the century, the conscience of the Western world forced Brussels to call a halt.

Today, all has changed. Nowhere in Africa is the Bantu so well fed and housed, so productive and so content as he is in the Belgian Congo.

In little more than a generation of intense economic effort, the Belgians have injected 20 centuries of Western mechanical progress into a Stone Age wilderness. The results are staggering: in forests, where 50 years ago there were no roads because the wheel was unknown, no schools because there was no alphabet, no peace because there was neither the will nor the means to enforce it, the sons of cannibals now mine the raw materials of the Atomic Age.

Belgian brains and Bantu muscle have thrust back the forest and checked the dread diseases (yaws, sleeping sickness, malaria) which sapped the Bantu’s strength. In some areas, the Congo’s infant-mortality rate is down to 60 per 1,000 — better than Italy’s figure. More than 1,000,000 children attend primary and secondary schools — 40% of the school-age population (compared with less than 10% in the French empire).

The Belgians taught the Bantu to run bulldozers, looms and furnaces, to rivet ships, drive taxis and trucks. Girls with grotesque tribal markings etched into their ebony foreheads sell in shops, teach in schools, nurse in hospitals. Already thousands of natives in the Congo’s bustling cities earn $100-$150 a month — more than most workers in Europe, and small fortunes by African standards. They buy sewing machines, phonographs and bicycles in such profusion that Sears, Roebuck has recently put out a special Congo catalogue.

The Belgians compare the Congo with the state of Texas, though in fact the Congo is bigger and far richer in its natural resources. The Congo’s gross national product has tripled since 1939. Money is plentiful. Belgian investors take more than $50 million a year in dividends alone. Once the Congo depended exclusively on mining and farming; today it manufactures ships, shoes, cigarettes, chemicals, explosives and photographic film. With its immense reserves of hydroelectric power (a fifth of the world’s total), the Belgians expect the Congo to become “the processing plant for all Africa.”

The Congo boom makes its cities grow like well-nourished bamboo shoots. In six years the Negro population of Elisabethville has jumped from 40,000 to 120,000, Costermansville from 7,000 to 25,000, Stanleyville from 25,000 to 48,000. But the pride of the Congo is Leopoldville (pop. 370,000), a bustling, modern metropolis that is spreading along the south bank of Stanley Pool (see map).

Leo, as the Belgians call it, has tripled its population in the past six years.

These colonial regimes were by no means perfect:

But to assert that their average quality of government service was anything but far better than either their predecessors, or their successors, is a political distortion of history which I have no trouble at all in comparing to Holocaust denial. Far more people were murdered in decolonization and postcolonial violence than in the Holocaust. Moreover, only a few fringe nutcases deny the Holocaust — whereas anticolonialism is a core tenet of everyone’s college education. Oops.