A Great People in a Great Place

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

America’s successes did not happen because of America’s unique political system:

They happened despite America’s unique political system. America became great not because American democracy was great, but because America was a great people in a great place. As such, it was uniquely resistant to the poison of democracy, and alone survived its own disease. Now that the bloom is off the continent’s youth, we can see how well American democracy works in a normal country. Others have experienced this disappointment; now, it is our turn.

M. S. Corley’s Classic Penguin-Style Book Covers

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

M. S. Corley has redesigned a number of book covers in the classic Penguin style — Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Holly Black & Tony DiTerlizzi’s Spiderwick, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

The Predictioneer

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

New Scientist has a piece on Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, who has successfully branded himself as the predictioneer:

Bueno de Mesquita’s “predictioneering” began in 1979 when he was on a Guggenheim fellowship writing a book about the conditions that lead to war. He had designed a mathematical model to examine the choices people could make and the probability that their actions would result in either diplomacy or war. Like any model, he needed data to test it.

A good opportunity arose when the US State Department asked his opinion about an ongoing political crisis in India. The ruling coalition had become unstable and it was clear that Prime Minister Morarji Desai would be forced to stand down and a new prime minister chosen from within the coalition.

Since his PhD thesis had been on Indian politics, and data on politics didn’t seem a million miles from data on war, Bueno de Mesquita agreed to help. He compiled a list of all the people who would try to influence the appointment of the next prime minister, what their preference was and how much clout they had. He fed this information into his computer programme, asked it to predict how the negotiations would play out and left it to run overnight. His own hunch was that the deputy prime minister, Jagjivan Ram, would take over. Many other experts on Indian politics thought the same thing.

The following morning, he checked the computer and found to his surprise that it was predicting a politician called Chaudhary Charan Singh would be the next prime minister. It also predicted that he would be unable to build a working coalition and so would quickly fall.

When Bueno de Mesquita reported the result to an official at the State Department, he was taken aback. The official said no one else was saying Singh and the result was strange, at best. “When I told him I’d used a computer programme I was designing, he just laughed and urged me not to repeat that to anyone,” says Bueno de Mesquita. A few weeks later, Singh became prime minister. Six months on his government collapsed. “The model had come up with the right answer and I hadn’t,” says Bueno de Mesquita. “Clearly there were two possibilities: the model was just lucky, or I was on to something.”

Three decades later, it is clear that Bueno de Mesquita is on to something.

Ex-Offenders and the Vote

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

I don’t think the New York Times has any idea how it sounds to ordinary Americans when it argues that there is no good reason to deny former prisoners the vote:

Millions of ex-offenders who have been released from prison are denied the right to vote. That undercuts efforts to reintegrate former prisoners into mainstream society. And it goes against one of democracy’s most fundamental principles: that governments should rule with the consent of the governed.

Congress held hearings last week on a bill, the Democracy Restoration Act, that would allow released ex-felons to vote in federal elections. It would also require the states, which administer elections, to give them appropriate notice that this right has been restored.

Most Americans wouldn’t call them ex-offenders; they’d call them convicted felons — or simply criminals. And can you argue, with a straight face, that former prisoners would become productive members of society — if only they had the vote? Seriously?

FDR, like Lincoln, was a dictator

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

FDR, like Lincoln, was a dictator:

He governed America more or less personally by decree. Obviously, many people worked forUSGinFDR’s time; but, as with a normal corporateCEO, none could flout his will and survive professionally. FDR was not quite in charge of the courts; Lincoln could disregard the judicial process, but FDR couldn’t. However, these exceptions should be seen as minor details in an overall pattern of general personal government.

Those who hanker for a New Deal 2.0 should remember that FDR invoked a permanent state of emergency in 1933, just like Hitler. And just like Hitler, he ruled for life. For the next 12 years, he and his minions governed America by whim, like Dick Cheney cubed. It’s true that FDR found himself constrained by the Supreme Court. It’s not (entirely) true that when he fought the Court, he lost. And there was certainly no one else in America who could contend with him!

(Nor was FDR, as commonly asserted, a “traitor to his class” — anything but it. FDR’s beliefs, or at least his speeches (in one so seldom praised for candor, the inference of any actual conviction is at best an exercise of imagination) can indeed be studied as almost perfect reflections of the intellectual fashions of America’s apex upper class, the socialite-socialist aristocracy. These fashions have changed somewhat since 1933, but not that much.)

FDR could not, it’s true, order someone arrested or shot for no reason at all. At least, not so far as I know. We still have a lot to learn about this era. FDR did not have the powers of Lincoln, who could have anyone arrested, and did — but not shot. Lincoln was no Lenin or Hitler. For the purpose of managing the normal operations of government, however, FDR, Lincoln, Lenin, Hitler, Henry VIII, Cromwell and Napoleon exercised more or less the same level of authority: personal sovereignty.

So this remedy, hardly new to history, is not even new to us. Rather, America has taken the Dictator Pill in the lives of those now living — 75 years ago. And 75 years before that. And its pet historians, though the grant-fed dogs they are, celebrate these episodes as marvelous renewals. Does it compute? Does any of this crap compute? No, gentlemen, we will have the truth!

FDR, personally, was not much of an administrator. FDR was a charming hereditary socialite and a fine political actor. As an administrator, he gets a D for aptitude, a C for effort, and a D for results. (As an actor, his performances turn the stomach today. Try listening to an FDR speech, or worse — watching a propaganda newsreel. This incredible, heavy-handed, flagrantly mendacious schmaltz was pure dynamite for the unsophisticated radio listener of the ’30s.)

But in his entourage, FDR had some of the most talented administrators in the history of the world, and those administrators had more or less full executive authority. For instance, if anyone in the lives of those now living has held the job of “CEO of USG,” that would be Harry Hopkins. Colonel House dreamed the dream — Harry Hopkins lived it.

There is no Harry Hopkins in Washington today. There is no Colonel House, either. There is no one even remotely like these people; there is no job remotely like their jobs. All the royal powers of the New Deal have been sliced into micron-thick wafers and distributed around ten or fifteen office buildings. These powers have not gone away — quite the contrary. They have, of course, expanded. But they have also become entirely impersonal. (In many cases, they have ended up in the hands of the judiciary — once FDR’s worst enemy.)

The change is for the worse in a thousand different ways, but perhaps the worst is that it eradicates any conceivable responsibility for bad results. Thus 65 years after the death of FDR, post-New Deal Washington displays all the vices of the real New Deal, and none of its virtues. This will not change. This clock does not roll back. There is no fountain of youth for the State. A Brezhnev does not become a Lenin. Fish soup does not become an aquarium. Etc.

Romanticizing the Poor

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

We’re romanticizing the poor, Aneel Karnani says, when we portray them as creative entrepreneurs and discerning consumers whose vast potential can be untapped by micro-lending:

All people have moments of weakness when they make bad decisions — say, because they lose self control and yield to temptation. But poor people seem to lose control more often, for reasons that reflect the realities of their daily lives. For example, poor people typically do not have bank accounts, and so they are more likely to spend their readily available cash on impulse purchases, find economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo.Some mundane temptations — such as giving their children a treat — prove especially difficult for poor people to resist because so many other people take them for granted.

In addition, poor people more often encounter stressors — including hunger, pollution, crowding, and violence — that lead them to act in ways that may alleviate suffering in the short term, but hinder economic prosperity in the long term. Take bad behaviors such as smoking, drinking to excess, and eating fatty and sugary foods, for example. People everywhere smoke, drink, and eat “comfort foods” to take the edge off the hardships they encounter in their daily lives. Tobacco, after all, is an antidepressant, alcohol is a sedative, and comfort foods dampen the release of stress hormones in the body, as well as increase the production of dopamine — a brain chemical that produces feelings of pleasure.

Accordingly, research documents that the less income people have, the more likely they are to smoke, binge drink, and eat a sugary, fatty diet. These behavioral patterns are reflected in people’s spending patterns: poor people spend a larger portion of their incomes on alcohol and tobacco than do more affluent people. Indeed, a recent field study in Sri Lanka reveals that more than 10 percent of poor male respondents regularly spend their entire incomes on alcohol.

It seems naive to paint the poor as passive victims of stressors, when their own bad decisions bring about bad consequences that are indeed stressful. Which way does the causality run? Shouldn’t, say, winning the lottery break the cycle of stress, leading to bad decisions, leading to poverty, leading to stress, etc.?

A sweet problem

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Table sugar, or sucrose, is half glucose and half fructose, because each sucrose molecule comprises one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule, bound together. High-fructose corn syrup is also half glucose and half fructose, more or less — 55 percent fructose, 42 percent glucose, and 3 percent other, larger saccharides — but they aren’t bound together — and that may explain why high-fructose corn syrup prompts considerably more weight gain than ordinary table sugar:

The first study showed that male rats given water sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup in addition to a standard diet of rat chow gained much more weight than male rats that received water sweetened with table sugar, or sucrose, in conjunction with the standard diet. The concentration of sugar in the sucrose solution was the same as is found in some commercial soft drinks, while the high-fructose corn syrup solution was half as concentrated as most sodas.

The second experiment — the first long-term study of the effects of high-fructose corn syrup consumption on obesity in lab animals — monitored weight gain, body fat and triglyceride levels in rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup over a period of six months. Compared to animals eating only rat chow, rats on a diet rich in high-fructose corn syrup showed characteristic signs of a dangerous condition known in humans as the metabolic syndrome, including abnormal weight gain, significant increases in circulating triglycerides and augmented fat deposition, especially visceral fat around the belly. Male rats in particular ballooned in size: Animals with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained 48 percent more weight than those eating a normal diet. In humans, this would be equivalent to a 200-pound man gaining 96 pounds.

“These rats aren’t just getting fat; they’re demonstrating characteristics of obesity, including substantial increases in abdominal fat and circulating triglycerides,” said Princeton graduate student Miriam Bocarsly. “In humans, these same characteristics are known risk factors for high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, cancer and diabetes.”

This may explain a few things:

In the 40 years since the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup as a cost-effective sweetener in the American diet, rates of obesity in the U.S. have skyrocketed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1970, around 15 percent of the U.S. population met the definition for obesity; today, roughly one-third of the American adults are considered obese, the CDC reported. High-fructose corn syrup is found in a wide range of foods and beverages, including fruit juice, soda, cereal, bread, yogurt, ketchup and mayonnaise. On average, Americans consume 60 pounds of the sweetener per person every year.

Unmentioned in the article is why high-fructose corn syrup suddenly became more economical than sugar: sugar quotas and corn subsidies.

Send them back to Africa

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Sometimes the best option really is to send them back to Africa, Miss Snuffleupagus says — as a black teacher in London:

It is assumed by most people that bad kids are bad and good kids are good. What I mean to say is that somehow they were born that way. Or they were made that way in their early years by an alcoholic mother and nothing but massive intervention strategies will get them back on the straight and narrow. Schools, teachers, parents, social workers, and police officers have to help these kids to become good. We set up systems like nurture groups (from a few posts ago), pastoral support plans, mentoring facilities, support groups, smaller classes and so on and so on. And these systems have some effect. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t set them up. We may be blind, but we’re not that blind.

What I find interesting is that over the years, I have noticed that the number one thing to help black children get on the straight and narrow is to ‘send them back to Africa’. The same happens if the parent chooses to ‘send them back to the Caribbean’ of course. As long as you catch them young enough. Do it before the age of 14, and a miracle is in store for you.

The most unruly, most deranged black boys, who know nothing of discipline and respect get shipped off to Ghana and within weeks, they are transformed. Suddenly they respect their teachers, do their homework, speak politely and obey every command.

The question is why.

Because suddenly they find themselves in an environment which does not tolerate dissonance. There are no support groups, only the whip. There are no mentoring sessions, only expulsion. And the other children all sing to the tune of the school. In such an environment, no child would dare to upset the apple cart. And after a few weeks, one’s child is transformed.

I always find myself feeling sorry for the white working class as they do not have this option.

Moore’s Law, Not More Steel

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Bill Gross likes to say that they use Moore’s law, not more steel at eSolar’s solar-thermal plants:

This “power tower” technology is not new, but what sets the company apart is Gross’ use of sophisticated software and imaging technology to control the 176,000 mirrors that form a standard, 46-megawatt eSolar power plant. That computing firepower precisely positions the mirrors to create a virtual parabola that focuses the sun on the tower. That allows the company to place small, inexpensive mirrors close together, which dramatically reduces the land needed for the power plant and cuts manufacturing and installation costs.

Gross made his fortune with a Google-esque search advertising firm called GoTo.com, which Yahoo bought for $1.6 billion in 2003, and he’s applying some things he learned there to solar power:

The biggest lesson that we brought was — I don’t know if it was a lesson, but it was a philosophy — which is Internet-enable everything and put monitoring into everything.

So we have a microprocessor in every mirror and we have statistics second-by-second on the status, position, reliability, pointing accuracy — everything — of every single mirror. We structured ourselves almost like an Internet company from the beginning to have logs of everything — every revolution of the turbine, every control from the control room, every Web cam image captured — so we could do data mining and data analysis on everything.

We want the ability to make software upgrades and impact every power plant around the world. That’s probably one of the biggest differences between our technology and all other solar technology. If you [have] a big field of [photovoltaic] panels, those PV panels are there for 25 years. They’ll have that same performance, and there’s nothing you can do to change that.

We can make a software upgrade and every power plant in the world can suddenly put out 3 percent more power potentially. And we found already a If we want to renewably power this planet, it’s going to take a lot of capital.” number of software improvements that we can make even over the past six months, which significantly boosts performance of an already-constructed power plant. There’s new improvements we can make to the actual hardware, too, but even without changing the hardware there are software changes that can make more power, so we’re really excited about that.

Renewable energy requires a lot of capital:

When you make a coal plant you still have to pay for the [capital expenditure] upfront, even though it’s going to make power for 20 years. But for a coal plant the [capital expenditure] is only about 20 percent of the lifetime cost of the plant because most of the cost of the plant — 80 percent — is the cost of coal over 20 years.

For renewable energy, about 80 percent, maybe 90 percent, of the cost is upfront and there’s no fuel costs and the only cost over the years is operation and maintenance, which is small. The biggest bottleneck is that these things cost big dollars, and you’re limited how fast you can grow by how much money you can raise to build plants.

This demonstration doesn’t speak to the economics of solar-thermal energy, but it’s certainly impressive nonetheless:

(Hat tip to Alex Tabarrok.)

Democracy or Tyranny

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Why did it take so long to achieve democracy?

One thing I like to try to do is remember my original reaction, as a child in the ’70s and ’80s, to the present history of the world as revealed to me then by educational sources of unquestionable, or at least unquestioned, reliability.

Of course, I could be just making this up. It is hard to tell. But I distinctly recall wondering: why did it take so long for human progress to achieve democracy? After all, you have many centuries of extremely sophisticated European Renaissance and post-Renaissance thought. Yet the victory of democracy on the European continent was not complete and assured until the lives of those now living. In England, it was not complete and assured until the 20th century. Only in America was it old, and even then not that old. And then there was the Roman Empire… and so on.

Moreover, I learned, in the real world today, there were only two real alternatives. Democracy, or Hitler. Or Stalin. Democracy or tyranny. Yet when I read the history of Europe before the 20th century, ie, the century of democracy, I did not see anyone or anything like Hitler or Stalin.

What, exactly, is the difference — as a matter of political organization — between the regime of Queen Elizabeth, and that of Hitler? Democracy puts both in the same category: nondemocracy. Absolute personal despotism, to be exact. But… there is a difference, isn’t there?

All these objections are neatly summed up in Churchill’s famous aphorism, if it is really Churchill’s. Democracy, whose flaws are not in any way secret, appears to you as the worst of all systems of government, except for all the others. And what do you know of all the others? Nothing at all, of course. (Or at least, nothing nonmagical.) Hence the statement sounds true, because it is true. So far as you know. That migraine spot again!

There’s a hypothesis forming here. We notice that all our blind spots seem to be in the general area of political democracy. Where they lead to misimpressions, those impressions tend to cast democracy in a falsely positive light. What if democracy was like communism? What if, for everything and anything in the world today that is broken, we could say accurately: it is broken because it is democratic. To fix it, get rid of democracy.

This appears unthinkable, of course, to you. You were raised as a true democrat. Note that if you’d been raised a true Communist, you would have perceived Communism in just the same way. And, of course, Catholicism, and Islam, and so on. But Communism (which is in fact best seen as a splinter branch of the global democratic movement) is the best analogy, because it is so recent.

No, comrades, Communism is not the problem! Communism? The problem? On the contrary, comrades — Communism is the cure! We suffer, not because we have been true to Communism, but because we have been untrue to Communism! To get back on the right track, comrades, we must redouble our efforts to achieve Communism… and so on.

I think of this when I hear anyone acting under the delusion that they can restore the American political system, presumably to some imagined youthful vitality. The American political system! The true nature of that system, gentlemen, is now quite apparent. Long has it battened on the rest of the planet; its final dessert is now apparent. As any epidemiologist would expect, America was that country most resistant to American democracy. Resistance is not immunity. In the end, every elm must meet its beetle.

Bait and Switch

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Thomas Friedman points out that a disproportionate number of the finalists of the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search are of immigrant origin, shares their names — Linda Zhou, Alice Wei Zhao, etc. — and concludes that we should be pro-immigration.

Tino calls this a bait and switch:

Well, let us note that fully 54% of the foreign born population of the U.S is from Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Only 9% are from India and China. Even if you don’t ignore illegal immigrants, there are several times as many legal immigrants from Latin America as there are from India and China.

Yet, of the 40 finalists, not a single one seems to be from Latin America! His list is almost entirely made up of Indians and Chinese kids.

In 2008 only 15% of legal immigration was based on employment or skills, the remaining 85% is skill unrelated things such as having relatives in U.S. This is America’s current immigration policy: take a few high-skilled people and masses of lower-skilled immigrants.

To summarize Friedman’s position:

Since high-skill immigration is good, let’s continue our policy of low-skilled immigration!

There are two types of people in the world

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

There are two types of people in the world, Aretae claims:

People who know everyone is wrong a lot, and people who know everyone else is wrong a lot.

Moral Self-Licensing

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Moral self-licensing is the name for a human tendency to feel a certain license to misbehave after performing a moral act. We seem wired with a moral thermostat:

In the run-up to the 2008 US presidential election, for instance, Monin found that people who expressed their support for Barack Obama, thereby winning credit as non-racists, were more likely to later declare that whites would be better suited than blacks for a hypothetical job vacancy in a police department (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol 45, p 590).

As you might imagine, “green” consumers feel they’ve earned a “pass” for bad behavior:

Students were asked to fill their online shopping baskets with up to $25-worth of items, and half were presented with a store stocked mostly with “green” products — compact fluorescent instead of incandescent light bulbs, for instance — to make it more likely that they would shop green. The other half were given a store stocked with a majority of conventional products.

After their online shopping spree, the students were asked to carry out one of two tasks.

One group was told to allocate $6 between themselves and another participant. Mazar and Zhong found that green shoppers in this group kept more for themselves than the others did.

The most striking results, however, came from the group that carried out the second task. Students were shown a pattern of dots and asked to say whether more fell to the left or the right of a diagonal line. They were told they would get half a cent each time they said more dots were on the left, but 5¢ each time they said more were on the right — providing a clear incentive to lie about the results to earn more money.

Those who played the game both accurately and truthfully would make $2.07. The winnings of those who had shopped in the conventional store did not differ significantly from this sum. The green shoppers, however, earned on average 36¢ more, showing that they had lied to boost their income.

Finally, the volunteers in the second group were shown on screen how much they had won and told to take the right amount of cash from an envelope. Both groups took more than their due, but the green shoppers on average stole 48¢ more than those who had shopped in the conventional store. “It’s a very impressive paper,” says Monin.

A lefty kind of girl

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Miss Snuffleupagus considered herself a lefty kind of girl — not unusual for a black woman in London — until something changed:

Being a lefty kind of girl, I’ve never questioned the existence of the state before. Being a lefty kind of girl, I grew up believing the state takes money off its citizens in order to redistribute it. It helps the poor to be less poor. It forces the rich to care about those who are less fortunate. It provides free health care and education for all. It enforces rules to ensure its citizens are kind to each other, look after each other, and do upon others as they would do upon themselves. Being a lefty kind of girl, I believed the right-wingers to be evil monsters and the left-wingers to be righteous pursuers of justice.

Then I became a teacher.

Now all I can see is the great harm done to my children by the welfare state. I see young women encouraged to have children at an early age by the state that dangles pseudo-gifts in front of their eyes. I see most children take their education for granted, or indeed reject it entirely because they haven’t had to pay for it. I see parents take little interest in their child’s education because they’ll have an education, no matter what. I see both children and parents abuse books, pencils, or laptops because they have been given to them. I see property defaced over and over, because it belongs to no one. I see my colleagues abused day after day by children who have no sense of gratitude.

My children are no longer free to have motivation. They are no longer free to have ambition. They are no longer free to have a sense of pride, or indeed shame. Gone is the freedom of making plans for the future, or saving for a rainy day. Gone is the idea of building up a bank of skills to make something of oneself. Gone is the idea of being responsible for a life, for one’s own life, and for one’s family.

(Hat tip to Mencius Moldbug.)

Books that Have Most Influenced Joseph Fouché

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Joseph Fouché presents his own list of books that have most influenced him, which includes quite a few books I’ve enjoyed over the years. I’m afraid he’s simply forced me to add more books to the precarious stack on my bed stand — perhaps starting with the annotated copy of A Wind in the Willows I counter-recommended to him.