You get all the things that you want done for 2 percent

Monday, June 18th, 2018

Is Singapore antifragile?

Singapore has size going for it. You see that we’re talking about a city-state.

Who’s gonna invade it? One thing I’ve learned from history, particularly the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians don’t really have an army or an empire. At some point they had some army, but you might say it’s not economically viable. Why? When you come to invade them, unless you’re Nebuchadnezzar, and supposedly the history books say that he was very nasty, but then fact-checking take place. The genetics don’t actually show what really may have happened.

A guy comes in, very bloodthirsty, comes to you, and you tell him, “Listen, what do you want? You kill us all, you get nothing. Land is not interesting. What are you going to get? We’ll give you 5 percent. What do you want, 5 percent of something or 100 percent of nothing?”

That’s how the Phoenicians operated. Someone would come in. They had a hiccup with Alexander, one pound higher than a hiccup with Alexander.

They had an ego problem on both sides, but other than that, it worked very well as a system.

[The Seleucids did conquer the Phoenicians, right?]

The Phoenicians? No, the Seleucids came in, they said, “OK.” The system, at the time, was patronage. You come in, you’re a vassal state.

You guys here, you don’t understand. I live in New York City, so I have two options. One, pay the state — with all of this now, it’s going to go 50-some percent taxes — and you almost get nothing. Or, you can go to mafia now and give them 2 percent, and you get protection.

You get all the things that you want done for 2 percent. That’s exactly what happened. Think about the defense budget if it were run by the mafia.

The guy would come in, and the system at the time was the system of — when you say “conquer,” the imperial methods everywhere, including the Ottomans, before them the Romans, before them the Seleucids and the Ptolemies. The Ptolemies had more integration.

The whole technique was, you come in… And remember that government role, the GDP was, at the turn of the century in France, 5 percent, OK, last century. So having been, you’re not part of anything, you’re just paying taxes to someone you’ll never see — that was the thing. The integration usually was through commerce, not through military conquest.

The idea of Singapore, someone invaded — let’s say Malaysia decides to take over Singapore. What are they going to do with that? They’ve got nothing. It’s much better for you to go to Singapore, tell them, “We want 2 percent.” Or “We want 10 percent.” And then they will break it down to 3 percent.


  1. Graham says:

    I am reminded of the Star Trek original series episode “A Piece of the Action”. The Enterprise arrives at a planet contaminated by an earlier Earth expedition and now run by stereotypical 1920s mobsters. One of them is Vic Tayback.

    At one point Kirk makes mention of the possibility of “government”. The local “Boss” [his official title] says, ostentatiously leaning backward, “What government? I got my territory, and I run it.”

    Later on, a local conflict escalates. SPock says something about “conflict”. The reply: “What conflict? I just gotta make some hits.”

    I don’t quite see how the system would be viable, but it would work if you were fit and able with ambition.

  2. CMOT says:

    Singapore spends 3.4% of their GNP on defense, suggesting that they think Malaysia’s ‘cut’ would be higher than that. And contra Taleb, Malayasia might be perfectly happy with having nothing in Singapore if that meant they got to ethnically cleanse the place…

  3. Kirk says:

    Malaysia takes out Singapore, and ethnically cleanses the place, then… Well, what the hell is the point?

    The whole reason Singapore exists is so that the Malays could segregate their Chinese, and still keep them captive and useful. The separation of the two countries exists because the Malays couldn’t tolerate integration with Chinese migrants, who’d wind up owning every successful business in the country, and who wouldn’t be Muslim. However, comma… They still need those minorities close at hand, in order to have a hope of attaining a modern industrialized nation. Giving the ethnic Chinese who couldn’t put up with being second-class citizens while doing that a home in Singapore was pretty much the price they paid, and I don’t think that they’re going to try to undo that compromise. Malaysia’s biggest damn problem with Singapore is that Singapore might wind up making them economically and culturally irrelevant, in future generations. Mindless adherence to Islamic culture ain’t exactly a recipe for national success…

  4. Lu An Li says:

    Indonesia and illegal aliens from same the worst threat to Singapore? Piracy too a problem. Strait of Malacca.

  5. Bill says:

    In spite of the interview having been “edited for clarity” all I got was “blah blah blah”. Apparently our choices are: a very tight narrative that is certainly wrong, or a loose conversation that is too unfocused to be either right or wrong.

  6. Bill says:

    Graham, I did like that episode, and it’s intriguing. The Mafia was something that was brought over from Southern Italy. The Italians brought over their language and culture, which sculpted the people over millennia to accept the yoke of corrupt government and corrupt Church (which supported the corrupt wealthy) and the need for a third way to succeed if you were low born and possessed a certain amount of personal force. You didn’t need a mafia here in America but they imported it anyway.

    In the Star Trek episode, the aliens of Sigma Iotia II were just highly imitative and adaptable. Is the mafia sufficient on its own, or could it only exist in a larger social organization? The mafia is really a clan organization and it’s interesting that it developed east or south of the Hajnal line in places where first cousin marriage was common and seen as desirable.

    The Godfather is loaded with examples of how you don’t trust anyone outside The Family and everything you have is a result of the protection of The Family. Maybe the Iotians were also into first cousin marriage, and so it all seemed natural to them…

  7. Graham says:


    Yes, the mafia is interesting on a bunch of fronts, with many pros and cons both in its homelands and when it gets exported with diaspora communities. The Godfather films make some allusion to this, especially in Don Corleone’s initial conversation with the metaphorically names Amerigo Buonasera [the undertaker who is the Don's most reluctant client].

    Some have drawn allusions to forms of lower class social organization in ancient Rome [collegia- although this form of self-governing organization covered all sorts of aspects of life, cut across social class lines, and included what we would now call professional associations, guilds, or religious orders, it included worker clubs and groups on the fringes of law.]

    Certainly there are roots in the social orders of Sicily proper and southern Italy, possibly drawing on traditions dating back to Rome, possibly starting in the resistance to the Normans and Angevins in the Middle Ages.

    Which is an aspect interesting to me- is it that they had a corrupt Church and corrupt nobility PLUS that these were regarded as, and somewhat were, of foreign origin? [First French speakers, then later on some Spaniards and their clients.] Is that enough to breach social bonds whose oppressions are better tolerated in more integrated societies, even with feudalism? Or did it demand the specific history and culture of the place, including the kinship structures you cited?

    For example, neither Anglo-Saxons nor even the Irish developed such durable equivalent traditions despite similar experiences with the Normans? Perhaps the Normans just plowed under SAxon resistance too thoroughly in the first years and then build more durable structures of their own, or maybe the ENglish didn’t have anything like the kinship alliances and habits in place among the peasantry for early resistance to turn into a durable combination of resistance and exploitative traditions like the mafia.

    Not to dwell. The most comparable thing I can think of to the mafia in this context is some of the Southern Chinese triad-type organizations. Also criminal networks with roots in protonationalist resistance, ethnic conflict and kinship patterns. Among what was long a population of mixed pre-Han and Han-settler peoples, first ruled by Han from the North and then by Mongols or MAnchus, depending on how much you want to accept the claims of antique roots some make for some triad traditions.

    Reagrdless, I just liked the Iotians for style. Any rebuke to the presumptions of the Federation, even Kirk’s less unctuous version, is welcome. Also, Fizzbin. Best game ever invented.

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