Nearly all of the major, durable powers fell into one of two categories

Friday, July 12th, 2024

Accidental Superpower by Peter ZeihanBefore 1400, Peter Zeihan explains in The Accidental Superpower, true ocean transport was a rare thing:

In this era nearly all of the major, durable powers fell into one of two categories. The first were powers with navigable rivers that could easily extend their cultural reach up and down the river valley, enrich themselves with local trade, and use the resources of their larger footprint to protect themselves from — or force themselves upon — rivals. The second were powers that lived on seas sufficiently enclosed that they were difficult to get lost within. These seas didn’t work quite as well as rivers, but they certainly blunted the dangers of the open ocean and allowed for regional transport and trade. France, Poland, Russia, and a few of the Chinese empires fell into the first category, while the Swedes, Danes, Phoenicians, and Japanese fell into the second.


The Ottoman Empire originated on the shores of the Sea of Marmara, a nearly enclosed sea small enough that it functioned as a river in terms of facilitating cultural unification, but large enough that it allowed for a reasonable volume of regional trade. And Marmara didn’t exist in isolation. To its northeast was the Black Sea, while to its southeast lay the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean — all three enclosed bodies of water that the Ottomans were able to use their naval acumen to dominate. Emptying into the western Black Sea was the Danube, by far Europe’s largest river, which allowed the Ottomans to expand as far north into Europe as Vienna. By the measures of the day, the Ottomans had within easy reach more useful land, river, and sea than any other power — and nearly more than all of their European rivals combined.

And then there was trade. From their home base at the supremely well-positioned Istanbul, the Ottomans dominated all land and sea trade between Europe and Asia and from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

The largest and most lucrative of those trade routes was the famous Silk Road, the source of all spices that made it to Europe. Pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cumin, and saffron might seem like minor luxuries today, but their only sources were in South and Southeast Asia. Between the unreliable nature of ocean transport and the yet-to-be-mapped African continent, there was no reliable all-water route. The only way to access Asian spices was for the Silk Road to traverse China, Central Asia, Persia, and ultimately Ottoman-controlled lands. Between the hundreds of middlemen, the sheer distances involved, and the hefty tax the Islamic Ottomans placed on spice transfers to Christian Europe, upper-class Europeans often spent as much on spices as they did on food.


In 1529, they laid siege to Vienna at the head of the Danube valley. Had they won they would have been able to pour an empire’s worth of resources through the gap between the Alps and Carpathians onto the North European Plain, a wide highway within which the Turks would have faced no barriers to conquest.

But they failed — because the world had changed.

A handful of key technologies made all the difference:

  • Compass
  • Cross-staff
  • Carvel
  • Gunport

Nearly all of these technologies, Zeihan notes, were developed, refined, and operationalized by two countries that had almost nothing to do with the Ottomans:

Europe’s westernmost peninsula is Iberia. At the time of the Ottoman rise, the peoples of Iberia, the Portuguese and Spanish, had very little going for them. Nearly alone among the major European regions, Iberia has no rivers of meaningful length and only very narrow coastal strips, forcing most of its people to live in a series of elevated valleys. Unsurprisingly, in the 1300s Iberia was Europe’s poorest region. It also didn’t help that the two had borne the brunt of the Arab invasion, being occupied by the Moors for nearly seven centuries.


The Turks found themselves forced to divert massive resources from their Danube campaigns to an increasingly failed effort to defend their Mediterranean assets (most notably the Egyptian breadbasket).


Until Portugal’s arrival in South Asia, local oceanic shipping — including the maritime arms of the spice trade that the Ottomans controlled — was purely coastal, sailing with the monsoonal winds: east in May–June and west in August. Winds offshore may have blown year round, but they were erratic and local ships couldn’t reliably navigate or survive the turbulence. The Portuguese deepwater craft, in contrast, found navigating the Indian Ocean to be child’s play. Portuguese vessels were able to eviscerate the Ottoman connections to the Asian spice world, and then directly occupy key spice production locations, via its ships redirecting the trade in its entirety to Lisbon. Even with the military cost of maintaining a transcontinental empire and the twenty-two-thousand-mile round trips factored in, the price of spices in Portugal dropped by 90 percent. The Silk Road and its Ottoman terminus lost cohesion, and the robust income stream that had helped make the Ottoman Empire the big kid on the block simply stopped, all because of the ambitions of a country less than one-twelfth its size.

Egypt became an easily conquerable breadbasket

Friday, July 5th, 2024

Accidental Superpower by Peter ZeihanThe Nile provided two things nearly unique on earth, Peter Zeihan explains in The Accidental Superpower:

The first was perfect agricultural inputs like reliable water and high-fertility soil. It wasn’t scant desert rainfall that gave rise to the mighty Nile, but instead the seasonal torrents from the Ethiopian highlands and overflow from the African Great Lakes. The seasonal floods washed down soil of fertility far higher than what could be obtained outside the river valley. The Nile was flush with water supplies every year in a cycle so reliable that true droughts were quite literally biblical events.

Perhaps more important was the second factor: The lower Nile was safe. One could stand on the ridges above the Nile floodplain at any point within a thousand miles of the sea, look east or west, and be met with the exact same view: an endless desert waste. With the technology of transport largely limited to what you could carry yourself, it was simply impossible for any hostile force to cross the desert.


Copper sounds like a small thing, but once humans figured out how to smelt and cast it, they replaced their wood and stone implements with metal, generating staggering improvements in the productivity of each worker — and each farmer.


By 3150 BC, a single government dominated all of the useful Nile territories between the Mediterranean coast and what is today the city of Aswan.


Local deserts insulated both Mesopotamia and the Indus from multiple directions, but not all directions. Their geographies were secure enough to spawn civilizations, but outside forces were still able to reach them, and so they never had the time to consolidate as Egypt did.


To the west, it is six hundred miles from the western edge of the Nile delta to where rain falls regularly enough to support a non-nomadic population (contemporary Benghazi, Libya).


The Sinai Peninsula is just as inhospitable as the Bible suggests, and the three hundred miles between the delta and the Jordan River valley have proven to be a formidable barrier right up to (and even into) contemporary times.

A southerly approach seems better, and indeed following the Nile is certainly a less painful affair than trudging through desert. But as one moves upriver south, the Nile valley narrows — to a steep canyon in places, complete with the occasional rapids (locally known as cataracts) — and it is a long, winding nine-hundred-mile route before you reach a geography and climate that can support a meaningful population (contemporary Khartoum, Sudan). Establishing multiple defensive positions along this route is quite easy.


Every patch of land within sight of the river is under cultivation, generating the most consistent food surpluses of any land throughout the history of not just the ancient world, but also the classical, medieval, and even early industrial worlds. This food surplus created the world’s densest population footprint for most of human history (the only exception being contemporary Bangladesh).


Second, by ancient standards the interior of Egypt was remarkably easy to get around in. From Aswan downriver, the valley is flat, in the dry season turning the river into a very slow-moving lake. The lack of elevation change results in a hazy, lazy downriver ride, while Egypt’s prevailing north-to-south winds allow for fairly reliable upriver sailing. The Nile could support riverine traffic in a way that the Tigris, Euphrates, and Indus — cursed with faster currents, less reliable seasonal flows and winds, and omnipresent sandbars — never could.


For the first millennia and a half of Egyptian history, outsiders simply could not penetrate into the Egyptian core. Yet within the Nile valley, the Egyptian government had very little trouble moving manpower, resources, the tools of governance, and even giant blocks of stone around within its riverine-based system.


The pharaoh could — and often did — take a boat cruise down the river and visually inspect nearly all of his kingdom without setting foot on land. The current and accurate assessments enabled by such easy travel helped governmental policy to match and respond to reality — a concept that might not seem a major deal in a world of smart phones, but was revolutionary in the world before paper. Tax collection could reach every part of the valley, and such activity ensured that the government maintained a firm grip on every aspect of society. Food stores could be distributed quickly and easily to mitigate local famine; the population crashes and rebellions that plagued cultures well into the modern era were far less common in Egypt. Revolts could be quelled quickly because troops could be summoned with speed; fast military transport enabled the government to nip problems in the bud.


A grand canal dug from a western braid of the Nile allowed for the regulated flooding of the Faiyum Depression, bringing another five hundred square miles into Egypt’s green zone, but that is the only significant expansion of Egypt’s agricultural lands until the twentieth century, and even that expansion was only about twenty miles west of the riverbed itself.


As the Nile flows through the desert, Egypt — ancient or otherwise — lacks trees. What few were available for boat construction were largely reserved for ego projects ranging from royal barges to monument construction.


The sheer isolation limited Egyptian knowledge of the world. It was so thin its leaders were shocked when confronted with the fact that some rivers flowed south.


Every place that was within sight of the Nile was also a food-producing region, so there was never a pressing need to develop a nationwide food distribution system — that made the maritime transport system specifically, and transport in general, the province of the state. The military and the bureaucracy could move about (and did), but the common man could not (and did not), firmly entrenching the concept of central control.


Theirs was a geography destined not just to generate slavery, but slavery of the masses.


Developments in agriculture, transport, and education ended with unification. Instead of generating higher and higher food surpluses, or attempting either to advance their civilization or to expand it past the confines of the Nile, the Egyptians dedicated all spare labor to monument construction.


New technologies developed to deal with problems that Egypt was blissfully unaffected by. Writing led to literacy. Copper led to bronze. Spears led to swords. Domesticated animals led to chariots. All of these technologies that most people associate with ancient Egypt were not actually developed there, because in Egypt there was no pressure for development past their original technologies of irrigated agriculture, basic engineering, small boats, and hieroglyphics. Even the word “pharaoh” was an import.

In time two of these “new” technologies — the domesticated camel and a sailing ship that could transport meaningful volumes of cargo — proved Egypt’s undoing. Outsiders could use these techs to breach Egypt’s desert buffers, and when they did they discovered the civilization that all had assumed was mighty and impregnable was in reality languid and backward. They also discovered that Egypt’s slave-heavy population lacked motivation to fight for their country.


Instead of being the greatest of the civilizations, Egypt became an easily conquerable breadbasket for anyone seeking to rule the Mediterranean basin. Once the Nile was secured, the conquering power could redirect the population from pyramid building to food production. The excess food output could be diverted out of the Nile region to fuel the conquering power’s bid for Mediterranean control.

The Egyptians first lost their independence in 1620 BC to the Hyksos (commonly known in the West as natives of Canaan), and then were independent only intermittently until the Roman conquest in the first century BC.


And after the Roman conquest, they were not independent for a single day until the collapse of the European colonial era after World War II.

All of the global cities that we think of as epic took up less than eight square miles

Friday, June 28th, 2024

Accidental Superpower by Peter ZeihanIn The Accidental Superpower, Peter Zeihan reminds us that moving things around is hard:

Anyone who has ever rowed a boat or paddled a canoe in a place where he had to make a portage can (quite en­thusiastically) tell you how much easier it is to move stuff around on water than on land, but have you ever thought about just how much easier it is?


Modern container ships can transport goods for about net 17 cents per container-mile, compared to semi-trailer trucks that do it for net $2.40, including the cost of the locomotion mode as well as operating costs in both instances.

But even this incredible disparity in cost assumes access to an American-style multilane highway, the sort that simply doesn’t exist in some 95 percent of the planet. It also assumes that the road cargo is all transported by semi rather than less efficient vehicles, like those UPS trucks that probably brought you this book. It certainly ignores your family car. It also does not consider the cost and maintenance of the medium of transport itself. The U.S. interstate highway system, for example, responsible for “only” one-quarter of the United States’ road traffic by miles driven, has an annual maintenance cost of $160 billion. By contrast, the Army Corps of Engineers’ 2014 budget for all U.S. waterways maintenance is only $2.7 billion, while the oceans are flat-out free. Toss in associated costs — ranging from the $100 billion Americans spend annually on car insurance, to the $130 billion needed to build America’s 110,000 service stations, to the global supply chain needed to manufacture and service road vehicles — and the practical ratio of road to water transport inflates to anywhere from 40:1 in populated flatlands to in excess of 70:1 in sparsely populated highlands.

Cheap, easy transport does two things for you. First, it makes you a lot of money. Cheap transport means you can send your goods farther away in search of more profitable markets. Historically that’s been not only a primary means of capital generation, but also a method of making money wholly independent of government policy or whatever the new economic fad happens to be; it works with oil, grain, people, and widgets. In business terms, it’s a reliable perennial. Second, if it is easy to shuttle goods and people around, goods and people will get shuttled around quite a bit. Cheap riverine transport grants loads of personal exposure to the concerns of others in the system, helping to ensure that everyone on the waterway network sees themselves as all in the same boat (often literally). That constant interaction helps a country solidify its identity and political unity in a way that no other geographic feature can.


In the era before refrigeration and preservatives, hauling foodstuffs more than a few miles would have been an exercise in futility. Even armies didn’t have much in the way of self-managed supply chains right up into the eighteenth century. Instead militaries relied on the kindness — or lack of defenses — of strangers for provisions.

This kept cities small. Very small. In fact, up until the very beginning of the industrial era in the early 1600s, all of the global cities that we think of as epic — New York City, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Tokyo, Shanghai — took up less than eight square miles. That’s a square less than three miles on a side, about the distance that someone carrying a heavy load can cover in two hours, far smaller than most modern airports. If the cities had been any bigger, people wouldn’t have been able to get their food home and still have sufficient time to do anything else. The surrounding farms couldn’t have generated enough surplus food to keep the city from starving, even in times of peace.


This smallness is why it took humanity millennia to evolve into what we now think of as the modern world. Nearly all of the population had to be involved in agriculture simply to feed itself. The minority was nonsedentary peoples (history calls them barbarians), who discovered that one of the few ways to avoid needing to spend your entire day growing food was to spend your entire day stealing other people’s.

The root of American power is geographic

Friday, June 21st, 2024

Accidental Superpower by Peter ZeihanIn The Accidental Superpower, Peter Zeihan explains how place matters:

The first I call the balance of transport. Successful countries find it easy to move people and goods within their territories: Egypt has the Nile, France has the Seine and Loire, the Roman and Inca Empires had their roads. Such easy movement promotes internal trade and development. Trade encourages specialization and moves an economy up the value-added scale, increasing local incomes and generating capital that can be used for everything from building schools and institutions to operating a navy. Such constant interconnections are the most important factors for knitting a people into a nation. Such commonality of interests forms the bedrock of political and cultural unity. With a very, very few exceptions, every successful culture in human history has been based on a culture of robust internal economic interactions, and that almost invariably comes from easy transport.


Countries also have to be able to protect themselves. Just as internal trade requires more than a little help from geography — well-rivered plains preferably — so too does defense. Successful countries also have borders that are easy to protect.


It is this balance — easy transport within, difficult transport beyond — that is the magic ingredient for success.


In all three cases — the balance of transport, deepwater navigation, and industrialization — the United States enjoys the physical geography most favorable to their application. Two facts stand out. First, since the root of American power is geographic and not the result of any particular plan or ideology, American power is incidental. Even accidental.

Second, the United States wasn’t the point of origin for any of the respective technologies that created the modern world.

We’re not witnessing the beginning of the end of American power, but the end of its beginning

Friday, June 14th, 2024

Accidental Superpower by Peter ZeihanIn The Accidental Superpower, Peter Zeihan traces a lot back to Bretton Woods:

On July 1, 1944, 730 delegates from the forty-four Allied nations and their respective colonial outposts convened at the Mount Washington Hotel in the skiing village of Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, with a mission to do nothing less than decide the fate of the postwar world.


Many of the rooms lacked running, potable water; there wasn’t enough ice or Coca-Cola to go around; staffing was so thin that some nearby Boy Scouts had to be drafted; and the establishment’s manager locked himself in his office with a case of whiskey and refused to come out.


But despite this inauspicious beginning, the delegates set to work on the agenda White and Keynes had laid out and over the next three weeks engaged in multilateral negotiations that were responsible for creating the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development: the institutions that helped knit devastated Europe back together and that hammered out the foundations of the free-trade-dominated global economic system that endures to this day.


The attendees had arrived in Bretton Woods knowing that they had no real leverage to negotiate or bargain with the United States; they had mainly come to hear what White and the other Americans had to say. And what the Americans had to say shocked them all.


Everything from Sicily to Saipan was in essence an American effort fought with American equipment and American fuel. Even in terms of manpower the fronts were largely American affairs, with American troops tending to outnumber all other combatants, Allied and Axis combined, by a two-to-one margin. Only grand affairs such as the Normandy landings featured the sort of multinational resolve the propaganda lauded.


Until that point there really hadn’t been a “global system” in an economic sense. Instead, various European nations maintained separate trade networks stemming from their earlier imperial ventures, in which their colonies served as resource providers and captive markets while mother countries produced finished goods. What interempire trading that occurred was largely limited to goods, whether raw materials or specific manufactures, that could not be sourced within the respective “closed” systems. Most of this cross-empire trade flowed through enterprising peoples like the Dutch who excelled at brokering deals among imperial leaders. Protecting each empire’s trade were its national naval forces, and the use of navies to guard national commerce and raid the commerce of competitors was as old an industry as the use of sail and oar.


Building a navy is one of the most expensive and time-consuming projects a nation can undertake in the best of times, and it wasn’t something that a country emerging from rubble and occupation could even consider.


There was about to be only one navy.


White and the American team didn’t let the others sweat it out for long, and they presented their two-part plan with all the kindness and amused patience that comes from a position of unassailable strength. The first part alone likely stunned the conference into baffled silence: The Americans had no intention of imposing a Pax. They didn’t plan to occupy key transshipment or distribution nodes. There would be no imperial tariff on incomes or trade or property. There would be no governors-general stationed in each of the Americans’ new imperial outposts. No clearinghouses. No customs restrictions. No quotas.

Instead, the Americans said that they would open their markets. Anyone who wanted to export goods into the United States could do so. The Americans acknowledged that devastated Europe was in no condition to compete with American industry, which hadn’t been touched by the scourge of war, so this market openness would be largely one-way. The Americans suggested ideas about a new global system to reduce tariffs, but that was to be negotiated separately and later.

As startling and unexpected as part one of the plan was, part two must have rolled the Europeans in particular back on their heels. The Americans offered to use their navy to protect all maritime trade, regardless of who was buying or selling the cargoes. Even trade that had nothing to do with the United States would be guaranteed by the overwhelming strength of the American navy. Far from proposing a Pax that would fill their coffers to overflowing with trade duties, levies, and tariffs, the Americans were instituting the opposite: a global trading system in which they would provide full security for all maritime trade at their own cost, full access to the largest consumer market in human history, and at most a limited and hedged expectation that participants might open their markets to American goods. They were promising to do nothing less than indirectly subsidize the economy of every country represented at the conference.


While American aid helped get Western Europe back on its feet, it was American markets’ absorption of every bolt, table, and car that the Western Europeans could produce that proved to be the determining factor in resuscitating their fortunes. The American economy, never touched by the bombs that devastated Europe, was larger than any that the Europeans had ever had entry to, and the ability to access that market allowed the Europeans to export their way back to affluence.


As the Cold War ended and entire swaths of the globe changed economic and political orientations, the price grew, and as years turned to decades, the system expanded ever outward, until nearly the entire world had acceded to this American-guaranteed network. In fact, the Bretton Woods agreements are the single most important factor behind the Japanese and Korean miracles, the European Economic Community and its successor the European Union, the rise of China… and the statistical monster that is the U.S. trade deficit.


At Bretton Woods the United States produced about one-quarter of global GDP, about the same proportion as it does in 2014. At Bretton Woods the United States was responsible for nearly half of global defense outlays, about the same proportion as in 2014. At Bretton Woods the American military controlled half of global naval tonnage, about the same proportion as it does in 2014. At Bretton Woods the United States was the only country that for the past eighty years had exited every decade with an economy larger than when it had entered, a record of the modern age that the Americans have since extended to 150 years.


In 2014, we’re not witnessing the beginning of the end of American power, but the end of its beginning.

China has not cracked (yet) and the European Union is still with us (for now)

Friday, June 7th, 2024

Accidental Superpower by Peter ZeihanThe version of Peter Zeihan’s Accidental Superpower that I (metaphorically) picked up was subtitled Ten Years On:

The trends of de­globalization, de­population, and American disinterest that were once on the horizon are now embedded firmly in the here and now.


There’s no way you kick out a 350-page book that is three-quarters forecast and you get it all dead-on. The biggest bitch is always timing. Inevitable is not a synonym for imminent.


It is undeniable that China has not cracked (yet) and the European Union is still with us (for now).


Two years after Accidental I published The Absent Superpower, a book that brought America’s shale revolution into focus both in terms of its transformation of the American industrial experience and its impact upon the broader global geopolitic. As part of Absent I predicted that the 2020s would serve as the backdrop of three major international wars. The first of these, the Ukraine War, is now in full swing. Two to go.

The trick is to begin with geography and see where it takes you

Friday, May 31st, 2024

Accidental Superpower by Peter ZeihanPeter Zeihan opens The Accidental Superpower with a story about his destiny:

I’ve always loved maps. My mom tells a story of how when I was five I unfolded a map of my home state of Iowa and started tracing roads away from my hometown, building up to the thickest, brightest line I could find and then connecting it to the next thickest, brightest line I could find until I had traced myself off the map’s edge. When I inquired what was on the other side of the Missouri River, my mom realized that I’d be leaving Iowa someday.


Geopolitics is the study of how place impacts… everything: the clothes you wear, the food you eat, the size and serviceability of your mortgage, how long you live, how many children you have, the stability of your job, the shape and feel of your country’s political system, what sorts of war your country wages or defends itself against, and ultimately whether your culture will withstand the test of time. The balance of rivers, mountains, oceans, plains, deserts, and jungles massively influences everything about both the human condition and national success.

Of course, you shouldn’t treat geography as deterministic. The Nazis loved geopolitics, but instead of using the study of geography to shape their policies, they used it to justify their ideology. They were hardly alone. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Europeans of all stripes used the subdiscipline of geographic determinism to assert their cultural and intellectual superiority over the rest of humanity. At one point, geographers as a whole realized that such concepts were, well, hugely racist and the study of political geography in most forms — particularly in the United States — was largely abandoned.

There is definitely a baby/bathwater issue here. There are good solid reasons as to why nearly every major expansionary power of the past has been based in a temperate climate zone, and why all those that have lasted have been riverine-based. This doesn’t make the people of these zones better or smarter. It simply means they have more and more sustainable resources, fewer barriers to economic development, and economic and military systems that allow for greater reach. The trick is to begin with geography and see where it takes you; don’t start with a theory and use geography to justify it.


My personal ideology is green and internationalist and libertarian, which means I’m an idealistic pragmatist who falls asleep during long meetings. Aside from a few snarky footnotes that bravely survived the editorial gauntlet, my ideology is not represented in this book. I have solar panels on my house, but I see a global future in which coal reigns supreme. I’m an unflinching supporter of free trade and the Western alliance network, seeing the pair as ushering in the greatest peace and prosperity this world has ever known. Yet geography tells me both will be abandoned. I prefer small government, believing that an unobtrusive system generates the broadest and fastest spread of wealth and liberty. But demography tells me an ever larger slice of my income will be taken to fund a system that is ever less dynamic and accountable.

Parents hate it

Saturday, May 25th, 2024

Case Against Education by Bryan CaplanA reader of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education who recently caught Roland Fryer on EconTalk (Oct 2022 episode) suggested an unholy synthesis of Caplan and Fryer:

If we simply assert that it is desirable to have students master a subject, then it is at least valuable to know (if that is indeed what we know) that paying students directly to master material is much more effective than paying other people to offer free education to students who are completely unpaid in the near term for being compelled to encounter the material.

One could imagine an extreme synthesis of Caplan and Fryer that says the state is primarily interested only in teaching those skills you’ve called truly general purpose — literacy and numeracy — and to achieve student learning in these fields we have devised a system of payments to students that are contingent on reaching micro-milestones (e.g., what one might reasonably learn and demonstrate mastery of after spending 60 minutes on Khan Academy) in progress towards mastery of arithmetic, basic algebra, phonics, and reading comprehension. If students find it most cost-effective to earn those payments by subcontracting to tutors and educational coaches who help them reach these milestones (or even on-demand traditional in-class lectures if preferred), then we will primarily see the growth in supply of pedagogical methods which are most capital efficient relative to a desired learning outcome.

Caplan added that it would be better to pay periodically for continuing good scores to avoid mere cramming, and that led to this comment:

Our kids’ elementary school recently started doing cumulative testing throughout the year. Basically every week they have a test that goes back and tests on material covered earlier. I’d say maybe 80% new material, 20% old material, but that’s a pretty big test. Parents hate it, partly because they just hate having a significant test each weak, partly because they don’t have a way to help the kids prepare, and partly because kids are doing poorly on them.

In the parents defense, I think a lot of the tests are poorly constructed and have poor questions. (I think but do not know that they are mostly taking questions from prior state tests that students did poorly on, with no understanding of whether that’s because it’s a poorly phrased question or whether it was really a harder question intended to distinguish between top tier students.)

But the school administrators I think have been somewhat shocked by how little interest the parents have in what information their children have retained versus making sure their kids have good grades. In elementary school. Not even grades that will show up on a college application.

Again, in the parents defense, there has been grade inflation for so long it’s hard for 3rd or 4th grader that’s formerly a straight A student to understand suddenly routinely get B’s and C’s or worse on tests each week. And it’d be less frustrating if the people doing the testing understood something about constructing tests (if almost all of the class is failing because of the current material and not the past material, that’s almost certainly a reflection of the teacher and/or the test, not the children). But the parents weren’t really even interested in trying to continue tweaking the process. They were just worried about getting bad grades and the need to study for a test each week interfering with travel sports practices.

Parents want their children to do well, but not in the objective sense of learning and retaining more.

Ultimately, it comes down to luck

Friday, May 24th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonWhile working as a summer research assistant at Stanford, Rob Henderson explains (in Troubled), he discovered another pernicious luxury belief:

I asked a housemate who was working on a start-up how he’d gotten into Stanford and what steps he was taking to build his company.

He paused for a moment and then said, “Ultimately, it comes down to luck.”

As soon as he said that, it occurred to me that this mind-set is pervasive at Yale as well — far more common than among the people I grew up around or the women and men I served with in the military. Many of my peers at Yale and Stanford would work ceaselessly. But when I’d ask them about the plans they’d implemented to get into college, or start a company, or land their dream job, they’d often suggest they just got lucky rather than attribute their success to their efforts.


A 2019 study found that people with high income and social status are the most likely to attribute success to mere luck rather than hard work.

Both luck and hard work play a role in the direction of our lives, but stressing the former at the expense of the latter doesn’t help those at or near the bottom of society. If disadvantaged people come to believe that luck is the key factor that determines success, then they will be less likely to strive to improve their lives. One study tracked more than six thousand young adults in the US at the beginning of their careers over the course of two decades, and found that those who believed that life’s outcomes are due to their own efforts as opposed to external factors became more successful in their careers and went on to attain higher earnings.


“If your sister asked you how to get into Stanford or start a company, would you shrug and say ‘I just got lucky’ or would you explain whatever it was that you actually did — ‘You have to study, sacrifice, work on the weekends, or whatever’?”

He rolled his eyes before replying, “Yeah, I get it.”

Negative social judgments often serve as guardrails

Friday, May 17th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonAt Yale, Rob Henderson explains (in Troubled), he had some friends in the ROTC program who weren’t from the upper class, either:

When we were kids, chain restaurants like Applebee’s and Olive Garden were considered “fine dining.” That was where people with money went out to eat. Upon meeting real rich people, we realized none of them went to such restaurants, except as a novelty. I later suggested to Nick, Esteban, and some other students that we go to the Cheesecake Factory. One guy asked, “Are we going there ironically?” I flatly said no and ordered some Buffalo Blasts.

I realized that even dietary choices reflected class differences. Yale dining halls had soda fountains that nobody used, save for the one nozzle that dispensed water. The halls also offered “spa water,” which was water flavored with cucumbers or strawberries. I’d always associated that with rich people on TV. I mentally contrasted this with my high school, where I couldn’t go more than ten minutes without seeing someone carrying a Powerade or a Pepsi. There was a striking absence of obesity among the students — many of them seemed to be preoccupied with their weight and image. I learned a term I’d never heard before: fat shaming. It was remarkable that students who seldom consumed sugary drinks and often closely adhered to nutrition and fitness regimens were also attempting to create a taboo around discussions of obesity. The unspoken oath seemed to be, “I will carefully monitor my health and fitness, but will not broadcast the importance of what I am doing, because that is fat shaming.” The people who were most vocal about what they called “body positivity,” which seemed to be a tool to inhibit discussions about the health consequences of obesity, were often very physically fit.

The luxury belief class claims that the unhappiness associated with certain behaviors and choices primarily stems from the negative social judgments they elicit, rather than the behaviors and choices themselves. But, in fact, negative social judgments often serve as guardrails to deter detrimental decisions that lead to unhappiness. In order to avoid misery, we have to admit that certain actions and choices are actually in and of themselves undesirable — single parenthood, obesity, substance abuse, crime, and so on — and not simply in need of normalization.

Indeed, it’s cruel to validate decisions that inflict harm, especially on those who had no hand in the decision — like young children.

Educate yourself

Friday, May 10th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonPrestigious universities encourage students to nurture their grievances, Rob Henderson explains (in Troubled), giving rise to a peculiar situation in which the most advantaged are the most well-equipped to tell other advantaged people how disadvantaged they are:

To become fully acculturated into the elite requires knowing the habits, customs, and manners of the upper class. To stay up to date, you need lots of leisure time or to have the kind of job that allows you to browse Twitter. A common rebuke to those who are not fully up to date on the latest intellectual fads is “educate yourself.” This is how the affluent block mobility for people who work multiple jobs, have children to care for, and don’t have the time or means to read the latest bestseller that outlines the proper way to think about social issues.


Thus, it seems the affluent secure their positions by ensuring that only those who attend the right colleges, listen to the right podcasts, and read the right books and articles can join their inner circle.

Occasionally, I raised these critiques to fellow students or graduates of elite colleges. Sometimes they would reply by asking, “Well, aren’t you part of this group now?” implying that my appraisals of the luxury belief class were hollow because I moved within the same institutions. But they wouldn’t have listened to me back when I was a lowly enlisted service member or back when I was washing dishes for minimum wage. If you ridicule the upper class as an outsider, they’ll either ignore you or tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about. But if you ridicule them as an insider, they call you a hypocrite. Plainly, the requirements for the upper class to take you seriously (e.g., credentials, wealth, power) are also the grounds to brand you a hypocrite for making any criticism of the upper class.

Once a piece of art becomes mainstream, elites must distance themselves from it

Friday, May 3rd, 2024

Troubled by Rob Henderson Before his first year of college, Rob Henderson had never even been to a musical, he explains (in Troubled):

No one I knew from Red Bluff had ever been to one. But it seemed like everyone on campus had seen Hamilton, the acclaimed musical about the American founding father Alexander Hamilton. I looked up tickets: $400.

This was way beyond my budget. So in 2020, I was pleased to see that five years after Hamilton’s debut, it was available to view on Disney+. But suddenly, the musical was being denigrated by many of the same people who formerly enjoyed it, because it didn’t reflect the failings of American society in the eighteenth century. The creator of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, even posted on Twitter that “All the criticisms are valid.” This reveals how social class works in America.


Once a piece of art becomes mainstream, elites must distance themselves from it and redirect their attention to something new, obscure, or difficult to obtain. The affluent relentlessly search for signals that distinguish them from the masses.

A former classmate recently told me that he didn’t enjoy Hamilton but never told anyone because everyone at Yale loved it. However, once the musical became unfashionable, he suddenly became open about his dislike of it.

The Pentagon does not have the budget to create anything as slick and sophisticated as the latest smartphone

Wednesday, March 20th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingThe smartphone industry’s research budget was around $150 billion in 2014, David Hambling notes (in Swarm Troopers), dwarfing the Pentagon’s entire R&D spend of around $60 billion:

In aviation, the Pentagon is the biggest player in the game; only a handful of other countries can afford to develop fourth and fifth-generation combat aircraft like the F-22. But when it comes to small electronics, the Pentagon does not have the budget to create anything as slick and sophisticated as the latest smartphone.

The cost of each new generation of military aircraft rises exponentially.

Wednesday, March 13th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingIn 1984, Norman Augustine, former Under Secretary of the Army, and CEO of aerospace company Martin Marietta, published a set of “laws” about military procurement, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers):

His most celebrated pearl of wisdom is Augustine’s Law 16, which says that the cost of each new generation of military aircraft rises exponentially.


Although intended facetiously, Augustine’s Law 16 has been remarkably accurate. The North American P-51 Mustang was one of the most important US fighters of WWII. Over fifteen thousand were built, at a cost of around $50,000 each in 1945 dollars ($655,000 in 2014). It was succeeded in the 1950s by the jet-powered F-100 Super Sabre at a cost of $700,000 ($6 million in 2014), ten times as expensive in real terms. The McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom, which first flew in 1960, broke the million-dollar barrier, costing $2.4 million apiece in 1965 ($18 million in 2014), tripling the cost of its predecessor. Even allowing for inflation, the upwards curve is steep.


The USAF’s new F-15 Eagle, also from McDonnell Douglas, was set to replace the F-4. The Eagle was a superb aircraft, but it had reached a new high, costing in excess of $20 million ($45 million in 2014), almost tripling again the cost of its predecessor.


Extensive flying exercises found that the big twin-engine F-15 was only slightly superior to the small, cheap fighters fielded by the Russians in a dogfight. If it came to a war, the small band of F-15s would be overwhelmed by swarms of Russian MiGs. Certainly, the F-15s would be able to knock out plenty of the Russians at long range, but when the survivors closed with them, the contest would be bloody and one-sided.

The Air Force decided to go for a “high-low” mix, supplementing the elite F-15s with a large number of cheaper aircraft known as lightweight fighters. The aircraft selected for the lightweight fighter role was the single-engine F-16 Fighting Falcon, two-thirds the size of the F-15. It was to be the embodiment of a concept by fighter guru John Boyd for an austere aircraft with extreme agility that could beat anything in a dogfight. Being less complex, it would be so cheap it could be acquired in vast numbers. The F-15 with its powerful radar was the champion at long-range combat; the agile F-16 was to be the champion in the “furball” of dogfighting.

During the development process, the purity of the F-16 was slowly corrupted. It became heavier, less agile, and more expensive as more and more capabilities were added.


At $15 million in 1998 dollars ($22 million in 2014), the F-16 was cheaper than the F-15, but more expensive than anything in the previous generation, including the big F-4.


The US Navy went through a parallel experience. They also replaced the F-4 Phantom, and chose the F-14 Tomcat, a $ 38 million (1998 dollars, $ 55 million in 2014) carrier-based fighter. Like the F-15 it had a big radar and impressive long-range capabilities.

Again the F-14 was too pricey to acquire in large quantities, and the Navy took up the idea of bolstering numbers with a smaller, cheaper aircraft. They chose the F-18 Hornet, originally a failed competitor in the Air Force’s lightweight fighter competition. The F-18s costs grew from a planned $5 million to around $29 million (2003 = $37 million in 2014).

One of their friends was firing her weapon, and it suddenly jammed

Friday, March 8th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonRob Henderson fills the first part of Troubled with stories from his childhood in foster care, until he gets adopted by a couple that gets divorced. Then his adopted Mom brings home a “friend” named Shelly, who becomes a second mom. They don’t feel safe, so they decide to learn to shoot:

Shelly and Mom had met up with several of their friends at an outdoor shooting range. They’d gone once before; this was their second time. One of their friends was firing her weapon, and it suddenly jammed. As she tried to figure out what was wrong, she carelessly moved the pistol around. Suddenly, the gun fired. Shelly was standing fifteen feet away, talking to a man and his young son. The bullet went straight into her lower back. Had Shelly not been standing there, the bullet would likely have killed the boy.

They were barely able to make ends meet before Shelly was disabled:

At last, Shelly had received a large insurance settlement from the shooting. She and Mom never mentioned the specific amount. I figured it was a few hundred thousand dollars, given what they bought: a new truck for Shelly, a Ford Mustang for Mom, and a motorboat they kept docked at a marina at Shasta Lake. In Red Bluff, having a new boat and a new Ford Mustang was really something.

Mom and Shelly also bought three houses in Red Bluff. One was for us to move into and two were investments to “flip.” They had agreed that the family should move into another home as a way to “start over.” But they strongly disagreed about what to do with the rest of the insurance settlement.


Mom and Shelly expected to make a lot of money by selling the other two homes they’d bought. These houses required some upkeep, and I wanted to help out, so I’d stop by both homes every week to rake the leaves and mow the lawns. Shelly explained that both houses would likely be sold within two or three months at the most, and I didn’t mind doing the extra work for that amount of time.

But three months passed, and there were no buyers.


“I would lie awake in bed at night for months, because I knew this day would come,” Mom said.

We were sitting in the living room of the biggest house I had ever lived in, and I learned that it had been a temporary dream. Eight months had passed, and the two houses Mom and Shelly had intended to flip had still not sold. Shelly and Mom had run out of money. The year 2005 was the right time to invest in houses in California, they said. But not 2006. They explained that all our homes were being foreclosed, and that we had to leave Red Bluff.