Only heartless trolls worry about costs

Wednesday, October 30th, 2019

Michael Munger looks back at the joyful contrarianism of Gordon Tullock, starting with his insights into safety regulations:

Should governments mandate more safety in products? The usual terms of debate weigh reduced injuries — the “human toll” — against increased cost, with only heartless “rational choice” trolls actually worrying much about costs. The idea that perfect safety is morally undesirable, because such policies have enormous opportunity costs, is obviously, annoyingly important — and a big part of the reason economists often end up standing alone at parties, studying the wallpaper pattern.

Safety is valuable, of course. But economists pitch their arguments “at the margin,” meaning for the last increment. The first improvements in safety are cheap and uncontroversial: reliable brakes, turn signals, seat belts, safety glass in windshields. The next increment — airbags, anti-lock braking systems — comes at much greater cost and with a smaller associated reduction in injuries. Ultimately, the only way to make cars completely safe is to park them and throw away the keys. Driving is dangerous.

Tullock’s contribution was to ask, “And then what?” The problem is worse, actually much worse, than the increasing marginal cost of safety improvements. The safety of the car, after all, is just one factor; drivers and their attitudes toward danger are the key missing variable. The state can only mandate the safety of the car. Ultimately, the driver’s behavior determines the risk of driving.

This observation is now sometimes called the “Peltzman Effect,” after the University of Chicago economist Sam Peltzman, but Tullock had argued some versions of it for decades. As the University of California, Irvine economist Richard McKenzie recalls it, Tullock noticed that safer cars reduced the costs of accidents for drivers. If the government “subsidizes” accidents by mandating airbags, there will be more accidents. Worse, because of increased automobile speed and recklessness, there will be more pedestrian injuries and deaths. Safer cars mean more injuries.

Tullock’s famous counterproposal was to place a long, sharp dagger firmly in the center of the steering column. His earliest notion of this was to have the tip pointing back and locked one inch from the driver’s chest. By the time I talked to him about it, in the 1990s, the idea had evolved to work more like an airbag, so that the dagger would be hidden but would deploy with explosive force in the event of an accident.

Calling this conclusion counterintuitive is an understatement — but there is an important insight underlying Tullock’s drollery. The risk of injury is jointly determined by the behavior of all the people who are driving in a particular area. If I’m aggressive and cause a wreck, I’ve imposed additional risk on you. If safety “improvements” subsidize risk-taking, and some — not all, necessarily, just some — people drive more aggressively, then the observed reductions in injuries from safer cars will be much less than regulators expect. Worse, no individual driver can, by behaving safely, escape these bad effects. Safety regulations have negative externalities.

The most annoying thing about Tullock was that he was usually right. He was even right about car safety regulation (though maybe not about the dagger!): According to the American Automobile Association, there have been substantial increases in driver aggressiveness since 2000, with eight out of 10 drivers admitting to having intentionally tailgated another car and nearly half saying they have bumped, rammed, or gotten out of their cars to threaten the occupants of another vehicle. While the direct causal mechanism is complex, this increase in aggressiveness tracks the imposition of universal requirements for airbags and anti-lock brake systems in 1998.

This problem is borne out in the real “national sport” of America, NASCAR. Starting in 1988, the racing entity imposed “restrictor plates” as a safety measure, limiting the airflow into an engine (and therefore the horsepower, and speed, of cars). Restrictors were required in response to the horrific “going airborne” May 1987 accident of Bobby Allison at Talladega, where the car flew into the upper restraining fence and disintegrated, injuring five spectators, including one who lost his eye. But two refereed journal articles, one in the Southern Economic Journal in 2004 by J.B. O’Roark and W.C. Wood, and one in 2010 in Public Choice by A.T. Pope and R.D. Tollison, concluded that safety improvements had increased the number of crashes and multi-car pileups in the sport (though they had not affected the total number of deaths).

That is what you would expect. If speeds are suppressed and safety equipment is improved, the risks of death and serious injury are lowered. The result should be increases in risky behavior by drivers, including close drafting and “trading paint,” the euphemism NASCAR uses for high-speed bumping.

In February 2018, NASCAR switched from restrictor plates to the more precise and consistent “tapered spacers,” which have the same effect and the same “safety” rationale. The 2018 NASCAR “Cup Series” champion, Joey Logano, was clear about the likely outcome: “I totally expect to crash more cars,” the Associated Press quoted him saying. “As cars are closer and drivers are more aggressive, a mistake will create a bigger crash. We can’t get away from it.”

Of course, Tullock would ask, “And then what?” NASCAR is not stupid; it may not be an accident (sorry) that there are more crashes with the same level of driver safety. That may very well be the point: NASCAR fans come for the racin’, but they stay for the wreckin’. Using a “safety” rationale — particularly one that really does reduce injuries slightly — as a means of increasing the number of wrecks makes a lot of economic sense. If the authorities really wanted to prevent accidents, NASCAR would put big daggers in steering columns, not little tapered spacers in carburetors.

Most wealth isn’t devoted to extravagant consumption

Monday, October 28th, 2019

Everyone, regardless of their income and wealth level, would take a hit from the Democrats’ proposed wealth tax:

That’s because, contrary to what American progressives believe, most wealth isn’t devoted to extravagant consumption. Instead, it’s invested in companies; it’s used to fund research and development that will create better goods and services for consumers; it serves as the capital that innovators and producers borrow from banks to grow their businesses. In other words, most wealth is used to fuel other wealth-producing activities that improve well-being.

So whether a wealth tax will create a real disincentive to accumulate capital or force rich taxpayers to send a larger share of their money to the IRS, less capital will be available for everyone in the economy to use for their own businesses and training. That means that many Americans beyond the super wealthy will get burned by the tax.

This negative consequence is a reason why so many countries that had wealth taxes in the 1990s have since abandoned them. The cost of implementing a wealth tax and annually assessing assets often costs more than the tax actually raises in revenue. In France, for instance, the administration cost was double the revenue raised. As such, it’s not surprising that the country dropped its wealth tax in 2018.

Whimpering and crying and screaming all the way

Sunday, October 27th, 2019

Trump’s description of the operation to capture or kill ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is very, very Trump:

He died after running into a dead end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way. The compound had been cleared by this time with people either surrendering or being shot and killed. Eleven young children were moved out of the house and are uninjured. The only ones remaining were Baghdadi in the tunnel and he had dragged three of his young children with him. They were led to certain death. He reached the end of the tunnel as our dogs chased him down. He ignited his vest, killing himself and the three children. His body was mutilated by the blast.

Find another man who is kinder and stronger to stand in the way

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019

In 2015, two years after graduating from university, :

In one session, we asked the women to make an A3 map of their lives from torn-up magazines. The collage would show a road that meandered from their past experiences to future goals. Almost every road began with bottles of vodka, syringes and shadowy characters, and almost every one ended with symmetrical houses and white wedding dresses and Laura Ashley sofas. I had spiked the magazine pile with my partner’s railway-modelling magazines and glossy Sunday supplements in the hope of inspiring something different — a new job, an interesting hobby, some travel, perhaps? — but to little avail.

[...]

“It will be finding ‘the one’ that will get me out of my mess,” she said. “He will look after me and keep people away who come round trying to sell me gear [heroin] again.”

Cathy’s was an oft-told story. She had been prevented from seeing her children by social services because she couldn’t stop seeing an abusive partner. He kept coming round and, against her best judgment, she opened the door.

What I wanted to say was that she didn’t need a man to straighten her life out for her, that she had “everything she needed inside of her” (life advice that works best when Instagrammed over a picture of a thin white girl walking into a sunset).

In time I came to realise that she was probably right. Ambition and independence are a good deal further up the hierarchy of need than security. It’s pretty realistic to assume that the quickest way to ward off a coercive and abusive man is to find another man who is kinder and stronger to stand in the way.

It would be frighteningly easy to have much larger wars than any we have ever seen in history

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019

In Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age Ohio State University professor of political science Bear Braumoeller argues that war is not declining:

Braumoeller used the Correlates of War data set, which scholars from around the world study to measure uses of force up to and including war.

What he found with the statistical analyses was that any decline in the deadliness of war that we think we see in the data is within the normal range of variation — in other words, our period of relative peace right now could easily be occurring simply by chance.

[...]

Once an armed conflict has had more than 1,000 battle deaths (the criteria for being included in the Correlates of War database), there’s about a 50 percent chance it will be as devastating to combatants as the 1990 Iraq War, which killed 20,000 to 35,000 fighters.

There’s a 2 percent chance — about the probability of drawing three of a kind in a five-card poker game — that such a war could end up being as devastating to combatants as World War I. And there’s about a 1 percent chance that its intensity would surpass that of any international war fought in the last two centuries.

“This is pretty bleak. Not only has war not disappeared, but it would be frighteningly easy to have much larger wars than any we have ever seen in history,” Braumoeller said.

There was all this complexity that we couldn’t ignore

Monday, October 21st, 2019

Patricia Marcoccia and Maziar Ghaderi decided to make The Rise of Jordan Peterson before he became controversial:

She’d become interested in his work while she was a college student studying psychology at McMaster University back in the early 2000s. “I found his work on the psychology of meaning very impactful,” she explains. “And I knew he was having a big impact on his students over in Toronto, too.” After graduating and shifting her focus to journalism and film, she decided that she wanted to make Peterson the focus of her first independent feature. She approached him about it in 2015.

After learning more about Peterson’s personal life, Marcoccia decided to focus on his friendship with Charles Joseph, an accomplished third-generation Kwakwaka’wakw carver/artist. A year-and-a-half into that project, she awoke one morning to find that Peterson had posted “Professor Against Political Correctness” on YouTube and that all hell had broken loose. “The video was a total surprise to me. I had no idea it was coming,” she says. “I’d been filming conversations about dreams, Charles carving masks and totem poles, and a sacred potlatch ceremony” — Peterson and his family were at the time immersed in a very involved process of being ceremonially inducted into Joseph’s extended family — “and all of a sudden, there was all this conflict and controversy.”

After a few weeks, Marcoccia decided that she needed to change the focus of her film, and follow the rapidly developing story on which, unexpectedly, she had a uniquely privileged perspective. At the time, neither she nor her husband, a multimedia artist who was now working with her on the film, felt particularly happy about this switch. “This wasn’t the ambulance we would have been chasing” had circumstances been different, she explains. “We didn’t feel comfortable dealing with the ‘free speech versus transphobe’ controversy. But we also didn’t see walking away as an option. You need to follow a film where it takes you.”

“There was so much of this culture war stuff that we didn’t understand,” Ghaderi reflects. Personally and professionally immersed in the left-leaning worlds of art, film, and theater, working with his wife on the documentary when everything “suddenly blew up” was “confusing.” Marcoccia and Ghaderi agreed that if they hadn’t known Peterson and his work personally, and had only read about him in the media outlets they normally digested, they would have most likely been swept up in the anti-Peterson sentiment that dominated their milieu. Instead, they became hyper-aware that “there was all this complexity that we couldn’t ignore.”

Marcoccia and Ghaderi watched — and filmed — as activists, journalists, bloggers, fans, and even their close friends, rather than acknowledging this complexity, turned Peterson into a dichotomous “messiah/devil” icon. “There are right-wing opportunists who want to use Jordan for their own political ends,” Ghaderi notes. “There are people who want to use him to fill the gap of not having a father. There are the Antifa types who condemn him while they’re wearing a mask. It’s the media — journalists, writers, bloggers — that create Jordan’s persona.” The film’s official poster symbolically illustrates that these many competing forces collude to create a false image of the man they’ve come to know.

If the respect that the Marcoccia and Ghaderi have for Peterson is obvious, it’s also unexceptional. That respect extends to all their subjects, including a trans activist who criticizes them for making the film at all. As their website explains, they named their company “Holding Space Films” because the concept of holding space “is central to the filmmaking process”:

To hold space for someone is to metaphorically walk with them amidst their experience using genuine presence and deep listening to enable authenticity to emerge.

Rather than sorting their interviewees into partisan boxes, the filmmakers engage sympathetically with the multidimensional complexity of everyone involved. The consistency of Marcoccia and Ghaderi’s method constitutes a critical theme throughout the film. It’s what enables the (open minded) viewer to experience the nuances under investigation as thought provoking, rather than merely confusing. The people, issues, and events may sometimes be abstruse, but the unpretentious clarity of the filmmakers’ method results in a film that is intelligible, accessible, engaging, and coherent.

It’s important to note that “holding space” in the sense Marcoccia and Ghaderi mean it is difficult. It’s not easy to remain steady in the midst of intense conflict, and listen to the different sides involved with curiosity, empathy, and respect — let alone capture that in a 90-minute film. That they have largely succeeded is a significant accomplishment; one that’s much needed and all too rare. It requires a disciplined commitment to a deeply humane sensibility, an ethos that is widely misunderstood and ignored, if not denigrated and attacked today.

Naturally, it’s being shut out of independent and arthouse cinemas.

China will spend money and endure a dirty industry

Sunday, October 20th, 2019

Coal-burning China’s embrace of electric vehicles may also be more about money than the environment:

China produces less than 5% of the world’s oil — used in combustion engines — but about 45% of the globe’s coal, used in electricity production for EVs. In much the way that the U.S. is the world’s largest user of homegrown crops for motor fuel despite widespread criticism of ethanol subsidies as costly and environmentally damaging, China will spend money and endure a dirty industry to be energy independent as well.

More than that, though, Beijing wants to dominate tomorrow’s car industry. China’s opening to the West came too late for it to be a major exporter of internal combustion engine vehicles, but it has made aggressive moves to dominate battery production, including securing sources of key metals. Through lavish subsidies it already has by far the world’s largest domestic EV market.

Doesn’t that sound laissez unfair?

Saturday, October 19th, 2019

The March of History pits Mises vs. Marx in a Hamilton-esque rap battle:

Workers of the world — ASSEMBLE!
It’s time for the ruling classes to tremble.
I’m the people’s hero, the MVP:
M – A – R – X! Yeah, you know me!

Let’s go back to when men were free.
We hunted and gathered communally.
But get ready, ’cause here comes the twist,
A villain appears, called a “capitalist”.

He puts the proletariat — that’s US — in chains,
exploits our labor, and pockets the gains.
Though slick ads he trick lads and ladies in kind,
selling fake needs he poisons our hearts and minds.

He rots our soul through alienation
pursuing limitless accumulation.
He works us into an early grave,
through debt, steals back the money we save.

Greed is the gospel! Profit? GOD.
The rich get richer through graft and fraud.
The poor get poorer, but YOU don’t care.
Doesn’t that sound laissez unfair?

200 years I’ve been singing this song,
Now my chorus is 99% strong.
The revolution’s here. It’s time to repent.
Your moment is over — your capital’s SPENT!

A Nobel-winning economist goes to Burning Man

Wednesday, October 16th, 2019

Economist Paul Romer went to Burning Man:

It was the first time that Mr. Romer, the former chief economist of the World Bank, had attended the annual bacchanal.

A week earlier, there was hardly anything here, in the remote desert of northwest Nevada. Then tens of thousands of people had just shown up, many in the middle of the night. They had formed an instant city, with a road network, and a raucous street life, and a weird make-do architecture.

[...]

To economists, cities are labor markets. And labor markets can’t function when there are no roads leading workers out of their favelas, or when would-be inventors never meet because they live in gridlock.

Mr. Romer’s answer is to do with this moment what Burning Man does every summer: Stake out the street grid; separate public from private space; and leave room for what’s to come. Then let the free market take over. No market mechanism can ever create the road network that connects everyone. The government must do that first.

[...]

Most of the structure that has been added since feels invisible to the people who come: the streets that are surveyed to be exactly 40 feet wide, the plazas that steer people together without crowding them, the 430 fire extinguishers around town, each tracked by its own QR code.

[...]

After 1996, the founders also began putting up a fence around the city, a pentagon with perfectly straight sightlines. Nominally, it is a “trash fence,” catching debris before it blows into the desert. But it also defines the edge of the city, so that it is possible to stand at the boundary line and stare out into an open desert uncluttered by tents or plywood art. The fence is an urban growth boundary. It is as much about keeping out interlopers as keeping people in.

A tank or fighter jet is prized not for its practical utility

Friday, October 11th, 2019

American defense experts who come to the island all agree that the Taiwanese military needs cheap, expendable, mass-produced weapons systems to deter a Chinese invasion force, but that’s not what Taiwanese leaders buy:

On June 6, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense announced a $2.25 billion arms purchase from the United States. package was broken down into two parts: $250 million for a consignment of Stinger missiles, and $2 billion for 108 main battle tanks. The first part of the package fits well enough within a distributed “anti-access” defense posture. The second purchase does not.

Taiwan is a piebald of jungle-covered mountains, muddy rice paddies, and densely populated urban cores—terrain that frustrates tank maneuver. The most likely use for tanks like these would be in formation near beaches for counter-landing operations, where they would be extremely vulnerable to attack from the air. As Chinese commanders would never land an invasion force unless they first secure air superiority, these tanks will never amount to anything more than 108 very expensive sitting ducks.

The purchase fits a longstanding Taiwanese pattern: prioritizing high-prestige platforms over people. The Ministry of National Defense has cut military pensions and failed to pay volunteer soldiers a competitive wage or provide them with necessary benefits, and it doesn’t have enough bullets on hand for conscripts to practice riflery more than a few times in their entire course of duty.

Yet in addition to buying the tanks, President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration has promised to find $8 billion—equivalent to 70 percent of Taiwan’s 2019 military budget—to purchase 66 new F-16 fighter jets (even though in the event of a conflict with China most of these would be destroyed by PLA missiles while still on their runways). The Taiwanese navy also regularly promotes plans for an indigenously constructed helicopter carrier and Aegis-style destroyer. Billions have been poured into developing indigenous jet engines and fighters. Most disastrous of all, around one-tenth of the defense budget has been earmarked for the development of Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program. According to the wildly optimistic government projections, the very first of these submarines will be seaworthy in 2025. Only a few more could be built before the decade’s close, at an estimated $1 billion per ship.

Taiwanese leaders’ defense priorities make a perverse sort of sense, T. Greer argues:

Taiwanese leaders have a powerful political incentive to raise Taiwan’s stature on the international stage and publicly resist Chinese attempts to cut it away from its allies. Similarly, they are incentivized to show that under their leadership, the Taiwanese military remains a world-class fighting force. Purchasing fancy military equipment makes little strategic sense, but it accomplishes both of these objectives.

In an anonymous interview, one DPP official told me why he believed the purchase of the tanks was so important: “The purchase is a signal that the DPP can lead on defense. It will give the people more confidence that we are not being outclassed by the Chinese. And most important, that Tsai’s good relationship with the Americans is the reason for that.” A senior official interviewed by a Center for Security Policy Studies research team justified Taiwanese requests for F-35 fighter jets, rather than less expensive drones, with similar logic: “You can’t create a hero pilot of a UAV.” The CSPS team concluded that for most of the Taiwanese officials they interviewed, “buying advanced aircraft from the United States was at least as much about assuring the public as it was about improving war-fighting capability.”

This is especially important given Taiwan’s lack of a formal alliance with the United States. For Taiwanese leaders, weapons sales are one of the few metrics available to judge the U.S. commitment to their cause. Taiwanese leaders can trumpet their purchase of American-made weapons systems as something their party has done to raise Taiwan’s international stature. A tank or fighter jet is prized not for its practical utility but its symbolic value.

It produces leaders who were taught from birth to lead

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

The Guardian takes a curious look at the Americans who think a monarchy would solve their political problems:

Sean wasn’t always a monarchist. The history graduate student, who’s in his early 20s, grew up Catholic in central Massachusetts in what he described as “a pretty staunch Republican household”. But in college, a love of history, particularly the Roman Empire, ultimately drew him to monarchism and away from what he described as the “rah-rah American republicanism” of his childhood.

“Most people tend to get more liberal in college,” he told me. While earning his undergraduate degree at a Catholic liberal arts school close to where he grew up, he explained: “I ended up looking into medieval political theory and getting more conservative. The monarchies I find most interesting and think we should replicate go back to the late Middle Ages.”

Sean’s views shifted not only thanks to his medieval studies, but also after learning more about US foreign policy.

“Having a background in history, I naturally gravitated toward monarchism because I felt that my national government wasn’t looking at issues of public welfare or national coherence or national unity,” he said. “Our political system has been irrevocably poisoned by political partisanship.”

[...]

For an American monarchist like Sean, his preferred system of government “is some manner of elective monarchy modeled to a degree after what you saw in the Holy Roman Empire”, he told me. “The individual governor of each of the 50 states could vote amongst themselves on a new monarch in the event of an emperor stepping down … One of the reasons that I, and many others, favor monarchy, has to do with the benefits that a single individual can have when it comes to matters of foreign policy, international relations, international trade, et cetera.”

Others were drawn to monarchy more explicitly because of Trump. One self-identified American semi-constitutionalist explained: “I always had some monarchist sympathies, but I went full turncoat when I saw how moronically people were treating politics after 2016 and realized that our current system was breeding a bunch of nutjobs. After that I became convinced that a monarch or something is needed to keep politicians and the like in check.”

[...]

In 2018, the New York Times cited a study conducted by a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, which discovered “‘robust and quantitatively meaningful evidence’ that monarchies outperform other forms of government”, and provide nations with “stability that often translates into economic gains”.

[...]

“When I was younger I thought monarchy was stupid and made no sense, like most children who were raised on republican (not the American political party) propaganda,” one Reddit user explained to me. “I can’t remember a specific moment when I thought for the first time, ‘monarchy is the best form of government,’ it was just a gradual change. Why am I a monarchist? I’m a monarchist because I believe that monarchy produces a stable government and unites a people, it produces leaders who were taught from birth to lead.”

Can we solve this by building trustworthy systems out of untrustworthy parts?

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019

The United States government’s continuing disagreement with the Chinese company Huawei underscores a much larger problem with computer technologies in general, Bruce Schneier points out:

We have no choice but to trust them completely, and it’s impossible to verify that they’re trustworthy. Solving this problem ­ which is increasingly a national security issue ­ will require us to both make major policy changes and invent new technologies.

The Huawei problem is simple to explain. The company is based in China and subject to the rules and dictates of the Chinese government. The government could require Huawei to install back doors into the 5G routers it sells abroad, allowing the government to eavesdrop on communications or — even worse — take control of the routers during wartime. Since the United States will rely on those routers for all of its communications, we become vulnerable by building our 5G backbone on Huawei equipment.

It’s obvious that we can’t trust computer equipment from a country we don’t trust, but the problem is much more pervasive than that. The computers and smartphones you use are not built in the United States. Their chips aren’t made in the United States. The engineers who design and program them come from over a hundred countries. Thousands of people have the opportunity, acting alone, to slip a back door into the final product.

There’s more. Open-source software packages are increasingly targeted by groups installing back doors. Fake apps in the Google Play store illustrate vulnerabilities in our software distribution systems. The NotPetya worm was distributed by a fraudulent update to a popular Ukranian accounting package, illustrating vulnerabilities in our update systems. Hardware chips can be back-doored at the point of fabrication, even if the design is secure. The National Security Agency exploited the shipping process to subvert Cisco routers intended for the Syrian telephone company. The overall problem is that of supply-chain security, because every part of the supply chain can be attacked.

Can we solve this by building trustworthy systems out of untrustworthy parts?

It sounds ridiculous on its face, but the internet itself was a solution to a similar problem: a reliable network built out of unreliable parts. This was the result of decades of research. That research continues today, and it’s how we can have highly resilient distributed systems like Google’s network even though none of the individual components are particularly good. It’s also the philosophy behind much of the cybersecurity industry today: systems watching one another, looking for vulnerabilities and signs of attack.

Security is a lot harder than reliability. We don’t even really know how to build secure systems out of secure parts, let alone out of parts and processes that we can’t trust and that are almost certainly being subverted by governments and criminals around the world. Current security technologies are nowhere near good enough, though, to defend against these increasingly sophisticated attacks. So while this is an important part of the solution, and something we need to focus research on, it’s not going to solve our near-term problems.

At the same time, all of these problems are getting worse as computers and networks become more critical to personal and national security. The value of 5G isn’t for you to watch videos faster; it’s for things talking to things without bothering you. These things — cars, appliances, power plants, smart cities — increasingly affect the world in a direct physical manner. They’re increasingly autonomous, using A.I. and other technologies to make decisions without human intervention. The risk from Chinese back doors into our networks and computers isn’t that their government will listen in on our conversations; it’s that they’ll turn the power off or make all the cars crash into one another.

All of this doesn’t leave us with many options for today’s supply-chain problems. We still have to presume a dirty network — as well as back-doored computers and phones — and we can clean up only a fraction of the vulnerabilities.

Japan was the world’s only really different country

Tuesday, October 1st, 2019

One can fly to Japan from anywhere, Edward Luttwak says, but from Japan one can only fly to the Third World:

[I]t hardly matters whether one lands in Kinshasa, London, New York or Zurich: they are all places where one must be constantly watchful and distrustful, where one cannot leave a suitcase unattended even for ten minutes, where women strolling home through town at 3 a.m. are deemed imprudent, where the universal business model is not to underpromise and overdeliver but if anything the other way round, where city streets are clogged at rush hour because municipal authorities mysteriously fail to provide ubiquitous, fast and comfortable public transport, where shops need watchful staff or cameras against thieving customers, and where one cannot even get beer and liquor from vending machines that require no protection from vandalism. Japan was the world’s only really different country when I first visited forty years ago, and it remains so now, despite many misguided attempts to internationalise its ways to join the rest of the world.

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest.)

The CIA paid $240,000 to buy the world’s entire supply of LSD

Saturday, September 28th, 2019

The director of the CIA’s infamous MK-ULTRA program, Sidney Gottlieb, was the unwitting godfather of the entire LSD counterculture:

In the early 1950s, he arranged for the CIA to pay $240,000 to buy the world’s entire supply of LSD. He brought this to the United States, and he began spreading it around to hospitals, clinics, prisons and other institutions, asking them, through bogus foundations, to carry out research projects and find out what LSD was, how people reacted to it and how it might be able to be used as a tool for mind control.

Now, the people who volunteered for these experiments and began taking LSD, in many cases, found it very pleasurable. They told their friends about it. Who were those people? Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, got his LSD in an experiment sponsored by the CIA by MK-ULTRA, by Sidney Gottlieb. So did Robert Hunter, the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, which went on to become a great purveyor of LSD culture. Allen Ginsberg, the poet who preached the value of the great personal adventure of using LSD, got his first LSD from Sidney Gottlieb. Although, of course, he never knew that name.

Her creepy imaginary friend is called Captain Howdy

Sunday, September 15th, 2019

In Primal Screams Mary Eberstadt cites former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, social scientist James Q. Wilson, and Elizabeth Marquardt, author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, to document how the Sexual Revolution created Identity Politics:

A writer she doesn’t mention, however, is William Peter Blatty, author of the blockbuster 1971 horror novel The Exorcist. Those who have never read the novel, or are familiar only with its 1973 cinematic incarnation, probably believe the book to be a potboiler about demonic possession. But it is also an allegorical warning about the importance of the traditional family unit and the devastation wrought when it breaks down. Curiously, this aspect of the novel went largely unnoticed by the book’s earliest reviewers.

Back in 1971, the advent of no-fault divorce laws in the United States was seen in liberal circles as an unalloyed benefit for society. Thus, the book critics for most of the mainstream publications that bothered to review The ExorcistTime, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, etc. — treated the book as either a modern day pastiche of Poe and Mary Shelley, or else as a traditional story of the battle between Good and Evil. What’s odd about this is that Blatty made no effort to hide his social conservatism. You don’t have to be a postmodern literary detective to find it in the subtext. Blatty was not a subtle writer, and he set his message out on the page for all to see, although very few have ever remarked upon it.

The Exorcist tells the story of Chris MacNeil, a recently divorced American movie star, and her 12-year-old daughter Regan Teresa MacNeil, whom Chris calls “Rags.” The story takes place in Washington, D.C., where Chris has rented a home a few blocks from the campus of Georgetown University. She is the star of a movie about unrest on campus that is being filmed at Georgetown. Neither Chris nor her daughter have yet recovered from the divorce. And Regan has begun to demonstrate troubling behavior (using obscenities, operating a Ouija board with a creepy imaginary friend, lashing out at the adults around her) that leads Chris to seek help and advice, first from psychiatric professionals.

Every few pages, the reader is reminded about the absence of Regan’s father. Early in the book, as Chris is hanging up a dress in Regan’s closet, she thinks: Nice clothes. Yeah, Rags, look here, not there at the daddy who never writes. Regan appears to be in search of a substitute for the father she has lost, and television seems to be one of the places she has been looking. Her creepy imaginary friend is called Captain Howdy, clearly a reference to two TV characters popular with children of the Baby Boom, Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody.

I was shocked years ago, when I learned from watching the DVD extras, that The Exorcist was written as a piece of pro-Catholic propaganda.