The team is defeated by bureaucracy, indecision, complacency and malaise

Monday, July 5th, 2021

As you might expect from Michael Lewis, his Premonition is terribly well done, Alex Tabarrok says, if formulaic and over-the-top:

But Lewis has a bigger problem than over-the-top writing.

The heroes were defeated. Lewis likes to tell stories of brilliant mavericks like Billy Beane and Michael Burry who go against the grain but eventually, against all odds, emerge victorious. But six hundred thousand people are dead in the United States and whatever victory we have won was ugly and slow. Indeed, Lewis assembles his mighty team but then The Premonition trails off as the team is defeated by bureaucracy, indecision, complacency and malaise before they even have a chance to enter the real battle against the virus.

[…]

If there is one central villain in The Premonition, it’s the CDC. Lewis acknowledges that his perspective has changed. In The Fifth Risk, the system (the “deep state” used non-pejoratively if you will) is full of wisdom and power but it’s under threat from Trump. In The Premonition, Trump is an after-thought, at best a trigger or aggravating factor.

[…]

Lewis’s most sustained analysis comes in a few pages near the end of The Premonition where he argues that the CDC became politicized after it lost credibility due to the 1976 Swine Flu episode. In 1976 a novel influenza strain looked like it might be a repeat of 1918. Encouraged by CDC head David Sencer, President Ford launched a mass vaccination campaign that vaccinated 45 million people. The swine flu, however, petered out and the campaign was widely considered a “debacle” and a “fiasco” that illustrated the danger of ceding control to unelected experts instead of the democratic process. The CDC lost authority and under Reagan the director became a political appointee rather than a career civil servant. Thus, rather than being unprecedented, Trump’s politicization of the CDC had deep roots.

Today the 1976 vaccination campaign looks like a competent response to a real risk that failed to materialize, rather than a failure. So what lessons should we take from this? Lewis doesn’t say but my colleague Garett Jones argues for more independent agencies in his excellent book 10% Less Democracy. The problem with the CDC was that after 1976 it was too responsive to political pressures, i.e. too democratic. What are the alternatives?

The Federal Reserve is governed by a seven-member board each of whom is appointed to a single 14-year term, making it rare for a President to be able to appoint a majority of the board. Moreover, since members cannot be reappointed there is less incentive to curry political favor. The Chairperson is appointed by the President to a four-year term and must also be approved by the Senate. These checks and balances make the Federal Reserve a relatively independent agency with the power to reject democratic pressures for inflationary stimulus. Although independent central banks can be a thorn in the side of politicians who want their aid in juicing the economy as elections approach, the evidence is that independent central banks reduce inflation without reducing economic growth. A multi-member governing board with long and overlapping appointments could also make the CDC more independent from democratic politics which is what you want when a once in 100 year pandemic hits and the organization needs to make unpopular decisions before most people see the danger.

Happy Secession Day!

Sunday, July 4th, 2021

Once again, happy Secession Day:

Gardner is one of those people who created our world but is little remembered by it

Sunday, June 27th, 2021

I was reading Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution, when the tech billionaire advising the White House asked our protagonist, “Are you familiar with John Gardner?”:

“Gardner is one of those people who created our world but is little remembered by it. He engineered what were called the ‘Great Society’ reforms back in the 1960s. The program changed everything in America, from guaranteeing voting rights for the groups that were then minorities to establishing a government role in medical and retirement assistance, to even creating the public broadcasting networks that gave your child Sesame Street.”

Naturally I wanted to find out more:

A native of California, Gardner attended Stanford University. As an undergrad he set several swimming records and won a number of Pacific Coast championships, and graduated “with great distinction.” After earning a Ph.D. in Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley in 1938, Dr. Gardner taught at Connecticut College and at Mount Holyoke.

During the early days of World War II he was chief of the Latin American Section, Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service. He subsequently entered the United States Marine Corps and was assigned to the O.S.S., serving in Italy and Austria.

He joined the staff of the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1946, and in 1955 he became president of that group, and concurrently, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He also served as an advisor to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations and as a consultant to the U.S. Air Force, which awarded him the Exceptional Service Award in 1956. He was a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and of the Educational Testing Service and a director of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. He served as chairman of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund Panel on Education, and was chief draftsman of that group’s widely circulated report, The Pursuit of Excellence.

Gardner was the founder of two influential national U.S. organizations: Common Cause and Independent Sector. He authored books on improving leadership in American society and other subjects. He was also the founder of two prestigious fellowship programs, The White House Fellows and The John Gardner Fellowship at Stanford University and U.C. Berkeley. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. In 1966 Gardner was awarded the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.

Gardner’s term as Secretary of HEW was at the height of Johnson’s Great Society domestic agenda. During this tenure, the Department undertook both the huge task of launching Medicare, which brought quality health care to senior citizens, and oversaw significant expansions of the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that redefined the federal role in education and targeted funding to poor students. Gardner resigned as head of HEW because he could not support the war in Vietnam.

P.W. Singer and August Cole previously wrote Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, which I discussed a few times.

Surviving the Darwinian process of being confronted with what happened in different parts of the world

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2021

Peter Turchin wrote War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires 17 years ago, but he feels it has aged surprisingly well:

For seven years before I even started writing it, I read voraciously through books and articles by historical sociologists, economists, archaeologists, cultural evolutionists, and — most important — historians. I read both historians who wrote “grand historical narratives,” such as William McNeill, and historians who attempted to view history at a more personal level, through the eyes of individuals. A great example of the latter is Barbara Tuchman, who in A Distant Mirror followed the fortunes of Sieur de Coucy as he tried to survive the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages.

Human brain is a wonderful inference engine. Like many before me, as I ploughed through this sea of information, I started seeing patterns. I remember that I went through a huge number of ideas and possible explanations, many proposed by others, a few that occurred to me. 99% of them were discarded almost as soon as they came up. But a few endured, surviving the Darwinian process of being confronted with what happened in different parts of the world and different historic eras. And so, I ended up writing my own “grand historical narrative.” War and Peace and War was the result.

Turchin finds the current book cover a bit bland and generic and really liked the cover of the first, hardcover edition, based on a detail from The Conquest of Siberia by Yermak (1895) by Vasily Surikov, which is a wonderful illustration of one of the central ideas in War and Peace and War, the metaethnic frontier.

Does the racial gap in arrests lessen as the crimes get more serious?

Monday, June 21st, 2021

Steve Sailer reviews Charles Murray’s short, lucid book Facing Reality: Two Truths about Race in America about the essential factors influencing society — intelligence and violence:

After The Bell Curve, the great and good made immense efforts to Close The Gap, if only to prove Murray wrong. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, pushed by George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy, mandated the Lake Wobegonization of America: Every single public school student must score “proficient” by 2014.

That didn’t happen.

Similarly, Bill Gates poured huge sums into, first, the “small learning communities” fad of the 2000s and then the “Common Core” whoop-de-do of the 2010s. Neither accomplished anything noticeable.

Today, after 55 years of vast spending to eliminate the race gap on tests, the optimistic centrist education reformers of the “All We Have To Do Is Implement My Favorite Panacea” school are finally out of fashion, leaving Ibram X. Kendi and Charles Murray as the last men standing. One or the other must be right: either Murray (blacks, unfortunately, have problems because they tend to be less smart and more violent) or Kendi (any disparities demonstrate that whites are evil and therefore must pay).

[…]

But, The Establishment no longer really believes that race gaps can be reduced. Instead, the new conventional wisdom is Kendi’s: Tests must be abolished. This will make the problems caused by lower black intelligence go away for Underpants Gnomes reasons.

[…]

Murray, however, has uncovered newly available arrest statistics from the Open Data Initiative by race (with Hispanics usually broken out) and type of crime for thirteen cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

For property crime, Murray finds, Latinos were arrested 1.5 times as often as whites, a modest difference especially considering the disparity in average age.

[…]

Blacks in these thirteen cities were arrested for property offenses five times as often per capita as whites.

Are cops just racistly arresting blacks for ticky-tack property offenses like, say, taking an extra newspaper from the rack?

One way to get a clue about this is to look at more serious incidents, such as violent crimes. Does the racial gap in arrests lessen as the crimes get more serious?

No. Hispanics were arrested for violence about 2.7 times as often as whites, while blacks were arrested almost ten times as much.

How about murder, the most diligently investigated of all crimes?

Latinos are arrested for murder about five times more often per capita than whites, while blacks are about twenty times more likely than whites to be arrested for murder.

[…]

Whether Facing Reality will inspire a desperately needed national conversation on the reality of racial differences, or whether it will be deep-sixed like Human Diversity, remains to be seen.

But Murray has given it his best shot.

They’re unlikely to function as effective team members in an organization that has to deal with everyday realities

Saturday, June 12th, 2021

R.R. Reno is not inclined to hire graduates from America’s elite universities:

A decade ago I relished the opportunity to employ talented graduates of Princeton, Yale, Harvard and the rest. Today? Not so much.

As a graduate of Haverford College, a fancy school outside Philadelphia, I took interest in the campus uproar there last fall. It concerned “antiblackness” and the “erasure of marginalized voices.” A student strike culminated in an all-college Zoom meeting for undergraduates. The college president and other administrators promised to “listen.” During the meeting, many students displayed a stunning combination of thin-skinned narcissism and naked aggression. The college administrators responded with self-abasing apologies.

Haverford is a progressive hothouse. If students can be traumatized by “insensitivity” on that leafy campus, then they’re unlikely to function as effective team members in an organization that has to deal with everyday realities. And in any event, I don’t want to hire someone who makes inflammatory accusations at the drop of a hat.

Student activists don’t represent the majority of students. But I find myself wondering about the silent acquiescence of most students. They allow themselves to be cowed by charges of racism and other sins. I sympathize. The atmosphere of intimidation in elite higher education is intense. But I don’t want to hire a person well-practiced in remaining silent when it costs something to speak up.

Just ask Spock for his opinion, then do the opposite

Friday, June 11th, 2021

In The Scout Mindset Julia Galef argues that Star Trek’s Spock is a “Straw Vulcan” — a caricature of rationality designed to make rationality look foolish — but Tim Hartford sees him as a rather typical economist:

There is another way that we economists might learn from observing Spock’s mistakes. He is a truly terrible forecaster. Galef, rather delightfully, has gone through the full catalogue of Star Trek, finding every occurrence she could of Spock making a prediction.

“[There’s] only a very slight chance [this plan] would work,” Spock tells Captain James T Kirk at one stage. The plan works. “Intercepting all three ships is an impossibility,” he warns Kirk during another adventure. Kirk intercepts all three ships. The chance of a daring escape? “Difficult to be precise, Captain. I should say approximately 7,824.7 to one.” They escape.

[...]

Yet this sort of overconfident nonsense is common in real-world punditry. We seem to have an unslakable thirst for knowledge about the future. Sadly, knowledge about the future is not easy to acquire, so we satisfy ourselves with the pretence of knowledge. If you can’t be accurate, at least sound self-assured. Spock does, every time.

“My choice will be a logical one,” he upbraids a subordinate, shortly before making another fatal error, “arrived at through logical means.”

Well said. But his record is not so good. According to Galef’s tally, when Spock says something is “impossible” it happens 83 per cent of the time, and when he gives something more than a 99.5 per cent chance, it happens just 17 per cent of the time. (He does OK with his forecasts of “likely”.) This makes him a reliably contrarian indicator, as Kirk seems to have realised — just ask Spock for his opinion, then do the opposite.

Failing that, if you want to become a better forecaster, do what Galef did: look back at old forecasts and keep score.

The standard-bearer of the latest armed-drone revolution emerged last year on the battlefields around Turkey

Monday, June 7th, 2021

On the first day of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijani drone strikes focused heavily on Armenian short-range air-defense vehicles, and now, the Wall Street Journal reports, armed low-cost drones made by Turkey are reshaping geopolitics:

The standard-bearer of the latest armed-drone revolution emerged last year on the battlefields around Turkey, the Bayraktar TB2.

Compared with the American MQ-9, the TB2 is lightly armed, with four laser-guided missiles. Its radio-controlled apparatus limits its basic range to around 200 miles, roughly a fifth of the ground the MQ-9 can cover.

Yet it is utilitarian, and reliable — qualities reminiscent of the Soviet Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle that changed warfare in the 20th century. A set of six Bayraktar TB2 drones, ground units, and other essential operations equipment costs tens of millions of dollars, rather than hundreds of millions for the MQ-9.

The drone’s Turkish producer, Baykar, which started in 1984 making auto parts, boasts of more bang for the buck. Qatar and Ukraine are customers. Poland, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member, said last month it would buy 24 TB2 drones. Several other NATO allies are interested, as well as countries in Africa and Asia, Turkish government and company officials said.

The TB2 drone gained international notice in the skies over Syria in early 2020.

[...]

Last spring, the TB2s helped turn the tide in the Libyan civil war for the Tripoli-based government, which is backed by the United Nations.

Turkey had sent arms in 2019 to stem an assault on the capital by militia leader Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by Russia and others. In 2020, Turkey increased military support. Improved drone tactics honed in Syria provided the upper hand against Russian-made surface-to-air missile systems known as Pantsir, handing the Tripoli government aerial supremacy. By June, Mr. Haftar’s forces retreated from Tripoli.

I was amused to see “honed in” used correctly there.

Ukraine signed a deal in January 2019 to buy TB2 drones from Turkey, receiving at least six so far, and Kyiv is in talks for joint production. A Ukrainian company is manufacturing engines for the latest Baykar drone, a larger model with a heavier payload than the TB2.

The country hopes the drones will discourage a repeat of the Kremlin’s 2014 invasions.

The TB2 was born of Turkey’s dissatisfaction with available models from the U.S. and Israel and its desire for systems under its control to fight the PKK:

Baykar emerged as a leader among several Turkish drone producers after spotting a niche in the early 2000s, said Mr. Bayraktar, the company’s chief executive. His brother Selcuk Bayraktar, who took advanced studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came up with flight-control software and guidance systems while using off-the-shelf components.

During development, company officials set up a workshop at a military base to get a firsthand understanding, including from a colonel who took them to a patch of bloodied ground where, they said, Turkish soldiers were killed by the PKK.

In 2007, Turkey launched a national competition to supply mini drones, which yielded an order of 76 from Baykar. At the time, the U.S. wouldn’t sell armed drones to Turkey. Baykar developed the TB2 and gradually replaced foreign components with locally produced ones. In 2015, the company successfully test-fired a precision-guided munition.

I must be a bad person for being so well-informed

Saturday, June 5th, 2021

What if I’m right?, Steve Sailer asks:

What if my way of thinking is, in general, more realistic, insightful, and reasonable than the conventional wisdom?

I dislike thinking of my concepts as an ideology. I don’t propound “Sailerism.” I lack the ambition and the ego. I am by nature a staff guy rather than a line boss. I like to think of my approach to understanding human society as one that will eventually seem obvious to everybody, so I shouldn’t claim credit now for what is simply solid empirical thinking applied to the more contentious subjects.

Instead, I like to tell myself, I should just keep coming up with more ideas that are (in declining order of importance to me) true, interesting, new, and funny. Eventually, people will notice how much better my approach to reality has been than that of the famous folks winning MacArthur genius grants and try to figure out for themselves how I do it so that everybody can do it too.

Or at least that’s what I hope.

On the other hand, it’s now 2021 and public discourse has just gotten stupider and more self-destructive over the course of my career.

Maybe that’s my fault?

What if I had just kept my mouth shut and, instead of challenging popular pundits to be honest and intelligent, I’d let them work it out for themselves? After all, while people who know me tend to find I’m an admirable individual, people who don’t know me tend to hate me.

Many pundits seem enraged over the idea that I might prove right. This tendency to personalize social science disputes has always struck me as dim-witted, but, apparently, the fear “What if Sailer is right?” is infuriating and/or terrifying to many. It’s almost as if what gets people mad is my being correct so often.

Thus, when I point out the facts, I’m often greeted with incoherent anger centering on the allegation that I must be a bad person for being so well-informed.

They aim to tame the beast

Thursday, June 3rd, 2021

Having defeated Donald Trump and stumbled on new methods of control during the Covid-19 pandemic, the elites who run our institutions are striking back, Martin Gurri says:

Trump, always a volatile substance, in defeat managed to live up to the most outrageous caricatures of himself drawn by his opponents. His madcap nihilism was a happy gift to the elites. The president of the United States was thus banned from social media, using protocols developed during the pandemic to direct only “authoritative” information to the public.

Trump’s QAnon followers actually exceeded anyone’s expectations of what a lunatic fringe might behave like, then took selfies of themselves in the act of being violently bizarre. That was another happy moment. The barbarians who looted the Capitol building were declared to be not a mob but an insurgency, a sort of latter-day Whisky Rebellion — and the heart of Washington, D.C. remains occupied by a military force to this day.

When Trump won in 2016, elites insisted that he had subverted the election with Russian help. When Trump lost in 2020, the electoral process miraculously regained its virginal purity. To question the outcome became the equivalent of saying that Bill Gates had invented Covid-19. Both were simple opinions, however eccentric — and both were found to be dangerously unorthodox and thus bounced from social media.

The Georgia state legislature, controlled by Trumpian Republicans, enacted an election law that the Trump-loathing establishment condemned as an attempt to restrict minority votes. The law contains nothing particularly new, and some of the claims made against it seem dubious, but the elites in their hour of triumph were in no mood to tolerate deviancy. A vast choir of voices emanating from the White House, traditional and digital media, CEOs of major companies, academia, the social justice industry, and the usual gaggle of virtue signalers — all with remarkable unanimity and in perfect harmony — pronounced the Georgia law “unacceptable.” Punishment had to be meted out to the inhabitants. In an unprecedented gesture, Major League Baseball withdrew the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta. Georgians, in their shame, were unworthy of Bryce Harper.

Joe Biden doddered into the presidency with a single thought in mind: to sign as many enormous checks as his septuagenarian hand could stand. That the public would tolerate a drunken-sailor approach to federal spending was yet another lesson of the pandemic—Trump and his Republicans were eager to participate in the original binge. The economic theory behind this appears to be that government prints the money anyway, so what harm can be done if the president shovels tons of it at those he loves? No doubt we’ll get the answer in the next few years.

Today, having lost access to the money spigot, congressional Republicans have developed highly principled reservations about spending. It’s too late. They will be emasculated. The Biden bills in their bloated enormity will shower money on an entirely different crowd.

These bills have such official-sounding descriptions as “stimulus” or “infrastructure,” but as always when colossal sums get thrown around, something is bought and something is sold, and political and ideological fantasies are fulfilled thereby. The $2 trillion infrastructure bill allocates a measly $115 billion to what I, in my simplicity, understand infrastructure to be: roads, rail, and so forth. Much will be spent on “addressing climate and racial inequities.” The object is clearly to purchase a permanent majority, forever secure against madcap populists and other incursions from below — the ultimate fantasy. A trillion here, a trillion there, and suddenly you find yourself applauded by a lot of new friends.

Now, some might insist that this spree belongs to the great American tradition of partisan politics. The Democrats, not the elites, won the 2020 election and are now reaping the rewards, while Trump and the Republicans, having lost, are deservedly consigned to the wilderness. And that is true so far as it goes. But it misses the big picture: the elites in our country lean progressive and vote Democratic, but not all Democrats love the elites.

Joe Biden, a 78-year-old middling figure who had failed at presidential politics before, would never have become the Democratic candidate except as a desperate stopgap to the anti-elite Bernie Sanders. He would never have become president except for the establishment’s four-year exorcism of the anti-elite Trump. The elites got Biden where he is; elite is what he is, a man whose chief attribute is comfort at the top of the pyramid. When the CEO of Coca-Cola and the commissioner of Major League Baseball, tech companies like Google and Apple, the New York Times and Washington Post, and Bank of America and the ACLU run interference for the president on the Georgia controversy, a weird agitation of the elites is at hand that transcends party politics.

The people in charge of our great institutions fear and loathe the public. The election of Trump convinced them that ordinary citizens couldn’t be trusted with the vote. The rise of social media has persuaded them that limits must be imposed on what can be said. Aware that they lack personal and institutional authority, they will gladly settle for political power. They aim to tame the beast.

Let’s be clear: there’s no elite conspiracy, no secret gatherings in smoke-filled rooms, only a herd-like huddling of conformist minds. There’s no elite ideology in any coherent sense, only a blind impulse to control that gravitates instinctively to certain positions on certain issues. The script is always the restoration of order in a broken world.

Two common threads are apparent: the public is a bigoted and destructive monster, and only state power wielded by virtuous elites can protect this creature from itself. The politics of racial and gender “equity” entail complicated government mandates over corporate and private behavior, as well as undeviating conformity in speech and opinion policed by online inquisitors. The politics of climate change entail government control over large swaths of the economy and the demonization of skeptics as the moral equivalent of Holocaust deniers. The politics of authorized truth entail the regulation of digital platforms to ensure that algorithms deliver officially approved answers, and the red-flagging or de-platforming of opinions obnoxious to the elites. The politics of transportation entail taxing to extinction that symbol of indeterminacy, the car, while shoving the masses into predictable rail lines and bike lanes.

I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that

Friday, May 28th, 2021

Commenter Kirk recently suggested that I address Heinlein’s Starship Troopers — or certain parts of it, which address an article he shared:

If Isegoria wanted to treat the bits and pieces of the referenced work (Starship Troopers, R.A. Heinlein) that don’t address his hypothetical “future government by veterans” in a manner similar to how he has done Fehrenbach’s seminal work, I think it would be a good idea.

Starship Troopers has aspects that tend to distract people reading it from the ground truths that were contained therein, some of which the linked article mentions. The overall trend towards “de-civilization” that Heinlein outlines as the backstory/justification for the world he creates in the book is something you can observe going on all around you, in the general insanity prevailing the day.

I have my doubts about the prescription he came up with, but the bastard damn sure got the diagnosis right…

Long-time readers — and new-but-astute readers — might realize that I’ve discussed Heinlein here many, many times.

Heinlein’s Starship Troopers presents many ideas through the character of Mr. Dubois:

I thought about it during the last session of our class in History and Moral Philosophy. H. & M. P. was different from other courses in that everybody had to take it but nobody had to pass it — and Mr. Dubois never seemed to care whether he got through to us or not. He would just point at you with the stump of his left arm (he never bothered with names) and snap a question. Then the argument would start.

But on the last day he seemed to be trying to find out what we had learned. One girl told him bluntly: “My mother says that violence never settles anything.”

“So?” Mr. Dubois looked at her bleakly. “I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that. Why doesn’t your mother tell them so? Or why don’t you?”

They had tangled before — since you couldn’t flunk the course, it wasn’t necessary to keep Mr. Dubois buttered up. She said shrilly, “You’re making fun of me! Everybody knows that Carthage was destroyed!”

“You seemed to be unaware of it,” he said grimly. “Since you do know it, wouldn’t you say that violence had settled their destinies rather thoroughly? However, I was not making fun of you personally; I was heaping scorn on an inexcusably silly idea — a practice I shall always follow. Anyone who clings to the historically untrue — and thoroughly immoral — doctrine that `violence never settles anything’ I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.”

He sighed. “Another year, another class — and, for me, another failure. One can lead a child to knowledge but one cannot make him think.”

You can quickly see why Heinlein’s Starship Troopers would get labelled fascistit mocks communism:

He had been droning along about “value,” comparing the Marxist theory with the orthodox “use” theory. Mr. Dubois had said, “Of course, the Marxian definition of value is ridiculous. All the work one cares to add will not turn a mud pie into an apple tart; it remains a mud pie, value zero. By corollary, unskillful work can easily subtract value; an untalented cook can turn wholesome dough and fresh green apples, valuable already, into an inedible mess, value zero. Conversely, a great chef can fashion of those same materials a confection of greater value than a commonplace apple tart, with no more effort than an ordinary cook uses to prepare an ordinary sweet.

“These kitchen illustrations demolish the Marxian theory of value — the fallacy from which the entire magnificent fraud of communism derives — and to illustrate the truth of the common-sense definition as measured in terms of use.”

Dubois had waved his stump at us. “Nevertheless — wake up, back there! — nevertheless the disheveled old mystic of Das Kapital, turgid, tortured, confused, and neurotic, unscientific, illogical, this pompous fraud Karl Marx, nevertheless had a glimmering of a very important truth. If he had possessed an analytical mind, he might have formulated the first adequate definition of value… and this planet might have been saved endless grief.

“Or might not,” he added. “You!”

I had sat up with a jerk.

“If you can’t listen, perhaps you can tell the class whether ‘value’ is a relative, or an absolute?”

I had been listening; I just didn’t see any reason not to listen with eyes closed and spine relaxed. But his question caught me out; I hadn’t read that day’s assignment. “An absolute,” I answered, guessing.

“Wrong,” he said coldly. ” ‘Value’ has no meaning other than in relation to living beings. The value of a thing is always relative to a particular person, is completely personal and different in quantity for each living human — ‘market value’ is a fiction, merely a rough guess at the average of personal values, all of which must be quantitatively different or trade would be impossible.” (I had wondered what Father would have said if he had heard “market value” called a “fiction” — snort in disgust, probably.)

“This very personal relationship, ‘value,’ has two factors for a human being: first, what he can do with a thing, its use to him… and second, what he must do to get it, its cost to him. There is an old song which asserts that ‘the best things in life are free.’ Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.

“Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain.” He had been still looking at me and added, “If you boys and girls had to sweat for your toys the way a newly born baby has to struggle to live you would be happier… and much richer. As it is, with some of you, I pity the poverty of your wealth. You! I’ve just awarded you the prize for the hundred-meter dash. Does it make you happy?”

“Uh, I suppose it would.”

“No dodging, please. You have the prize — here, I’ll write it out: ‘Grand prize for the championship, one hundred-meter sprint.’ ” He had actually come back to my seat and pinned it on my chest. “There! Are you happy? You value it — or don’t you?”

I was sore. First that dirty crack about rich kids — a typical sneer of those who haven’t got it — and now this farce. I ripped it off and chucked it at him.

Mr. Dubois had looked surprised. “It doesn’t make you happy?”

“You know darn well I placed fourth!”

“Exactly! The prize for first place is worthless to you… because you haven’t earned it. But you enjoy a modest satisfaction in placing fourth; you earned it. I trust that some of the somnambulists here understood this little morality play. I fancy that the poet who wrote that song meant to imply that the best things in life must be purchased other than with money — which is true — just as the literal meaning of his words is false. The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion… and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value.”

This passage most directly addresses Kirk’s point about our societal decline:

I found myself mulling over a discussion in our class in History and Moral Philosophy. Mr. Dubois was talking about the disorders that preceded the breakup of the North American republic, back in the XXth century.

According to him, there was a time just before they went down the drain when such crimes as Dillinger’s were as common as dogfights. The Terror had not been just in North America — Russia and the British Isles had it, too, as well as other places. But it reached its peak in North America shortly before things went to pieces.

“Law-abiding people,” Dubois had told us, “hardly dared go into a public park at night. To do so was to risk attack by wolf packs of children, armed with chains, knives, homemade guns, bludgeons… to be hurt at least, robbed most certainly, injured for life probably — or even killed.

This went on for years, right up to the war between the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance and the Chinese Hegemony. Murder, drug addiction, larceny, assault, and vandalism were commonplace. Nor were parks the only places — these things happened also on the streets in daylight, on school grounds, even inside school buildings. But parks were so notoriously unsafe that honest people stayed clear of them after dark.”

I had tried to imagine such things happening in our schools. I simply couldn’t. Nor in our parks. A park was a place for fun, not for getting hurt. As for getting killed in one — “Mr. Dubois, didn’t they have police? Or courts?”

“They had many more police than we have. And more courts. All overworked.”

“I guess I don’t get it.” If a boy in our city had done anything half that bad… well, he and his father would have been flogged side by side.

But such things just didn’t happen.

Mr. Dubois then demanded of me, “Define a ‘juvenile delinquent.’ ”

“Uh, one of those kids — the ones who used to beat up people.”

“Wrong.”

“Huh? But the book said — ”

“My apologies. Your textbook does so state. But calling a tail a leg does not make the name fit ‘Juvenile delinquent’ is a contradiction in terms, one which gives a clue to their problem and their failure to solve it. Have you ever raised a puppy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you housebreak him?”

“Err… yes, sir. Eventually.” It was my slowness in this that caused my mother to rule that dogs must stay out of the house.

“Ah, yes. When your puppy made mistakes, were you angry?”

“What? Why, he didn’t know any better; he was just a puppy.

“What did you do?”

“Why, I scolded him and rubbed his nose in it and paddled him.”

“Surely he could not understand your words?”

“No, but he could tell I was sore at him!”

“But you just said that you were not angry.”

Mr. Dubois had an infuriating way of getting a person mixed up. “No, but I had to make him think I was. He had to learn, didn’t he?”

“Conceded. But, having made it clear to him that you disapproved, how could you be so cruel as to spank him as well? You said the poor beastie didn’t know that he was doing wrong. Yet you indicted pain. Justify yourself! Or are you a sadist?”

I didn’t then know what a sadist was — but I knew pups. “Mr. Dubois, you have to! You scold him so that he knows he’s in trouble, you rub his nose in it so that he will know what trouble you mean, you paddle him so that he darn well won’t do it again — and you have to do it right away! It doesn’t do a bit of good to punish him later; you’ll just confuse him. Even so, he won’t learn from one lesson, so you watch and catch him again and paddle him still harder. Pretty soon he learns. But it’s a waste of breath just to scold him.” Then I added, “I guess you’ve never raised pups.”

“Many. I’m raising a dachshund now — by your methods. Let’s get back to those juvenile criminals. The most vicious averaged somewhat younger than you here in this class… and they often started their lawless careers much younger. Let us never forget that puppy. These children were often caught; police arrested batches each day. Were they scolded? Yes, often scathingly. Were their noses rubbed in it? Rarely. News organs and officials usually kept their names secret — in many places the law so required for criminals under eighteen. Were they spanked? Indeed not! Many had never been spanked even as small children; there was a widespread belief that spanking, or any punishment involving pain, did a child permanent psychic damage.”

(I had reflected that my father must never have heard of that theory.)

“Corporal punishment in schools was forbidden by law,” he had gone on.

“Flogging was lawful as sentence of court only in one small province, Delaware, and there only for a few crimes and was rarely invoked; it was regarded as ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ ” Dubois had mused aloud, “I do not understand objections to ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment. While a judge should be benevolent in purpose, his awards should cause the criminal to suffer, else there is no punishment — and pain is the basic mechanism built into us by millions of years of evolution which safeguards us by warning when something threatens our survival. Why should society refuse to use such a highly perfected survival mechanism? However, that period was loaded with pre-scientific pseudo-psychological nonsense.

“As for ‘unusual,’ punishment must be unusual or it serves no purpose.” He then pointed his stump at another boy. “What would happen if a puppy were spanked every hour?”

“Uh… probably drive him crazy!”

“Probably. It certainly will not teach him anything. How long has it been since the principal of this school last had to switch a pupil?”

“Uh, I’m not sure. About two years. The kid that swiped — ”

“Never mind. Long enough. It means that such punishment is so unusual as to be significant, to deter, to instruct. Back to these young criminals — They probably were not spanked as babies; they certainly were not flogged for their crimes. The usual sequence was: for a first offense, a warning — a scolding, often without trial. After several offenses a sentence of confinement but with sentence suspended and the youngster placed on probation. A boy might be arrested many times and convicted several times before he was punished — and then it would be merely confinement, with others like him from whom he learned still more criminal habits. If he kept out of major trouble while confined, he could usually evade most of even that mild punishment, be given probation — ‘paroled’ in the jargon of the times.

“This incredible sequence could go on for years while his crimes increased in frequency and viciousness, with no punishment whatever save rare dull-but-comfortable confinements. Then suddenly, usually by law on his eighteenth birthday, this so-called ‘juvenile delinquent’ becomes an adult criminal — and sometimes wound up in only weeks or months in a death cell awaiting execution for murder. You — ”

He had singled me out again. “Suppose you merely scolded your puppy, never punished him, let him go on making messes in the house… and occasionally locked him up in an outbuilding but soon let him back into the house with a warning not to do it again. Then one day you notice that he is now a grown dog and still not housebroken — whereupon you whip out a gun and shoot him dead. Comment, please?”

“Why… that’s the craziest way to raise a dog I ever heard of!”

“I agree. Or a child. Whose fault would it be?”

“Uh… why, mine, I guess.”

“Again I agree. But I’m not guessing.”

“Mr. Dubois,” a girl blurted out, “but why? Why didn’t they spank little kids when they needed it and use a good dose of the strap on any older ones who deserved it — the sort of lesson they wouldn’t forget! I mean ones who did things really bad. Why not?”

“I don’t know,” he had answered grimly, “except that the time-tested method of instilling social virtue and respect for law in the minds of the young did not appeal to a pre-scientific pseudo-professional class who called themselves ‘social workers’ or sometimes ‘child psychologists.’ It was too simple for them, apparently, since anybody could do it, using only the patience and firmness needed in training a puppy. I have sometimes wondered if they cherished a vested interest in disorder — but that is unlikely; adults almost always act from conscious ‘highest motives’ no matter what their behavior.”

“But — good heavens!” the girl answered. “I didn’t like being spanked any more than any kid does, but when I needed it, my mama delivered. The only time I ever got a switching in school I got another one when I got home and that was years and years ago. I don’t ever expect to be hauled up in front of a judge and sentenced to a flogging; you behave yourself and such things don’t happen. I don’t see anything wrong with our system; it’s a lot better than not being able to walk outdoors for fear of your life — why, that’s horrible!”

“I agree. Young lady, the tragic wrongness of what those well-meaning people did, contrasted with what they thought they were doing, goes very deep. They had no scientific theory of morals. They did have a theory of morals and they tried to live by it (I should not have sneered at their motives) but their theory was wrong — half of it fuzzy-headed wishful thinking, half of it rationalized charlatanry. The more earnest they were, the farther it led them astray. You see, they assumed that Man has a moral instinct.”

“Sir? But I thought — But he does! I have.”

“No, my dear, you have a cultivated conscience, a most carefully trained one. Man has no moral instinct. He is not born with moral sense. You were not born with it, I was not — and a puppy has none. We acquire moral sense, when we do, through training, experience, and hard sweat of the mind.

These unfortunate juvenile criminals were born with none, even as you and I, and they had no chance to acquire any; their experiences did not permit it. What is ‘moral sense’? It is an elaboration of the instinct to survive. The instinct to survive is human nature itself, and every aspect of our personalities derives from it. Anything that conflicts with the survival instinct acts sooner or later to eliminate the individual and thereby fails to show up in future generations. This truth is mathematically demonstrable, everywhere verifiable; it is the single eternal imperative controlling everything we do.”

“But the instinct to survive,” he had gone on, “can be cultivated into motivations more subtle and much more complex than the blind, brute urge of the individual to stay alive. Young lady, what you miscalled your ‘moral instinct’ was the instilling in you by your elders of the truth that survival can have stronger imperatives than that of your own personal survival. Survival of your family, for example. Of your children, when you have them. Of your nation, if you struggle that high up the scale. And so on up. A scientifically verifiable theory of morals must be rooted in the individual’s instinct to survive — and nowhere else! — and must correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts.”

“We have such a theory now; we can solve any moral problem, on any level. Self-interest, love of family, duty to country, responsibility toward the human race — we are even developing an exact ethic for extra-human relations. But all moral problems can be illustrated by one misquotation: ‘Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens.’ Once you understand the problem facing that cat and how she solved it, you will then be ready to examine yourself and learn how high up the moral ladder you are capable of climbing.

“These juvenile criminals hit a low level. Born with only the instinct for survival, the highest morality they achieved was a shaky loyalty to a peer group, a street gang. But the do-gooders attempted to ‘appeal to their better natures,’ to ‘reach them,’ to ‘spark their moral sense.’ Tosh! They had no ‘better natures’; experience taught them that what they were doing was the way to survive. The puppy never got his spanking; therefore what he did with pleasure and success must be ‘moral.’

“The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual. Nobody preached duty to these kids in a way they could understand — that is, with a spanking. But the society they were in told them endlessly about their ‘rights.’ ”

“The results should have been predictable, since a human being has no natural rights of any nature.”

Mr. Dubois had paused. Somebody took the bait. “Sir? How about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’?”

“Ah, yes, the ‘unalienable rights.’ Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? What ‘right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What ‘right’ to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of ‘right’? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man’s right is ‘unalienable’? And is it ‘right’? As to liberty, the heroes who signed that great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called ‘natural human rights’ that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.

“The third ‘right’? — the ‘pursuit of happiness’? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can ‘pursue happiness’ as long as my brain lives — but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it.”

Mr. Dubois then turned to me. “I told you that ‘juvenile delinquent’ is a contradiction in terms. ‘Delinquent’ means ‘failing in duty.’ But duty is an adult virtue — indeed a juvenile becomes an adult when, and only when, he acquires a knowledge of duty and embraces it as dearer than the self-love he was born with. There never was, there cannot be a ‘juvenile delinquent.’ But for every juvenile criminal there are always one or more adult delinquents — people of mature years who either do not know their duty, or who, knowing it, fail.”

“And that was the soft spot which destroyed what was in many ways an admirable culture. The junior hoodlums who roamed their streets were symptoms of a greater sickness; their citizens (all of them counted as such) glorified their mythology of ‘rights’… and lost track of their duties. No nation, so constituted, can endure.”

Steve Sailer calls Heinlein the Moses of the Nerds and notes that Heinlein was not an ideologue, but rather an artist whose medium was ideas, an intellectual provocateur.

The project came to be known as Freedom Summer

Wednesday, May 12th, 2021

In 1964, students from across the country, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), applied for something called the “Mississippi Summer Project”:

It was a ten-week program devoted to registering black voters in the South. The project came to be known as Freedom Summer, and many who applied were aware it would be dangerous.

[...]

Each applicant was asked to list their memberships in student and political organizations and at least ten people they wanted kept informed of their summer activities, so McAdam took these lists and used them to chart each applicant’s social network. By comparing memberships in clubs, he was able to determine which applicants had friends who also applied for Freedom Summer.

[...]

The students who participated in Freedom Summer were enmeshed in the types of communities where both their close friends and their casual acquaintances expected them to get on the bus.

[...]

When McAdam looked at applicants with religious orientations — students who cited a “Christian duty to help those in need” as their motivation for applying, for instance, he found mixed levels of participation. However, among those applicants who mentioned a religious orientation and belonged to a religious organization, McAdam found that every single one made the trip to Mississippi.

The only government program ever to cause a lasting change in the American diet was the organ meat push of the 1940s

Saturday, May 8th, 2021

America found itself short of meat, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), as World War 2 kicked into gear — but not all meat:

At the time, organ meat wasn’t popular in America. A middle-class woman in 1940 would sooner starve than despoil her table with tongue or tripe. So when the scientists recruited into the Committee on Food Habits met for the first time in 1941, they set themselves a goal of systematically identifying the cultural barriers that discouraged Americans from eating organ meat.

[...]

For instance, when the Subsistence Division of the Quartermaster Corps — the people in charge of feeding soldiers — started serving fresh cabbage to troops in 1943, it was rejected. So mess halls chopped and boiled the cabbage until it looked like every other vegetable on a soldier’s tray — and the troops ate it without complaint.

[...]

The secret to changing the American diet, the Committee on Food Habits concluded, was familiarity. Soon, housewives were receiving mailers from the government telling them “every husband will cheer for steak and kidney pie.” Butchers started handing out recipes that explained how to slip liver into meatloaf.

[...]

One study indicated that offal consumption rose by 33 percent during the war. By 1955, it was up 50 percent. Kidney had become a staple at dinner. Liver was for special occasions. America’s dining patterns had shifted to such a degree that organ meats had become emblems of comfort.

[...]

To date, the only government program ever to cause a lasting change in the American diet was the organ meat push of the 1940s.

A wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose

Tuesday, May 4th, 2021

The London Underground was governed by a sort of theoretical rule book that no one had ever seen or read, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), and that didn’t, in fact, exist except in the unwritten rules that shaped every employee’s life. One of these unwritten rules was, don’t panic the passengers. Another was, stay in your lane. Then someone spotted the early signs of a fire:

Yet the safety inspector, Hayes, didn’t call the London Fire Brigade. He hadn’t seen any smoke himself, and another of the Underground’s unwritten rules was that the fire department should never be contacted unless absolutely necessary.

[...]

Hayes, the safety inspector, went into a passageway that led to the Piccadilly escalator’s machine room. In the dark, there was a set of controls for a sprinkler system specifically designed to fight fires on escalators. It had been installed years earlier, after a fire in another station had led to a series of dire reports about the risks of a sudden blaze. More than two dozen studies and reprimands had said that the Underground was unprepared for fires, and that staff needed to be trained in how to use sprinklers and fire extinguishers, which were positioned on every train platform. Two years earlier the deputy assistant chief of the London Fire Brigade had written to the operations director for railways, complaining about subway workers’ safety habits.

[...]

No one inside King’s Cross understood how to use the escalator sprinkler system or was authorized to use the extinguishers, because another department controlled them.

[...]

The entire escalator was now aflame, producing a superheated gas that rose to the top of the shaft enclosing the escalator, where it was trapped against the tunnel’s ceiling, which was covered with about twenty layers of old paint. A few years earlier, the Underground’s director of operations had suggested that all this paint might pose a fire hazard. Perhaps, he said, the old layers should be removed before a new one is applied?

Painting protocols were not in his purview, however. Paint responsibility resided with the maintenance department, whose chief politely thanked his colleague for the recommendation, and then noted that if he wanted to interfere with other departments, the favor would be swiftly returned.

[...]

Shortly after the explosion, dozens of fire trucks arrived. But because the fire department’s rules instructed them to connect their hoses to street-level hydrants, rather than those installed by the Underground inside the station, and because none of the subway employees had blueprints showing the station’s layout — all the plans were in an office that was locked, and none of the ticketing agents or the station manager had keys — it took hours to extinguish the flames.

[...]

During turmoil, organizational habits become malleable enough to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power. Crises are so valuable, in fact, that sometimes it’s worth stirring up a sense of looming catastrophe rather than letting it die down.

[...]

NASA administrators, for instance, tried for years to improve the agency’s safety habits, but those efforts were unsuccessful until the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986.

[...]

Airline pilots, too, spent years trying to convince plane manufacturers and air traffic controllers to redesign how cockpits were laid out and traffic controllers communicated. Then, a runway error on the Spanish island of Tenerife in 1977 killed 583 people and, within five years, cockpit design, runway procedures, and air traffic controller communication routines were overhauled.

In fact, crises are such valuable opportunities that a wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose.

[...]

Fennell began by interviewing the Underground’s leadership, and quickly discovered that everyone had known — for years — that fire safety was a serious problem, and yet nothing had changed.

[...]

So he decided to turn his inquiry into a media circus.

He called for public hearings that lasted ninety-one days and revealed an organization that had ignored multiple warnings of risks.

[...]

A company with dysfunctional habits can’t turn around simply because a leader orders it. Rather, wise executives seek out moments of crisis — or create the perception of crisis — and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.

Small wins convince people that bigger achievements are within reach

Monday, April 26th, 2021

Keystone habits, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), offer what is known within academic literature as “small wins” — and small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach. This goes well beyond losing weight:

Then, in the early 1970s, the American Library Association’s Task Force on Gay Liberation decided to focus on one modest goal: convincing the Library of Congress to reclassify books about the gay liberation movement from HQ 71–471 (“Abnormal Sexual Relations, Including Sexual Crimes”) to another, less pejorative category.

In 1972, after receiving a letter requesting the reclassification, the Library of Congress agreed to make the shift, reclassifying books into a newly created category, HQ 76.5 (“Homosexuality, Lesbianism—Gay Liberation Movement, Homophile Movement”). It was a minor tweak of an old institutional habit regarding how books were shelved, but the effect was electrifying. News of the new policy spread across the nation. Gay rights organizations, citing the victory, started fund-raising drives. Within a few years, openly gay politicians were running for political office in California, New York, Massachusetts, and Oregon, many of them citing the Library of Congress’s decision as inspiration.

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association, after years of internal debate, rewrote the definition of homosexuality so it was no longer a mental illness — paving the way for the passage of state laws that made it illegal to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation.

And it all began with one small win.