Albania: People and Ruins

During my long traveling over Europe this summer, among other areas, I ventured to Albania, a country where houses frequently do not have numbers and where I located the building where a friend of my youth now lives by a drawing on a gate. This is a country where the so-called oriental bazaar is buzzing everywhere, where towns literally hang on cliffs, and where one easily runs across the ruins of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman legacy of the country and the “archaeology” of the recent communist past (small concrete family bunkers, tunnels for the former communist nomenklatura, monumental sculptures and mosaics in the socialist realism style).

It was interesting to see how this country, which lived much of the 20th century under the most vicious communist dictatorship (1944-1990), is now trying to live a normal life.  To some extent, Albania is very similar to present-day Russia: decades of the negative natural selection under communism killed much of self-reliance, individual initiative, and produced the populace that looks up to the government for the solutions of their problems. For the past thirty years, a new generation emerged, and things did dramatically change. Yet, very much like in Russia, much of the populace feels nostalgia for the “good” old days, which is natural.

According to opinion polls, 46% of the people are nostalgic for the developed communism of dictator Enver Hoxha (1944-1985), an Albanian Stalin, and 43% are against communism; the later number should be higher, given the fact that many enterprising Albanians (1/4 of the population) live and work abroad.  During the last decades of its existence, Albanian communism slipped into a wild isolationism of the North Korean style. Except for Northern Korea and Romania, all countries, from the United States, Germany, UK (capitalist hyenas) to the USSR, China, and Yugoslavia (traitors to socialism), were considered enemies.  Incidentally, Albanian communism was much darker and tougher than the Brezhnev-era USSR. Nevertheless, as it naturally happened in Russia and some other countries, in thirty years, the memory of a part of the population laundered and cleansed the communist past, and this memory now paints this past as a paradise, where everyone was happy and looked confidently into the future, where secret police and labor concentration camps existed for a good reason, and where the vengeful dictator appears as a caring father.

In the hectic transition to market economy and with the lack of established judicial system, there naturally emerged a widespread corruption, nepotism. But, at the same time, small business somehow flourishes. The masses and elites of the country aspire to be united with neighboring Kosovo since both countries are populated by Albanian majorities. On top of this, Kosovo is the birthplace of Albanian nationalism.  However, unlike current Russia, which is spoiled with abundant oil and gas resources (the notorious resource curse factor), corrupt Albanian bureaucrats that rule over a small country exercise caution. Although that small country is too blessed with oil, natural gas, chromium, copper, and iron-nickel, they do not waste their resources on sponsoring geopolitical ventures and harassing their neighbors. For themselves, the Albanians resolved the Kosovo issue as follows: we will be administratively two different states, but de facto economically and socially we will be tied to each other, and all this makes life easier for people, preventing any conflicts. Not a small factor is that, unlike, for example, Russia or Turkey, Albanian nationalism is devoid of any imperial syndromes, and therefore there is no nostalgia for any glorious lost empire. The fact that Albania is a member of NATO also plays a significant role, which forces the Albanian elites behave. Acting smartly, instead of geopolitical games, they decided to fully invest in the development of the tourism business, believing that, in addition to mining their resources, this is the best development option.

Hayek, or the Recursive Model of the Rule of Law

What Friedrich A. Hayek sought with his three volumes of Law, Legislation and Liberty was to propose a legal-political system in which the Rule of Law principle would not be de facto replaced by the rule of men through laws (Rule by Law).

To do this, he built a recursive model of a legal system whose initial conditions were the legal customs as the only source of law. Thus, in such a system, the rule of recognition  –in the sense of H.L.A. Hart’s concept– would initially regard the customary law as the only set of rules to be enforced by the government.

In the said model of legal system, the law is separated from the state, which enforces the former and legitimises itself by that enforcement. Sovereignty resides in the law and the state is its agent and executor – but, without the said enforcement, the customary law -the initial condition of the recursive model- would only be natural law.

From a genealogical point of view, in Middle Ages monarchs were entitled as rulers by a law of succession derived from customary norms and it is from that mediaeval period that the term “Rule of Law” comes: Since their prerogative of ruling had come from legal customs, the rulers had the moral duty of enforcing them – which, in turn, acted as a limit to the power of the rulers, or at least to their legitimacy.

Evolutionarily, the administration of public affairs -as related by Max Weber in his General Economic History– ceased to be in the hands of wise men and mandarins, advisers to the monarchs, to become a matter managed by jurists, who incorporated for the decision-making and its justification the procedures and figures of private law: the social contract, the commission, decisions based on evidence, etc.

Such evolutionary emergence of the public law set new boundaries to the legitimate use of power by the rulers, in many occasions needing a written document to warrant them, such as the Magna Carta, the Bills of Rights or the declarations inserted in the Modern constitutions.

Consequently, successive layers of legality were added to the initial conditions of Hayek’s model of political legal system: constitutional laws, declarations of rights, principles and guarantees, procedural laws and statutes. It was these same legal concepts of private law that allowed giving a legal foundation to the nascent republics of the Late Middle Ages, for example, the legal figures of association, representation, etc..

However, Hayek already complained in The Constitution of Liberty –and later in Law, Legislation and Liberty again- about the consequences of the sovereignty of parliaments, that is, the competence of the legislative chambers to enact laws, replacing legal customs. It was the principle of popular sovereignty that rendered obsolete the principle according to which customary law acted as a limit to the rulers separated from the people, since the people went on to govern themselves and make their own laws.

This emancipatory narrative -in terms of Jean Francois Lyotard- collides with the evidence that, on numerous occasions, we do not obtain in return the Rule of Law but rather the rule of men through laws emanating from political will. Consequently, the path is open for critics of the Rule of Law to denounce its inconsistencies: a government of laws created by the rulers themselves is a mere masking of the political will, which is not legitimated by law but by the pure imposition of the force.

That is why the ultimate message of Hayek’s legal and political works consists of a sort of return to initial conditions of his model of relations between law and politics: legal norms are ineffective without the enforcement provided by the public force, but the process of creating them can be disentangled from that enforcement.

Of course, the choice by the political system on which norms to enforce -that is, the enunciation of a rule of recognition- can mean in itself an act of creation of law; but if, on the other hand, a constitutional system foresees the separation of the legislative functions from the functions of government, obliging the latter to enforce the laws emanating from the former, the distinction between the Rule of Law over the rule of the men is restored.

As Hayek himself recognized in his work, his proposal to create two separate assemblies, one legislative and the other governmental, is not really a proposal intended to be put into practice, but rather an ideal model that exemplifies a concept that is as fundamental as it is abstract and elusive: the separation between law and political power.

Beyond the feasibility of Hayek´s model, it does provide a demarcation criterion between liberal democracy and authoritarianism: the one that indicates that the main duty of a government towards its citizens is to enforce the rules of peaceful coexistence that respect the so-called fundamental rights, such as life, personal liberty and property, and that any program of social transformation or economic development can never justify their abrogation. Thus, any rulers who do not take into account such institutional restrictions to their policies would be involved in a true road to serfdom.

Some Monday Links

Is taxation theft? (Aeon)

Who Controls What Books You Can Read? (Reason)

The Rule of Law, Firm Size, and Family Firms (FED St Luis)

20 Movies That’ll Remind You the Government Can’t Be Trusted (Life Hacker)

Before the Fourth

Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we had always governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”

  • Levi Preston, 1842, remembering the Battle of Lexington and Concord

First of all, thanks to anyone who read my post on the deleted clause of the Declaration of Independence. I see many more readers around today every year, and I think that it serves as a constant reminder that our Founders were not a uniform group of morally perfect heroes, but a cobbled-together meeting of disagreeable risk-takers who were all dedicated to ‘freedom’ but struggled to agree on what it meant.

However, as we all get fat and blind celebrating the bravery of the 56 men putting who put pen to paper, I also want to call out the oft-forgotten history of rebellion that preceded this auspicious day. July 4th, 1776 makes such a simple story of Independence that we often overlook the men and women who risked (and many who lost) their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to make that signing possible, and who kept the flame of rebellion alive when it was most likely to be snuffed out.

This inspired me to collate some of the most important early moments and individuals on whom fate turned. I’m deliberately skipping some well known icons and events (the Boston Massacre and Tea Party, the first shot on Lexington Green, etc.), but if you want to see the whole tapestry and not just the forgotten images, I recommend the following Founding Trilogy:

I owe my knowledge and the stories below to these histories that truly put you among the tiny communities that fought before July 4th, and they have convinced me, there is no Declaration, no Revolution, and no United States of America without the independent actions and decisions of their central cast.

Part I: Before the Ride

Paul Revere’s ride is one of the most mythologized, and mis-cast, moments in history. As early as the day after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, local Whigs were intent on casting the battle as an unprovoked attack by the tyrannical British occupiers and their imperious leader in Boston, General (and Governor) Thomas Gage. That meant that they brushed possibly the most important aspect of the rebellion’s early success under the rug, and honored Revere for his rapid responsiveness on that very night. Since then, unfortunately, the ride has been the center of most messaging honoring or criticizing this patriot.

Revere’s ride would have been useless if, for several years, he had not been New England’s most active community organizer. The battle did not represent the first time Thomas Gage secretly marched on the powder stores of small New England towns (he had successfully done so to Somerville in 1774), or even the first time Boston’s suburbs were called to arms in response (in the Powder Alarm, thousands turned out to defend against a false-alarm gunpowder raid). Revere’s real contribution was that he was one of many go-betweens for small towns intent on protecting their freedom and their guns, and their link to the conspirators led by Sam Adams and John Hancock in Boston. He helped spawn a network of communication, intelligence, and purchase of arms that was built on New England’s uniquely localized community leadership, without which it would have been impossible for over 4,000 revolutionaries to show up, armed and organized, on the road from Concord to Boston, in less than 8 hours.

New England towns had some of the most uniquely localized leadership in the history of political organization. In these small, prosperous towns, with churches as their center of social organization, government was effectively limited to organizing defense, mostly in the purchase of cannon and gunpowder, both of which were rare in the colonies. The towns also mustered and drilled, and while most towns did not have centralized budgets, they honored wealthier citizens who would donate guns to those who could not afford their own. From town government to General Gage’s seizures to the early supply conflicts, then, guns and especially gunpowder (which was not manufactured anywhere in New England in 1775, and rapidly became the scarcest resource of the early Revolution) were literally the center of town government and the central reason underlying the spark and growth of Revolution.

The Whigs (or Patriots) could have, in fact, just as easily noted December 14th, 1774, as the kick-off of the Revolution, since it was the first military conflict between Patriots and British garrisons, centered around gunpowder and cannon. On that day, the ever-present Revere, having learned that Gage may attempt to seize the powder of Portsmouth, NH, rode to warn John Langdon, who organized several hundred men not only to defend the town’s powder but to seize Fort William and Mary. He led several hundred Patriots to the fort, on the strategic Newcastle Island at the mouth of the Portsmouth River, and after asking the six British soldiers garrisoning the fort to surrender, stormed it in the face of cannonfire. No deaths resulted, and more Patriots arrived the next day, stealing a march on Gage and driving him to see his Boston post as a tender toehold in a territory alight with spies, traitors, and rebels.

However, despite the fact that the British governor of New Hampshire fled and the British never regained the territory, December 14th is not our Independence Day. Even though it was a successful pre-Lexington battle, defending the same rights, and resulting from a ride of Paul Revere, it has been largely overshadowed. Is it because it was an attack by Patriots, undermining the ‘innocent townsfolk’ myth of Patriot propaganda? Because no one died for freedom? Because American historians like to remember symbolic signatures by fancy Congresses rather than the trigger fingers of rural nobodies? Either way, December 14th shows that the gunpowder-centric small town networks, and their greatest community organizer, were the kindling, the flint, and the steel of the Revolution, and were all ready to spark long before Lexington Green.

Even the events that led to that fateful battle center around a few key organizers and intelligence operatives. Hancock and Adams were only the most publicly known of hundreds of hidden leaders, and lacking the space to recognize all, I’ll just recognize Dr. Joseph Warren, who asked Revere to make his famous ride and who served as President of the Provincial Congress until he was killed in the desperate fighting on Bunker Hill, and Margaret Kemble Gage, who despite being married to General Gage favored the Whigs likely leaked his secret plans to march on Concord, and was subsequently forced to sail to Britain by her husband, probably to stop her role as the Revolution’s key spy.

These key figures put their lives on the line not for their country, nor for the political philosophies of classic liberalism, nor even because of the ‘oppressive’ Stamp Act or Intolerable Acts, but to defend their own and their community’s visceral freedoms from seizures and suppression by Gage’s men. They were joined by thousands of otherwise-nobodies who jumped out of bed to defend their neighbors, whose motivations are best captured by the quote above by Levi Preston, the longest-lived veteran of Lexington and Concord. The full quote, given to a historian asking about the context for the battle in 1842, is revealing:

Chamberlain (historian): “Captain Preston, why did you go to the Concord Fight, the 19th of April, 1775?”

Preston didn’t answer.

Chamberlain: “Was it because of the Intolerable Oppressions?”

Preston: “I never felt them.”

What of the Stamp Act?

Preston: “I never saw one of those stamps.” he responded.

Tea Tax?

Preston: “I never drank a drop of the stuff…The boys threw it all overboard.”

Chamberlain: “Maybe it was the words of Harrington, Sydney or Locke?”

Preston: “Never heard of ‘em,”

Chamberlain: “Well, then, what was the matter? And what did you mean in going to the fight?”

Preston: “Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”

“And that, gentlemen,” Chamberlain resolved in his history, “is the ultimate philosophy of the American Revolution.”

  • Thus ends Part I! Come back to see Part II: The Navy, where we go into the small band-of-brothers from Marblehead, Massachusetts who served as Washington’s personal navy in the race for gunpowder, the escape from New York, and the crucial Crossing of the Delaware.

Two Bald Eagles: Symbols of Divided Attitudes?

I spotted two Bald Eagles today in Cincinnati, which is really fitting for the Fourth of July. The two Bald Eagles—one indolent and one vigilant—capture not only the attitudes of two influential figures in American politics about this national symbol that was hotly debated till 1789, but they also reflect the fractured character of these United States.

You probably already know that Benjamin Franklin was an outspoken detractor of the bald eagle. He stated his disinterest in the national symbol in a letter to a friend:
“I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. The turkey is a much more respectable bird and withal a true, original native of America.”

In contrast, President John F. Kennedy wrote to the Audubon Society:
“The Founding Fathers made an appropriate choice when they selected the bald eagle as the emblem of the nation. The fierce beauty and proud independence of this great bird aptly symbolizes the strength and freedom of America. But as latter-day citizens we shall fail our trust if we permit the eagle to disappear.”

The two Bald Eagles, which symbolize, in my estimation, two divergent historical viewpoints, show us that American history is splintered into sharp conceptions of the past as it has been politicizedly revised to forge a more perfect union. There is little question that the tendency toward seeking out varied intellectual interpretations of US history is unabating and maybe essential to the growth of a mature republic. On holidays like the Fourth of July, however, a modicum of romanticism of the past is also required if revisionist histories make it harder and harder for the average person to develop a classicist vision of the Republic as a good—if not perfect—union and make it seem like a simple-minded theory. 

The two Bald Eagles aren’t just symbolic of the past; they also stand for partisanship and apathy in the present toward issues like inflation, NATO strategy, Roe v. Wade, and a variety of other divisive concerns. In addition, I learned there is an unfortunate debate on whether to have a 4th of July concert without hearing the 1812 Overture. For those who are not familiar, it is a musical composition by the Russian composer Tchaikovsky that has become a staple for July 4th events since 1976. 

In view of this divisiveness here is my unsophisticated theory of American unity for the present moment: Although the rhetoric of entrenched divisiveness and the rage of political factions—against internal conflicts and international relations—are not silenced by the Fourth of July fireworks, the accompanying music, festivities, and the promise of harmony, they do present a forceful antidote to both. So why have a double mind on a national ritual that serves as a unifying force and one of the few restraints on partisanship? Despite the fact that I am a resident alien, I propose preserving Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, arousing the inner dozing Bald Eagle, and making an effort to reunite the divided attitude toward all challenges. The aim, in my opinion, should be to manifest what Publius calls in Federalist 63 the “cool and deliberate sense of community.”

Have a happy Fourth!

Monday’s Equality Lessens

An Address on Liberty (Deirdre McCloskey)

As usual, insightful and educational.

Much of our life is governed neither by the government’s laws or by solely individual fancies, but by
following or resisting or riding spontaneous orders.

The speech also references Harrison Bergeron, the short story by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (published in 1961), which NOL treated few years ago. I have to admit, I only knew the author’s name and no more. The opening is quite something:

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

This absurd world drips vitriol, though the target is debatable: Most see a parody of socialistic/ communistic principles, though others think that the irony was intended to the (Cold War) US perception of those principles. Also: What’s this thing with dystopias and April?

Vonnegut is the second-in-a-row author from that era that I added to my list, after the recent discovery of Frederik Pohl (just acquired The Space Merchants, written with Cyril M. Kornbluth, in a decadent 90s Greek version).

(H/T to Cafe Hayek for the McCloskey link, and Skyclad for the title word play).

Stimuli For Your Moral Taste Buds [June 2022 Edition]

Today’s food-for-thought menu includes Eco-Feminism, Indics of Afghanistan, the Fetus Problem, a Mennonite Wedding, the Post-Roe Era, and the Native New World. I’m confident the dishes served today will stimulate your moral taste buds, and your gut instincts will motivate you to examine these themes in greater depth.

Note: I understand that most of us are unwilling to seek the opposing viewpoint on any topic. Our personal opinions are a fundamental principle that will not be altered. However, underlying this fundamental principle is our natural proclivity to prefer some moral taste buds over others. This series represents my approach to exploring our natural tendencies and uncovering different viewpoints on the same themes without doubting the validity of one’s own fundamental convictions. As a result, I invite you to reorder the articles I’ve shared today using moral taste buds that better reflect your convictions about understanding these issues. For instance, an article that appeals to my Care/Harm taste bud may appeal to your Liberty/Oppression taste bud. This moral divergence reveals different ways to look at the same thing.

The Care/Harm Taste Bud: Eco-feminism: Roots in Ancient Hindu Philosophy

The Nature-Culture Conflict Paradigm today reigns supreme and seeks to eradicate cultures, societies, and institutions that advocate for and spread the Nature-Culture Continuum Paradigm. Do you see this conflict happening? If so, can you better care for the environment by adopting a Nature-Culture Continuum paradigm? Is there anything one may learn from Hindu philosophy in this regard?

The Fairness/Cheating Taste Bud: 9/11 FAMILIES AND OTHERS CALL ON BIDEN TO CONFRONT AFGHAN HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

Due to a focus on other issues in Afghanistan, such as terrorism, food and water shortages, and poverty, the persecution of religious minorities in the nation is not as generally known, despite the fact that it has been a human rights crisis for decades. Ignorance of this topic poses a serious risk to persecuted groups seeking protection overseas. Western governments have yet to fully appreciate the risks that Afghan Sikhs and Hindus endure. I also recommend this quick overview of the topic: 5 things to know about Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan.

The Liberty/Oppression Taste Bud: Biological Individuality and the Foetus Problem

As I’ve discovered, abortion was one of the earliest medical specialties in American history when it became entirely commercialized in the 1840s. As a result, the United States has been wrestling with moral issues about abortion for 182 years! The abortion debate has gone through rights-based assertions and advanced to claims about the policy costs and benefits of abortion and now appears to have returned to rights-based arguments in the last 50 years. Regardless of where you stand on this debate, this much is clear: in the U.S., the circle of moral quandary surrounding abortion never closes. Nevertheless, what is the source of the moral ambiguity surrounding abortion? Can the philosophy of biology help us better comprehend this moral quandary?

Some philosophers would argue that the issue of biological individuality is central to this moral dispute. But why is biological individuality even a point of contention? Counting biologically individual organisms like humans and dogs appears straightforward at first glance, but the biological world is packed with challenges. For instance, Aspen trees appear to be different biological units from above the ground; nonetheless, they all share the same genome and are linked beneath the ground by a sophisticated root system. So, should we regard each tree as a distinct thing in its own right or as organs or portions of a larger organism?

How Aspens Grow?

Similarly, humans are hosts to a great variety of gut bacteria that play essential roles in many biological activities, including the immune system, metabolism, and digestion. Should we regard these microorganisms as part of us, despite their genetic differences, and treat a human being and its germs as a single biological unit?

NIH scientists find that salmonella use intestinal epithelial cells to colonize the gut

Answers to the ‘Problem of Biological Individuality’ have generally taken two main approaches: the Physiological Approach, which appeals to physiological processes such as immunological interactions, and the Evolutionary Approach, which appeals to the theory of evolution by natural selection. The Physiological Approach is concerned with biological individuals who are physiological wholes [Human + gut bacteria = one physiological whole], whereas the Evolutionary Approach is concerned with biological individuals who are selection units [Human and gut bacteria = two distinct natural selection units].

Is a fetus an Evolutionary individual or a Physiological individual? If we are Evolutionary individuals, we came into being before birth; if we are Physiological individuals, we come into being after birth. While the Physiological Approach makes it evident that a fetus is a part of its mother, the Evolutionary Approach makes it far less clear. But is there an overarching metaphysical approach to solving the problem of biological individuality? Can metaphysics (rather than organized monotheistic religion) lead us to a pluralistic zone where we can accept both perspectives with some measure of doubt?

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research

The Loyalty/Betrayal Taste Bud: What I Found at a Mennonite Wedding

Do you consider the United States to be a high-power-distance or low-power-distance culture? Coming from India, I used to see the U.S. as the latter, but in the last 12 years of living here, it is increasingly becoming the former.

Does your proximity to an authority strengthen or lessen your loyalty?

https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/france,india,the-usa/

The Authority/Subversion Taste Bud: The Post-Roe Era Begins Political and practical questions in an America without a constitutional right to abortion.

[In the link above, make sure to listen to both Akhil Amar and Caitlin Flanagan]

I also recommend reading Why Other Fundamental Rights Are Safe (At Least for Now)

Is there a flaw in the mainstream discussion of the U.S. Constitution that the abortion debate has brought to light? In my opinion, although predating the U.S. federal constitution and being significantly more involved in federal politics and constitutional evolution, each American state’s constitution is widely ignored. Keep in mind that state constitutions in the United States are far more open to public pressure. They frequently serve as a pressure release valve and a ‘pressuring lever’ for fractious U.S. national politics, catalyzing policy change. Regrettably, in an era of more contentious national politics, mainstream U.S. discourse largely ignores changes to state constitutions and spends far too much time intensely debating the praise or ridicule the federal Constitution receives for specific clauses, by which time the individual states have already shaped how the nation’s legal framework should perceive them. Altogether, a federal system, where individual state constitutions are ignored, and conflicts are centralized, is the American political equivalent of Yudhishthira’s response to the world’s greatest wonder in the thirty-three Yaksha Prashna [33 questions posed by an Indic tutelary spirit to the perfect king in the Hindu epic of Mahabharata].

The Sanctity/Degradation Taste Bud: The Native New World and Western North America

The emergence of a distinctly Native New World is a founding story that has largely gone unrecorded in accounts of early America. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

To round off this edition, a Western movie question: Are there any examples of American Westerns developed with the opposing premise—valuing the First Nation’s People’s agency, which has gained historical support? Why not have a heroic Old World First Nation protagonist who safeguards indigenous practices and familial networks in a culturally diverse middle ground somewhere in the frontier country, shaping and influencing the emerging New World? Can this alternate perspective revitalize the jaded American Western movie genre?

[Here’s the previous edition of Stimuli For Your Moral Taste Buds]

Gold Rush ducks (rushed in Monday)

2s rhyme nicely with 7s

Academic papers are a tough nut to crack. Apart from the prerequisite of expertise in the field (acquired or ongoing, real or imaginary), there is some ritualistic, innuendo stuff, like the author list. I always keep in mind this strip from PHD Comics:

It came handy when MR suggested this paper, A Golden Opportunity: The Gold Rush, Entrepreneurship and Culture.

Now, I cannot even pretend I read the thing. But eight listed authors popped-up to my eyes. And the subject is catchy enough in cementing the hard way what may seem as a pretty evident proposition

The term “Argonauts” (used for the gold rushers of 1849) irked me somewhat at first, since the crew of legendary, talking ship Argo was an all-star Fellowship of Justice Avengers team, featuring the baddest champions around (warfare, navigation, pugilism, wrestling, horse riding, music, to note the most renown, some of them later fathered other heroes), human or demi-god. But there is a sad story behind it, and also the Greek myth can be understood as a parable for ancient gold hunting, so I indeed learned something (on-top of quit charging to the void without good reason).

Argonautica notwithstanding, there is an even more telling reference for the theme of the paper. That would be no other than Scrooge McDuck, the creation of Carl Barks, the richest duck in the world. Per his biography, a gravely underappreciated graphic nov comic book (originally a series of twelve stories, published thirty years ago, other stories were added as a Companion edition later) that frustratingly keeps falling off best-of lists (I mean, apparently there is So MucH DePtH in costumed clowns, but not in anthropomorphic animals without pants) he was a gold rusher AND and an entrepreneur extraordinaire. The book, The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck by Don Rosa, tells Scrooge’s life before his first official appearance as a depressed old recluse who meets his estranged nephews in Christmas 1947. The duck adventures we all are familiar with followed that meeting. Rosa collected all the smatterings of Scrooge’s past from these endeavors, memories, quotes, thoughts, and reconstructed a working timeline (with the inevitable and necessary artist’s liberty, of course). The resulting prequel is all the more impressive given the sheer volume of detail, the breezy rhythm and the context it gives to a deserving character.

According to the Life and Times, Scrooge struggled from child’s age. The Number One Dime was not “Lucky”, it was earned by polishing boots. It deliberately was a lowly US coin (instead of the expected Scottish one), by a well-meaning ploy to inform young Scrooge that there are cheaters about. It was this underwhelming payment for tough work that lead him to drop this signature line and decide on how to conduct his business:

Well, I’ll be tougher than the toughies and sharper than the sharpies — and I’ll make my money square!

Scrooge McDuck, The Last of the Clan McDuck

This fist “fail” was followed by a series of entrepreneurial tries, each failing and each teaching our hero a lesson. Scrooge moved to the US to join as a deckhand, and then as a captain, a steamboat just as railroads were picking up. His cowboy and gun slinging chops went down the drain when the expansion to the West ended. He rose, fell, and still kept coming back. He became rich in the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, 20 years after the Number One Dime affair (and a little late for the California Gold Rush, my bad).

Scrooge finding a gold nugget the size of a goose egg, thus “making” it after 20 years (the cover of the Greek version – source)

As the paper technically puts it, the personality traits of those involved in gold prospecting associated with openness (resourceful, innovative, curious), conscientiousness (hardworking, persistent, cautious) and emotional stability (even-tempered, steady, confident), underpinned by low risk aversion, low fear of failure and self-efficacy. This constellation of traits, the authors note, is consistently associated with entrepreneurial activity. Indeed, from that point Scrooge demonstrated considerable acumen and expanded his business across industries and countries. A trait that serves him in building and maintaining his wealth (and seems lacking in his peers) is prudence (perceived as stinginess) and a very laconic lifestyle.

He casually brawled and stood his ground against scum. His undisputable morals lapsed only once, when ruthlessness briefly overtook decency. Though he made amends and corrected course, this failing, coupled with a hard demeanor, made his family distance themselves from him, adding a tragic – and very humane – edge to the duck mogul.

The hero, “born” 155 years ago (8 Jul 1867), stands as an underrated icon of individual effort and ethics.

Fighting for Every Inch of Ukrainian Soil

I ask myself: How much would I be willing to sacrifice to protect the Ukrainians from Russian slavery. The answer is clear: I would take 50% cut in my living standard. That would be maybe not forever but for a long time.

Then, I ask, how much of a cut would I take to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and my level of support drops like a stone. Let me explain. Defending a territory is often the best way to defend the life and liberty of its inhabitants so that the one and the other are almost identical. I believe this is not the case in Ukraine. As I explained in detail more than a month ago it’s likely that the territories Russia seized by proxy in 2014, including Crimea, today shelter few people who want to be protected from Russia. In fact, militias of Russian-speaking Ukrainians from those territories appear to constitute a large part of Russia’s front troops in its attacks against the rest of Ukraine.

President Zelenskyy insists that he wants to recover every inch of Ukrainian territory lost to Russia and to pseudo-independentists. While I find Kerensky’ courage and firmness of purpose admirable, this particular goal leaves me cool. Perhaps, both his resolve and his political thinking belong in the 20 th century. Perhaps, that’s why he reminds many of us of Churchill.

When I ask myself, what I would sacrifice to help Ukraine regain its whole territory my mind turns resolutely to forgoing a few beers. I don’t like the thought of helping brave Ukrainians lose their lives for land. In general, some Ukrainians’ – and their president’s – apparently quasi religious attachment to their land rings the wrong historical bells in my head. Let me explain.

I think that very few well educated people today could explain why the vast carnage of the First World War took place at all. After all, there was no obviously evil side (as there was in WWII, for example). The same Great Powers that massacred one another’s men for four years had been conducted brisk and abundant trade among one another, practically until the minute before the war exploded. In my reading* one specific cause stands out in the initiation of the conflict. Let me say quickly that I don’t know that it’s a very important cause of the war, but I think it was a cause, for sure.

There was a willingness and a capacity effectively to mobilize in France, one of the main military powers at the time (first or second). It’s difficult to assume causation but there are abundant proofs in the daily French press that many in the French political class never accepted the loss to Germany of rich Alsace and of the northern half of Lorraine in 1870 (a consequence of the “Franco-Prussian War”). Schoolbooks, incredibly, kept the sense of loss alive for forty- four years. In 1914, millions of ordinary French men joyfully marched to war against Germans who had not done anything to them for the same forty-four years. World War One killed about 10 million soldiers and sailors in Europe alone. The figure includes my grandfather, First Lieutenant Maurice Adolph, pulverized somewhere near Verdun.

Germany lost. Communism arose in Russia and elsewhere and France recovered Alsace and the half of Lorraine that it had lost. Sure, there were celebrations in Strasbourg, the beautiful capital of Alsace. Frankly, I don’t know who organized them. I do know that there was enough reluctance in the Alsatian populace that the French Republic had to make special rules for that province. (They are fairly mild and mostly about the place of organized religion.)

Today, the language of instruction is, of course, French in all Alsatian and Lorraine schools. It corresponds only moderately well to linguistic reality because for many of the inhabitants the language spoken at home is a German dialect. Of course, there has been an influx of others from outside the region who are French speakers (some of them, by default, instead of Arabic, Tamazight, or Wolof). The European Union has made the French-German border largely irrelevant. It’s odd and pleasant little facts that remind you of it. Thus, on Sunday morning, there is heavy traffic on the main bridge from Germany to Alsace because of the many Germans who are coming to enjoy the superior Strasbourg sauerkraut. So why did so many Europeans have to grow up without a grandfather, one wonders?

In total contradiction to what I just wrote, yes, if I could be convinced that taking every square inch of Ukraine back from Russian aggression would be instrumental to keeping the Russian monster at bay for a long time, I would change my position. Different topic.


* Disclosure: My maternal grandfather’s own grandparents had left prosperous Alsace for raggedy central France in order to avoid living under German rule, according to family tradition. My mother’s maiden name was “Adolph.”

Meanwhile, back in Iran: The demise of JCPOA

The prospects for the revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal 2015/Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) seem to be dim after International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi’s announcement during a recent news conference that Iran has started removing 27 surveillance cameras from nuclear sites all over the country. Iran, on the other hand, has emphatically stated that it is cooperating with IAEA.

The board of governors of IAEA, consisting of 35 members, had passed a resolution last week seeking greater transparency with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. The censure accused Tehran of failing to provide correct information with regard to the development of ‘man made material’ at three undeclared sites in the country. While 30 countries voted in favor of the resolution, three countries abstained, and two countries – China and Russia — voted against the resolution.

The US has also once again underscored the point that a return to the Iran nuclear deal will not be possible if Tehran does not cooperate with IAEA. Said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken while referring to Iran’s decision to remove the above-mentioned 27 surveillance cameras :  

The only outcome of such a path will be a deepening nuclear crisis and further economic and political isolation for Iran.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi seemed unfazed by the IAEA resolution, and criticism from the West. Said Raisi

In the name of God and in the name of the nation, Iran will not withdraw from its stance a single step.

Given its numerous economic challenges, Iran has been looking towards a revival of the nuclear deal, since it could open up new economic vistas. In recent weeks there have been protests against rising inflation, and even Iranian retirees have been joining the fray (the government had announced earlier this month that it would raise pensions by 55%, but retirees say that this is not enough, given the level of inflation). Inflation is estimated at well over 45%, and 2 million Iranians have been left jobless as a result of US sanctions and the Covid pandemic.

Iran has been reiterating that if the 2015 Iran deal is not revived, it has other economic options and would adopt a ‘Look to the East policy’ where it would focus on improving ties with China and Russia.  

After the imposition of US sanctions in 2021, Iran and China had signed a 25-year agreement, referred to as strategic-cooperation agreement, to strengthen both economic and security links between the two countries. China has also been purchasing oil from Iran in spite of sanctions. For the first three months of 2022, Iran’s oil exports were estimated at 8,70,000, and a significant percentage of these were China bound. Iran has also been looking at a 20-year agreement with Russia. In 2021, bilateral trade between Russia and Iran was estimated at over $4 billion, and both countries have been seeking to strengthen ties in other areas like connectivity under the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC). 

Tehran, however, can not afford to be solely dependent on China or Russia, and needs to have economic relations with other countries — many which share close ties with the US. A great example of these limitations is China’s decision to reduce its import of oil from Iran after it was able to import the same at much cheaper prices from Russia.  

Even if Iran and the other signatories to the JCPOA are unable to revive the 2015 agreement, Iran may have some limited openings with regard to economic linkages with the outside world. The US could allow Iran to import oil in order to keep global oil prices down. It could provide waivers to certain countries to not just purchase oil, but also have limited economic linkages with Iran. After the withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA in 2018, the Trump administration had provided waivers to eight countries for a period of six months to purchase oil from Iran. Significantly, Iran itself had confessed that it had managed to evade sanctions. While addressing the Doha Forum in December 2018, then-Foreign Minister for Iran, Mohammad Zarif, said that

if there is an art that we have perfected in Iran [that] we can teach to others for a price, it is the art of evading sanctions.

In conclusion, Iran cannot afford to be solely dependent upon a handful of countries for putting its economy back on track. Given the current geopolitical turmoil globally, it is important for the US and other Western countries to be pragmatic and not push Iran to a corner.