Julian Simon’s life against the grain

I did not meet many of the postwar great thinkers of classical liberalism. There are two exceptions. In 2005 I had a chat with James Buchanan to ask him if I could translate the talk he gave to an audience of graduate students at the IHS summer seminar at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. He agreed and I translated and published his ideas on ‘the soul of classical liberalism’ in a Dutch liberal periodical.

The other exception is Julian Simon. Perhaps not in the same league as Buchanan, he was certainly a maverick thinker and a classical liberal great. A navy officer, business man, and advertising expert who turned to academia, he is known, to name just a few, for his arguments in the field of population growth, immigration studies and of course the book The Ultimate Resource. In it he argues that all raw materials become cheaper, while humans are the ultimate resource, among many other issues. He also won a famous wager with his critic Paul Ehrlich, stating that the prices of the raw materials Ehrlich could choose (in fact copper, chromium, nickel, tin, tungsten) would decrease (inflation adjusted) over the period of a decade they agreed upon. But that is just the tip of iceberg of this most interesting man. You should really read his autobiography A Life Against the Grain, whenever you have the chance.

In 1995 a friend of mine and I founded the Dutch Benedictus de Spinoza Foundation, meant to group young people educated in (classical) liberalism. In our first public Spinoza-lecture in 1996 Simon agreed to be the speaker. If memory serves right he was on his way to or from a Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Vienna, and was willing to make a small detour. We spent two full days with him, touring The Hague, arranging an interview in a national paper, have a formal dinner with Simon as gues of honor and speaker, and so forth. He was the most congenial guest one can wish. He clearly did not want to be among the hot shots only. In fact he insisted that we should visit ‘the worst neighborhood of the city’. So we went to one of the poorest parts in town, which he found delightful, not because of the (relative) poverty, but because of the multicultural experience and multicultural food at the market.  An other remarkable feature was that in the half hour before we opened the lecture hall, he wished to take a nap on the floor right there!

In his autobiography he is open about his many rejected papers throughout his career, and the way he described how difficult it is to convince academic colleagues of a point that goes against conventional wisdom. No matter how strong the counter-evidence, people will choose to ignore the new facts or insights and keep the author out of the inner circle for as long as possible. I must say it sounds familiar to me, as an author who has attempted to change the views of (classical) liberals and IR theorists on international relations and (classical) liberalism. Even the obvious fact that trade cannot possibly foster peace seems impossible to establish. Alas, reading Simon one also learns to never give up, the truth shall be told, although there is no guarantee of success!

Former president Lula out of jail… again

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is currently considered innocent and can run for president in 2022 if he wishes. Lula was arrested in April 2018 under Operation Car Wash, conducted by judge Sérgio Moro in the Brazilian southern city of Curitiba, in the state of Paraná. In November 2019, the Supreme Federal Court ruled that incarcerations with pending appeals were unlawful and Lula was released from prison as a result. Yesterday, March 8, 2021, the Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin ruled that all Lula’s convictions must be nullified because Lula was tried by a court that did not have proper jurisdiction over his case. This is so complicated that I had to check in Wikipedia to make sure I’m getting the basic facts straight.

Now I wonder: what changed between April 2018 and November 2019? And what changed yesterday? Don’t know! Was Lula illegally arrested in April 2018? What kind of country is this, in which people are arrested unlawfully?! Why it took Edson Fachin almost three years to realize that Sérgio Moro had no jurisdiction in this case?! Is Brazilian law really so complicated that it takes even to a supreme court judge three years to realize that something is wrong? What is going to happen to Lula now? After all, he was in jail unlawfully for more than a year! But mind this: Edson Fachin didn’t say that Lula is innocent! He said that Sérgio Moro had no jurisdiction to judge him. Theoretically, Lula can be judged by a new court, with the same proofs, and be condemned… again. You know, Seinfeld was right:

“What are lawyers, really? To me a lawyer is basically the person that knows the rules of the country. We’re all throwing the dice, playing the game, moving our pieces around the board, but if there’s a problem, the lawyer is the only person that has read the inside of the top of the box. I think one of the fun things for them is to say, ‘objection.’ ‘Objection! Objection, Your Honor.’ Objection, of course, is the adult version of, ‘’fraid not.’ To which the judge can say two things, he can say, ‘overruled’ which is the adult version of ‘’fraid so,’ or he could say, ‘sustained,’ which is the adult version of ‘Duh.’”

I’m afraid that in the case of Brazil, if the supreme court judges don’t quite understand the rules of the game, neither can I.

Does federation unite or divide?

I am reading a lot on federation lately, for an article I would like to contribute to Brandon’s special issue of Cosmos + Taxis. I am going back to the debate about federalizing (parts of the) the democratic world which was very lively in the 1930s and 1940s. Reading the texts, for example the best-selling Union Now! (1939) by American journalist Clarence Streit, you can feel the scare for the authoritarian rulers and their nationalistic and militaristic policies. As an anti-dote, Streit proposed the federation of all the grown democracies in the world at that time, 15 in total, spread over the globe. This Union of the North Atlantic had to include a union citizenship, a union defense force, a union customs-free economy, union money and union postal and communications system After the war broke out, Streit published a new version, now calling for a union between Britain and the USA. Needless to say, none of these or other proposals went anywhere. Still some interesting perpetual questions remain.

Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek also wrote on federation during this period, as I described in Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory (2009). I now went back to their writings, which is a treat. It is nice to have a fresh look, I also have deeper insights now (at least – I think!) than I had about 15 years ago when first encountering these ideas.

One of the divides between Mises and Hayek (which they never openly discussed, as far as I am aware) revolved around the alleged pacifying effect of federations. Mises made the point that joining a federation would lead to a larger loss of sovereignty than was normally conceived in the debate. It was not just about pooling some powers at the federal level. In an interventionist world, Mises argued, the number of policies that are dealt with from the center, or the capitol, continually rise. After all, the call for intervention will be made from all corners of the federation, all the time. This leads to a call for equal treatment, which in turn lead to a larger number of policies and regulations administered from the capitol. Consequently, the member states increasingly lose sovereignty and eventually end up as mere provinces. This would be a new cause of division, especially when the member states of the new federation used to be powerful countries on their own. Hence, a federation divides, not unites. Therefore, he proposed a much more radical solution in his plan for Eastern Europe: no federation but a strict central union (administered by foreigners, in a foreign language he even once suggested) where the members would basically have no say at all over all the important legislation normally associated with sovereignty. The laws and regulations would be limited, ensuring maximum economic and political freedom for the individual citizen.

This blog is not meant to discuss the merits of Mises’ ideas. It solely aims to point at a division between Mises and Hayek. Hayek, and most thinkers on federation with him, Streit included, had different expectations about the political effects of federation. They expected that federation would be a force of unity.  In a federation you arrange the most difficult and divisive policies at the center (for example defense, foreign policy and foreign trade), while leaving all other policies to the constituent parts. This allows room for different policies in those states, while taking away their instruments to start violent conflict. Yes, this would mean less sovereignty, but also less trouble, while the freedom within the federation still ensured as much or as little additional policies as the individual states see fit. Hayek would favor his idea the rest of his life, also proposing it for the Middle East, for example.  

Who was right? That is impossible to say, I think. There are elements of both Misesian and Hayekian arguments in the real-life experiences of federations around the globe. For some it is indeed a good way to pool the core of sovereignty, while remaining as diverse as possible. Although most them do not disintegrate with violent conflict, the increase of all kind of policies at the federal center has certainly happened. However, this is not unique to federations and most importantly, it is not a question of formal legal organization. It is a question of mentality of both politicians and populations. This is another reason to keep fighting ‘the war of ideas’, because ideas have the power to change societies.

John Rawls at 100

Neoliberal Social Justice available April 2021

John Rawls, the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, was born 100 years ago today. He died one year before I first read A Theory of Justice as part of my undergraduate degree in philosophy at University College London. This year, Edward Elgar publishes Neoliberal Social Justice: Rawls Unveiled, my book which updates Rawls’ approach to assessing social institutions in light of contemporary economic thought.

Mike Otsuka (now at the LSE) introduced us first to the work of Robert Nozick and then to Rawls, the reverse of what I imagine is normally the case in an introductory political philosophy course. Most people ultimately found Rawls’ the more attractive approach whereas I was drawn to Nozick’s insistence on starting strictly from the ethical claims of individuals. I wondered why something calling itself ‘the state’ should have rights to coerce beyond any other actor in civil society.

Years of working in public policy and studying political economy made me recognise a distinctive value for impersonal institutions with abstract rules. Indeed, I now think the concept of equal individual liberty is premised on the existence of such institutions. Although the rule of law could theoretically emerge absent a state, states are the only institutions that have been able to generate it so far. Political philosophy cannot be broken down into applied ethics in the way Nozick proposed.

Some classical liberals and market anarchists are increasingly impatient with the Rawlsian paradigm. Michael Huemer, for example, argues that Rawls misunderstands basic issues with probability when proposing that social institutions focus on maximising the condition of the least advantaged. Huemer argues that Rawls ultimately offers no reason to pick justice as fairness over utilitarianism, the very theory it was directed against.

I think these criticisms are valid for rejecting the blunt assessments of real-world inequalities that some Rawlsians are apt to make. But I do not think Rawls himself, nor his theory when read in context, made these elementary errors. Rawls’ principles of justice apply to the basic structure of social institutions rather than the resulting pattern of social resources as such. Moreover, the primary goods that Rawls take to be relevant for assessing social institutions are essentially public goods. It makes sense to guarantee, for example, basic civil liberties to all on an equal basis even if turns out to be costly. I can think of two reasons for this:

  1. In a society not facing acute scarcity, you would not want to risk placing yourself in a social position where your civil liberties could be denied even if it was relatively unlikely.
  2. Living in a society where basic liberties are denied to others is going to cause problems for everyone, whether through regime instability or fraught social and economics relationships that are not based on genuine mutual advantage but coercion from discretionary powers.

To be fair to utilitarians, J.S. Mill went in this direction, although one had to squint to see how it fit into a utilitarian calculus. But if Rawls was ultimately defending a more principled approach to social relationships using the tools of expediency, I see that as a valuable project.

So, I think that the Rawlsian approach is still a fruitful way to evaluate the distinctive problem of political order. His theory offers the resources to resist not just utopian libertarian rights theorists, but also socialists and egalitarians who similarly fail to account for the distinctive role of political institutions for resolving problems of collective action. Where I think Rawls erred when endorsing what amounts to a socialist institutional framework is on his interpretation of social theory. Rawls argued that people behave pretty selfishly in market interactions but could readily pursue the public good when engaged in everyday politics. I argue otherwise. Here is a snippet from Neoliberal Social Justice (pp. 96-97) where I make the case for including a more consistently realistic account of human motivation within his framework:

Problems of justice are not purely about assurance amongst reasonable people or identifying anti-social persons. Instead, we must consider the anti-social person within ourselves: the appetitive, biased, narrow-minded, prejudicial self that drives a great deal of our every-day thoughts and interactions (Cowen, 2018). If we are to make our realistic selves work with each other to produce a just outcome, then we should affirm institutions that allow these beings, not just the wholesome beings of our comfortable self-perception, to cooperate. We have to be alive to the fact that we are dealing with agents who are apt to affirm a scheme as fair and just at one point (and even sincerely mean it), then forgetfully, carelessly, negligently or deliberately break the terms of that scheme at another point if they have an opportunity and reason enough to do so. Addressing ourselves as citizens in this morally imperfect state, as opposed to benighted people outside a charmed circle of reasonableness, is helpful. It means we can now include such considerations within public reason. The constraints of rules emerging from a constitutional stage may chafe at other stages of civil interaction. Nevertheless, they may be fully publicly justified.

Exit, federation, and scale (from the comments)

I think you make an interesting point, but allow me a bit of push back. The world government would set the rules of how federated entities would interact. This would be like standards and protocols. You are correct that a set of shared standards can allow for enhanced competition, of the good variety (what I call constructive competition). This would be a good thing.

However the same shared standards would lock in the world to one set of protocols, thus reducing the discovery via variation and selection of the shared institutions themselves.

Thus we would see more short range constructive competition between states, and less long term exploration of new and potentially better institutional standards.

This is from Rojelio. He is pushing back against my argument in favor of world government from a libertarian point of view. He’s right, of course. There’s two points I need to do a better job of clarifying when I advocate for world government from a libertarian point of view:

  1. I don’t think federating the entire world is a good idea. I think the piecemeal federation of political units is what libertarians ought to aim for. (I think the US interstate order is the best avenue for achieving this aim.) A healthy “world federation” would govern (say) 85% of the world’s population. This brings me to my second point I need to clarify.
  2. The importance of exit needs to be addressed and institutionalized in a proper federal order. This is difficult to do, but not impossible. My argument is to make exit difficult, but not too difficult. The difficulty of exit should be somewhere on the scale between a constitutional amendment (too difficult) in the US order and Brexit (too easy) in the Westphalian order.

The bottom line is that a more libertarian world will likely be composed of a large federal polity that protects the freedoms of the vast majority of its citizens better than most nation-states do today. The other 15% of the world would live under despotism (which will center around “cultural cores”), or under sparsely-populated democratic republics (i.e Australia), or within free-riding microstates that otherwise rely on the protection of the large federal unit.

If, say, England, Tamaulipas, and Duyên hải Nam Trung Bộ were to federate with the United States tomorrow, these polities would not be agitating for exit after 10 years of experimentation in self-governance. If, say, Texas or Vermont wanted to exit after 10 years of federation with those 3 polities, they would have to go through a process (via all of the legislative branches involved) to do so. A simple majority vote would be disastrous. It is unlikely, then, that Texas or Vermont would leave such a federation. Pure freedom would be unrealized, but billions of people would be much freer.

Affirmative Guilt-Gradient and the Overton Window in Identity-Based Pedagogy

Yesterday, I came across this scoop on Twitter; New York Post and several other blogs have since reported it.

Regardless of this scoop’s veracity, the chart of Eight White identities has been around for some time now, and it has influenced young minds. So, here is my brief reflection on such identity-based pedagogy:

As a non-white resident-alien, I understand the history behind the United States’ racial sensitivity in all domains today. I also realize how zealous exponents of diversity have consecrated schools and university campuses in the US to rid the society of prevalent racial power-structures. Further, I appreciate the importance of people being self-critical; self-criticism leads to counter-cultures that balance mainstream views and enable reform and creativity in society. But I also find it essential that critics of mainstream culture don’t feel morally superior to enforce just about any theoretical concept on impressionable minds. Without getting too much into the right vs. left debate, there is something terribly sad about being indoctrinated at a young age —regardless of the goal of social engineering— to accept an automatic moral one-‘downmanship’ for the sake of the density gradient of cutaneous melanin pigment. Even though I’m a brown man from a colonized society, this kind of extreme ‘white guilt’ pedagogy leaves me with a bitter taste. And in this bitter taste, I have come to describe such indoctrination as “Affirmative Guilt-Gradient.”

You should know there is something called the Overton Window, according to which concepts grow larger when their actual instances and contexts grow smaller. In other words, well-meaning social interventionistas easily view each new instance in the decreasingly problematic context of the problem they focus on with the same lens as they consider the more significant problem. This leads to unrealistic enlargement of academic concepts that are then shoved down the throats of innocent, impressionable school kids who will take them as objective realities instead of subjective conceptual definitions overlaid on one legitimate objective problem.

I find the scheme of Eight White identities a symptom of the shifting Overton Window.

According to Thomas Sowell, there is a whole class of academics and intellectuals of social engineering who believe that when the world doesn’t reconcile to their pet theories, that shows something is wrong with the world, not their theories. If we are to project Thomas Sowell’s observation on this episode of “Guilt-Gradient,” it is perfectly reasonable to expect many white kids and their parents to refuse to adopt these theoretically manufactured guilt-gradient identities. We can then —applying Sowell’s observation—predict academics to declare that opposition to the “Guilt Gradient” is evidence for many covert white supremacists in the society who will not change. Such stories may then get blown up in influential Op-Eds, leading to the magnification of a simple problem, soon to be misplaced in the clutter of naïve supporters of such theories, the progressive vote-bank, and hard-right polemics.

We should all acknowledge that attachment to any identity—be it majority or minority—is by definition NOT a hatred for an outgroup. Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duke University, Ashley Jardina, in her noted research on the demise of white dominance and threats to white identity, concludes, “White identity is not, a proxy for outgroup animus. Most white identifiers do not condone white supremacism or see a connection between their racial identity and these hate-groups. Furthermore, whites who identify with their racial group become much more liberal in their policy positions than when white identity is associated with white supremacism.” Everybody has a right to associate with their identity, and equating one’s association with an ethnic majority identity is not automatically toxic. I feel it is destructive to view such identity associations as inherently toxic because it is precisely this sort of warped social engineering that results in unnecessary political polarization; the vicious cycle of identity-based tinkering is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hence, recognizing the Overton Window at play in such identity-based pedagogy is a must if we have to make progress. We shouldn’t be tricked into assuming that the non acceptance of the Affirmative Guilt Gradient is a sign of our society’s lack of progress.

Finally, I find it odd that ideologues who profess “universalism” and international identities choose schools and universities to keep structurally confined, relative identities going by adding excessive nomenclature so they can apply interventions that are inherently reactionary. However, isn’t ‘reactionary’ a pejorative these ideologues use on others?

Afternoon Tea: Allegory of the Peace of Westphalia (1654)

This is by Jacob Jordaens, a Flemish painter, and it is not even one of his most famous paintings. Here’s Jordaens’ wiki page. The Peace of Westphalia ended the 30 Years War. The Habsburgs weren’t necessarily the bad guys. The Peace of Westphalia didn’t establish state sovereignty in a system of equal (in theory) nation-states within an interstate order. The Peace of Westphalia solved a religious constitutional question within the Holy Roman Empire and ended the war between the Dutch and the Spanish. The Westphalian state system that we speak of and live in today is not appropriately named. Here’s the best article (pdf) I’ve read on the Peace.

If we were to appropriately name the interstate order that we have today, it would be named the Napoleonic interstate system. Alas. It’s called the Westphalian system. The US, and a couple of other big states like China and Russia, have trouble fitting in to the “Westphalian” state system because they established their own regional state systems long before being wrangled into European imperial entanglements. It goes without saying that polities in Africa, Asia, and the Americas also had trouble fitting into the “Westphalian” state system.

What if one of the regional orders established by the US, Russia, or China were embraced as the new global order, instead of the “Westphalian” (really Napoleonic) system based on nation-state sovereignty? I don’t think this would be a bad thing, and in their own way, the US, China, and Russia have been trying to do this since the end of World War II.

Second to None in the Creation of Extraordinary Wealth

The most important historical question to help understand our rise from the muck to modern civilization is: how did we go from linear to exponential productivity growth? Let’s call that question “who started modernity?” People often look to the industrial revolution, which is certainly an acceleration of growth…but it is hard to say it caused the growth because it came centuries after the initial uptick. Historians also bring up the Renaissance, but this is also a mislead due to the ‘written bias’ of focusing on books, not actions; the Renaissance was more like the window dressing of the Venetian commercial revolution of the 11th and 12th centuries, which is in my opinion the answer to “who started modernity.” However, despite being the progenitors of modern capitalism (which is worth a blog in and of itself), Venice’s growth was localized and did not spread immediately across Europe; instead, Venice was the regional powerhouse who served as the example to copy. The Venetian model was also still proto-banking and proto-capitalism, with no centralized balance sheets, no widespread retail deposits, and a focus on Silk Road trade. Perhaps the next question is, “who spread modernity across Europe?” The answer to this question is far easier, and in fact can be centered to a huge degree around a single man, who was possibly the richest man of all time: Jakob Fugger.

Jakob Fugger was born to a family of textile traders in Augsburg in the 15th century, and after training in Venice, revolutionized banking and trading–the foundations on which investment, comparative advantage, and growth were built–as well as relationships between commoners and aristocrats, the church’s view of usury, and even funded the exploration of the New World. He was the only banker alive who could call in a debt on the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, mostly because Charles owed his power entirely to Fugger. Strangely, he is perhaps best known for his philanthropic innovations (founding the Fuggerei, which were some of the earliest recorded philanthropic housing projects and which are still in operation today); this should be easily outcompeted by:

  1. His introduction of double entry bookkeeping to the continent
  2. His invention of the consolidated balance sheet (bringing together the accounts of all branches of a family business)
  3. His invention of the newspaper as an investment-information tool
  4. His key role in the pope allowing usury (mostly because he was the pope’s banker)
  5. His transformation of Maximilian from a paper emperor with no funding, little land, and no power to a competitor for European domination
  6. His funding of early expeditions to bring spices back from Indonesia around the Cape of Good Hope
  7. His trusted position as the only banker who the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire would trust to fund the election of Charles V
  8. His complicated, mostly adversarial relationship with Martin Luther that shaped the Reformation and culminated in the German Peasant’s War, when Luther dropped his anti-capitalist rhetoric and Fugger-hating to join Fugger’s side in crushing a modern-era messianic figure
  9. His involvement in one of the earliest recorded anti-trust lawsuits (where the central argument was around the etymology of the word “monopoly”)
  10. His dissemination, for the first time, of trustworthy bank deposit services to the upper middle class
  11. His funding of the military revolution that rendered knights unnecessary and bankers and engineers essential
  12. His invention of the international joint venture in his Hungarian copper-mining dual-family investment, where marriages served in the place of stockholder agreements
  13. His 12% annualized return on investment over his entire life (beating index funds for almost 5 decades without the benefit of a public stock market), dying the richest man in history.

The story of Fugger’s family–the story, perhaps, of the rise of modernity–begins with a tax record of his family moving to Augsburg, with an interesting spelling of his name: “Fucker advenit” (Fugger has arrived). His family established a local textile-trading family business, and even managed to get a coat of arms (despite their peasant origins) by making clothes for a nobleman and forgiving his debt.

As the 7th of 7 sons, Jakob Fugger was given the least important trading post in the area by his older brothers; Salzburg, a tiny mountain town that was about to have a change in fortune when miners hit the most productive vein of silver ever found by Europeans until the Spanish found Potosi (the Silver Mountain) in Peru. He then began his commercial empire by taking a risk that no one else would.

Sigismund, the lord of Salzburg, was sitting on top of a silver mine, but still could not run a profit because he was trying to compete with the decadence of his neighbors. He took out loans to fund huge parties, and then to expand his power, made the strategic error of attacking Venice–the most powerful trading power of the era. This was in the era when sovereigns could void debts, or any contracts, within their realm without major consequences, so lending to nobles was a risky endeavor, especially without backing of a powerful noble to force repayment or address contract breach.

Because of this concern, no other merchant or banker would lend to Sigismund for this venture because sovereigns could so easily default on debts, but where others saw only risk, Fugger saw opportunity. He saw that Sigismund was short-sighted and would constantly need funds; he also saw that Sigismund would sign any contract to get the funds to attack Venice. Fugger fronted the money, collateralized by near-total control of Sigismund’s mines–if only he could enforce the contract.

Thus, the Fugger empire’s first major investment was in securing (1) a long-term, iterated credit arrangement with a sovereign who (2) had access to a rapidly-growing industry and was willing to trade its profits for access to credit (to fund cannons and parties, in his case).

What is notable about Fugger’s supposedly crazy risk is that, while it depended on enforcing a contract against a sovereign who could nullify it with a word, he still set himself up for a consistent, long-term benefit that could be squeezed from Sigismund so long as he continued to offer credit. This way, Sigismund could not nullify earlier contracts but instead recognized them in return for ongoing loan services; thus, Fugger solved this urge toward betrayal by iterating the prisoner’s dilemma of defaulting. He did not demand immediate repayment, but rather set up a consistent revenue stream and establishing Fugger as Sigismund’s crucial creditor. Sigismund kept wanting finer things–and kept borrowing from Fugger to get them, meaning he could not default on the original loan that gave Fugger control of the mines’ income. Fugger countered asymmetrical social relationships with asymmetric terms of the contract, and countered the desire for default with becoming essential.

Eventually, Fugger met Maximilian, a disheveled, religion-and-crown-obsessed nobleman who had been elected Holy Roman Emperor specifically because of his lack of power. The Electors wanted a paper emperor to keep freedom for their principalities; Maximilian was so weak that a small town once arrested and beat him for trying to impose a modest tax. Fugger, unlike others, saw opportunity because he recognized when aligning paper trails (contracts or election outcomes) with power relationships could align interests and set him up as the banker to emperors. When Maximilian came into conflict with Sigismund, Fugger refused any further loans to Sigismund, and Maximilian forced Sigismund to step down. Part of Sigismund’s surrender and Maximilian’s new treaty included recognizing Fugger’s ongoing rights over the Salzburg mines, a sure sign that Fugger had found a better patron and solidified his rights over the mine through his political maneuvering–by denying a loan to Sigismund and offering money instead to Maximilian. Once he had secured this cash cow, Fugger was certainly put in risky scenarios, but didn’t seek out risk, and saw consistent yearly returns of 8% for several decades followed by 16% in the last 15 years of his life.

From this point forward, Fugger was effectively the creditor to the Emperor throughout Maximilian’s life, and built a similar relationship: Maximilian paid for parties, military campaigns, and bought off Electors with Fugger funds. As more of Maximilian’s assets were collateralized, Fugger’s commercial empire grew; he gained not only access to silver but also property ownership. He was granted a range of fiefs, including Arnoldstein, a critical trade juncture where Austria, Italy, and Slovenia border each other; his manufacturing and trade led the town to be renamed, for generations, Fuggerau, or Place of Fugger.

These activities that depended on lending to sovereigns brings up a major question: How did Fugger get the money he lent to the Emperor? Early in his career, he noted that bank deposit services where branches were present in different cities was a huge boon to the rising middle-upper class; property owners and merchants did not have access to reliable deposit services, so Fugger created a network of small branches all offering deposits with low interest rates, but where he could grow his services based on the dependability of moving money and holding money for those near, but not among, society’s elites. This gave him a deep well of dispersed depositors, providing him stable and dependable capital for his lending to sovereigns and funding his expanding mining empire.

Unlike modern financial engineers, who seem to focus on creative ways to go deeper in debt, Fugger’s creativity was mostly in ways that he could offer credit; he was most powerful when he was the only reliable source of credit to a political actor. So long as the relationship was ongoing, default risk was mitigated, and through this Fugger could control the purse strings on a wide range of endeavors. For instance, early in their relationship (after Maximilian deposed Sigismund and as part of the arrangement made Fugger’s interest in the Salzburg mines more permanent), Maximilian wanted to march on Rome as Charlemagne reborn and demand that the pope personally crown him; he was rebuffed dozens of times not by his advisors, but by Fugger’s denial of credit to hire the requisite soldiers.

Fugger also innovated in information exchange. Because he had a broad trading and banking business, he stood to lose a great deal if a region had a sudden shock (like a run on his banks) or gain if new opportunities arose (like a shift in silver prices). He took advantage of the printing press–less than 40 years after Gutenberg, and in a period when most writing was religious–to create the first proto-newspaper, which he used to gather and disseminate investment-relevant news. Thus, while he operated a network of small branches, he vastly improved information flow among these nodes and also standardized and centralized their accounting (including making the first centralized/combined balance sheet).

With this broad base of depositors and a network of informants, Fugger proceeded to change how war was fought and redraw the maps of Europe. Military historians have discussed when the “military revolution” that shifted the weapons, organization, and scale of war for decades, often centering in on Swedish armies in the 1550s as the beginning of the revolution. I would counter-argue that the Swedes simply continued a trend that the continent had begun in the late 1400’s, where:

  1. Knights’ training became irrelevant, gunpowder took over
  2. Logistics and resource planning were professionalized
  3. Early mechanization of ship building and arms manufacturing, as well as mining, shifted war from labor-centric to a mix of labor and capital
  4. Multi-year campaigns were possible due to better information flow, funding, professional organization
  5. Armies, especially mercenary groups, ballooned in size
  6. Continental diplomacy became more centralized and legalistic
  7. Wars were fought by access to creditors more than access to trained men, because credit could multiply the recruitment/production for war far beyond tax receipts

Money mattered in war long before Fugger: Roman usurpers always took over the mints first and army Alexander showed how logistics and supply were more important than pure numbers. However, the 15th century saw a change where armies were about guns, mercenaries, technological development, and investment, and above all credit, and Fugger was the single most influential creditor of European wars. After a trade dispute with the aging Hanseatic League over their monopoly of key trading ports, Fugger manipulated the cities into betraying each other–culminating in a war where those funded by Fugger broke the monopolistic power of the League. Later, because he had a joint venture with a Hungarian copper miner, he pushed Charles V into an invasion of Hungary that resulted in the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These are but two of the examples of Fugger destroying political entities; every Habsburg war fought from the rise of Maximilian through Fugger’s death in 1527 was funded in part by Fugger, giving him the power of the purse over such seminal conflicts as the Italian Wars, where Charles V fought on the side of the Pope and Henry VIII against Francis I of France and Venice, culminating in a Habsburg victory.

Like the Rothschilds after him, Fugger gained hugely through a reputation for being ‘good for the money’; while other bankers did their best to take advantage of clients, he provided consistency and dependability. Like the Iron Bank of Braavos in Game of Thrones, Fugger was the dependable source for ambitious rulers–but with the constant threat of denying credit or even war against any defaulter. His central role in manipulating political affairs via his banking is well testified during the election of Charles V in 1519. The powerful kings of Europe– Francis I of France, Henry VIII of England, and Frederick III of Saxony all offered huge bribes to the Electors. Because these sums crossed half a million florins, the competition rapidly became one not for the interest of the Electors–but for the access to capital. The Electors actually stipulated that they would not take payment based on a loan from anyone except Fugger; since Fugger chose Charles, so did they.

Fugger also inspired great hatred by populists and religious activists; Martin Luther was a contemporary who called Fugger out by name as part of the problem with the papacy. The reason? Fugger was the personal banker to the Pope, who was pressured into rescinding the church’s previously negative view of usury. He also helped arrange the scheme to fund the construction of the new St. Peter’s basilica; in fact, half of the indulgence money that was putatively for the basilica was in fact to pay off the Pope’s huge existing debts to Fugger. Thus, to Luther, Fugger was greed incarnate, and Fugger’s name became best known to the common man not for his innovations but his connection to papal extravagance and greed. This culminated in the 1525 German Peasant’s War, which saw an even more radical Reformer and modern-day messianic figure lead hordes of hundreds of thousands to Fuggerau and many other fortified towns. Luther himself inveighed against these mobs for their radical demands, and Fugger’s funding brought swift military action that put an end to the war–but not the Reformation or the hatred of bankers, which would explode violently throughout the next 100 years in Germany.

This brings me to my comparison: Fugger against all of the great wealth creators in history. What makes him stand head and shoulders above the rest, to me, is that his contributions cross so many major facets of society: Like Rockefeller, he used accounting and technological innovations to expand the distribution of a commodity (silver or oil), and he was also one of the OG philanthropists. Like the Rothschilds’ development of the government bond market and reputation-driven trust, Fugger’s balance-sheet inventions and trusted name provided infrastructural improvement to the flow of capital, trust in banks, and the literal tracking of transactions. However, no other capitalist had as central of a role in religious change–both as the driving force behind allowing usury and as an anti-Reformation leader. Similarly, few other people had as great a role in the Age of Discovery: Fugger funded Portuguese spice traders in Indonesia, possibly bankrolled Magellan, and funded the expedition that founded Venezuela (named in honor of Venice, where he trained). Lastly, no other banker had as influential of a role in political affairs; from dismantling the Hanseatic League to deciding the election of 1519 to building the Habsburgs from paper emperors to the most powerful monarchs in Europe in two generations, Fugger was the puppeteer of Europe–and such an effective one that you have barely heard of him. Hence, Fugger was not only the greatest wealth creator in history but among the most influential people in the rise of modernity.

Fugger’s legacy can be seen in his balance sheet of 1527; he basically developed the method of using it for central management, its only liabilities were widespread deposits from the upper-middle class (and his asset-to-debt ratio was in the range of 7-to-1, leaving an astonishingly large amount of equity for his family), and every important leader on the continent was literally in his debt. It also showed him to have over 1 million florins in personal wealth, making him one of the world’s first recorded millionaires. The title of this post was adapted from a self-description written by Jakob himself as his epitaph. As my title shows, I think it is fairer to credit his wealth creation than his wealth accumulation, since he revolutionized multiple industries and changed the history of capitalism, trade, European politics, and Christianity, mostly in his contribution to the credit revolution. However, the man himself worked until the day he died and took great pride in being the richest man in history.

All information from The Richest Man Who Ever Lived. I strongly recommend reading it yourself–this is just a taster!

Don’t Call Me Doktor

“Don’t Call Me Doktor” in Foreign Policy

If two politicians are equal in every other respect but one was better at basketball… I guess go with that one? I mean, all else equal they’re maybe a better team player or something. But that line of thinking doesn’t mean we should only ever vote for ex-NBA stars.

There are plenty of similar potentially attractive signals: veteran status, success in business and/or being a fake billionaire, academic success, acting, etc. Some signals are stronger, and some imply a smaller pool of candidates. If there are more successful business people in the world we should expect to observe more of them transitioning to politics than, say, world-class bowlers. Likewise, if the signal is more relevant (e.g. law degree vs. paleontology degree), it makes sense to see more of them in the wild.

That 18% of German politicians have PhD’s seems wild to me. Maybe I’m biased because I work in an organization full to the brim with PhD’s. But that many politicians with degrees seems about as reasonable and as likely as having half of Congress be elite athletes.

How Falsehoods Take Root

“On the afternoon of January 6, most Americans watched in horror as an armed mob stormed the US Capitol….” (Emphasis mine.)

This is part of the opening sentence of an essay in the Wall Street Journal by Steven B. Smith (weekend edition, Jan 23-24, C5). The piece is entitled: “The Two Enemies of Patriotism.” It’s described as adapted from the author’s forthcoming book to be published soon by Yale University Press. The author is a professor of political science at Yale. Even a superficial survey shows he possesses very good academic credentials. His PhD is from the University of Chicago. He seems to be a specialist in Spinoza, which I find especially disturbing, personally (more on this below).

My question: were the protesters who breached the US Capitol on January 6 “armed,” as Mr Smith asserts? The answer to this question matters because it’s one of the dividing line between two interpretations of the same events. In one interpretation, the notably unmasked protesters went too far and engaged in unlawful entry, small amounts of vandalism (some windows were broken), and in disorderly conduct – that most subjective of all kinds of law breaking – which, together, made the unaccountably thin line of Capitol police feel threatened and forced them to retreat. As I write, a little over one hundred and twenty participants have been charged, almost all with the kinds of crimes mentioned above. No one has been charged with murder or any other crime I would consider serious.

In the alternative interpretation, a real “insurrection” took place with the aim to….Well, no one explained what a credible aim the “insurrectionists” might have had besides what the protesters actually achieved: putting off a ceremonial congressional proceeding of counting electoral vote by several hours without altering its results in any way.

It seems to me that reasonable people should agree that the presence or not of real weapons marks the line dividing somewhat riotous protest from insurrection, which must be armed, it seems to me. Is there any historical example of an event called an “insurrection” when weapons were absent? Or is this a novel use of the word? I say “should agree” because in the two weeks since the event, what I think of as reasonable people seem to have largely vanished recently.

Here are the facts as I am able to gather them from the internet. After the breaching of the Capitol, police found two vehicles nearby (I don’t know how near), each with a varied panoply of weapons. Whether the owners broke any laws by carrying their several weapons, I can’t tell from the media reports. Here, I would like to have a baseline: In an ordinary day when nothing much happens, how many vehicles with weapons inside would be found in a police sweep of the same area? At any rate, none of those weapons were in the possession of the crowd that breached the Capitol’s weak defenses.

In addition, one identified Capitol protester (one) was arrested at his hotel in possession of a Taser. There is no reason to believe he had this weapon in the Capitol. (Burden of proof is on the accuser). Another protester was found with plastic ties in his possession while he was on Capitol grounds. He said he found them there. They might actually have fallen out of a Capitol policeman’s pocket. At any rate, whether plastic ties are “arms” is a real question. If a civilian without a weapon orders me to put my wrists behind my back so that he can secure them with plastic ties, I will just say “No.” Someone else?

The media made much of the news that several pipe bombs were also found on the ground not far from the Capitol. The first one found was at the National Republican Committee. I have to ask, of course: why on the ground, why at a Republican building? (Some really clueless Trump supporter?)

One protester present on the Capitol grounds during the breach did have a pistol; that’s one, one!

So far, as of today, two people died in the Capitol or as a direct result of the breach by Trump supporters. The latter were re-enforced by an unknown number of left wing radicals, or, at least, by one, a young man named Sullivan. I understand that one is one, that this fact may not mean much. Same rules apply against and for the argument I am making.

One Capitol policeman was killed by a heavy object (not precisely an “arm,” a weapon) by a person or by persons unknown. The killer or killers seem to have been present in the invading crowd.

Finally, a Capitol policeman shot to death one avowed Trump supporter from a short distance. The victim was allegedly killed while entering through a broken window. She was unarmed. I did not find a commentary about a Congressional legal policy making breaking-and-entering a capital case punishable by death. The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, had nothing to say on the topic although Congress is in charge of its own policing.

In brief: Using public sources, I don’t find the armed mob of Prof. Smith’s opening sentence. A “mob”? Maybe that’s a subjective designation, but I understand the impression that particular crowd made and I too think it was disorderly. But, I am pretty sure it takes more than one individual to make up a “mob.” So, either, it was not a mob, or it was not armed.

Why did Prof. Smith begin an essay surely only intended to promote his scholarly book with a reference to an armed mob, specifically, in spite of the shortage of supporting evidence? Four possibilities.

First, he lied shamelessly in the service of his ideological and political preferences, including a hatred of Trump supporters;

Two, Mr Smith displayed an appalling lack of information. It’s only appalling because the man is a scholar, and a political scientist to boot, one who should follow current political events a little carefully. One would reasonably expect him to be attentive when the word “insurrection” is used repeatedly.

Three, Mr Smith was a little distracted when he wrote the above lines, not especially interested, and he just followed passively the narrative prevailing in his faculty club with a care to preserving his dedicated place at the table in the same faculty club’s dining room.

Four, he thinks one protester with a handgun constitutes an “armed mob.”

The later possibility should not be brushed off too easily. We live under constant hysteria.

Mr Smith is a scholar of Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher. Spinoza was one of the originators of undiluted rationalism and thus, a founding father of Western civilization (thus far). He even paid a high personal price for his courage in renouncing the theological certainties of his age. I suppose you can be an expert on the works of another scholar and remain morally unaffected by his example. If this is uncommon, Mr Smith is showing the way.

Now, for consequences of word choice, just compare two short narratives about the same event;

“About one hundred to two hundred unmasked and mostly unarmed protesters forced their way into the Capitol. ‘Mostly unarmed’ because one protester was found to have a handgun.”

“…an armed mob stormed the Capitol….”

Which of these two narratives would lend implicit support to the view that Trump supporters should be treated as “domestic terrorists” with the expectable outcomes for individual rights?

Whatever the real explanation for Prof. Smith’s departure from the truth, it seems obvious to me that it constitutes one of the roots, a minor one perhaps, that will help grow and help propagate that particular falsehood. The fact that he is an academic operating from a respected university makes the verbal dishonesty worse. The fact that the falsehood appears in a well-esteemed and mostly conservative newspaper makes the breach of truth worse again.

I have been saying for months now that American universities are committing suicide. Professors’ irresponsibility, such as in this case one, are just another one of a thousand cuts. Very sad!

PS I voted for Mr Trump twice. I am a white supremacist, of course.

Pandemics and Hyperinflations

I wrote an article a few years ago about hyperinflation in ancient Rome (and blogged about it here), arguing that the social trust in issuing bodies has been a foundation for monetary value long before modern institutions.

I got a random notification that someone had actually read and cited my work in a recent article “The US Money Explosion of 2020, Monetarism and Inflation: Plagued by History?” I really liked the author’s concept: inflation during pandemic periods is staved off for years because of saving rates, but then the post-crisis period is actually when the most inflation occurs.

This passed my ‘gut check’: during a crisis, who blows their entire budget? It also passed my historical-precedent check, and not only because he researched the Spanish flu and medieval precedent; in the Roman hyperinflation, the inflation lagged decades behind the expanded monetary volume, and in fact came right as the civil wars that nearly brought the Empire to its knees came to an end.

So, in short, inflation-hawks, you are probably right to fear the dramatic expansion of the money supply; however, you won’t feel vindicated for potentially years to come. In an age where people look for causes today to become results tomorrow (EVERY DAY, the WSJ tells me “stocks moved up/down because MAJOR EVENT TODAY”), we need to lengthen our time horizons of analysis and recognize that, just maybe, the ramifications of today’s policies will not really be felt for years. Or, put in a more dire light, by the time we realize who is right, it will be too late to reassert social trust in monetary value, and the dollar will follow the denarius into histories of hyperinflations.

Greenwald on Silicon Valley

On Thursday, Parler was the most popular app in the United States. By Monday, three of the four Silicon Valley monopolies united to destroy it.

With virtual unanimity, leading U.S. liberals celebrated this use of Silicon Valley monopoly power to shut down Parler, just as they overwhelmingly cheered the prior two extraordinary assertions of tech power to control U.S. political discourse: censorship of The New York Post’s reporting on the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, and the banning of the U.S. President from major platforms. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a single national liberal-left politician even expressing concerns about any of this, let alone opposing it.

Not only did leading left-wing politicians not object but some of them were the ones who pleaded with Silicon Valley to use their power this way. After the internet-policing site Sleeping Giants flagged several Parler posts that called for violence, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked: “What are @Apple and @GooglePlay doing about this?”

The rest is here. Do read it. (H/t Mark from Placerville)

I haven’t jumped into American domestic politics for a long, long time. It’s nice to see that Glenn Greenwald is still the same ol’ Glenn Greenwald. I saw on Twitter awhile back that some Leftists were savaging him because he refused to take their side on something or other.

The tribal trend is one that is here to stay, I think, at least for the duration of my lifetime. In the old days, in the United States, politics was more polarized. Whole families based part of their identity on a political party. What we are seeing is a return to the norm after 80 years of postwar boom (and bust), when being an American trumped being a Democrat/Republican. Coming to terms with a bug in the democratic system (polarization), is going to be difficult for a lot of Americans.

The problem is not just ignorance with polarization, either. Before the postwar boom, America’s federal government did a lot less than it does now. Our polarized society, which again is a normal feature of democracies that don’t win world wars, is fighting for resources that are now wielded largely by one entity rather than by hundreds of local entities. There are plusses and minuses to this. The federal government is more professional about such things, and graft is harder to commit, but this also means that there will be more losers (for those federal goodies).

In the past, violent riots were the product of racist and Nativist animosities that were not dealt with effectively by local authorities. Basically, black Americans and immigrants were not able to get any public goods from local and “state” governments unless they literally fought for a place at the table. Today, and for the foreseeable future, the animosities are going to be federal in scope rather than local, so violence will not be a product of racist or Nativist abuse. Violent riots will probably flare up more often than they once did, too, but they won’t be as deadly as the racist or Nativist riots of old.

I hope I’m wrong, but I rarely am.

Post-Mortem

Mr Trump is practically gone and he is not coming back. (For one thing, he will be too old in 2024. For another thing, see below.) The political conditions that got such an un-preposterous candidate elected in 2016 however, those conditions, don’t look like they are going away. (I hope I am wrong.) A large fraction of Americans will continue to be ignored from an economic standpoint, as well as insulted daily by their better. Four years of insults thrown at people like me and the hysterical outpouring of contempt by liberal media elites on the last days of the Trump administration are not making me go away. Instead, they will cement my opposition to their vision of the world and to their caste behavior. I would bet dollars on the penny that a high proportion of the 74 million+ who voted for Mr Trump in 2020 feels the same. (That’s assuming that’s the number who voted for him; I am not sure of it at all. It could be more. Currently, with the information available, I vote 60/40 that the election was not – not – stolen.)

I never liked Trump, the man, for all the obvious reasons although I admired his steadfastness because it’s so rare among politicians. In the past two years, I can’t say I liked any of his policies, though I liked his judicial appointments. It’s just that who else could I vote for in 2016? Hillary? You are kidding, right? And in 2020, after President Trump was subjected to four years (and more) of unceasing gross abuse and of persecution guided by a totalitarian spirit, would it not have been dishonorable to vote for anyone but him? (Libertarians: STFU!)

Believe it or not, if Sen. Sanders and his 1950 ideas had not been eliminated again in 2020, again through the machinations of the Dem. National Committee, I would have had a serious talk with myself. At least, Sanders is not personally corrupt, and with a Republican Senate, we would have had a semi-paralyzed government that would have been OK with me.

One week after the event of 1/6/21, maybe “the breach” of the Capitol, many media figures continue to speak of a “coup.” Even the Wall Street Journal has joined in. That’s downright grotesque. I don’t doubt that entering the Capitol in a disorderly fashion and, for many, (not all; see the videos) uninvited, is illegal as well as unseemly. I am in favor of the suspects being found and prosecuted, for trespassing, or something. This will have the merit of throwing some light on the political affiliation(s) of the window breakers. I still see no reason to abandon the possibility that some, maybe (maybe) in the vanguard, were Antifa or BLM professional revolutionaries. Repeating myself: Trump supporters have never behaved in that manner before. I am guessing the investigations and the prosecutions are going to be less than vigorous precisely because the new administration will not want to know or to have the details be known of the criminals’ identity. If I am wrong, and all the brutal participants were Trump supporters, we will know it very quickly. The media will be supine either way.

It’s absurd and obscenely overwrought to call the breaching of the Capitol on January 6th (by whomever), a “coup” because there was never any chance that it would result in transferring control of the federal government to anyone. Develop the scenario: Both chambers are filled with protesters (of whatever ilk); protesters occupy both presiding chairs, and they hold in their hands both House and Senate gavels. What next? Federal agencies start taking their orders from them; the FBI reports to work as usual but only to those the protesters appoint? Then, perhaps, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs interrupts the sketchy guy who is taking a selfie while sitting in the VP chair. He says he wants to hand him the nuclear controls football. (Ask Nancy Pelosi, herself perpetrator of a coup, though a small one.) If you think any of this is credible, well, think about it, think about yourself, think again. And get a hold!

That the Capitol riot was a political act is true in one way and one way only, a minor way. It derailed the electoral vote counting that had been widely described as “ceremonial.” Happened after (after) the Vice-President had declared loud and clear that he did not have the authority to change the votes. The counting resumed after only a few hours. There is no scenario, zero, under which the riot would have altered the choice of the next president. If there had been, the breach would have been a sort of coup, a weak one.

On 1/9/21, an announcer, I think it was on NPR, I hope it was on NPR, qualified the events as a “deadly” something or other. He, and media in general, including Fox News, I am afraid, forgot to go into the details. In point of fact, five people died during the protest and part-riot of 1/6/21. One was a Capitol policeman who was hit with a fire extinguisher. As I write, there is no official allegation about who did it. There is no information about the political affiliation, if any, of the culprit(s). For sure, protesters caused none of three next deaths which were due to medical emergencies, including a heart attack. The fifth casualty was a protester, who was probably inside the Capitol illegally, and who was shot to death by a policeman. She was definitely a Trump supporter. She was unarmed. Many people who are busy with their lives will think that Trump supporters had massacred five people because of the mendacity of the language used on air. Disgraceful, disgusting reporting; but we are getting used to it.

Today and yesterday, I witnessed a mass movement I think I have not seen in my life though it rings some historical bells. Pundits, lawmakers, and other members of their caste are elbowing one another out of the way to be next to make extremist pronouncements on the 1/6/21 events. Why, a journalist on Fox News, no less, a pretty blond lady wearing a slightly off the shoulder dress referred to a “domestic terror attack.” With a handful of courageous exceptions, all lawmakers I have seen appearing in the media have adopted extreme vocabulary to describe what remained a small riot, if it was a riot at all. I mean that it was a small riot as compared to what happened in several American cities in the past year. The hypocrisy is colossal in people who kept their mouths mostly shut for a hundred nights or more of burning of buildings, of police cars, of at least one police precinct (with people in it), and of massive looting.

It’s hard to explain how the media and the political face of America became unrecognizable in such a short time. Two hypotheses. First, many of the lawmakers who were in the Capitol at the time of the breach came to fear for their personal safety. Four years of describing Trump supporters as Nazis and worse must have left a trace and multiplied their alarm. Except for the handful of Congressmen and women who served in the military and who saw actual combat, our lawmakers have nothing in their lives to prepare them for physical danger. They mostly live cocooned lives; the police forces that protect them have not been disbanded. (What do you know?) I think they converted the abject fear they felt for a short while into righteous indignation. Indignation is more self-respecting than fear for one’s skin.

My second hypothesis to explain the repellent verbal behavior: The shameful noises I heard in the media are the manifestation of a rat race to abandon a sinking ship. Jobs are at stake, careers are at stake, cushy lifestyles are at stake. “After Pres. Trump is gone, as he surely will be soon,” the lawmakers are thinking, “there will be a day of reckoning, and a purge. I have to establish right away a vivid, clear, unforgettable record of my hatred to try and avoid the purge. No language is too strong to achieve this end.” That’s true even for Republican politicians because, they too have careers. Trump cabinet members resigned for the same reason, I think when they could have simply declared, “I don’t approve of…. but I am staying to serve the people to the end.”

Along with an outburst of extremist public language, there came a tsunami of censorship by social media, quite a few cases of people getting fired merely for having been seen at the peaceful demonstration (all legal though repulsive), and even a breach of contract by a major publisher against a US Senator based solely on his political discourse (to be resolved in court). And then, there are the enemy lists aired by the likes of CNN, for the sole purpose of ruining the careers of those who served loyally in the Trump administration.

President-elect Bidden called for “unity.” Well, I have never, ever seen so much unity between a large fraction of the political class – soon an absolute majority in government – the big media, and large corporations. I have never seen it but I have read about it. Such a union constituted the political form called “corporatism.” It was the practical infrastructure of fascism.

As if political correctness had only been its training wheels, the vehicle of political censorship is speeding up. The active policing of political speech can’t be far behind. It won’t even require a revision of the federal constitution so long as private companies such as Twitter and Facebook do the dirty work. Soon, Americans will watch what they are saying in public. I fear that national police agencies will be turned to a new purpose. (The FBI, already proved its faithlessness four years ago, anyway.) Perhaps, there will be little collective cynicism involved. It’s not difficult to adopt liberalism, a self-indulgent creed. And what we understand here (wrongly) to be “socialism” only entails an endless Christmas morning. So, why not? The diabolical Mr Trump will soon be remembered as having incited some misguided, uneducated, unpolished (deplorable) Americans to massacre their legitimately elected representatives.

Incidentally, in spite of a near consensus on the matter, I have not seen or heard anything from Pres. Trump that amounts to incitement to do anything (anything) illegal. There are those who will retort that inviting his angry supporters to protest was tantamount to incitement to violence. The logic of this is clear: Only crowds that are not angry should be invited to protest. Read this again. Does it make any sense? Make a note that the constitutional propriety of Mr Trump’s belief that the election had been stolen is irrelevant here. One does not have to be constitutionally correct to have the right to protest.

Night has fallen over America. We are becoming a totalitarian society with a speed I could not have foreseen. Of course four years of unrelenting plotting to remove the properly elected president under false pretenses paved the way. Those years trained citizens to accept the unacceptable, to be intellectually docile. Suddenly I don’t feel safe. I am going to think over my participation in the social media both because of widespread censorship and because it now seems dangerous. As far as censorship is concerned I tried an alternative to Facebook, “Parler,” but it did not work for me. Besides, it seems that the big corporations, including Amazon and Apple, are ganging up to shut it down. The cloud of totalitarianism gathered so fast over our heads that all my bets are off about the kinds of risks I am now willing to take. I will still consider alternatives to Facebook but they will have to be very user-friendly, and reasonably populated. (If I want to express myself in the wilderness, I can always talk to my wife.) For the foreseeable future, I will still be easy to find in the blogosphere.

Best of luck to all my Facebook friends, including to those who need to learn to think more clearly, including those whose panties are currently in a twist.

Casual Empiricism: USPS

It looks to me (as I refresh tracking numbers) that the post office is still reeling after several months of attempted voter suppression. It also looks to me like even though Trump is on his way out, there is no reason to believe that someone just as terrible couldn’t come along at any point in the next 50 years and outdo him.

As far as the USPS goes I think there’s a fairly simple solution that should make most people happy: split the USPS in two: a private for-profit firm that delivers junk mail and competes with UPS and Amazon, and a government agency that handles government business including things like distributing ballots and census surveys.

But the USPS is just one small part of a much larger problem. When the Trump II comes along, he’ll have more powers, including (very likely) a lot more power to mess with the health care sector. There are a lot of reasons I don’t like the idea of more government in health care, but this one should be terrifying to everyone.

Next

I have to report that I think my advancing age is not preventing me from gathering facts and exercising criticality. (Sorry, Joe; I don’t mean to put you down. – Joe Biden and I are the same age. But, I know what I am talking about.)

The year 2020 was rough, of course, not so much for me or for my wife Krishna, as for our children and others we love. For the two of us, sheltering in place did not really change our habits all that much except that our shopping for ourselves became progressively more limited. We didn’t party much before; we did not party in 2020. We had not partied that much in 2019. (That’s unless you count staying up until eleven pm with a small glass of Marsala as partying.) We might start partying in 2021 but it’s not all that likely!

The COVID affair did two things for me. First it reminded me of what a thin veneer rationality really is in Western society. We saw many lose their cool and accept the unacceptable. I was reminded also of something I knew in my bones, from thirty years of teaching: Even otherwise educated people don’t know how to deal with simple numbers. So, 320,000 excess deaths from the C-virus for a population of 320 million correspond to an excess death rate of 0.001. That’s one per thousand; it’s a very small figure. (I am deliberately leaving aside the idea that the number of deaths from COVID is almost certainly overestimated in this country. One problem at a time works best.) If people understood how small the number is, they would respond accordingly that is, with calm, perhaps. The evidence of innumeracy is all over our media, and all over Facebook, on all political sides. I don’t know why we keep doing such a piss-poor job teaching basic math. (It’s been like this as far back as I can remember.) Perhaps, it’s because people who can’t count don’t know that they can’t count.

Speaking of innumeracy, another topic rises to my mind irrepressibly. Above, I was referring to the task of interpreting simple fractions for example. There is something else missing among those, specifically, who are tasked with explaining what causes what, and who take the task seriously. People so engaged have always had to deal with two problems. First, there are multiple real causes to the thing they wish to understand, multiple causes of different strengths. So, weight gain is influenced both by calorie intake and by amount and intensity of exercise; fact. Calorie intake counts more than exercise. Second, there are possible causes that may not be causes at all. So, in addition to the two causes above, one may believe that weight gain is influenced by the ambient temperature. (It’s not.) Well it turns out that there is a series of tools that help understand better both kinds of problem. I mean much better.

There exists a toolbox called “econometrics” that does exactly that. It’s far from new. I learned econometrics in the seventies, and I was not a pioneer. Media explainers have evidently no acquaintance with it and probably don’t even know the tools exists. Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression, learning econometrics is not light intellectual lifting but it’s within the reach of any smart person with a little time. I am baffled by the fact that something so obviously useful to figure out with real data whether X causes Y, in addition to Z, has failed to leach into ordinary educated society in fifty years and more. It’s discouraging about the pace of, or even the reality of progress.

The second important thing that happened in 2020 is that government at all levels gave us striking examples of its incompetence, and further, of its tendency immediately to turn tyrannical when frustrated. In the US and in France (whose case I am following pretty closely in the French media), government decisions have ruined a good part of the economy without real explanation being forthcoming. I mean closing by force thousands of small businesses that have little or no chance of recovering. I mean closing schools which prevents some, or many parents from going to work. The explanations for such actions are too light-weight to be taken seriously and they are frequently reversed like this: X causes Y; Ooops! X does not cause Y, Ooops! X does cause Y, sort of… Sometimes, often, good government consists in doing less rather than more: “We don’t know; do what you think is right,” at the most local level possible.

And, speaking of everyday government incompetence: The state of California wants to eliminate all internal combustion engines cars (and my own little pick-up truck) within fifteen years, to replace them with all-electric vehicles. That’s in a state where the local (PG&E, in central California) power monopoly has chronic trouble merely keeping the lights on. So, the question arises: Does the State of California really not know or does it know and not care (because it’s all about saving the planet)? I am not even sure which answer I prefer.

In the US, in addition to the COVID pandemic, we had a half a year of riots and burning of businesses, all in large cities held by Democrats for a long time. The inability, or the unwillingness, to stop the civil strife was striking. It expressed either a stunning degree of incompetence, or of complicity with the rioters. One explanation does not exclude the other, of course: Personal cowardice can easily hide under ideological fellowship. And ideology can generate cowardice.

In the minds of small government conservatives like me, the minimal task of government is to keep order so that individuals and companies can go about their constructive business. Local government largely failed in America in 2020. Extreme libertarians were more right than I thought. I wonder, of course, how much worse it would have been if a liberal had held the presidency instead of Donald Trump.

Government demonstrated to me in 2020 that it tends to be both incompetent and tyrannical. The thought crosses my mind that if it were more competent, it would be less inclined to tyranny.

The riots were adroitly attached to protests against the deaths of black suspects at the hands of police in questionable circumstances. They were staged as anti-racist protests, and especially as protests against “systemic racism.” I have already written why I think the police killings of black citizens in general are not racist acts. (Note: This is a long article. It can be read in nine segments, for convenience.)

I have also argued that in today’s America, systemic racism is too hard to find to lose sleep over it. Black Lives Matter, the organization, did almost all of the staging. It’s an organization of professional Marxist revolutionaries. I believe they are merely using alleged racism as a means to trigger a revolution in the US, or at least, to make their brand of statism gain ground, or at worst, to earn some credibility among the ill-read but well-intentioned.

In spite of the mendacity of the BLM campaign in every way, it may have done some good simply by drawing attention. I have always thought that American society has never really digested the fact of slavery. I mean the fact that it was 250 years of unrelenting atrocities. Some good may come from greater and deeper knowledge of that past. Same reason I am horrified by the brutal removal of statues and by the biased (“woke”) erasure of history going on in the streets and in universities as I write. Not facing the legitimate grievances about yesterday is like asking for insidious and endless blackmail today. That’s what we have now. There is a better way.

Do I think the Democrats, some Dems, stole the presidential election? I am not sure. I am sure of two things however: Many Democrats in several locations tried to steal it as much as they could. Some have argue in their defense that it was just “normal” cheating, that it happens the same every year. I want to know more about that. The second thing is that – to my knowledge (I am educable) there have been few or no complaints of cheating against Republican entities. Electoral cheating is a Democratic specialty.

Stealing a word from conservative commentator, Mark Stein, I fear we are entering a post-constitutional era. I don’t know what to do about it. I wish secession were more practical. It’s happening anyway on a small scale with tens of thousands voting with their feet by leaving California and New York State. It’s a first step. If the federal government would shrink some, I could imagine that this sort of peaceful partial secession would work for all: a Middle America centered on Texas, and an Extreme America based in California and New York State. The two parts linked in a loose confederacy. (Oops, wrong word!) Unfortunately, there is no miracle in sight by which the federal structure will become more skinny, with a shorter reach.

2020 saw the dramatic introduction of censorship and also of guided thought throughout the social media. If capitalism is allowed to function, the giant privately held businesses responsible for these poisons, and first and foremost Facebook, will have to withstand the emergence of rivals that will compete on that basis, precisely. I have tried one such and it did not work for me. There is no reason why there can’t be more, better ones. In the worst scenario with which I come up, the forces of darkness cannot eradicate capitalism fast enough to prevent this from happening. That’s my optimistic prediction for 2021 and beyond.

Other interesting things have happened to me that are kind of hard by their nature to recall. Here is the main one. As anthropogenic global warming became the state religion in many places, including to an extent, in the US, its narrative lost its remaining credibility in my mind. (Ask me why.)

Finally, we saw again that Communist China is too big and too powerful for a country that does not share our values. I refer to mass imprisonment without trial and outside the law, extra-judicial kidnapping by the government, guaranteed non-freedom of the press. This is true even if most rank-and-file Chinese citizens are satisfied with their government. (They may well be.) I am not Chinese myself. Chinese economic power has to be restricted (even if doing so is unfair). The influence of the Chinese Communists in America must be constrained. If Finland, for example were as big as Communist China, I wouldn’t mind so much, or at all.

I wish all of us a better year, more wisdom, more intellectual honesty, the ability peacefully and firmly to resist creeping tyranny.