Libertarianism and the shutdown

Yesterday, Paul Krugman published a deceptive, sloppy, and self-contradictory opinion article in the New York Times entitled “Trump’s Big Libertarian Experiment.” The premise: the shutdown delivers what all libertarians want, and the shutdown (this is strongly implied) demonstrates just how silly libertarians are.

This is nonsense. First off, Trump is decidedly not a libertarian. Second, government shutdowns have occurred for decades–are all of these “libertarian” experiments? Finally, no libertarians that I’m aware of have ever favored mercurial spending freezes that sweep the rug out from under people who’ve come to rely on government programs. Principled reform is a bit different from abrupt financial lurches.

The disruption and harm caused by sudden spending jolts have no bearing on whether a libertarian society could work or not. Krugman points out that businesspeople are already enraged that the Small Business Administration has ceased issuing loans, an organization that many libertarians have claimed is unnecessary. Of course they’re angry–they expected something that suddenly has ceased. That has absolutely nothing to do with whether the SBA is necessary; it just demonstrates that people get ticked off when their expectations are suddenly dashed. The shutdown proves nothing about whether the private market could ultimately supply any benefits offered by the SBA.

He also says that work at the FDA has dwindled. Routine inspections have ceased. He has zero evidence that this has caused even an iota of harm to anyone, but the implication is clear: we’ll all be confined to the toilets soon as E. coli swamps the country. He marshals no evidence to confront whether state regulators can adequately fill this role, or whether tort law and market forces can suffice.

Libertarians envision a society in which many roles currently served by government can find contractual and common-law counterparts (or not, if it turns out no one wants the service). Libertarians certainly don’t believe in blasting holes in long-standing social structures without warning, without forethought, or without transition.

Ironically, to the extent we do confront Krugman’s silly claims, it appears that the shutdown’s impact has been minimal despite huge numbers of furloughed employees. The New York Times, aside from Krugman’s disposable rhetoric, also published a comparison of the number of furloughed employees (800,000 by their estimation) to private industries. The number of furloughed employees, for example, exceeds twice the number of people employed by Target. I don’t think this tells us what the New York Times thinks it tells us. These stats beg the question as to whether these positions are necessary at all. That said, any negative impact from the shutdown that actually does exist–aside from the furloughed workers losing money–should be attributed to social and economic disruption resulting from spending turbulence, not to the actual necessity of the government programs affected.

Lunchtime Links

  1. Are there “hidden taxes” on women in the US? | Do risk preferences account for some of the gender pay gap?
  2. The Military Origins of Urban Prosperity in Europe | Rules of warfare in pre-modern societies
  3. What is the War Powers Act of 1973, and why does it matter? | Thinking about libertarian foreign policy
  4. American and Russian soldiers are shooting at each other in Syria | Why care about Syrians?
  5. State decay and “patchwork” | Laws, Juridification, and the Administrative State
  6. Conservatives and their contempt for detail in governance | Fascism Explained
  7. No, fascism can’t happen here (in the US) | The Gradual, Eventual Triumph of Liberty

Mormons and California’s Gold Rush

The folks over at RealClearHistory have enjoyed my weekly column so much that they’ve invited me to write a second weekly column for their Historiat blog. I was tasked with writing the introductory essay for a blog that has been dormant for 3 years. Here’s an excerpt:

Initially the Mormon leadership in Nauvoo sought to establish a new homeland in northern California – which was far enough away from the American, Mexican, and British governments to be considered safe – and Brannan was tasked with the initial wave of settlement. Once Brigham Young reached the Salt Lake valley, however, he changed his mind and decided that the state of Deseret should be run from Salt Lake City instead of northern California. Much of this decision had to do with the fact that the trek from Nauvoo, Ill. to Utah was so arduous, and there was little inclination to keep pressing onward to northern California through the Great Basin’s high altitude desert. But Samuel Brannan’s success in San Francisco, coupled with his earlier wayward fancies, also played a part in Brigham Young’s decision to establish the Mormon church’s capital in Utah instead of northern California. Samuel Brannan was competing with Brigham Young to be the leader of the Mormon church.

Please, read the rest. I am not quite sure if there will be a specific day assigned for my Historiat posts, but my regularly-scheduled Friday column is still a thang.

I haven’t seen anybody here explain why Trump’s protectionist tariffs are horrible (yet), so here’s Jacques on the topic. Here is the NY Times on the same topic.

Let’s rehash! When is speech violence?

A new column at the New York Times attempted to use our knowledge about distress and human psychology to conclude that “speech that bullies or torments … is literally a form of violence.”

The response online has been swift and largely just a rehash of a debate, which is feverishly boring by now, on the connection between speech and action. We’ve been having this discussion at least since student activists began protesting non-left speakers on campuses, which frequently turned violent — batterizing professors, throwing smoke bombs, shoving around attendees. That was actual violence.

All the cards are on the table at this point, collecting dust: there are the civil libertarians looking to preserve the conditions for debate in a free society, and the left-wing response which sees some issues as non-debatable and wants to protect vulnerable groups at whatever cost. The speech restrictionists receive some philosophical backbone from people like Herbert Marcuse while speech defenders are supported by the Constitutional legal system. Just last month, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of free speech twice without dissent (on the topics of trademarks and social media). Justice Alito wrote, simply, “Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”

Rigor mortis was just about settling into this long-dead debate until Lisa Barrett published this article, “When is speech violent?”, in which she presents an argument as fresh which is actually well known by its opponents. That said, the column is well-written, if not logically sound; she recognizes the fundamental difference between Yiannopolous and Murray; she offers some benefit of the doubt to Republicans in their distrust of the new university, although presumably that is not her political camp; her example from class demonstrates a recognition of the overall importance of pushing bad ideas into the spotlight. These notes distinguish Barrett’s article from the usual ideo-fanatical imbroglio that unceasingly propagates from the left to justify chilling speech. The argument itself, in a general form, is old and already receiving ample criticism. I want to comment on just one line. 

She abbreviates the crux of her argument as thus:

If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence. But which types?

That is one huge “but,” and a painful stretch of transitivity. 

Obviously this argument allows for anything that causes prolonged stress to be a form of violence. Thusly, I can report my professors for every finals week I’ve ever had. The implicit assumption is that things which cause physical harm are always forms of violence (more specifically: if x can cause physical harm then x is a form of violence when it does so). This is how that little leap of logic is made toward the end. What is even more interesting, however, is that this thing might not be a form of violence when it doesn’t cause physical harm, according to the logic — and of course Barrett must believe that, lest she commit all speech to be a form of battery.

This position is interesting to me because, like many other advocacies being discussed today, it seems to violate our basic usage of terms.

Is there an example of any other action (taken here to include anything done by a human) — given our vocabulary for “violence” — that the doing of itself need not be necessarily violent but which can still be dubbed “violent” based on the physical harm it causes? A subsequently rather than simultaneously judged violence? … I don’t think so. I think our standard usage of the word “violence” hitherto this Times article includes and only includes those actions whereby their occurrence itself necessarily means physical harm has also been done. (The relationship being one-sided.) Put simply, our usage of violence is such that if the action happened then harm was committed. Punching someone in the face is not violent only when it “causes physical harm.” It is a form of violence because it always causes physical harm. 

So, it seems to be a misuse of words to call speech violent. Torture, murder, rape: these things and others are violent because they are always so, not because they “can” be so. This fact is absolutely necessary for deliberation in the courtroom. However, speech can be abusive (likewise, spanking may or may not be abusive), and retribution for prolonged verbal harassment is already part of criminal law… so again, why even the need to keep talking about this?

I think everything else that could be said on the issue has been said on hundreds of blogs with dozens of different political attitudes, many times over. In my political and social philosophy class last year, a jurisprudence professor from Rutgers did a guest lecture on why America should adopt laws criminalizing hate speech. The main point, which she openly disclosed as an appeal to popularity, was that plenty of Western European countries had done likewise and the United States was beginning to look a little stubborn. She then accused her vocal opponents, myself included, of slippery slope fallacies when we complained about more government involvement in what people can and can not say.

Are there better defenders of speech restrictionism than this visiting professor? Yes, but by God there are not many. And the fact that most of them tend to be left-of-center, and especially far left, undermines the ostensible purity of the position. In the same way that right wing rhetoric has helped spark violence in people already predisposed to behave that way, and, further still, radicalized them from pacifistic tabula rasas, left wing rhetoric has too. Should we be eliminating Marxist thought from our universities, since orthodox theory predicts and lauds a violent uprising of the proletariat? In my sociology class last semester, our professor announced on the first day that we would be (exclusively) using a “Marxist framework to answer these questions.” Who can doubt that reading the socialist and left-anarchist canon, from Lenin to Guevara to Emma Goldman, has led to violence, when the text and much of the philosophical framework views physical harm as absolutely necessary to the supreme cause? The “revolutionary terror” perspective laughs at democratic reformation. 

This is not to say violence is never justified. I am no Nicholas II loyalist. But the decision about when it is justified is not up to a handful of left-leaning professors and journalists. So if speech is to be censored on the basis that it can lead to violence, the government will have to wipe out a lot of university cirricula — all of it has the potential for radicalization. 

As for the argument that speech literally is violence, no, that is not how words work.

 

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Cairo’s Chinatown
  2. Informational post on Turkish grand strategy
  3. Free speech for me, but not for thee (SPLC edition)
  4. Experts and the gold standard and, really, a big key to continued economic development
  5. A bunch of new earth-like planets have been found. The Long Space Age (peep the dates)

BC’s weekend reads

BC’s weekend reads

  1. The demise of ISIS is greatly exaggerated. Good analysis, but Whiteside is still asking the wrong question
  2. 10% of DR Congo’s landmass is dedicated to national parks and other protected environmental areas. Guess how well they’re protected. Privatization might not work here, though. Why not go through traditional “tribal” property rights first, and then, eventually, mix up the customary land rights with private property rights?
  3. Has Stephen Walt been reading reading NOL? This great essay suggests he has…
  4. Russian politics. Authoritarian regimes have factions, too

BC’s weekend reads

  1. The dangers of football safety equipment
  2. Want less pollution? Privatize the roads (just ask the bicyclists)
  3. Octopuses Are ‘the Closest We Will Come to Meeting an Intelligent Alien’
  4. Are Humans the Real Ancient Aliens?
  5. Tennessee Whiskey

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Madonna offers oral sex for those who vote Hillary Clinton
  2. Trump-inspired ‘pussy’ ad banned in San Francisco subway
  3. The poverty of democracy
  4. The battle for the Arctic
  5. Countries rush for upper hand in Antarctica
  6. Why not world government? (Part 2)
  7. Meet China’s state-approved Muslims
  8. The good, the bad, and the ugly of Somaliland secession

Sanders Supporters Don’t Support Sanders’s Policies: A Short Note on Yet Another Reason why “Deliberative Democracy” is a Myth

In the previous part of my democracy series, I took note how the notion of democracy as a “deliberative” means of policymaking is a myth. Contrary to John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and Joshua Cohen, who characterize democracy as an application of the scientific method to political problems and as deliberative “intelligence” directing society, democracy is really the rule of the irrational and ignorant, as public choice theory teaches. Deliberative reasoning does not determine policy in democracies, but rather whoever can cater the best to systemically biased and rationally ignorant voters. Voters don’t give deliberative reasons for their policies, and if they do they, contra Cohen, clearly do not have an equal say in the formation of policies as, according to public choice theory, special interests have the most control over it.

However, I neglected one important other reason why actual political democracies are anything but “deliberative:” voters rarely chose their candidates based off of careful deliberation of issues; they instead chose candidates based off of cultural associations with the candidates. Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels recently took note of this in the New York Times:

The notion that elections are decided by voters’ carefully weighing competing candidates’ stands on major issues reflects a strong faith in American political culture that citizens can control their government from the voting booth. We call it the “folk theory” of democracy.

…But wishing so does not make it so. Decades of social-scientific evidence show that voting behavior is primarily a product of inherited partisan loyalties, social identities and symbolic attachments. Over time, engaged citizens may construct policy preferences and ideologies that rationalize their choices, but those issues are seldom fundamental.

That last note is very reminiscent of another point made in my last article on democracy about how evidence from moral psychology, specifically Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, shows that voters do not use reason to determine their political or moral views, but rather reason serves as a servant to the passions. In this case, far from deliberatively and intelligently choosing policy preferences, it seems voters are letting their deliberation serve passions that are influenced by social and cultural affiliations rather than actually informed policy stances.

Achen and Bartels show how this is in action specifically in the recent Democratic Primary:

…It is very hard to point to differences between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders’s proposed policies that could plausibly reflect account for such substantial cleavages [in polls]. They are reflections of social identities, plausible commitments and partisan loyalties.

Yet commentators who have been ready and willing to attribute Donald Trump’s success to anger, authoritarianism, or racism rather than policy issues have taken little note of the extent to which Mr. Sanders’s support [sic]is concentrated not among liberal ideologues but among disaffected white men.

More evidence casts further doubt on the notion that support for Mr. Sanders reflects a shift to the left in the policy preferences of Democrats. In a survey conducted for the American National Election Studies in January, supporters of Mr. Sanders were more pessimistic than Mrs. Clinton’s supporters about “opportunity in America today for the average person to get ahead” and more likely to say that economic inequality had increased.

However, they were less likely than Mrs. Clinton’s supporters to favor concrete policies that Mr. Sanders has offered such as remedies for these ills, including a higher minimum wage, increasing government on health care and an expansion of government services financed by higher taxes. It is quite a stretch to view these people as the vanguard of a new, social-democratic-trending Democratic Party.

Achen and Bartels further note that, despite the enthusiastic support from young Democrats, these younger voters actually disagree more with Sanders on specific policy issues than older democratic voters, noting that “even on specific issues championed by Mr. Sanders” such as “increased government funding of healthcare,” “a higher minimum wage,” and “expanding government services,” younger Democrats tend to disagree with Sanders’ more than older ones. In fact, I would be willing to bet that most of Sanders’ voters that Achen and Bartels write about are completely rationally ignorant of their disagreements with their favorite candidate in the first place. I also would add these cultural influences on voting at the expense of policy deliberation to Caplan’s theory of “irrational rationality;” cultural associations and symbolic commitments decrease the costs of holding an irrational political belief.

It is clear, then, that this “folk theory of democracy” in which voters deliberately consider policy alternatives and make reasoned, rational decisions for why they prefer one candidates’ policies to another is a myth. If it is the case that voters are not only rationally ignorant and irrational, that democracy is more controlled by concentrated interests at the expense of the public good, and that voters make their electoral decisions based off of cultural associations rather than deliberations about policy, what can be said about political democracy’s aim at philosophical democracy? What can be said of the existence, or possibility, of intelligent, deliberately directed democratic institutions? It seems that democratic institutions in reality completely undermine democratic aspirations in theory.

PS: No, this is not the fourth part of the democracy series, should be up this weekend.
[H/T Jason Brennan]

Around the Web

  1. Beyond Authenticity: ISIS and the Islamic Legal Tradition
  2. Le Corbusier’s Visions for Fascist Addis Ababa
  3. What can the Left learn from Friedrich Hayek?
  4. Assassins of the Mind
  5. How Argentina ‘Suicides’ the Truth

Around the Web

  1. A review of The Iraqi Christ
  2. Looks like the folks at the Atlantic have been reading NOL (though no hat tips were to be found)
  3. Men on Horseback
  4. The one area of political ingenuity where Europe still leads the world

The European Union Needs More States, Not More Territory

The recent uproar over the upcoming vote on the potential secession of Scotland from Great Britain illustrates well the European Union’s foreign policy weaknesses. The EU’s potential to increase the number of states within its borders without having to expand its geographic space is an overlooked avenue to reaching a bolder, more sophisticated foreign policy.

Regional aspirations for more political autonomy have been voiced since the time of the creation of Germany and Italy in the late 19th century, but wars, nationalism, economic concerns, and fear of wars (along with the presence of the American military, of course) have largely kept these aspirations on the fringe of domestic political debates in Europe.

Steven Erlanger’s 2012 piece in the New York Times explains well why this is changing and what is currently happening in the European Union:

The great paradox of the European Union, which is built on the concept of shared sovereignty, is that it lowers the stakes for regions to push for independence.

Erlanger also goes on to quote a scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations:

‘The whole development of European integration has lowered the stakes for separation, because the entities that emerge know they don’t have to be fully autonomous and free-standing,’ said Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. ‘They know they’ll have access to a market of 500 million people and some of the protections of the E.U.’

The European Union has essentially taken the place of the nation-state as the chief entity in charge of standardizing trading policies in Europe. This political setup is a great opportunity for regions that have been absorbed into larger nation-states to assert more fiscal and political independence because of these regions’ new interdependence with a larger part of the European economy. The confederation has provided an opportunity for smaller states to emerge while at the same time providing these small state polities with a range of options and allies that are often missing from small states’ repertoires. The best of both worlds has a chance to flower: local governance and total participation in world trade.

This is better understood with a quick historical sketch of 19th and 20th century Europe in mind.

In the last decades of the 19th century the large nation-states of central Europe – Germany and Italy – had just been formed after centuries of being composed of hundreds of small polities. These small polities were parochial, and many of these polities’ elite factions had erected protectionist barriers around their small territories. These newly established nation-states were flanked on their eastern borders by cosmopolitan-but-despotic empires operating from Vienna, Moscow and Istanbul, and to the south were small Muslim polities haphazardly connected to the Ottoman Empire and economically dependent on Mediterranean piracy and Saharan trade routes. To the north and west: oceans and the seafaring, imperial regimes of Great Britain, the Netherlands, and France.

A map of Europe in 1800 AD. Look at how many polities are in what is now Germany and Italy. Thanks goes to euratlas.com

The formation of these larger nation-states were undertaken, generally speaking, in order to unify territories considered to be connected under various broad cultural domains into a cohesive political units and mercantile trading blocs.

After Germany and Italy achieved political unification, programs geared towards creating economic spheres of influence within the territory of the new nation-states began to be implemented. The creation of nation-states in central Europe had the contradictory result of opening up free trade zones within the territories of nation-states while simultaneously erecting new trading barriers that targeted individuals and factions not connected with the new nation-states. Free trade won in the domestic arena of these new states, but it also lost out internationally.

The political unification of these nation-states did not go down well with a myriad of factions. The reasons for resistance were varied, but suffice it to say that there was an intense backlash against the centralization of power and the nationalization of everyday life in the new nation-states of central Europe.

To counter regional resistance, proponents of political centralization argued that political union halted the wars that had wracked Europe for centuries (the economic benefits of freer trade were touted as well, but this argument did not have the same clout as it does today). However, this intellectual argument was framed in nationalistic terms, so when it trickled down into the public sphere of European life what emerged was a solid case against regional fracture that involved one part peace and one part national chauvinism.

The end result of this was the destruction of Europe through two large-scale, horrific wars.

The European Union has succeeded where the nation-states of Germany and Italy failed: by creating a massive free trade zone that eliminates protectionism (as the German and Italian nation-states did), and the necessity of cultural chauvinism (“nationalism”)  to maintain legitimacy (which the German and Italian nation-states could not do), the European Union has provided Europe with an incredible opportunity to build a lasting peace.

Adopting a requirement for member states  to incorporate a constitutional option that allows for referendums on secession would be a bold move that would not only bring a higher level of sophistication to EU foreign policy, but also fluster Moscow without edging closer to its borders (think about the example this would set in Russia’s own self-styled federation).

Does the New York Times read NOL?

Parag Khanna definitely reads Notes On Liberty. From his latest op-ed in the New York Times:

Devolution is even happening in China. Cities have been given a long leash to develop innovative economic models, and Beijing depends on their growth. One of the most popular adages among China watchers today is: “The hills are high, and the emperor is far away.” Our maps show a world of about 200 countries, but the number of effective authorities is hundreds more. [check out “Federalism, Chinese Style” by Gabriella Montinola, Yingyi Qian, and Barry R. Weingast for a fascinating look at the ongoing devolutionary trends in China – BC]

The broader consequence of these phenomena is that we should think beyond clearly defined nations and “nation building” toward integrating a rapidly urbanizing world population directly into regional and international markets. That, rather than going through the mediating level of central governments, is the surest path to improving access to basic goods and services, reducing poverty, stimulating growth and raising the overall quality of life.

Connected societies are better off than isolated ones. As the incidence of international conflict diminishes, ever more countries are building roads, railways, pipelines, bridges and Internet cables across borders, forging networks of urban centers that depend on one another for trade, investment and job creation.

I’ve been making this same argument here at NOL for quite some time now, but Dan Drezner disagrees. He has three bones to pick with my argument (as augmented by Dr Khanna in the NYT):

  1. People were writing about devolution all the way back in 1995, so Khanna’s insights aren’t particularly new or exciting. This is true; if you’ll remember my recent post on federalism as an alternative to imperialism you’ll recall that Adam Smith was making the same argument as Khanna in 1776.
  2. Contra Khanna, states have always been in competition with other forms of governance (not government). Khanna needs hard empirical evidence to prove that the devolution he writes about is as prominent and fast-moving as he claims it is.
  3. Other academics, mostly economists, have been claiming precisely the opposite of what Khanna is arguing; namely that states have been increasing in size and scope over the past few decades. Drezner hesitantly errs on the side of the economists, who at least bring data to the table, but claims that there is probably a middle ground between Khanna and the economists.

As far as throwing out ideas to back up the devolutionist argument, it might be a good idea to look at the nation-state’s loss of monetary sovereignty to supranational (or quasi-national) organizations in the West. Or the separatist tendencies of regions within supranational organizations like the EU that threaten to break up nation-states. Or the fragility of African and Islamic states, as evidenced by the dictatorships and wars often found in these regions. Or the multilateral trade agreements that are becoming more and more inclusive, and more and more complicated. There are probably many more, and if you can think of any feel free to leave them in the ‘comments’ section.

With all of this said, Drezner has a point. The state has found a number of ways to counteract the various effects of globalization, and proving that the state is in decline is, for the moment, extremely hard to do. Yet Drezner’s point says nothing about Khanna’s overall argument, which is merely that devolution is a good thing and ought to be embraced by more progressively-inclined people.

The interesting question here is not the current situation of the state itself, but rather if a consensus can be forged, among thinking people, around the idea that political decentralization and economic integration leads to freer societies. Until a consensus built around this idea can be reached among intellectuals, I fear despotism will reign in most parts of the world at most times.

News you can abuse from the New York Times

Annoyed New York Times readers are asking why the Gray Lady recently deigned to publish an advice piece on avoiding interpersonal and legal troubles with one’s household staff. I can answer this:

1) A paper must cater to the demographic that actually buys the obscenely overpriced, and roundly obscene, items that it advertises, instead of just staring in amazement that such things exist. The Times’ gleaming new office building across from the Port Authority ain’t paying for itself, now.

You probably are not part of that demographic. When I’m cooking my own quesadillas and potato-onion stirfries in a housekeeping motel in Springfield, Oregon, I most certainly am not.

2) It is excellent click bait and a good business practice to regularly troll the poors.

My main topic tonight, however, is this week’s book review of a new Malthusian work, Countdown, arguing that the world population is overshooting its carrying capacity and nearing a crash.

I definitely find some of the alleged threats in question quite concerning, in particular the brittleness of modern crop monocultures (the Ug99 wheat stem rust is partially contained so far, but it’s no joke) and the depletion of the world’s fisheries. It’s worth noting that that’s why Somalia has so many pirates these days. Somalia has gone a generation without a coast guard. As a result, it has practically no fishery left, foreign trawlers having effectively strip-mined it in the absence of any functioning sovereign government, but as Captain Philips could tell you, it is a nation (if that) lately renowned for its fishers of men. Notice, too, that Iceland, settled by Vikings, does not have pirates or an extremist sectarian militia but does have a coast guard that opens live fire on poaching vessels within its territorial waters. These things are related.

The author, Alan Weisman, starts with a buzzkill for those who love them some Biblical living. According to the review, “Because of agricultural irrigation, the Jordan River is now a ‘fetid ditch’; pilgrims who attempt to bathe at the spot where Jesus is said to have been baptized will develop a rash and, if they swallow the water, will most likely vomit.”

Actually, Ecclesiastes was right: there’s nothing new under the sun, at least not in Holocene times. Check out this foreign army commander bitching to Elisha’s messenger in 2 Kings 5:12 about the skankiness of the Jordan, presumably not knowing its coming longue durée: “‘Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?’ So he turned and went off in a rage.”

Dude eventually listened to the obscurantists, took his dip, and was cured. These days, the Jordan will more likely give a man leprosy, but it isn’t so much different as merely worse: thousands of years ago, rational people were scared to swim in that shit.

That said, things can get really unstable as they’re scaled up. A few tens of thousands of people watering their riverside farms from the same glorified creek may be sustainable. Several million people trying to water major cities and industrial monocultures from the same glorified creek is not sustainable at all.

The inevitable result is war. What, all sides swear that they’re holy peoples living in the Holy Land? Tough titty: they’ve still got war. In fact, they’ve got even more of it, since they’re not just desperate for resources but also inflamed by sectarian passions, the two aspects of their anger feeding one another.

As an institution, it’s good for a lot more than Edwin Starr ever wanted to contemplate. The Nazi expansion into Eastern Europe was about the glory of the Deutsche Volk, but it was also about the oil fields of Ploiesti. Hitler was a megalomaniac, but he wasn’t a total fool. Japan had an even starker motivation for its invasions of Korea (coal) and Indochina (oil, lumber, rubber): it was a heavily populated archipelago devoid of many important natural resources and, starting in 1941, under American embargo at a time when the US was the world’s top oil producer.

In a moral sense, though, Starr was right. War is a travesty. One has to be a bit dense or a lot immoral and atavistic not to recognize this. (These are great traits for government “service,” by the way.) A huge portion of the restiveness in the world can be straightforwardly explained by blatant resource shortages in times of growing population. It’s a total buzzkill for the nationalist and the End Times aficionado (similar personality types, and often the very same people, no?) but it’s true. Surely there must be an alternative to this madness.

There is. Brace yourselves.

Japan.

[T]he fertility rate is so low–1.4 children per female–that the population has been declining since 2006. This might make Japan something of a best-case situation, but an aging population means there are too many senior citizens, and not enough young people to take care of them. Already Japan has a shortage of geriatric nurses. Weisman visits Nagoya Science Park, where Japan’s oldest scientific firm has built RIBA II, a robotic white bear designed to carry elderly people around the house. It has large, widely-spaced black eyes, cute little ears and a painted smile.

“I will do my best,” says the bear, as it approaches a man who is lying on a hospital bed. “I will carry you as though you were a princess.”

RIBA II slides one paw under the patient’s knees, the other beneath his back. The robot cradles the man in its arms. It carries the man across the room, and lowers him tenderly into a wheelchair.

“I’m finished,” announces RIBA II, and it’s hard not to wonder whether the robot speaks for us all.

That bear won’t be finished with me until it can respond to my follow-up command: “Fuck you. Bring me a White Russian.”

Even if you’re familiar with Hello Kitty, you’ve probably been mercifully ignorant of Fukuppy. No more. He (she? it? ooh, goody: “indeterminate gender”) is like the Maytag Man, but actually a smiling Humpty-Dumpty with angel’s wings. Don’t blame me; I’m not the one using that imagery to market refrigeration equipment.

Why do I get the vague sense that there’s something off about modern Japan’s zeitgeist that isn’t all about raw demographics? Hello Kitty, Fukuppy, girls’ shopping getaways to Vegas, the hikikomori and the dame-ren, virtual girlfriends, a popular magazine imploring young people to start having sex again, a robotic bear that promises to carry old geezers like princesses: this isn’t just a skilled nursing shortage. If the papers aren’t reporting about how similar demographic changes play out in, say, Russia, it’s probably because the results aren’t weird enough. Babushka hoeing her cabbage patch again while her grandkids shoot smack behind a disused asbestos factory, or shut-ins who only leave the house to go on “honeymoons” with pixellated “girlfriends” while bedridden grandpa is romanced by ElderBear: which would you rather read?

There is, however, a bit of good news about Japan’s demographic profile. Rod Serling would approve.