A friend of mine directed me to this essay by Steve Waldman about the current NSA/GCHQ/etc. controversies.
It begins with an interesting question: at what point is it acceptable for “sane” people to believe “nutty” theories about the world around them, and one “nutty” theory in particular. I will quote just one paragraph to give you the flavor of why you should want to read it:
I want to introduce a word into the discourse surrounding NSA surveillance that has been insufficiently discussed. That word is blackmail. I will out and say this. I think our President’s “evolutions” on questions of civil liberties and surveillance are largely the result of blackmail. I think it is not coincidental that support for the security state is highly correlated with seniority and influence, in both of our increasingly irrelevant political parties. The apparatus we are constructing, have constructed, creates incredible scope for digging up dirt on people and their spouses, their children, their parents. It doesn’t take much to manage the shape of the economy of influence. There are, how shall we say, network effects. You don’t have to blackmail the whole Congress. Powerful people are, almost by definition, people very attuned to economies of influence. They quickly detect the trends and emerging conventions among other powerful people and conform to them. A consensus that emerges at the top is quickly magnified and disseminated. Other voices don’t disappear, there is plenty of shouting in the blogs. But a correlation emerges between a certain set of views and “seriousness”, “respectability”. The mainstream position is defined. Eventually it’s reflected by the polls, so it’s what the American people wanted all along, we are just responding to the demands of the public, whine the politicians.
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who is not the only socialist currently running for the U.S. Presidency, but who is the only candidate honest enough to openly say that he’s a socialist, has recently gotten a bunch of buzz in some circles for saying this:
You can’t just continue growth for the sake of growth in a world in which we are struggling with climate change and all kinds of environmental problems. All right? You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country. I don’t think the media appreciates the kind of stress that ordinary Americans are working on.
Kevin Williamson has written a brilliant summary of what is wrong with Senator Sanders and his ideology. It is well worth reading even if you already know the topic well.
Here’s a link: Bernie Sanders’s Dark Age Economics
I have heard one friend refer to the essay as “Economics in One Article” and there’s some truth to that. It’s very well written, very general, and filled with amazing quotes, such as this one:
Markets adapt to political changes, and the hierarchy of values that distinguishes between an hour’s worth of warehouse management, an hour’s worth of composing poetry, an hour’s worth of brain surgery, and an hour’s worth of singing pop songs is not going to change because a politician says so, or because a group of politicians says so, or because 50 percent + 1 of the voters say so, or for any other reason. To think otherwise is the equivalent of flat-earth cosmology. In the long term, people’s needs and desires are what they are; in the short term, you can cause a great deal of chaos in the economy and you can give employers additional reasons to automate rote work. But you cannot make a fry-guy’s labor as valuable as a patent lawyer’s by simply passing a law.
Do give it a read. You may be linking to it for years to come.
EDITED TO ADD: A friend pointed out this important message from the Bernie Sanders Save The Children Fund:
Presented for your consideration, two quotations and a hyperlink:
“I am convinced that the path to a new, better and possible world is not capitalism, the path is socialism.”
“I have said it already, I am convinced that the way to build a new and better world is not capitalism. Capitalism leads us straight to hell.”
Venezuelan Bolivar now worth more as toilet paper than as money.
From Ryan Paul, in this tweet:
Instead of inventing encryption that only government can break, we should just breed a special unicorn that magically blocks terrorist acts.
Those of you not in the United States may be blissfully unaware that Mario Cuomo, a former three term Governor of New York and briefly a feature on the national political scene because of a famous speech he gave at the Democratic National Convention, has died. Mario Cuomo was also the father of the current Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo.
There have been many hagiographies in the press in recent days, for example: Mario Cuomo, Ex-New York Governor and Liberal Beacon, Dies at 82, but I think that a personal appreciation is in order when so lauded an example of the good politician has passed into the Great Statehouse in the Sky.
He will always be associated in my mind with several great achievements while Governor of New York, the office in which he is most remembered.
First, a couple of decades ago, he drove my health insurance premiums from about $50 a month to a bit short of $300 a month in a single year. This was done by the expedient of declaring it was unfair that people might have to pay a fortune to get insurance when they were already ill and passing a law requiring insurers to offer health insurance at the same price to all comers regardless of age or pre-existing condition. Whether you were 22 and healthy or 59 and suffering from liver cancer, you could walk up and buy a brand new policy at the same price.
This remarkable idealism has kept New York State at the forefront, the very cutting edge, of insurance premiums. The cost of insurance in New York has never gone down since Cuomo’s sagacious reforms, and indeed usually has lead the U.S. in price. To be fair, part of the cost rise for me was because I could no longer get an indemnity plan with a very large deductible because no insurer wanted to offer one ever again given the change in regulations, but that was only part of it. Now, of course, $280 (or whatever the price was, I confess I would have to check) would be a great bargain — the price has gone up greatly since then.
Affordability has of course been a concern for many politicians since those heady days — there are still some of considerable means who can afford health insurance after all. I’m sure President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, with many similarly brilliant ideas, will eventually fix this — premiums rose another 20% in the last year nationwide — and I look forward to its continued implementation.
Mario Cuomo’s second great achievement was the state takeover of the Long Island Lighting Company, aka LILCO. LILCO was in financial straights because Mario Cuomo himself blocked the opening of the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant after it had been fully constructed to the tune of $6 Billion in 1980s dollars. Because LILCO had spent billions on a generating facility it was not allowed to turn on, it was in bad shape and charging high rates to its customers to remain solvent. Mario Cuomo declared the real issue was LILCO mismanagement and that the state could do a far better job running a power company than the private sector (which is, after all, driven only by mindless greed for profits) and so New York State forcibly took over LILCO and turned it into the Long Island Power Authority, AKA LIPA.
LIPA proceeded to spend very little money on maintenance over the next decades, until Hurricane Sandy hit and took out a large fraction of their lines because not even basic tree branch trimming over residential power cabling had been done in decades. Andrew Cuomo, Mario’s son and by now the Governor himself, got on TV after Sandy to angrily and vociferously condemn the horrible mismanagement by LIPA, an agency he personally controlled, but which he somehow failed to mention that he was in fact in complete control of as he told the viewers that he would absolutely hold the parties responsible to account. His father’s role was never mentioned by anyone in the news media, and his own was barely recalled either — somehow they, too, conveniently forgot that he was condemning mismanagement by himself. (I am unfair in saying this — a story buried far into the front section of the New York Times did mention it in connection with a corruption investigation. It seems that a report was prepared by a state commission condemning Andrew Cuomo’s administration for its role in screwing up LIPA, but Andrew Cuomo used his power as Governor to make sure it was never released.)
Mario Cuomo’s third great achievement was to raise taxes repeatedly, making New York State the most heavily taxed in the U.S., and New York City by far the most heavily taxed jurisdiction in the U.S. by virtue of having high city income taxes on top of the state ones. New York State has mysteriously been falling behind other states in population rank — it fell from #2 to #3 and now recently was passed by Florida and is #4 — and industry has been leaving the state for some decades now. (A succeeding Governor, George Pataki, lowered rates a bit, and California raised them further, so New York is no longer #1 in taxation, but Mario Cuomo’s son still has time to uphold family tradition and restore the state to its previous glory.)
Oh, and one minor achievement comes to mind. (Sadly this last point is purely from my memory, and I can’t find easy documentation of it on line, assistance would be welcomed.) During a major newspaper delivery strike (the delivery truck operators were being paid over $100k a year — this is $100k+ decades ago in non-inflation adjusted dollars you understand — with overtime and the papers didn’t think they could afford that any more for unskilled work), Mario Cuomo more or less blocked all investigation of acts of brutal violence by the union’s thugs. It seemed people were going around beating the operators of newspaper kiosks that none the less carried the newspapers in spite of the strike, and similarly beating people who delivered the papers anyway. At the time, Cuomo seemed to feel, much in the manner that President Obama does now about the malfeasance of the Bush administration, that it was best to look forward and not backwards. This was even the case in spite of the fact that the strike was still underway and “forward” hadn’t happened yet.
I can think of little else notable that Mario Cuomo got done while Governor. In spite of lots of lobbying by reform groups he did not push to fix the vicious sentences the state meted out for minor drug crimes. He did not fix the state’s horrible divorce laws, notably at the time some of the worst in the nation. He did not reform the police, or improve educational outcomes, or even deal with the enormous deferred maintenance problems on state highways and bridges. (He did veto the death penalty a few times, which seems to me to have actually been a good thing, though others may argue otherwise.)
However, Mario Cuomo will always be remembered as the man who once gave a very well written speech at a Democratic National Convention, and who really cares if a politician is a corrupt, economically ignorant mismanager if he can deliver words written by other people with a really solid and practiced public speaking style.
No wonder, then, that he is now described in obituaries as a lion, nay, a giant of politics, in story after story after story.
I encourage all to mourn his loss in whatever manner they feel appropriate.
A few hours ago, the heavily redacted 500 page executive summary of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a.k.a. “The Torture Report”, came out.
Here are just a few things I’ve learned from it.
In November, 2002, a man named Gul Rahman, who was totally innocent of any crime so far as we can tell, was being systematically tortured by the CIA at a top secret site named COBALT in an unnamed foreign country. It was felt that he was being “uncooperative”, probably because it is hard to even convincingly lie about having information when you were arrested for no reason and have no basis on which to spin a story. To make him “more cooperative”, he was shackled naked in his unheated cell 36ºF cell. The next morning, his jailers found his body. He had died in the night of hypothermia.
This is just one of the literally hundreds of horrors to be found in the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s crimes against humanity. It is described on page 54 of a 500 page summary of a 6,000 page report we will never see.
Gul Rahman’s murderers will never be brought to justice. Indeed, the man responsible for this, known in the unredacted portion of the report only as “CIA OFFICER 1″, received a $2,500 spot bonus four months later for his “consistently superior work” [page 55 of the report.]
Page after page after page recounts things like this and far worse. You can go almost anywhere in it and find things that beggar the imagination. Picking at random, for example, page 50 informs us: “One senior interrogator told the CIA OIG that “literally, a detainee could go for days or weeks without anyone looking at him,” and that his team found one detainee who, “‘as far as we could determine,’ had been chained to the wall in a standing position for 17 days.””
Oh, and the full 6000 page report’s creation was hampered by systematic destruction of evidence by the CIA and by their deliberate attempts to infiltrate, disrupt and harm the investigation, almost the least of which were deliberate lies made to Senate investigators, the CIA’s Inspector General, and other authorities. Hell, they even hacked the committee’s computers to try to disrupt their work and spy on them. The Director of the CIA also lied repeatedly to Congress. (See the report.) Who knows what sort of things are recounted in the evidence that was destroyed or never seen?
Anyway, back to our modern oubliette. Gul Rahman was just one of many, another statistic, another “oops” in a series of “oopses”. A man chained to a wall standing up for 17 days? Also an “oops”. We’ve all become so hardened to this that it doesn’t even shock us or surprise us that the State tortured an innocent man and froze him to death and never even considered punishing anyone for it. It no longer shocks us that someone might be chained to a wall standing up for 17 days. It no longer shocks us that a CIA interrogator killed a man he was torturing but was none the less allowed to continue working. It doesn’t shock us that two psychologists with no real qualifications were paid $80m to consult on how to torture people more effectively, not that a lick of useful information appears to have been uncovered, and it doesn’t even shock us that the CIA systematically lied to make it seem like brutal torture was producing intelligence when it came up empty.
Oh, yes. That too. All this sadism, much of which was bizarre, vicious and extemporaneous, yielded nothing. Yes, I’m sure there will be counterclaims, as the CIA has been busy lying about that for years, but the report’s authors, who had all the right clearances, examined all the evidence in detail and found nothing of value was produced — absolutely nothing.
Anyway, this sort of outrage is now just part of the background we live under — pervasive digital espionage, censorship, “extraordinary rendition”, force-feedings at Guantanamo, and all the rest. It is routine, uninteresting, not worth your trouble. Move on. There’s nothing to see here. This is just the way the world is. Nothing will happen even if you get angry, so why waste your time?
O tempora, o mores.
A small reminder to people who are fond of referring to the human race as a plague on the planet (or as a disease, or as a danger to the “natural order”) and who think life would be better off without us and our technology:
The only long term hope of survival life has is humans and our successors moving it through the cosmos.
In the “natural order of things” C3 photosynthesis will become impossible on earth in 600M years, and by about 800M years from now there will be no more multicellular life. Eventually the last evidence that there ever was such a thing as life on Earth will vanish without a trace. That is presuming, of course, that a gamma ray burst doesn’t sterilize the planet much earlier. (There is increasing evidence gamma ray busts that energetic happen more frequently than one might think.)
The universe is hostile to life. Every species you see around you, and every last sign of that species ever having existed, will disappear forever without intelligent life preserving it and carrying it elsewhere. At the moment, absent any evidence of life elsewhere, that means us.
Maybe you believe you are a long term thinker, that those around you are short term thinkers and you really, really know what’s “sustainable”, but if you don’t consider this seriously, if you think it is somehow silly to pay attention to it, you’re just a short term thinker with a slightly but insignificantly longer time horizon.
Twenty five years ago today, the crossings between East and West Germany, most notably at the Berlin Wall, were opened, and shortly thereafter, the last of the Marxist regimes in Europe ended.
The Berlin Wall was a symbol of the depravity and viciousness of the Marxist idea. Karl Marx was a pure hate monger masquerading as a social philosopher. His ideas may, in the end, be summarized thus: wealth can be gained only by stealing from others, and thus successful people are evil, and thus it is okay to threaten or kill rich people (or even people who are just a bit better off than you are), to steal their belongings, and to threaten anyone who might in the future have more stuff than you do. If you somehow get more things than other people, it is okay for other people to take your stuff, and if you resist, it is okay to beat you up or kill you.
Even more succinctly, Marxism is the idea that envy is laudable, and should be turned into social policy with the use of pervasive violence.
I am putting this more bluntly and baldly than the average Marxist would. They prefer concealing their central idea beneath a heavy blanket of words. They dress up their “philosophy” in avant garde costumes, adding layers of verbiage, complicated and counterfactual claims about language and logic, bizarre ideas about the nature of history, etc., all in the service of keeping people from seeing what they’re actually suggesting. What lies underneath is nothing much more than hate of people who have more stuff than you do, justified by little or nothing more than wanting to take what they have for yourself.
When you base your beliefs on this sort of foundation, the violence that proceeds is not an accident or the result of an improper understanding or implementation of an otherwise fine program. The violence is the direct and intentional result of the underlying program. The violence is the entire purpose of the underlying program.
In spite of the claims of apologists, the Marxism that fell twenty five years ago was the true Marxism. You cannot force people to work whether they get any benefit of it or not if they can flee from you, so you have to build walls. The Berlin Wall was not an aberration, it was the the only way to keep the quite literal slaves from fleeing their bondage. You cannot take stuff from people who have it without goons with guns, since they will not want to hand their material possessions over, so you bring in goons with guns to scour your population. In a free market, you get ahead by making things people want like bread or telephones, but in a Marxist society, the only way to get ahead is through gaining political power, and so people who are exceptionally talented at deploying violence and thuggery and are ambitious rise to the top of your society. Stalin or someone like him was not an accident, he was an inevitability.
What is shocking but sadly unsurprising to me is this: after a seventy year experiment that lead to a hundred million deaths, we still have people in our universities and even on our streets who profess to be Marxists.
There are, everywhere, professors who teach a Marxist interpretation of history, of literature, of economics and sociology, and not merely for some sort of historical perspective, but as an actual active ideology they would like their students to adopt. It is, indeed, an entirely ordinary sort of thing, so common it is not even worthy of note. There are people who wear Che Guevara T-shirts in the streets, never mind the people Guevara ruthlessly executed, including children, in the name of Marxism.
Would it be considered equally ordinary for a professor to be out teaching the Nazi interpretation of literature or social interactions, and encouraging their students towards adopting the Nazi point of view? Would people feel equally unmoved by people walking around wearing a Joseph Goebbels shirt?
Note that I do not suggest censorship. That is not the point. What I am instead suggesting is that, to this very day, our culture has not yet absorbed the lessons of Marxism, has not come to terms with the fact that it was not a noble experiment that failed, but rather a monstrous calamity that needs to be understood for what it was, lest it happen again.
It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow.
(James Madison, writing as “Publius” in The Federalist No. 62)
The current Code of Federal Regulations in the United states is pushing 180,000 pages, far more than any human can ever hope to read. The Federal Register, which reports on changes to these regulations, is now in the vicinity of 70,000 pages per year. This does not include, of course, the size of the underlying United States Code, or the size of many rules that are not part of the CFR, or the size of local and state laws and regulatory rules, or the mass of court rulings, administrative rulings, tax court rulings, IRS opinions and the like.
One hundred years ago today, on July 28th, 1914, a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on the Kingdom of Serbia and began an invasion. This was the official beginning of World War I.
Within weeks, every major and most minor countries in Europe had declared war upon some subset of the others.
Almost all wars are a terrible, stupid waste of human life, but “The Great War” was especially pointless.
You can grossly oversimplify and explain what most wars were about in a sentence or two. World War II could be said to have been about a group of governments attempting to gain through conquest and others trying to stop them. Vietnam could be explained as the US government’s attempt to back an authoritarian government with little internal support to try to hold back a communist takeover. These aren’t great explanations but they’re at least “sort of” explanations.
World War I has no real explanation beyond “a bunch of inter-governmental alliances got triggered in the aftermath of an assassination.” If you study the events in a history class, it takes days to explain the causes of the war, which is to say, to get to the point where you understand that there wasn’t really much of a cause, and not really much in the way of actual objectives on either side. (Sure there are “explanations” and I’m certain someone with a pedantic streak will bring them up, but I feel that they’re beside the point.)
It was not war for conquest, not war for political objectives, just war for war’s sake.
In spite of this lack of real purpose, enormous patriotic fervor was brought to bear by both sides. Anyone opposing the war was painted as a near enemy of humanity. Young men by the millions were conscripted or (even more tragically) convinced to voluntarily enlist “for their country”.
In the end, 16 million people died and a further 21 million suffered injury, some grievously enough to render them crippled for life, and all, in the end, to accomplish nothing of significance.
One might have thought that something might have been learned by our culture from this event, that the deaths of the millions might have at least brought about some sort of lasting moral disgust that convinced people that perhaps there was something deeply sick about blind patriotism, that perhaps warfare was in general not a glorious pursuit, that perhaps the presumption that governments act in the interest of their population might be misguided, etc.
There was, of course, a brief paroxysm of loathing. How could there not be when so many of Europe’s young men died uselessly in muddy holes? However, it did not last. The cultural memory faded quickly. Eventually, the world went back to business as usual, with governments slaughtering each other’s populations, and even more often their own populations, with increasing zeal.
World War I proved to be just an overture. The 16 million killed were barely a footnote in what was to come. In the 20th Century, about 160 million people died in wars, and about a further 260 million were killed by their own governments in democides of one sort or another. That’s 420 million people killed by various sorts of government managed madness in a single century alone.
420 million people killed by governments. That’s a staggering figure, far, far beyond my ability to comprehend.
Has the bloodletting ceased, now, in the 21st century? No, of course it has not. The human race appears to be immune to education.
And this is why, tonight night, I’m going to sit in a very old pub in New York City, raise a glass of scotch, and mourn for the dead, as too few people seems to remember them.
A story in The Telegraph has brought to mind the following quotation, which seems doubly apt:
“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
– Karl Marx, writing in “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”
I recognize that some of the other contributors to this blog believe that military intervention in Iraq was justified.
However, it appears that, after expending literal trillions of dollars, and after countless deaths, Al Qaeda, which had not even a slight foothold in the country before the U.S. led invasion, is in a position to take over the bulk of the country. Certainly it is a real risk in coming days, even if it does not actually happen.
Iraq had no involvement in 9/11. Trained weapons inspectors said that it possessed no weapons of mass destruction, and that claim proved to be correct, while the claims of politicians that they were actively developing WMDs proved to be wrong. Today, however, Iraq stands on the threshold of being a location actually controlled by Al Qaeda, an outcome that would have been unimaginable if Saddam Hussein had remained in control.
Some might ask, “who could have predicted that the U.S. would leave the country with a corrupt, ineffectual government capable only of looting foreign aid and oil revenues?”
I would argue that anyone with an understanding of what government programs are like could have predicted that.
One might have a beautiful, seemingly airtight argument for why an ideal intervention into Iraq might have been of enormous benefit both to the Iraqis and to the world. This is not very different from the beautiful, seemingly airtight arguments made by Statists for why the government should run health care, or why it should help train the unemployed for new jobs, or a raft of other claims.
However, in the end, your beautiful idea will not be executed by angels, or even by you. It will executed by bureaucrats.
Perhaps (and I say at most “perhaps”) if angels had invaded Iraq they would have produced a wonderful outcome. However, the nation was invaded by the same keen minds responsible for such disasters as the U.S. Postal Service, the Veterans Administration hospitals, the Internal Revenue Service, and other organs that are hardly paragons of good management and reliable execution.
Libertarians are (correctly) fond of telling collectivists in debates that utopia is not an option. One cannot compare one’s idealized government program against the alternative, one must compare what will realistically happen under state control with the alternative.
The current disaster is simply another example of this. Iraq was not, in fact, invaded by angels, it was invaded by the U.S. government, the occupation was run like any government program, and the resulting disaster was entirely predictable.
The lesson to us all is that it is all fine and well to muse “if I ran the world”, but in reality no one person can run the world. Even if a leader actually has the best of intentions (which is rare in itself), they plan as men do, not as gods do, and they rely upon men, not gods, to execute their plans. Dreaming about what might be accomplished by gods is insufficient. One must instead discuss what is actually achievable by men.