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.
From the “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry” department:
The Obama Administration has revealed the core of its strategy for reducing carbon dioxide emissions: increasing the cost of solar panels to discourage deployment.
The Commerce Department on Tuesday imposed steep duties on importers of Chinese solar panels made from certain components, asserting that the manufacturers had benefited from unfair subsidies.
The duties will range from 18.56 to 35.21 percent, the department said.
Read all about it here.
Note that the U.S. government has had a policy of systematically subsidizing solar panel manufacturers for some time, often with disastrous results, and so far as I can tell (from an admittedly cursory study) the main crime of the Chinese manufacturers is to be more efficient than U.S. producers.
(Whether you think CO2 emissions are increasing global temperature or not, one thing is clear: in politics, cronies are the highest priority of all.)
Part of the problem with the Pikettian “Investment Event Horizon”, which I articulated in an earlier post, is the idea that we can blindly presume that a statistical trend will continue forever without carefully considering whether the extrapolation is at all plausible.
In that spirit, a friend of mine analyzed the growth of smartphone screens, which began a few years ago at around a diagonal measurement of 3 inches, then moved to 4 inches, and have recently been going past 5 inches. He has demonstrated, by extrapolation, that by the year 2034 smart phones will be 80 inches across!
Not convinced? See his graphs for yourself! Anyone can see that the trend is inexorable. Nothing could possibly interrupt it!
Now, as it happens, Piketty’s data appear to have been incorrect, but note, yet again, that even if the data had been correct, that does not make the underlying claim any less risible.
In the United States, we’re in the midst of a giant scandal about just how bad the Veterans Administration hospital system is.
For those unfamiliar with it, the US maintains a mini-NHS just for former soldiers, and it appears that it has both been undergoing a systematic meltdown and systematically falsifying records that would have allowed outsiders to learn of the situation.
As it happens, Paul Krugman, everyone’s favorite economist, effusively praised the VA hospital network as a model for future American health care in 2006, claiming it demonstrated that state operation of the health system was to be wished for rather than feared. Quoting his New York Times Column:
I know about a health care system that has been highly successful in containing costs, yet provides excellent care. And the story of this system’s success provides a helpful corrective to anti-government ideology. For the government doesn’t just pay the bills in this system–it runs the hospitals and clinics.
No, I’m not talking about some faraway country. The system in question is our very own Veterans Health Administration, whose success story is one of the best-kept secrets in the American policy debate.
The discovery of a column or speech by Professor Krugman that seems embarrassing in the light of later discoveries has become quite routine. (see, for example, his effusive praise for the quality of Thomas Piketty’s data and the inability of opponents to refute it at a point where “Capital in the 21st Century” had been in public hands for mere days. There are numerous other examples to be had.)
What is not routine, sadly, is for Professor Krugman to ever acknowledge such a mistake. I am unaware of an instance of his admitting to an error.
An addendum to the earlier post on Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”:
As was originally pointed out yesterday by Alisa, the Financial Times attempted to verify the data presented by Piketty in his book, and failed to be able to reproduce it.
They found that the data, as presented, contained (to say the least) substantial inaccuracies. More bluntly, if the correct figures from the sources he cites are used, and the calculations are performed correctly, the effects he claims to describe vanish entirely.
The Financial Times has now published two articles on the subject, but I would prefer to draw people’s attention to the blog post by Chris Giles that discusses the matter in full detail. It is absolutely worth reading, especially as Piketty’s reply to the FT on the matter is breezy and entirely non-substantive, addressing none of the points brought up by Giles.
There were hints of data problems even before my own earlier blog post on this matter. I will continue to assert that even were the data correct, it would make no real difference, as Piketty’s conclusions are absurd. However, it is of significant interest to know that his objective claims about the data are untrue as well.
One wonders why Professor Piketty chose to first publish his ideas in a popular account rather than in academic journals, where peer review might have caught these problems earlier. Perhaps then, however, we would not have experienced the treat of Paul Krugman explaining to us that no real counterargument exists to Piketty’s claims. Quoting Professor Krugman only a month ago:
The really striking thing about the debate so far is that the right seems unable to mount any kind of substantive counterattack to Mr. Piketty’s thesis
Note that Professor Krugman wrote this mere days after the book even became available to most readers, long before it could be expected that anyone could have double-checked the data or formulated a coherent response, and long before any but the swiftest of readers could have been expected to digest the contents.
I recommend that connoisseurs of schadenfreude read all of Professor Krugman’s writings in The New York Times on the subject of Piketty. They are, especially in the light of the emerging news, a rare treat.
Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
This is known as “bad luck”.
- Robert A. Heinlein
(As brought to my attention in a comment by “Plamus”.)
In Douglas Adams famous non-fiction series on galactic economic history, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, we are presented with a description of the tragedy of the planet Frogstar B.
On Frogstar B, for a time shoe production increased faster than the rate of overall economic growth. As a result, with time, shoe production became a larger and larger fraction of the economy, until finally the Shoe Event Horizon was hit, at which point nothing but shoes could be manufactured, and lacking any other goods or services, their civilization collapsed.
Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” describes a similar tragedy that lies inevitably in our future, the point at which the only economic activity left is investment, all money is held by a tiny minority of wealthy people, and our civilization permanently ends.
Will we be wise enough to learn from the people of Frogstar B, and place a heavy tax on capital before our doom is reached?
I hope not, because of course Douglas Adams was writing comedy, not an economic history. Sadly, Piketty appears not to be a parodist, and presents the claim, in all seriousness, that something like a Shoe Event Horizon, in this case the Investment Event Horizon, could actually happen.
Normally, I would ignore such a book, but numerous commentators (all of whom, by strange coincidence, were already enthralled by the idea of expansions state power) have responded to Piketty’s call for heavy wealth and income taxation with rapturous reviews, driving Piketty’s work to the center of much of our current political discussion.
It is therefore, sadly, our duty to seriously to consider his arguments and the effects of his proposed remedies…
→ Continue reading: Piketty and the Shoe Event Horizon
The United States Government, feeling that it does not have a sufficient worldwide reputation for completely lacking self awareness, has decided to indict members of the Chinese PLA for conducting computer based espionage against US commercial targets.
Note that the Snowden releases have revealed that the US has engaged in precisely the same behavior, including numerous attacks against Chinese equipment maker Huawei.
Indeed, we currently lack evidence that the Chinese state has conducted wholesale interception of calls from entire countries, but the NSA has done precisely that. We have no evidence that the Chinese have intercepted US equipment shipments and sabotaged them, but the NSA has done precisely that. We have no evidence that the Chinese have systematically undermined internet standards or bribed security companies to sabotage their own software to make communications less secure, but the NSA had done precisely that. Indeed, I could reiterate dozens of Snowden revelations here, but I won’t waste everyone’s time by doing so. (Note that I do not claim the Chinese government has not done such things, only that we do not have evidence of it, while we know for certain that the US government has done such things.)
Today’s rhetorical question is therefore this: if foreign countries begin indicting and arresting US officials for espionage and industrial sabotage, will the US government protest?
It is the First of May, a date traditionally associated with Marxism. Let us therefore pause today to remember that at least 100 million people were killed by Marxist governments in the 20th century, a number that dwarfs the predations of every other organized movement in human history.
What are the odds that the NSA, GCHQ, etc. do not spy on the elected officials that oversee them?
What prevents subsequent blackmail of said officials by said agencies, other than policies that would be utterly trivial for agency officials to violate at whim?