Thermodynamics and Urban Sprawl

Termite Mound

Evolution is just a special case of thermodynamics. Molecules spontaneously arrange themselves to optimally dissipate energy.

Society itself is a thermodynamic system for entropy dissipation. Energy goes in–in the form of food and, recently, fuels like oil–and children and buildings come out.

Government is simply the entire power structure of a region–from the President to your dad, from bandits to your boss. But when people say, “government,” they typically mean the official one written down in laws that lives in white buildings in Washington, DC.


When the “government” makes laws that try to change the natural flow of energy or information through society, society responds by routing around the law, just as water flows around a boulder that falls in a stream.

The ban on trade with Britain and France in the early 1800s, for example, did not actually stop people from trading with Britain and France–trade just became re-routed through smuggling operations. It took a great deal of energy–in the form of navies–to suppress piracy and smuggling in the Gulf and Caribbean–chiefly by executing pirates and imprisoning smugglers.


When the government decided that companies couldn’t use IQ tests in hiring anymore (because IQ tests have a “disparate impact” on minorities because black people tend to score worse, on average, than whites,) in Griggs vs. Duke Power, they didn’t start hiring more black folks. They just started using college degrees as a proxy for intelligence, contributing to the soul-crushing debt and degree inflation young people know and love today.

Similarly, when the government tried to stop companies from asking about applicants’ criminal histories–again, because the results were disproportionately bad for minorities–companies didn’t start hiring more blacks. Since not hiring criminals is important to companies, HR departments turned to the next best metric: race. These laws ironically led to fewer blacks being hired, not more.

Where the government has tried to protect the poor by passing tenant’s rights laws, we actually see the opposite: poorer tenants are harmed. By making it harder to evict tenants, the government makes landlords reluctant to take on high-risk (ie, poor) tenants.

The passage of various anti-discrimination and subsidized housing laws (as well as the repeal of various discriminatory laws throughout the mid-20th century) lead to the growth of urban ghettos, which in turn triggered the crime wave of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Crime and urban decay have made inner cities–some of the most valuable real estate in the country–nigh unlivable, resulting in the “flight” of millions of residents and the collective loss of millions of dollars due to plummeting home values.

Work-arounds are not cheap. They are less efficient–and thus more expensive–than the previous, banned system.

Urban sprawl driven by white flight

Smuggled goods cost more than legally traded goods due to the personal risks smugglers must take. If companies can’t tell who is and isn’t a criminal, the cost of avoiding criminals becomes turning down good employees just because they happen to be black. If companies can’t directly test intelligence, the cost becomes a massive increase in the amount of money being spent on accreditation and devaluation of the signaling power of a degree.

We have dug up literally billions of dollars worth of concentrated sunlight in the form of fossil fuels in order to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure in order to work around the criminal blights in the centers of our cities, condemning workers to hour-long commutes and paying inflated prices for homes in neighborhoods with “good schools.”

Note: this is not an argument against laws. Some laws increase efficiency. Some laws make life better.

This is a reminder that everything is subject to thermodynamics. Nothing is free.

Piracy, Bandits, and Civilization

While reading The Pirates Own Book, I was struck by how much of history has been warfare and banditry:

Piracy has been known from the remotest antiquity; for in the early ages every small maritime state was addicted to piracy, and navigation was perilous. This habit was so general, that it was regarded with indifference, and, whether merchant, traveller, or pirate, the stranger was received with the rights of hospitality. Thus Nestor, having given Mentor and Telemachus a plenteous repast, remarks, that the banquet being finished, it was time to ask his guests to their business. “Are you,” demands the aged prince, “merchants destined to any port, or are you merely adventurers and pirates, who roam the seas without any place of destination, and live by rapine and ruin.”

Where men can make a living through violence and predation, they do. The only thing that stops them is other men strong enough to kill them:

The Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes, from their superior knowledge of navigation, gave into it most; and on whatever coast the winds carried them, they made free with all that came in their way. Canute the Fourth endeavored in vain to repress these lawless disorders among his subjects; but they felt so galled by his restrictions, that they assassinated him. On the king of Sweden being taken by the Danes, permission was given to such of his subjects as chose, to arm themselves against the enemy, pillage his possessions, and sell their prizes at Ribnitz and Golnitz. This proved a fertile nursery of pirates, who became so formidable under the name of “Victalien Broders,” that several princes were obliged to arm against them, and hang some of their chiefs. …

Charles the Bald, not having the power to expel him, engaged the freebooter, for 500 pounds of silver, to dislodge his countrymen, who were harassing the vicinity of Paris. In consequence of this subsidy, Wailand, with a fleet of 260 sail, went up the Seine, and attacked the Normans in the isle of Oiselle: after a long and obstinate resistance, they were obliged to capitulate; and having paid 6000 pounds of gold and silver, by way of ransom, had leave to join their victors. The riches thus acquired rendered a predatory life so popular, that the pirates were continually increasing in number, so that under a “sea-king” called Eric, they made a descent in the Elbe and the Weser, pillaged Hamburg, penetrated far into Germany, and after gaining two battles, retreated with immense booty. The pirates, thus reinforced on all sides, long continued to devastate Germany, France, and England; some penetrated into Andalusia and Hetruria, where they destroyed the flourishing town of Luni; whilst others, descending the Dnieper, penetrated even into Russia.

The text goes on in this manner, and it is just striking how, for so many centuries after the fall of Rome, Europeans lived in constant fear of bandits, with no force strong enough to secure the sea lanes and borders. And even the rulers themselves are, in many cases, ex-bandits themselves: barbarian conquerors .

Genghis Khan

Once a group of bandits becomes strong enough to kill all the other bandits in the area, it settles in and starts taxing instead of stealing.

Even Genghis Khan, once finished conquering, began executing bandits, encouraging trade, and securing the safety of his tax-payers. It is said that a woman carrying a bag of gold could walk, alone, from one end to the other of the Mongol Empire without fear or molestation–an exaggeration, I’m sure, but I know I wouldn’t want to incur the Great Khan’s wrath by robbing one of his subjects.

(In Power and Prosperity, economist Mancur Olson argues that, “under anarchy, a “roving bandit” only has the incentive to steal and destroy, whilst a “stationary bandit”—a tyrant—has an incentive to encourage some degree of economic success as he expects to remain in power long enough to benefit from that success. A stationary bandit thereby begins to take on the governmental function of protecting citizens and their property against roving bandits. In the move from roving to stationary bandits, Olson sees the seeds of civilization, paving the way, eventually for democracy, which by giving power to those who align with the wishes of the population, improves incentives for good government.[5]” )

We can even see this process occurring with ISIS (h/t Will @Evolving_Moloch):

From Brookings: Experts Weigh in: Is ISIS good at Governing?

Humans once hunted goats; today we feed them, give them shelter, and kill their other predators. As a result, there are far more goats than there would be otherwise. We still eat them, of course.

A government of sedentary bandits is still bandits, but at least they’re bandits who want the community to thrive. (Yes, taxation IS theft, but you should see the alternative.)
As a result, we take for granted a level of peace and safety that most of the world has never experienced.

Chimps fight wars. Neanderthals were cannibals. Homicide in primitive tribes was sky-high. You have twice as many female as male ancestors because the majority of men never reproduced.

Western society didn’t become peaceful by singing kumbaya, but by 1. top-down banning cousin marriage, which ended tribalism,

and 2. Becoming powerful enough to catch and execute the bandits.

We forget this at our own peril.

Piracy and Emergent Order: Peter Leeson’s An-arrgh-chy and the Invisible Hook

Buccaneer of the Caribbean, from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates

After our long trek through Siberia, I wanted to change things up and do something rather different for Anthropology Friday, so today we’re reading Peter Leeson’s work on pirates. Strictly speaking, it isn’t quite “anthropology” because Leeson didn’t go live with pirates, but I’m willing to overlook that.

The Golden Age of piracy only lasted from 1690 through 1730, but in those days they were a serious menace to ships and men alike on the high seas. In A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, (1724,) Captain Charles Johnson complained:

“This was at a Time that the Pyrates had obtained such an Acquisition of Strength, that they were in no Concern about preserving themselves from the Justice of Laws”

Pirates stalked the ocean’s major trade routes, particularly between the Bahamas, Caribbean islands, Madagascar, and the North American coast. Over a century after Captain Johnson, Melville recounted the pirates of Malaysia and Indonesia:

The long and narrow peninsula of Malacca, extending south-eastward from the territories of Birmah, forms the most southerly point of all Asia. In a continuous line from that peninsula stretch the long islands of Sumatra, Java, Bally, and Timor … By the straits of Sunda, chiefly, vessels bound to China from the west, emerge into the China seas.

Those narrow straits of Sunda divide Sumatra from Java; and standing midway in that vast rampart of islands, buttressed by that bold green promontory, known to seamen as Java Head; they not a little correspond to the central gateway opening into some vast walled empire: and considering the inexhaustible wealth of spices, and silks, and jewels, and gold, and ivory, with which the thousand islands of that oriental sea are enriched, it seems a significant provision of nature, that such treasures, by the very formation of the land, should at least bear the appearance, however ineffectual, of being guarded from the all-grasping western world. ..

Time out of mind the piratical proas of the Malays, lurking among the low shaded coves and islets of Sumatra, have sallied out upon the vessels sailing through the straits, fiercely demanding tribute at the point of their spears. Though by the repeated bloody chastisements they have received at the hands of European cruisers, the audacity of these corsairs has of late been somewhat repressed; yet, even at the present day, we occasionally hear of English and American vessels, which, in those waters, have been remorselessly boarded and pillaged. …

And who could tell whether, in that congregated caravan, Moby Dick himself might not temporarily be swimming, like the worshipped white-elephant in the coronation procession of the Siamese! So with stun-sail piled on stun-sail, we sailed along, driving these leviathans before us; when, of a sudden, the voice of Tashtego was heard, loudly directing attention to something in our wake. …

It seemed formed of detached white vapours, rising and falling something like the spouts of the whales; only they did not so completely come and go; for they constantly hovered, without finally disappearing. Levelling his glass at this sight, Ahab quickly revolved in his pivot-hole, crying, “Aloft there, and rig whips and buckets to wet the sails;—Malays, sir, and after us!”

Leeson distinguishes between different sorts of pirates; for the rest of this article we will not be dealing with Malay, Somali, or Barbary pirates, but only the Atlantic-dwelling species. These pirates enlisted for the long haul and lived for months at sea, forming veritable floating societies. Modern Somali pirates, by contrast, live ashore, hop in their boats when they spot a victim, rob and murder, then head back to shore–they form no comparable sea-borne society.

One of the most fascinating aspects of pirate life–leaving aside faulty romantic notions of plunder and murder–is that even these anarchists of the sea instituted social organization among themselves.

Marooned, by Howard Pyle

Pirates had contracts, complete with clauses detailing the division of loot, compensation for different injuries sustained on the job, division of power between the Captain and the Quarter-Master, and election of the captain.

Yes, pirates elected their captains, and if they did not like their captain’s performance, they could un-elect him. According to Leeson:

The historical record contains numerous examples of pirate crews deposing unwanted captains by majority vote or otherwise removing them from power through popular consensus. Captain Charles Vane’s pirate crew, for example, popularly deposed him for cowardice: “the Captain’s Behavior was obliged to stand the Test of a Vote, and a Resolution passed against his Honour and Dignity . . . deposing him from the Command”

In The Invisible Hook: The Law and Economics of Pirate Tolerance, Leeson provides us with a typical contract, used by pirate captain Edward Low’s crew around 1723:

1. The Captain is to have two full Shares; the Master is to have one Share and one half; The Doctor, Mate, Gunner[,] and Boatswain, one Share and one Quarter [and everyone
else to have one share]. …
3. He that shall be found Guilty of Cowardice in the time of Ingagement, shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and Majority of the Company shall think fit.
4. If any Gold, Jewels, Silver, &c. be found on Board of any Prize or Prizes to the value of a Piece of Eight, & the finder do not deliver it to the Quarter Master in the space of 24
hours shall suffer what punishment the Captain and Majority of the Company shall think fit. …
6. He that shall have the Misfortune to lose a Limb in time of Engagement, shall have the Sum of Six hundred pieces of Eight, and remain aboard as long as he shall think fit. …
8. He that sees a sail first, shall have the best Pistol or Small Arm aboard of her.
9. He that shall be guilty of Drunkenness in time of Engagement shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and Majority of the Company shall think fit. …

Why did pirates go to the bother of writing contracts–or should we say, constitutions–for the running of their ships? In An-arrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization, Leeson compares conditions aboard pirate ships to those aboard regular merchant vessels of the same day.

Merchant vessels were typically owned by corporations, such as the Dutch East India Company. Wealthy land-lubbers bought shares in these companies, which entitled them to a share of the boat’s profits when it returned to port. But these land-lubbers had no intention of actually getting on the boats–not only did they lack the requisite nautical knowledge, but ocean voyages were extremely dangerous. For example, 252 out of 270 sailors in Ferdinand Magellan’s crew died during their circumnavigation of the globe (1519 through 1522.) Imagine signing up for a job with a 93% death rate!

The owners, therefore, hired a captain, whose job–like a modern CEO–was to ensure that the ship returned with as high profits for its owners as possible.

The captain of a merchant ship was an autocrat with absolute control, including the power to dole out corporal punishment to his crew.

Ships through the ages: Pirate dhow; Spanish or Venetian galley; Spanish galleon
The dhow “is a typical 16th century dhow, a grab-built, lateen-rigged vessel of Arabia, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean. It has the usual long overhang forward, high poop deck and open waist. The dhow was notorious in the slave trade on the east coast of Africa, and even after a thousand years is still one of the swiftest of sailing crafts.”

For all their pains, sailors were paid pitifully little: “Between 1689 and 1740 [pay]
varied from 25 to 55 shillings per month, a meager £15 to £33 per year.” By contrast, “Even the small pirate crew captained by John Evans in 1722 took enough booty to split
“nine thousand Pounds among thirty Persons”—or £300 a pirate—in less than six months “on the account”.”

The captain’s absolute power over his crew was not due to offering good wages, pleasant working conditions, or even a decent chance of not dying, but because he had the power of the state behind him to enforce his authority and punish anyone who mutinied against him.

Pirate captains, by contrast, were neither responsible to stockholders nor had the power of the state to enforce their authority. They had only–literally–the consent of their governed: the other pirates on board.

Why have a captain at all?

A small group–a maximum of 10 or 15 people, perhaps–can easily discuss and negotiate everything they want to do. For a larger group to achieve its aims requires some form of coherent, established organization. It would be inefficient–and probably deadly–for multiple pirates to start shouting conflicting orders in the middle of battle. It would be inefficient–and probably deadly–for a pirate crew to argue over the proper division of loot after it was captured.

The average pirate crew–calculated by Leeson–had 80 people, well within Dunbar’s Number, the theoretical “cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.[1][2]” The Dunbar Number is generally believed to be around 10o-150.

But how does emergent order emerge? What incentivizes each pirate to put aside their own personal desire to be captain and vote for someone else?

In Is Deference the Price of Being Seen as Reasonable? How Status Hierarchies Incentivize Acceptance of Low Status, Ridgeway and Nakagawa write (h/t Evolving_Moloch):

How, then, do collective, roughly consensual status hierarchies so regularly emerge among goal-interdependent people? While individuals have an enlightened self-interest in deferring to others on the basis of their apparent ability and willingness to contribute to the task effort, these same individuals also have a much more egoistic self-interest in gaining as much status and influence as they can, regardless. … The key is recognizing that whatever individuals want for themselves, they want others in the group to defer to those expected to best contribute to the collective effort since this will maximize task success and the shared benefits that flow from that. … As a result, group members are likely to form implicit coalitions to pressure others in the group to defer on the basis of performance expectations. … they are likely to be faced by an implicit coalition of other group members who pressure them to defer on that basis. … an interdependence of exchange interests gives rise to group norms that members enforce. … These are the core implicit rules for status that are likely taken-for-granted cultural knowledge…

The baseline respect earned by deference is less than the esteem offered to high-status member. It is respect for knowing one’s place because it views the deferrer as at least understanding what is validly better for achieving the groups goals even if he or she is not personally better. Yet it is still a type of worthiness. It is an acceptance of the low-status member not as an object of scorn but as a worthy member who understands and affirms the groups standards of value…

As such, [the reaction of respect and approval] acts as a positive incentive system for expected deference…

our implicit cultural rules for enacting status hierarchies not only incentivize contributions to the collective goal. they create a general, if modest, incentive to defer to those for whom the group has higher performance expectations–an incentive we characterize as the dignity of being deemed reasonable.

While any group above 10 or 15 people will have some communication complications, so long as it is still below the Dunbar Number, it should be able to work out its own, beneficial organization: order is a spontaneous, natural feature of human communities. Without this ability, pirate ships would not be able to function–they would devolve into back-stabbing anarchy. As Leeson notes:

The evidence also suggests that piratical articles were successful in preventing internal conflict and creating order aboard pirate ships. Pirates, it appears, strictly adhered to their articles. According to one historian, pirates were more orderly, peaceful, and well organized among themselves than many of the colonies, merchant ships, or vessels of the Royal Navy (Pringle 1953; Rogozinski 2000). As an astonished pirate observer put it, “At sea, they per form their duties with a great deal of order, better even than on the Ships of the Dutch East India Company; the pirates take a great deal of pride in doing things right”…

“great robbers as they are to all besides, [pirates] are precisely just among themselves; without which they could no more Subsist than a Structure without a Foundation” …

Beyond the Dunbar Number, however, people must deal with strangers–people who are not part of their personal status-conferring coalition. Large societies require some form of top-down management in order to function.

Based on the legend of Henri Caesar–see also the story of Florida’s Black Caesar

Let’s let Leeson have the final quote:

Pirates were a diverse lot. A sample of 700 pirates active in the Caribbean between 1715 and 1725, for example, reveals that 35 percent were English, 25 percent were American, 20 percent were West Indian,
10 percent were Scottish, 8 percent were Welsh, and 2 percent were Swedish, Dutch, French, and Spanish …
Pirate crews were also racially diverse. Based on data available from 23 pirate crews active between 1682 and 1726, the racial composition of ships varied between 13 and 98 percent black. If this sample is representative, 25–30 percent of the average pirate crew was of African descent.

There were, of course, very sensible reasons why a large percent of pirates were black: better a pirate than a slave.

(Personally, while I think pirates are interesting in much the same vein as Genghis Khan, I would still like to note that they were extremely violent criminals who murdered innocent people.)


Intra-ethnic violence is crime; Inter-ethnic violence is war

Proclamation issued in 1816 by Lieutenant-Governor Arthur, Tasmania.
Proclamation issued in 1816 by Lieutenant-Governor Arthur, Tasmania.

Peace is a government that can prevent both, but people will settle for preventing war.

I was thinking today that people are far more concerned with the harm done to them by others than the harm done by themselves. 1 in 5 of you–about 700,000 people per year–will be killed by your own over-indulgence in food, and you are three times as likely to kill yourself with your own gun as a stranger is to shoot you with theirs. And don’t get me started on cars. By contrast, the past 15 years have seen a few thousand Americans murdered by Islamic terrorists and domestic mass-shooters. These events might be terrifying, but America’s enemies could kill a lot more people by providing us with free soda, cookies, and cigarettes than by flying planes into buildings.

America has spent approximately 5 trillion dollars pursuing Bin Laden and his associates, and yet no one (sane) has proposed shooting everyone involved in the production and sale of Coca-Cola.

One of the central tenets of this blog is that people are not merely random in their irrationality; if millions of people do or think something, then there is likely to be some sort of cause.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way:

Coca-Cola isn’t trying to kill anyone, so we tend not to think they deserve to be killed.

Humans are bad at estimating risks because we are not adapted to TV. 100 years ago, if you saw a bunch of people being horribly murdered, there was a war going on and you were either killing them yourself or about to get killed. Today, you’re probably just watching a movie.

As a practical matter, this means that people do, in fact, get completely worked up and devote absurd amounts of money to fighting trivial problems. The “Satanic Daycare Scare” of the 1980s is one such case.

For those of you who don’t remember the 80s very well, or have blocked the Satanic Daycare Scare from your memory due to sheer stupidity, here’s a rundown:

A bunch of mentally ill people–that is, people actually receiving treatment for mental illness at the time or who were later discovered to be schizophrenic–began coming up with stories that their parents or their kids’ daycare workers were part of a vast, underground Satanic conspiracy, ritually murdering and torturing children, ritually sacrificing giraffes and drinking their blood, flying on broomsticks, etc.

The Wikipedia page lists 19 major cases involving over 100 defendants; as of 2006, the McMartin preschool trial, for example, was “the longest and most expensive criminal trial in the history of the United States.[1]” Over 1,000 smaller cases were brought on similar evidence of “Satanic ritual abuse,” (SRA) and even Geraldo Rivera claimed on TV that:

“Estimates are that there are over one million Satanists in [the United States and they are] linked in a highly organized, secretive network.” (source)

Eventually the FBI got involved and figured out that it was all nonsense:

Kenneth Lanning, an FBI expert in the investigation of child sexual abuse,[151] has stated that pseudo-satanism may exist but there is “little or no evidence for … large-scale baby breeding, human sacrifice, and organized satanic conspiracies”.[46]

Lanning produced a monograph in 1994 on SRA aimed at child protection authorities, which contained his opinion that despite hundreds of investigations no corroboration of SRA had been found.

The Satanic Daycare Scare is a fascinating subject in its own right, but beyond our current scope; for now, the important thing is that even intelligent, trained folks like lawyers, doctors, judges, and Geraldo Rivera can believe obviously false things if you just put it on TV or in a book. We are really bad at dealing with modern mass media, and probably even worse at math.

But the instinct to protect one’s children from people who would hurt them are perfectly sound, reasonable instincts. You should protect your children; you just have to protect them from actual dangers, not made up ones.The Satanic Daycare Panic of our day is the conviction that the police are brutally slaughtering black bodies in the streets. Statistically, of course, they aren’t; not only is a black person far more likely to be murdered by a fellow black person than by a police officer (of any race,) but the police don’t even disproportionately kill blacks: shootinggraph

Graph originally from Mother Jones magazine (and if Mother Jones can’t find evidence for disproportionate police shooting of blacks, who can?) but helpfully cited by Slate Star Codex’s extensively researched article, Race and Justice: much more than you wanted to know. I strongly recommend that article; I also wrote a rather long piece about crime statistics back in Bully Part 2: Race, Crime, and the Police.

The short version is that blacks get into a lot of conflicts with the police because blacks commit a lot of crime, much of which is aimed at their fellow black people. We know this from crime victimization surveys, which ask people who have been victims of crimes to describe their attackers.

Thousands of black-on-black murders barely make a blip on the airwaves, while one white-on-black murder can dominate the news, streets, and college campuses for months.

By contrast, when a shootout in Waco, Texas, left 9 people dead, 20 injured, 239 detained, and 177 arrested, allegations that police snipers had actually murdered the 9 victims resulted in exactly zero campus protests.

White on white violence? Snoozefest. Black on black? *Zzzzzzz* Black on white? Hate Twitter notices. White on black? College campuses explode.

People notice inter-ethnic violence in a way that they don’t notice violence committed by their own ethnic group.


Every group has its own, internal way of dealing with their own malefactors, from compelling murderers to pay a fine to the victim’s family to ostracization to stoning. This is, in short, what police are for. But sans an extradition treaty, it’s almost impossible to deal with malefactors from some other group. If a neighboring group of tribespeople starts killing your tribespeople, the only way to stop them is to kill them back until they stop.

From an evolutionary standpoint, your own criminals simply aren’t as big a deal as another tribe coming in and killing you. If my brother kills me, horrible though that may be, my genes will still live on in his children. Furthermore, my brother is highly unlikely to kill me, my children, and my parents, then burn down my village and carry off my wife and cattle. But if some guy from the next tribe over kills me, the chance of any of my genes making it into the next generation goes down significantly. Historically speaking, inter-ethnic violence has probably been a bigger deal than intra-ethnic violence.

Modern countries are, with a few Polynesian exceptions, much bigger than individual tribes. As a result, their priority becomes not just protecting their people from outside attack, but also protecting their people from each other.

In a world of limited resources (and no obvious technical advantages), a group that cooperates with itself and defects on others will out-compete a group that cooperates with itself and others. But the government of a large, multi-ethnic state has little to gain from everyone falling into default-defect scenarios; the government wants everyone to cooperate in order to maximize economic growth (and thus tax revenues.)

The Pax Romana comes immediately to mind as a famous historical example of a government conquering a whole munch of little tribes that formerly warred against each other, and using its military might to put an end to such conflicts.

The Mongol Empire, after destroying everything in its path from the Sea of Japan to the gates of Vienna (a conquest halted only by the Khan’s death,) brought about the similarly named Pax Mongolica:

[Pax Mongolica] describes the stabilizing effects of the conquests of the Mongol Empire on the social, cultural, and economic life of the inhabitants of the vast Eurasian territory that the Mongols conquered in the 13th and 14th centuries. The term is used to describe the eased communication and commerce the unified administration helped to create, and the period of relative peace that followed the Mongols’ vast conquests.

The conquests of Genghis Khan (r. 1206–1227) and his successors, spanning from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe, effectively connected the Eastern world with the Western world. The Silk Road, connecting trade centers across Asia and Europe, came under the sole rule of the Mongol Empire. It was commonly said that “a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”[2][3] Despite the political fragmentation of the Mongol Empire into four khanates (Yuan dynasty, Golden Horde, Chagatai Khanate and Ilkhanate), nearly a century of conquest and civil war was followed by relative stability in the early 14th century. The end of the Pax Mongolica was marked by the disintegration of the khanates and the outbreak of the Black Death in Asia which spread along trade routes to much of the world in the mid-14th century.

I know less about Yugoslavia than about the Mongol Empire, but Yugoslavia’s various states were clearly at peace with each other under the dictatorship of Josip Tito, and fell into civil war after Tito died, democracy came to the country, and everyone began voting along ethnic lines.

I recall–but cannot locate at the moment–an interview in which Lee Kuan Yew, erstwhile autocrat of Singapore, expounded on one of the reasons why he didn’t support western-style democracy for his own country. Given a country with three major ethnic groups, he asserted, democracy would quickly break down into each group attempting to vote for its own interests, against the interests of the others. Singapore may be a small country, but it is also a successful one.

A national government does not need to do anything about crime if sufficient local institutions exist to handle local conflicts. If the Amish want to handle Amish criminals and the Zuni want to handle Zuni criminals, that is no skin off anyone else’s nose. However, inter-group conflicts are better handled and adjudicated by an outside third party that can A. enforce its rulings against both groups, and B. does a good job of convincing everyone that it is being fair and effective–that is, a higher level of government.

This seems like the most effective and expedient way to avoid mutual defection in large, multi-ethnic societies. (The other option, I suppose, is to not have large, multi-ethnic societies.)

Is Taxation Theft? The state vs bandits

Inspired by Infowarrior1’s comments on Theory: the inverse relationship between warfare and homicide, I got to thinking about “What is a state?” (Please note that I am sort of thinking out loud, so I can’t promise that I’ve got every detail worked out. Feedback is welcome and useful.)

I tend to take a pretty expansive definition of “government,” including not just the formally recognized thing people mean when they say government, but also the entire power structure of the entire society, including your boss, newspaper publishers, popular people, religious leaders, and even parents. (Note: most of the time when I use the word “government,” I mean it in the normal way that people would understand it.) Under the normal definition, the gang violence is just homicide, but under the expensive, gangs are a form of small-scale government (they exert power over others, after all,) and violence between them is warfare.

Gangs do many things that formal governments do: they engage in trade, regulate contracts, tax people, punish people who break their laws, control territory, and engage in warfare. The Mafia clearly has its origins in the family-based governing structure of Sicily/southern Italy, and creates a structure within which its family members benefit from government contracts and the like. The Japanese Yakuza “began as a temporary staffing agency on the docks of Kobe” and host “an annual rice cake-making event at the start of the year in which the gang distributes food and booze to the locals. … And after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the great disaster of March 2011, the earthquake and tsunami and Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, the Yamaguchi-gumi was quick to provide aid in the form of blankets, food, water, and shelter.” (source)

(It has long been somewhat of a mystery to me why the formal gov’t doesn’t just treat gangs like invading armies, and simply shoot everyone involved until they stop trying to occupy American cities.)

So what is the difference between such groups and formal governments? If we call a formal government a “state” and these other organizations “non-state governments”, then what is a state? Is ISIS a state? Yes, it seems to have enough of the normal characteristics of a state to call it a state. Is a gang a state? No, clearly a gang is not a state. What about Somalia? No, not a state so much as a state-shaped hole in the map where other states don’t want to go. The Somali government simply does not exert an organizing influence over its own territory.

Which got me thinking about the state as an institution that increases organizational complexity of a society/aids in its homeostatic maintenance within a specific territory.

By contrast, bandits, while they exert power over others, decrease a system’s organizational complexity by interfering with normal function in order to shunt other people’s wealth to themselves.

I’m sure you’ve heard the claim that “taxation is theft.” This has always seemed like a fallacious argument, especially since most things that taxes get spent on are actually programs that people want and support, and so such conversations generally lead to painstakingly laying out the fact that libertarianism doesn’t deal very well with multipolar traps yet again, which, sorry, starts quickly feeling like explaining to my kids again that, yes, things really do cost money and no, people aren’t going to just give you what you want in life because you want them to. (Not that libertarianism is all bad–just the vacuous repetition of certain catchphrases.)

At any rate, a legitimate government uses its taxes to increase the overall order of the system, while an illegitimate one uses its power to decrease order. The Somali government does not increase (or maintain) the overall order of Somalia, so it is not a state.

Let’s switch for a moment from Somalia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ne Zaire, ne the Belgian Congo.

I have mentioned before Josephine and Frederick’s account of their attempt to drive from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa–a distance of about a thousand miles, or 1,500 km–in the DRC. It’s a great story, so I recommend you read it yourself, but I’m going to highlight a few relevant bits:

When the Belgians ruled the area, they built a lot of roads. Today, if you are brave enough to go there, you can see the condition the roads are in:

Photos by Frederick and Jospehine
Photo by Frederick and Jospehine

There are a few good roads in the country–built by Belgian-run NGOs, mining companies (I believe these are generally run by the Chinese), and Catholic missionaries, eg:

“That night we talked for hours with Frère Louis. Our little adventures here dissapear in the nothing compared to everything he went trough. He had been in DRC for over 40 years, he stayed during all the wars. He had to abandon everything and run for his live three times as teams were sent out to kill him. But he always returned. Many books could be filled with his adventures.

He is also responsible for most of the bridges Katanga. He build hundreds of bridges himself. He has a small working budget from Franciscans, but he funds most of it all by himself. He has put every last penny in the Congolese people. That is why his house in Luena was so rundown.

He also told us about the Mayi-Mayi rebels that still roam the jungle. We were not prepared for the horror stories we would hear. I still have problems giving these stories a place. They are not just stories though, he gave us a 100 page document with his interviews of victims. If you thought, like us, that cannibalism was something that belonged in comic books and dusty museums about Africa. You are wrong. :cry:” [source]

Not only do the Congolese themselves not maintain their own roads, they contribute to their destruction by digging holes in them to trap passing vehicles so they can demand money in exchange for helping them out. Likewise, many of the “tolls” charged of passing vehicles go not to road maintenance (a legit reason to charge people for using a road,) but to line the pockets of the people charging the tolls.

In other words, while many Congolese are trying to use the roads to conduct trade and transport goods, others are actively destroying the roads and sabotaging that trade in order to benefit off other people’s hard work. A man who charges tolls in order to pay for improvements to the road is contributing to the structural complexity of society; a man who charges tolls to line his own pockets is a bandit.

In response to a comment in the thread–“Absolutely great to read you ! Belgians in the Congo ! You must be nuts ! “–Frederik responds:

I presume you are referring to the “not so nice” role Belgium has had in the history of Congo. For a while I thought that would be a problem as well, but it isn’t. Just about anything that still exists in Congo is made by the Belgians. The older generation who had their education from the Belgians really have fond memories of that era. And at the moment Belgium is still one of the main funders of the country (via aid). The dark pages of history during the Leopold 2 era is not what the Congolese people think about. All in all I think being Belgian was actually a plus. As a matter of fact, a lot of people asked how things were going with the “war” in Belgium :-o” [source]

Also on the subject:

“Occasionally (and I must admit, it was a rare event) we meet nice people. Like this guy on his bike. [picture] He stopped to say hello. He was a well educated person who previsouly worked as an accountant for a big company. The company is no longer there so now he survives like everybody else by trading a few things. [picture] He was a good example of the older generation. They grew up in a prosperous (relative) Congo and have seen it go downhill. They still have the pride every person should have. The younger generation grew up in disastrously f*cked up country and lack the pride. Why should they, they know they do not get any chances?
It is that old generation that longs back to the colonial time. They acknowledge there were a lot of problems in that period and that they were discriminated by the white colonisator. But at least they had a functional country. They had roads and schools. They had jobs and could buy supplies. And above all, there was stability. Now there is nothing but uncertainty.. waiting for the next war to start.” [source]

And on a related note:

If there is any thing you can find anywhere in the world it is Coca-Cola. They should know how to get their goods in the country. We had no response on mails, so we called them up. Their answer was pretty short: They do not have a distribution network outside the major cities in Congo 😯 And it proved to be true, Congo is the first country we have visited were Coca-cola is hard to get once you leave the major cities.” [source]

Someone else–Christian P.–comments on his own experiences,

Before entering the country, we did not really know what to expect and we had the same exact nervosity as you were reffering. And it never went away.

The place is hard to imagine and describe. I have travelled a lot in Africa but the DRC is like nothing else. And I have only spend a few days there….

The look on people’s face is different. The vibe on the street is intense. It seems like everything is on the verge of exploding. I had never seen that many guns in one place. There is no bank, no guidebooks, no backpackers, no tour bus, no hotels, nothing. It truly still is the dark side. [source]

And I haven’t even mentioned all of the times random villagers tried to hack Frederik and Josephine to pieces with machetes, which is a definite deterrent to trade!

Like Somalia, the DRC isn’t a country so much as a country-shaped hole in the map. What government there is tends to be local, tribal, or run by folks like the mining companies or Catholic missions, and much of the time, what authority exists is actively undermining any larger systems of social/economic complexity for their own short term gain.

But what about states that are clearly “states”, but are clearly bad for the people under their rule? Soviet land collectivization in Ukraine, for example, killed 2.5–7.5 million people. Collectivization caused mass famines throughout the USSR; the exact number of lives lost is unknown, but estimated between 5.5 and 8 million deaths. The previous Soviet famine of 1921 had killed another 6 million people. Depending on whose definitions we use, communist regimes are generally blamed for somewhere between 20 and 100 million civilian deaths during the 20th century.

(How is it, then, that some of the nicest people I know are communists? Are they just idiots?)

Communist governments, I think it is safe to say, are state-level bandits.


How to decrease defection and encourage cooperation?

As I was saying yesterday, functional societies are places where people cooperate rather than defect (prisoner’s dilemma style), but now people are trying to advance their own personal interests by accusing others of defecting–that is, in effect, defecting against them. Our particular class and racial dynamics have exacerbated–or perhaps caused–this dynamic.

So how to change things? A few thoughts:

1. Government has the most obvious power to curb defection and increase cooperation, and indeed, this should probably be thought of as one of the prime functions of government. All societies require cooperation merely to exist, and more cooperation => more society.

Libertarianism has many fine points in its theory, but it deals poorly with multipolar traps. In cases where someone can profit themselves by being a free rider (defecting,) chances are they will–and they will pass on this advantage to their children, until you have a nation of cheaters. I remember an example from my own school days: A group of farmers gets together one year to higher a crop-dusting plane, and they all enjoy a larger harvest as a result. But the next year, the guy with the field in the middle of the area being dusted decides not to pay in. His field gets dusted anyway, just because it’s impossible not to dust it in the process, and so he gets all of the rewards of crop dusting without paying the price.

The government effectively solves this problem by eliminating the possibility of being a free rider. Everyone now has to pay a tax that goes to hire the annual crop-dusting plane, and you must pay your taxes or go to jail.

2. The vague–or not so vague!–sense that others are defecting while you are cooperating may just be instinctual. Therefore, it is probably in the interests of any government to put in place some kind of measures to make sure people aren’t defecting and to reassure people about this.

However, it is critical that such systems not get turned into further vehicles for defection.

For example, many (if not most) of the lawsuits corporations lodge against each other are totally bogus and exist for the sole purposes of A. inconveniencing the opposition and B. benefiting the lawyers. Millions upon million of dollars and hours of human labor are poured each year into activities that only serve to mutually weaken corporations.

In lawsuits over patents that actually get all the way to court, to give a sub-example, it is extremely common for the patent itself to simply get thrown out on the grounds that it is a bad patent that should have never been granted. (I’ve seen estimates between 25% and 77%.) In many of these lawsuits, a company will just scatter-shot sue a dozen or two different companies all at once over a clearly bogus patent, in the hopes that the sued companies will cut their losses and settle out of court. There are even businesses whose entire model is just to buy crappy old patents companies don’t want anymore before they expire and then sue everyone in sight. It’s called “patent trolling.”

Assuming we want patents to keep existing, then people have to be able to sue others for infringement, but patent trolls need to be shut down. The obvious solution here is to identify patterns of patent troll behavior and then punish the trolls for it. First, once a lawsuit has been filed, don’t allow the parties to settle out of court. They must go before the judge/jury. Second, companies that lose due to patent invalidation must pay the sued-party’s legal costs.

I could go on, but people who are actually trained in legal matters can do a far better job of recommending fixes to the patent system than I.

To make another example: there’s been a lot of talk over the past few years about whether or not the police are killing and imprisoning black people at higher rates than whites. The police should be (and be perceived as) trustworthy. This is a matter that the government should solve–figure out who is actually doing the defecting, publicize the results, and then do some trust-building between the police and their communities.

3. If white Yale professors think Yale needs fewer white professors and more black ones, the easiest way for them to demonstrate that they are not defecting against other white professors (who might otherwise receive those spots) is to give up their own professorships in order to make room for black candidates. Alternatively, they could just give up their paychecks to provide funding for the new positions.

4. People seem most willing to cooperate when they are all ethnically similar. Not only are they surrounded by people who are obviously behaving the same as they are, thus reducing concern about misbehavior, they have a genetic interest in cooperating. Defecting against your children or your siblings is a bad strategy in the genetic sense, because fewer copies of your genes end up existing, so people who defect against their own families tend to weed themselves out of the gene pool, leaving behind people who are good at cooperating with their kin.

Japan is an example of a society that is extremely ethnically homogenous. Just look at their little section in the graph at the top of the blog! (They’re on the far right.) Compare the smooth transition from yellow to cream with the jagged lines of the Uzbeks or the Bedouins. And the spirit of public-minded cooperation in Japan is extremely strong. The Japanese are clean, helpful, polite, and commit vanishingly little crime.

By contrast, high levels of ethnic diversity are correlated with high levels of violence, civil war, etc. in countries. There are a few exceptions to this rule, in countries that are so shitty that no one wants to move there, like Haiti. But in general, where people see themselves as ethnically different from their neighbors, they tend to defect on their neighbors.

Hartshorn ran a computer simulation of ethnic cooperation and defection strategies, with colored tiles on a board randomly assigned to cooperate or defect with tiles of their own color and to cooperate or defect with tiles of different colors. (4 different strategies in all.) In every simulation, the tiles that cooperated with their own colors and defected on other colors eventually took over the entire board.

So if two ethnic groups are living in close proximity, there’s a good chance that A. one or both of them will in fact be defecting, B. The group that defects more will actually benefit itself at the expense of the other, thus “winning”; and C. that both groups will become hyper paranoid about watching the other group for possibilities of defection, even if it isn’t happening. This is how wars get started.

The obvious answer to ethnic conflict is don’t have ethnic conflict. Only let people into your country who you would be willing to marry (in the hypothetical sense, not the literal,) and in such numbers that you can absorb them. You might also be able to let in people who are similar enough in behavior that you don’t really notice that they are ethnically different–for example, the Mormons are polytheists who tend to marry other Mormons, but they are generally polite, clean, hardworking, and easy enough to get along with. You could live next door to a Mormon and never even notice.

If the groups in a country do not effectively merge, you end up with two separate groups in one nation, which more often than not results in a bunch of people living in ghettos, and then you are very likely to fall into the mutual-defection trap. If having two (or more) separate groups in your country is inevitable (say, because they’re already there,) then I see two possibilities: A. try very hard to get everyone to think of each other as brothers and sisters in a metaphorical sense, perhaps through national holidays or forced conscription; or B. Give each group a bit of space so that they have fewer opportunities to defect on each other, and don’t set up systems that make people think defection is happening. Letting the Mormons live in Utah, for example, solved the problem of everyone thinking Mormons were weirdos back in the 1800s; letting the Amish be basically self-contained keeps them from getting into too much conflict with their neighbors today. (I think. I don’t have much experience with the Amish.)

Federalism was thought up as a way to let different people in different places effectively manage their own affairs. This system requires, however, that people actually abide by it. If we all agree that each community can educate its own children as it sees fit, and then one community decides it doesn’t have enough money for its schools, then the other communities have to be able to withstand the pressure to bail it out. Once you start bailing out other communities, they aren’t independent communities anymore but your wards, and they have to start abiding by your rules just as children obey their parents, or else we’re back to defection.

(Obviously helping each other out in times of environmental emergency may be perfectly reasonable.)


Different interest groups don’t bargain over the budget, they just add to it

Source: Forbes
Source: Forbes

(Note that I am a little cautious of any graph labeled total gov’t spending, due to it being a pain in the butt to add up the budgets of every city, county, and other municipality in the entire country over many years, but I think the graph may be accurate.)

So this graph came from a Forbes article, “Lessons From the Decades Long Upward March of Government Spending,” which notes that:

For me, the most notable fact about this chart is that the growth of government spending has been remarkably steady. The trend over the last 83 years has been for government spending to rise by 0.24 percent of GDP per year, and the correlation is strong: a linear regression on this trend has an R-squared value of 0.72, meaning that time explains most of the movement in government spending.

In other words, mission creep. If you’re clever, you might start to wonder what will happen if this trend keeps going. If you’re really clever, you might figure out that in 1847, the US must have had negative government spending.

Or maybe there’s more than just mission creep going on.
Here’s a graph of federal spending vs. GDP since 1791:


Wow. Spending pre-WWI looks radically different than spending post-WWII, and I don’t think it’s just the difference between GNP and GDP.

The graph ends at 2011, but 2015’s total gov’t spending is estimated at 6.2 trillion dollars, or 35% of GDP. (Though I’m wondering if that shouldn’t be 39%; someone take a look and tell me why they aren’t adding the 3% for debt. For that matter, they don’t seem to have Social Security listed, and SS is like 24% of the budget so that’s kind of huge if they left it out.) Federal spending seems to be at 21 or 24% of GDP. Obviously these are all estimates.

Prior to WWI, non-wartime government spending was practically flat. Spending as percent of GDP did remain elevated after the Civil war and even after the small bump of the War of 1812, but in both cases it gradually fell back toward pre-war levels, perhaps as much due to gradual economic recovery/growth as budget cuts. Immediately after WWI, it looks like the same process has begun, but then it doesn’t.

Let’s explore some possible reasons why:

1. Cold War Spending

Maintaining a nuclear arsenal plus a lot of aircraft carriers, fighter jets, and tanks costs a lot more than just trusting your citizens to bring their own guns to the next skirmish.

(“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”)

Defense spending is about 13% of the Federal budget, and 5% of total GDP, which is a bigger % than the entire Federal budget for the entire 1800s except for the Civil War.

The Cold War acts a lot like previous wars, but takes a lot longer.


2. The Income Tax

While there were some, shall we say, mini-income taxes proposed or passed to fund wars in the 1800s, the system really got going with the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913. Look back at the graph; other than the effects of wars ending, (including the Cold War,) spending as % of GDP has been steadily on the increase ever since.

Prior to 1913, the Federal government got most of its money from tariffs, customs, and certain sales taxes. The Income Tax obviously made it much, much easier to increase tax revenues, regardless of the reason. One may wonder about the wisdom behind such a move:

During the two decades following the expiration of the Civil War income tax, the Greenback movement, the Labor Reform Party, the Populist Party, the Democratic Party and many others called for a graduated income tax.[6]

The Socialist Labor Party advocated a graduated income tax in 1887.[7] The Populist Party “demand[ed] a graduated income tax” in its 1892 platform.[8] The Democratic Party, led by William Jennings Bryan, advocated the income tax law passed in 1894,[9] and proposed an income tax in its 1908 platform.[10]

“The federal income tax was strongly favored in the South, and it was moderately supported in the eastern North Central states, but it was strongly opposed in the Far West and the Northeastern States (with the exception of New Jersey).[14] The tax was derided as “un-Democratic, inquisitorial, and wrong in principle.”[15]” source: Wikipedia 

Looks like poor farmers and laborers wanted to increase taxes on the wealthy and get rid of taxes that fell on themselves. The government decided to go along with the scheme because hey, free money. So you I guess you have the socialists to thank for your nukes.

Interestingly, William Jennings Bryan, one of the populist popularizers of the idea of the income tax as a means of freeing the people from the shackles of the gold standard, (“You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!“) was an anti-Darwinist who lobbied for (and got) state laws banning the teaching of evolution in public schools and represented the prosecution in the Scopes Trial in 1925. According to the Wikipedia, he opposed evolution not only on the regular religious grounds, but also because he feared its use as an weapon of war, ie the Social Darwinism being promoted by the Germans.

The US officially switched to fiat money in 1976, well into our long rise.

Anyway, here’s a graph showing the prominent role of income taxes in the Federal Budget:

Revenue pie

If the Federal government were still limited to customs and excise taxes, this would be a much smaller pie.


3. The Federal Reserve

Like the Income Tax, the Federal Reserve Bank of the US was founded in 1913–boy was Woodrow Wilson busy. It purpose was to stabilize the banking industry and prevent bank runs from wrecking the economy, and I believe it serves as one of the major lenders to the US government, letting them spend more than they take in.

I am basically  ambivalent on questions like, “Is the Fed a good thing?” or “Should we allow fractional reserve banking?” until I know more, but I am a little sympathetic toward the Fed just because QE is one of the few things anyone in government has actually done to try to fix the economy.

Here’s a graph for you, showing the growth of deficit spending:



4. Suffrage

The percent of Americans who are legally allowed to vote and actually do so has increased from <5% in the late 1700s to almost 45% today. (Wikipedia)


Back in the 1700s/early 1800s, only free adult males who owned property were allowed to vote; the laws were set by state and so varied a bit–in some places property owning women could vote, for example; ethnicity was probably a concern here and there.

The first major expansion of the franchise occurred between 1792 and 1856, as the property requirements were repealed state-by-state. Looks like several states abolished theirs around 1820, including NY and AL. (Actually, looks like Alabama entered the Union around them with no property requirement to start with.)

I’m guessing the 1866 dip is due to disenfranchisement of Southerners due to the Civil War.

Racial restrictions on voting were removed in 1869. The black vote does not represent a very large expansion in suffrage just because black men were a relatively small % of the overall population at the time and the KKK and other groups were effectively preventing them, especially by the early 1900s, from voting.

The biggest single jump in the graph begins around 1920, when women were allowed to vote–an expansion that more than doubled the size of the voting population.

Since then, there have been a few small expansions–the elimination of poll taxes and other impediments to voting; the voting age switched from 21 to 18, etc.

Overall, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that women seem to prefer spending on social welfare projects, and men prefer spending on armies.

You might think that different interest groups would argue over the budget until they come to a reasonable compromise, or that one year Democrats would pass all of their ideas, and then a Republican administration would come along, repeal it all, and pass their own agenda.

But this doesn’t happen; it’s been over 40 years since Roe vs. Wade, and Republicans still haven’t gotten rid of it.

Once one side passes a spending program, it’s virtually guaranteed to stay.


5. Modern Mass-Media

As I have discussed before, recent (ie, in the past 100 or so years) technological advances have created a completely novel memetic environment. For almost the entirety of human history, people got almost all of the information about the world around them from the people around them, principally their parents, grandparents, and tribal/village elders. Information passed vertically in this way I refer to as “meme mitochondria,” due to their similarity to the mitochondrial DNA passed down from mother to child.

Since the invention of the printing press, and increasingly since radio, TV, and the internet, people have gotten more and more of their information about the world from these sources. Information thus passed horizontally I call “meme viruses,” due to the similarity with the horizontal spread of conventional viruses. (I’d call them “viral memes,” but that name’s taken.)

I theorize that evolution selects for meme mitochondria that maximize the chances of their own reproduction, that is, since they are passed largely from parent to child, they are ideas that encourage high natality, personal survival, and loyalty to family and tribe. Meme mitochondria do not need to encourage any kind of loyalty to people outside one’s tribe or protect their lives in any way.

Meme viruses, being spread horizontally, succeed by promoting the common good of the group, but do not need to promote the welfare of the individual, nor natality.

Modern mass communication technologies, therefore, have created a completely evolutionarily novel selective environment in which horizontal meme transmission has become dominant over vertical transmission for the first time in all of human history, which may in turn cause people to demand radically different things of their governments, like social welfare spending or legalized gay marriage.


6. Longer Life Expectancies

The single biggest expense in the government budget is old people:


At the state and local level, pensions become a big deal.

Here’s a different graph:

Source: Policy Basics "Where tax dollars go"
Source: Policy Basics “Where tax dollars go

Anyway, Social Security is the single largest item in the Federal budget at 24%, and pensions and Medicare add quite a bit more–overall, I wouldn’t be surprised if old people received a full half of government budget dollars.

“But wait,” I hear you saying, “Social Security is totally special and not a real government expenditure because I paid into it and therefore it’s something I’m entitled to but totally not an entitlement.”

Well, no. Not really. Sorry, but Social Security is a ponzi scheme. You don’t pay into it and then get your own money back out. The money you put in now goes to pay retirees right now. When you retire in the future, future workers will pay for you.

The whole system was thought up during a time of expanding population growth, when there were plenty of new workers around to pay for old workers to retire. As growth has tapered off, this system has become less viable.

There was actually a Supreme Court case in which the court decided that Social Security is not, in fact, an entitlement.

By the way, “not an entitlement” means “there is no guarantee you will get this because you are not entitled to it.” If the government decides that it just can’t afford to fund Social Security anymore, well, then you just won’t get Social Security anymore.

(Yes, I have had some very annoying discussions with people who complain about the evils of “entitlements” while defending their right to never, ever have their Social Security cheques cut.)

Medicine and hygiene being what they were back in the 1800s, there were just fewer old people around. Even if they’d had Social Security back then, it would have been a much smaller program.


Changes in the composition of the budget over the past 50 years:


Of course, there was a war going on in 1964, but it still shows just how much Social Security and related programs have expanded over the decades.

I have a two more graphs that might be of interest:


Grey bars mark recessions

u.S. Spending And Revenue In Relation To GDP

Interesting how local spending crashed between 1933 and 1945 as Federal spending took off.


I always look at people funny when they complain that proposed government program X or Y is socialist. “We’re already socialist,” I tell them. When government spending is 25% of the entire nation’s GDP (and I’m not sure if that even includes Social Security,) you are already living in a socialist country. If the theory that politics is really just people arguing over the budget is correct, then as the budget becomes an increasingly large percent of GDP, then I expect the political discourse to only become more heated and nastier as people’s entire livelihoods become increasingly dependent on whether or not they qualify for a government handout or program of some sort.

Finally, the Forbes article also notes:

Most importantly, trends on entitlements look a lot more unfavorable than they did in 1992. Baby boom retirements will continue to push Social Security spending upward, by about a percentage point of GDP over the next 25 years. Medicare costs actually aren’t growing as fast as they did in the early 1990s, but they are starting off a larger base, making medical inflation a more significant fiscal problem than it used to be.

I don’t think the upward trend can continue forever.




The US government tested the effects of nuclear radiation and atomic warfare on live, human subjects–our own soldiers. Called the Desert Rock Exercises, (and Operation Plumbbob,) they destroyed the lives of thousands of Americans.

“In Operation Desert Rock, the military conducted a series of nuclear tests in the Nevada Proving Grounds between 1951 and 1957, exposing thousands of participants – both military and civilian – to high levels of radiation.

“In total, more nearly 400,000 American soldiers and civilians would be classified as ‘atomic veterans.’

“Though roughly half of those veterans were survivors of World War II, serving at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, the rest were exposed to nuclear grounds tests which lasted until 1962.”

Sure, we could have tested it on pigs, or monkeys, or cows, but nothing beats marching your own people into an atomic blast to see if it gives them cancer.

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Of course it gives them cancer.

The Soviets did similar things to their own soldiers. In 1954, the Soviets dropped a 40,000-ton atomic weapon on 45,000 of their own troops, just north of Totskoye. More on Totskoye, and more. I don’t know for sure if these photos are from those tests, but they’re awfully haunting:

strange-photo strange-photo-3

One of my–let us say Uncles–died in Vietnam. He was 17. His mother, who had signed the papers to let him enlist even though he wasn’t 18, who had thought the army would be a good thing for him, sort him out, get his life on track, never recovered.

His name is not on the Vietnam Memorial.

image 004VietnamWar_468x382

And for what did we die in France’s war to retain its colonies?

I think I’m starting to understand these guys:


NEW EAGLE AND PATCH DESIGN 05-15-10-viet-nam-vets

The Spoils

Someone else’s theory, with my own reflections:

Let’s assume most of politics is actually people arguing over political spoils–who gets to eat the gov’t pie.

When Gov’t is small, there’s not a lot of pie to argue over. It might be corrupt pie, with all of the pieces going to the family of whoever’s in charge, but there’s just not much to fight over.

When gov’t is big, there’s a lot more pie to fight over. The bigger the pie, the more fighting we should get.

With gov’t spending somewhere around 40% of GDP, that’s a fucking HUGE pie. No wonder people fight so much over politics. It doesn’t really matter if you think “privilege” is a dumb or brilliant word; it does matter if you get free healthcare, a job building drones, or food stamps, and as a result, you will probably fight pretty hard to keep whatever part of the gov’t pie you are and fight pretty hard against people you don’t like getting more of the pie.

At 40%, it’s not even meaningful anymore to talk about the benefits of socialism vs. libertarianism; our system is socialist and it’s going to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Most likely, it will only become more socialist (and btw, it’s the Republicans who actually do the most to push us in the socialist direction by increasing the % of GDP that’s gov’t spending–they just like to spend it all on bombs.)

At its most extreme, the problem with socialist systems is that if one group of people effectively captures the political system, they can just decide that they don’t want to give any resources anymore to those guys they don’t like, and the result us Holodomor, because 0% of 100% is death.

At its most extreme, the problem with libertarian systems is also death, though in a much less organized way–see the Great Depression, or whatever example you’d like to supply.

We might for amusement try to calculate which kind of system kills more people, fail, and argue endlessly. (I charge you with doing this for me, so I can skip straight to discussion.) We’re not at a point where we really need to worry about the extremes of either system, but I do think we are at a point where we should worry that the size of the gov’t pie is simply too big for a peaceful society.

Should we, as a society, attempt to scale back the size of the gov’t pie simply for the sake of a more peaceful society where growth is driven more by innovation and economic activity? Or should we embrace the robot economy and head even further down the socialist path, just keeping in mind the importance of getting everything comfortably divided now, rather than later, when it will be much harder?

Your thoughts and opinions?

Who Owns a Country?

“There have been periods where the folks who were already here suddenly say, ‘Well, I don’t want those folks,’ even though the only people who have the right to say that are some Native Americans.” — Barak Obama, 11/25/14

As I see it, a country is like a garden. Run well, the garden will make food. Run badly, you end up with a bunch of dirt.

As much as anarchist philosophy appeals to me, unfortunately, running a garden well requires at least some coherent strategy bundled up with some property rights, otherwise obvious issues arise–if you’re not guaranteed rights to your garden from year to year, you have no interest in building up the soil, and end up with dry dirt. If just anyone can come eat your produce, they probably will, and you’ll have nothing to show for your effort. If a neighbor can dump their trash on your property, they often will.

Countries are obviously more complicated than gardens, but much of a country’s success or failure depends on how well it is run. North and South Korea, for example, began with very similar conditions, but now are radically different due to communism being kinda like trying to run a country while throwing bricks at yourself.

The point of gov’t is to make running the country easier by having a coherent decision-making and executing system in place, instead of making it up from scratch or trying to get 300 million people to all cooperate at the same time. It is the gov’t’s ethical duty to look out for the interests of its citizens and run the country to their benefit, because, frankly, no one else will. If the American gov’t doesn’t take care of Americans, the Canadian gov’t is unlikely to step in and do the job.

(Note: this does not countenance aggression against other countries.)

Unfortunately, governments experience all sorts of mission creep and sometimes do dumb things like communism. Or if you’re an American, the Republicans try to take all of your produce and give it to corporations, while Democrats want to tear down your garden wall and let anyone who walks by snack on your orchard. (Leading, pathetically, to the idea that the best strategy is to try to prevent the gov’t from actually governing at all.)

As an American citizen, I assert that Americans do, in fact, have a right to determine who does an does not come over their borders. We may decide to let in anyone who wants to come. We may decide to let in no one. But that is our decision, our right to make. All of us have that right, not just the Indians.

(Last time I checked, “Indian” was the preferred term by a small margin, with “Native American” reserved for more academic uses, like Anthropology.)

I happen to have some Indian ancestry (I happen to have ancestry from a fair number of groups.) This does not mean I have any more right to determine what goes on in this country than any other citizen. A citizen is a citizen. We have equal rights.

To say that Americans don’t have the right to run their own country… You cannot say that, and still claim to be acting in the interests of Americans, the gov’t’s one and only purpose.

Of course, that does not mean the policies involved are wrong. (There is nothing to stop a dictator from imposing good policies. Unfortunately, there’s not much to stop them from imposing bad policies.)

So, how do we understand the POTUS saying something anti-democratic, and that many people would interpret as basically treasonous? Surely the president doesn’t actually have any such intentions.

To return to our previous discussion of memes, the term “American” does not necessarily mean “all citizens of the US.” Rather, the term is taken to mean the remnant population of conservative whites. I think the statement actually means, not “Americans have no right to determine who enters their country,” but “Conservative whites have no right to determine who enters this country,” which is a more sensible statement, given that there are plenty of people in the country who are not conservative whites, and might have different opinions on the matter. (It is probably not much of a coincidence that most new immigrants tend to vote for the democrats.)

Of course, when giving conservatives the finger, I think it reasonable to consider whether the policy being pursued is actually in the best interests of everyone already here, but that’s a separate matter.