Why are there so Many Lizard People–and how do we GET RID OF THEM?

Cabrini Green, circa 1960

I’ve finally come up with a good definition for the Lizard People:

People who prioritize order above human utility–including their own.

It’s easy to understand why people harm others if they benefit personally in the process. We might not like it, but at least we understand it, and self-interested people can be reasoned with.

Lizard people look like people, but they seem to lack the ability to reason like people. They make other people’s lives worse, but for no discernible personal benefit. They use words like “progress” or “improvement,” “rational” or “modern,” “rules” or “policies,” to justify their policies, while ignoring complaints from the people involved that the new policies actually break more than they fix.

Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri

Or to put it another way: lizard people are the folks who thought Cabrini Green looked nice and built it that way on purpose.

After all, housing projects don’t simply appear out of thin air. Hundreds if not thousands of people were substantially involved in the process of creating some of the ugliest monuments to poverty the nation has ever bulldozed.

And as Slate Star Codex recently discussed in his review of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, this didn’t happen by accident or because ugly buildings were somehow cheaper than regular ones. It happened because there was a whole school of thought, the Modernists, who thought it would be grand to redesign whole cities to be “modern” and “rational”. As Scott Alexander notes:

The worst of the worst was Le Corbusier, the French artist/intellectual/architect. The Soviets asked him to come up with a plan to redesign Moscow. He came up with one: kick out everyone, bulldoze the entire city, and redesign it from scratch upon rational principles….

The Soviets decided to pass: the plan was too extreme and destructive of existing institutions even for Stalin. Undeterred, Le Corbusier changed the word “Moscow” on the diagram to “Paris”, then presented it to the French government (who also passed). Some aspects of his design eventually ended up as Chandigarh, India. …

the Modernists rarely got their hands on entire cities at once. They did build a number of suburbs, neighborhoods, and apartment buildings. There was, however, a disconnect. Most people did not want to buy a High Modernist house or live in a High Modernist neighborhood. Most governments did want to fund High Modernist houses and neighborhoods, because the academics influencing them said it was the modern scientific rational thing to do. So in the end, one of High Modernists’ main contributions to the United States was the projects – ie government-funded public housing for poor people who didn’t get to choose where to live.

I recommend Alexander’s entire post, because by the end you will have a much better idea of what I mean by “Lizard People” than I can possibly explain myself.

Or to give a much more mundane, local example:

After a couple of the local teenagers got drivers’ licenses and a large family moved in down the block, our neighborhood developed a parking problem: more cars than spaces. Residents complained, so the HOA handed down a ruling: no one can park in the spare spaces. Problem solved!

My personal experience with HOAs is that they are run by lizard people, overly concerned with having a “rule” and a “policy” for everything, and rarely with actually maximizing the property values of the HOAs members.

It’s kind of odd that people don’t discuss HOAs more often, because they’re a level of government that millions of people are exposed to, voting is restricted to property owners, and they’re small enough that individuals could have an effect on them.

To be clear, it’s not that order is itself inherently bad. For example, Alexander posted a map of Chicago (laid out in a grid) next to a map of a traditional, twisty-windy-street city. But Chicago’s sewers are a true engineering marvel:

During the 1850s and 1860s engineers carried out a piecemeal raising of the level of central Chicago. Streets, sidewalks and buildings were physically raised on hydraulic jacks or jackscrews. The work was funded by private property owners and public funds. …

During the 19th century, the elevation of the Chicago area was not much higher than the shorelines of Lake Michigan, so for many years there was little or no naturally occurring drainage from the city surface. The lack of drainage caused unpleasant living conditions, and standing water harbored pathogens that caused numerous epidemics. Epidemics including typhoid fever and dysentery blighted Chicago six years in a row culminating in the 1854 outbreak of cholera that killed six percent of the city’s population.[2][3][4][5]

In January 1858, the first masonry building in Chicago to be thus raised—a four story, 70-foot (21 m) long, 750-ton brick structure situated at the north-east corner of Randolph Street and Dearborn Street—was lifted on two hundred jackscrews to its new grade, which was 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 m) higher than the old one, “without the slightest injury to the building.”[8] It was the first of more than fifty comparably large masonry buildings to be raised that year.[9]

By 1860, confidence was sufficiently high that a consortium … took on one of the most impressive locations in the city and hoisted it up complete and in one go. They lifted half a city block on Lake Street, between Clark Street and LaSalle Street; a solid masonry row of shops, offices, printeries, etc., 320 feet (98 m) long, comprising brick and stone buildings, some four stories high, some five, having a footprint taking up almost one acre (4,000 m2) of space, and an estimated all in weight including hanging sidewalks of thirty five thousand tons. Businesses operating out of these premises were not closed down for the lifting; as the buildings were being raised, people came, went, shopped and worked in them as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. In five days the entire assembly was elevated 4 feet 8 inches (1.42 m) in the air by a team consisting of six hundred men using six thousand jackscrews, ready for new foundation walls to be built underneath. The spectacle drew crowds of thousands, who were on the final day permitted to walk at the old ground level, among the jacks.[12][13][14][15] …

Many of central Chicago’s hurriedly erected wooden frame buildings were now considered wholly inappropriate to the burgeoning and increasingly wealthy city. Rather than raise them several feet, proprietors often preferred to relocate these old frame buildings, replacing them with new masonry blocks built to the latest grade. Consequently, the practice of putting the old multi-story, intact and furnished wooden buildings—sometimes entire rows of them en bloc—on rollers and moving them to the outskirts of town or to the suburbs was so common as to be considered nothing more than routine traffic. Traveller David Macrae wrote incredulously, “Never a day passed during my stay in the city that I did not meet one or more houses shifting their quarters. One day I met nine. Going out Great Madison Street in the horse cars we had to stop twice to let houses get across.” As discussed above, business did not suffer; shop owners would keep their shops open, even as people had to climb in through a moving front door.[34][35][36][37][38]

In other words, Chicago was too low and flat to drain properly, (which probably has a lot to do with it being laid out so neatly in the first place,) much less build underground sewers, and as a result, people kept getting sick. So they just used a bunch of jacks to lift the city and built the sewers at ground level, then filled in the open space with dirt and rubble.

So, yes, I am in favor of sewers, and even major, city-altering projects in order to install sewers. Sewers are good. Not dying of cholera is awesome. Nothing here should be interpreted as “let’s go die of terrible, preventable diseases in a muddy peasant hovel.”

But too often the imposition of order doesn’t prevent cholera; too often it just makes everything worse. “I have a solution!” doesn’t mean you have a good solution.

The biggest projects ever undertaken to improve human welfare, organized entirely along scientific, “rational” principles, resulted in the deaths of over 35 million people. No one is sure exactly how many people starved to death in the process of collectivization–Wikipedia lists estimates between 5.5 and 8 million for the Soviet famine of 1932-33, 23-55 million for China’s Great Leap Forward, and goodness knows how many we should count for North Korea, Cambodia, Ethiopia, etc.

It’s one thing to raise a city, one block at a time, on hydraulic jacks. It’s quite another matter to redesign an society from the ground up. Even if people’s current systems aren’t functioning perfectly, like the parking situation in my my neighborhood, systems tend to exist as they are because they are serving some purpose and you can’t just step in and sweep them aside without understanding what that purpose was. Moreover, whatever imperfect system you have, people are used to it and most of them have already adapted their lives around it. Before the French Revolution, there were thousands of people who made their livings producing lace, candles, and other luxury goods for the French Nobility. Chop off the king’s head, and some poor hatter will be out of a job.

Or as they say, if you come across a fence in the woods that doesn’t have any obvious purpose, it’s a good idea to figure out why it’s there before you go tearing it down.

But back to the Lizard People: the Lizard People are folks who, as everyone around them is transformed into skeletal corpses, keep insisting that everything is fine and we just need to stick with the plan–maybe even stick to the plan even harder.

And the strangest thing is that these people exist at all, and moreover, that instead of being shunned by society at large, they are often promoted–to manager, overseer, or government office.

Whatever can we do?

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Why are People Poor? A Response to Bishop Camara

“When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were poor, they called me a communist.” —Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, Brazilian Roman Catholic Archbishop, 1909 – 1999

c08pnclw8aapot6In Bishop Camara’s case, they might have been calling him a communist because he was an open socialist who advocated Liberation Theology. But leaving the specific case aside, let’s speak more generally: the problem isn’t that people think it’s inherently communist to wonder why there are poor people; the problem is that you are asking the wrong question.

The state that we now call “poor” was the default condition of the vast, overwhelming majority of humans for the entirety of our existence on this planet. Agriculture has only existed for 10,000 of humanity’s 200,000 years; the vast majority of your ancestors were hunter-gatherers with no more wealth to their names than what they could comfortably carry on their backs or construct in a few hours’ time out of grass and sticks. A modern guy living out of his car has more wealth than our ancestors did.

 

The important question is not why most of the world’s people are still poor. The question is why some of the world’s people (or groups of people) have become fabulously wealthy, and if whatever they did can work for everyone else.

The Dramatic Decline in World Poverty, from CATO https://www.cato.org/blog/dramatic-decline-world-poverty
The Dramatic Decline in World Poverty, from CATO

Why are people poor?

Why shouldn’t they be poor?

You want to be rich? Figure out how the rich did it.

Quality of life and human well-being have increased tremendously around the world in the past 30 years. The number of people suffering starvation has dropped precipitously. Why? Did Ethiopia and China introduce some fabulous new welfare program to provide for their poorest citizens? No. Capitalism and technological advances in food production happened. (Caveat: Russia post-USSR had collapsing well-being due to, AFAIK, terribly managed and opportunistic transition to capitalism. As always, don’t be stupid.)

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A tragedy in three acts
A tragedy in three acts

Before you can make solve problems, you have to understand what the problems actually are–and that requires asking the correct questions in the first place.

Second, you have to answer the question properly.

Entropy, Life, and Welfare (pt 2)

images(This is Part 2. Part 1 and Part 3 are here.)

Complex systems, because they must be homeostatic to exist at all, can absorb and disguise the symptoms of a great deal of internal stress.

The collapse of the Soviet Union remains one of the great mysteries of Political Science, not because it happened (that is easy enough to understand,) but because Political Scientists did not predict it.

The big problem with planned economies is that their incentive structures make self-correction almost impossible. For example, when the law allowed Soviet officials to confiscate unlimited quantities of grain in 1932, about 7 million people died. The people who could see the famine happening were not the ones with the power to change tax laws nor the incentives pressuring officials to confiscate so much grain in the first place. As Wikipedia relates:

Alexander Wienberger, Holodomor
Alexander Wienberger, Holodomor

From the 1932 harvest, Soviet authorities were able to procure only 4.3 million tons as compared with 7.2 million tons obtained from the 1931 harvest.[49] Rations in town were drastically cut back, and in the winter of 1932–33 and spring of 1933 people in many urban areas were starved.[50] The urban workers were supplied by a rationing system (and therefore could occasionally assist their starving relatives of the countryside), but rations were gradually cut; and by the spring of 1933, the urban residents also faced starvation. At the same time, workers were shown agitprop movies, where all peasants were portrayed as counterrevolutionaries hiding grain and potatoes at a time when workers, who were constructing the “bright future” of socialism, were starving.[51]

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Excuse me. I need a moment.

Say what you will for libertarianism, it has at least the basic ingredients for a self-correcting system. A farmer, left to his own devices, will not sell so much of his own grain that he starves. A factory owner will not order incorrect parts for his own factory because his profits would suffer. But in a planned economy, the person doing the ordering or deciding how much grain to sell does not personally benefit (or suffer) from these transactions, and so has no interest in their efficiency. Their incentives are totally different–they have a boss higher up in the party to please; they are required to increase the efficiency of Sector G; they are supposed to hire more people people from underrepresented groups; etc.

As Wikipedia notes:

Most information in the Soviet economy flowed from the top down. There were several mechanisms in place for producers and consumers to provide input and information that would help in the drafting of economic plans (as detailed below), but the political climate was such that few people ever provided negative input or criticism of the plan. Thus, Soviet planners had very little reliable feedback that they could use to determine the success of their plans. This meant that economic planning was often done based on faulty or outdated information, particularly in sectors with large numbers of consumers. As a result, some goods tended to be underproduced, leading to shortages, while other goods were overproduced and accumulated in storage. Low-level managers often did not report such problems to their superiors, relying instead on each other for support. Some factories developed a system of barter and either exchanged or shared raw materials and parts without the knowledge of the authorities and outside the parameters of the economic plan. …

The cumbersome procedures for bureaucratic administration foreclosed the free communication and flexible response required at the enterprise level for dealing with worker alienation, innovation, customers, and suppliers. During 1975–85, corruption and data fiddling became common practice among bureaucracy to report satisfied targets and quotas thus entrenching the crisis.

cw3bumxusaavkjbCastellano writes in Causes of the Soviet Collapse:

Around 1975, the Soviet Union entered a period of economic stagnation from which it would never emerge. Increasingly, the USSR looked to Europe, primarily West Germany, to provide hard currency financing through massive loans, while the U.S. became a major supplier of grain.[1] Despite moments of anti-Communist grandstanding, the Americans and Western Europeans maintained trade relations with the cash-strapped Soviet Union, which dipped into its Stalin-era gold reserves to increase availability of consumer goods.

Foreign trade and mild economic reforms were not enough to overcome the inefficiencies of the Soviet command economy, which remained technologically backward and full of corruption. Economic planners were frequently unable to diagnose and remedy problems, since they were given false reports by officials who only pretended to be productive. Soviet living standards remained poor by Western standards. By 1980, only 9 percent of Soviets had automobiles, which was actually a vast improvement under Brezhnev.

Back to Wikipedia:

One of the greatest strengths of Soviet economy was its vast supplies of oil and gas; world oil prices quadrupled in the 1973-74, and rose again in 1979-1981, making the energy sector the chief driver of the Soviet economy, and was used to cover multiple weaknesses. During this period, USSR had the lowest per-capita incomes among the other socialist countries.[49] At one point, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin told the head of oil and gas production, “things are bad with bread. Give me 3 million tons [of oil] over the plan.” [50] Former prime minister Yegor Gaidar, an economist looking back three decades, in 2007 wrote:

The hard currency from oil exports stopped the growing food supply crisis, increased the import of equipment and consumer goods, ensured a financial base for the arms race and the achievement of nuclear parity with the United States, and permitted the realization of such risky foreign-policy actions as the war in Afghanistan.[51]

Awareness of the growing crisis arose initially within the KGB which with its extensive network of informants in every region and institution had its finger on the pulse of the nation. Yuri Andropov, director of the KGB, created a secret department during the 1970s within the KGB devoted to economic analysis, and when he succeeded Brezhnev in 1982 sounded the alarm forcefully to the Soviet leadership. Andropov’s remedy of increased discipline, however, proved ineffective. It was only when Andropov’s protege Gorbachev assumed power that a determined, but ultimately unsuccessful, assault on the economic crisis was undertaken.[52]

And back to Castellano:

 By 1988, private ownership was permitted in certain manufacturing industries. Ironically, these reforms actually caused the Soviet economy to deteriorate further, as unprofitable private enterprises were now subsidized by the state, and the lack of state oversight of supply lines resulted in shortages of food and clothing, which were unknown even under Brezhnev.[8]

By the mid-1980s, the Warsaw Pact satellites had ceased to be an economic asset to the Soviet Union, and in fact Gorbachev’s withdrawal had been motivated in part by economic considerations. There was no longer a real danger of war with Western Europe, so the bloc had lost its strategic significance as well.

People atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on November 9, 1989.
People atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on November 9, 1989.

You know how this story ends. The Wall comes down, communism crumbles in all but Cuba and North Korea, and Russia is further assaulted by “shock therapy,” which it is in no position to cope with.

And yet, even in the months just before the Wall fell, no one predicted that it was about to happen. It was very easy to see, from an economic position, that the USSR couldn’t just keep limping on–even the KGB knew that. But “Communism is broken” is information we’d had for six decades already, and the USSR looked like it was in no hurry to finally go ahead and kick the bucket.

Socialism fails because it prevents economic feedback from directing the flow of resources to the places where they’re needed, but even a terrible system like the USSR’s can keep limping along like it’s going to last forever right until the day it falls.

There are reports now coming out of socialist Venezuela of people eating pets, rats, and worse, each other (I am not quoting the cannibalism article, you can read it yourself. This is from the one about eating cats, dogs, and garbage):

Ramón Muchacho, Mayor of Chacao in Caracas, said the streets of the capital of Venezuela are filled with people killing animals for food.

Through Twitter, Muchacho reported that in Venezuela, it is a “painful reality” that people “hunt cats, dogs and pigeons” to ease their hunger. … People are also reportedly gathering vegetables from the ground and trash to eat as well. … The week before, various regions of the country saw widespread looting of shopping malls, pharmacies, supermarkets and food trucks, all while people chanted “we are hungry.”

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s currency has become so worthless, shopkeepers are weighing piles of notes instead of counting them.

Command economies just don’t work very well.

cw1htkluuaatpa7We Americans have our own reasons why we should be concerned, from the death of manufacturing to the increasing national debt. The Federal Budget is about 20% of total GDP. The government periodically threatens to default on its debts while funding wars against non-enemies like Iraq. Obligations like pensions and Social Security are often ridiculously under-funded (to the tune of billions of dollars that investments simply haven’t produced) or depend on infinite population growth–which, of course, no nation can ever maintain. As CNBC reports:

Weak investment performance and insufficient contributions will cause total unfunded liabilities for U.S. state public pensions to balloon by 40 percent to $1.75 trillion through fiscal 2017, Moody’s Investors Service said in a report on Thursday. …

It has been a tough year for the funds, which earned a median 0.52 percent on investments in fiscal 2016 versus their average assumed return rate of 7.5 percent, Moody’s said.

Assumptions. The sheer gall of it is flabbergasting.

Steve Bannon gave this rather insightful speech about our deteriorating economic situation several years ago:

(But you know, underwear is racist so let’s ignore the economy…)

To be continued: Return to  Part 1 or continue to Part 3.)

Does the Growth of Cities Contribute to Revolutions?

Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are ostensibly “working class” candidates (and draw their support overwhelmingly from white voters,) and yet, Trump and Sanders voters don’t see themselves as allied or their candidates as advocating for the same people.

As usual, I’ve actually been reading about the French Revolution, rather than modern American electoral politics.

To summarize quickly, just in case it’s been a while since you read anything on the subject, much of the revolution was driven by hoards of hungry peasants roaming around the streets of Paris, marching on Versailles, breaking into the democratic assemblies, etc. These hungry, mostly urban peasants are generally credited with helping start the revolution and driving it to the left.

Their most frequent and vocal demand, quite sensibly, was bread. France had some very bad winters/harvests around that time, and liberalization of trade policy with Britain put a lot of textile workers out of business. The result was high grain prices and unemployed people, which leads, of course, to starvation, and if you’re going to die, you might as well do it trying to get food from the king than just succumbing in an alleyway.

The trend in the countryside tended to be the opposite of that in the cities–rural peasants felt the pinch of taxes and bad harvests, but at least they had their own farms to depend on, and rarely had the population density to march on anything, anyway. The peasant revolts in the French countryside during the revolutionary years, like that in the Vendee, tended to be counter-revolutionary and intended to push the country in a more conservative direction.

The counter-revolution in the Vendee was ruthlessly suppressed, unlike uprisings in the city.

Peasants in the city got listened to, at least early in the revolution–perhaps simply because they were in the city; they could both put pressure directly on the government, which happened to be located in the cities, and they had more opportunities to converse with and gain the ears of government officials.

Revolutionary changes that made life better for peasants in the city often made life worse for peasants in the country (whence the counter-revolutions in the countryside.) City peasants chiefly desire lower grain prices; country peasants chiefly desire higher grain prices.

In both the French and Russian Revolutions, the urban poor became convinced that high grain prices were some sort of rural conspiracy–perhaps an anti-revolution urban conspiracy–with rural peasants supposedly hording grain instead of selling it in order to drive up the price and, perhaps, destroy the revolution.

In both cases, the revolutionary governments responded by forcibly confiscating grain from the peasants (in Russia, this led to mass starvation in the countryside, as the peasants truly had not been hoarding grain!) and introduced price controls.

Communism (or more mildly, socialism,) is supposed to be about all of the poor, but in practice it often pits the needs of one group of peasants against those of another group. The growth of cities themselves may contribute to the tendency toward instability by creating a new group of people who do not have their own farms to fall back on when food prices rise and whose income is dependent on economic cycles/factors outside their own control, leading to hungry times in the city whenever a factory has to lay off workers due to a slowdown in production.

 

Bernie Sanders’s supporters basically see themselves as supporters of the urban poor; Donald Trump’s supporters basically see themselves as supporters of the rural poor.

On a related note, from the NY Times, 2/13/16 (h/t Steve Sailer)

“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” Mrs. Clinton asked the audience of black, white and Hispanic union members, “would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the L.G.B.T. community?,” she said, using an abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. “Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

At each question, the crowd called back with a resounding no.

Short thoughts on French and Russian Revolutions

The French Revolution was caused, primarily, by a confluence of three factors:

  1. Bad harvests=> to starving peasants. Starving peasants will risk death for food.
  2. The gov’t went deep into debt to fund expensive wars and could extract no more taxes from the starving peasants.
  3. The legal system was crusty and inefficient, due to old age.

The Russian Revolution was primarily caused by WWI:

  1. It was far more expensive than Russia could afford,
  2. Unarmed peasants ordered to fling themselves in front of German machine guns react a lot like starving peasants told to go eat cake
  3. Probably a lot of starving peasants.

I don’t know if the Russian legal system was as crusty as the French one, but the whole thing was run by Nicholas, which is not a good sign.

In both cases, the immediate priority for the revolutionary gov’t ought to be halting the deaths of the peasants. Things like standardizing weights and measures or executing the monarch, whether you like those ideas or not, far fall, fall below “getting people bread” and “getting rid of the machine guns.”

Unfortunately, at least in the Russian case, instead of replacing their old, peasant-starving gov’t with a gov’t sensitive to the caloric needs of its people, they replaced it with a gov’t that was massively better at not getting overthrown by starving peasants.

Leading promptly to the starvation of millions of people.