Phase Change and Revolutions

Phase changes don’t usually happen instantly, like in the video, but they are sudden from the perspective of temperature. You don’t see a few ice crystals forming at 40 degrees, a few large chunks of ice at 38, the water halfway frozen at 34, and the whole thing solid at 32. No, at 34 degrees, water is liquid. Water is a liquid all the way from 100 to 33 degrees, and then suddenly, without warning, it transforms at 32 (even if it takes a little time.) By 31.9, it’s a solid chunk.

One of the enduring mysteries of political science is “Why did no one in political science predict the fall of the Soviet Union?” One of the other enduring mysteries of political science is “Why on earth did the Soviet Union fall when it did? Why not earlier–or later?”

Political regimes don’t fall very often. We can look around the world today and see a number of repressive states–North Korea, Venezuela, Iran–that don’t look like they’re doing a very good job of taking care of their citizens, yet their governments stay firmly in power. Why don’t these regimes fall? Or will they–someday?

I propose that regime change is much like phase changes–difficult to predict because they simply cannot happen before a specific point, and they happen so rarely that we don’t have enough data to test exactly which conditions are necessary to make them occur, much less figure out whether those conditions currently exist within a foreign society.

There are probably two main things necessary for something like the fall of the Soviet Union:

First, a majority of the people with guns–the armed forces in most countries, but a lot of civilians in the US–need to stop believing in the regime.

Second, the majority that no longer believes in the regimes’ legitimacy has to know that it is a majority.

Since opposing the regime will usually get you shot, no one wants to be the first guy to say that he doesn’t believe in the regime. Since opposing the regime will get you shot, even people who oppose the regime will go ahead and shoot comrades who have opposed the regime in fear that if they don’t, they will also be shot.

100% of people in a system can oppose the regime and the regime will still keep charging on, shooting dissenters, if no one knows that everyone else is also opposed to the regime.

So how does regime change actually happen?

First, you need crazy people willing to charge, like Don Quixote, at windmills and regimes. These people will usually get shot, which is why they need to be crazy. But if enough people have already decided that the regime is not particularly legitimate, there is a possibility that one of them will decide to be lenient. They will quietly decide not to shoot the revolutionary.

The fall of the Berlin Wall happened almost by accident–new regulations were passed regarding round-trip travel in the Soviet Union and this was read aloud on the radio in a way that made it sound like anyone who wanted was now allowed through the checkpoints into West Berlin, effective immediately. Thousands of people showed up within hours, demanding to be let through (after all, it had been officially announced, as far as they knew.) The overwhelmed border guards didn’t want to shoot that many people, so after a bit of conferring, they gave in and let everyone through.

There were plenty of cracks already in the USSR’s hold on power, but like a tap to the side of a bottle of supercooled water, this one little mistake caused a knowledge cascade. The thousands of people who showed up at the checkpoint (and didn’t get shot) now knew that there were thousands of other people who agreed with them–and soon that knowledge spread to everyone else in East Germany and the rest of the USSR.

The difficulty with predicting when a regime will fall is the difficulty of predicting a random tap to the bottle or a little dust for the first crystals to form around–and that’s assuming you have a state that has already lost legitimacy in the eyes of most of its citizens. If it hasn’t, that same tap does nothing–and unfortunately, states are much more complicated than bottles of water, and so involve a lot more variables than just temperature.

It’s getting late, but I think this suggests that the thing for most regimes (not even official regimes) is not to control legitimacy (that’s hard if, say, the peasants are starving), but to control what people know and make sure they’re convinced that if they step out of line, they will get shot. So long as shooting is on the table, even people who don’t like the regime will go along and enforce it by shooting dissidents.

The whole point of purity spirals and outrage mobs, then, may be to enforce the idea to people that “if you cross this line, you will get [metaphorically] shot” to people thinking of defecting from ideologies within a culture. It doesn’t even matter if the people being destroyed by the mob actually did anything wrong, so long as the mob is effective at destruction.

Re Nichols: Times the Experts were Wrong, pt 3/3

Welcome to our final post of “Times the Experts were Wrong,” written in preparation for our review of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. Professor Nichols, if you ever happen to read this, I hope it give you some insight into where we, the common people, are coming from. If you don’t happen to read it, it still gives me a baseline before reading your book. (Please see part 1 for a discussion of relevant definitions.)

Part 3 Wars:

WWI, Iraq, Vietnam etc.

How many “experts” have lied to convince us to go to war? We were told we had to attack Iraq because they had weapons of mass destruction, but the promised weapons never materialized. Mother Jones (that source of all things pro-Trump) has a timeline:

November 1999: Chalabi-connected Iraqi defector “Curveball”—a convicted sex offender and low-level engineer who became the sole source for much of the case that Saddam had WMD, particularly mobile weapons labs—enters Munich seeking a German visa. German intel officers describe his information as highly suspect. US agents never debrief Curveball or perform background check. Nonetheless, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and CIA will pass raw intel on to senior policymakers. …

11/6/00: Congress doubles funding for Iraqi opposition groups to more than $25 million; $18 million is earmarked for Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, which then pays defectors for anti-Iraq tales. …

Jan 2002: The FBI, which favors standard law enforcement interrogation practices, loses debate with CIA Director George Tenet, and Libi is transferred to CIA custody. Libi is then rendered to Egypt. “They duct-taped his mouth, cinched him up and sent him to Cairo,” an FBI agent told reporters. Under torture, Libi invents tale of Al Qaeda operatives receiving chemical weapons training from Iraq. “This is the problem with using the waterboard. They get so desperate that they begin telling you what they think you want to hear,” a CIA source later tells ABC. …

Feb 2002: DIA intelligence summary notes that Libi’s “confession” lacks details and suggests that he is most likely telling interrogators what he thinks will “retain their interest.” …

9/7/02: Bush claims a new UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report states Iraq is six months from developing a nuclear weapon. There is no such report. …

9/8/02: Page 1 Times story by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon cites anonymous administration officials saying Saddam has repeatedly tried to acquire aluminum tubes “specially designed” to enrich uranium. …

Tubes “are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs…we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”—Rice on CNN …

“We do know, with absolute certainty, that he is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon.”—Cheney on Meet the Press

Oct 2002: National Intelligence Estimate produced. It warns that Iraq “is reconstituting its nuclear program” and “has now established large-scale, redundant and concealed BW agent production capabilities”—an assessment based largely on Curveball’s statements. But NIE also notes that the State Department has assigned “low confidence” to the notion of “whether in desperation Saddam would share chemical or biological weapons with Al Qaeda.” Cites State Department experts who concluded that “the tubes are not intended for use in Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.” Also says “claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa” are “highly dubious.” Only six senators bother to read all 92 pages. …

10/4/02: Asked by Sen. Graham to make gist of NIE public, Tenet produces 25-page document titled “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs.” It says Saddam has them and omits dissenting views contained in the classified NIE. …

2/5/03: In UN speech, Powell says, “Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” Cites Libi’s claims and Curveball’s “eyewitness” accounts of mobile weapons labs. (German officer who supervised Curveball’s handler will later recall thinking, “Mein Gott!”) Powell also claims that Saddam’s son Qusay has ordered WMD removed from palace complexes; that key WMD files are being driven around Iraq by intelligence agents; that bioweapons warheads have been hidden in palm groves; that a water truck at an Iraqi military installation is a “decontamination vehicle” for chemical weapons; that Iraq has drones it can use for bioweapons attacks; and that WMD experts have been corralled into one of Saddam’s guest houses. All but the last of those claims had been flagged by the State Department’s own intelligence unit as “WEAK.”

I’m not going to quote the whole article, so if you’re fuzzy on the details, go read the whole darn thing.

If you had access to the actual documents from the CIA, DIA, British intelligence, interrogators, etc., you could have figured out that the “experts” were not unanimously behind the idea that Iraq was developing WMDs, but we mere plebes were dependent on what the government, Fox, and CNN told us the “experts” believed.

For the record, I was against the Iraq War from the beginning. I’m not sure what Nichols’s original position was, but in Just War, Not Prevention (2003) Nichols argued:

More to the point, Iraq itself long ago provided ample justifications for the United States and its allies to go to war that have nothing to do with prevention and everything to do with justice. To say that Saddam’s grasping for weapons of mass destruction is the final straw, and that it is utterly intolerable to allow Saddam or anyone like to gain a nuclear weapon, is true but does not then invalidate every other reason for war by subsuming them under some sort of putative ban on prevention.

The record provides ample evidence of the justice of a war against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Iraq has shown itself to be a serial aggressor… a supreme enemy of human rights that has already used weapons of mass destruction against civilians, a consistent violator of both UN resolutions and the therms of the 1991 cease-fire treaty … a terrorist entity that has attempted to reach beyond its own borders to support and engage in illegal activities that have included the attempted assassination of a former U.S. president; and most important, a state that has relentlessly sought nuclear arms against all international demands that it cease such efforts.

Any one of these would be sufficient cause to remove Saddam and his regime … but taken together they are a brief for what can only be considered a just war. ..

Those concerned that the United States is about to revise the international status quo might conside that Western inaction will allow the status quo to be revised in any case, only under the gun of a dictator commanding an arsenal of the most deadly materials on earthy. These are the two alternatives, and sadly, thee is no third choice.

Professor Nichols, I would like to pause here.

First: you think Trump is bad, you support the President under whom POWs were literally tortured, and you call yourself a military ethicist?

Second: you, an expert, bought into this “WMD” story (invented primarily by “Curveball,” an unreliable source,) while I, a mere plebe, knew it was a load of garbage.

Third: while I agree Saddam Hussein killed a hell of a lot of people–according to Wikipedia, Human Rights Watch estimates a quarter of a million Iraqis were killed or “disappeared” in the last 25 years of Ba’th party rule, the nine years of the Iraq war killed 150,000 to 460,000 people (depending on which survey you trust,) and based on estimates from the Iraq Body Count, a further 100,000 have died since then. Meanwhile, instability in Iraq allowed the horrifically violent ISIS to to sprout into existence. I Am Syria (I don’t know if they are reliable) estimates that over half a million Syrians have died so far because of the ISIS-fueled civil war rampaging there.

In other words, we unleashed a force that is twice as bad as Saddam in less than half the time–and paid a lovely 2.4 TRILLION dollars to accomplish this humanitarian feat! For that much money you could have just evacuated all of the Kurds and built them their own private islands to live on. You could have handed out $90,000 to every man, woman, and child in Iraq in exchange for “being friends with the US” and still had $150 BILLION left over to invest in things like “cancer treatments for children” and “highspeed rail infrastructure.”

Seriously, you could have spent the entire 2.4 trillion on hookers and blow and we would have still come out ahead.

Back in 2015, you tried to advise the Republican frontrunners on how to answer questions about the Iraq War:
First, let’s just stipulate that the question is unfair.

It’s asking a group of candidates to re-enact a presidential order given 12 years ago, while Hillary Clinton isn’t even being asked about decisions in which she took part, much less about her husband’s many military actions. …

Instead, Republican candidates should change the debate. Leadership is not about what people would do with perfect information; it’s about what people do when faced with danger and uncertainty. So here’s an answer that every Republican, from Paul to Bush, could give:

“Knowing exactly what we know now, I would not have invaded when we did or in the way we did. But I do not regret that we deposed a dangerous maniac like Saddam Hussein, and I know the world is better for it. What I or George Bush or anyone else would have done with better information is irrelevant now, because the next president has to face the world as it is, not as we would like to imagine it. And that’s all I intend to say about second-guessing a tough foreign-policy decision from 12 years ago, especially since we should have more pressing questions about foreign policy for Hillary Clinton that are a lot more recent than that.”

While I agree that Hillary should have been questioned about her own military decisions, Iraq was a formally declared war that the entire Republican establishment, think tanks, newspapers, and experts like you supported. They did such a convincing job of selling the war that even most of the Democratic establishment got on board, though never quite as enthusiastically.

By contrast, there was never any real Democratic consensus on whether Obama should remove troops or increase troops, on whether Hillary should do this or that in Libya. Obama and Hillary might have hideously bungled things, but there was never enthusiastic, party-wide support for their policies.

This makes it very easy for any Dem to distance themselves from previous Dem policies: “Yeah, looks like that was a big whoopsie. Luckily half our party knew that at the time.”

But for better or worse, the Republicans–especially the Bushes–own the Iraq War.

The big problem here is not that the Republican candidates (aside from Trump and Rand Paul) were too dumb to come up with a good response to the question (though that certainly is a problem.) The real problem is that none of them had actually stopped to take a long, serious look at the Iraq War, ask whether it was a good idea, and then apologize.

The Iraq War deeply discredited the Republican party.

Ask yourself: What did Bush conserve? What have I conserved? Surely being a “conservative” means you want to conserve something, so what was it? Iraqi freedom? Certainly not. Mid East stability? Nope. American lives? No. American tax dollars? Definitely not.

The complete failure of the Republicans to do anything good while squandering 2.4 trillion dollars and thousands of American lives is what triggered the creation of the “alt” right and set the stage for someone like Trump–someone willing to make a formal break with past Republican policies on Iraq–to rise to power.

Iraq I, the prequel:

But Iraq wasn’t the first war we were deceived into fighting–remember the previous war in Iraq, the one with the other President Bush? The one where we were motivated to intervene over stories of poor Kuwaiti babies ripped from their incubators by cruel Iraqis?

The Nayirah testimony was a false testimony given before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990 by a 15-year-old girl who provided only her first name, Nayirah. The testimony was widely publicized, and was cited numerous times by United States senators and President George H. W. Bush in their rationale to back Kuwait in the Gulf War. In 1992, it was revealed that Nayirah’s last name was al-Ṣabaḥ (Arabic: نيره الصباح‎) and that she was the daughter of Saud Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. Furthermore, it was revealed that her testimony was organized as part of the Citizens for a Free Kuwait public relations campaign which was run by an American public relations firm Hill & Knowlton for the Kuwaiti government. Following this, al-Sabah’s testimony has come to be regarded as a classic example of modern atrocity propaganda.[1][2]

In her emotional testimony, Nayirah stated that after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers take babies out of incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital, take the incubators, and leave the babies to die.

Her story was initially corroborated by Amnesty International[3] and testimony from evacuees. Following the liberation of Kuwait, reporters were given access to the country. An ABC report found that “patients, including premature babies, did die, when many of Kuwait’s nurses and doctors… fled” but Iraqi troops “almost certainly had not stolen hospital incubators and left hundreds of Kuwaiti babies to die.”[4][5]

Kuwaiti babies died because Kuwaiti doctors and nurses abandoned them. Maybe the “experts” at the UN and in the US government should vet their sources a little better (like actually find out their last names) before starting wars based on the testimony of children?

Vietnam:

And then there was Vietnam. Cold War “experts” were certain it was very important for us to spend billions of dollars in the 1950s to prop of the French colony in Indochina. When the French gave up, fighting the war somehow became America’s problem. The Cold War doctrine of the “Domino Theory” held that the loss of even one obscure, third-world country to Communism would unleash an unstoppable chain-reaction of global Soviet conquest, and thus the only way to preserve democracy anywhere in the world was to oppose communism wherever it emerged.

Of course, one could not be a Cold War “expert” in 1955, as we had never fought a Cold War before. This bi-polar world lead by a nuclear-armed communist faction on one side and a nuclear-armed democratic faction on the other was entirely new.

Atop the difficulties of functioning within an entirely novel balance of powers (and weapons), almost no one in America spoke Vietnamese (and no one in Vietnam spoke English) in 1955. We couldn’t even ask the Vietnamese what they thought. At best, we could play a game of telephone with Vietnamese who spoke French and translators who spoke French and English, but the Vietnamese who had learned the language of their colonizers were not a representative sample of average citizens.

In other words, we had no idea what we were getting into.

I lost family in Vietnam, so maybe I take this a little personally, but I don’t think American soldiers exist just to enrich Halliburton or protect French colonial interests. And you must excuse me, but I think you “experts” grunting for war have an extremely bad track record that involves people in my family getting killed.

While we are at it, what is the expert consensus on Russiagate?

Well, Tablet Mag thinks it’s hogwash:

At the same time, there is a growing consensus among reporters and thinkers on the left and right—especially those who know anything about Russia, the surveillance apparatus, and intelligence bureaucracy—that the Russiagate-collusion theory that was supposed to end Trump’s presidency within six months has sprung more than a few holes. Worse, it has proved to be a cover for U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement bureaucracies to break the law, with what’s left of the press gleefully going along for the ride. Where Watergate was a story about a crime that came to define an entire generation’s oppositional attitude toward politicians and the country’s elite, Russiagate, they argue, has proved itself to be the reverse: It is a device that the American elite is using to define itself against its enemies—the rest of the country.

Yet for its advocates, the questionable veracity of the Russiagate story seems much less important than what has become its real purpose—elite virtue-signaling. Buy into a storyline that turns FBI and CIA bureaucrats and their hand-puppets in the press into heroes while legitimizing the use of a vast surveillance apparatus for partisan purposes, and you’re in. Dissent, and you’re out, or worse—you’re defending Trump.

“Russia done it, all the experts say so” sounds suspiciously like a great many other times “expert opinion” has been manipulated by the government, industry, or media to make it sound like expert consensus exists where it does not.

Let’s look at a couple of worst case scenarios:

  1. Nichols and his ilk are right, but we ignore his warnings, overlook a few dastardly Russian deeds, and don’t go to war with Russia.
  2. Nichols is wrong, but we trust him, blame Russia for things it didn’t do, and go to war with a nuclear superpower.

But let’s look at our final fail:

Failure to predict the fall of the Soviet Union

This is kind of an ironic, given that Nichols is a Sovietologist, but one of the continuing questions in Political Science is “Why didn’t political scientists predict the fall of the Soviet Union?”

In retrospect, of course, we can point to the state of the Soviet economy, or glasnost, or growing unrest and dissent among Soviet citizens, but as Foreign Policy puts it:

In the years leading up to 1991, virtually no Western expert, scholar, official, or politician foresaw the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it  and with it one-party dictatorship, the state-owned economy, and the Kremlin’s control over its domestic and Eastern European empires. … 

Whence such strangely universal shortsightedness? The failure of Western experts to anticipate the Soviet Union’s collapse may in part be attributed to a sort of historical revisionism — call it anti-anti-communism — that tended to exaggerate the Soviet regime’s stability and legitimacy. Yet others who could hardly be considered soft on communism were just as puzzled by its demise. One of the architects of the U.S. strategy in the Cold War, George Kennan, wrote that, in reviewing the entire “history of international affairs in the modern era,” he found it “hard to think of any event more strange and startling, and at first glance inexplicable, than the sudden and total disintegration and disappearance … of the great power known successively as the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.”

I don’t think this is Political Science’s fault–even the Soviets don’t seem to have really seen it coming. Some things are just hard to predict.

Sometimes we overestimate our judgment. We leap before we look. We think there’s evidence where there isn’t or that the evidence is much stronger than it is.

And in the cases I’ve selected, maybe I’m the one who’s wrong. Maybe Vietnam was a worthwhile conflict, even if it was terrible for everyone involved. Maybe the Iraq War served a real purpose.

WWI was still a complete disaster. There is no logic where that war makes any sense at all.

When you advocate for war, step back a moment and ask how sure you are. If you were going to be the canon fodder down on the front lines, would you still be so sure? Or would you be the one suddenly questioning the experts about whether this was really such a good idea?

Professor Nichols, if you have read this, I hope it has given you some food for thought.

Cathedral Round-Up #28: They’re not coming for George Washington, that’s just a silly right-wing conspiracy–

Titus Kaphar’s Shadows of Liberty, 2016, at Yale University Art Gallery

Is that… George Washington? With rusty nails pounded into his face?

Holding up “cascading fragments of his slave records.”

Oh. I see.

Carry on, then.

I was going to write about Harvard forbidding its female students from forming female-only safe spaces (College will Debut Plans to Enforce Sanctions Next Semester) in an attempt to shut down all single-gender frats and Finals Clubs, but then Princeton upped the ante with Can Art Amend Princeton’s History of Slavery?

No. Of course not.

Princeton University [has] a new public-art project that confronts the school’s participation in the nation’s early sins. On Monday, the university unveiled Impressions of Liberty, by the African American artist Titus Kaphar. The sculpture is the conceptual core of a campus-wide initiative that begins this fall and aims to reconcile the university’s ties to slavery. The Princeton and Slavery Project’s website has released hundreds of articles and primary documents about slavery and racism at Princeton…

Attaching strips of canvas or other material to the faces of people he disapproves of is apparently one of Kaphar’s shticks.

I’m old enough to remember when George Washington was admired for freeing all of his slaves in an era when most people took slavery for granted. Today he is castigated for not having sprung from the womb with a fully modern set of moral opinions.

Impressions of Liberty, by Titus Kaphar

Impressions of Liberty is Kaphar’s portrait of Samuel Finley–fifth president and one of the original trustees of Princeton (1761-1766)–interwoven with photographs of black actors in historical dress etched in glass.

For generations, slave-owning Christians—including Princeton’s founders—used religious ideas to justify a horrific national practice, [Kaphar] noted; Finley is holding a bible in Impressions of Liberty.

Note the framing: yes, Christians used religion to justify owning slaves. So did Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, and atheists. There’s nothing unique about Christians and slavery aside from the fact that Finley was Christian. No mention is made of pagan Africans who captured and sold each other into slavery, nor of Muslims who raided Africa and Europe in search of slaves. There were Jewish slave merchants and Confederates, as well, for slavery was a near-universal practice justified by people all over the world prior to its abolition by whites in the 1800s. The article mentions none of that; only Christians are singled out for criticism.

The article doesn’t say how much Princeton paid for the sculpture it commissioned to castigate the memory of one of its founders. The work currently stands outside MacLean House, but will soon be moved indoors, to Princeton’s permanent art collection. MacLean House–completed in 1756–is a national landmark that was home to Princeton’s first presidents, including Samuel Finley. It also housed George Washington during the Battle of Princeton.

According to the article:

On the one hand, according to records, Princeton was a bastion of liberty, educating numerous Revolutionary War leaders and in 1783 hosting the Continental Congress… At the same time, Sandweiss found that the institution’s first nine presidents all owned slaves at some point, as did the school’s early trustees. She also discovered that the school enrolled a significant number of anti-abolitionist, Southern students during its early years; an alumni delivered a pro-slavery address at the school’s 1850 commencement ceremony. …

Princeton’s racist history enabled it to provide social and political benefits for alumni—an advantage that students will continue to enjoy well into the future.

While I happen to think that universities have it much too good these days and deserve to be taken down a notch, I find this claim extremely dubious. Harvard and Yale are located in staunchly abolitionist New England and had very few ties to slavery, (Mr. Yale apparently knew a guy who had slaves, and Harvard Law School received some money from a guy who had slaves,) yet these schools are arguably even wealthier and more powerful than closer-to-the-South and more-tied-to-slavery Princeton. Stanford was founded after slavery was outlawed, and yet its students enjoy social and political benefits on par with Princeton’s.

We could argue that the entire area of the Confederacy reaped the economic benefits of slavery, yet today this region is much poorer than the Free States of the North. There isn’t just no correlation between slavery, wealth, and power–there’s actually a negative correlation. Slavery, if it has any effect at all, makes a region poorer and weaker.

Monumental Inversion: George Washington, (Titus Kaphar,) Princeton Art Museum

… Princeton University is spreading the mission across various pieces of art through a show this fall entitled “Making History Visible: Of American Myths And National Heroes.” At the exhibit’s entrance, viewers begin with Kaphar’s piece Monumental Inversion: George Washington—a sculpture of the leader astride his horse, made out of wood, blown glass, and steel. The sculpture depicts the former president’s dueling nature: He’s glorified within a great American equestrian monument but he’s also sitting astride a charred cavity, surrounded by glass on the ground. In juxtaposing Kaphar’s artwork and a George Washington plaster bust, “Making History Visible” forces visitors, hopefully, to see and feel the contradiction in colonial leaders who sought freedom from tyranny but did not extend that ideal to slaves.

I repeat: George Washington freed all of his slaves.

We might question the point of all this. Kaphar is free to make his art, of course. His paintings display quite excellent technical skill, I admit. But why do we, as a society, feel the need to commission and display attacks on our founders? Princeton’s students could just as happily go to class each day without looking at images of Finley’s slaves; unlike Washington, Finley isn’t famous and most students were probably blissfully unaware of his slaveholding until someone decided to stick a sculpture dedicated to it on the lawn.

How do Princeton’s black students feel after walking past a sculpture depicting slaves? Uplifted? Happy? Ready to go to class and concentrate on their lectures? I doubt it. Art may be “powerful” or “open dialogues,” but no one seems to feel better after viewing such pieces.

No, I don’t see how this selective dwelling on the past improves anything.

A world in which images of your founders and heroes are defaced, their corpses judged and rusty nails are driven into their portraits: it’s like a cruel dystopia, Lewis’s That Hideous Strength or 1984. According to Wikipedia:

During and after the October Revolution, widespread destruction of religious and secular imagery took place, as well as the destruction of imagery related to the Imperial family. The Revolution was accompanied by destruction of monuments of past tsars, as well as the destruction of imperial eagles at various locations throughout Russia. According to Christopher Wharton, “In front of a Moscow cathedral, crowds cheered as the enormous statue of Tsar Alexander III was bound with ropes and gradually beaten to the ground. After a considerable amount of time, the statue was decapitated and its remaining parts were broken into rubble”.[40]

The Soviet Union actively destroyed religious sites, including Russian Orthodox churches and Jewish cemeteries, in order to discourage religious practice and curb the activities of religious groups.

You know, they tell us, “No one is attacking George Washington; that’s just a crazy right-wing conspiracy theory,” and then they go and do it.

Incidentally, Georgetown, according to the article, “announced last year that it would grant admissions preference to descendants of slaves whose sale it profited from in the early 1800s.” How do you qualify for that? Do you have to prove that you’re descended from the specific slaves involved, or can you be descended from any American slaves? Because I had ancestors who were enslaved, too, and I’d like to get in on this racket.

In the end, the article answers its titular question:

When Impressions of Liberty is removed from Maclean House in December and enters Princeton’s permanent museum collection, its greatest achievement may lie in the realization that no apology or recompense can ever suffice. …

“No civil-rights project can ever fully redeem anything.”

Wed. Open Thread: Armies, 4chan, and the USSR

1024px-r1a1a_distributionHoly [expletive,] my baby brother just joined the military. I don’t have any other details yet, but I wasn’t expecting this. I hope he does admirably and doesn’t get killed.

In blog news, I’ve added a section where I can list books/articles/documentaries etc the readers recommend. Note that I haven’t had a chance to read/watch them all myself.

In hilarious news that you probably already heard about, 4chan claims to have trolled the CIA:

In a story that is getting more surreal by the minute, a post on 4Chan now claims that the infamous “golden showers” scene in the unverified 35-page dossier, allegedly compiled by a British intelligence officer, was a hoax and fabricated by a member of the chatboard as “fanfiction”, then sent to Rick Wilson, who proceeded to send it to the CIA, which then put it in their official classified intelligence report on the election.

1024px-celtic_expansion-svgIf true, this is not just amusing–and a show of how easily our “intelligence” agencies can be duped–it also shows the development of informal citizen-based organizations actually running [what is the correct word? disinformation campaigns?] against their own government’s organs.

Or, you know, some guy on 4 chan is lying.

Comments of the Week are going to BaruchK, who knows much more than I do about the rise of communism:

I don’t think so. Marxism took off towards the end of the Victorian era, when starvation, misery and unemployment were at historic lows.

Further, Marxism/socialism were not spontaneous phenomena. Rather, they were purposely developed, sponsored, propagated and lobbied for by small, elite groups, funded by the super-rich (Carnegie, JP Morgan, etc.) working over decades.

Sutton talks about how socialism allows the transformation of target societies into captive markets. Russia and China were not a threat to the Western elites as long as they were socialist. It also allows the one-way transformation of wealth into power. In the absence of socialism, wealth can come and go. Today’s industrial titan can have his wealth destroyed through crashes, innovation, etc. However, by using his wealth to coopt a government, he can create regulations which will stifle competitors (eg Sarbanes-Oxley,) have the government bail him out during crashes (recent examples abound,) ideally even create fiat currency (effectively sucking up wealth from the rest of the economy.)

Also:

The interesting thing about the USSR was its utter economic reliance on aid from the US and Europe throughout its entire existence. …

It is interesting to ponder why the USSR collapsed when it did. I suspect that it just got so sclerotic that it was not even able to manage its own assets and the resources it got from the West, both as payment for oil and as aid. By the end, nobody knew where anything was, how much of it there was, or how to get anything done. Terror was out, the population was no longer the fanatic communists or terrified peasants and workers of the earlier days, but rather demoralized petit-bourgeoisie (private cars and motorcycles, shitty as they were, had become attainable for normal people in the 60s, for instance.) The nervous system of the USSR, which had more or less worked for decades, had just broken down and no longer sent more or less accurate signals to and from its organs.

And With the Thoughts You’d be Thinkin’ for this communist tale (see sidebar for relevant links):

Here’s a fun(?) bit of history, the Soviet central planning in Central Asia didn’t just cause massive diversions of water to plant cotton causing the drying up of the Aral sea it caused the Uzbek communist party to have thousands of members and all but one of its members purged in the 1980s, Brezhnev’s son-in-law was also implicated. Basically the Uzbekistan communist party inflated its cotton production figures stealling billions (USDs) and was only caught by the use of spy satelites.

So what have you guys been up to this week?

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.)

That time Germany literally infected Russia with Memes

I burst out laughing at the park today at the sudden thought of Germany sending Lenin on a sealed train to Russia, the train an enormous syringe injecting the Marxist meme-virus–carried in an actual human body–that then infected and took over the whole country.

Then I remembered that the Communist regime killed tens of millions of people and stopped laughing.

Russia eventually shook off the virus, but not before shedding millions of infectious cells to other countries.