Book Club: Code Economy: Economics as Information Theory

If the suggestion… that the economy is “alive” seems fanciful or far-fetched, it is much less so if we consider the alternative: that it is dead.

Welcome back to your regularly scheduled discussion of Auerswald’s The Code Economy: a Forty-Thousand-Year History. Today we are discussing Chapter 9: Platforms, but feel free to jump into the discussion even if you haven’t read the book.

I loved this chapter.

We can safely answer that the economy–or the sum total of human provisioning, consumptive, productive and social activities–is neither “alive” nor, exactly, “non-living.”

The economy has a structure, yes. (So does a crystal.) It requires energy, like a plant, sponge, or macaque. It creates waste. But like a beehive, it is not “conscious;” voters struggle to make any kind of coherent policies.

Can economies reproduce themselves, like a beehive sending out swarms to found new hives? Yes, though it is difficult in a world where most of the sensible human niches have already been filled.

Auerswald notes that his use of the word “code” throughout the book is not (just) because of its modern sense in the coding of computer programs, but because of its use in the structure of DNA–we are literally built from the instructions in our genetic “code,” and society is, on top of that, layers and layers of more code, for everything from “how to raise vegetables” to “how to build an iPhone” to, yes, Angry Birds.

Indeed, as I have insisted throughout, this is more than an analogy: the introduction of production recipes into economics is… exactly what the introduction of DNA i to molecular biology. it is the essential first step toward a transformation of economics into a branch of information theory.

I don’t have much to say about information theory because I haven’t studied information theory, beyond once reading a problem about a couple of people named Alice and Bob who were trying to send messages to each other, but I did read Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and, Kenneth Cukier‘s Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think a couple of weeks ago. It doesn’t rise to the level of “OMG this was great you must read it,” but if you’re interested in the subject, it’s a good introduction and pairs nicely with The Code Economy, as many of the developments in “big data” are relevant to recent developments in code. It’s also helpful in understanding why on earth anyone sees anything of value in companies like Facebook and LinkedIn, which will be coming up soon.

You know, we know that bees live in a hive, but do bees know? (No, not for any meaningful definition of “knowing.”) But imagine being a bee, and slowly working out that you live in a hive, and that the hive “behaves” in certain ways that you can model, just like you can model the behavior of an individual bee…

Anyway:

Economics has a lot to say about how to optimize the level of inputs to get output, but what about the actual process of tuning inputs into outputs? … In the Wonderful World of Widgets that i standard economic, ingredients combine to make a final product, but the recipe by which the ingredients actually become the product is nowhere explicitly represented.

After some papers on the NK model and th shift in organizational demands from pre-industrial economic production to post-industrial large-scale production by mega firms, (or in the case of communism, by whole states,) Auerswald concludes that

…the economy manages increasing complexity by “hard-wiring” solution into standards, which in turn define platforms.

Original Morse Telegraph machine, circa 1835 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Morse

This is an important insight. Electricity was once a new technology, whose mathematical rules were explored by cutting-edge scientists. Electrical appliances and the grid to deliver the electricity they run on were developed by folks like Edison and Tesla.

But today, the electrical grid reaches nearly every house in America. You don’t have to understand electricity at all to plug in your toaster. You don’t have to be Thomas Edison to lay electrical lines. You just have to follow instructions.

Electricity + electrical appliances replaced many jobs people used to do, like candle making or pony express delivery man, but electricity has not resulted in an overall loss of jobs. Rather, far more jobs now exist that depend on the electrical grid (or “platform”) than were eliminated.

(However, one of the difficulties or problems with codifying things into platforms is then, systems have difficulty handling other, perfectly valid methods of doing things. Early codification may lock-in certain ways of doing things that are actually suboptimal, like how our computer keyboard layout is intentionally difficult to use not because of anything to do with computers, but because typewriters in the 1800s jammed if people typed on them too quickly. Today, we would be better off with a more sensible keyboard layout, but the old one persists because too many systems use it.)

The Industrial Revolution was a time of first technological development, and then encoding into platforms of many varieties–transportation networks of water and rail; electrical, sewer, and fresh water grids; the large-scale production of antibiotics and vaccines; and even the codification of governments.

The English, a nation of a couple thousand years or so, are governed under a system known as “Common Law,” which is just all of the legal precedents and traditions built up over that time that have come into customary use.

When America was founded, it didn’t have a thousand years of experience to draw on because, well, it had just been founded, but it did have a thousand years of cultural memory of England’s government. English Common Law was codified as the base of the American legal system.

The Articles of Confederation, famous only for not working very well, were the fledgling country’s first attempt at codifying how the government should operate. They are typically described as failing because they allocated insufficient power to the federal government, but I propose a more nuanced take: the Articles laid out insufficient code for dealing with nation-level problems. The Constitution solved these problems and instituted the basic “platform” on which the rest of the government is built. Today, whether we want to ratify a treaty or change the speed limit on i-405, we don’t have to re-derive the entire decisions-making structure from scratch; legitimacy (for better or for worse) is already built into the system.

Since the days of the American and French revolutions, new countries have typically had “constitutions,” not because Common Law is bad, but because there is no need to re-derive from scratch successful governing platforms–they can just be copied from other countries, just as one firm can copy another firms organizational structure.

Continuing with Auerswald and the march of time:

Ask yourself what the greatest inventions were over the past 150 years: Penicillin? The transistor? Electrical power? Each of these has been transformative, but equally compelling candidates include universal time, container shipping, the TCP/IP protocols underlying the Internet, and the GSM and CDMA standards that underlie mobile telephony. These are the technologies that make global trade possible by making code developed in one place interoperable with code developed in another. Standards reduce barriers among people…

Auerswald, as a code enthusiast, doesn’t devote much space to the downsides of code. Clearly, code can make life easier, by reducing the number of cognitive tasks required to get a job done. Let’s take the matter of household management. If a husband and wife both adhere to “traditional gender norms,” such as an expectation that the wife will take care of internal household chores like cooking and vacuuming, and the husband will take care of external chores, like mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, and pumping gas, neither spouse has to ever discuss “who is going to do this job” or wonder “hey, did that job get done?”

Following an established code thus aids efficiency and appears to decrease marital stress (there are studies on this,) but this does not mean that the code itself is optimal. Perhaps men make better dish-washers than women. Or for a couple with a disabled partner, perhaps all of the jobs would be better performed by reversing the roles.

Technological change also encourages code change:

The replacement of manual push-mowers with gas-powered mowers makes mowing the lawn easier for women, so perhaps this task would be better performed by housewives. (Even the Amish have adopted milking machines on the grounds that by pumping the milk away from the cow for you, the machines enable women to participate equally in the milking–a task that previously involved picking up and carrying around 90 lb milkjugs.)

But re-writing the entire code is work and involves a learning curve as both parties sort out and get used to new expectations. (See my previous thread on “emotional labor” and its relation to gender norms.) So even if you think the old code isn’t fair or optimal, it still might be easier than trying to make a new code–and this extends to far more human relations than just marriage.

And then you get cases where the new technology is incompatible with the old code. Take, for example, the relationship between transportation, weights and measures, and the French Revolution.

A country in which there is no efficient way to get from Point A to Point B has no need for a standardized set of weights and measures, as people in Community A will never encounter or contend with whatever system they are using over in Community B. Even if a king wanted to create a standard system, he would have difficulty enforcing it. Instead, each community tends to evolve a system that works well for its own needs. A community that grows bananas, for example, will come up with measures suitable to bananas, like the “bunch,” a community that deals in grain will invent the “bushel,” and a community that enumerates no goods, like the Piraha, will not bother with large quantities quantities.

(Diamonds are measured in “carats,” which have nothing to do with the orange vegetable, but instead are derived from the seeds of the carob tree, which apparently are small enough to be weighed against small stones.)

Since the French paid taxes, there was some demand for standardized weights and measures within each province–if your taxes are “one bushel of grain,” you want to make sure “bushel” is well defined so the local lord doesn’t suddenly define this year’s bushel as twice as big as last year’s bushel–and likewise, the lord doesn’t want this year’s bushel to be defined as half the size as last year’s.

But as roads improved and trade increased, people became concerned with making sure that a bushel of grain sold in Paris was the same as a bushel purchased in Nice, or that 5 carats of diamonds in Bordeaux was still 5 carats when you reached Cognac.

But the established local power of the local nobility made it very hard to change whatever measures people were using in each individual place. That is, the existing code made it hard to change to a more efficient code, probably because local lords were concerned the new measures would result in fewer taxes, and the local peasants concerned it would result in higher taxes.

Thus it was only with the decapitation of the Ancien Regime and wiping away of the privileges and prerogatives of the nobility that Revolutionary France established, as one of its few lasting reforms, a universal system of weights and measures that has come down to us today as the metric or SI system.

Now, speaking as an American who has been trained in both Metric and Imperial units, using multiple systems can be annoying, but is rarely deadly. On the scale of sub-optimal ideas, humans have invented far worse.

Quoting Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb:

“The end result of the complex organization that was the efficient software of the Great War was the manufacture of corpses.

This essentially industrial operation was fantasized by the generals as a “strategy of attrition.” The British tried to kill Germans, the Germans tried to kill British and French and so on, a “strategy” so familiar by now that it almost sounds normal. It was not normal in Europe before 1914 and no one in authority expected it to evolve, despite the pioneering lessons of the American Civil War. Once the trenches were in place, the long grave already dug (John Masefield’s bitterly ironic phrase), then the war stalemated and death-making overwhelmed any rational response.

“The war machine,” concludes Elliot, “rooted in law, organization, production, movement, science, technical ingenuity, with its product of six thousand deaths a day over a period of 1,500 days, was the permanent and realistic factor, impervious to fantasy, only slightly altered by human variation.”

No human institution, Elliot stresses, was sufficiently strong to resist the death machine. A new mechanism, the tank, ended the stalemate.”

Russian Troops waiting for death

On the Eastern Front, the Death Machine was defeated by the Russian Revolution, as the canon fodder decided it didn’t want to be turned into corpses anymore.

I find World War I more interesting than WWII because it makes far less sense. The combatants in WWII had something resembling sensible goals, some chance of achieving their goals, and attempted to protect the lives of their own people. WWI, by contrast, has no such underlying logic, yet it happened anyway–proof that seemingly logical people can engage in the ultimate illogic, even as it reduces whole countries to nothing but death machines.

Why did some countries revolt against the cruel code of war, and others not? Perhaps an important factor is the perceived legitimacy of the government itself (though regular food shipments are probably just as critical.) Getting back to information theory, democracy itself is a kind of blockchain for establishing political legitimacy, (more on this in a couple of chapters) which may account for why some countries perceived their leadership as more legitimate, and other countries suddenly discovered, as information about other people’s opinions became easier to obtain, that the government enjoyed very little legitimacy.

But I am speculating, and have gotten totally off-topic (Auerswald was just discussing the establishment of TCP/IP protocols and other similar standards that aid international trade, not WWI!)

Returning to Auerswald, he cites a brilliant quote from Alfred North Whitehead

“Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

As we were saying, while sub-optimal (or suicidal) code can and does destroy human societies, good code can substantially increase human well-being.

The discovery and refinement of new inventions, technologies, production recipes, etc., involves a steep learning curve as people first figure out how to make the thing work and to source and put together all of the parts necessary to build it, (eg, the invention of the automobile in the late 1800s and early 1900s,) but once the technology spreads, it simply becomes part of the expected infrastructure of everyday life (eg, the building of interstate highways and gas stations, allowing people to drive cars all around the US,) a “platform” on which other, future innovations build. Post-1950, most automobile-driven innovation was located not in refinements to the engines or brakes, but in things you can do with vehicles, like long-distance shipping.

Interesting things happen to income as code becomes platforms, but I haven’t worked out all of the details.

Continuing with Auerswald:

Note that, in code economics, a given country’s level of “development” is not sensibly measured by the total monetary value of all goods and services it produces…. Rather, the development of a country consists of … it capacity to execute more complex code. …

Less-developed countries that lack the code to produce complex products will import them, and they will export simpler intermediate products and raw materials in order to pay for the required imports.

By creating and adhering to widely-observed “standards,” increasing numbers of countries (and people) are able to share inventions, code, and development.

Of the drivers of beneficial trade, international standards are at once among the most important and the least appreciated. … From the invention of bills of exchange in the Middle Ages … to the creation of twenty-first-century communications protocols, innovations in standards have lowered the cost and enhanced the value of exchange across distance. …

For entrepreneurs in developing countries, demonstrated conformity with international standards… is a universally recognized mark of organizational capacity that substantially eases entry into global production and distribution networks.

In other words, you are more likely to order steel from a foreign factory if you have some confidence that you will actually receive the variety you ordered, and the factory can signal that it knows what it is doing and will actually deliver the specified steel by adhering to international standards.

On the other hand, I think this can degenerate into a reliance on the appearance of doing things properly, which partially explains the Elizabeth Holmes affair. Holmes sounded like she knew what she was doing–she knew how to sound like she was running a successful startup because she’d been raised in the Silicon Valley startup culture. Meanwhile, the people investing in Holmes’s business didn’t know anything about blood testing (Holmes’s supposed invention tested blood)–they could only judge whether the company sounded like it was a real business.

Auerswald then has a fascinating section comparing each subsequent “platform” that builds on the previous “platform” to trophic levels in the environment. The development of each level allows for the development of another, more complex level above it–the top platform becomes the space where newest code is developed.

If goods and services are built on platforms, one atop the other, then it follows that learning at higher levels of the system should be faster than learning at lower levels, for the simple reason that leaning at higher levels benefits from incremental learning all the way down.

There are two “layers” of learning. Raw material extraction shows high volatility around a a gradually increasing trend, aka slow learning. By contrast, the delivery of services over existing infrastructure, like roads or wireless networks, show exponential growth, aka fast learning.

In other words, the more levels of code you already have established and standardized into platforms, the faster learning goes–the basic idea behind the singularity.

 

That’s all for today. See you next week!

War is Code for the Production of Corpses

Quoting Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb:

“The end result of the complex organization that was the efficient software of the Great War was the manufacture of corpses.

This essentially industrial operation was fantasized by the generals as a “strategy of attrition.” The British tried to kill Germans, the Germans tried to kill British and French and so on, a “strategy” so familiar by now that it almost sounds normal. It was not normal in Europe before 1914 and no one in authority expected it to evolve, despite the pioneering lessons of the American Civil War. Once the trenches were in place, the long grave already dug (John Masefield’s bitterly ironic phrase), then the war stalemated and death-making overwhelmed any rational response.

“The war machine,” concludes Elliot, “rooted in law, organization, production, movement, science, technical ingenuity, with its product of six thousand deaths a day over a period of 1,500 days, was the permanent and realistic factor, impervious to fantasy, only slightly altered by human variation.”

No human institution, Elliot stresses, was sufficiently strong to resist the death machine. A new mechanism, the tank, ended the stalemate.”

Big Data describes another war of attrition:

McNamara epitomized the hyper-rational executive who relied on numbers rather than sentiments, and who could apply his quantitative skills to any industry he turned them to. In 1960 he was named president of Ford, a position he held for only a few weeks before being tapped to join President Kennedy’s cabinet as secretary of defense.

As the Vietnam conflict escalated and the United States sent more troops, it became clear that this was a war of wills, not of territory. America’s strategy was to pound the Viet Cong to the negotiation table. The way to measure progress, therefore, was by the number of enemy killed. The body count was published daily in the newspapers. To the war’s supporters it was proof of progress; to critics, evidence of its immorality. The body count was the data point that defined an era.

McNamara relied on the figures, fetishized them. … McNamara felt he could comprehend what was happening on the ground only by staring at a spreadsheet—at all those orderly rows and columns, calculations and charts, whose mastery seemed to bring him one standard deviation closer to God.

In 1977, two years after the last helicopter lifted off the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, a retired Army general, Douglas Kinnard, published a landmark survey called The War Managers that revealed the quagmire of quantification. A mere 2 percent of America’s generals considered the body count a valid way to measure progress. “A fake—totally worthless,” wrote one general in his comments. “Often blatant lies,” wrote another. “They were grossly exaggerated by many units primarily because of the incredible interest shown by people like McNamara,” said a third.  — Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, Big Data

Humans are reasonably smart creatures, but we so easily get stuck in terrible modes of thinking.

On a battlefield men die quickly, they fight back, they are sustained by fellowship and a sense of duty. Here I saw people dying in solitude by slow degrees, dying hideously, without the excuse of sacrifice for a cause. They had been trapped and left to starve, each in his home, by a political decision made in a far-off capital around conference and banquet tables. […] The most terrifying sights were the little children with skeleton limbs dangling from balloon – like abdomens. Starvation had wiped every trace of youth from their faces, turning them into tortured gargoyles; only in their eyes still lingered the reminder of childhood. Everywhere we found men and women lying prone, their faces and bellies bloated, their eyes utterly expressionless. Anger lashed my mind as I drove back to the village. Butter being sent abroad in the midst of the famine! In London, Berlin, Paris I could see with my mind’s eye people eating butter stamped with a Soviet trademark. “They must be rich to be able to send out butter,” I could hear them saying. “Here, friends, is the proof of socialism in action.” Driving through the fields, I did not hear the lovely Ukrainian songs so dear to my heart. These people had forgotten how to sing. I could hear only the groans of the dying, and the lip-smacking of fat foreigners enjoying our butter… — Kravchenko, Victor. I Chose Freedom: The Personal And Political Life Of A Soviet Official

Like human sacrifice and cannibalism:

The word tzompantli is Nahuatl and was used by the Aztecs to refer to the skull-racks found in many Aztec cities; The first and most prominent example is the Huey Tzompantli (Great Skull-rack) located the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and described by the early conquistadors. … Excavations at Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan have revealed many skulls belonging to women and children, in addition to those of men, a demonstration of the diversity of the human sacrifices in Aztec culture.[15] After displaying severed heads, many scholars have determined that limbs of Aztec victims would be cannibalized [16]

… based on numbers given by Taipa and Fray Diego Durán, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano[18] has calculated that there were at most 60,000 skulls on the “Hueyi Tzompantli” (Great Skullrack) of Tenochtitlan. … There were at least five more skull racks in Tenochtitlan but by all accounts they were much smaller. —Wikipedia

All of the individual parts of a system can seem logical, and yet the end result can still be grotesque, inhuman, and insane.

I am on holiday so your normal Book Club post will resume next Wednesday.

Cathedral Round-Up #19: You are the Hope of the World–The SJWs of 1917

Sometimes material for these posts falls serendipitously into my lap–such is today’s case: I have inherited from a great-grandparent in the Puritan line of the family a slim volume from 1917, Hermann Hagedorn’s You are the Hope of the World: An Appeal to the Boys and Girls of America, and oh boy, is it a doozy.

Since I’m dong a lot of quoting, I’ll be using “” instead of blockquotes for readability.

“YOU ARE THE HOPE OF THE WORLD! Girls and boys of America, you are the hope of the world! In Europe, boys of your age are dying daily by hundreds, by thousands! Millions lie dead or wounded; or, fam- ishing in prison camps, watch the slow wasting of body and mind. Millions! Can you imagine it? Five million! Ten million! God knows, how many million more! Twelve million. Fifteen million, perhaps. It is an impossible figure — so huge that it means nothing. …

“Europe does not know yet what she has lost. Europe has great scientists still, great poets, great tellers of tales, inventors, merchants, physicians, preachers. But they are old, or aging. They will pass away, and Europe will look around and cry: “My old heroes are passing. It is time for my young heroes to take the places of honor.” And Europe will call for her young heroes. Europe will call for new poets, new tellers of tales, new scientists, new inventors, new merchants, new physicians, new preachers. And no one will answer. No young heroes will appear. …

“over there across the ocean every twenty seconds, on an average, down goes a brave boy, and out goes another can- dle, and on one of you over here suddenly falls a new responsibility. You don’t feel it, but there it is. That French boy or that English or German or Russian boy, may leave his watch- fob to his brother and his watch to his best friend, but he leaves his chance in life to you. He might have been a great scientist and drawn some wizardry, yet unknown, out of the air; he might have been a great musician, a great engineer; he might have been the immortal leader men have been looking for, ages long, to lead the world to a better civilization. He’s gone, dead at nineteen. Young America, you are his heir! Don’t you feel his mantle on your shoulders? …

[Says the young American:]””It makes me sort of sorry for Europe. Why, when the old duffers die, they’ll holler for new men and —”

“”There won’t be any new men.”

“”They’ll get into a scrape — perhaps another war like this — and they’ll holler for a Washington or a Lincoln, or even for a What’s-his-name? — Joffre — or a What’s-his- name — Lloyd George — to pull ’em out, and there won’t —”

“”There won’t be any Washington or Lincoln or Joffre or Lloyd George.”

“”Who’ll there be?”

“”Perhaps nobody — in Europe.”

You sit a minute, Young America, thinking that over. And then suddenly you rise to your feet, and throw away your cigarette, and frown, puzzled a bit. And then very slowly you say:

“”Why, it looks as though when that time comes — perhaps — it may — be — up to us.” Right you are, Young America!”

[EvX: Note that Hermann is predicting that in the event of another World War, Europe will not be able to produce for itself the likes of Churchill or Hitler.]

“Why, you say, are we the world’s hope? … You can’t evade it, Young America. The stars have conspired against you. Destiny, which made your country rich and gave her great leaders in time of need, and helped her to build a magnificent republic out of many races and many creeds; Destiny that brought you to the light under the Eagle and the Stars and Stripes; Destiny, that chose America to be the greatest laboratory, the greatest testing-ground of democracy in the world; Destiny, Fortune, God, whatever you want to call laid on you the privilege and the responsibility of being the hope of a world in tears. You can carry this responsibility and be glorious. You can throw it off, and be damned. But you cannot ignore it. …

“The world knows that in you, whether your ancestors came over in the Mayflower three hundred years ago, or in the steerage of a liner twenty years ago, lives the spirit of a great tradition. The world puts its hope in you, but not only in you. It puts its hope in the great ghosts that stand behind you, upholding your arms, whispering wisdom to you, patience, perseverance, courage, crying, “Go on, Young America! We back you up!” Washington, first of all! And around him, Putnam, Warren, Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Hamilton, Jeffer- son, Marshall, Greene, Stark!

[EvX: There follows a long enumeration of American heroes–let us note that at this time, Americans still had heroes and Yale’s students were not “angry, saddened and deeply frustrated” by the University’s decision to name a dormitory after Benjamin Franklin.]

“You remember what the British officer said of Marion’s band? “They go without pay, they go without clothes, living on roots and drinking water — all for liberty. What chance have we against such men?” …

“All Europe paid tribute to pirates in Barbary, and America paid tribute, because everybody was doing it; it seemed to be the style. But then some Bashaw in Tripoli or Tunis, seeing easy money, jacked up his price. And Europe said: “Oh, all right. If you’ll only keep quiet!” But the little U.S. cried: “No, you dirty pirate! We’re hanged if we’ll pay you another cent!” And the ships went over, gallant ships with all sails full, and there was no more tribute-paying after they came back! …

“Rogers and Clark are behind you, Fremont, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, Sam Houston, Davy Crockett. You remember? “Thermopylae had its messengers of death, the Alamo had none.” The frontiersmen, the Indian fighters, the pioneers are behind you, dauntless of spirit; the colonists of Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, the New Netherlands, the Carolinas; the settlers in wild lands, pressing westward … the brave builders of the West are behind you, … John Brown of Osawatomie is there! And there, Sherman, Sheridan, Meade, Thomas, Farragut, Grant, silent, tenacious, magnanimous! Stonewall Jackson, Stuart, Lee! And in the midst of them, the greatest of all, Lincoln, with his hand on your shoulder, Young America, saying, “Sonny, I’m with you. Go on!” …

“[WWI] has to many of you, perhaps, seemed merely a brawl in the dark among thieves, or a midnight riot in a madhouse. The issues have been confused. … Because the Right was hard to catch and hold, we cried that there was no Right in it. That was the comfortable point of view. …

“As the months went by, one truth began to emerge with increasing clearness from the smoke and welter and confusion. We saw, dimly at first, then more and more clearly, that the War was not merely a war between competing traders, a war for a place in the sun on the one side, and economic supremacy on the other; but a war of conflicting fundamental ideas. We were slow to see this. It took a revolution in Russia to open our eyes; it took the joyous shout of the countless Siberian exiles, welcoming freedom, to open our ears. But we understand now. We know at last what the war is about. We see at last what the Allies have seen from the beginning, that this is a war between kings and free men. The nations that believe in kings and distrust the people have challenged, with intent to destroy, or incapacitate, the nations that believe in the people and won’t let the kings out in public without a license, a muzzle and a line. It is a war between autocracy and democracy, and beyond that, it is a struggle for the extirpation of war; a struggle between the powers who believe that there is profit in war and the powers who know that there is no profit in it; between the powers who are looking back to a sort of earnest cave-man as an ideal, and the powers who are looking forward to a reasoning, reasonable, law-abiding man with a ballot.

[EvX: Note the many ways in which this is an absurd lie. Did the Kaiser of Germany and the Czar of Russia pitch their armies against each other because one of them was an autocrat and the other a democrat? Did the Communist Revolution in Russia result in freedom, liberty, or democracy for the people there, or mass famines, secret police, and gulags?]

“Blacker and sharper every day, against the lurid glow of flaming villages and smouldering cities, looms the Peril of Kings, and louder and grimmer from millions of graves rumbles the Doom of Kings. If there is any validity in human evidence, and if the logical conclusions of clear minds from clear-cut evidence mean anything at all, this Great War was begun by kings and sons of kings. It will not be ended by kings. It will be ended by folks named Smith and Jones and Robinson; and the kings and sons of kings thereafter will eat their meals through wire baskets, and there will be number-plates on their collars. Foolish dudes and silly women will keep them as pets. Out of this agony of death is coming “a new birth of freedom.”

[EvX: Again he is wrong, for the Russian Czars were not kept as pets (what?) but cruelly murdered shortly after this volume appeared, even poor little Alexei who had certainly never done another human a single ounce of wrong.]

“Young America, if in these days there is one thought emerging like a green island out of the turbulent sea of conflicting opinions, it is that civilization demands the spread of the democratic idea. Kings take to war as Congressmen take to Appropriation Bills. There is no question about that. Nothing in history is surer. … When kings wanted glory, they went and took it out of their neighbors; when they wanted gold, they made war and got it; … And when their people rebelled, they went to war for no reason at all, but just to quiet them down. A good many men died and a good many women became destitute in the course of those adventures, but kings have romance on their side and they have always made believe that they had God on their side, too. The Kaiser isn’t the first king who has chattered about Me und Gott. He is merely the last of a long, sad line of self-deluded frauds. Kings gain by war, and cliques of nobles or plutocrats gain by war; the Lords of Special Privilege thrive and grow fat on aggression.

“But the people do not thrive on it. Smith and Jones and Robinson do not gain by aggression. Uncle Sam might annex Cuba, Mexico, Canada, and South America to-morrow, and Smith and Jones and Robinson would gain nothing from it all. They would lose. For public attention would be so fixed on the romantic glitter of conquest that, hi its shadow, corruption would thrive as never before. Progress within the nation would cease while we pursued the treacherous will-o’-the-wisp of imperialism into distant marshes. Smith and Jones and Robinson know this, and where they control the government, there is not much talk of colonies and the White Man’s Burden. The governments that are controlled by Smith and Jones and Robinson, which means the Common People, are called democracies; and in so far as they are true democracies they are a force for the abolition of war.

[EvX: Were Hermann correct, the US would have never expanded past the territories of the original 13 Colonies, would have never conquered Texas, Mexico, Cuba, etc., and we would be much the poorer for all of this land we had obtained. Likewise, the US would not have entered WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, Gulf War II, etc., while those monarchies in the Middle East–like Saudi Arabia–would be out conquering their neighbors.

Of course, our author does protect his position with a “no true Scotsman” clause.]

“They have been called to die for their country, but you are called to live for your country. Those who die in the fight for democracy, die for more than their country; they die to build a lasting peace. You who live for the service of democracy, live for the service of more than your country. You live to build, out of the agony and the ashes, a better world than the sun has yet shone upon! …

“”Or put it another way. Somebody who tells you that everything isn’t all hunkydory with America is a bad American, eh?”

“”You bet. If Teacher tried to get off any knocks on Uncle Sam, I’d tell my father, and my father’d get her discharged.”

“”You’re off, sonny. And your father’s off. All you spread-eagle people, who think that the only way to be loyal to Uncle Sam is to pretend that he’s perfect as a cottonwool peach, are off. Your Uncle Sam isn’t perfect, sonny. In fact, he’s just about a hundred thousand miles from perfect.” …

“But the only way our U.S.A. ever will be good and great is for us all to look at ourselves, to look at our nation squarely and without blinking, and keep our minds alert lest we get into bad company and do things that George and Abraham might not like. But Teacher says, in effect: “No! Don’t look at your own faults. Look at the faults of others and forget your own. You’ll be much happier that way!” … Young America, there are times when I should like to see Teacher shot at sunrise in that empty lot down the block. For that sort of jabber is, in the first place, a lie. And in the second place, it’s a damned lie. And in the third place, it’s treason, for it makes you think there’s nothing for you to do. And that’s like putting a bomb under the Capitol. Young America, I know you don’t like to have me say that democracy isn’t a success. It sounds disloyal somehow. But it isn’t disloyal. It’s just trying to look at things squarely, and without blinking, … Democracy is n’t a success — yet. Government of the people, by the people, for the people, is n’t achieved — yet. Do you think it is? You remember what the Grand Old Fellows said in the Declaration: Men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . . Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Look about you. Does it seem to you that the slums in your own city afford life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to the men and women and children, freezing and starving in winter, sweltering and starving in summer? Does it seem to you that the factories where children work eight, ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day help those children achieve those unalienable rights? …

“It is a mystery to me, Young America, why the great men, whose lives and heroic deeds make up the history of this Republic, should have permitted us, the nieces and nephews of Uncle Sam, to take democracy, to take the principle of popular government, as lightly, as carelessly, as we have taken it. Perhaps they lacked imagination to see what a republic, based as firmly as ours, might accomplish with an alert and conscientious citizenry; perhaps, like Lincoln, they were too busy with enormous problems, concrete and immediate, to do more than point out the direction of progress; perhaps they were just optimistic, trusting blissfully in the old convenient notion that, by means of some piece of divine jugglery, some light- fingered shifting of omelets under a hat, the voices of five, ten, fifteen mil- ion farmers, factory-hands, brokers, lawyers, clerks, longshoremen, saloon- keepers, Tammany Hall heelers, murderers, repeaters and Congressmen, became the Voice of God.

“Our great men have been loyal to the principle of democracy. … But few, if any, have hammered into our heads the simple truth that democracy is like religion… what definite thing do we ever do to keep alive that little sprig of democracy which is native in the heart of every American girl and boy? What do we do to feed it and tend it and water it? America depends for its life, its liberty, its happiness, on a wide-awake and conscientious citizen- ship; but what do we ever do to build up such a citizenship? …

“What school or college that you ever heard of has in its curriculum emphasized the prime importance of citizenship? I suppose they teach you some civics in your school, and I’ll bet you a dollar it’s drier than algebra. Perhaps they give you a dab at current events — mostly events, and mighty little, I’ll swear, about the current on which they float. For history, I suppose they give you the same accumulation of pleasant legends they gave me when I was fifteen or thereabouts. All about the glory, and nothing about the shame, the stupidity, the greed! As though you were a fool who did n’t know that no man and no country can be all good or all bad; but that both are a mixture of good and bad, and will be loved by their children even if they do make mistakes! …

“Every American boy becomes a hand in the great Factory of Public Welfare we call the United States, the day he is twenty-one. He knows he is going into that factory, and his elders know he is going into it, and they all know that his happiness and their own happiness may depend on his loyalty to the interests of that factory and his understanding of the machinery of that factory. You’d think they’d tell him some- thing beforehand about machinery in general, wouldn’t you? You’d think they’d prepare him a bit to be a good mechanic when his time came. The machinery is so fine and delicate, you’d think the Directors would insist on reducing to a minimum the risk of smashing it up.

“But they don’t…. These Directors go from school to school, and instead of scolding the school-teachers for failing to give you training in government-mechanics, they pat you on the back, Young America, and tell you to be good factory hands, nice factory hands, loyal factory hands; and that the Factory is the grandest factory in the world, and you ought to be glad that you belong to that particular factory, because it is a free factory, where every one can do exactly as he pleases. The Directors say a great many uplifting things, but do they take you to the machine and explain it to you, and stand over you until you know what makes it go? Oh, no! Nothing like that! They tell you that you are the greatest little mechanic in the world and then leave you to wreck the machine as thoroughly as your native common sense will permit. As for freedom — for the ignorant and the untrained there is no such thing as freedom. The ignorant and the untrained are slaves to their own inefficiency. Those only are free who know. Young America, girls and boys can be trained to the work of citizenship even as greenhorns can be trained to the use of machinery; trained in the home, trained in school, trained in college. And we must be trained, Young America, if this country is ever going to be the wise, the just, the humane force for progress in the world that we want it to be. …

I have gone about like Diogenes with a lantern, trying to find a man or boy who has seen or even heard of a school or college that tried deliberately, fearlessly, and thoroughly to train its girls and boys to be intelligent citizens. Colleges teach government and history, but the courses are optional. Nothing in their catalogues suggests that a patriotic citizen will apply himself to these subjects. Physics may be compulsory and Latin or German or French may be compulsory, for those constitute Culture; but never by any chance the subjects that constitute the background for good citizenship. … Do [teachers] bend over you with a blessing or a club and say: You’ll be a decent citizen, my son, or I’ll know the reason why!” — do they? You would think your school- masters had never heard of such a thing as citizenship.

[EvX: Note the contradiction between our author’s certainty that democracy must be explicitly taught in order to succeed, and his complaint that in the past 140 or so years of this country, no one has bothered to teach it, and yet we had not descended into autocracy.]

“You may be too young to die for democ- racy; but no girl or boy is ever too young to live for democracy! Your country is at war. You can- not go to the front. But, in the high- est sense, you are the true Home Guard. Are you going to do your part? In your nation’s critical hour, girls and boys of America, what are you going to do?…

“Unlike the college boy who prefers to stay away from baseball games, the citizen who prefers to stay away from the polls does not lose caste. No one has been taught to see him for the contemptible shirker that he is. For there is no tradition of public service. Young America, it is your opportunity and your obligation to create that tradition; … set forth and gather a friend or two friends or three friends about you and… determine that henceforth you will think about the needs of America, and argue about the needs of America, and give your hands and your hearts to serve the needs of America; and consider any man or woman, boy or girl, who does otherwise, a traitor to the United States and a traitor to the principle of democracy!…

“You must not only run ahead of your parsons and your schoolmasters, you must yourselves awake your parsons and your schoolmasters! Some of them are heavy sleepers, as you know. Bang on the door and drag them out of bed. Not too ceremoniously! Riot, if need be! There are too few riots in American schools and colleges against the cramping conservatism of the elder generation. …

“If your elders in school and college will not volunteer to lead you, lead yourselves, and demand their support! Speak gently to Teacher, speak persuasively to Teacher, but if words don’t wake him, RIOT, girls and boys of America! Do you call yourselves really Americans? Then jump to your feet, resolved that this great nation shall no longer waste its opportunities!

“Think what the republican hearts hidden behind the gray khaki of Germany would give for the democratic institutions you possess! Their lives would seem to them payment ridiculously inadequate. And you possess these institutions and shrug your shoulders and say, in effect, that you should worry what happens to them. Do you say that, you who read these lines? If you do, you are base, and deserve to die as Benedict Arnold died, in a garret in a foreign land, cursing the day that he betrayed his country! Does that sound harsh and violent to you, girls and boys of America? I tell you, the time has passed when we could afford to chatter lightly over the teacups concerning the needs and the shortcomings of our country. Smash the cups, Young America, and come out and fight, that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. Fight! …

Your elder brothers will have to fight with guns; many of them will have to die here or with their fellows-in-democracy in France and Flanders. … To you, girls and boys of ten, twelve, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, is given a work every bit as grand as dying for your country; and that is, living for the highest interests of your country! Those interests are the interests of democracy. If, therefore, you live for the highest interests of America, you live at the same time for the highest interests of the world. In that struggle, the goal is neither nationalism nor internationalism. It is democracy. It is a lasting peace among nations; and, as far as it is humanly possible, amity among men. Go to it! Go to it, girls and boys of America! You are the hope of the world.”

 

EvX: After completing the book (it is a short read and you may finish it yourself if you wish before continuing with this post,) I looked up the author’s biography on Wikipedia and managed to actually surprise myself by how thoroughly Cathedral Hagedorn was:

Hermann Hagedorn (18 July 1882 – 27 July 1964) was an American author, poet and biographer.

He was born in New York City and educated at Harvard University, where he was awarded the George B. Sohier Prize for literature, the University of Berlin, and Columbia University. From 1909 to 1911, he was an instructor in English at Harvard.

Hagedorn was a friend and biographer of Theodore Roosevelt. He also served as Secretary and Director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association from 1919 to 1957. Drawing upon his friendship with Roosevelt, Hagedorn was able to elicite the support of Roosevelt’s friends and associates’ personal recollections in his biography of TR which was first published in 1918 and then updated in 1922 and which is oriented toward children.

(Funny how Teddy Roosevelt has been nearly completely forgotten these days, compared to his fame back when Mount Rushmore was carved.)

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.