Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Archive for June 2016

Man Up!

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Through most of human history, wealth creation meant finding a new gold mine. It was a negative sum world; the way to get ahead was to step on other people. You can’t look at that world through the same lens you would view everyday life in 2016 Corporate America.

There was no concept of wealth creation at the time of the New Testament. When you read that the apostle Matthew was a tax collector, do not think of him as a Roman IRS agent. The Romans had introduced tax farming in 123 BC to increase the efficiency of collecting revenue. The Romans would auction off the exclusive right to collect taxes in a territory. The winner of the auction had to front the money to Rome, and then would go collect the taxes, plus some. Being a tax collector, officially known as a publicanus, could be very lucrative, because you could increase the amount you collected and the proceeds were all yours. Being a publicanus was an opportunity to make yourself rich at the expense of your neighbors.

A Roman provincial magistrate was not paid a salary. The position was an opportunity for a rich man to become very rich through means that we who live in the Anglo-Saxon political tradition now consider corrupt: peddling influence, shaking down merchants and extracting tribute. The real plums of the Empire in the time of Augustus were Egypt and Spain. Judea, with its troublesome population, was no prize; Pilate must have been viewed by his Roman contemporaries as distinctly minor league to have been sent there. On his arrival, Pilate promptly brought Jerusalem to near revolt through his actions that Judeans considered defilement of the holy city.

What was a real man in a world like this? In most places and times, a real man was distinctly predatory, taking care of himself and his own at the expense of anyone who came across him. Such a person is not typically going to have what we might call a modern view of the poor, women or anyone who is different.

Skip forward about one thousand years and move to Normandy. Game of Thrones depicts medieval conditions much more accurately than any of the mid-twentieth century movies. Norman barons are about 2-3 generations removed from Viking raiders. In 911, the King of France bought off the most powerful of these and made him Duke of Normandy. In return the Duke promised to convert to Christianity, recognize the King of France as his liege lord and, above all, stop raiding all over France.

The Duke then made his subordinate commanders into barons, and barons grow highly skilled knights who exist to fight for the Duke. What do they do all day besides practice their swordsmanship? The barons are a contentious lot, constantly looking to expand their holdings at the expense of their neighbors. They send their knights out to fight. The knights may fight the knights of the baron across the river, but that could get them killed. An even better way is to slaughter the other baron’s defenseless peasants. There could be opportunities for fun activities like pillage and rape. Modern history shows that a man who comes of age in such an environment and has it reinforced by his peer group can develop a taste for this.

Well-behaved knights would mostly keep off the peasants belonging to their baron, at least if there was anyone watching. It was always open season on peasants belonging to other lords. Conditions were so lawless that Pope Urban II decided this taste for violence needed another outlet. In 1095, at the Council of Clermont, he proclaimed:

You oppressors of orphans, you robbers of widows, you homicides, you blasphemers, you plunderers of others’ rights … if you want to take counsel for your souls you must either cast off as quickly as possible the belt of this sort of knighthood or go forward boldly as knights of Christ, hurrying swiftly to defend the Eastern Church.

Let’s see, the choices are: stop picking on defenseless peasants or go to the Holy Land and pick on defenseless people there while gaining glory as knights of Christ. Is this an IQ test? All together now: God wills it!

All across the world, in places as geographically and culturally separate as Europe and Japan, the ideal man — the gentleman or the samurai — was a man who does not engage in productive work. He can fight, he can contemplate, he can live a life of leisure. He can obtain a government office and tell other people what to do. It is unthinkable for a noble man to produce.

Four etchings from The Great Miseries of War, by Jacques Callot, 1633. Possibly the first instance ever of anti-war art.

Four etchings from The Great Miseries of War, by Jacques Callot, 1633. Possibly the first instance ever of anti-war art.

Slide forward to the Thirty Years’ War. Another golden opportunity for men who like that sort of thing to kill other people in the name of God, although any pretext would have worked. Some areas in Germany required almost a hundred years just to get back to a 1600 standard of living. The good news is that people started to get sick of it and take measures to prevent it. Our First Amendment clause forbidding Congress from establishing a state religion is a direct result of the European wars of religion over the previous 250 years.

The point is that predatory behavior has been the prevailing standard of what a proper man is for most of human history. In many places, it still is.

To look at the boys fighting for the Islamic State or Boko Haram and ask why they are doing that is, really, the wrong question. The right questions are:

  • Why do we have other definitions of being an honorable man?
  • How did we get these definitions?
  • How do we defend ourselves against cultures who cannot respect our definitions?

The idea of an honorable man being a man who works, creates wealth and is not a predator is a Western creation. It is only in the West, over the last three hundred years, that this alternate definition of proper manhood has begun to take root. It is a necessary predecessor for the wealth we enjoy, since without it the wealth of productive people would continue to be dissipated by the predatory faster than it can be accumulated. This, not Western exploitation, is why people with predatory ideals of manhood live in dirt.

In any culture that I can think of, the farmers and artisans were the social inferiors of the warriors. The warriors do not feed themselves; they take from the farmers and artisans. It’s a permanent protection racket.

Was it a painful process to get past this and become a productive society? Yes, it was. Are we at the zenith of our development? By no means. Did we have episodes of backsliding? We sure did. Are we completely free of predatory behavior? No, but we have a culture that directs it in productive ways. “I can build a bigger iron bridge than you” is a position that leads to better lives for entire nations. “I can put an iron broadsword through your guts” does not.

We now have a substantial problem, because we have entire generations who have no idea what advantages they have from Western Civilization and no idea why it is even worth defending. We need to figure it out as a people, fast.

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Written by srojak

June 26, 2016 at 4:27 pm

Life after the Republican Party

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The Republican Party was founded in 1854 after the Whig party had begun to disintegrate (Abraham Lincoln, to name one prominent example, had gone to the House in 1847 as “and old line Whig, a disciple of Henry Clay.”). It was a radical party with strength in the North among opponents of slavery. Republicans also opposed the American Party, more commonly known as the Know-Nothing party, whose members refused to discuss slavery and were strongly nativist and anti-immigrant.

My, it has been a long and torturous road. Now the Republicans have descended into Know-Nothingism, following behind a man who does not let lack of comprehension get in his way. How did this happen?

Cartoon by Mike Luckovich, obtained from rackjite.com.

Cartoon by Mike Luckovich, obtained from rackjite.com.

I certainly understand the dissatisfaction with the Republican establishment. Have the Republicans stood up and demanded that Congress do its job, making laws that we can follow? No. Have they curbed the compulsion to buy votes? No, they just have different favored groups. Any demonstrated interest in making K-12 education do more to prepare our kids to be effective citizens and self-reliant economic agents? None I can see.

For a long time, we have thought we were stuck with this. There is actually a body of political science theory, most notably Duverger’s Law, that predicts that a political system such as ours will only have two major parties. Other theoretical work explains why the two parties will converge on one another’s positions in general elections, until the difference between them is simply window dressing.

Nevertheless, we do not need Republicans to be pale imitations of Democrats. If we wanted people who would get into office and spend like Democrats, we could vote for actual Democrats and get the real thing.

We used to be confident that the Republicans believed in personal responsibility. Last January, Sarah Palin blamed President Obama for her son’s PTSD and domestic violence arrest. I am not making light of PTSD or minimizing the reality of the damage experienced by people who have served in combat. But this comment was laughable.

Welcome to Opposite Year. Last year we had a field of 16 Republican presidential hopefuls. Now, we’re hopeless. The really big chunk has floated to the top. This is not just a fluke — more like a flounder.

Yes, there has been much to be dissatisfied about with the Republican Party in the past 28 years. But this is like using a flamethrower to get the termites out of your house. Yes, it works, in that you won’t have any more termites. You also won’t have any more house.

We have a presumptive Republican nominee who doesn’t answer questions directly, who changes his position multiple times in the same week, and who seems to really only listen to himself. He has been allowed to get away with this for months. People make excuses for him.

Back in 2013, the Republican Party initiated a period of self-examination. Was it time to stop alienating major demographic segments, such as Latinos and women? What happened to that? Self-examination has given way to self-destruction.

I am not saying that the Trump campaign is doomed — after everything that has happened this year, I can’t say that. But his campaign has called the question: are you going to go along with this? I am not.

You can make the argument that the Republican elected officials, such as Paul Ryan, have to accept the decisions of their primary voters. They got their offices and their clout through the ballot access that the Republican party has provided. However, you can also argue that this is the Profiles in Courage moment when extraordinary action is called for.

Why are we confined to these two terrible options? This is America. If both choices stink, we reject them and go bigger. That’s what we do.
— Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb), quoted in Politico.

There is no such debate for the rest of us; we owe the Republican Party nothing. It is time to stand up and be counted. Include me out.

 

Written by srojak

June 16, 2016 at 8:20 pm

Bad History

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This picture came my way on Facebook. It was too bad not to hang on to.

.. when you did what?

.. when you did what?

What’s wrong with it? Well, let’s review.

Ending the Depression

Roosevelt did not end the Depression; World War II did. See this article for the actual unemployment data.

Unemployment was never under 10% from the time FDR took office until war spending began in earnest in 1940. The economy went into a relapse in 1937, as Roosevelt’s Second New Deal created uncertainty and investment slowed. Amity Shlaes summarized it this way:

The story of the mid-1930s is the story of a heroic economy struggling to do recuperate but failing to do so because of perverse federal policy.
— Shlaes, The Forgotten Man, p. 392.

This is not a story you will hear on PBS specials or read in a high school textbook. But both the statistics and the memory of the generation that lived through the Depression substantiate it. My mother and others of her age cohort used to say that wars were good for the economy. That is obviously untrue: in a war, you take wealth out into a field and blow it up. But that is the way their generation experienced relief from the Great Depression.

Creating the Middle Class

In what universe do people making minimum wage constitute the middle class? The middle class as we came to know it by 1970 was created by World War II and the economic boom that followed it.

At the end of the war, it was not clear at all that there would be economic prosperity. The outcome considered most likely was inflation once prices were free to rise and money earned in wartime production that could not have been spent during the war was loosed to bid up prices. This did not happen, and the fact that it did not was the accomplishment of Harry Truman and Federal Reserve Chairman Marriner Eccles.

Ending Elderly Poverty

I reckon that this claim is factual, as far as it goes. Over the next 80 years, Social Security did end elderly poverty — by transferring wealth from the young. If this scheme were managed by a private enterprise, it would be fraud; but since the government is in charge, everything is just dandy.

Was Roosevelt a Socialist?

Many of his opponents accused Roosevelt of being a socialist, but the evidence does not really stack up.

You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does … and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.
— FDR to Henry Morgenthau, 1942. Quoted in Fleming, The New Dealers’ War.

Before the war, Roosevelt was willing to mislead if it would help perpetuate him in office. Even if he had left a body of political thought, it would be risky to put too much stock in it. Roosevelt has to be evaluated on his actions.

The actions of the Roosevelt administration were fundamentally corporatist. Under corporatism, government, business, labor, education and social organizations would work together to plan the economy and implement these plans. What’s wrong with that? For starters, plan the economy is a pleasant euphemism for plan your daily life.

At the time, the smart money believed that planned states had inherent advantages over liberal republics because the former could realize cohesive action. This was augmented by the work of Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936), one of the early thinkers in sociology. Tönnies distinguished between the Gesellschaft and the Gemeinschaft. To give a quick-and-dirty distinction, think of the Gesellschaft as a market town or bustling port, whereas the Gemeinschaft is closer to a rural village with deep traditions, where “everybody knows everybody, and everybody looks after everybody.” Also where everybody sticks their nose into everybody else’s business, but some people like that.

 The 1930’s are remembered as the Red Decade. Democracy itself appeared to be inadequate to the task of managing the modern nation. The idea of Gemeinschaft was in vogue, and in Italy, Mussolini appeared to be having success implementing his vision of corporatism — if you didn’t look too closely or ask what happened to people who didn’t get with the program.

The form of U.S. corporatism was thus gradual, incremental, societal corporatism, not the abrupt, authoritarian state corporatism of so many of the interwar European countries. And it was “loose”: pragmatic, piecemeal, nonideological, pluralist, with few sanctions or tight controls, and very American. It tended to be advisory rather than compulsory, but that changed over time.
— Howard Wiarda, Corporatism and Comparative Politics, p. 138.

Corporatism offered Roosevelt limitless avenues to expand his power. The government could sit as mediator and honest broker in disputes between two large industries, or between big business and big labor.

However, World War II permanently associated corporatism with fascism, and the National Socialist implementation of Gemeinschaft led to war and genocide. That did not mean the methods had to be abandoned, just that they needed to be rebranded and repositioned.

Why Don’t People Know This?

Why should children believe what they learn in American history, if their textbooks are full of distortions and lies? Why should they bother to learn it?
Luckily, … they don’t.
— James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, p. 297.

Very few people want to hear that FDR’s programs were not effective in defeating the Depression. In part, this is because Progressives have a preponderance of control of the education system and the media, but there is a more basic reason. If it took a global war to see off the Depression of the 30’s, what will it take to defeat the next one? The fact is that we don’t know how to cure a large-scale economic depression, which is why government policy has been focused on making sure another one does not happen.

Books about the Roosevelt administration typically concentrate on what historians call the First New Deal, which ended in 1935 with the Schechter decision that voided Title I of the National Industrial Recovery Act. Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment focuses on the first Hundred Days. Adam Cohen’s Nothing to Fear contains one chapter that covers the time after 1933; it summarizes the standard legislative achievements that are revered among Progressives, including the Social Security Act, but does not discuss their effectiveness. Only Amity Shlaes stands out as a historian of the entire Depression.

The reason why we need to get the history right is simple. If we don’t even understand the history, we have almost no chance of learning from past mistakes. If we tell ourselves that the actions were not really mistakes, there is nothing to learn from.

Written by srojak

June 5, 2016 at 12:34 am

The Intelligence Trap

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Back in 1959, average was desired and intelligence was a deviation, viewed with at least as much suspicion as stupidity. In that year, Admiral Hyman Rickover wrote:

 We admire “science” greatly and we place in it an almost childlike trust; we expect it will continuously pour out delightful wonders to make our lives even more agreeable. But upon “scientists” and “scholars” many of us look with a somewhat jaundiced eye; we call them “eggheads” and “intellectuals”; we do not consider them to be entirely normal persons.
— Rickover, Education and Freedom, p. 122.

We have traveled far from this world in some respects, although have far to go in others. Certainly intelligence is no longer viewed as a disorder. It has become so worshipped that Daniel Goleman found it necessary to reclassify athletic ability, musical talent and empathy as athletic intelligence, musical intelligence and emotional intelligence.

Yet it is always possible to overcorrect, and in many ways we have done so. Edward de Bono studied thinking and wrote about what he called the intelligence trap in his 1982 book de Bono’s Thinking Course. He found that intelligent people do not necessarily have a natural advantage in their ability to think. Further, the intelligent person has seductive ways to cut corners and appear to be thinking:

  • People often mistake verbal ability for thinking. The intelligent person gets rewarded for developing verbal ability and substituting it for real thought.
  • The ego, self-image and peer status of a highly intelligent person depend on being seen to be right and clever.
  • It is easier and more immediately gratifying to use one’s intelligence to criticize than to construct and execute a plan of action. When one criticizes someone else’s idea, one appears intelligent; when one puts forward one’s own idea, one is exposed to the criticism of others.
  • The highly intelligent person often prefers to be clever than to be wise.

de Bono noticed that highly intelligent people often prefer to engage in what he called reactive thinking, such as solving puzzles where a problem is placed before the person, rather than projective thinking, where the person has to figure out what the question is, let alone the answer. He called this pattern the “Everest effect”; much like a mountain climber scaling a mountain “because it is there,” an intelligent person will often tackle well-defined problems simply because they are brought to her attention. However, in real life, most of the important problems, including how to make a living and what should be the purpose of one’s life, require projective thinking.

Intelligent people don’t like accountability any more than anyone else. Being intelligent, they have crafty ways of avoiding accountability. Do not let them get away with it.

It is not my purpose to disparage intelligence. I have no desire to return to the cultural climate of 1959. However, intelligence must be kept in perspective. Being intelligent is rather like driving a Formula 1 race car: it can run faster than a Mercury Grand Marquis, but the driver must have additional skill or the car will slam into a ditch that much harder and faster.

Written by srojak

June 2, 2016 at 11:01 pm