Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Betrayal of the Smart Sons

Having recently read a dyspeptic and grouchy, but eye-opening, look at the fix we’re in - 15 Signs American Society Is Coming Apart at the Seams, by David DeGraw - it occurred to me that there are all sorts of possible theories to explain what's happened to American Civilization... its astonishing plummet from the richest, most confident and progressive nation in history to an irascible bunch of bickerers, trapped in perpetual a cycle of Culture War. 

Why, especially, have Americans been losing their knack at creating new and better goods and services and winning at the agile game of market capitalism?  This is a matter of no small import to the world as a whole, since it is precisely the engine of U.S. economic success that has - thereupon - driven the development of most of the rest of the world. (See: How Americans Spent themselves into Ruin…But Saved the World.) While that engine has to learn to run leaner, more efficiently and more sustainably, its actual vigor and innovation are just as important, if the world is to see better days.

Alas, the engine is sputtering.  Furthermore, none of the diagnoses that I've seen publicly bruited, so far, has seemed convincing. Most are either superficial ("we were led by fools!"), or myopic ("MY side is always right and so is every item on our wish list!"), or dreamy ("we should wake up and face the future again, as a nation of ambitious problem-solvers!")  (All right, that last example is the favorite wish-whine of yours truly.)

Time for a fair warning.  I was raised, trained and apprenticed in the art of "what-if" generating... the craft of offering unusual outlooks. New-Perspectives-R-Us.  Even knowing full well that most of them will be flawed at some level, people still pay me -- sometimes a lot -- to do this. To be interesting, even if I don't turn out to be right.

Hence, some of my hypotheses, to explain America's current funk, are iconoclastic. For example, I think that a big part of our problem may be rooted in a simplistic, insipid, illogical... and French... metaphor, the so-called "left-right political axis," a dismally lobotomizing meme that some of the smartest people I know actually buy into, without ever being able to define it.
Spinning around in a different direction, last month I offered a relatively sunny theory about the rise and gentle decline of Pax Americana -- suggesting that everything we've seen, including our trade and budget deficits, may have been intentionally mapped out by the greatest genius of the 20th Century, George Marshall, whose innovative counter-mercantilist trade patterns wound up propelling two-thirds of the people on this planet toward peaceful prosperity through one simple method -- Americans buying trillions of dollars worth of crap we never needed. 

Sound cheery?  I can also do dark. (See Republicans and Democrats: Two Very Different Kinds of Internal Party Struggle. )

But let's put aside all the optimistic and pessimistic scenarios, for now.  This time, I want to get strange and cynical with a new theory that's simple, creepy, and chillingly plausible. I don't expect any modern person will agree that this is the real, underlying cause for all that’s been happening to our economy, across the last few decades. 
 Yet, I'll bet any of the top thinkers from other centuries and civilizations would take a glance at America today and totally agree with the hypothesis!

"Yep, that's it," they would say. "Any nation that allowed such a thing to happen would deserve what it got."

It is a theory about the sons and daughters of the rich.

Who’s Minding The Aristocracy?  A Crackpot Explanation for the Decline of American Capitalism
Now and then, during my time at Caltech and JPL and across careers in science and the arts, I used to notice something that struck me as strange. While interacting in these endeavors with bright men and women who were colleagues and/or peer-competitors, all of us eagerly pursuing truth, I would every now and then pick up on something odd and unexpected. Through all the normal give and take, amid fascinating conversations that plumbed ideas at the fringe of the known, a hint would slip out revealing that... hey... this guy or that gal, in addition to being a skilled worker and dynamic innovator, also happened also to be rich! 

Now let's be clear; I’m not talking about the self-made billionaires I know -- guys who started in the middle class before developing some cool concept that gave millions of people added value. Exemplifying Free Enterprise at its best, those fellows are proudly “first generation” self-made men. Indeed, several have declared that they will join Warren Buffett in leaving most of it to causes, making a better world.  But we’re putting them aside. They’re not relevant here.

No, instead I'm talking about another kind of rich people. Folks who got wealthy the old fashioned way, by inheriting it.

And yet, despite being raised in affluence, these colleagues, friends or fellow scientists were not using their silver spoons to live it up or lord over others. Sure, they had some of the finer things. But they treated money as something that one can actually get enough of. More is always nice, of course!  But one of the principal hallmarks of sanity -- satiability -- means a surfeit that's doubled, and then redoubled, drops in importance.  In its place, the central drive may even move on to other things.  Like curiosity.

(This doesn't impugn the tech billionaires. Past a certain point, is it cash that really matters to them?  Or winning, again and again, at a cutthroat, innovative game?  Most claim that money, itself, isn't the motivator, anymore.  It's being -- and doing -- the best.)

In fact, when it came to the rich scientists and artists I knew, these colleagues nearly always seemed to be at pains to downplay the whole topic. It was never polite to go there.  Often, to my puzzlement, they acted as if admitting their wealth would be like avowing to some mildly repulsive and irritating social disease.

I pondered this phenomenon over the years... I mean, beyond ratcheting up my respect for women and men who turn their back on luxury (though they often had boats or planes), in order to head for realms where the truly interesting stuff is going on.  (BTW, some of them went into science fiction, too.  I won’t tell who.)

These were people with options.  Yet, they chose to go and prove themselves in fields where ability and quality are genuinely measurable, and where esteem generally ignores the number of digits in your income. You gotta respect that.

Still, I eventually got around to wondering -- all right then, who is managing your family’s influence and power?

Who gets the treasured stock exchange seat?  The Skull & Bones membership? The golf games with Illuminati board members?  I even probed about this a couple of times, when I felt the friendship could stand it.  Clues showed up, when I would accompany a friend to some family gathering, and met relatives. Soon, I observed enough to stoke a growing suspicion.

Who got the power and influence?

Dim-witted siblings.   That’s who.  The family dullards, who are not lured by adventures in science or innovation or the arts.  The brother who, if left in charge of a restaurant or small business would run up the mortgage and leave it bankrupt, in months.  The sister for whom preening and partying with Paris Hilton actually seems important.  The kind who drift toward crony dealing, because genuine market competition might be way too challenging.  Who will clasp their (reflex-genetically-inherited-by-all-of-us) notions of born-privilege, and justify them with mantras of smug superiority.

Look, I am really, really not interested in making enemies of any of these rich/spoiled/dumbasastone fellows, so in case any of them just happen to read this obscure blog, will you accept a pre-apology? Or assume I am talking about someone else? Thanks.

Nevertheless, seriously, don’t we all know what families are like?  Typically, each one has its bright bulbs and dim ones. In fact, one of the ways that families work best is that the bright sons and daughters wind up taking care of everybody else.  If there's a shared business, they make sure the taxes get paid and the workers are happily creative and that customers remain content. They see too it that the whole thing doesn’t get leveraged too far to weather the next storm, and they refuse to let company officers vote themselves lavish bonuses, diminishing value that could be re-invested in growth.  They use their prefrontal lobes to look ahead and invest not in wild ass get-rich-fast schemes, but in things that will enhance product or service, engendering more wealth -- for everybody -- down stream.

You see this in almost any family-run business.  Sometimes, the other siblings resent it.  Often, they know what’s good for them and help the smart-bro or wise-sis, however they can. (Heck, we saw it in “The Godfather,” right?  Well, maybe that’s not such a great example, after all.)

Only here’s the point.  An awful lot of American family businesses don’t get to benefit from this process.  They lose the natural leader, for a reason that’s ultimately ironic -- because the bright siblings may get a little too bright.  Having been raised in some comfort and privilege, with all the education they could possibly want, lo and behold, they want - and get - a lot!  Moreover, they look around for where exciting stuff is happening, and they soon come to recognize the places where human endeavor is really achieving important things, pushing back the envelope.  Challenging the unknown, breaking molds, inventing the new, and unrolling the very blueprints of God.

Sure, sometimes these challenges can be found right there, in the family business. Making the products and services way-better.   Terrific. Still, there is a natural human tendency for the smartest kids to wander off, away from all the privileges and assumptions, to prove they can make it on their own, perhaps even in a field where some of humanity’s top minds may acknowledge their talents and hard work with the greatest of all rewards... that nod of genuine respect.

It doesn’t have to be science, though that is where I found these refugees from the aristocracy, most often.  It might also be the arts, or starting a new company from scratch, in a completely different field.  Any way you look at it, this trend has to be viewed with admiration.

Alas, it may also be one of the principal reasons that American capitalism is going down the toilet. Because... who is left behind, minding the store?  Oh.  Yeah.  I already answered that question.

Only now, squint and envision good old Fredo, put in charge of a big investment fund.  Instead of a ma and pa grocery store, picture a prominent county bank that used to service mortgages carefully, combining intimate knowledge of local borrowers with a strong sense of community. That is, til frat-bro came back from a golf junket fizzing with excitement over hedge investments that he learned about from some sharpguy on the back nine. I mean, how else can you explain the fact that Wall Street is filled with fellows who actually think that vampiring companies with endlessly-churned commissions is doing them a favor and improving their bottom line?

Has anybody out there read The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy?  Remember the "Golgafrincham B Ark"?  If you don't, ask your nerdiest friend to lend you that passage.

Is That Really The Answer?

If you were to offer up any list of hypotheses to explain what has happened to American business and capitalistic enterprise, across the last 40 years, this one surely ranks among the most crackpotty-sounding. And I am not declaring it to be true. (I don't believe all my own strange hypotheses -- it's simply my job to come up with an endless supply!)

 Yet, doesn't it belong somewhere on the table of notions to investigate?  Note that the Standard Model -- proclaiming that we've been half-ruined by moronic, short-sighted greed -- does relate. I'm simply suggesting a process -- one that is totally consistent with the facts -- by which a large fraction of the mover-and-shaker slots in American finance might have become filled with greedy, short-sighted morons.  Moreover, there are plenty of precedent-examples one can point at, from history, where it proved devastating for a nation or enterprise to be inherited by the wrong brother.
Nor is this explanation inherently leftist. (Though Karl Marx mentioned "inherent contradictions" leading to capitalism's demise.)   Indeed, it posits something decidedly non-lefty.  Even far to the opposite direction.

It suggests that, if we are destined to return to the core human method of governance -- the one that dominated 99% of civilizations and recorded eras -- then at least aristocratism ought to be run by the BEST scions of the ruling class.  Not its worst.  They owe us that much, at least.

Consider, if this hypothesis has any validity at all, the profound awfulness of a well-intended betrayal.  In these high families, the smarter brothers and sisters want to be part of a lively, enlightenment civilization and to prove they can make it on their own. Today, these brighter siblings vanish into science, the arts, etc, leaving their bonehead bros, who shouldn't be trusted with a burnt match, holding great power.

 And hence, the bright ones have committed a crime against the very thing they love.

Okay, maybe I should have saved this one for April Fool's Day...

There. Forget all the convoluted analyses of Wall street and the Fed. The aristocracy was betrayed by its smartest scions. That's it!  Crackpotty or not, if this weird scenario does have any basis, then the cure is obvious.
Hunt down all the smart boys and girls who vanished into challenging and honest activities... science, teaching, research, the arts... and chase them BACK into the family business! Make them pick up their responsibilities to manage the inherited capital and influence well. Send the dullard brats off to sniff coke and chase models in Hollywood.

Yes, it sounds draconian, even deeply cruel.  But this measure could rank second only to closing all the undergraduate business schools, as a way to save our economy and our civilization.


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Unknown said...

okay, now I'm depressed...

(waiting for the unsanitized phone receiver plague to finish us off)...

I'd appreciate something a bit more... optimistic Dr. Brin? My family has been kicked around a bit this 2-month "holiday season".

I don't want the aristocrats. Even the smart ones. I'd even rather have Marxists.

David Brin said...

John, buck up. We are cavemen who have been to the moon and who created Bach cantatas. Most of our kids are healthy and spoiled.

All the rest is gloss -- and the bad stuff is easily explained by the fact that... we're cavemen! What'd you expect?

Sincere Marxists I can argue with. But the sincere ones are shot, just as soon as the Leninists take over.

I feel that the great enemy, right now is aristocratism, simply because ALL signs point to its resurgence... and because that has been our PERSISTEN enemy across 99% of history.

But on those rare occasions that the loony left gets in charge, they spend their brief span of power furiously making up for lost time. Where righty-lords tend to be smug and lazy and greedy and viciously oppressive, they also tend to be far less frenzied in their brutality... on a per-year basis... than lefty tyrants like Stalin, Hitler and Mao, who feel a passionate mission to forge a "New Man" in crucibles of blood and fire.

No, I aim my ire right now toward the Old Lord, because they always lurk, conspire and fester against us... and they are doing so right now. But god forbid we should get the real madness from the left, again!

In fact, one of the main reasons to oppose a return of oligarchy is because the oligarchs WILL be lazy and stupid and greedy and drive a radicalization of the people. And that radicalization could give a 1789 or 1914 or 1933 opening to the monsters of the Left.

A plague... a plague on both their houses!

Anonymous said...

I seem to recall this being a theme in a novel called Earth, by some SF writer who seems to have stopped writing… :-)

David Brin said...

Followup... Russ Daggatt writes: "Fun piece. But I loved this Calvin Trillin op-ed from the New York Times which makes essentially the opposite point: That what brought Wall Street down was that all the smart guys started going there."

Actually, Russ, you have to read Trillin carefully, especially toward the end, the paragraph "Because there is..." in order to realize that he is essentially saying the same thing I am!

In the end, he still blames the dumb-as-a-stone, bottom-third types who held the REAL power, and who did not understand the inventions of the smart guys. The subtle point here is that the top-percentile guys who invented these swaps of nothing... they made a lot of money. But they were still hirelings, boffins. The BIG decisions were still made by imbeciles with inherited positions, who never understood what the boffins were saying.

It's all still the fault of those who left such dopes at the helm.

David Brin said...

Terrific Halloween costume! I wonder where he got the idea!!!

Carl M. said...

Interesting theory. But have you also factored in inheritance taxes? Maybe the official family fortune isn't so interesting any more because it isn't there. Instead, most of it has been put into foundations, etc. So the smart kids run the foundations while the core businesses get fed to the Wall St. looters.

Some families bypassed the inheritance tax problem by creating a separate class of voting stock which owned only a small part of the cash out value of the company. Think Wall St. Journal or Ford Motor Company. But even with this theoretical control, the law says the controllers must maximize profits for shareholders in general, and if looting the future looks promising, it's act or get sued.

Interesting data point: Ford is the only U.S. auto maker not go bankrupt. Ford is still "in the family" by virtue of special shares.

Acacia H. said...

I've undoubtedly mentioned several times that I work for Ebsco Publishing (the wonderful folk behind EbscoHOST, used by so many people in research papers and the like). One thing that I've liked about Ebsco is the fact it is a privately owned company. What's more, the owners are not milking this rather profitable company for every ounce of money it can, but instead reinvesting the profits into infrastructure improvements, acquisitions of other information aggregates, and the like.

In fact, Ebsco managed double-digit growth last year. It was a lot less than what Ebsco had been originally anticipating before the economy went south... but there was still growth, and further acquisitions and the like.

I look at Ebsco Publishing and I see a privately-owned company that is able to grow significantly because its owners are less interested in profit than in improving the company. Even as competitors slashed R&D budgets and cut infrastructure and laid off people, Ebsco grew (though we did have some layoffs, it was a handful of people, and we're still hiring now).

Think on that for a moment. The other companies were so desperate to show increased growth that they razed their fields. They cashed in their seed money. They laid off their planters. And in a couple of years when the economy starts humming again... these companies will falter because they failed to improve infrastructure and slashed R&D. (And in doing so, the upper executives earned million-dollar bonuses. I'm reminded of the massive cost-cutting over at the Boston Globe, which resulted in a million dollars of savings for the year... and as a reward the upper executives got all of those savings as their bonuses. WTF? Why did these executives get the money saved, instead of the investors? Does anyone else see how utterly moronic this move was?)

I'm left scratching my head and wondering just what the benefits of being a public company are. It seems that while you get an initial influx of cash from investors, you then have to damage the company to constantly pay off these leeches who sap the strength of the company over the long run. And with the capital gains tax cuts that the Republicans (and some Dems, yes) passed a bit back, there is no incentive for companies to reinvest profits into the company... and instead to acquire other companies, hack them to pieces, and milk every last iota from the current work staff to reward a few executives who scared workers into killing themselves for no gain and minor profits for stockholders.

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

Optimality said...

Although some "frat bros" are rich, arrogant scions, this stereotype always bugs me.

Most of us from my fraternity days came from middle class families.
I can identify a dozen self made millionaires from that group.

Like "dumb blondes", this is another form of prejudice beneath your dignity.

Otherwise a good theory - PS: what about the rich families with no smart sons(or daughters)?

Anonymous said...

Referring to Hitler as a "lefty tyrant" does not do much for your credibility.

Fascism is inherently a right wing phenomenon. There are no credible schools of political thought--the rantings of various Republican extremists not withstanding--that argue otherwise.

Tim H. said...

Add another perspective, managers who see the navigation of a Byzantine system and domination games as their primary. Just another facet of the compound failure.

"looteos" breakfast cereal of kleptos.

Ian said...

"Why, especially, have Americans been losing their knack at creating new and better goods and services and winning at the agile game of market capitalism?"

Before we start speculating on the causes for this - shouldn't we ask what evidence there is that it's happening?

Recessions are not a novel phenomena, nor are they unique to America.

Ian said...

"Interesting theory. But have you also factored in inheritance taxes? Maybe the official family fortune isn't so interesting any more because it isn't there."

So you're claiming that the average welfare of the top 1% of the US population has been declining?

Tom Crowl said...

An interesting idea! With some caveats on specifics it touches on the heart of things... family trumps the larger society!

Looking at the likely distribution of various capabilities across a population we can assume that any randomly chosen sub-group (a family) will also have a similar range of capabilities... (i.e. a mix of slugs and whizbangs)

A family's internal social contract has strong roots in history, culture and biology. "Charity begins at home!" ALWAYS!

In fact, its roots are much stronger roots than those found in any larger social contract.

While Cycles of History are not inevitable there are patterns which shouldn't be ignored.

America's founding principles arose largely as a response and rejection of class rigidity which was preventing too many individuals and less-privileged families or sub-groups from advancing within the larger society.

The Founders designed specific mechanisms to deal with this.

(As have other societies including Great Britain at an even earlier time which well illustrates the impermanence of any such designs.)

And we were further moved to reject concepts of royalty and conversely celebrate the common man... the amateur.

And we had something else unique!

A vast expanse of capital which was distributed NOT by inheritance, NOT by class, and NOT determined by any characteristic other than a willingness to take the capital and work it... LAND producing a Golden Age of Individualism, Invention and Self-confidence.

But complex/chaotic systems aren't stagnant and unchanging... (in fact a state of 'criticality' balanced between order and chaos is essential to prolong the life of living systems.

To the extent they've shown themselves, patterns of history suggest that social contracts are fragile constructs which in their attempt to overcome other more primary loyalties will over time degrade without careful conscious attention.

In other words, natural forces which concentrate the power of networks will empower stagnation over innovation (which is potentially chaotic).

Authoritarianism fails because ultimately force cannot overcome its Ultimatum Game conclusion... the point where enough people say "Screw you! I'll tip over the board before I'll accept that deal!"

Consensual government requires constant attention on its mechanisms! Since very natural forces are constantly working against it.

We have done NOTHING about attending to our basic mechanisms... while they are gamed quite efficiently and profitably by others. This is not necessarily with evil intentions. It's not a clear case of good or bad... and not right or left.

The Right/Left thing has become a tragic distortion which is contribution nothing to a search for solutions.

Asimov was onto something with 'psychohistory'... (wasn't that the term? It's been a long time) though its likely to be a very fuzzy subject.

P.S. David DeGraw has been doing some great work and I highly recommend his Amped Status website.

Unknown said...

We are cavemen who have been to the moon and who created Bach cantatas. Most of our kids are healthy and spoiled.

Okay, I'm happy to be part of the 1% of the entire history of humanity that gets to enjoy this civilization at (or at least shortly after) its peak.

And that yes, although they don't have health care in this richest country on the planet, my kids are generally healthy and well fed and educated.

But it's cold comfort when looking into the immediate future. I don't want my civilization to end this way. I worked hard, paid my taxes, supported the enlightenment, etc. etc. I practiced politics, ran for office, tried to stay positive. The victories are small, personal, ephemeral.

The defeat? If 1% of your populace has more resources and political power than the bottom 95% combined... you are already in feudalism. Here it just has a happy face. Kind of.

Someone talked about inheritance tax? What a joke. Once you have enough money to move your wealth offshore, or invest in strategically legislated loopholes, *there are no taxes*. When you're caught, if you can afford a senator, you get forgiven.

Also, if you suggest that aristos should not be allowed to inherit overwhelming capitol... you will be branded a Marxist, or a terrorist, or whatever is being used to scare people into complacency.

Carl M. said...

For the record I did not say we should abolish inheritance taxes, I merely pointed out that inheritance taxes may have a societal cost. Maybe the cost is worth the benefit; maybe it isn't. That's for ya'll to decide.

That said, the skewed wealth distribution could be better fixed by means other than death taxes. Replacing income with property (generally defined) taxes would be a good start. Balancing the budget another. See my web sites for yet more ideas.

ZarPaulus said...

So essentially letting people inherit power ruins society. What if a CEO doesn't have any smart kids, what are they going to do?

rewinn said...

True Story:

The founder of Coleco Industries was an able enough businessman. In the fullness of time, his sons took over and lucked into the license for Cabbage Patch Kids, which turned out to be insanely valuable for about 3 years. This persuaded them that they were business wizards, and they proceeded to p1ss away every penny and more.

I used to write business software for Coleco. It was uncomfortably obvious that we were lead by guys who had had a lucky break but not the self-knowledge to realize their limitations; this deadly combination merely made them more confident and therefore stupid (as "in a stupor"). Initial huge profits covered up a string of epically bad business decisions that lead to measures to prop up sales ( and therefore stock prices) with what I now realize was (to use a kind word) foolery. (Some of my software was, unbeknownst to me, in support of that foolery.) It all eventually collapsed ... but I'm sure the sons still think of themselves as geniuses.

Draw what lessons you will.

Today the foolery seems to have progressed beyond manipulating sales figures into the insanely unregulated derivatives market. It appears easier for a person of small brains but no conscience to make huge wealth manipulating markets than it is by producing something real. The current derivatives market ( over $500 Trillion with a T ) is a huge multiple of the GDP of our entire PLANET; is wise that our markets in actual things should be so overwhelmed by unregulated financial instruments?

Keep in mind that you don't need to be smart to create a derivative instrument; you just need to look good in a suit.


@Carl M. - our United States has no "Death Tax".

The taxable event to which you are referring is "Inheritance". Words matter; "death tax" is not an objective phrase. Inheritance, sales, earning income et cetera are taxable events in our country, and can justifiably have different tax rates because of incidental impact on society.

Our Founders knew well the dangers of an aristocracy formed from inherited riches. They didn't like it, in large party because a nation dominated by a wealthy few cannot be democratic except in form. Our inheritance tax as all that stands between democracy and a return to a nation owned by a wealthy aristocracy.

Property taxes have their place and their problems; the issue with respect to the re-aristocratization of America is not property but wealth. If you're advocating a wealth tax, go ahead. IMO the political barriers are substantial but that doesn't detract from the value of the concept you may be raising.

Unknown said...

Hording Tax:

You don't get taxed on ANY income, provided it is spent by December 31st. You wanna be a billionaire? Go for it, but you have to spend it or lose it.

I don't have problems with folks making money hand over fist. It's when they concentrate it and then turn it over to their spoiled children that is the problem.

Look, you want to have trust fund babies? Sure, why not? You want incentive to innovate by rewarding effort with cash. Go for it! That isn't the *scale* we're talking about in the problem of inheritance and corporate concentration of wealth. When so much is concentrated into such a few (incompetent) hands - not just cash, or yachts, or property, but the livelihoods of millions and the fate of a global economy we are courting disaster.

Actually, I think we just married disaster and the honeymoon is a bitch.

Tristan Band said...

First, let me start by saying I loved The Postman, which really got me right here in the bottom of my heart.

Second, I don't think that your theory is all that crankish; at the least, it is part of the problem. The smart sons go off to do bigger and better things, leaving the numbnuts in charge. American kids have also had it too easy, though I'm more inclined to blame coddling/protective parents than anything. By shielding children from risk; loss; and pain, these well intended guardians leave their children totally unprepared. Children raised in such circumstances don't appreciate risk as much as they normally would.

I say this because I am essentially in the same place as your "smart son", sans massive wealth. My mom has been running a small farm for 8 years, but I want to go out and make it on my own. I won't go into the specifics, but all I can say is that it will be especially hard for me; I don't deny it. I don't have a "dumb brother" to take my place, but I know that the farm won't last without a family to help her.

However, I don't think that this "betrayal" is a bad thing; we're going through a rough adjustment period. What will result, I am confident, is American capitalism on firmer foundations; driven by the REAL movers and shakers, not just jocks with a MBA. But, hey, I am the eternal optimist.

David Brin said...

Anonymous, just because lefties have striven to call Hitler and Nazism "right-wing" doesn't make it so. We've been over and over this. The National Socialist Worker's Party (Nazis) had a thoroughly left wing economic platform. Not communist, but definitely syndical-socialist.

The state demanded huge concessions from the capitalist caste, including the placement of Aryan union leaders onto every board of directors. Failure to cooperate led to state expropriation and nationalization. The aristocrats, who opened the door to Hitler, became terrified of him.

Yes, there were countless differences in detail from Stalin. But both of them talked endlessly of "creating the NEw Man"...a standard buzz phrase of the left, at that time, and were willing to slaughter millions to create that New Man. Hitler's was based on race and Stalin's on class. But they shared that and philosophical roots in Hegel, and a million other roots.

Ian, inheritance taxes are a joke. Bill Gates Sr and Warren Buffett both want them INCREASED. Oh, and family fortunes are skyrocketing.

But I am glad to be heckled by the two of you, from both sides of the spectrum. Cultural & Rewinn had interesting remarks. Of COURSE a universal property tax is the way to go...highly progressive... but first it would be necessary to know who owns what... and everywhere, all over the Earth. That's only fair for capitalistic reasons. And it would be essential to tune it so that it does not kill the golden goose. But that it does keep the rich interested in developing new wealth from goods&services etc, not vampirism.

Tristan, it is sad what's happened to rural America, and my crackpot theory about "culture war" is that Red America has been traumatized by seeing the brightest in every high school class flee to the big city.

Ian Gould said...

"The current derivatives market ( over $500 Trillion with a T ) is a huge multiple of the GDP of our entire PLANET; is wise that our markets in actual things should be so overwhelmed by unregulated financial instruments?"

The face valu of derivatives is a completely meaningless figure.

The fact that peopel who dn't understand this have been predciting an unprecedented economic catastrophe for the past year and have been completely wrong should be sufficient proof of that.

Ian Gould said...

"Anonymous, just because lefties have striven to call Hitler and Nazism "right-wing" doesn't make it so. We've been over and over this. The National Socialist Worker's Party (Nazis) had a thoroughly left wing economic platform. Not communist, but definitely syndical-socialist."

no, definitely corporatist - as was Fascism.

In both cases, the policy was based in a distorted, bastardised version of the social justice teachings of the Catholic church.

Compared to the Marxist or Syndicalist ideal of eliminating class conflict by destroyingor dispossessing the capitalist class, the corporatists sought to prevent class conflict by having the government mediate the conflciting interests of labor and capital.

I can't find the reference at the moment but in rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer quotes Hitler as saying that capitalism is "the application of the Fuhrerprinzip to economics."

Ian Gould said...

"Ian, inheritance taxes are a joke. Bill Gates Sr and Warren Buffett both want them INCREASED. Oh, and family fortunes are skyrocketing."

That was my point.

"But I am glad to be heckled by the two of you, from both sides of the spectrum."

Umm, just for the record, I'm a lifelong supporter of the Australian Labor Party which puts me somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders.

But I still want to see the evidence that the US economy is in secular decline.

Duncan Cairncross said...

My tuppence worth on taxation
Apologies to Dr Brin for stealing a lot of his ideas

The task of government is to;
Defend, Police,
Set the boundaries that the society operates within
Free enterprise has been found to be the most efficient operating system of all of those tested so far.
Unfortunately free enterprise has some long term issues
(1) Positive feedback
Them that has gets,
The more wealth you have the less it costs to live (at the same comfort level)
And the more opportunities you can afford to take
This means that there is an inevitable increase in inequality
I have seen a computer model that produces wealth variance similar to today’s society using identical individual modules.
(In other words without the richer being in any way smarter or harder working)
(2) Regulatory Capture
The rich and powerful change the rules in order to stay on top and make their lives easier
Adam Smith goes on about this as the greatest threat to society

If left to its own devices a free enterprise society will move towards greater and greater inequality be captured by the very rich minority and turn into a feudal aristocracy
(Like most societies in history)

In my opinion one of a government’s tasks is to keep the society ticking along in a highly efficient free enterprise mode

In order to do this the positive feedback must be controlled.
Taxation is one of the controls
The other is mobs of citizens with flaming brands!

I would propose
A progressive (earned) income tax – But simple No Exemptions
Unearned income (interest, dividends...) taxed at a higher rate
Wealth Tax – progressive tax on individual wealth
(very low percentage – 2% a year?)
All ownership of assets to be declared in a public database
Anything that does not have its “owner” in the database
No owner – must belong to the people!
Need a minimum value of asset to be registered
$10,000, or $100,000
Financial instruments to be considered as single asset,
10,000 shares at $20 is $200,000

Progressive tax on net profits – Simple, No exemptions
(Money kept inside the organisation for R&D or improved operations is not profit)
A progressive tax to encourage smaller businesses, there are advantages of scale for a corporation but for a society there are also disadvantages of large organisations

David Brin said...

Ian be careful, because few people would take "corporatist" to mehasve your academic meaning. Most will assume it means 'pro-corporation."

Duncan, you are describing a few (out of many) of the "contradictions of capitalism" that Marx assumed would doom the system... after the capitalists had performed their "historical duty" by "forming" capital means of production out of labor value stolen from workers. anyway, you are describing the very reason why adam smith favored government intervention in markets.... making the rightwing "Smith lovers' hypocrites

Catfish N. Cod said...

It's CITOKATE time again...

Dr. Brin's theory here has some truth to it. I have had the fortune to befriend people in every social class from the homeless to the super-rich... a side effect of going from the middle-class South to the Miskatonic Institute of Technocracy. I, too, have observed bright scions of the upper class wander off from the controls of great empires, because management is dull and lifeless compared to new horizons... leaving dullards holding very large money bags.

But there's an aspect you've missed. Instead of dividing the possibilities into four classes (Bright/Stupid, Controller/Explorer), consider a paradigm of six: Bright/Dull/Goofus, Controller/Explorer.

As you noted, Bright Controllers aren't a problem, as they will manage their assets well and with an eye to future tech/society/freedom. Bright Explorers aren't a problem per se as they contribute to science and the arts... though you're concerned about secondary effects of having fewer Bright Controllers.

But there's also Goofus Explorers... who grab a chunk of family assets and go smoke weed, or buy a ticket to India and become a guru, or spend twenty years on a never-ending Grand Tour. And there are Goofus Controllers, who grab the tiller and then quickly fritter the family assets away on perpetual motion machines.

Goofuses aren't, per se, any more danger to the body politic than Brights. Indeed, they contribute to the dynamism of our class structure -- ensuring that there are paths down the social ladder, as well as up.

Nor are Dull Explorers much worry. They typically turn into bean counters, generators of pedestrian graphic design, or (heh heh) pundit-advocates for their Controller cousins. They're not in real power positions, so they can't do much damage.

No, the only worrisome group of aristocratic children are the Dull Controllers. They have enough capability not to run the family businesses into the ground... but not enough to recognize when short-term gain equals massive long-term loss, or when their business model is a cancer and/or parasite on the economy as a whole. They're not goofy enough to lose their power, and not smart enough to use it wisely.

There's one other failure mode that has nothing to do with the traits of the kids per se... seen most prominently in a certain clan from the Arkansas hills. That is the problem of the vicious family retainer... the trustee managing the family assets while they either shine Brightly in other fields or Goof off. The vicious retainer knows that as long as he (it's almost always a male) keeps the stipends flowing, he'll never be overseen... and so he can pay himself outrageous sums and play horrific games that Vanderbilt and Carnegie would blush at, secure in the knowledge that the family, not he, will take the blame.

You can solve the problem of the Dull Controller by having the Brights come home, or by handing the assets to Goofuses who will waste it, or by handing off to a Bright retainer. But solving the problem of the Vicious Retainer is a trickier prospect... because he will fight much harder than any family member to prevent his own borrowed aristocratic position from becoming endangered. (cf. Heinlein, "Citizen of the Galaxy", last section, when a Bright Controller successfully ousts the Vicious Retainers that had taken over his company and probably conspired to kill his Bright Explorer parents... leaving Goofuses in charge of the family.)

Ahcuah said...

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned this yet.

Example supporting your thesis: George W. Bush.

Acacia H. said...

Merry Christmas, everyone. =^-^=

Ilithi Dragon said...

Happy Holidays and a Merry Yuletide!
} : = 8 D

Ahcuah: That's an interesting point.

Tony Fisk said...

A Merry Christmas!

The theory is interesting (and I know of at least one sf book that follows it: Spider Robinson's 'Variable Star', a derivation from an unpublished Heinlein novel wherein the 'hero' decides to flee on an interstellar ark rather than get married into 'the Corporation' as breeding stock.)

Still, I would imagine that bright people would see what's happening to the nest egg and, with a sigh, step back into the driving seat again (sounds a bit like Steve Jobs??)

OTOH, does being bright necessarily include a measure of responsibility?

Final thought on aristo inc. I often think it is the 'advisors' that get attracted to the power who need to be watched more than the owning royalty: they often tend to abdicate, be it from other interests, or from sheer ennui.

Oh! Since we're in a season to be less than jolly (predicting Hannukah hangovers?) Jamais Cascio views a theory of his own wrt the Copenhagen bruhaha and concludes he didn't expect it to manifest itself so quickly.

(Meet the new boss....!)

God bless us every one.

premed: what went on before *that* bill passed the senate.

LarryHart said...

David Brin said:

Ian be careful, because few people would take "corporatist" to mehasve your academic meaning. Most will assume it means 'pro-corporation."

Either way, Dr. Brin, I'm having a bit of trouble groking Hitler as a leftist myself. I think I understood it better when you (that was you, right?) talked about Nazi Germany as an example of the center going insane. I could wrap my head around that one.

But Naziism as leftist? Where on the left-right axis do Mussolini's fascism and Franco's whatever-he-was fall? I think of both of those as the very epitome of right-wing in the 20th century. So am I wrong about that? Or does Hitler not belong in the same group?

As a buddy of mine likes to say, "I'm not questioning--just asking the question."

I ask because I've been arguing for months with an "honest conservative" who actually joined the army to fight in Iraq. Recently, he's declared that he's not a Republican and not even really a conservative, but he does believe in (his words) "right wing values". By "right wing values", he means thinks like love of family, patriotism, a firm grasp of reality, and stuff like that. I've tried in vain to argue that I'm used to thinking of those as good old AMERICAN values, and that at least in the 1960s, "right wing" and "American" were not synonymous. My dad raised me to be proud of avoiding the twin Scylla and Charybdis menaces of the left AND the right and to sail a true course between them. But while I grew up in the 1960's, my "honest conservative" is fifteen years younger, and he apparently came of age during the Reagan years when "left" meant bad and "right" meant American. Anyway, he avoids my accusation that he's siding with Hitler precisely by placing Hitler on the socialist team alongside Barack Obama. He even claims the Obama/Hitler signs to have a point because the Nazis had nationalized health care.

Are you saying he has a point?

LarryHart said...

Duncan Cairncross said:

I would propose
A progressive (earned) income tax – But simple No Exemptions
Unearned income (interest, dividends...) taxed at a higher rate...

One thing I can't understand about our (America's) current system.

It's bad enough that unearned income is for some reason taxed at a lower rate than earned income. I have a hard enough time understanding how the lobbyists managed to get that passed, but I can't even fathom the reasoning by which anyone makes it sound like a good idea. Tea-partiers make it sound as if low (or no) taxes on capital gains is perfectly natural, and that suggesting otherwise is communism. But I'm not just saying I disagree with that--I'm saying I don't understand the rationale by which even supporters advance the argument that it should be so.

Any help?

LarryHart said...

Still, I would imagine that bright people would see what's happening to the nest egg and, with a sigh, step back into the driving seat again (sounds a bit like Steve Jobs??)

Also sounds a bit like "The Postman"'s George Powhatan. :)

Merry Christmas or whatever holiday everyone celebrates (I'm Jewish myself, but I happen to love Christmas the holiday).

LarryHart said...

Tony Fisk said:

OTOH, does being bright necessarily include a measure of responsibility?

Probably goes into the category of "Good question".

Spider-Man would say "yes". Kurt Vonnegut's sister would have said "no".

Me, I'd say "yes", but not so much a moral responsibility as a practical one. Talent doesn't obligate you (morally) to use it, but it does put you in the position of "If you want something done right, you'd better do it yourself."

Acacia H. said...

The truth is, Nazism was a sickness that gripped the world for a time in history, and culminated in the mass extermination of several peoples in the name of purity. This sickness was equally matched in the same part of the world by the Communists of the Soviet Union... and I do have to wonder if perhaps it was an actual sickness of sorts. Was the cruelty and malice of the 30s and 40s a symptom of some actual physical disorder, and was literally burned out through the war itself? Or was it perhaps something genetic that can be found in humanity and the correct environmental setting helped ignite a homicidal frenzy that culminated in the mass deaths through both concentration camps and war?

Actually, that sounds like an interesting topic for a story. It would make for a fascinating alternative history... some scientist finding that fascism is in fact a disease and discovering a cure... and the war being used as a means of disseminating the cure to a people who don't realize they are sick.

But that's going off on a tangent (as I am wont to do). My original point is this: fascism and the Nazi cause was a sickness that embraced elements of both the Right and the Left. As such, it can honestly be said to be a Leftist movement... while simultaneously claiming it as a Far Right movement at the same time. Rather than the Moderate Movement in American politics, it was a... let's see if I can find the links I read a few weeks ago... Third Way political movement.

Interestingly enough, classical thought on Nazism shows that it may have had a similar position in Third Position politics which brought Hitler to power. Sadly, the Wiki article doesn't specify if Third Position was a Hitler party line or something else... but it does state that there were leftist Nazis which is in line with Dr. Brin's argument that Hitler's fascism was a leftist movement.

Rob H.

Ilithi Dragon said...

You guys should read The Authoritarians by Dr. Bob Altemeyer. It was posted on here a couple months back by someone else (can't remember who it was now), and it specifically dealt with authoritarianism, the 'sickness' that imbued the Nazis under Hitler, and the Communists under Lenin and especially Stalin.

Authoritarianism isn't a disease of the Left or the Right, or any 'side' of the political spectrum. We see it in heavy (and frightening) concentrations in the political 'Right' in America today, but that is largely through the circumstances and mentalities encouraged and developed by the political 'Right-wing' leadership over the past few decades.

Dr. Altemeyer's book describes two base types of authoritarianism, which he defines as Right-Wing and Left-Wing Authoritarianism. The definitions he uses are not based in the political definitions of Left vs Right, and Left-Wing Authoritarians are defined as those who identify with a new authority overthrowing an established authority, and Right-Wing Authoritarians are those who identify with the established authority. RWAs are much more common today than LWAs, and it seems to me that most LWAs would turn into RWAs should they amass enough number to overthrow the established authority. Dr. Altemeyer's book focuses on the RWAs, both because of the rarity of the LWAs, and the great concern that RWAs present to today's society, as well as the (relatively) recent historical significance they have had.

Dr. Altemeyer has thoroughly demonstrated, through repeated and extensive testing with supporting results well above the average for his field, that the RWAs in today's society, at least in the U.S. and Canada, tend to fall along the Right, and especially far-right side of the present-day Left vs Right political spectrum. Not uniformly, and there is more mix on the liberal/'left' side of the spectrum in the States than Canada (Dr. Altemeyer notes that this is likely because of the number of parties in Canada vs the U.S.).

Now, Dr. Altemeyer's studies indicate that Authoritarianism (which is basically a closed-minded submission to a recognized authority, rejection of anything outside of the circle of that authority, and a paranoia about the world and anyone outside of one's social circle) is something that we are all susceptible to, with genetics only having a minor contribution. The environment we grow up in, and our life experiences tend to influence us towards or away from authoritarianism (either as a follower or one of the two types of authoritarian leaders Dr. Altemeyer identifies).

To get back to the point, though, this isn't something that is left or right, liberal or conservative; it can manifest in any and all ranges of the political spectrum. It manifested on the 'Left' in Soviet Russia, it is manifesting on the 'Right' in the U.S. today. Whether the Nazis were Left or Right is irrelevant, and to try to label them to one or the other category is to validate that defunct system. The Nazis were Authoritarians, specifically Right-Wing Authoritarians. The Communists of Soviet Russia were Authoritarians, also Right-Wing Authoritarians. The Republican Party and associated political entities today is Authoritarian, also of the Right-Wing flavor.

Ilithi Dragon said...


It also ties into the fuedalistic aristocracy we've had through history. Genocide and mass exterminations are hardly a new invention of the 'Left', after all; the 'Left' just happened to be the first group of Authoritarians to use modern technology to help conduct that genocide and mass extermination. You can find the kind of closed-minded subservience to and faith in a recognized authority, paranoia towards the declining state of the world, and paranoia and vicious hatred and/or brutal apathy towards anyone outside of the social circle that defines Authoritarianism throughout history. It's nothing new. I suspect it's been the general norm for 99% of human history, as it fits quite well within the framework of a feudalistic rule. And it doesn't take much effort at all to find all sorts of cases of brutal mass exterminations, attempts at genocide, etc. throughout history.

P.S. I hate character limits...

LarryHart said...

Illithi Dragon said:

To get back to the point, though, this isn't something that is left or right, liberal or conservative; it can manifest in any and all ranges of the political spectrum. It manifested on the 'Left' in Soviet Russia, it is manifesting on the 'Right' in the U.S. today. Whether the Nazis were Left or Right is irrelevant, and to try to label them to one or the other category is to validate that defunct system. The Nazis were Authoritarians, specifically Right-Wing Authoritarians. The Communists of Soviet Russia were Authoritarians, also Right-Wing Authoritarians. The Republican Party and associated political entities today is Authoritarian, also of the Right-Wing flavor.

Ok, that speaks to my point--that "right wing" doesn't mean what my friend tries to say it means. So what do I say to a guy who believes in good old-fashioned American values but insists that the word that describes those values is "right wing" and if I try to substitute another word like "conservative" accuses me of trying to make him into what I wish he was instead of what he really is (which is apparently "right wing"). To him, health care reform and bank baliouts are all examples of unfair expropriation of taxpayer money, and therefore "leftist". His latest personal blog entry is titled "Don't tread on me", and is all righteously indignant over perceived threats to personal liberty by the Obama administration. And yet, he'd never dream of asserting "don't tread on me" to corporate power entities because...well, apparently because they'll always do the most efficient and profitable (and therefore correct) thing absent intrusive government interference.

The two of us each respect each other's intelligence and enjoy talking about anything other than politics, but he thinks I'm a "useful idiot" for socialism, and I think he's like that guy in "Life of Brian" who hangs on the dungeon wall and keeps saying what a great race the Romans are.

BCRion said...

I think this is a just big splitting-hairs discussion of terminology. Whether you call it "left", "right", "up", or "down" is irrelevant. The terms are ill-defined, or at least not defined in a universally agreed sense, anyway. So take your pick, agree on terminology, and then get down to discussing substantive policy disagreements.

My two cents at least...oh, and Merry Christmas!

LarryHart said...

I think this is a just big splitting-hairs discussion of terminology. Whether you call it "left", "right", "up", or "down" is irrelevant. The terms are ill-defined, or at least not defined in a universally agreed sense, anyway. So take your pick, agree on terminology, and then get down to discussing substantive policy disagreements.

That's my problem, though.

I'm trying to convince the guy that corporate power is currently more of a threat to human liberty than government power is. To him, it's not a threat to liberty unless it is government. For example, he can totally buy the argument that goverment health care will involve "death panels" while he is incapable of perceiving the death panels that already exist to deny coverage by private insurers.

Terminology is a big part of the problem.

Acacia H. said...

I think part of the problem is that there is a perception among the Elitist Right (and yes, they are Elitists, perhaps moreso than Leftist Elitists because theirs is a class-based Elitism instead of merit-based - and yes, intellectualism is merit-based) that our Founding Fathers were anti-government. They weren't. They were anti-authoritarianism. This is a big difference.

The Right is extremely Authoritarian in nature. Look at how lock-step the Party is. It is a very dangerous form of Authoritarianism because it empowers elements in the government that work for their own personal gain - look at the bastardization of the Health Care plan currently underway. If the Right was less Authoritarian in nature (which is what Jefferson, the Right's classic mentor, wanted for government) then we'd see balanced legislation designed that was for the best of the constituents instead of an elite few.

Dr. Brin calls these assholes the New Feudalists (in essence). He's right. And they are what our Founding Fathers fought against. They are the New Kings. We had King Bush the First, and King Bush the Second. And there were plans for the other Bush brother to try and go for the Presidency, though I think the Shrub kind of poisoned the Bush name and killed the New Royalty before it could flourish (which is perhaps the greatest good that G.W. Bush did for this country). Hell, we almost went that same route with the Democrats, except that a charismatic man with a message managed to derail the reign of Clinton II.

If Obama has done anything, it is verify the dream... that anyone (who is a native-born U.S. citizen, that is) can become President of the United States. Obama came from a position that few climb out of. But he did. And he managed in a short period of time to become the most powerful man on the planet (relatively speaking). Can you imagine how many other minorities have been inspired by Obama? Maybe in 2010 we'll see a new flock of minorities struggle to join the House and the Senate... and this will be the opposition to not only a Republican resurgence, but to Democratic corruption as well.

Or perhaps the Christmas Spirit is in me tonight, allowing the inner optimist to run free and have fun at the keyboard. ^^

Rob H.

David Brin said...

"But Naziism as leftist? Where on the left-right axis do Mussolini's fascism and Franco's whatever-he-was fall? I think of both of those as the very epitome of right-wing in the 20th century. So am I wrong about that? Or does Hitler not belong in the same group?"

Yes, I can see you think of it that way... because the lazy popular image portrays it that way, without ever defining which traits DEMARK the "left-right" axis... a stupid metaphor that nobody ever bothers to define.

But if you take the "left" to mean its most general trend toward both state control over the means of production and a tilt of power away from bourgeois or aristocratic owners and toward labor, in BOTH of these areas fascism... both Italian and German... was definitely leftist.

Fascism is/was also extremely NATIONALIST and in the Nazis' case cloud cuckoo-crazed supernova insane RACIST. But those traits run at right angles to left vs right. Moreover, remember that the Nazis and Soviets were ALLIES before they were enemies.

Look. 99% of history was dominated by feudal aristos. Lefties held sway a tiny fraction of the time. But they are manic to the aristos depressive. The have less time in which to kill. so they do it faster.

Your friend sounds American, all right. Tell him all wings go mad. Right now it is the right, bigtime. Tell him to talk to a general, some time. The top officers never hated a president as much as they hated Bush.

Fantasies about Obama are all loony tunes. Propagated by a fantasy machine financed by the new would-=be lords.

Ask your pal... pick a decade and continent, as random and tell me who was oppressing freedom and markets. Then do it again, and again and again. If he does it 100 times TRULY RANDOMLY and comes up with ONE decade/place where socialists were the threat... well 1/100 is about right. If he gets two, I say he cheated... or I'll pay him a dollar.

Right now he is a shill for the real enemy of freedom. The one Adam Smith called the true enemy of markets and freedom. And your pal is just one more silly dumbass sock puppet of an Australian billionaire and a bunch of Saudi princes.

But he sounds as if he just might be able to wake up, so keep trying.

sociotard said...

Feeling grumpy 'is good for you'

In contrast to those annoying happy types, miserable people are better at decision-making and less gullible, his experiments showed.

While cheerfulness fosters creativity, gloominess breeds attentiveness and careful thinking, Professor Joe Forgas told Australian Science Magazine.

Ian said...

"But if you take the "left" to mean its most general trend toward both state control over the means of production and a tilt of power away from bourgeois or aristocratic owners and toward labor, in BOTH of these areas fascism... both Italian and German... was definitely leftist."

I have to disagree.

Read up on the "trade unions" in both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

In both cases, they were toothless extensions of the state.

Nazism and Fascism were essentially romantic and reactionary.

They didn't want to destroy the aristos you talk about - they wanted to share the box seat with them and offer a few bribes to the working class to keep them quiescent while they pursued their international adventurism.

Mussolini didn't even replace the Italian king, Hitler didn't restore
the Kaiser but he was pathetically sycophantic to his sons and the rest of the surviving German nobility.o

Acacia H. said...

Historically, Dr. Brin, Nazi Germany "allied" with the Soviet Union to buy time before attacking them. Communism was considered a threat and both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany intended from the start to attack the other. The Soviets used this time to purge the military (and the Nazis actually provided false evidence to encourage purges) and also to attack Finland in a war that was to show the weaknesses of the Soviet war machine, while the Germans used it to take out France. But the "alliance" was not because of similarities between the governments, but rather a means of avoiding a damaging war with each other earlier rather than later.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Bizarre logic. Sorry. I guess I'd better spell it out.

The STANDARD Rhetoric of the left is to 1) empower labor and to 2) expand the involvement of the state in both creating the means of production and allocating output, so as to maximize effective democratic allocation of resources and economic activity.

HONEST leftist governments - e.g. Sweden actually try to implement these steps. Even the United States is extremely "leftist" compared to 1928. In fact, the one thing that Marx never expected (well, one of hundreds) was that western moderate-honest leftist reforms would effectively REFORM and re-invigorate capitalism, broadening instead of narrowing the bourgeois (middle) class and making labor part of the establishment.

Oh, another common trait of the left is to believe in human IMPROVABILITY via human and state practical intervention. the mild-moderate-honest left has done this though mass education, civil rights, etc, with profound and stunning success.

LYING-HYPOCRITICAL-TYRANNICAL leftist regimes pay LIP SERVICE to the same principles, down the line. Only, in BOTH communist and fascist regimes...

- The trade unions do gain great paper power are narrowly defined and utterly controlled from the top. The aryan trade unions were very powerful under Hitler, as in Italy, but they were instruments of the Party... EXACTLY as they were under Stalin.

- despite talk of empowering the working class (only aryans in Germany, of course) an aristocracy reigned in BOTH communist and fascist nations. In Germany is was based on race (and yes, pure-blood aristos thus held on, if they didn't piss off Nazis). In the USSR is was a "nomenklatura" of 1,000 families who quickly coalesced. (You didn't know this? Come on, READ UP before you say ignorant things.)

- The Mad/hypocritical left takes the notion of human improvability to staggering/awful lengths, dreaming of a "New Man"... Stalin and Hitler used PRECISELY the same terminology, though AH based his on pure Aryan racialism and Stalin on purified class status.

I could go on. But the point is that the left and right go mad in different ways. The left does it in frenzy. The right is lazy and generally ignores the slums. The left goes down and radicalizes the slums with populism and purges.

Fact is, you aren't to blame for knowing none of this. We have a civilization in which nobody at all knows anything whatsoever about the roots of the very cliches they use to control their political thinking. Smart people know nothing about Marx or Stalin or the Nazis. And the result is an ignoramus civilization, lurching back toward the mistakes of the past.

The crux.
The right is the long term CHRONIC enemy of freedom. It has quashed us 99% of the time. But they have one saving grace. Laziness. They'll crush freedom and keep us ignorant and poor. But when we're starving quietly, they leave us alone.

OTOH, when the left gets its chance to go mad with power, watch out. Because it is frenetic and ambitious and propelled by a frenzied belief in its transcendental mission to remake everything, including human nature. They make up for lost time.

For God's sake, READ ORWELL! And not just 1984.

LarryHart said...

The right is the long term CHRONIC enemy of freedom. It has quashed us 99% of the time. But they have one saving grace. Laziness. They'll crush freedom and keep us ignorant and poor. But when we're starving quietly, they leave us alone.

The problem I have trying to discuss this with my "honest conservative" friend is that he's totally bought into a line that I believe Oscar Wilde spoke in jest, "Best to pick a side and come out swinging." It's all about "teams" to him. He considers himself neither a Republican nor (if pressed) a conservative, but he does consider the Republican Party to be part of his team, which by which he means the defenders of freedom and liberty and (if pressed) Enlightenment values. But he's thoroughly convinced that the "team" that exemplifies and defends those values are the right-wing. If I say the right-wing meanss Louis XVI or George III to me, he says that's meaningless ancient history, and that aristocracy lives on more in the Kennedys and John Kerry's wife than it does on the right. If I say the right-wing means Fascist Italy, Franco's Spain, and Hitler to me, he says just what Dr Frin does--that those regiemes are of a kind with Stalin and Saddam Hussein, and therefore leftist, and therefore on "my team".

It's exasperating because he's a smart guy and a fellow comic-book fan and his heart really is in the right place as concerns good old American values. But he thinks the best way to defend those values is to ally with the political right-wing. It's totally frustrating to both of us, because he truly believes that I'm empowering those who will inevitably weaken America and let its enemies destroy it, while I think he's that guy in Monty Python's "Life of Brian" who hangs from the dungeon wall and raves about what a great race the Romans are.

Believe me, I was directing him here all through the 2008 election season, and everything you said (Dr Brin) drove him absolutely nuts. You're a raving loony leftist elitist. I finally gave up discussing anything Brin with him because it was like we were trying to communicate from two different universes.

Sorry, I'm beating this topic into the ground, and I only do so to point out how incredibly difficult it can be to take Dr Brin's advice and try to open the eyes of an honest conservative.

Ian said...


I'm perfectly familiar with the Nomenklatura and with the works of Orwell.

"The STANDARD Rhetoric of the left is to 1) empower labor and to 2) expand the involvement of the state in both creating the means of production and allocating output, so as to maximize effective democratic allocation of resources and economic activity."

The rest of your post focuses on point 1.

You omit point 2.

Once the Strasserites had been wiped out, beyond a few stray bits of rhetoric the Nazis had no interest in state control of the means of production.

One of the reasons they lost the war (I'll refer you hear to Richard Overy's "Why the Allies Won") was that the Nazis failed to mobilize the German economy for war on anything like the same scale as even the United states.

Well into 1942 and 1843 German factories were continuing to churn out consumer goods for the home market when their British and Russian counterparts.

Why do you think the German right overwhelmingly fell in behidn the Nazi Party and voted Hitler into power in 1933 when he failed to win a parliamentary majority. Because unlike the Communists their other alternative, Hitler had no interest in expropriating their property.

I'll also refer you to Karl Deitrich Bracher's The Geramn Dictatorship.

Bracher has done a lot of research into anti-semitic and far right political groups in Germany dating back into the 19th century and he shows that Nazsm was deeply and directly rooted in these groups - many of the early (1919-1921) leaders of the Nazi Party had previously been members of these groups.

Deitrich also spends a fair bit of time describing what the Nazis thoguht a future Nazi state woudl look like after the war.

It's a country of small farmers, skilled artisans and petty bourgouisie. The industrial proletariat consists of slaves from the slavic territories.

In the East there's a gigantic military march (think of the Cossack or Croatian Krajinas) under SS control, consciously and deliberately modeled on the Teutonic Knights and the other German "Crusader" orders which engages in a centuries-long war to extend the borders of the Empire across Siberia. (What they would have down when they hit either the Japanese Empire or the Pacific seems not to have occurred to them.)

That's nothing like the Soviet idea of a world communist state, it is quite specifically backward-looking and seeks to reconstruct an idealised vision of the
Wilhelmine Reich.

What the Nazis and the Soviets had in common was that they were both totalitarian regimes. Just as you can have democracies on the left and on the right; just as you can have military dictatorships on the left and on the right, you can totalitarian states on the left and on the right.

Finally, were the current regiems leftwing or rightwing:

Suharto's Indonesia
Pinochet's Chile
Fascist Spain
Peron's Argentina
Chiang Kai Chek's Taiwan
Syngman Rhee's Korea
Lee Kwan Yu's Singapore
Ataturk's Turkey
The Greek military dictatorship

Ian said...

I thought it might be useful to read what Orwell had to say on the topic.

There's a healthy bit of irony in this section from his essay "What is Fascism?"

"It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.

Yet underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning. To begin with, it is clear that there are very great differences, some of them easy to point out and not easy to explain away, between the régimes called Fascist and those called democratic. Secondly, if ‘Fascist’ means ‘in sympathy with Hitler’, some of the accusations I have listed above are obviously very much more justified than others. Thirdly, even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it. By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.

But Fascism is also a political and economic system. Why, then, cannot we have a clear and generally accepted definition of it? Alas! we shall not get one — not yet, anyway. To say why would take too long, but basically it is because it is impossible to define Fascism satisfactorily without making admissions which neither the Fascists themselves, nor the Conservatives, nor Socialists of any colour, are willing to make. All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword."

David Brin said...

"If I say the right-wing meanss Louis XVI or George III to me, he says that's meaningless ancient history, and that aristocracy lives on more in the Kennedys and John Kerry's wife than it does on the right."

Tell him that any person who ignores the most consistent pattern in all of human history is an imbecile. Anyone who claims "we have nothing to learn from human patterns that returned in every culture across 4,000 years" is worse than an idiot.

It is the same outright, obdurate obstinacy that can make these guys (who claim to be "pragmatists") ignore flat-out facts. e.g. that America grew healthier -- by almost every statistically measurable metric -- under Bill Clinton and PLUMMETED in every major and measure of national health that could plausibly result from the tenure of GW Bush.

If simple cause and effect won't move this guy... nor the fact that the generals and admirals universally loathed Bush and were (sometimes grudgingly) respectful of Clinton) then he really is beyond help.

By all means refrain from citing me as the source of these riffs.


Ian said ""Why the Allies Won") was that the Nazis failed to mobilize the German economy for war on anything like the same scale as even the United states."

Clever point! But wrong. The US mobilized far less than Germany... we never had to. As for lack of German mobilization, true, they arrogantly assumed they didn't have to... which has NOTHING to do with their left-right attitudes. They expropriated with a finger snap, anything they wanted, whenever they wanted it.

"Why do you think the German right overwhelmingly fell in behidn the Nazi Party and voted Hitler into power in 1933 when he failed to win a parliamentary majority."

Sure they preferred him over the commies. They assumed they could control him, because they had the newspapers. They under-rated the power of populist radio. Once AH took full power, they were terrified and bullied into submission.

Your strongest point is the dreamy images of an ideal Nazi state. But even those mean nothing much. They weren't organic to the party agenda.

Look, I have oft held that "left-right" is a pathetic metaphor. Blatantly, there are ways to separate Nazism from Communism... and make "left" a contradictory metaphor. So? I have laid down a dozen extremely solid commonalities, all the way to crediting their philosophies to Hegel, and you guys haven't shown me any reason to call the populist fascist movements Rightwing at all.

To me, the killer points are populism, state control over production, a new aristocracy based upon (race or class), a frenzied campaign to murder enemies of that aristocracy, a fig-leaf dedication to "labor," utter openly expressed contempt for the bourgeoisie and the Enlightenment and a mad-utopian dedication to human improvability through ferociously making the "New Man." Throw in Hegel and a myriad other commonalities.

David Brin said...

Hey! January 3 tune in to:


Acacia H. said...

Actually, Dr. Brin, both sides of the argument are correct in this. The Nazis started out as Leftists, but then when the government turned into a dictatorship, it went beyond Left and became a Right wing government. After all, the ultimate form of right-wing government is in fact a Dictatorship, from which feudalism evolved and eventually Monarchism.

Of course, this then suggests that the Left/Right spectrum is in fact a Ring, and that you can go so far to the Left that you go Right. The contrary did occur at least once... in Spain, when the current King took control after Franco's death and within a year turned Spain into a Constitutional Monarchy and then prevented a military coup to overthrow the elected government.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

I understand your point, Robert. STill I demure.

The salient point about the Nazis wasn't their tyranny. That happens across the spectrum... And yes, there have been moderate bourgeois tyrannies.

The chief salient point was their murderous frenzy to remake humanity in a particular, quasi-utopian "New Man" image... in their case starting out by redefining "humanity" extremely narrowly.

Look, NO definition of Left-Right is EVER going to make complete sense. But I think mine at least goes down a fairly long list of very meaningful shared traits that correlates with a Manic-Depressive model that works.

rewinn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rewinn said...

@Ian Gould said...
"The face valu of derivatives is a completely meaningless figure.

The fact that peopel who dn't understand this have been predciting an unprecedented economic catastrophe for the past year and have been completely wrong should be sufficient proof of that."

The Argument-By-Sneer fails Epically.

If you wish to educate yourself on the subject, let be refer you to Dr. Ravi Batra and Thom Hartmann who, among others, have more education on the subject than either you or I and do indeed feel a merited concern on the subject.

As to the last year being "proof" of anything, that is the "Titanic" argument: we have not hit the iceberg yet so sail on! We may also observe that that last year has had some exceptionally large props stuck under our financial sector; whether these were wise or not you may judge for yourself but they have so far succeeded in blocking the Big Crash. By propping up the derivative markets may have made it worse; I don't know. But to argue that the bubble in unregulated derivatives has not collapsed, therefore it will not collapse, is silly.

For a longer view, look at our American economic history between our Civil War and FDR when our unregulated financial markets gave us a nasty boom-and-bust cycle with a period of about 17 years; the basic mechanics are straightforward: when the manipulation of money is an easier way to make a buck than of actual goods and services, things bubble and look great until they bust. And right up to the instant of the bust, the captains to the Financial Titanics keep partying in the lounge and ignoring the iceberg warnings.

Remember when that fans of tranched, mortgaged-backed securities laughed at those who warned that they were building castles on air? Who was right about that? Our unregulated derivative market is even worse, since its instruments can be backed by no real resources what-so-ever; they effectively create money with nothing to back it but the power to create more of it.

"...just because lefties have striven to call Hitler and Nazism "right-wing" doesn't make it so..."

Hrm. This is mind-boggling. Who are you to tell Hitler that he wasn't a rightwinger? I realize he's in no position to argue anymore, but ...

"...if you take the "left" to mean its most general trend toward both state control over the means of production and a tilt of power away from bourgeois or aristocratic owners and toward labor, in BOTH of these areas fascism... both Italian and German... was definitely leftist...."

OK, you have your private definitely of left/right, basically confusing "economic statism" with "left-wing". But with respect to the "means of production" the core tenet of "leftists" is WORKER control of the means of production. The Nazis definitely opposed that, slaughtering union leaders (as they still do today in Central America), eliminating collective bargaining and the right to strike.

Furthermore, there's a lot more to rightwing ideology than economics; nationalism vs. internationalism for example, or racism&sexism vs. equality.

I appreciate that the rightwing is considerably and justly embarrassed by the Nazis, just as the leftwing is likewise justly and considerably embarrassed by the Communists, but let us not try to re-write history.

Certainly, one can re-define "fascism" to mean "statism" and therefore merge Stalin and Mao, or redefine "socialism" to include Hitler and Mussolini, but why play with words, why re-define left/right instead of inventing your own terms? The most common use of the claim that Hitler was a socialist is to condemn any form of common effort; to some, it is a short step from socialized health care to the Holocaust. Why put your foot in that cowpie unnecessarily?

A valuable discussion might be concerned with how easily murderous thugs use "-isms" to gain and maintain power.

Catfish N. Cod said...

@Dr. Brin:
In the USSR is was a "nomenklatura" of 1,000 families who quickly coalesced.

That's an order of magnitude smaller than I had guessed... are there any studies on the degree of overturn of the nomenklatura over time? How many survived subsequent purges? Were any new families promoted into the new and supposedly improved aristocracy?

For God's sake, READ ORWELL! And not just 1984.

You'll get it in higly diluted form in Animal Farm, but the strong tonic is in Catalonia... which is where Orwell was, in modern parlance, "mugged by reality".

Your strongest point is the dreamy images of an ideal Nazi state. But even those mean nothing much. They weren't organic to the party agenda.

I have to disagree with you there, Doc. Else why were the Nazis still wasting precious resources on the Final Solution even as the 'cursed Slavs' were pouring into Poland?

Points unrelated to quotes:

1) This idea only makes sense to those with solid knowledge of statistics, but I've always thought of the left-right axis as the first axis of a principal-component analysis... the problem being that the data are fuzzy and change with time, making the "left-right" metaphor unstable, at best. Much better to define a stable basis of axes and then describe your opinion of 'left-right' in terms of these.

2) BTW, still waiting to hear your opinion on the Problem of the Vicious Retainer... which Tony Fisk mentioned, as well.

...aristocracy lives on more in the Kennedys and John Kerry's wife than it does on the right...

No, they're more transparent about it. The Bushes are open about it, as are the Udalls. But is your buddy familiar with the Coors family? How about the Olins? The Scaifes? For that matter, some of the left's dynasties started as rightist dynasties: the Fords, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, to name three. And of course the Roosevelts famously had both Democratic and Republican branches.

I actually have to disagree with Dr. Brin's strategy in this case. He's not going to pay attention to arguments telling him the right is wrong. But he WILL listen to arguments telling him that people he thinks are on his 'team'... ARE MOLES AND QUISLINGS, working for an entirely different 'team'... THEMSELVES.


...[sought] to reconstruct an idealised vision of the Wilhelmine Reich...

Try again. You're actually describing an idealized vision of the Holy Roman Empire (Das Erste Reich), updated to reflect the existence of industrialization and the demise of the monarchy. The Wilhelmine Reich, for one thing, was a Kleindeutschland solution that the Nazis detested. For another, it was obsessed with the French and the western border, not with the Slavs and the East. And finally... Teutonic Knights as an integral aspect of the state?! Hello??

But you do have one point. While the Nazis wanted the Axis to rule the world, they didn't actually want to rule the whole world themselves. If they could have installed fascist regimes the world over, it would have satisfied their war aims. That's why they preferred working with stooges in America and Britain, for instance. They merely wanted northern Eurasia for themselves... which would have been bad enough.


A valuable discussion might be concerned with how easily murderous thugs use "-isms" to gain and maintain power.

It's intrinsic to the nature of an "-ism", as illustrated by Andrew Sullivan's discussion of Christianism and Islamism. Once a movement is locked into a rigid ideology, there's no ability to maneuver around (and thus eject) manipulators and would-be tyrants (in the Greek sense).

Ian said...

David I think we'll simply have to agree to disagree.You at least have better uses for your time.

(Write more books, darn it.)

Ian said...


It's not an argument-by-sneer it's an argument-by-objective-fact.

Derivatives typically have a 30-90 day expiry date.

The derivatives market has experiences multiple expiry dates sicne the start of the fianncial crisis and th predicted crash just hasn't happened.

If you still believe it will happen I encourage you to act on your belief by liquidating all your assets and investing them in MREs and ammo.

Assuming the internet is still operating in a year's time, you can come back and let us know how that investment strategy paid off for you.

Ian said...

"If you wish to educate yourself on the subject, let be refer you to Dr. Ravi Batra and Thom Hartmann who, among others, have more education on the subject than either you or I and do indeed feel a merited concern on the subject."

Ravi Batra until recently was best known for his sober, serious and factually well-based work. "The Great Depression of 1990".

Since Dr. Batra has a Doctorate while my economics degree is a mere Baccalurate I will admit he more "more education" than me however his past track record on the subject hardly inspires confidence.

But then unlike Professor Batra I don't have the special insight that comes from being a member of the Ananda Marga cult.

Then again maybe I should bow to Thom Harmann's expertise as a PhD in Homeopathic Medicine.

Oh and before you start complaining about ad hominen attacks, I'll point out that it was your argument from authority that raised the issue of Batra and Hartmann's credibility.

Tacitus2 said...

Back to, approximately, the initial topic.

An American perspective, attributed dubiously to D. Boone

"When I can see the smoke from a neighbor's chimney its time to move".

The pioneering spirit is always restless.

A German perspective, attibuted plausibly to Clauswitz.

"All men differ in being stupid or bright, and in being hard working or lazy. The bright and hard working make excellent generals. The bright and lazy make excellent staff officers. You can always find something to do with the stupid and lazy. The stupid and hard working can damage your organization seriously. They must be identified and gotten rid of as soon as possible".

I am not quoting directly, or even perhaps accurately, a downside of posting from work.


LarryHart said...

rewinn said:

The most common use of the claim that Hitler was a socialist is to condemn any form of common effort; to some, it is a short step from socialized health care to the Holocaust. Why put your foot in that cowpie unnecessarily?

Exactly the problem I have talking with my "honest conservative" buddy. Back during the Bush years, he was awfully shrill toward comparisons between the way Bush used a terrorist incident to force increases in Executive power with the way Hitler did. "Are you really equating Bush to the murder of millions in concentration camps???" That sort of thing. Yet of the tea-party images of Obama merged with Hitler, he says they have a good point, and asks me whether I realize that Nationalized Health Care was something begun under Otto Von Bismark? He really does seem to think there's a short step to take between nationalized heatlh care and the Holocaust. My mind boggles, but I'm not going to change his.

Ok, I meant to stop talking about this (although your comment was so pertinent that I couldn't resist) to get back to a different question I asked earlier about lower taxes on unearned income (dividends, interest, capital gains) than earned income. While I understand WHY those whose income is unearned would prefer lower taxes on that income, I absolutely can't understand by what logic that idea is defended. Is there an actual economic argument that logically favors lower taxes on unearned income? If so, what is it?

Tacitus2 said...

Why the interest in "converting" your conservative friend. You seem on some level to be enjoying the discussions, and at a minimum would seem to be gaining perspective on other viewpoints. He likely feels the same way.
This is kind of the secular version of trying to convert your Catholic/Druid/Muslim coworker or neighbor to the faith of your preference. Tolerance! Tolerance! Now, if he is actually an elected official of some sort his/her political views have more than academic import.
Notice that I seldom attempt to convert any of you to the True Conservative Way.


Acacia H. said...

I still find it quite puzzling that I am turning away from Conservatism the older I get. I always thought it was the other way around. The only thing I can really see is that I feel betrayed by what the Republican party has become. I want them to redeem themselves... but I see no signs of this. Instead, I see a party that has become the Party of No Compromise, No Negotiation, and No Hope. If a Union tried to do what the Republicans do, then the Union would be considered unreasonable.

Do they truly feel that betrayed by the American People turning against them in 2006 and 2008? Think of what has happened under the Republican banner... and yet they feel they are not in the wrong? That they were right to fuck up this country so completely and utterly? Are they that arrogant? That egotistical? That elitist?

The only thing I can see with the existing Conservatives that remain with the Republican party is fear. Fear of what the Democrats will do. Yes, the Republicans are the Devil Incarnate, but they're the Devil you know. The Democrats? They meddle. They mean well. They try to change things, for the better. And that makes them evil.

The biggest delusion seems to be that government programs and government agencies are worse than private industry. In fact, government is corrupt and inept... but no more so than private industry. And no less so. So then... why is government worse than private industry?

I've not been able to figure out that argument yet.

Rob H.

sociotard said...

Democratic Rep. Parker Griffith will announce Tuesday that he's switching parties and will run for re-election next year as a Republican.

Ian Gould said...

Here's another description of the current American crisis:

"It is entirely possible that the coming election may be the last free one that the United States of America will see. Certainly, if there are to be four more years of blind spending and the further broadening of a deficit which already has us on the very brink of financial disaster, will that not mean ruination for every man, woman and child within our borders, carrying down banks, life insurance companies, securities of all kinds and result in the eventual confiscation of all private property…The mob will even take the capital assets of industry and individuals. Nothing will be safe and the goal of Communism will have been reached. There will be no more free elections, no congress, and no courts of justice, as we formerly knew them."

Oh wait, sorry.

That's actually from 1944.

LarryHart said...

Tacitus, you are right, of course, that neither my conservative buddy nor I am going to change the other's politics. The interest in doing so started out (prior to the 2006 elections, I mean) from a sincere belief on my part that Republican rule was damaging the country. But discussion between Chris and myself has become mainly one of trying to present our respective cases as being logical and reasonable. Neither case changes the other's mind, but for the most part, we do respect each other's intelligence and believe the other's heart is in the right place. 'Course he calls me a stupid bastard more than I call him one. :)

Robert, I'm like you in that. I was the token conservative of my college crowd in the 1980s (though never a Reagan supporter), and have grown progressively more liberal as time went on. I used to think that was counter-intuitive, but I also think there's a certain amount of "I didn't leave conservatism, it left me" going on

LarryHart said...

Oh, and Dr. Brin,

Since I'm reading it on my Christmas travels, I have to thank you again for the short story "Thor Meets Captain America". This is probably my fourth or fifth reading, and still something new always jumps out at me. For example, it was several readings before I realized the war was still going on in 1962...that the Nazis hadn't already won two decades agone.

Alternate WWII histories have always fascinated me, from Star Trek's "City on the Edge of Forever" to the more recent non-science-fictional "Fatherland" (blanking on the author's name...Harris, perhaps?), and yours is one of my favorites. Not to mention I'm a Marvel Comics fan from the 60s-70s, and your title suggests at least familiarity with those comics as well. Sure, "Thor" by itself could have come from anywhere, but "Thor Meets Captain America" is a Marvelesque title, and having Loki speak in "Thee"s and "Thou"s suggests Marvel's version as well.

I also like your post-scritt comment, that rather than considering it a stroke of great fortune for the Allies to have beaten the all-powerful Wehrmacht, it was instead only a series of lucky accidents that got Hitler as far as he did in the first place.

I guess if I had to sum up in one phrase what I enjoy of your stories, it's the apparent optimistic belief that honor is the best policy after all.

David Brin said...

Larry thanks.

If you liked "Thor..." why not see how I finished the story at:


LarryHart said...

Oh, one more thing, Tacitus,

Why the interest in "converting" your conservative friend. You seem on some level to be enjoying the discussions, and at a minimum would seem to be gaining perspective on other viewpoints. He likely feels the same way.

While you're mostly right about that, I feel the need to point out that I'm not and never have been trying to talk my friend out of conservatism. I've been trying (and failing) to convince him that the Republican Party isn't working in his own interests. A small distinction, but (I believe) an important one.

Dr. Brin, I did read your graphic novel version of "Thor..." several years back. For some reason, comic-book fan that I am, I actually prefer the prose version of this story. But I have both.

Tacitus2 said...


I understand the distinction, and consider it a perfectly valid opinion. Tell your conservative friend that neither of the two current political parties are what they used to be, and that both are struggling to deal with the modern era. The GOP has had a chance to demonstrate their shortcomings, and have done so in spades. The Democrats are now up to bat.

Both parties are a mixture of three elements.
1.core constituencies that have been ________ so long that it is hard to imagine voting otherwise. If you are a California social worker or an Alabama farmer, it would take some seismic event to flip you.
2. Zealots/Activists/Idealists. A small but important group. Worthy, if often a pain in the rear.
3. Opportunistic grifters.

The two parties have varied percentages, for instance, the grifters tend to gravitate to power or to rising power.

Sounds like you, he, and more of us all should run for office and try to change what is wrong.


Brendan said...


Australia has a number of ex-liberal(conservatives) who seem to have started the trip to the left. To a large extent though they haven't it is just that the Right has moved too far right for them to be comfortable with supporting today's leadership. While I didn't agree with many of the policies of the old guard, they did have a sense of Noblesse Oblige that they took seriously. I don't see many of the current leadership thinking that way. They are blinded by ideology and ambition.

Abilard said...

This sounds like the sleeping giant theory: all we need are circumstances dire enough to rouse all those smart sons and daughters. Perhaps. One can find this pattern in our WWII mobilization, the space race, the abolitionist movement, and so on. But one has to wonder if such individuals will always be there in sufficient numbers and with the necessary timeliness to save the day.

And then there is the matter of all those other smart sons and daughters, born to the disenfranchised:

Center for American Progress - Understanding Mobility in America

Might they not work with the same vigor at counter purposes? What if they rise first and, like Arminius, lead the the more sickly scions of the elite down the path to the Teutoburg Forest before the Octavians can save them?

David Brin said...

Increasing the fraction of humanity that generates smart competitors is the essential, core purpose of state intervention, according to Adamsmithian Liberalism. This core purpose has largely been forgotten by both the left and the right, alas.

In fact, many of the projects pushed by good-goody moralistic liberalism have lots of overlap with pragmatic market-stimulating liberalism, in that both want state intervention to increase the health and education levels of all kids. This has been a powerful alliance. Unfortunately, it has so masked the deep difference in underlying MOTIVES that today "liberalism" has been thoroughly conflated as a word.

Rightists are correct to suspect that some GoodyLiberals (lefties) want paternalistic "leveling of outcomes". A few even want the state involved in utopian "New Man" building. These manias of the Left I oppose.

But the Right is disingenuous and dishonest when it portrays such lefty manias as the heart and core of liberalism. Even though most liberals are too ignorant to parse it out clearly, they do show every sign that they understand the movement's purpose, as in days of Adam Smith.

Liberalism is the force that empowers markets and enterprise. Not only in its driving ideology and purpose, but in all of the EFFECTS we have seen, in which small business thrives under democrats and goppers foster monopoly/crony oligarchies.

Alas, nobody out there... not even Krugman... is trying to parse it out, clearly.

Ian Gould said...

"But the Right is disingenuous and dishonest when it portrays such lefty manias as the heart and core of liberalism. Even though most liberals are too ignorant to parse it out clearly, they do show every sign that they understand the movement's purpose, as in days of Adam Smith."

My support for free trade confuses many of my fellow leftists.

They don't seem to understand that it's precisely because I value freedom and think we should be concerned with the very poorest that I support free trade.

Similarly, I have trouble explaining why we need a vibrant private sector to fund the government projects I support.

Abilard said...

No, but at least Krugman has a dynamic mind and a gift of expression. And he likes Asimov.

I agree with everything you said, but I also think that study I linked to illustrates that we do not live in the meritocracy you (and I) long for. One could dispute this. Perhaps social mobility is repressed here because the sons and daughters of the elite really are so much smarter than the rest of us. As a son of the other extreme, I would dispute this.

If they do not have a monopoly on ability, then the model you suggest is too simple. It leaves out at least one faction: those with ability who are disenfranchised. Their numbers and resources could substantially influence the outcome, such that even if the science-types you describe return to the political game it may be too late.

David Brin said...

For amusement. My Seven Seasons of Buffy essay, “Buffy vs the Old-Fashioned Hero,” went up this morning on, and will remain available until next Tuesday at 12:00 AM at

Abilard said...

Nicely done! I'm forwarding that to some other Whedon fans I know.

David Brin said...

Brother Doug said...

Interesting piece Dr.Brin, but I think you are joking? or mistaken. I think the elites in this country have the same problem as the urban poor. Absent parents.

My grandfather worked for one of the elites. he spent 14 hours a day 7 days a week working and his children almost never saw him. Naturally they were deeply traumatized by the experience.

However many Japanese work just as long yet they don’t have the same problems. Culture seems more important. Intellect is overrated as Wolfowits and Cheney have proven.

Brother Doug

Acacia H. said...

There's an interesting YouTube video which I suspect will go viral (it helps that it's currently on the top of Huffington Post's page) urging people to move their money to small community banks, using clips from It's a Wonderful Life along with clips of Congressional Hearings to make its point. It's rather well done in fact.

Rob H.

Joe Unlie said...

David P. Goldman, who writes at the Times of Asia as the pessimistic declinist "Spengler", wrote an uncharacteristically positive article for First Things recently- where he sounds like he's on the same page as Dr. Brin!

"Capital wants to flow from the West to high-return outlets in the South, but third-world corruption and first-world insularity combine to block these mutual needs and interests."

Read this article. Even if you don't like Goldman, here he's completely correct.

My thoughts?

The only thing missing in this article is China. Getting through the next few decades will require the US and China to work in harmony to develop the rest of the world. We have the capital, the security apparatus, the legal infrastructure, and the stable currency. China has the engineering and manufacturing might- and will- to build the crucial infrastructure the developing world needs. China will need to improve it's relationship with India dramatically, and hold a potentially belligerent Russia in check, but it can be done. I see no reason that most of the world can't be developed to at least South Korean levels in the next forty years, given the massive flow of capital and brains going on right now.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Joe Unlie,

I read the article you referenced

What a load of cobblers!

America's problems in manufacturing are,
Short term thinking, MBA's and lack of union power.

Chinas advantages are;
Low pay scales - but increasing fast
shortage of MBA's

Joe Unlie said...

"Short term thinking, MBA's and lack of union power."

That may be, but it's unconvincing. Japan has no shortage of long-term thinkers, but their economy has been in the dumpster for nearly two decades (that aside, their economy is fundamentally strong and provides a higher basic standard of living to the bulk of their people than ours does). Many MBAs may be creeps, and I'm no fan of the rise of the MBA (there are many conservatives who aren't fans either- Allan Bloom, the "Closing of the American Mind" author, once said that he thought the rise of the MBA as the "moral equivalent" of an MD or JD was a great danger to public virtue- as he saw it, it's a degree in greed.), but I think their excessive power is due to the rise of anti-greenmailing policies in the 1980's, and could be reduced with a few changes in government regulation (that won't happen, because the fox isn't just guarding the henhouse, the fox has taken up residence).

As for lack of union power, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Our strongest unions generally choked their industries to death.

"Low pay scales - but increasing fast, shortage of MBA's"

Given you can't swing a dead panda without hitting a business school in Shanghai, the latter isn't going to last very long- fortunately, the Chinese tend to prefer to take their management cues from Europe rather than the US these days. On the pay scales, they're already higher than most developing countries.

I think Goldman's point stands- we gots capital, and we need to invest it in places with the fastest growth- naturally, developing nations that often post 5-10% growth rates should offer superior returns on investment to their local counterparts, provided that we actually get to see the returns. In addition, we can expand on the portions of the product cycle- the high value ones- that we excel in, rather than try to rebuild low-value industries (which will only offer more employment to cheap migrant laborers anyway).

David Brin said...

Robert, good suggestion!

BrotherDoug... um... Cheney and Wolfowitz were... intellects?

David Brin said...

If we want to help Russia and the US at the same time:

1) Send them half our lawyers; freedom, in both countries, goes up!

2) Send them half our business school graduates; the economy, in both countries, goes up!

3) Send them half our NASA middle managers; we get a good space program and they get good farm labor!

Rob Perkins said...

1) Send them half our lawyers; freedom, in both countries, goes up!

I know it was a joke, but it made me think of an article about one Russian lawyer who thought the Rule of Law would protect him.

It will probably appall you to read it.

Joe Unlie said...


That is an appalling story, and I'm sure just one of many that you can find in the post-communist world. Sometimes I wonder how much "freer", if at all, we can consider Russia than China; while China's political and social reforms have been slower and less dramatic, they have been very real- on the other hand, I'm not so sure that Russian "democracy" is anything more than a slight cover over a massively corrupt oligarchy. At least America's oligarchs are held in check by the law; they can't get away with murder yet. Russia's are under no such restrictions, I'm afraid.

BrotherDoug said...

To answer your question Dr.Brin:

You have to admit that Cheney attended the University of Wyoming, where he earned both a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in political science. He subsequently started, but did not finish, doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison

Wolfowitz entered Cornell University , on full scholarship
Wolfowitz earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago, writing his doctoral dissertation on "nuclear proliferation in the Middle East".

Yes there actions and theory’s were incorrect but they are undoubtedly educated and intelligent enough to complete graduate education.

BroteherDoug said...

I would say greed and lack of humility destroys whatever advantage intellect may give you.

Acacia H. said...

I apologize for going off on a tangent here, but I'd like a little bit of advice and I figure many of you have a better comprehension of mathematics than I do.

As may be obvious from my occasional links here, I have a review site I call "Tangents" (named thus partly because I tend to go off on tangents when talking about various subjects). A couple years back I added a second variant called "Secants" which were meant to be short-form reviews (I chose the name deliberately knowing what Secants are).

Unfortunately, I tend to be long-winded (huge surprise to you all) and have been wanting to have an even shorter form of "comment/review" for the site so I can update more often. What I'm looking for is a mathematical term that refers to something short and to-the-point, and is also comprehensible. ^^;; (I'm not sure if Singularity works, even if it is a zero-dimensional point, thus really small! I was tempted by it though. ^^)

Anyway, if anyone can toss out some ideas, I'd appreciate it. Thanks. :)

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Daggatt is in top form:

Seriously, look at how the GOP in Congress is on its way to matching the entire number of filibusters in all of the Republic's history....

Tony Fisk said...

Short and to the point?

What about Deltas? (as in 'integral of function(x) times delta(a) dx = function(a)')

Not short or to the point (ie one of them tangents) is a quick reminder that, this New Year's eve, the millenium bells of the Longplayer will have been playing for ten years (thereby completing 1% of the full composition) You can chime in the new year here

LarryHart said...

From Dr Brin's "Buffy" essay:

You don’t think people preach that message anymore? Look closer! Today you see it exemplified in highly popular epics like the Star Wars saga and Lord of the Rings. Oh, sure, in those tales the “good guys” are prettier than the villains. The towering lords and secret cultmasters on one side utter nicer phrases than the “evil” secret masters do on the other side. What the secret masters on both sides have in common is that they are snooty, bossy, mysterious, and oh so superior.

A big psychological problem I have supporting the Democratic Party is that they seem to differ from the GOP only in the way Dr Brin describes--their demigods have better motives than the other side, but they're still demigods. Once, when pressed to admit that the Democrats are also owned by corporate lobbyists, I said that I still supported them over the Republicans because "I like the Dems' corporate masters better than the GOP's corporate masters."

'Course, that might be a good reason to support one party over another in a two-party system, but it's not a good reason to support one ideology over another. I like to think of liberalism as being the ideology that respects the regular folk, and I'm appalled at the FOX mindset that seems to (sometimes sincerely) believe that it's the other way around--that liberalism is ABOUT demigods telling everyone what to do (think "Political Correctness" as portrayed by the other side) and that conservatism is ABOUT fairness and justice across class lines.

I suppose that, as Dr Brin hints, I should be glad that both sides are at least fighting to claim the mantle of the values I do believe in. Maybe some of it will actually stick?

Happy New Year, everyone.

LarryHart said...

I've been traveling the past few days and not reading a lot of news.

Has anyone heard about new TSA regulations about things like "no leaving your seats or holding anything in your lap for the last hour of a flight?" I'm suddenly seeing letters to the editor of real newspapers (Chicago Tribune) in which people are freaking out over these new "rules", but the only documents I can find online seem to be satirical. I certainly encountered no such thing on a two hour flight from Texas to Chicago last Monday (two days after the aborted terrorist attack). What--if anything--is this hysteria all about?

Acacia H. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Acacia H. said...

A conservative friend (and occasional webcomic reviewer) of mine recently posted a rather interesting article on Conservatism and the like on his LJ that I think a lot of us would agree with, be you liberal, libertarian, or conservative. You can find Brett Hainley's comments here.

I'm looking forward to his remembering what Point #1 is. ^^

Rob H.

Acacia H. said...

And off on another tangent, here's a science fiction webcomic that talks about replacing electrons with muons to create a denser and more energy-resistant material. This feels like traditional old-fashioned science fiction, so I figure Dr. Brin (and some of you others) might enjoy reading those few strips for old-times sake. ^^

Rob H.

Decloaking lurker said...

Though I think your hypothesis could be a contributing factor, I suspect the main problem comes down to the famed Lord Acton quote: Power tends to corrupt. I don't think that all people with wealth and power are necessarily bad (diffing with Acton on that point) but that power can be an intoxicant. If a person is shielded from CITOKATE and does not seek it out on their own, it is easy to fall prey to the self-deception we are all capable of.

Now, perhaps some of the smart sons you speak of do indeed step away from the reigns of power-in part because it is dull, and perhaps in part because they do not want the temptation.

Anyway, the reason that brought me to posting this was an article on myths about terrorism which seem to have a number of items that you have written about a few times - especially the fifth one:

"Elite pundits and policymakers routinely dismiss the ability of ordinary people to respond effectively when they are in harm's way. It's ironic that this misconception has animated much of the government's approach to homeland security since Sept. 11, 2001, given that the only successful counterterrorist action that day came from the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93."

It is good to see that some of the better memes are getting out there.

(I seem to be having trouble getting the link to work in preview, so here's the article url):

Acacia H. said...

Brett Hainley posted his #1 Reason Conservatives are fool of something. It's about the War on Terror, and how the Patriot Act and Gitmo and the like is exactly what bin Ladin wanted. And while I'm sure conservatives such as the ones in power just two years ago would claim Hainley's comments are "liberal" and even "treason" I think they're important to consider.

What price has "security" been bought at? And, to mangle one of our Founding Father's quotes... is freedom the price we want to pay for this security? (For that matter, we're less free thanks to these laws and what was done with them. But are we any more secure?)

Rob H.

Anonymous said...

l hope this rechase you l,m not computer savie and l have dislyaxa so plaese have some pastions,its not the oinion haeds ,that did this to you .sometime l thinck we are lemmings jumping off the cliffs,or grasshoppers who have turn into laskast,in truth we did this to our selfs and by the sould of it we an,t learned a thing.get real and do better america,your wozzuling is getting us europens duown.lf you want to have 100% recovery ,close the stock market.remenber its only show until you react and it will get wearst.l,m glade l left the usa but l,m sadent to see you go truw this ecomenc whitdraws that you allowed to happen upon yourself ,so pick yourself up and Vote same jackaß that know how to get a long with money,(like us artist).

TCB said...

This reminds me of Kongō Gumi Co., Ltd., the 1400-year-old Japanese family-owned construction company that cratered in 2006 after some can't-miss land investment deals somehow missed. You can be sure there's a story in there, but nobody's talking.

What's that, about 65 generations!?!?!??! And someone had to look in the mirror and see the guy who ended it all.

This reminds me of an essay, which I can't seem to find, mulling the meaning of credentials in meritocracy: as a system for ensuring that merit, rather than inheritance, will choose who holds positions of responsibility. Anyway, this essay asserted that people would always look to game the system for their kids: as in, getting your child into the "right" preschool to prep him for the "right" private school on the way to the "right" college. Thus any tweaks to the merit system would only work for a while, before parents found new hacks and shortcuts.

I think we have a problem now with "too big to fail": the mediocrities running big banks could be swept aside by smarter competitors, if only the big banks had not made it all but impossible to compete with them. If the do get into trouble, they have friends in government to write very big bailout checks.
Substitute any number of other industries, it's just that banks are an obvious example right now.

Ian said...

To return to anti-mercantilism for a second.

On January 1, 2010, the AFTA-China Free Trade Area came into effect, establishing a common market between Chian and six of the 10 ASEAN member nations, the other four ASEAN nations will join by 2015.

The agreement will cover over 90% of trade within the area and impose an average tariff of less than 1%.

There's a cue of further countries wanting to join up - including Australia, New Zealand, south Korea and Japan.

Taiwan and Chine are negotiating their own free trade agreement in parallel.

ACFTA will be the third largest free trade area on the planet in terms of economic size are the EU and NAFTA.

sociotard said...

Good news everyone!

December yields no combat deaths in Iraq

Anonymous said...

I can't send you e-mail because sbcglobal blocks my mail server, and their techs can't seem to figure out why. So perhaps you read your comments, in which case:

You complain a lot about the awkward "left vs. right" distinction in
politics. Why not have a look at some of the many alternative schemes
for a political spectrum[1], such as the Nolan Chart[2], the Political
Compass[3], or the Pournelle chart[4] and do a blog entry about what you
like and don't like there?


David Brin said...

All of the attempts that I have seen, for alternative political axes, have suffered from many flaws,. These include:

- tendentiousness... they are designed to beg the question and draw the reader toward the author's favored position.

- non-orthogonality... the "axes" are inherently correlated and therefore not independent variables

- the axes don't really get to the heart of what differentiates the varied monsters and delusions that have driven us mad.

My own two and three dimensional charts may not be perfect. Indeed, I admit and avow that no such model CAN represent our murky political rationalizations. But they DO take these flaws into account. They separate the strange bedfellows and explain many of the ways their policies differed.

Alas, the site where I posted my models appears to be defunct.

I don't know if there's a shadow or archive I could point people to. (It was a chapter of a three part series.)

I do have the html code, if someone wants to resurrect the series as a single postable.

Michael E. said...

The comments show the time, but not the date...

Dr. Mr. Brin, I posted to your facebook page, but as you had left a note earlier that you spend more time here than there, I will repost here, and hope you have the time and inclination to expand on your comment that:

"There’s been almost no investment in teaching people how to argue better, in a more mature way, in a way that actually solves problems, that actually kills bad ideas dead." ... from the interview with you and Vernor Vinge on a San Diego radio station.

What I would like to know is how to learn to argue better and teach others to argue better in the way you mean.

Acacia H. said...

I think, much like you either call a Commissar "Commissar" or "Sir" but to call them both is redundant, you can say "Mr. Brin" or "Dr. Brin." To use both is unnecessary.

Rob H.

Catfish N. Cod said...

@LarryHart: The new "nothing in your lap" rule applies only to incoming international flights and does not hit domestic flights. The only reason I can think of for this is that it will only piss off international travelers.

Can't anyone in the government or media wrap their heads around the idea that it was the maintainers of the no-fly lists, not the poor screeners or crew, that failed here?

@ Rob H.: I'm sending that link on. Points 3 and 2 are especially good ostrich bait. Only in isolated and highly homogenous social circles (of which, alas, there are many back home) does a "Moral Government" sound like a good idea... because it simply does not occur to them that others have an equally good idea of what "Morality" is. And point 2 is a better way to convey Dr. Brin's point on our reverse mercantilism policy to conservatives. The trick will be to end the largesse without swinging the other direction into protectionism.

@Ian: I'm honestly shocked that ASEAN agreed to this. Not all the ASEAN countries together add up to half of China's population or GDP. Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, anyone?

@Sociotard: That's a real Christmas miracle.

@Dr. Brin: The whole thing, as far as I can tell, is on

Has anyone ever tried doing the equivalent of principal component analysis on all these different axes to try and find some sort of 'basis' axes? I know it's been done for votes of the United States Congress, with the interesting result that race relations was the primary second axis for most of our history...

Michael E. said...

"Dr. Mr." is because I had used "Mr." at DB's facebook page, and saw that you-all were using "Dr." here. I figgered he could choose whichever he preferred.

David Brin said...

Michael hi.

It turns out that trying to get people to argue better has been one of the central themes of my life.

I never really realized this, till recently... and it may be rooted in the fact that nobody ever argued fairly or reasonably, when I was a kid. In any event, there are several angles.

1) the overall grand scheme about human "discourse" is blathered in my Google Tech Talk, in which I clearly had too much caffeine(!) offering a big perspective about problem-solving and "discourse" in the modern age:
The accompanying slides are at:

(I really DID have way too much caffeine, that day.)

2) at the opposite extreme is a somewhat dry/pedantic scholarly piece that examines what real problem solving discourse actually involves, and the types of internet-based innovations that might actually help to achieve it.

See the lead article in the American Bar Association's Journal on Dispute Resolution (Ohio State University), v.15, N.3, pp 597-618, Aug. 2000, "Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit."
or at:

3) I have several patents on methods that ought to help a lot... if we could find initial finding to even put up a bare-bones version. (SIX billionaires are fans of my work. That and $3.95 will get me a Grande (small) coffee at Starbucks.)


In simple point of fact, my belief that better discourse is possible may be a romantic delusion, based upon my (evidently) false impression that Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin and James Madison were members of the same species at Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. Alas... that part of the species appears to be as rare as neanderthals, right about now.

I hope this helps.

With cordial regards,

David Brin

Rob Perkins said...

Better argumentation is a problem that goes all the way back to Classical Greek times. Aristotle struggled with it.

Michael E said...


Your article about disputation arenas also got me thinking about the idea called "Open Space Technology" which I just learned about yesterday, and so far only know to the extent of its "Four Rules and a Law"

1. Whoever comes are the right people.

2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.

3. Whenever it starts is the right time.

4. When it's over, it's over.


"Law of Two Feet: Briefly stated, this law says that every individual has two feet, and must be prepared to use them. Responsibility for a successful outcome in any Open Space Event resides with exactly one person -- each participant. ... By word or gesture, indicate that you have nothing further to contribute, wish them well, and go and do something useful." - Harrison Owen

Of course, the whole thing could just end up like this:

Rob Perkins said...

"Open Space Technology", as presented here, sounds like a recipe for getting nothing done. Even Wikipedia has a support staff and a strong, central, founding personality.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Dr. Brin,

I'm sure you're aware of this, but I don't recall seeing mention of it in your list of examples of 'common citizens' pulling together to achieve great things. Operaiton Dynamo, better known as "The Miracle of Dunkirk," is a perfect example of everyday citizens coming together to perform great and heroic deeds in times of crisis. Over 800 ships, some 700 of which were privately- and company-owned vessels, rescued 338,226 British and French soldiers, who had been cut of by the advancing German army during the Battle of Dunkirk. The merchant marine vessels, most of which were fishing boats and pleasure cruisers, were able to get into the shallow waters around the beaches of Dunkirk and ferry the troops to the 42 British destroyers waiting in deeper waters, with the larger boats ferrying troops completely across the channel. This was all done over the course of 9 days, while under increasingly heavy fire from the advancing German army, and especially Luftwaffe fighters and dive-bombers.

Many of the boats were requisitioned and crewed by the British government, because there was not enough time to contact their owners, but a great many of the 'little boats' were crewed by their civilian owners, who insisted on taking them over.

Anyway, a great historical piece to add to the list of examples of common citizens doing great things in a crisis (in wartime, while under heavy fire). I was reminded of it while playing "Heroes Over Europe" by Ubisoft (a good, arcade-style WWII combat sim, though not worth the retail price). The gameplay itself is hardly realistic (they didn't have unlimited ammo and self-repairing aircraft back then
} ; = 8 ) ), but it and many other games like it do put in a lot of good historical references and background detail. It's really a shame that we don't see more of an effort for education through video games today, because they can be great tools for learning, especially for history, and it wouldn't be that hard to mix education and testing with solid, good-fun gameplay, either.

Tacitus2 said...


I have read a number of accounts of Dunkirk. A cold appraisal of it suggests that most of the little ships were not a big help, the majority of those saved were loaded over docks directly onto Royal Navy ships. Not to say that the civilian effort was not important, but it became something of a propaganda touchstone.
On the other hand, the recent airline incident over Detroit shows yet again, that engaged civilians can save the day when the responsible authorities prove to be unequal to their duties. Or unlucky, whichever you prefer.


David Brin said...

for those of you who have seen Avatar

Also, Mike Gannis suggests "Dances with Smurfs" and "Lawrence of Ferngully". You LeGuin fans (any? might recall "The Word for World is Forest."

Frankly, it's not the surface messages that bother me, but the cliches and the poisonous under-message, A weird message, frankly...

...that says "see this technological civilization that provided me with all these tools to do vivid art, spread joy and promote my dream of saving the world? See it? Ain't it glorious?

"Well that civilization and its technology are EVIL! Useless. And my preaching won't change any minds (even though it already has) And we're all dooooomed!"

Tim H. said...

But Tacitus, an empowered, engaged populace might cause the authorities to feel inadequate, and delay the collectivization of society under the moneyed few. Pity that's not a joke...

Rob Perkins said...

I'm a LeGuin fan, (for the artistry of language and the conflicts she sets up) but so much of her stuff is out of print...

I enjoyed Avatar on a surface level, but my brain kept going, "The Cinematographer should not have put those close-in moving 3-D thingies OUT OF FOCUS! Now I have a headache!" And also, "What biological function could those brightly colored markings on what amounts to a bird of prey serve?"

My impression of the story itself was "Dances with Wolves, combined with a Journeys of Tecumseh montage, followed by Return of the Jedi." But I didn't go to see it for the (reasonably very well-told) myth-story, I went for the visual art!

Rob Perkins said...

And, ohyeah, now that RDS company is highly cheesed off. They'll just crack the planet open with nukes at this point, if that unobtanium is so valuable...

Brendan said...

D Brin
Have you seen Avatar yet, or are you judging purely from the comments of others?

Because the comment: "Well that civilization and its technology are EVIL! Useless. And my preaching won't change any minds (even though it already has) And we're all dooooomed!" is pure BS. Stop listening to other's opinions, fork out the cost of a ticket and then I may listen to your opinion and discuss the film.

I don't want to discuss the film in too much detail because of the spoilers, but I felt that Cameron anticipated most of the criticisms that would be thrown at the film(Amerinds in space, Scientist Good/Corporations bad, Hard nosed gun toting military cowboys, too simplistic rationales) and while it is easy to see why the criticisms were made he has given at least lip service to greater complexity. I think he should have someone working at a novelisation because there is scope to properly develop some of the lesser characters and scenes that we only glimpsed or heard of second hand. Cameron couldn't do it in the film without blowing it out of all proportion. The film was long enough as it is.

Tacitus2 said...

The Word for World is Forest is one of my favorite LeGuin stories...

I have not seen Avatar yet. I think my awe at the CGI would be in counterbalance to the annoyance that with that budget a more original story could not have been made. Brin, or half the posters here, could have concocted something much better and made a masterpiece instead of glitzy eyecandy.

Of course, I have a theory that truly original sci fi is by definition something that makes people uneasy. Cliches sell popcorn.

2001 was the great exception, but the audiences were mostly stoned.

popcorn sales were robust.


Ian Gould said...

Just to return for moment to the basic thesis that American manufacturing the American economy are doomed:

"Jan. 4 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. manufacturing expanded in December at the fastest pace in more than three years, capping a late-2009 global factory rebound that helped pull the world out of the worst slump since the 1930s."

The expansion isn't limited to the US, factories worldwide are increasing output and hiring again.

Peopel who think economics is a zero-sum game might want to think about that for a minute.

Rob Perkins said...

I don't have to, in my own case, because my company sells to manufacturers, all of whom have told me that things are picking up for 2010.

LarryHart said...

Rob Perkins says of "Avatar":

And, ohyeah, now that RDS company is highly cheesed off. They'll just crack the planet open with nukes at this point, if that unobtanium is so valuable...

Back in 1993 or so, when they did that Harrison Ford movie of "The Fugitive", I began to notice a problem with bringing certain concepts to the big screen--sometimes, the concept really DOES belong as a series. When you have to essentially get the "pilot" AND the "series finale" AND several "episodes" worth of a television series into a two hour movie, there's not enough time, and the effect on the audience is off-key.

Since then, I've noticed some other movies that suffer from this same problem, even if they're not direct ripoffs from tv series. "Avatar" was certainly a good example. There were so many stories to be told that they didn't fit in a single movie. You need many beginnings, middles, and endings. Perhaps a tv miniseries would be a better format? Or maybe the "how the protagonist gets there" stuff from the first 40 minutes (or so) could have been told in some sort of internet-trailer?

I'm not exactly sure what a good solution would be--mostly trying to articulate the problem.

Ilithi Dragon said...

I agree with Larry: Part of Avatar's story problems was that they had so much story to tell (beyond the admittedly canned base plot, which served largely as a vessel to tell the more compelling individual stories), that they just weren't able to tell them all in the full detail that they deserve. Maybe we'll see a sequel that will tell us what happens next (does the corp. try again with more/bigger guns and/or nukes? Do the na'vi & friends just go back to their stone-age/hunter-gatherer society and completely shun high technology? Do the scientists, and wiser na'vi, have the brains to recognize the need for higher technology and industry, if for no other reason than to defend themselves? etc.)

Personally, I would have liked to have seen the movie end not just with Jake becoming one of the na'vi and rejecting humans as 'aliens', but with some kind of meshing of the na'vi environmental harmony with the humans' advanced technology and industry. Even if it was never actually shown, just a lip-service mention of that combined future being planned, would have made a huge difference.

David Brin said...

I have definitely seen Avatar. I have been stocking up notes for a big posting about it.

Sure, a couple of scientists are "good"... So? Their work is judged futile and worthless and uninteresting by the characters who have "values and wisdom".

Look, I liked the film. Enjoyed it immensely. I also told both of my sons to can their gripes and learn the art of turning off the mind, in order to enjoy Hollywood.

But there is a part of me that resents having to turn off my mind.

I disagree that time limitations were the problem. The problem is that we have been taught (and Jim Cameron has wholly swallowed) a "moral lesson" that anything western is automatically ignorant, venal and cruel... and that other cultures are admirable in direct proportion to the degree that they sneer contemptuously at western values.

The Earthly tribes that are always extolled in Westerns are those that were the most obdurate, obstinate and incurious. (They also happened to be among the cruelest, in war, and those committed to taking and keeping slaves; but Cameron did not openly imitate those aspects, in the Na'Vi.) The Native American tribes that DID display curiosity, democratic tendencies, adaptability and decent treatment of women - like the Cherokee - never, ever get a movie.

"Why would scientifically advanced people act that way?" my sons protested, about the simplistic assholes on the human side in AVATAR. I replied making excuses for Cameron -- that he clearly wants to preach at millions of his fellow Earthlings to treat our planet and each other better. A terrific message... even if he conveys it in a totally self-defeating way, that undermines any confidence that we CAN change...

I also told my sons: "don't stress out. Accept that the humans DID act that way on Pandora, as cartoony villains from a corrupt and hopelessly stupid civilization. GIVEN that premise, then sure, Jake and the Na'vi deserve to win. Root for them! Enjoy!"

But still, I'll add this; if the Pandora Overmind is responsible for teaching its people to be so incurious and smug, then it, too, is an asshole. And we can only hope that humans will go on and discover other aliens. Maybe some who are worth actually talking to and advancing alongside, into the galaxy.

Rob Perkins said...

I'll play Devil's Advocate a little.

"Incurious and smug"? Can you say that about a people that would extend adoption rights to a stranger?

And in any case, aren't WE smug? Isn't PZ Myers smug? How about Arthur C. Clarke? (I've been rereading his stuff this month, and frankly I find his attitudes about religious thought, for one example, both incurious AND smug... and the same would go for his attitude toward any speculative FTL physics.)

Further, the Na'vi, as depicted, looked like they were closer to sexual equality than, say, North Americans...

Finally, I did notice one almost throwaway line uttered by the Jake Sully character. When he said something along the lines that his people had entirely killed Earth's biosphere, thus explaining why the corporate-types couldn't comprehend the Pandoran biosphere's importance, that was the thing that let moviegoers completely off the hook, because if you're Republican/FIBM/rightist/whatever, you don't believe that's possible, and if you're Democrat/GRA/leftist/regulator/whatever, then you're clearly not!

Brendan said...

I still don't get how these people are "incurious and smug". This is a first generation contact people who seemed happy to send their children to the Earth school until they felt that there were strings being attached that they weren't happy with. And once Jake arrives to learn about their way of life they start sending their kids again. This is a people whose parents have been willing to learn English(?) from their children, something adults from many societies would consider beneath their dignity.

We know they don't want our medicines or tech, but what evidence are we shown that they really do need it? Are we told of an infant mortality rate of one in three, or antibiotics unused that could have saved Na'vi lives? Wasn't it you who said that "globalization means that the Eskimo may learn accounting, but the accountant doesn't learn to hunt seals"(it may have been Terry Pratchett).

The problem with what I think are the assumptions you are making is that you don't have a basis for them. If this film was about American Indians you might have a point but the Na'vi and their society are a blank slate. We know nothing but what the film tells us.

David Brin said...

"Incurious and smug"? Can you say that about a people that would extend adoption rights to a stranger?

The sole criterion for his becoming acceptable was dropping all human ways and totally adopting theirs.

This is borrowed - as everything else in the film - from Native American cultures who would adopt newcomers for one reason above all -- because their populations kept crashing because of disease and starvation and a new warrior-level adult male was always useful to have around.

"And in any case, aren't WE smug? "

In fact, for the very first time in human history... NO... we arent'. We are the most outward oriented, otherness-loving people in all of history. And the proof is (drum roll) the relentless flood of guilt-tripping, other-loving movies like AVATAR.

"Further, the Na'vi, as depicted, looked like they were closer to sexual equality than, say, North Americans."

Complete malarkey. Even cleaned up and sanitized -- basing them ONLY on what Cameron saw as positive Native American traits, and writing out the slavery and sexism of our macho tribes -- the Na-vi were role assigned from birth according to gender. What you missed that?

"Finally, I did notice one almost throwaway line uttered by the Jake Sully character. When he said something along the lines that his people had entirely killed Earth's biosphere, thus explaining why the corporate-types couldn't comprehend the Pandoran biosphere's importance, that was the thing that let moviegoers completely off the hook, because if you're Republican/FIBM/rightist/whatever, you don't believe that's possible, and if you're Democrat/GRA/leftist/regulator/whatever, then you're clearly not!"

Sure, if you are creating propaganda, you can set up your villain side to be as clueless, guilty, monstrous as you like. It's why I said "if you assume the humans did all that, then they deserve to lose. Root for Jake."

But setting up that strawman is as dishonest as it is to ignore darwin and malthus on Pandora, or the fact that there's implied warriorness in the Na-vi and hence there had been war between their tribes and hence....

BTW they were NOT happy to send their kids to an Earthling school. That had been clearly grudging. The school was NOT re-established. Sigourney was allowed to visit, that's it. And she had earlier been given NO real hospitality or friendship.

Even if they have perfect, disease free lives and never overpopulate, and darwin has been totally banished by Mother Pandora, there is curiosity, of which they show no sign at all.They show no interest in the universe, in the knowledge and skills of the Earthlings, or in using their position of strength at the end to dictate a changed but open new relationship.

Smugness is "we're perfect and have nothing to learn from you." Both sides show this trait but it is the humans who at least show a subset gifted of curiosity.

As do the Sioux in Dances With Wolves (the Medicine Man.) Note in BOTH movies, the natives almost shoot the hero in the back, treacherously, without warning and without the slightest cause, and are only prevented by circumstances. Yet, following the cliche, we ignore that.

" If this film was about American Indians you might have a point but the Na'vi and their society are a blank slate. We know nothing but what the film tells us."

And thus, Cameron gets to write off any negative traits. Darwin banished. And malthus. The PERFECT indian tribe, with no slavery or gender oppression. Just like filming "300" with no mention of the Helots. Or "The Last Samurai" never mentioning 1000 years of oppressing and killing and misery caused by that heroic "tribe."

Ilithi Dragon said...

To add to Brendan's point, though I also see and agree with a lot of Dr. Brin's points, it was noted that the Na'vi were so hostile to the humans because the humans had been the aggressors, and at some point in the past attacked them with machine guns. The impression I got was that the school they had going was thriving, until profit-focused corporates did something to piss off the natives, who refused to back down, and then got gunned down for it.

That said, one of my biggest complaints was their use of cliches. It didn't bother me so much while watching the movie, partly because I wasn't expecting much in the story dept. when I went in, but a lot of it was nagging at the back of my mind. There was the potential for a lot more story there, but they played on too many cliches.

Ultimately, the villains were too cartoony-villain cliches, and the evil-corporation-from-the-environmentally-devastated-Earth cliche is too overdone, and too simplistic and mindless. The na'vi were also too good. Aside from their hostility towards the 'sky people', which we can easily sympathize with given the painfully obvious human villains attacking the primitive, stone-age tribal natives with machine guns and attack choppers, etc., there is nothing negative about the na'vi. One of the reviews I read took issue with the concept of the 'noble savage' over the na'vi's technological level (pointing out that, if the planet overmind thing worked like a distributed data network, it should have given them much better means of communication, and therefore ability share ideas and to advance technologically), but that's exactly what the na'vi are. They areuniform, and too much the 'noble savage'. The human villains were too cliche and unthinking. If we had a broader range of opinions on the na'vi side - bad na'vi, who were causing problems and giving the humans reason to be belligerent, and optimistic na'vi who were willing to cooperate with the 'sky people' and wanted to keep giving them another chance - and if the human 'villains' were portrayed less as the automatically and constantly belligerent party, showing them having a reason to distrust the na'vi and to consider them dangerous and ignorant savages beyond just their technology level (of which our own history should have taught them far better), and if the technology and culture of the humans wasn't portrayed as automatically bad and destructive, with at least a lip-service mention to finding a way to mesh the two ways of life to create something new and ultimately better, I think the story would have been much stronger.

Ilithi Dragon said...

I'm gonna have to agree with Dr. Brin's points about smugness and lack of curiosity in the na'vi, especially the latter. I had been wondering through the movie why they didn't wonder about the world beyond, where the 'sky people' came from, etc., but it didn't occur to me why that bothered me until Dr. Brin pointed it out. (No, that's not quite true... it did occur to me while I was watching the movie, but I put it aside as a distraction from the pretty light show, and forgot about it.) That lack of curiosity, the desire to know what's beyond the next ridge, or what all those glowing lights are in the night sky, etc. is something I did not like.

Also, a cartoon summation of Avatar you guys might like.

fucku said...

Very much enjoyed the posting, and reading the comments.

About ideology, right and left: the key seems to me to be teleology -- as in how, and more importantly by whom, such purpose is defined.

Both Stalin and Hitler were fanatical about transcending bourgeois liberal democracy precisely because of its ‘decadence.’ The 'New Man' both systems strove to create were emphatically opposite what they saw as the materialistic and essentially purposeless bourgeoisie. Rather than chattering consumers of meaningless stuff, the New Man was to be the agent of a radical historical purpose. Such purpose, being defined in class or racial mythologies, was the stock in trade of the relevant ideological illuminati.

Liberalism, it seems to me, becomes vulnerable to being challenged by such ideologies of singular teleological clarity when the idea of individual gain overwhelms the idea of collective participation in a common purpose. There is a delicate balance (or perhaps even one of Marx’s contradictions) at the heart of liberalism. We value the individual’s right to define and pursue his or her own purposes. But the centrifugal forces of individualism must be balanced by some centripetal force that draws individuals together in a common purpose.

Historically, this role has largely been played, I would argue, by a combination of religion (now augmented, or perhaps partially supplanted, by science) and good old fashioned Herderesque nationalism: culture has been the centripetal force that gives a broader intelligibility to the individual’s pursuit of happiness.

But our culture, our liberal bourgeois culture, is perhaps a unique thing. Open, inquisitive, meritocratic, participatory -- it requires a substantial investment on the part of individuals. Finding the meaning of life is a lot of work for a child of the Enlightenment.

Perhaps the betrayal of the smart sons becomes possible only when the balance between the need to participate in the common values of culture and the pursuit of individual gain becomes skewed, so much so that culture is seen as nothing more than just another commodity. When all things can be bought and sold, when the centre cannot hold (I know, I know, I couldn’t help the Yeats thing!), it’s then that people begin looking for some overarching mythology to make sense of it all, and some messianic group or individual to lead them to the promised land.

David Brin said...

Wow... Lawrence gets Post Of The Day....

David Smelser said...

Given the ecology of Pandora, what technological advances are you expecting from the Na'vi?

On earth, it is my understanding that cereal/grain agriculture was the next step after hunter gatherers. Given the rain forest ecology, is that progression likely? Given that all the trees are networked, and the network has value to the Na'vi, is it likely that they will clear cut or use slash and burn to create farm land?

Rob Perkins said...

David, that's refutation by repetition. Answer the question: Is Myers smug about his own cosmology? Clarke? What about Spielberg? Enthusiastic as he clearly is about civilization, is he *not* smug? Aren't the half of US-Americans committed to conservative thinking also more or less smug about their position? (Isn't that part of the problem, when arguing with an Ostrich?)

Of course the story is throwaway 21st Century American myth-making.

"Further, the Na'vi, as depicted, looked like they were closer to sexual equality than, say, North Americans."

Complete malarkey. Even cleaned up and sanitized -- basing them ONLY on what Cameron saw as positive Native American traits, and writing out the slavery and sexism of our macho tribes -- the Na-vi were role assigned from birth according to gender. What you missed that?

I'm a North American, with a gender role assigned from birth. What's your point, again? (Or had you forgotten about the tens of millions of complementarian style Christian families? Met any Conservative women Rabbis? I could go on...)

Yeah, I must have missed that, what with the Na'vi women fighting right alongside the men... dressing (or in this case mostly not dressing) alike... hunting alike... being assigned ambassadorial roles no woman would have had in the United States before, say, 1970...

I have no illusions about North American society *not* being still sexist. It's plainly evident in clothing style. And the pressure on women to conform to certain expectation sets is still much higher than for men. Still work to be done there. Lots of work.

And to be honest, I really didn't think of American Indians when confronted with the Na'vi. I thought of Chinua Achebe's novel, Things Fall Apart. And of the British East India Company's victims. Now, those overlaid Hindus and Africans were deeply sexist societies, to be sure. Perhaps we can't escape the comparison, but it wasn't really there in the movie, except for the leadership inheritance lines.

But since I mostly *agree* with you, except about the idea that Western Civ members, especially US-Americans, aren't actually smug, I don't want to defend the story or the characterization any further.

Edwin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Joe Unlie said...

"Wasn't it you who said that "globalization means that the Eskimo may learn accounting, but the accountant doesn't learn to hunt seals"(it may have been Terry Pratchett)."

That's a cute quote, but it's not completely true.

I'm here in China, where I know westerners who came here to study, not just the language, but:
Oriental Medicine
Martial Arts
Tai Ch'i
Asian Cooking
Ceramics (and other traditional arts)
...or even, in my case, Asian strategy and political thought.

But, what makes the quote above even more moot- is that you can learn any of the above subjects in any major city in the US- we've embraced all of them, on some level!

Yes, America and Europe have been the dominant parties of globalization- but that's changing fast. Witness the rise of Japan as a cultural power- I sometimes wonder what old men who fought in the pacific make of young contemporary Americans- with all their anime and manga, sushi dinners, Zen and haiku, and general fondness for anything that those strange volcanic islands off the Chinese coast produce...

Superficial? Maybe. But it's clear that once-marginalized cultures, who were seen as merely quaintly exotic, are now pushing elements of their cultures to the mainstream of global civilization. China and India are quickly following Japan into the global stewpot, and Southeast Asia will be shortly behind them (which is also why I'm pretty sure that Southeast Asian Muslims will quickly displace Arabs as the Muslim world's leaders and representatives as the middle east's oil gives out and Southeast Asia's economies continue to explode).

So maybe the accountant doesn't hunt seals... but after work he goes to a yoga class, then goes home to cook stir-fry and trim his bonsai.

WV: remero: to copy a zombie film

Joe Unlie said...

Related to the Avatar discussion:

It sounds like the general setup of Avatar was done much, much better ten years ago, by a computer game: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri.

For those of you who never played it (if you haven't, and have any fondness at all for the Civilization series, search for a copy RIGHT NOW.) the game was about a UN Mission to colonize an earth-like planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A launched late in the 21st century. The planet, while life-bearing and covered in oceans, had an unbreathable nitrogen-co2 atmosphere, and was covered in an alien fungus inhabited by psychic worms (unlike Avatar, there were no sentient natives, at least not in the original game). What begins as a mystery gradually grows into a hostile threat, as the fungus-"mindworm" ecosystem turns out to be a vast semi-sentient network known as the planetdream, which sees the human life as an alien parasite growing on it's surface. The player is faced with options- treat the planet as an enemy, and hold the alien life at bay- or try to ally and work around it. Eventually, one discovers that whenever the planetdream is about to "wake up", it instead collapses in a massive die-off. One can win the game by utilizing human knowledge and sentience to meld with the planetmind and awaken to a superconscious plane of "transcendent" existence.

It seems like this could have been an interesting way to go (or who knows, maybe there will be sequels...)- the Na'vi can't evolve any further because the planet can't "fully" awaken, and Human technology could provide a way, a higher synthesis of sorts that could pull the planet from it's slumber and into it's next stage of evolution. A "Techno-Hegelian", or perhaps, "Teilhardian" ending.

Ilithi Dragon said...

David Smelser said...
Given the ecology of Pandora, what technological advances are you expecting from the Na'vi?

On earth, it is my understanding that cereal/grain agriculture was the next step after hunter gatherers. Given the rain forest ecology, is that progression likely? Given that all the trees are networked, and the network has value to the Na'vi, is it likely that they will clear cut or use slash and burn to create farm land?

Ah, but Pandora wasn't all jungle! Remember the scenes where Sully was rallying the clans? They show a fairly wide variety of environments and ecologies, given the relatively low travel speed and thereby distance that they would have been capable of. The na'vi from the planes regions, at least, would have been able to develop agriculture.

On smugness, etc.: Oh, sure, Western Society is inherently arrogant, cocky, full of ourselves, and often over-confident. But this isn't unique to Western Society, not by any means. We think we're right, but so does everyone else.

What Dr. Brin is talking about is our unprecedented willingness to adopt and assimilate other cultures, and our common tendency to love something more the more alien it is. Granted, this doesn't apply to every individual in society, since any society of a size greater than 1 is going to have a lot of variation on the individual level. Western society as a whole, though, and especially American society loves other cultures, in no small part because we are a melting pot of assimilated cultures. Sure, we get cocky about the 'American way', and go through bouts of unreasonableness, etc., but nobody ever claimed our society was perfect. Compared to the societies of history, though, the western society of the last 2-300 years is outstandingly open and accepting of other cultures and societies (again, not perfectly, nor uniformly, but the overall whole of the last 2-300 years is much better than the 6-8,000 years before it).

David Brin said... An article for the CREATIONIST MUSEAM by Dr. Georgia Purdom and Bodie Hodge

Creation scientists use the word baramin to refer to created kinds (Hebrew: bara = created, min = kind). Because none of the original ancestors survive today, creationists have been trying to figure out what descendants belong to each baramin in their varied forms. Baramin is commonly believed to be at the level of family and possibly order for some plants/animals (according to the common classification scheme of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species). On rare occasions a kind may be equivalent to the genus or species levels.
Baraminology is a field of study which attempts to classify fossil and living organisms into baramins. This is done based on many criteria, such as physical characteristics and DNA sequences. For living organisms, hybridization is a key criterion.

If two animals can produce a hybrid, then they are considered to be of the same kind.1 However, the inability to produce offspring does not necessarily rule out that the animals are of the same kind, since this may be the result of mutations (since the Fall).
After the Flood, the animals were told to “be fruitful and multiply on the earth” (Genesis 8:17). As they did this, natural selection, mutation, and other mechanisms allowed speciation within the kinds to occur. Speciation was necessary for the animals to survive in a very different post-Flood world. This is especially well illustrated in the dog kind in which current members (e.g., coyotes, dingoes, and domestic dogs) are confirmed to be descended from an ancestral type of wolf.

Of course, this passage is incredibly ironic! While it helps solve one problem -- how the ark could carry the many types or animals we see today (the answer: it didn't.Only families and phyla; genuses and species evolved later) -- it does so by admitting the factual process of evolution! Even positing that it worked, during the 4000 years since the Flood, at blazing speed!

David Brin said...


followed immediately by

Rob Perkins said...

Ilithi, those are acceptable answers, of course.

David, I've had those arguments made to me as counter-arguments against the idea that the ancient Deluge was not global, by people who have never seen the Creationist museum, and who don't have a stake in it.

David Brin said...

The irony is that these creationists declare that evolution happens! In spades!

Darwinist creationists have been known before. But Darwinist fundamentalist creationists???

Fred Flintstone rode dinosaurs between 6000 and 4000 years ago... and the ark did NOT carry horses, donkeys and zebras... just compact little Eohippus, who rapidly evolved - via natural selection - into horses, donkeys and zebras.

Heck, this solves other problems! What did the lions and tigers eat on the ark? Nothing. There was just a pair of house felines and the lions evolved later! Likewise elephants.

Ah, the infinite creativity of Man... which I point to frequently!

Tony Fisk said...

If these folk had a look at General Relativity, might they not realise that evolution of species in several thousand years can be explained by time dilation or variations in the gravitational field?

Ilithi Dragon said...

LOL! That makes my head hurt...

David Brin said...

One looks into whatever tea leaves one can. For example, recall that I mentioned how much significance I placed in the fact that Obama's inaugural speech mentioned the word "curiosity" as one of the most important virtues. The others he HAD to cite. That one was a matter of personal choice.

Now this, from how he redecorated the Oval Office:

In came four pieces of pottery by contemporary Native American artists, all on loan from the National Museum of the American Indian. Also new to the Obama bookshelves are three mechanical devices on loan from the National Museum of American History's patent collection: models for Samuel Morse's 1849 telegraph register, John Peer's 1874 gear-cutting machine and Henry Williams' 1877 feathering paddlewheel for steamboats.
White House curator William Allman said the patent models fit Obama's personality — his "interest in American history, his interest in technology and his interest in the creative spirit."

Tim H. said...

Examples of American creativity which fit on a shelf, and are simple enough to explain to the mechanically declined.

Stefan Jones said...

There are still creationists who don't believe in evolution at all, and still use the same ludicrous arguments and anecdotes they were using 30 years ago.

Most of these arguments are used to convince an in-group to keep fighting, and maybe get a few like-minded recruits. They're not supposed to convince us.

There's a similar spectrum of climate change skeptic arguments. At one end, knowledgeable people who know statistics and how they can be lied with and are trying to prove the scientists lied.

At the other, mouth-breathers who use the same "aww, it snowed today, 'tain't getting warmer around here, you just want to take away my truck!" flap we've been hearing for 20 years.

Meanwhile, the ice caps continue to melt.

Reality wins in the end, even if we pretend not to notice the score.

David Brin said...

Stefan gets post-of-the-day

Rob Perkins said...

Those mouth-breathers are useful. The ones I encounter will knee-jerk a dispassionate explanation of the earth's hydration cycle, you know, the one you got in middle school to explain why it rains.

You see, if you've clearly understood the hydration cycle and explained it in terms of energy gained and lost (as in, "what happens to weather when global temperatures are 0.1 degree higher?") you get fun responses like, "Oh, I guess you're a kool-aid drinker," even when not a slip of politics is introduced alongside something commonly taught to 12 year olds.

Love it. I look knowledgeable in an apolitical way. The knee-jerker looks like he wants to pick a fight. The person asking the question gets to see both.

Acacia H. said...

What frustrates me to no end is the fact my parents remain blind to it. Hell, my father hunts in Colorado. He commented that the weather has been warmer than usual, which is part of the reason why we didn't get any elk (other hunters we were with did). But because the last couple of years have been snowy in New England? No global warming.

What's worse is that I point out to people one of the reasons for recent colder weather, and they don't listen. (Basically, the melting of the polar ice results in the air around the polar ice getting colder. Thus we get some nasty cold snaps because the polar ice cap is melting away. Of course, once it's gone, then the weather will start going even weirder, but the Deniers refuse to accept this argument. Idiots. Blind fools.)

I seriously think it's laziness. People see it as a huge problem and don't see how anything but a humongous effort will change things, and feel that no amount of work on their own behalf will do a thing, so why bother? Oh well, global warming is coming, at least it won't be as cold here any longer. Pixied idiots, the lot of them.

Rob H.

TwinBeam said...

David - You have your political quiz... Instead of speculating on alternative axes, have you done a multi-dimensional clustering analysis of data from a bunch of relevant-seeming questions?

Seems like that'd be the most useful way to define axes - i.e. the first axis being for the question that most clearly separates the biggest clusters, then another question that is nearly perpendicular and lies nearly in the densest plane, etc?

Avatar - haven't seen it yet - is Pandora explicitly stated to have evolved? My snap assumption was that it was the product of an ancient bio-technological attempt to re-create an Eden in which people wouldn't NEED technology.

Or perhaps the product of a Singularity event that happened to produce a "friendly" bio-AI that decided the Na'vi were most well suited tempermentally to the primitive tribal state, and that morally that made the most sense so long as their health and food needs were provided for. A singularity might also explain the presence of unobtainum and creatures that don't seem evolved.

David Brin said...

Normally this kind of vague, touchy-feely psi-UFO-loving silliness leaves me unmoved. I was a hippe and now I write sci fi. I know more about ALL those topics than any of these guys, and put a lot of it in books, and mostly it is harmless claptrap.

And yet... one emphasis is on transparency -- and how could the author of The Transparent Society disapprove of that!

And the overall tenor of techno friendliness and optimism won me over. And the authors clearly love tomorrow.

Robert, the core thing is not the fact that the right now reasons entirely from anecdotes... because statistics all weigh against them. Nor the fact that their core message is to resent and hate one set of elites - "smartypants" - while enslaving themselves to another - the Sa'udis and Exxon and oligarchs. Nor even the fact that we should be racing toward efficiency-policies whether or NOT the climate is changing.

No, it is the reflex to obey a "side" - to march as Rupert Murdoch's sock puppets.

David Brin said...

Twinbeam, brilliant sequel notion. Tho Cameron is going to film about Hiroshima

Rob Perkins said...

Struck me as more of a "smart planet" kind of thing... sort of like the idea in David's Earth only bio-based instead of a superconductor network in the core.

In fact, when I saw what they were doing with the Sigourney Weaver character after she was injured, I thought that was where they were taking us: a human becoming the voice of Mother-Pandora. Alas, an opportunity missed to explore a fun kind of apotheosis!

Brendan said...

There has been more than one rumour about sequels. One said the next film men would explore one of the other moons, and another that this was supposed to be the first of a trilogy.

Stefan Jones said...

My gut feeling is that Cameron didn't think too much about how Pandora and its noosphere came to be. There's too much of a noble savage fantasy world aspect to the place.

But yes, wouldn't it be cool if it was a post-Singularity chill zone? (I was actually expecting more than a charge of animals; I thought the world-mind would start tossing those floating mountains around!)

There are plenty of fictional precedents. The single best story Bruce Sterling ever wrote was "The Shores of Bohemia," which leads us to think that the medieval-technology city state we see is a brave outpost of civilization in a wilderness populated by shabby vagabonds. Turns out the cities are where young people hang out until they ready to grow up.

* * *

Some have pointed out that the sapient pandorans are the only four-limbed creatures on the planet. Going way back, Olaf Stapledon suggests in Star Maker that centauroids' "rear" limbs could fuse to form a pair of limbs with interesting bone structure. There could be a whole branch of Pandora's "animal" kingsom where that happened. Again, I doubt Cameron thought of that, but it's a possible explanation.

David Brin said...

The Pandorans humanoidness - including perfect teeth and fingernails, is awfully suspicious...

Brendan said...

Do we ever see any old ones? I forget.

QuantusPilate said...

As David noted above: There are lots of very good reasons to push for energy efficiencey and reduction in dependence on imported oil in particular and other fossil fuels in general whether or not one is a member of the AGW cult.

And cult it is, for the very reasons you-all want to label the "deniers" as puppets.

The vast majority of AGW cult members react with exactly the same deer-in-headlights look when I ask them, "What is the effect on the water cycle of a 0.1 C increase in global mean temperature?" I ask every "gotcha" question to AGW cultists that they are taught by authority figures to ask of deniers, and get the same responses, most of which are ad hominems or straw men arguments. Why? because, like fundy religionists, most AGW cultists have no idea what the source of their cult is based on, and rely exclusively on what other people have told them. And no, those "other people" are not the few hundred climatologists who understand the science - because the AGW cultists couldn't pour piss out of a scientific paper if the directions were in the abstract. The authorities most AGW cultists turn to are celebrities and politicians, messagers from the same castes that those who want to call themselves "intellegent" usually reject.

Someone ought to remind AGW cultists that you have to know what you are talking about before you label others as "deniers."

The Loyal Opposition

Michael E. said...

I defense of cliche:

Michael E. said...


That's supposed to be a link to the Google Books page for "The Seven Basic Plots" by Christopher Booker.

The 7 plots are:

Overcoming the Monster
The Quest
Rags to Riches
Voyage and Return

Of course, one story can have each of these plots, or more than one, going on for each character at the same time, Booker aruges. He also provides evidence that we WANT stories that are formulaic, to some extent: We want the "good guys" to win, once we have been told which side has the good guys. We also want the hero(ine) to be transformed as a result of his journey. That's why "The Beach" was so pointless, for example. The main character caused so much death and destruction of innocents and not innocents, and then just went back to what he was doing, which wasn't much. Jake Sully found something to fight for, however, and the young female blueskin had a role, which parallels that of the female character in Dante's "Inferno."

I read an essay about life in Japan from the POV of an American who married into the culture. One of the things she learned was that the Japanese already know the plots of all their TV shows, movies and literature. The issue for the Japanese consumer of fiction is how the characters react in the situations they are presented with. Using the same, "cliched" plots means the authors can focus on what's important to them: What people do when faced with adversity.

Acacia H. said...

I recently was working on the "Journal of Business Ethics" (in assigning headings for search purposes; I don't write for them) when I came across an interesting article in the January 2010 issue, Volume 91, Number 1) titled "The Current Arab Work Ethic: Antecedents, Implications, and Potential Remedies," which suggested that the Arabic countries are in a state of decline, with their economy only held up by oil exports. Especially interesting was this line on page 36, "However, with Arab cultures, the process of change seems to ahve been one of deterioration. A society that was once vibrant, creative, and open to new ideas became closed, static, and hostile to innovation."

I was fascinated by this line of thought because of two tangential thoughts that immediately came together and braided into something new. First, that very description of a society that was vibrant and open to new ideas that becomes closed and hostile to innovation sounds very much like what has happened to the U.S. Republican Party. Second, both Republicans and Arabs are dominated by one very similar force: religious fundamentalists. (A third line of thought is perhaps even more dangerous: Arabic fundamentalists have struck out using violence in the attempt to stop change from Western societies bringing Change. Similarly, fundamentalists in America have used violence to try and strike out at the changes that are happening in America, from Waco to the Oklahoma City bombing to the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. (Please note, that's not to say that U.S. Radicals don't also use violence. They do and are equally dangerous.) It is not Islamic fundamentalism that is a terrorism risk. It is fundamentalism itself that does.

Fatalism also seems to have an influence on the tendency toward violence. The MvVeighs and bin Ladens of the world believe they cannot change things through the current system. Thus they use force. (This is ironic in the case of McVeigh as he lived in a Democracy where it is possible to change things... you just have to work hard, gather people who believe what you believe, and create a grassroots effort to spread your message. The current Tea Party efforts, while currently short-circuiting under Republican efforts to control the movement, shows that grassroots can get their message out and effectively so. So too did Obama's own message of "Change" which ignited a grassroots effort to elect a man who ordinarily would not have prevailed against the existing political structure).

Undoubtedly Republicans would be outraged to be compared with fundamentalist Arabic society, but considering their refusal to enact the changes needed in government, work with rivals, or step against the hot wind blowing from their most outspoken reactionary elements, this is what Republicans are ultimately offering: stagnation and decline of culture and society, while a remote few are lifted up and given ultimate power. Republicans and Arabic royalty have become twins of spirit, even as they claim fundamental religious differences. But they are more alike than not.

Rob H.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Rob H.

That is a very salient point. To carry on with that vein, it is not even religious fundamentalism that is the problem, but any fundamentalism of a set of principles, ideals or way of life (probably what you were already saying, but you hadn't specifically made the distinction, and I feel it is worth noting).

It is the idea that X is right, no matter what. Contrary to approach taken by the Enlightenment, which starts out with "I might be wrong...", fundamentalism starts with "X (and through it, me) can never be wrong..." Even when X is challenged, fails to carry through, or is presented with reasonable cause to be doubted, it is only reinforced because under a fundamentalist mindset, faith is more important than facts. If X is challenged, opposed, etc., X is actually good and right and just, specifically because it is opposed. The opposition of X becomes reinforcement of and evidence for X, because it would only be opposed if it were good (because of challenges to X, therefore X).

The problem isn't even really [i]fundamentalism[/i] in itself. Fundamentalism is just a path (and reinforcing loop) to an end. That end, and the ultimate problem, is [i]authoritarianism[/i]. When a concept, ideal, principle, cause, etc. is fundamentalized, the followers shift into an authoritarian mindset. X is good, and right, and correct and unquestionable. People oppose X, but X is good, and right, and correct, and unquestionable. X would only be opposed by the wrong, the bad, the insane, and the evil. Therefore, anyone who opposes X must be wrong, bad, insane, and/or evil. This creates an 'other', people outside of the Circle of X, who are not a part of X and who seek to dismantle, discredit, and/or destroy X. First, it starts with those actively opposed to X, but can quickly spread to anyone who does not accept X in its entirety, because refusing to accept X in its entirety is refusing to accept what is right, and good, and just, and unquestionable, and is therefore an opposition to X.

X becomes an unquestionable authority, and the more that is reinforced, the more authoritarian the followers of X become. Sooner or later the hate speech is going to start, and its usually sooner rather than later with humans. The opposers of X become demonized, portrayed as enemies actively seeking to subdue or destroy X and those who follow X. Because only evil people would actively oppose X, the opposition to X must therefore be evil. From there it is a short trip from those actively opposing X to anyone who does not accept X in its entirety, and from there it is an equally short trip to Jewish concentration camps in Germany, and death sentences for homosexuals in Uganda.

Fundamentalism and authoritarianism go hand-in-hand, and in many ways are the same thing - religious fundamentalism could just as accurately be described as religious authoritarianism. They are exceedingly dangerous because they cause people to reject facts and reality in favor of a preferred vision of reality that is very often nothing of the sort, and instill an animosity towards, and eventually a paranoia towards and hatred of anyone who does not accept X in its entirety. They also create the very dangerous situation of putting the people in the authority positions in X in control of a group that is dangerously willing to believe and do whatever the Authorities of X say, no matter what.

And X can be anything, from religion to politics to art to fiction, anything. Even our own opinions, the thoughts, opinions and beliefs of anyone on this blog. Anything can be twisted into fundamentalism and authoritarianism, and we must remain constantly vigilant against it. As Captain Picard said, it is the price that we must constantly pay.

Ilithi Dragon said...

This is also why I disagree with Dr. Brin's idea that Lefty Mania is responsible for the horrendous crimes committed by the Nazis, Stalin, etc. It is a mania, most certainly, but it is a mania of fundamentalism, of authoritarianism, of any idea across any spectrum. It is not exclusive to nor even a tendency of the 'Left.' It is an attractor state for all people, ideas, etc. Take the Ugandan bill to outlaw homosexuality and make it punishable by death, for example. This is a position of, supported by, and/or agreeable to the deeply conservative branches of the spectrum both in Uganda and here in the States, yet the language and mindset against homosexuality is identical to the language and mindset presented against the Jews, and any non-Aryan, by the Nazi party. Replace "homosexuals", "good Christians" and "Uganda" with "Jews", "Aryans" and "Deutschland", and the language used there could have been taken straight from the Nazi cheer book. Similar language was used to drum up support for the Crusades against the Muslims, and similar language is used to drum up support for the Jihad against America. This is not a sickness of the Left nor Right, it is a sickness that we are ALL prone to.

(Blasted character limits...
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ToddR said...

Re the latest from Robert H about fundamentalism, an IMO substantial effort which nevertheless seems to have escaped most people's attention is the University of Chicago Fundamentalism Project:

David Brin said...

QuantusPilate, you are right that most "blue" Americans are almost as scientifically ignorant as most "red" Americans. Both rely upon elites for information and base their positions - especially regarding climate change - upon expert testimony, not direct personal analysis of the facts.

So? The crucial difference is this; the experts relied upon by the Blues just happen to be... the experts.

The typical expert relied upon by the reds is Glenn Beck. The agenda is NOT "global warming is fake." The real message is "all I need is a couple of anecdotes in order to deny the validity of 99% of the people who really know stuff about any given field."

Let me reiterate this point. The Denier Movement is not about global warming at all! You yourself said it. "There are lots of very good reasons to push for energy efficiency and reduction in dependence on imported oil " Not even Exxon and Saudi profits can explain the vigor of the denier push, which seems aimed at crippling the West with indecision long enough for it to collapse.

No, Rupert Murdoch's machine has one purpose - to keep populist ire aimed at "smartypants" and not at the rising oligarchy.

Dig it. The great historian Arnold Toynbee studied why great civilizations failed, and concluded it was not when they lost their nerve, or spent too much or drifted away from God, or any of those things. Even Jared Diamond's villain -- failure to adapt to environmental change, takes second place.

No, after studying every era and nation across recorded history, Toynbee concluded that empires fell most often when they abandoned confidence in their "skilled and creative minorities." When knowledge and future-oriented innovation became spurned, in favor of hierarchy and past-fixated rigidity.

THAT is the common theme of the populist-right movement. It underlies everything they say and do. And that is why I call it treason.

Tacitus2 said...


I hate to post this far down in the thread, why, even the usual spamposts are long past!
But out of curiosity, just what has the current administration done to improve energy independence and to reduce our reliance on foreign oil? One would think that with commanding congressional majorities, a largely sympathetic civil service and legal establishment, plus an enhanced international image and a pliant media that we cold expect something substantive would have been done.
I guess the Cash for Clunkers improved fleet efficiency a tad, but analysis I have seen makes the case that this is trivial. You can't point solely at reduced mileage driven, lots of that is the recession.
So, with a curious and wise President in office, and this formidible collection of political power, what has actually been accomplished?*
Cripes, if your putative disloyal conspiracy/opposition is that powerful how much additional State Mojo would it take? Nevermind that last point, thence lies madness...


*I'm looking for things like, new nuclear plants started, actual increase in kilowatt hours from solar/hydro/biomass, etc.

David Brin said...

Tacitus... that is totally legit conservative questioning!

The answer is:

1) the stimulus bill contained many tens of billions in efficiency-related efforts. Weatherizing homes, renewables tax credits & such

2) science is now unleashed, to the extent budgets allow. Hydrogen-scam funds are now going to solar/batteries and transmission lines. The civil service is allowed to function

3) what do you expect? He has to accomplish what he can while needing PERFECT congressional unanimity. (I don't call never-negotiate goppers members of congress.) He has to cross the finish line in re Health care and then get the economy up, or he'll see a resurgence in the GOP and we'll be screwed.

David Brin said...

Okay, I am trying to get out from under the thumb of the US Mint and finally end my "US State and Territory Commemorative Quarters Hell"

Does anyone have any of the last one issued, for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands?

I'll pay double face value plus shipping, plus a signed bookplate.

Actually, I got lots of other coin needs, if any of you have good connections . But those can wait. I just want to put these dang#$%#$#! quarters behind me!

Tony Fisk said...

I'm afraid I can give no quarter.

But, just in time for... next Christmas.

iPod controlled helicopter drones w/video

ficrusta: those remnants of a pie that have baked onto the dish.

Rob Perkins said...

Mine are still sealed in the "uncirculated coin set" packaging, sorry!

Ian Gould said...

"No, after studying every era and nation across recorded history, Toynbee concluded that empires fell most often when they abandoned confidence in their "skilled and creative minorities." When knowledge and future-oriented innovation became spurned, in favor of hierarchy and past-fixated rigidity."

Case in point, circa 1650, the Ottoman Empire was not only the largest and most militarily powerful European nation it was also the technogical and economic equal or superior of its contemporaries.

The western Europeans were just starting on the development of modern industrialism and modern science.

The Ottomans coudl have doen likewise - in fact an alien observer looking at Europe at that tiem woudl probably have put money on Turkey (or Poland)as the country most likely to undergo an industrial revolution.

Then a very telling anecdotes appears in the Ottoman records: an inventor built a glider which allowed him to fly across the Bosphorus.

The Sultan of the day (or more likely his officials) had the inventor executed because the Empire had no need for such a device and if foreigners got their hands on it then the Empire's military superiority would be threatened.

Ian Gould said...

So, with a curious and wise President in office, and this formidible collection of political power, what has actually been accomplished?* - Tacitus

A reasonable question.

A reasonable answer requirwes two initial caveats:

1. Given the lag times in putting government programs in palce and the lag time in getting official statistics, we probably won't be able to accurately assess the ipacts of the first year of the Obama administration for another 6-12 months.

2. The recession and the continuing high price of oil has probably been a bigger driver in US energy use over the past year than any government policy.

That aside, you might want to take a look at this:

Washington DC –The latest figures released yesterday by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) in its "Electric Power Monthly" report, confirm the continued growth of renewable energy in the electrical generation sector.

For the first seven months of 2009, non-hydroelectric renewables (i.e., biomass, geothermal, solar, wind) provided 78,518 thousand megawatt-hours of electricity - an increase of more than 7 percent over the same period in 2008. For the first seven-months of 2008 and 2007, net U.S. electrical generation from non-hydro renewables was 73,321 thousand megawatt-hours and 59,557 thousand megawatt-hours respectively.

For the period January 1 - July 31, 2009, non-hydro renewables accounted for 3.44 percent of net U.S. electrical generation. Hydropower accounted for 7.40 percent during the same time frame -- an increase of 5.1 percent over 2008. Thus, for the first seven months of 2009, renewables provided 10.84 percent of net U.S. electrical generation.

For the twelve-month period (August 1, 2008 - July 31, 2009), compared to the preceding twelve month period, conventional hydropower increased by 4.86 percent and non-hydro renewables increased by 8.23 percent. Combined, hydro and non-hydro renewables increased by 5.96 percent.

On the other hand, comparing the twelve-month periods ending July 31, 2008 and July 31, 2009, nuclear power increased by only 0.48 percent while fossil fuels dropped by 7.67 percent. Coal used for electrical generation dropped by 9.29 percent while natural gas use dropped by 3.50 percent.

Ian Gould said...

Tacitus you might also want to take a look at this:

Venture capital investment in clean energy was down 33% in 2009 versus 2008.

That sounds pretty bad until you consdier that 2009 was one of the worst years on record for venture capital.

An index of share prices for clean energy companies (an important measure of investor expectations of the impact of government policies) rose almost 40% in 2009, beating even the recovery in the wider indices.

Tacitus2 said...


You are generally pointed in the right direction. But I rather suspect that hydro in particular should show a percentage increase during an economic recession. Its not like there's any extra costs, the river keeps flowing. Electrical utilities would tend to power down the coal and oil plants, them costs money to run.
And, of course, in this and many ways, it is too soon to credit or blame Obama's policies in this regard. Improvements in these areas in 2009 might, inconceivable!, still be residues of the enlighted Bush era.

And David, he was not required to tackle health care before stabilizing the economy, he made a political decision to do so. I think its fair to say that his plan has critics from across the political spectrums. That, in fact, is the only thing that mildly recommends it!


QuantusPilate said...

This quote from illithi dragon:

"It is the idea that X is right, no matter what. Contrary to approach taken by the Enlightenment, which starts out with "I might be wrong...", fundamentalism starts with "X (and through it, me) can never be wrong..." Even when X is challenged, fails to carry through, or is presented with reasonable cause to be doubted, it is only reinforced because under a fundamentalist mindset, faith is more important than facts. If X is challenged, opposed, etc., X is actually good and right and just, specifically because it is opposed. The opposition of X becomes reinforcement of and evidence for X, because it would only be opposed if it were good (because of challenges to X, therefore X)."

...describes the behavior of the AGW cultists in spades. In fact, David Brin used that same style of argument in the way he described the AGW deniers!

I disagree wholeheartedly that the experts relied upon by the AGW cultists are the experts in climatology. As I wrote above, the "experts" the AGW cultists look to are entertainers and politicians - the same groups that the deniers rely on.

This is what provides the chinks in the wall that the deniers can exploit - the fact that Al Gore has a carbon footprint larger than some island nations, that the dood used more fossil fuels last winter jetting about to rally the faithful than average Americans use in a year, (and Amy and Juan were sniggering about it on "Democracy Now"), that all the discussion from the AGW cultists is finger-wagging and saying, "YOU need to do this," that there is no one of apparent importance who walks the walk rather than just talking the talk.

These are the weaknesses that the AGW cultists exhibit, along with their willful ignorance of the science of their own position, that the wingnut Fox News crowd exploits. This happens to the "left" nearly every time, they get so caught up in their white-knight status that they forget they actually have to stand for something real, not just "doing good for goodness' sake."

There is an important passage in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy. It describes how the issei and nissei prevented the overrun of their world from the later settlers: When new ships would arrive and disgorge the willing and unwilling transplants, the issei and nissei would be there to meet them, saying, "This is how we build our homes here. This is how we get things to grow. This is how we use everything so that nothing goes to waste."

There are people leading from the front in the "lower your carbon footprint" movement. Sharon Astyk who blogs "Casaubon's Book" over at, is one such.

Most rednecks that I know are anti-establishment and anti-big business. Show them how they, too, can "stick it to the man" by getting off the grid and growing more of their own food, or at least buying produce from their neighbors, rather than the evil agri-monoplies that put Granny and Gramps off the farm and into the poor house.

In other words: Stop villifying everyone that is not a bleeding liberal and try to figure out what you have to offer them THAT THEY WANT.

QuantusPilate said...

Regarding Toynbee:

I agree. Toynbee said for real what Ayn Rand tried to say too: Civilizations are inverted pyramids.

On the bottom are a very few smart people who figure out what the hell we need to do to prevent problems and solve the ones that get through, as well as what we should do in the future to make "everything" better for "everyone." The wider the base, the larger the pyramid it can support.

Everyone else in the pyramid needs to understand the role of those at the base, and how we are all being supported by them. In turn, the rest need to keep rebuilding the base by providing a social environment that produces and encourages as many smart people as possible - not just in the usual haunts of smart people; science and the arts, but also in the apparently "mundane" world of business, as David said in the OP.

Rather than running off and hiding in Galt's Gulch, the "smart sons" have to come back and use their intelligence to remind us how much we rely on them. Part of Rand's message was that very thing: We need the elites. She just told the story in a way that made a lot of her followers think that just claiming to be elites was enough. The Objectivists forget that to deserve the admiration of society, you have to actually DO something to make society better.

Al Gore and the other celebrities whining about AGW are NOT the "elites" to look to. The only ones who matter are the ones who are DOING something to lower their own carbon output and TEACHING others how to do it.

As the completely predictable fiasco in Copenhagen proves: The governements of the biggest polluting nations have zero interest in making the necessary changes for the better. A bunch of people driving in cars and flying in jets to join a picket line isn't going to change anything.

There is only one group of people whom I do not call AGW cultists: Those who live their lives as if lowering their carbon footprint is something that matters to them and, by extension, to the rest of the world.

Ian Gould said...

"Improvements in these areas in 2009 might, inconceivable!, still be residues of the enlighted Bush era."

I'm prepared to agree that Bush's policies led to the economic collapse which resulted in the US car fleet shrinking by 4 million views in 2009 and in a collapse in manufacturing output and private consumption which led to a fall in US energy consumption.

But I think those qualify as unintended consequences rather than Bush administration objectives.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Interesting points, Quantus. However, it should be noted that, in the present industrial economic structure our civilization is in, it is very difficult to do anything that reaches a lot of people on a grand scale without producing a large carbon footprint.

Switching to a minimalist carbon footprint in this present civilization, while still maintaining the ability to move about and function effectively within said civilization, is also still very expensive, and major changes are generally beyond the means of most individuals. This does not mean that the effort shouldn't still be made with whatever is within one's means, but it does mean that calling someone a hypocrite for producing a bunch of carbon by driving or flying to DC to protest AGW is rather cynical and unfair. What are they going to do, hop into their fusion-powered teleporter? How about their battery-powered cars? A solar-powered airplane, perhaps?

One day, we'll have all of those things (though, sadly, the fusion reactor will probably not come with a free teleporter), but right now we cannot move about our civilization and impact our civilization, make changes in our civilization, without producing carbon. We really can't do anything in our civilization without producing carbon. Yes, some of the big names in the battle against AGW have huge carbon footprints, but that is part of the cost of having a very large, wide-spread influence (or, at the least, a very large, wide-spread voice) in today's society.

Yes, there are a lot of things that can be done to make a difference, but right now, the ones that will have the biggest impact are beyond the abilities and budgets of most people.

Also, protesting DOES have an impact. It lets people know that there are enough people upset about this and want things to change to get up and get a sizable group together to complain to the people who are most able to make those changes (big corporations responsible for much of the pollution or manufacture of the polluting equipment, and government). Calling them hypocrites for producing the very pollution they're protesting or advocating against by driving or flying there is unfair, unless you can provide me with a means to get to DC, or NY, or LA, or anywhere, without burning fossil fuels. EVERYTHING we do in this civilization requires fossil fuels right now, even converting to green tech (and even the stuff you use to maintain that green tech is probably going to require fossil fuels right now). Our infrastructure is just far too dependent upon it right now.

Acacia H. said...

Then again, we could just allow global warming to continue unabated and let Mother Nature sort out the mess. No doubt the warmer environment will encourage the growth of a number of plagues that will prove increasingly resistant to medical treatment, while increased pollution will weaken our immune systems so that we succumb to these killer bugs that much easier. The end result will be a massive die-off of humanity, and thus a reduction of greenhouse emissions. Who knows, in a couple hundred years, the few million of us who are left (or our many-times-great grandchildren, that is) may find the environment cooling off because all those extra greenhouse gases emitted by humans have stopped.

Assuming of course that hydrogen sulfide from stagnant lakes and oxygen-starved oceans doesn't kill them.

Ultimately, what we do to this planet does not matter. Life will continue. It may take a couple million or more years to evolve, but by then our pollution will be gone, and the planet will be stable (relatively speaking). We won't be here of course, but hey, does it matter? ^^


Sarcasm aside, Copenhagen was a "failure" because the governments involved treated it as a Zero-Sum game. It's not. It's a positive sum game, but only if we all grab onto the horses as they race past. Those who don't will be left behind.

Just because certain governments decided to sabotage Copenhagen does not mean we should do nothing. There are plenty of reasons BESIDES the environment to get away from oil and coal.

Rob H.

Tim H. said...

Historically, plagues are more linked to cooling climates. And please do discuss one form of environmental degradation at a time, blaming everything on warming sounds silly. Finally, think about a plan B of grassroots actions, (Little things add up.) and serious effort on low/no carbon energy sources, because even if the IPCC bu-tastrophe doesn't die, we'll need a plan that will do something.

Acacia H. said...

Actually, the linkage of the Plague in Europe to cooling temperatures is a result of malnutrition weakening the Europeans living there caused by the failure of a number of crops As a result of climate change (in this case, cooling). This weakened the immune system of the Europeans so that (combined with their poor hygiene) when the Plague did strike, it resulted in massive die-offs.

This may also be part of what caused the Flu Epidemic after WWI to be so horrid - people weren't eating as healthy due to shortages caused by the war, so their immune systems were compromised, giving the flu time to truly become pandemic. The current H1N1 bug could have been another such killer disease except that we currently have a fairly healthy population in the U.S. (and do note that there were a number of deaths that were unexpected and linked to existing medical problems - in other words, they had compromised immune systems).

One of the large problems looming in the near future is a lack of usable water for agriculture and other purposes. Global warming is aggravating the situation by altering weather patterns and causing droughts, flooding, and generally making it more difficult to store water using existing infrastructure. As a result, in a decade or two we may very well see large-scale malnutrition as people are forced to grow what they can instead of what is most healthy for us to eat.

The rise of mosquito-borne diseases will become a much more significant threat, especially for third-world nations. These will weaken the immune systems of a number of folk, and thus allow for pandemic diseases to do a number on humanity. If a couple of these strike in rapid succession, then you could easily see wide-scale loss of life in most third- and second-world nations, and possibly even here in the U.S. (seeing how H1N1 still managed to flourish here despite the attempts to spread vaccines in time).

What's more, once there is wide-scale pandemics going on, global economics will start failing, especially as more and more nations start instituting quarantines to try and prevent diseases from spreading to their countries. This breakdown in the global economy will be the straw that could very well break (or strain at least) the first world nations' camel's back, and even allow the pandemics to have a greater impact in these nations.

It's an almost-worse-case scenario, but I tend to think up of these things when brainstorming story ideas. ^^;;

Rob H.

Tacitus2 said...

When cooking story ideas remember that great plagues often involve enhanced international travel. The Black Death arrived from eastern ports that were much less accessable in the dark ages. Increased mercantile contact via the new powers in Venice, Genoa etc.
And the 1919 influenza was much enhanced by the collection, concentration and transport of military recruits.
I am frankly surprised that we have not had much more and worse in the age of jet travel. H1N1 had some potential, but turns out to have been mostly hype. SARS struck me as a nastier bug, one mutation away from big and bad.

Tim H. said...

Still a speculative conflating of problems. Even if CO2 levels are reduced, the others remain. BTW, the 1918 flu predominately killed individuals who should have been at their peak, we probably got lucky with H1N1.

Acacia H. said...

Actually, Tacticus, this was a failing (in my eyes) of the scifi book "Blood Music" (I think that's the title). The "blood plague" (basically intelligent white blood cells that started spreading to other people) only had small flareups in other nations outside of the U.S. that, with strict quarantining, was kept from spreading further. They had airline traffic in the book, but the world was actually able to effectively quarantine the U.S. (which succumbed to the blood critters and became some weird ecosystem before finally vanishing to some other plane of existence), which is contrary to reality. Of course, it helped that the blood critters realized that maybe infecting the ENTIRE planet wasn't a good idea... ^^;;

Rob H.

Anonymous said...

Just so.
And of course I did not mention the most obvious example: smallpox going west and syphillis going east with the discovery of the Americas. The impact was Black Death plus on the native Americans, and approximately HIV level to Europe.

QuantusPilate said...

Sorry, but expecting others to change while you continue with the same bad habits is precisely the definition of "hypocrisy."

I also find the whole notion of "speaking truth to power" to be a liberal fantasy. "Power" already knows the truth, that is why they hire folks like Rupert Murdoch to spread lies.

If humans really are the largest contributor to the global warming we're experiencing, then it is because of the cumulative effects of individuals, like drops of rain that carved the Grand Canyon. “Cumulative effects of individuals” is exactly what Adam Smith (and his intellectual ancestors) described as how free markets work. This means that AGW is primarily the result of market choices by individuals. Therefore, the best solution is to influence individuals to make better (for the environment and for them) choices when they enter the market.

Knowing that the bad environmental habits of people are facilitated by government subsidies to big agra, big oil, big transportation – basically big businesses across all sectors, changing things from the “top” will be nearly impossible. This is because our elected officials pay big businesses to lobby them. That particular self-reinforcing feedback loop cannot be changed by participation in the system that ,they control.

Sharon Astyk and others like her are leading the way. They are showing by their deeds that, while making the change is difficult and many mistakes are still ahead to be learned from, it is possible and very beneficial to put forth the effort to live in a low carbon way. I don't believe that everyone needs to go “back to the land” full time. Gradually replacing one's lawn with edibles that grow well in your climate is a good start. There are so many benefits from such a behavior that I don't know what their aren't roving bands of guerrilla gardeners wandering the land, “Johnny Appleseed” style, showing folks how to make the transition from big, flat grass lawns that are boring and very, very environmentally costly to low effort gardens full of local flora (which provide wonderful habitat for local fauna along the way).

Well, what do you know?! I've just found my vocation.

My only snag when I come up with good ideas like this is my crushing level of depression that keeps me wallowing in self-pity for weeks on end. The downward spiral of that particular feedback loop is that being so depressed means I can't keep enough money coming in to afford medical treatment, plus the fact that I have no idea how to find a mental health professional who isn't a quack – at least, all the ones I've met so far have been charlatans or fools.

Any suggestions on how to beat depression when the most common voice I hear in my head is, “You'll always fail at everything, you loser!”

QuantusPilate said...

"Blood Music" was an excellent short story that got expanded in to a mediocre novel. IMNHO

David Brin said...

Quintius, it is certainly legitimate of you to ask that the skilled-creative-knowledgable pwople in society come up with solutions to then offer to the masses.

What you fail to note is that they are trying to do that, as hard as they can. And roughly half of the masses in America support that effort.

Meanwhile, about a third of America boils over with bile and utter hatred toward the "elites" who have skill or knowledge.

Elsewhere I talk about how Suspicion of Authority (SOA) is the standard emotional coin of all Americans, left or right, across the last ten generations. We differ mostly over WHICH elites we suspect of trying to become Big Brother. The Fox News mythology tries to focus the SOA suspicion upon the caste of people who know stuff... the scientists, the civil servants, and so on. Why do you think the average education level of GOP members has plummeted by TWO YEARS across the last decade or so? A recent survey showed that only 5% of scientists call themselves Republican, anymore.

BTW, I know a lot of generals and admirals. They have left the GOP in droves and universally tell me they never loathed a president as much as they hated GW Bush.

WHY is Rupert Murdoch stoking populist rage against "smartypants"? The reason is simple. If that rage ever turns against the oligarchy, they'll be in huge trouble. And don't even try to tell us that Red America already hates the oligarchs. They march lockstep and disciplined to Murdoch's tune.

Oh, and don't you DARE call me a "bleeding liberal" unless YOU have given a keynote address at a Libertarian Party National Convention. Anyone here will tell you how many times I have aimed skewers toward the left. I fought the commies all my life. But right now, our society is under siege from an older enemy than socialism. The enemy that ruined freedom in 99% of human generations. And your inability to recognize that enemy is plain sad.

Yet, let me add, YOU ARE WELCOME HERE. We have thick skins. Hang around.

--- Followup

Show me where the hell Toynbee said that. Toynbee would have found Rand (as I do) a screeching maniac. The Randroids have ruined libertarianism as a useful and creative force in American life.

"The only ones who matter are the ones who are DOING something"

Fine, then all wealth should be earned by delivery of better goods and services. Parasitic rent-seeking and inherited wealth... both of them despised by Adam Smith... should be eliminated in favor of results-oriented wealth? Aha! Then you ARE a true believer in enterprise, and not a shill for the neo-feudalists, after all.

Of course your "AGW Cultists" mantra is sheerest tripe. If civilization is headed for a crisis, we should use our institutions to minimize the damage. Since there are MANY walls, including sending trillions to the Saudis, your should be shrugging and saying "let's all get efficient" even if you think that 99% of the atmospheric scientists are "cultists" and that you know SO MUCH more than they do, about the topic they spent their life studying.

When a tipping point is reached, and methane comes fizzing out of the tundra and clathrate hydrates under the sea bed, I hope you guys remember why we all take the houses of the obstructionists and use them to house refugees. It will be a simple matter of tort fairness.

Ian said...

"Elsewhere I talk about how Suspicion of Authority (SOA) is the standard emotional coin of all Americans, left or right, across the last ten generations."

David, this is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, can you give em a link to where you've written about it?

David Brin said...
followed by

Tacitus2 said...

Ah, David, you know its my assignment (straight from Grand Dragon Rove) to fact check you. I am doing a bit of looking around to see about the assertion regarding party identification and educational level. Not as easy a question as you would imagine it to be. I doubt I will have a riposte in the waning moments of this thread, and I do not discount the possiblity that you might be right.
Or perhaps not.* We shall see...


*a really good reference would be current, large sample size, non partisan and include Independents. So far I have not found it.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi QuantumPilate

I disagree totally with your contention that the people who change and improve society are the small apex of a pyramid.
In my experience well over half of the people contribute and improve things.

There is a small percentage of people who claim credit for things but these are not usually the ones who actually do do something.

QuantusPilate said...

Jeebus Ameobus! Threatening me with "hellfire and brimstone" is very cultlike of you, David. ;>

But I'm past all that now.

I have decided on a way I can help people change their part of the planet into something a little more eco-friendly, that will help reduce their carbon footprint and perhaps help them survive "peak oil" a little more comfortably.

All I need to do is figure out how to transform myself from a loser who never accomplished anything worthwhile into someone who makes a difference in the world.

Any suggestions?

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi QuantusPilate

Become an engineer, you get to play with other peoples expensive equipment and make changes to improve things - great fun
Even when it doesn't go exactly as expected!

Make the difference an improvement at a time!

Tony Fisk said...


Sounds like you might want to check out the Transition Town movement

An interesting concept that is in the process of going viral (so much for small apexes of do-ers)

An interesting critique is also to be found here (having since 'boned up' on the topic, I agree with many of the commenters that Alex was a bit harsh in his criticisms. Still, I do think his concerns are legitimate, and that it's a pity his thoughts weren't explored further).

Oh, and I finally got around to seeing 'Avatar' this afternoon. Terrific!! I can see why Ilithi likes it (like avatars, eh?;-)

Apart from 'Dances with Wolves etc., I also got a sense of Anderson's 'People of the Wind' (with a few brain cells removed) Still, this is a discussion in the making...

polodl: a slow, meaningless conversation

Joe Unlie said...

"One day, we'll have all of those things (though, sadly, the fusion reactor will probably not come with a free teleporter), but right now we cannot move about our civilization and impact our civilization, make changes in our civilization, without producing carbon. We really can't do anything in our civilization without producing carbon. Yes, some of the big names in the battle against AGW have huge carbon footprints, but that is part of the cost of having a very large, wide-spread influence (or, at the least, a very large, wide-spread voice) in today's society."

Well, yes, but you can still have a powerful voice while living relatively ascetically. They can fly commercial like the rest of us, rather than take their private jet. While they're at it, they can move into small (but still nicely appointed) apartments, rather than massive estates. Ralph Nader and Alan Greenspan have lived in small apartments most of their lives, but look how influential THEY are...

(alas, both of them have also been single most of their lives. There seems to be something about being married that forces rich people who would otherwise be downtown Manhattan or DC apartment-dwellers into massive exurban estates, even if they are childless or have all grown children...) As for me, I plan to be an urban apartment-dweller my whole life. No reason I can't raise my kids in such a place... most Chinese do, after all. And, if they need to run and play, I'll just pack them off to their grandparents for the summer...

David Brin said...

A fascinating re-appraisal of Atlas Shrugged, by a former fanatical devotee of Ayn Rand:
followed by

Acacia H. said...

And the winner of the "Dumbass Idiot Comments of the Month" award is Rudi Giuliani who, on national television, berated President Obama for not being more Bush-like because (and I quote) "We had no domestic attacks under Bush. We’ve had one under Obama."

What is worse? The Deniers are buying it. (I've realized that Deniers are not about global warming. They are about Denying. It doesn't matter if it's global warming, the greed of the big bank execs, the failures of unregulated capitalism, or anything a legally popularly-elected Democrat President does, they Deny it.) Such defenses against 9/11 is that "you can't count that against Bush" because something of that scope could not be predicted.

I have come up with the perfect defense against Ostrich Conservatives however. When they start whining about ACORN and corruption and how Democrats are all evil bastards and all of that, I point out such Conservatives as that Republican Congressman chap who got caught having gay sex in an airport bathroom, a certain governor who used public money in flying to another country to have an affair on his wife, and several other oh-so-wonderful Republican screwups and then look at them and ask "Does a couple bad apples in the Republican basket ruin the whole batch? Then don't do the same for Liberals."

I can hear the whines of "But it's different!" already. *rolls eyes*

Rob H.

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