Thursday, September 01, 2016

Democracy and the Future

Before diving into some conceptual aspects of democracy, may I offer a quick political note or two about the Clinton Foundation imbroglio? First, nothing better shows how diametrically opposite in personality are democratic and republican presidents, than their behavior upon leaving office. Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore scurry around the globe, armtwisting moguls into donating to extinguish diseases like Guinea Worm and River Blindness, or else fight climate change. Ronald Reagan and both Bushes raised money for their presidential libraries, then vanished, along with Dick Cheney, doing little but holding court. 

This supports my longstanding theory that the true difference between democrats and republicans is not about "left vs. right" in any classic sense. (Every metric of competitive capitalism does better across DP administrations.) Rather they are the manic and depressive sides of American personality. In further evidence, witness how stunningly lazy have been ten of the last twelve US Congress sessions - those run by the GOP. While the other two were frenzies of activity.

But no. There is one way Bill and Hillary Clinton can get their Foundation out of the news cycle. Give it to Jimmy Carter. Lock, stock and barrel. The same way that Warren Buffett made Bill Gates his top heir. Because the Gates Foundation is the best-run charity, getting the most done. Likewise, one thing all Americans agree about Jimmy Carter is that he's utterly honorable. So hand it all over to JC and be done with it. Carter will give Chelsea a job. Just do it.

Now... to the Big Picture.

== A Defense of Democracy ==

A fellow wrote to me asking what my fundamental defense of democracy would be and what good are ‘leaders’ anyway?  I pondered this and answered:

For thousands of years, nearly all societies that had metals and agriculture also were ruled by feudal government. Power was inherited by the sons of lords and priests. This actually made sense at the beginning, when any harvest surplus was small and unreliable. Society was well-served if at least a few boys got enough protein and fully-myelinated brains.

Unfortunately, this led to a sense that the king and lords "owned" the state and everyone in it.  And to stay on top they crushed any potential competitors and critics. (Only fools think fair markets happen 'naturally.')  So we lost the benefits of competition and criticism.  And hence one can see why all those other eras and nations were so very, very badly governed. It's a thing called history.

Things only got better when we tried several enlightenment innovations.

1- the state and its officials are not the same! This conflation - summarized by "L'etat, c'est moi," did more harm to human progress than any other. Officials should have to answer vigorous criticism, which is the only means to discover error. Incompetent officials can and should be replaced.  

2- The best way to ensure this is by dispersing power so that officials and aristocrats have rivals who can prevent them from re-creating feudal rule. 

3- The best way to achieve that is democracy, since it has a pattern of cyclically subjecting officials to scrutiny and replacement by a mass of inspectors who are too numerous to bribe.  Or if you bribe a majority of the voters, then perhaps that can be called good government.

You can see that my case for democracy is not based on goodness or rights. Those supporting catechisms are surprisingly weak. Witness how many nations, large and small, are awash in propaganda calling democracy "decadent." Those ruling oligarchies call out "rights fetishism" nothing more than another religion.

No, the more fundamental reason to support democracy is based upon the pragmatic fact that it is the only known way to prevent horrifically bad governance, of the kind seen in feudal (pyramid-shaped) power structures. All of those self-serving oligarchies - together and combined - never across 6000 years accomplished 1% as much as our democracies have, in one human lifespan.  That is one helluva strong argument!  Much stronger - at a basic level - than moralizing about rights.

(Though don't get me wrong!  Rights is good! In fact, passion for them makes us stronger. But I was talking in basic, philosophical terms.)

BTW. There are many types of democracy of course. And there are always officials and aristocrats who scheme to bring back feudal-type power structures. We are seeing this attempted oligarchic putsch right now, and I depict its potential (and surprising) ramifications, in EXISTENCE.  If they succeed, then we'll return to terrible governance by self-deluding lords... who now have nuclear weapons.

== Future Shock ==

Alvin Toffler, the celebrated author of Future Shock, died on 27 June 2016 at age 87. In 1970, Toffler’s book was hailed as ‘brilliant’ and ‘explosive’. Half a century and dozens of major technological paradigm shifts later, his accuracy and predictive power is still without equal. Toffler largely defined ‘futurism.’

His core concept was to coin future shock as “a new and powerfully upsetting psychological disease”- a potentially debilitating effect upon citizens and leaders resulting from disruptive force of technological change. Technology, Toffler deduced, is both humankind’s most liberating gift and its most powerful source of mass disorientation.

In this work and those to follow, Toffler offered the earliest and most empirically sound acceleration theory in modern history, suggesting that the rate of change may have the greatest implications. Toffler also foresaw – along with McLuhan, Lakoff and a few others – that the most significant challenges and opportunities would arise from the knowledge economy. Information would become the most valuable commodity and the primary source of capital.

Let me add that I believe we are just now climbing out of the disastrous "shock" of the shift in century and millennium. Those double-oughts or twin zeroes were, I believe, more traumatic for most people than anyone imagined, helping to explain why the first decade of the 21st Century was so utterly, utterly lame-o.

See elsewhere my essay on how the last three centuries appear to have started on their 14th or 15th year. In fact, the cycle seems to fit best at 101 years, not 100.  In which case it is 2016 when we face the critical choices that will define us to history.  Um... look around you, at the news.  Choose well.

== The Origins of the Property Tax ==

Finally, from The Atlantic, an interesting article about the origins of the Property Tax. Although this author calls it the "most hated" tax… and I'm sure it is, having lived in California during the Proposition 13 rebellion, and in Britain when Maggie Thatcher talked Parliament into banishing the "Rates" as they called property tax… let me go contrarian on you.  

It is an absolutely necessary tax! Along with the maligned Inheritance Tax, it is inveighed against by.. guess who?  Aristocrats! The richer you are and more parasitic, and the more you are lounging around on what Adam Smith denounced as "rent-seeking," the more you hate these taxes because they put a pressure on the wealthy to put their wealth to work! They are primary ways to ensure against the inevitable and totally natural drift back toward feudalism. 

(Mind you, not all the wealthy are parasites!  A large minority, featuring most tech billionaires, eschew rent-seeking in favor of active investment in new techs, new products and services.  Exactly what Supply Side "economics" predicted all  the rich would do.  Irony? The few who acted as SSE predicted despise SSE for its horrid effects upon the middle class. Most of these billionaires are... democrats. But back to the property tax.)

Did Parliament and California legislators crank up the property tax too high, triggering rebellion? You bet! Using this tax to oppress and anger the middle class was totally stupid! Indeed, I would bet that aristocrats helped to push up rates with this end in mind.

Read the article.  Then remember that the American founders - right after the Revolution - seized up to a third of the land in the former colonies and redistributed it!  Far more redistribution than done by all 20th Century democrats (including FDR) combined. So much for Tea Party narratives.


bigsteve said...

The first paragraph put the Clinton Foundation and email fuss in proper perspective. Hillary is no angel but also no demon. She is a flawed human like all of us but also a very competent politician and leader who has spend considerable time and money serving the interest of the disadvantage and powerless. Trump now under the same microscope that Hillary has been under for decades is being discovered to be one of the most corrupt people ever to run for the presidency. I am shocked that so many of my fellow citizens, mainly white, have and are voting for him. It is embarrassing to me that more whites are voting for that narcissistic windbag than against him.

Ross said...

First it was the 14th year ... then 14th or 15th year ... now the 16th? You're moving the goalposts, and I don't see a good reason for it.

Jumper said...

I used to grouse about paying taxes. I ended up turning a 180. I think government works about as well as private bureaucracies and despite this inefficiency I don't find it merits dismantling. We have a lot of wisdom on how to make this stuff work. A little civic effort is needed. Someone suggested to parents that "all you have to do is show up at a few board of education meetings so the crazies don't have it to themselves" or similar.

I was assigned to attend city council meetings and trials for a college course. At the city council meeting I observed the head of the local Libertarian Party and the mayor, (who introduced himself to me later), having a back-and-forth that looked of long standing, affectionate as the mayor jibed him as "our libertine friend," and was answered by a gruff "LiberTARIAN!"

The trials were serious. One was a murder trial in which I saw a 5-year-old testify who a knife murderer was.

The other was a left wing Nam veteran set up by an unstable psychiatric patient working as a femme fatale for the DEA to beg them to sell her cocaine, to discredit the antiwar vets. The 'tang was apparently sufficient to get him to begrudgingly hook up the operative and they arrested him in a car with two undercover DEA agent guys who ended up shooting him in his back on the back seat. The jury let him walk.

The point is the amount of effort to participate in local government is tiny, and the knowledge to be gained is colossal.

LarryHart said...


First it was the 14th year ... then 14th or 15th year ... now the 16th? You're moving the goalposts, and I don't see a good reason for it.

Think of it as "15th year, plus or minus". Or "15th year more or less".

David Brin said...

Ross bah! it's ROUGHLY a decade and a half into a century that a century tends to make known its theme.

In fact it was in 1813 that the Napoleanic defeat at Leipzig ended the French Century. 1914 ended the Age of Great Colonial Peace. And if you extrapolate with primness then 101 years isn't so bad. Try squinting.

David Brin said...

Please oh please let Trump's decision to run, in 2015, denote what historians will look back upon as the commencing of the collapse of The Crazy years.

bigsteve said...

I remember Heinlein using that term (crazy years) in some of his novels.

Jumper said...

Journalists and the glib have been basically unable to name the '00s and 10s. "The '90s" were the last commonly named decade. No one but a few says "the oughts."

David Brin said...

I called em the Naughty Oughts but Zeroes would suffice.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

William Strauss and Neil Howe, who wrote the Generations books, predicted back in the early 1990s that the "00" decade would forever be known as the "oh-oh" decade because of the calamities that were inevitable during that decade.

I'm really surprised that the "oh-oh" name for the decade didn't stick. Their "millennial" name for that generation, which they coined at about the same time, has certainly stuck well.

Alfred Differ said...

@Duncan: Now the question is "Why did that happen then" (and not earlier)
My take is that it was a combination of available "tools" and possibly a bit of enlightenment "spirit" - the let's try this and see what happens attitude

I'll slip back into the taxes are theft mode shortly so you and I can disagree, but for now, I think your question is more interesting. 8)

It's not just 'why did it happen then' that matters, though. Consider its complement. Why didn't it happen elsewhere and elsewhen. A number of past civilizations were further along in terms of tech and education. Whatever answer you pick for why it DID happen there and then has to explain why it didn't in other places and times.

The toolkit argument has a lot of difficulties dealing with the complement question. A 'change of rhetoric' argument doesn't, but leaves unanswered the follow-on question regarding why the ideology changed.

I argue it wasn't just a 'let us try this and see what happens' attitude. It was more of a 'Let us try this to make the world a better place and ourselves richer' attitude coming from people who did NOT have the muscle to force markets to accept their solutions. They COULD put their ideas out there and see if people bought into them, thus they faced a natural selection pressure and evolution rewarded the successful financially. Even that isn't enough, though. I suspect we also had to honor these people and begin to dishonor the aristocrats and priests who used to promise us betterments and not deliver or betterments in the next life. Innovators did it in this life.

From about 1995 to 2005 I contributed to a little aerospace team called JP Aerospace. They wanted to be the first amateurs to put a rocket into space (100km up) and I wanted to fly a payload. Having no real money to buy a ride, I bartered my labor and helped them build and fly stuff. It was a blast. (Heh.) We used to do our work and tests out in people's yards, in parks, and in light industrial areas when we finally had some money (JP's paycheck in the early days) and that drew attention. The neatest thing, though, is it drew attention from people who were engineers at heart, but had little or no training. They were willing to help out as volunteers and learn what they needed to know. It was worth our effort to teach them because they were motivated innovators who knew how little cash we had and they weren't wedded to old techniques. Quite a few innovations came out of that team as a result and they are still at it last I checked.

I understand the need for formal engineering practices to push a product to market, but I've seen how informal practices provide the 'genetic variety' needed to spark new approaches for the folks with more formal training. As a result, I know in my bones that innovation doesn't come from the elite often enough to be more than a round off error. More often, they stifle it instead. When a janitor off the street figures out how to build a thing by hand for $200 that might have required out-sourced fabrication elsewhere and $20,000, creative destruction happens. That janitor was a real guy. He just walked in off the street with a curiosity about what we were doing. Elite education? Hah. Not a chance. A passion to make the world better? Oh yah. He had that. I wonder how many millions more like him there are out there.

Alfred Differ said...

I won't grouse about paying taxes very often, but not because I don't mind it. It's just not a battle I think I can win right now. Imagine trying to fight for same-sex marriage in the 1980's in the US. People simply weren't ready for it even though it was obviously a liberation in the sense of American history. You all aren't ready yet to see that a body that can exert coercive power really shouldn't be able to abscond with a third of your income. Our Founders would not have tolerated it. We shouldn't either.

It's not that I want to keep my property, though. Sure... I'd like to do that, but it is a secondary issue. The problem is THAT IT IS AN AWFUL LOT OF MONEY once you add it up. Think of the kind of people attracted to that mountain of money. Think of all the crap they want to do. You'd rather not, right? You'd rather think of all the good your people can do. Wunderbar! What happens, though, when you lose an election and the other guys get to govern? Think about the sense of desperation (it's more than just concern) in David's voice about this election and the state of the GOP. That's where this leads! Pile up the cash and you had BETTER worry.

I won't go rabid Libertarian on you all, though. I can't win that battle. What I will point out, though, is that your pain is self inflicted. Stop nailing your foot to the floor and maybe you'll stop going around in circles.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Alfred
"A number of past civilizations were further along in terms of tech and education"

Atlantis maybe??

No other civilization on earth that I have ever heard about was as advanced as the Dutch/English during the 1600's and 1700's in terms of the technology and materials to do things in the material world

A single invention from that time - crop rotation - made more of a difference than anything I have ever heard of from other civilizations

Tax - the big pile of money problem
Who should be charged with using that "big pile of money" -
Dr Brin's 500 golfing buddies
or a few thousand civil servants with the public looking over their shoulders?

Paul SB said...

Alfred, some of what you are saying makes a certain amount of sense, but I still think you are putting too much emphasis on superstructure. The problem with superstructural arguments is that in any given society there are a lot of ideas going around. The question becomes not what genius came up with what idea, but what idea managed to stick and grow to become a dominant theme in society. For that to happen, other aspects of society have to facilitate the idea. From what you wrote about McCloskey earlier, it sounds like that is exactly what happened. Notions of honor among merchants have always been around among merchants, but once Spanish exterminated the elites of the Low Countries it was those merchants who came to fill the power vacuum. This is structure, not superstructure, but they carried their superstructure with them and began to impose their superstructure on the rest of society. Those ideas would have never stuck and become significant with the aristocratic structure still in place.

Ideas have history, and history is mad elf many circumstances. Societies change synergistically, with each part influencing the others. Take our ideas about "race." For most people today, the idea that humans can be divided into several distinct "races" is taken for granted by a majority of people. There is a growing number of people, aided by the sciences of biology and anthropology which have shown race to be a fiction, who argue vehemently against the idea of race today. They are in the minority. Someone my daughter met at school once told her that it's great to think that race is not a real thing, but how does it help him when he and his homies go out and are treated like criminals because they are black anyway?

Race was an idea that existed as far back as 500 years ago, but it wasn't a common idea. Read Othello, in which a white guy plots to ruin the life of a black guy, and most people today would just say that Iago was racist. But pay attention to the words and what you will see is that Iago wasn't bothered by the fact that Othello was black, he was bothered by the fact that Othello was Muslim (and, of course, the real motivation was that he was courting Desdemona, so jealousy was what really drove Iago).

Go further back to ancient times and read Herodotus' descriptions of Libyans, Nubians and Ethiops. He suggests that they are so dark because they are burned by the sun - not bad reasoning for thousands of years before Darwin - but in no way suggests that they are any worse people than anyone else. Or you can look at ancient legends. The whole mess with Perseus began when a proud mother declare her daughter to be as beautiful as a goddess, inviting the wrath of those goddesses. Cassiopeia was an Ethiopian princess, yet all the movies have her played by some pretty Caucasian. No, the idea of race became "real" when there was a huge financial motivation. It was used to justify the slave trade, which had stopped being about debt and started depending on capturing people from less technologically advanced societies. Give it another century or two and no one will take the idea of race seriously anymore, because the structure will no longer have need for that particular superstructure.

Jumper said...

My point was that the same un-naming is seen from 1900 to 1920s. Whatever names for decades then are equally rare. What they "should" be called seems like angels on pinheads; what crazy white people argue about. We don't have to play games with no payoff.

Tim H. said...

"Crazy years"? Consider that Mike Pence might be as close to Nehemiah Scudder as we're likely to see.

raito said...

I'll give Reagan a pass on activity, as his Alzheimer's was since at least 1994.

Going previous to that, Nixon became a pariah. Ford seems to have done some good, though.

And while I'm ambivalent about giving the Clinton Foundation to JC, I could definitely support him running it over Shalala.

Yes, Future Shock was great, if you can look past the concrete examples.

As for property tax, I'm afraid I don't see it as a tax. The way I look at it (and I'm probably not the only one), I don't own any land. What I do have is a lease contract with the government to use the land. The 'tax' is my lease payment. The contract does allow me to see my side of the contract. The government's side lets them void the contract if I stop paying. They then sell the lease to someone else. And eminent domain says that they can pretty much void it at any time anyway, for any reason (recent local uses of it being what they are). And I don't get to do just anything that I want with the land anyway (zoning, etc., though it seems that I can negotiate changes in the contract from that angle).

And that's even more like a socage/scutage scutage arrangement.

From a practical perspective, there's no difference between my view and 'tax', other than cynicism. And since I'm still part of the government that hold the other side of the contract, I still have some limited power for or against myself as a land'owner'.

Jumper said...

I find a reductio ad absurdum approach to "race" useful: treat the Hatfields and McCoys, for instance, as two races. Not even tribes; let's go all the way to "races."

Granted, this won't help Paul SB's kid's friend in the short term.

Jumper said...

On invention, I credit a combination of skilled workers and observant managers. And don't forget "laziness is the father of invention." I've seen more drive to efficiency among workers than I ever have seen the desire to make protectionist setups. The creative worker imagines he'll be rewarded, not laid off. Take the flying shuttle in weaving mills. I assume skilled workers were seen tossing spools through the weft, brilliantly skilled in speed and accuracy, and designing the shuttle to fly through mechanically was a short step, maybe even invented by the loom-master carpenters based on the talk by the workers themselves.

TheMadLibrarian said...

Off on a wild tangent, but it appears the EM drive has passed at least one peer review:

Anonymous said...

That the future must resolve to democracy or Fuedalism is both a simplistic binary and demonstrably false; actual studies of history show rather more complexity in how and why civilizations collapse or stall out or are consumed, and one need only note the striking lack of feudalism (or oligarchy) in the interim period between the collapse of the Roman Empire (~476 AD) and rise of Feudalism actual (~9th century) to sink the lie of 6,000 years of feudalism so oft spouted here.

"all those other eras and nations were so very, very badly governed". Really. All of them? Please.

As for accomplishments, we'll see how the Western death path plays out through this sixth extinction event via the ruthless exploitation of the biosphere and heedless consumption of one-time resources. Much Lithium needs be ripped from the Earth to support the collapse back to the marketplace failure that is the electric car…and hopefully some progress towards turning the lights out at night. No? More torture, eh?

Arizsun Ahola said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arizsun Ahola said...


As a pretty solid Liberal I don't mind the Republicans having control of the pile of taxpayer's money when they win because, while I think the Democrats would use it more wisely, there is crossover where both parties are mostly on the same page. In addition much, probably most by a wide margin, government functions plod along mostly unaffected by which party is in charge.

I may disagree with most of the Republican platform, but when they win power it is the nature of democracy that they get to implement at least a version of their agenda.

Except for the most egregiously damaging policies I would rather have a functioning Republican led government than an obstructionist do nothing government.

Arizsun Ahola said...


As a pretty solid Liberal I don't mind the Republicans having control of the pile of taxpayer's money when they win because, while I think the Democrats would use it more wisely, there is crossover where both parties are mostly on the same page. In addition much, probably most by a wide margin, government functions plod along mostly unaffected by which party is in charge.

I may disagree with most of the Republican platform, but when they win power it is the nature of democracy that they get to implement at least a version of their agenda.

Except for the most egregiously damaging policies I would rather have a functioning Republican led government than an obstructionist do nothing government.

David Brin said...

I do not believe Arizsun is liberal in any way. Name for me one thing the Republicans did when they ran all three branches of government and had absolute power for 6 years (2001 -2007)? Horrid quagmire wars, loosened rules for Wall Street and resource extraction and pollution... plus gigantic tax cuts for the rich... Name One Other Thing.

Did they deregulate any industries? Do anything about abortion or any right wing wish? Did they negotiate? You imply they would, but according to the Hastert rule they never ever ever ever do. They crushed Newt Gingrich after he spent one year negotiating with Bill Clinton.

As for the taxpayer's money, you are a deeply ignorant person. Try comparing actual outcomes, including which party is more fiscally responsible. You believe fairy stories! One chart, just one, proves it:

But anonymous is far worse. Quibbling over the definition of "feudalism" when the more general view is accurate. Rome was "feudal across the entire republic, in that the rich made the rules and twisted them so that inheritance mattered more than any other trait. The Gracchi brothers, notwithstanding. At least there were efforts.

Any governance system that represses competition and creativity is bad governance. Hence all but a few oasis in time were horrible governance across 7000 years. Fool.

LarryHart said...

Arizsun Ahola:

while I think the Democrats would use it more wisely, there is crossover where both parties are mostly on the same page. In addition much, probably most by a wide margin, government functions plod along mostly unaffected by which party is in charge

That may have been true in the past. Nowadays, even "keeping the lights on" is something the Republicans demand compensation for. And if the Democrats don't agree to de-fund Planned Parenthood as a price for governing, they (Dems) are blamed for "putting party ahead of country."

I may disagree with most of the Republican platform, but when they win power it is the nature of democracy that they get to implement at least a version of their agenda.

But when Democrats win power, as in 2008, they don't get to implement any of their agenda, even though they won the presidency and both houses of congress, but there were still barely enough Republican Senators to filibuster everything?

Except for the most egregiously damaging policies I would rather have a functioning Republican led government than an obstructionist do nothing government.

What makes you think a Republican led government and an obstructionist do-nothing government are separate things?

Alfred Differ said...

@Duncan: Atlantis? No. One does not have to turn to fantasy to find them. The Chinese were ahead in many ways in 1600. Way ahead by some measures. The Dutch were only ahead of their Habsburg oppressors and pretty much everyone else in Europe.

Count the number of civilizations on Earth in 1600 and try to rank them according to the state of the average person. Civilization tends to improve the lot of the average person up from about (in today’s dollars) $3/day to around $5 or $6/day before 1700. There were a few of these centers of improvement in 1600. China, Japan, and parts of the Mughal and Ottoman empires are among them. If one looks at city-state like entities, one might include Florence and Venice and maybe an imperial city or two from among the Hanse. In Europe, though, the only nation sized entity in that range was The United Provinces. It showed militarily, but even more so economically. Still, the Chinese were the most advanced technologically. The Chinese had the largest toolkit when it comes to knowledge of processes. By 1700, one can argue that the Dutch had caught up, but it was really the English in the next century who surpassed the Chinese.

A lot of people don’t know their history and can’t really be blamed for it. Even the historians didn’t when we were young. Economic history didn’t really become a properly professional field until about the mid-20th century. After the scholars recovered from the effects of the war and the mania of nationalism, they dug into certain questions and tried to measure what they claimed to be true. Did the Protestant work ethic (or pick a different hypothesis) really matter? If it did, one should expect certain quantitative results. Let’s go look for them. Hmm… that’s odd. The numbers tell a different story. A LOT of this happened among the scholars when we were young, but K-12 educators did not know. Even at the college level it was a mixed bag for a while. Probably still is.

Alfred Differ said...

If I have to choose between Democrats and Republicans controlling what is done with the huge pile of cash, I’ll usually choose Democrats and sprinkle in a few Republicans as social T-cells warning us when the far-left tries to do stupid stuff. From where I sit, though, that is a choice between two evils because it is a choice between two groups of largely well-intentioned people that can be led by the nose to do bad things. For the present it is the GOP that is being led in the worst direction, but that can change.

I don’t like the choice, though. I’d rather not create the pile of cash in the first place. Our nation’s founders created divided governance by splitting legislative, judicial, and executive branches creating function interests AND splitting local, state, and national functions creating regional interests. That’s a good start, but we’ve undone some of it by placing large piles of cash in some of them and making other subservient. I’d rather insert another branch (the American people) and keep most of the cash there because we DO fund some of the things we want to see happen without the need of civil servants and elected officials to manage it all for us. I suspect we could do far more if we recognized our creativity and honored ourselves in the effort.

Ultimately, the problem is the huge pile of cash. My smart friends might govern today, but yours might tomorrow. If I value Democracy (I do), then I have to be willing to let go and let your friends govern when they win. Every precedent each of us sets becomes available to the other in the next go around. I feel it would be safer for all of us to avoid centralizing the cash. Doing good things can still be done, but I think we should give an honest look at decentralized approaches. Consider this from an old-school liberal perspective. ALL centralized power blocs are potential sources of danger because humans aren’t saints or demons. They are just human.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul SB: I get your distinction between structure and superstructure. I don’t want to imply that one matters more than another. What I try to point out is that the superstructure among the Dutch changed. The Habsburgs didn’t just wipe out the Dutch elite. They accidentally wiped out the enforcers of a feudal superstructure. The burghers who ran things started with the old superstructure, but were free to change it because there was no one to stop them. Ideas began to drift, but more importantly, ideas about ideas began to drift. Did the burghers honor themselves as replacement aristocrats or as bourgeois innovators? No one enforced the distinction and as in other situations where many beliefs can co-exist, the people lived with each idea and ignored the mental dissonance. The camel’s nose was in the tent.

McCloskey refers to your terms when she references back to sociologists and anthropologists. She translates them when she references philosophers. In classical terms, a superstructure would have been called a rhetoric, but today we might call it an ideology. A structure might be called an institution among economists. She makes the case that the change that led to our enrichment was at the level of rhetoric. We changed the way we honored each other. That changed our social institutions. That impacted us personally. She argues AGAINST us actually changing at the psychological level, but I’m not fully persuaded yet. I think we have changed, but that change is recent and not useful for explaining the enrichment. That change shows up when we test WEIRD people compared to everyone else. Most change is at the social level, but I think some of it is trickling into the psychological level.

Alfred Differ said...

@Paul SB: I’m with you on fictitious race distinctions. I usually look underneath what a person says and ask what motivates them. Trump is offering a textbook example right now with “Mexicans”. All of us who live in the borderlands know this is a code word for Latinos. Those of us in California who were here in the 90’s know how stupid and incendiary this can get, though thankfully we avoided burning our cities that time. We might not be so lucky this time.

My favorite way to spot the difference between a real racist and an economic exploiter is to talk about intermarriage. Where are they going to build that wall if our families are intermixed, hmm? The racists recoil immediately when I say ‘intermarry’. Others wait for later.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Alfred
The Chinese were ahead in many ways
That is true
They were ahead in all sorts of aesthetic and cultural areas

BUT they were a long way behind in "the mechanical arts"
- metals, tools to work metals, agriculture, transport,
In so many ways the Dutch were generations ahead of the Chinese

It is possible that the very best Chinese artisans could do work that was more intricate than the best artisans in Europe but the median level was much lower and the same could be said for the level of education and literacy
The "Mandarins" were better educated than the merchants of Holland but that education was deliberately directed towards non useful skills - in terms of anything that changed the physical world the Mandarins were way way behind

The "pile of money"
My point is that the "pile of money" exists BEFORE taxation
We can either leave it with the small number of golf buddies who have managed to swindle their way into control of that pile or we can take some of it and have it spent by thousands of public servants under the our instruction

There is a third way
We could increase taxes and then redistribute that "pile" by means of a Universal Basic Income

Arizsun Ahola said...


I think I was grossly misunderstood.

The current GOP is worse than useless. Trickle down is provably false. Democratic administrations have been better across metrics. I'm not going to try to name something Republicans have been better for because I don't believe they have been.

The Republican party also relies on blatant election cheating to maintain the power they have.

Republicans are good for rentiers. Rentiers are bad for the country and me personally.

As a small business owner, barring the absurd, I don't really care where my taxes are. I need my customers to have disposable income to spend. If they have money to spend I'll prosper. My customers are the lower four quintiles of income for the most part. Concentrated wealth is an unequivocal bad.

The relative respect for science, or lack thereof, is appalling.

Jumper said...

Our "universal basic income" was in pieces. If all the pieces worked, what did it matter that it was in pieces? There was earned income tax credit, unemployment checks, food stamps, welfare, workman's compensation disability, social security.

In reality there were cracks people fell through, of course. Thus the appeal of the "universal" part of it. As anyone paying attention knows about the attacks recently on all the pieces, I'll not belabor that.

David Brin said...

Arizsun yes. The way you expressed things just now is like a different person entirely. And sure, I'll shrug and admit the communication breakdown might have been more my perception than your earlier clumsiness.

Alfred, where we part company is that I do not see the dems' willingness to use tax money on big projects to be a "lesser evil."

Sure, some projects have been dumb. The most insane - damaging liberalism horrifically for a generation - was forced school bussing. A Lunacy that I deem to have been at a suicidally Donald Trump level.

But we need Projects and government is not evil for trying some. Railroads, roads that stimulated car autonomy, mail contracts and airports that stimulated flight. Space. Interstates. One of the greatest crimes of the GOP against America was blocking high speed rail.

Which has benefited every other advanced nation on Earth.

Alfred Differ said...

@Duncan: How old is your information on Chinese history? From what I’m reading in McCloskey’s books, the field has been changing rapidly in the last decade or two as the Chinese themselves rediscover who they were before the disastrous events of the last century. I don’t claim any expertise, but I can follow the references she points to and stitch together the arguments for and against.

Also, the notion of ‘generations ahead’ fails as a measure. The South Koreans were in a dismal state in 1955 and for a while afterward, but as soon as they adopted some of what The West was doing, they caught up in one generation. Zip, Zoom. Something similar is happening in India now that they’ve largely given up their heavy licensing/permitting requirements on their economic stakeholders. They are all making use of trade-tested betterments we’ve already proven. Apparently, Europe did something similar with respect to the Chinese, but not fully. We stole silk production information, but re-invented a certain blue glaze for pottery. When a large toolkit of betterments is available for copy, one need not work through generations to get the benefits.

Alfred Differ said...

@Duncan: We can either leave it with the small number of golf buddies who have managed to swindle their way into control of that pile or we can take some of it and have it spent by thousands of public servants under the our instruction

No. False dichotomy. We can also choose not to centralize it and there are a number of ways to pull that off. The simplest way is to leave some things to the States so there are at least 50 smaller centers. The hardest way (that you aren’t ready to face yet) is to find ways where the people contract with each other to provide services through organizations that do not possess coercive powers. Whether these groups are charities, churches, or whatever would have to be worked out, but the key is that there be a number of them and that they not be allowed to point guns at us or threaten imprisonment. For example, if I want my neighbors to be vaccinated properly, I should be willing to contribute to institutions that make this possible. Do I HAVE to contribute to one that can also imprison people or deliver capital punishment? I think not. I’d rather not.

Alfred Differ said...
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Alfred Differ said...

@David: I don’t think the dems are evil in any sense. They mean well and are a relatively better choice. I don’t think their projects are evil either, but I DO think there are unforeseen consequences that are bad and consequences they would rather not think about that are bad. A well-intentioned person makes for a wonderful friend and neighbor, but sometimes there are better ways than what they can imagine.

Bussing was dumb. Agreed. I was real young then, but even I remember how upset people were getting. Good intentions coercively enforced aren’t so good, hmm?

I can accept that government has a role. What I find difficult to swallow is the size of the role many think it must have. That current scope consumes about 1/3 of my income once you add up all the taxes. That’s a lot of good intentions being funded. What I find VERY unlikely is that we couldn’t do it better. Government isn’t evil, but it is blind and dumb at times.

LeadDreamer said...

It's worth remembering that Prop 13 was a resolution put forth by the Corporation-funded groups (Jarvis et al) to over-ride the *contemporary legislative efforts* to reform property taxes - the legislative models would have left the *corporate* property taxes pretty much as they were, *actually lowering* middle-class property taxes *and* revenue levels - the "magic" and fraud of Prop 13 was valuing Corporate property only on sale, which rarely happens - most commercial property is leased - thus locking in the low rates for decades. Prop 13 was sold as a boon to individual home-owners - but was entirely to the benefit of corporations.

LeadDreamer said... "..and keeping revenue levels..."

Jumper said...

20 minute busing is different from 2 hour busing.

bruce said...
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bruce said...

Because of 9-11 and its ramifications, I refer to the first decade of this century as the "Dreadnoughts".

David Brin said...

Alfred the Koreans caught up, zip zoom, because they were sheltered, protected and subsidized by Pax Americana. Likewise, it is not the west that caused China to fall into near collapse, but their acceptance of horrendous leaders. The Meiji emperor In Japan and Chulalongkorn”s (The King & !) father in Thailand set those countries on course to catch up with the west and to stay free. A prince in China tried to do that and the Dowager Empress killed him… and the rest of the court let her. And the army and civil servants let the court let her. And the merchants and bourgeoise and vested farmed let them do that. And only in 1911 did a critical mass form that managed to rebel against calamitous feudal leadership.

As for “we” could do better than government… you maintain the conflation that the govt is not “we.” There are “left handed” activities that we do in a consensus way, by deliberated-negotiated choise and there are “right-handed” market and individual and charitable endeavors. Yes, the latter should get the lion’s share. But Marxwants me to cut off my right hand and Rand wants my left hand amputated. And Reagan asked us to do that, to, with the huge huge lie that government can’t do things well.

Screw em. Half our wealth came from jets, rockets, satellites, pharma, eco, telecom, internet, sustainables and so on… NONE of which would have happened without government stimulation. I do BETTER using BOTH hands!

What interests me is adult appraisal – scientific – of what each hand does well.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Alfred
In the "mechanical arts" - the Chinese were nowhere at that time
talk of generations is misleading
But they simply were not on the same page

They were not interested in and did not have anything like the same tools as the Europeans
People like McCloskey are not themselves "tool users" and don't understand the significance of the tools and the mindset around them

If I was to be magically projected back to the 1600's in Europe my engineering knowledge would be useful and would complement the knowledge of the "down timers"

In china at that time there would be much much less for me to use - my knowledge would make much less difference

Assuming in both instances that the aristo's didn't simply have me killed

LarryHart said...

Alfred Differ:

My favorite way to spot the difference between a real racist and an economic exploiter is to talk about intermarriage.

It just occurs to me this moment that the term "racism" might encompass two separate (though related) concepts, which might confuse some conversations.

The most common usage is that a racist believes in the superiority of one race over others. A subset of this is one who believes his own race to be the superior one, but that need not be part of the definition. That guy in "Monty Python's Life of Brian" who hangs upside down in the dungeon going "Great race, the Romans" can still qualify as a racist.

But it is also possible to go with a less restrictive definition: a racist being someone who subscribes to the concept of humanity divided up into "races" at all, regardless of one's opinion on superiority or equality. If your view of intermarriage is that it is equivalent to "dogs and cats living together", then you might not "hate" other races, or even believe one superior to others, but there's still an element of something we call "racism" there.

greg byshenk said...

Alfred Differ
@Duncan: We can either leave it with the small number of golf buddies who have managed to swindle their way into control of that pile or we can take some of it and have it spent by thousands of public servants under the our instruction

No. False dichotomy. We can also choose not to centralize it and there are a number of ways to pull that off. The simplest way is to leave some things to the States so there are at least 50 smaller centers.

This is an interesting and longstanding idea. The problem is that is demonstrably false. State governments, in part because of their limited powers, are more susceptible to "corruption" by money than is the federal government. I am not here so much referring to the criminal kind of "corruption" (though that exists), as to the fully legal kind. That is, the kind, already common, where a corporation says, "you need to give us X or we will (re)locate elsewhere."

The hardest way (that you aren’t ready to face yet) is to find ways where the people contract with each other to provide services through organizations that do not possess coercive powers.

Also an interesting idea, but useless in reigning in the power of the "golf buddies" unless one at the same time acts limit concentrations of wealth an power. An example of the problem is Italy, which has a significant network of cooperatives ("organizations that do no possess coercive powers") along with large an powerful corporations -- and also suffers from significant corruption, of both the unlawful and lawful kind.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Alfred

Re 30% of your income in taxes

Considering that at least 80% of "your income" is due to the common heritage of your country and not your own personal effort I would consider 30% going back to that common heritage a bit of a bargain

Jumper said...

On "blowing up the moon" it wasn't Rumsfeld or Cheney I wrote about lo those many years ago, it was a haiku about Osama and the Taliban. Which is weird because I just learned about the Qur'an verses because of Carsitter / anonymous (I presume it was.)

It seemed like that was the kind of thing nihilists want to do...

Laurent Weppe said...

* "This is an interesting and longstanding idea. The problem is that is demonstrably false. State governments, in part because of their limited powers, are more susceptible to "corruption" by money than is the federal government."

Also, local officials are much more likely to openly wipe their asses on the law & constitution to satisfy their most extreme voters via illegal but demagogic policies: there's a reason why in France the Burkini ban (a blatant attempt to bully women of arabic and african descent away from the beaches where the white bourgeoisie go spend its holidays) was tried by mayors and not proposed by the Parliament.

LarryHart said...

Laurent Weppe:

local officials are much more likely to openly wipe their asses on the law & constitution to satisfy their most extreme voters via illegal but demagogic policies: there's a reason why in France the Burkini ban (a blatant attempt to bully women of arabic and african descent away from the beaches where the white bourgeoisie go spend its holidays) was tried by mayors and not proposed by the Parliament.

Perhaps the phenomenon of a Donald Trump or a Hitler comes along when enough of a national population does become radicalized enough to make such an appeal possible at that level?

Here in the states, where social conservatives are always finding ways to enforce more modesty, not less, it's amusing (in a not so funny way) to see them insist that women should be forced go more undressed in public. But it's as I said during a more tragic situation earlier this summer--when a Radical Muslim Terrorist (tm) shoots up a gay bar, they don't know who to root for.

Paul SB said...


Your idea about 2 kinds of racism is a distinction that has already been made in the social sciences. I can't remember the name of the person who coined a term for it, but I still have the book somewhere. The first sense which insists on grading the "races" he went with the common term /racism/. The second sense, the person who believes races exist but does not think any one is superior to any other, he called /racialism/. Since you have to first be a racialist to be a racist, he also called the nonjudgmental form "nice racialism" versus the judgmental "mean racialism". This was just to make a point, though, that being that as long as people believe that race is real, they open the door to there being differences of opinion about how to value those "races". Nice racialism makes mean racialism possible, since values are culturally shared notions of worth, not universal facts. But if race is shown to not be factually real, then any valuation of race is nonsensical, as is the idea of interracial marriage. You might this terminology useful.

LarryHart said...

@Paul SB

It seems to me we're discussing a continuum (not sure I've got the order correct):

* Belief that races of humanity are separated by lines that cannot or must not be crossed.
* Belief that races can be judged on a scale of inferiority and superiority to each other
* Belief that one race is superior to all others, and deserves benefits because of that fact
* Belief that one belongs to the master race described above
* Belief that the "master race" is not determined objectively, but rather, whichever one that "wins" a race war takes the prize
* Active emotional hatred toward other races

Each is often referred to as "racism", but they have widely different implications.

David Brin said...

Lazy racism is just leaping to the first assumption about another person based upon appearance, but only tentatively until another category becomes available. Like doing a double-take, upon entering an elevator with a black male in it. Then consciously deciding to quash that reaction and nervously making too-eager, too-friendly conversation. And then, if any common ground appears, rushing to reclassify, emphasizing that common ground.

If you are honest, you'll admit you have done exactly that thing! Does that make you a "racist"? Not according to any of the definitions LH and others suggested, above! It is human to categorize others based on limited information and to reclassify as more info arrives. But having those first classifications be "black" and "male" is definitely a kind of racism. One that is much harder to root out, even with the best of intentions.

Note also that there are two parties to this all-too common event. The black male who sees you wince and can note your widening eyes, on spotting him in the elevator. Your pause to overcome that reaction. Your nervous excess friendliness, all the while knowing it was his physical appearance that triggered this, something he cannot change. He must participate in yet another "calm and reassure the white person" ritual, sympathizing instead of resenting that person's sometimes goofy and excessive efforts "not seem racist."

That must be wearing! It has to grind away, day in and day out, constantly reminding any male of color that "I'm different." And "they just won't relax and leave me be."

This part of racism is not one shared, 60 years ago, by Jews or other despised white groups. They suffered housing discrimination and even lynchings, too. But the elevator wince was generally avoidable with a decent wardrobe.

To be clear, this is NOT grampa's racism! Any sensible person knows it is a transition phase, to be endured, and overcome the way it IS being overcome, with slow, steady good will on all sides. I mean gee whiz, what was the instant trigger for old-fashioned racism? Inter-racial couples! And now they are everywhere and the reaction... after five seconds... is now a shrug of normalcy!

But those five seconds...cro-magnon level classification laziness... it's gotta grind.

Paul SB said...

Larry, it seems to me that these are all components of the an associated set of memes. I don't know that anyone who considers themselves to be racist does not believe pretty much all of these, though breaking it down like this could be useful examining people who do not think of themselves as racist but might believe in a few of these memes.

I'm not 100% sure about the second to last point. Yes, I have known a lot of people who speak of winning the war, and that victory proves their "racial" superiority. They tend to hate government because government tries to force them to 'play fair' - meaning they can't indiscriminately kill members of their hated groups. However, they also are convinced that there are "objective" reasons to say their their "race" is superior to all others. These reasons mostly focus on supposed differences in native intelligence - a notion that was entirely shot down by Stephen Jay Gould's "The Mismeasure of Man" - but they also focus a whole lot on claims to moral superiority and even things as trivial as their perceptions of beauty. (I recall a certain vegetative commentator on this forum who made this argument awhile back.) What I have seen has been more that they assume their race will be victorious, and this proves that their race is the superior one - but only if the evil Big Brother doesn't stop them from doing what in their minds is natural. Pretty pathological reasoning.

Paul SB said...

Dr. Brin, your elevator double-take comment gets at exactly the point made by the guy who came up with the /racialism/ term. I like to bring things down to the neurological level when we are talking about such instant, gut-level reactions. It would be easy for people to assume that the flinch is some instinct and therefore natural, which would be despairing to people on both sides of the flinch, as well as provide fuel for those "naturalist" fools who think that they know what instincts are, and they are what they want them to be. But that flinch sounds so Pavlovian it is a little hard to not see it as a conditioned response. Cultures are never monolithic, so we are all raised in environments which tell us contradictory things. On the one hand, African-American men are likely to be dangerous criminals (an impression mad much worse by the 1990s Gangsta Rap fad - people shooting themselves in the foot) but on the other hand we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover. The flinch is so pervasive because it is entirely System 1, the signal originating in the amygdala, which was already fully wired with myelin the day we were born. The idea that we should be fair and nice is System 2, signal in the frontal lobes, which never get entirely myelinated (60% of neurons get the sheath, though which ones have it at any point in our individual life histories changes). This is why the flinch is automatic, while the awkward recovery happens afterward, and both feels and looks so damn awkward.

Nota Bene: since these are results of conditioning in the Pavlovian sense, they can be unconditioned. I like to think that I don't have that flinch, though I know I did when I was younger. I tend to smile a lot and most people seem pretty at ease with me, but I also know that I get that flinch when I see people who look gangsta. It doesn't matter if they are African, Latin or anything else (I've seen some pretty ghetto Koreans, and more than a few who I couldn't quite tell). This strikes me as being more evidence that it is a matter of conditioning. We have our stereotypes about skin tone and ethnicity, but we also have stereotypes about clothing, tattoos, piercings, and then there's the looks on people's faces. I once took my son to get his hair cut at a little barber shop in the less "nice" part of town, and the walls were covered in pictures of men with various hair styles, as you might expect in a barber shop. Given the neighborhood, it was also no surprise that all the models looked Latin, with a few African models. Out of more than twenty, all but one had an expression on their faces like they were going to punch somebody. That look does not help matters one bit, but too many people think that's what they are supposed to look like. That's hip-hop culture. What they don't seem to get is that they are feeding the stereotypes.

David Brin said...

Paul, I am more optimistic. The reflex racist flinch subsides over time. The borderline shifts and it is nowhere near where it was, just ten years ago. But I bring it up because racism takes many, many forms and were I a black male, I would find this residual form... tiresome. Grindingly tiresome. Without even the recourse of anger! Because the whites doing it are often trying hard to compensate! Trying way too - embarrassingly and tiresomely - hard.

"Racialism" is something else. It is a tendency of some among minorities to couch everything they see as due to racism. It can be aggressive and yes, just as tiresome.

David Brin said...

Continue at the new posting.