Ahamed, Liaquat. Lords of Finance. New York: Penguin Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-14-311680-6.
I have become increasingly persuaded that World War I was the singular event of the twentieth century in that it was not only an unprecedented human tragedy in its own right (and utterly unnecessary), it set in motion the forces which would bring about the calamities which would dominate the balance of the century and which still cast dark shadows on our world as it approaches one century after that fateful August. When the time comes to write the epitaph of the entire project of the Enlightenment (assuming its successor culture permits it to even be remembered, which is not the way to bet), I believe World War I will be seen as the moment when it all began to go wrong.

This is my own view, not the author's thesis in this book, but it is a conclusion I believe is strongly reinforced by the events chronicled here. The present volume is a history of central banking in Europe and the U.S. from the years prior to World War I through the institution of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates based on U.S. dollar reserves backed by gold. The story is told through the careers of the four central bankers who dominated the era: Montagu Norman of the Bank of England, Émile Moreau of la Banque de France, Hjalmar Schact of the German Reichsbank, and Benjamin Strong of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Prior to World War I, central banking, to the extent it existed at all in anything like the modern sense, was a relatively dull field of endeavour performed by correspondingly dull people, most aristocrats or scions of wealthy families who lacked the entrepreneurial bent to try things more risky and interesting. Apart from keeping the system from seizing up in the occasional financial panic (which was done pretty much according to the playbook prescribed in Walter Bagehot's Lombard Street, published in 1873), there really wasn't a lot to do. All of the major trading nations were on a hard gold standard, where their paper currency was exchangeable on demand for gold coin or bullion at a fixed rate. This imposed rigid discipline upon national governments and their treasuries, since any attempt to inflate the money supply ran the risk of inciting a run on their gold reserves. Trade imbalances would cause a transfer of gold which would force partners to adjust their interest rates, automatically cooling off overheated economies and boosting those suffering slowdowns.

World War I changed everything. After the guns fell silent and the exhausted nations on both sides signed the peace treaties, the financial landscape of the world was altered beyond recognition. Germany was obliged to pay reparations amounting to a substantial fraction of its GDP for generations into the future, while both Britain and France had run up debts with the United States which essentially cleaned out their treasuries. The U.S. had amassed a hoard of most of the gold in the world, and was the only country still fully on the gold standard. As a result of the contortions done by all combatants to fund their war efforts, central banks, which had been more or less independent before the war, became increasingly politicised and the instruments of government policy.

The people running these institutions, however, were the same as before: essentially amateurs without any theoretical foundation for the policies this unprecedented situation forced them to formulate. Germany veered off into hyperinflation, Britain rejoined the gold standard at the prewar peg of the pound, resulting in disastrous deflation and unemployment, while France revalued the franc against gold at a rate which caused the French economy to boom and gold to start flowing into its coffers. Predictably, this led to crisis after crisis in the 1920s, to which the central bankers tried to respond with Band-Aid after Band-Aid without any attempt to fix the structural problems in the system they had cobbled together. As just one example, an elaborate scheme was crafted where the U.S. would loan money to Germany which was used to make reparation payments to Britain and France, who then used the proceeds to repay their war debts to the U.S. Got it? (It was much like the “petrodollar recycling” of the 1970s where the West went into debt to purchase oil from OPEC producers, who would invest the money back in the banks and treasury securities of the consumer countries.) Of course, the problem with such schemes is there's always that mountain of debt piling up somewhere, in this case in Germany, which can't be repaid unless the economy that's straining under it remains prosperous. But until the day arrives when the credit card is maxed out and the bill comes due, things are glorious. After that, not so much—not just bad, but Hitler bad.

This is a fascinating exploration of a little-known epoch in monetary history, and will give you a different view of the causes of the U.S. stock market bubble of the 1920s, the crash of 1929, and the onset of the First Great Depression. I found the coverage of the period a bit uneven: the author skips over much of the financial machinations of World War I and almost all of World War II, concentrating on events of the 1920s which are now all but forgotten (not that there isn't a great deal we can learn from them). The author writes from a completely conventional wisdom Keynesian perspective—indeed Keynes is a hero of the story, offstage for most of it, arguing that flawed monetary policy was setting the stage for disaster. The cause of the monetary disruptions in the 1920s and the Depression is attributed to the gold standard, and yet even the most cursory examination of the facts, as documented in the book itself, gives lie to this. After World War I, there was a gold standard in name only, as currencies were manipulated at the behest of politicians for their own ends without the discipline of the prewar gold standard. Further, if the gold standard caused the Depression, why didn't the Depression end when all of the major economies were forced off the gold standard by 1933? With these caveats, there is a great deal to be learned from this recounting of the era of the first modern experiment in political control of money. We are still enduring its consequences. One fears the “maestros” trying to sort out the current mess have no more clue what they're doing than the protagonists in this account.

In the Kindle edition the table of contents and end notes are properly linked to the text, but source citations, which are by page number in the print edition, are not linked. However, locations in the book are given both by print page number and Kindle “location”, so you can follow them, albeit a bit tediously, if you wish to. The index is just a list of terms without links to their appearances in the text.

August 2011 Permalink

Alinsky, Saul D. Rules for Radicals. New York: Random House, 1971. ISBN 0-679-72113-4.
Ignore the title. Apart from the last two chapters, which are dated, there is remarkably little ideology here and a wealth of wisdom directly applicable to anybody trying to accomplish something in the real world, entrepreneurs and Open Source software project leaders as well as social and political activists. Alinsky's unrelenting pragmatism and opportunism are a healthy antidote to the compulsive quest for purity which so often ensnares the idealistic in such endeavours.

February 2004 Permalink

Anderson, Brian C. South Park Conservatives. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0-89526-019-0.
Who would have imagined that the advent of “new media”—not just the Internet, but also AM radio after having been freed of the shackles of the “fairness doctrine”, cable television, with its proliferation of channels and the advent of “narrowcasting”, along with the venerable old media of stand-up comedy, cartoon series, and square old books would end up being dominated by conservatives and libertarians? Certainly not the greybeards atop the media pyramid who believed they set the agenda for public discourse and are now aghast to discover that the “people power” they always gave lip service to means just that—the people, not they, actually have the power, and there's nothing they can do to get it back into their own hands.

This book chronicles the conservative new media revolution of the past decade. There's nothing about the new media in themselves which has made it a conservative revolution—it's simply that it occurred in a society in which, at the outset, the media were dominated by an elite which were in the thrall of a collectivist ideology which had little or no traction outside the imperial districts from which they declaimed, while the audience they were haranguing had different beliefs entirely which, when they found media which spoke to them, immediately started to listen and tuned out the well-groomed, dulcet-voiced, insipid propagandists of the conventional wisdom.

One need only glance at the cratering audience figures for the old media—left-wing urban newspapers, television network news, and “mainstream” news-magazines to see the extent to which they are being shunned. The audience abandoning them is discovering the new media: Web sites, blogs, cable news, talk radio, which (if one follows a broad enough selection), gives a sense of what is actually going on in the world, as opposed to what the editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post decide merits appearing on the front page.

Of course, the new media aren't perfect, but they are diverse—which is doubtless why collectivist partisans of coercive consensus so detest them. Some conservatives may be dismayed by the vulgarity of “South Park” (I'll confess; I'm a big fan), but we partisans of civilisation would be well advised to party down together under a broad and expansive tent. Otherwise, the bastards might kill Kenny with a rocket widget ball.

January 2006 Permalink

Anderson, Brian C. and Adam D. Thierer. A Manifesto for Media Freedom. New York: Encounter Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59403-228-8.
In the last decade, the explosive growth of the Internet has allowed a proliferation of sources of information and opinion unprecedented in the human experience. As humanity's first ever many-to-many mass medium, the Internet has essentially eliminated the barriers to entry for anybody who wishes to address an audience of any size in any medium whatsoever. What does it cost to start your own worldwide television or talk radio show? Nothing—and the more print-inclined can join the more than a hundred million blogs competing for the global audience's attention. In the United States, the decade prior to the great mass-market pile-on to the Internet saw an impressive (by pre-Internet standards) broadening of radio and television offerings as cable and satellite distribution removed the constraints of over-the-air bandwidth and limited transmission range, and abolition of the “Fairness Doctrine” freed broadcasters to air political and religious programming of every kind.

Fervent believers in free speech found these developments exhilarating and, if they had any regrets, they were only that it didn't happen more quickly or go as far as it might. One of the most instructive lessons of this epoch has been that prominent among the malcontents of the new media age have been politicians who mouth their allegiance to free speech while trying to muzzle it, and legacy media outlets who wrap themselves in the First Amendment while trying to construe it as a privilege reserved for themselves, not a right to which the general populace is endowed as individuals.

Unfortunately for the cause of liberty, while technologists, entrepreneurs, and new media innovators strive to level the mass communication playing field, it's the politicians who make the laws and write the regulations under which everybody plays, and the legacy media which support politicians inclined to tilt the balance back in their favour, reversing (or at least slowing) the death spiral in their audience and revenue figures. This thin volume (just 128 pages: even the authors describe it as a “brief polemic”) sketches the four principal threats they see to the democratisation of speech we have enjoyed so far and hope to see broadened in unimagined ways in the future. Three have suitably Orwellian names: the “Fairness Doctrine” (content-based censorship of broadcast media), “Network Neutrality” (allowing the FCC's camel nose into the tent of the Internet, with who knows what consequences as Fox Charlie sweeps Internet traffic into the regulatory regime it used to stifle innovation in broadcasting for half a century), and “Campaign Finance Reform” (government regulation of political speech, often implemented in such a way as to protect incumbents from challengers and shut out insurgent political movements from access to the electorate). The fourth threat to new media is what the authors call “neophobia”: fear of the new. To the neophobe, the very fact of a medium's being innovative is presumptive proof that it is dangerous and should be subjected to regulation from which pre-existing media are exempt. Just look at the political entrepreneurs salivating over regulating video games, social networking sites, and even enforcing “balance” in blogs and Web news sources to see how powerful a force this is. And we have a venerable precedent in broadcasting being subjected, almost from its inception unto the present, to regulation unthinkable for print media.

The actual manifesto presented here occupies all of a page and a half, and can be summarised as “Don't touch! It's working fine and will evolve naturally to get better and better.” As I agree with that 100%, my quibbles with the book are entirely minor items of presentation and emphasis. The chapter on network neutrality doesn't completely close the sale, in my estimation, on how something as innocent-sounding as “no packet left behind” can open the door to intrusive content regulation of the Internet and the end of privacy, but then it's hard to explain concisely: when I tried five years ago, more than 25,000 words spilt onto the page. Also, perhaps because the authors' focus is on political speech, I think they've underestimated the extent to which, in regulation of the Internet, ginned up fear of what I call the unholy trinity: terrorists, drug dealers, and money launderers, can be exploited by politicians to put in place content regulation which they can then turn to their own partisan advantage.

This is a timely book, especially for readers in the U.S., as the incoming government seems more inclined to these kinds of regulations than that it supplants. (I am on record as of July 10th, 2008, as predicting that an Obama administration would re-impose the “fairness doctrine”, enact “network neutrality”, and [an issue not given the attention I think it merits in this book] adopt “hate speech” legislation, all with the effect of stifling [mostly due to precautionary prior restraint] free speech in all new media.) For a work of advocacy, this book is way too expensive given its length: it would reach far more of the people who need to be apprised of these threats to their freedom of expression and to access to information were it available as an inexpensive paperback pamphlet or on-line download.

A podcast interview with one of the authors is available.

November 2008 Permalink

Arkes, Hadley. Natural Rights and the Right to Choose. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-81218-6.

June 2003 Permalink

Babbin, Jed. Inside the Asylum. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-89526-088-3.
You'll be shocked, shocked, to discover, turning these pages, that the United Nations is an utterly corrupt gang of despots, murderers, and kleptocrats, not just ineffectual against but, in some cases, complicit in supporting terrorism, while sanctimoniously proclaiming the moral equivalence of savagery and civilisation. And that the European Union is a feckless, collectivist, elitist club of effete former and wannabe great powers facing a demographic and economic cataclysm entirely of their own making. But you knew that, didn't you? That's the problem with this thin (less than 150 pages of main text) volume. Most of the people who will read it already know most of what's said here. Those who still believe the U.N. to be “the last, best hope for peace” (and their numbers are, sadly, legion—more than 65% of my neighbours in the Canton of Neuchâtel voted for Switzerland to join the U.N. in the March 2002 referendum) are unlikely to read this book.

November 2004 Permalink

Baer, Robert. See No Evil. New York: Crown Publishers, 2002. ISBN 0-609-60987-4.

July 2002 Permalink

Barnett, Thomas P. M. The Pentagon's New Map. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2004. ISBN 0-399-15175-3.
This is one scary book—scary both for the world-view it advocates and the fact that its author is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and participant in strategic planning at the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation. His map divides the world into a “Functioning Core” consisting of the players, both established (the U.S., Europe, Japan) and newly arrived (Mexico, Russia, China, India, Brazil, etc.) in the great game of globalisation, and a “Non-Integrating Gap” containing all the rest (most of Africa, Andean South America, the Middle East and Central and Southeast Asia), deemed “disconnected” from globalisation. (The detailed map may be consulted on the author's Web site.) Virtually all U.S. military interventions in the years 1990–2003 occurred in the “Gap” while, he argues, nation-on-nation violence within the Core is a thing of the past and needn't concern strategic planners. In the Gap, however, he believes it is the mission of the U.S. military to enforce “rule-sets”, acting preemptively and with lethal force where necessary to remove regimes which block connectivity of their people with the emerging global system, and a U.S.-led “System Administration” force to carry out the task of nation building when the bombs and boots of “Leviathan” (a term he uses repeatedly—think of it as a Hobbesian choice!) re-embark their transports for the next conflict. There is a rather bizarre chapter, “The Myths We Make”, in which he says that global chaos, dreams of an American empire, and the U.S. as world police are bogus argument-enders employed by “blowhards”, which is immediately followed by a chapter proposing a ten-point plan which includes such items as invading North Korea (2), fomenting revolution in (or invading) Iran (3), invading Colombia (4), putting an end to Wahabi indoctrination in Saudi Arabia (5), co-operating with the Chinese military (6), and expanding the United States by a dozen more states by 2050, including the existing states of Mexico (9). This isn't globocop? This isn't empire? And even if it's done with the best of intentions, how probable is it that such a Leviathan with a moral agenda and a “shock and awe” military without peer would not succumb to the imperative of imperium?

November 2004 Permalink

Bartlett, Bruce. Impostor. New York: Doubleday, 2006. ISBN 0-385-51827-7.
This book is a relentless, uncompromising, and principled attack on the administration of George W. Bush by an author whose conservative credentials are impeccable and whose knowledge of economics and public finance is authoritative; he was executive director of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress during the Reagan administration and later served in the Reagan White House and in the Treasury Department under the first president Bush. For the last ten years he was a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, which fired him in 2005 for writing this book.

Bartlett's primary interest is economics, and he focuses almost exclusively on the Bush administration's spending and tax policies here, with foreign policy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, social policy, civil liberties, and other contentious issues discussed only to the extent they affect the budget. The first chapter, titled “I Know Conservatives, and George W. Bush Is No Conservative” states the central thesis, which is documented by detailed analysis of the collapse of the policy-making process in Washington, the expensive and largely ineffective tax cuts, the ruinous Medicare prescription drug program (and the shameful way in which its known costs were covered up while the bill was rammed through Congress), the abandonment of free trade whenever there were votes to be bought, the explosion in regulation, and the pork-packed spending frenzy in the Republican controlled House and Senate which Bush has done nothing to restrain (he is the first president since John Quincy Adams to serve a full four year term and never veto a single piece of legislation). All of this is documented in almost 80 pages of notes and source references.

Bartlett is a “process” person as well as a policy wonk, and he diagnoses the roots of many of the problems as due to the Bush White House's resembling a third and fourth Nixon administration. There is the same desire for secrecy, the intense value placed on personal loyalty, the suppression of active debate in favour of a unified line, isolation from outside information and opinion, an attempt to run everything out of the White House, bypassing the policy shops and resources in the executive departments, and the paranoia induced by uniformly hostile press coverage and detestation by intellectual elites. Also Nixonesque is the free-spending attempt to buy the votes, at whatever the cost or long-term consequences, of members of groups who are unlikely in the extreme to reward Republicans for their largesse because they believe they'll always get a better deal from the Democrats.

The author concludes that the inevitable economic legacy of the Bush presidency will be large tax increases in the future, perhaps not on Bush's watch, but correctly identified as the consequences of his irresponsibility when they do come to pass. He argues that the adoption of a European-style value-added tax (VAT) is the “least bad” way to pay the bill when it comes due. The long-term damage done to conservatism and the Republican party are assessed, along with prospects for the post-Bush era.

While Bartlett was one of the first prominent conservatives to speak out against Bush, he is hardly alone today, with disgruntlement on the right seemingly restrained mostly due to lack of alternatives. And that raises a question on which this book is silent: if Bush has governed (at least in domestic economic policy) irresponsibly, incompetently, and at variance with conservative principles, what other potential candidate could have been elected instead who would have been the true heir of the Reagan legacy? Al Gore? John Kerry? John McCain? Steve Forbes? What plausible candidate in either party seems inclined and capable of turning things around instead of making them even worse? The irony, and a fundamental flaw of Empire seems to be that empires don't produce the kind of leaders which built them, or are required to avert their decline. It's fundamentally a matter of crunchiness and sogginess, and it's why empires don't last forever.

June 2006 Permalink

Bastiat, Frédéric. The Law. 2nd. ed. Translated by Dean Russell. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, [1850, 1950] 1998. ISBN 1-57246-073-3.
You may be able to obtain this book more rapidly directly from the publisher. The original French text, this English translation, and a Spanish translation are available online.

April 2002 Permalink

Bawer, Bruce. While Europe Slept. New York: Doubleday, 2006. ISBN 0-385-51472-7.
In 1997, the author visited the Netherlands for the first time and “thought I'd found the closest thing to heaven on earth”. Not long thereafter, he left his native New York for Europe, where he has lived ever since, most recently in Oslo, Norway. As an American in Europe, he has identified and pointed out many of the things which Europeans, whether out of politeness, deference to their ruling elites, or a “what-me-worry?” willingness to defer the apocalypse to their dwindling cohort of descendants, rarely speak of, at least in the public arena.

As the author sees it, Europe is going down, the victim of multiculturalism, disdain and guilt for their own Western civilisation, and “tolerance for [the] intolerance” of a fundamentalist Muslim immigrant population which, by its greater fertility, “fetching marriages”, and family reunification, may result in Muslim majorities in one or more European countries by mid-century.

This is a book which may open the eyes of U.S. readers who haven't spent much time in Europe to just how societally-suicidal many of the mainstream doctrines of Europe's ruling elites are, and how wide the gap is between this establishment (which is a genuine cultural phenomenon in Europe, encompassing academia, media, and the ruling class, far more so than in the U.S.) and the population, who are increasingly disenfranchised by the profoundly anti-democratic commissars of the odious European Union.

But this is, however, an unsatisfying book. The author, who has won several awards and been published in prestigious venues, seems more at home with essays than the long form. The book reads like a feature article from The New Yorker which grew to book length without revision or editorial input. The 237 page text is split into just three chapters, putatively chronologically arranged but, in fact, rambling all over the place, each mixing the author's anecdotal observations with stories from secondary sources, none of which are cited, neither in foot- or end-notes, nor in a bibliography.

If you're interested in these issues (and in the survival of Western civilisation and Enlightenment values), you'll get a better picture of the situation in Europe from Claire Berlinski's Menace in Europe (July 2006). As a narrative of the experience of a contemporary American in Europe, or as an assessment of the cultural gap between Western (and particularly Northern) Europe and the U.S., this book may be useful for those who haven't experienced these cultures for themselves, but readers should not over-generalise the author's largely anecdotal reporting in a limited number of countries to Europe as a whole.

June 2007 Permalink

Beck, Glenn and Harriet Parke. Agenda 21. New York: Threshold Editions, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4767-1669-5.
In 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (“Earth Summit”) in Rio de Janeiro, an action plan for “sustainable development” titled “Agenda 21” was adopted. It has since been endorsed by the governments of 178 countries, including the United States, where it was signed by president George H. W. Bush (not being a formal treaty, it was not submitted to the Senate for ratification). An organisation called Local Governments for Sustainability currently has more than 1200 member towns, cities, and counties in 70 countries, including more than 500 in the United States signed on to the program. Whenever you hear a politician talking about environmental “sustainability” or the “precautionary principle”, it's a good bet the ideas they're promoting can be traced back to Agenda 21 or its progenitors.

When you read the U.N. Agenda 21 document (which I highly encourage you to do—it is very likely your own national government has endorsed it), it comes across as the usual gassy international bureaucratese you expect from a U.N. commission, but if you read between the lines and project the goals and mechanisms advocated to their logical conclusions, the implications are very great indeed. What is envisioned is nothing less than the extinction of the developed world and the roll-back of the entire project of the enlightenment. While speaking of the lofty goal of lifting the standard of living of developing nations to that of the developed world in a manner that does not damage the environment, it is an inevitable consequence of the report's assumption of finite resources and an environment already stressed beyond the point of sustainability that the inevitable outcome of achieving “equity” will be a global levelling of the standard of living to one well below the present-day mean, necessitating a catastrophic decrease in the quality of life in developed nations, which will almost certainly eliminate their ability to invest in the research and technological development which have been the engine of human advancement since the Renaissance. The implications of this are so dire that somebody ought to write a dystopian novel about the ultimate consequences of heading down this road.

Somebody has. Glenn Beck and Harriet Parke (it's pretty clear from the acknowledgements that Parke is the principal author, while Beck contributed the afterword and lent his high-profile name to the project) have written a dark and claustrophobic view of what awaits at the end of The Road to Serfdom (May 2002). Here, as opposed to an incremental shift over decades, the United States experiences a cataclysmic socio-economic collapse which is exploited to supplant it with the Republic, ruled by the Central Authority, in which all Citizens are equal. The goals of Agenda 21 have been achieved by depopulating much of the land, letting it return to nature, packing the humans who survived the crises and conflict as the Republic consolidated its power into identical densely-packed Living Spaces, where they live their lives according to the will of the Authority and its Enforcers. Citizens are divided into castes by job category; reproductive age Citizens are “paired” by the Republic, and babies are taken from mothers at birth to be raised in Children's Villages, where they are indoctrinated to serve the Republic. Unsustainable energy sources are replaced by humans who have to do their quota of walking on “energy board” treadmills or riding “energy bicycles” everywhere, and public transportation consists of bus boxes, pulled by teams of six strong men.

Emmeline has grown up in this grim and grey world which, to her, is way things are, have always been, and always will be. Just old enough at the establishment of Republic to escape the Children's Village, she is among the final cohort of Citizens to have been raised by their parents, who told her very little of the before-time; speaking of that could imperil both parents and child. After she loses both parents (people vanishing, being “killed in industrial accidents”, or led away by Enforcers never to be seen again is common in the Republic), she discovers a legacy from her mother which provides a tenuous link to the before-time. Slowly and painfully she begins to piece together the history of the society in which she lives and what life was like before it descended to crush the human spirit. And then she must decide what to do about it.

I am sure many reviewers will dismiss this novel as a cartoon-like portrayal of ideas taken to an absurd extreme. But much the same could have been said of We, Anthem, or 1984. But the thing about dystopian novels based upon trends already in place is that they have a disturbing tendency to get things right. As I observed in my review of Atlas Shrugged (April 2010), when I first read it in 1968, it seemed to evoke a dismal future entirely different from what I expected. When I read it the third time in 2010, my estimation was that real-world events had taken us about 500 pages into the 1168 page tome. I'd probably up that number today. What is particularly disturbing about the scenario in this novel, as opposed to the works cited above, is that it describes what may be a very strong attractor for human society once rejection of progress becomes the doctrine and the population stratifies into a small ruling class and subjects entirely dependent upon the state. After all, that's how things have more or less been over most of human history and around the globe, and the brief flash of liberty, innovation, and prosperity we assume to be the normal state of affairs may simply be an ephemeral consequence of the opening of a frontier which, now having closed, concludes that aberrant chapter of history, soon to be expunged and forgotten.

This is a book which begs for one or more sequels. While the story is satisfying by itself, you put it down wondering what happens next, and what is going on outside the confines of the human hive its characters inhabit. Who are the members of the Central Authority? How do they live? How do they groom their successors? What is happening on other continents? Is there any hope the torch of liberty might be reignited?

While doubtless many will take fierce exception to the entire premise of the story, I found only one factual error. In chapter 14 Emmeline discovers a photograph which provides a link to the before-time. On it is the word “KODACHROME”. But Kodachrome was a colour slide (reversal) film, not a colour print film. Even if the print that Emmeline found had been made from a Kodachrome slide, the print wouldn't say “KODACHROME”. I did not spot a single typographical error, and if you're a regular reader of this chronicle, you'll know how rare that is. In the Kindle edition, links to documents and resources cited in the factual afterword are live and will take you directly to the cited page.

November 2012 Permalink

Beck, Glenn and Harriet Parke. Agenda 21: Into the Shadows. New York: Threshold Editions, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4767-4682-1.
When I read the authors' first Agenda 21 (November 2012) novel, I thought it was a superb dystopian view of the living hell into which anti-human environmental elites wish to consign the vast majority of the human race who are to be their serfs. I wrote at the time “This is a book which begs for one or more sequels.” Well, here is the first sequel and it is…disappointing. It's not terrible, by any means, but it does not come up to the high standard set by the first book. Perhaps it suffers from the blahs which often afflict the second volume of a trilogy.

First of all, if you haven't read the original Agenda 21 you will have absolutely no idea who the characters are, how they found themselves in the situation they're in at the start of the story, and the nature of the tyranny they're trying to escape. I describe some of this in my review of the original book, along with the factual basis of the real United Nations plan upon which the story is based.

As the novel begins, Emmeline, who we met in the previous book, learns that her infant daughter Elsa, with whom she has managed to remain in tenuous contact by working at the Children's Village, where the young are reared by the state apart from their parents, along with other children are to be removed to another facility, breaking this precious human bond. She and her state-assigned partner David rescue Elsa and, joined by a young boy, Micah, escape through a hole in the fence surrounding the compound to the Human Free Zone, the wilderness outside the compounds into which humans have been relocated. In the chaos after the escape, John and Joan, David's parents, decide to also escape, with the intention of leaving a false trail to lead the inevitable pursuers away from the young escapees.

Indeed, before long, a team of Earth Protection Agents led by Steven, the kind of authoritarian control freak thug who inevitably rises to the top in such organisations, is dispatched to capture the escapees and return them to the compound for punishment (probably “recycling” for the adults) and to serve as an example for other “citizens”. The team includes Julia, a rookie among the first women assigned to Earth Protection.

The story cuts back and forth among the groups in the Human Free Zone. Emmeline's band meets two people who have lived in a cave ever since escaping the initial relocation of humans to the compounds. They learn the history of the implementation of Agenda 21 and the rudiments of survival outside the tyranny. As the groups encounter one another, the struggle between normal human nature and the cruel and stunted world of the slavers comes into focus.

Harriet Parke is the principal author of the novel. Glenn Beck acknowledges this in the afterword he contributed which describes the real-world U.N. Agenda 21. Obviously, by lending his name to the project, he increases its visibility and readership, which is all for the good. Let's hope the next book in the series returns to the high standard set by the first.

April 2015 Permalink

Berlinski, Claire. Menace in Europe. New York: Crown Forum, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-9768-1.
This is a scary book. The author, who writes with a broad and deep comprehension of European history and its cultural roots, and a vocabulary which reminds one of William F. Buckley, argues that the deep divide which has emerged between the United States and Europe since the end of the cold war, and particularly in the last few years, is not a matter of misunderstanding, lack of sensitivity on the part of the U.S., or the personnel, policies, and style of the Bush administration, but deeply rooted in structural problems in Europe which are getting worse, not better. (That's not to say that there aren't dire problems in the U.S. as well, but that isn't the topic here.)

Surveying the contemporary scene in the Netherlands, Britain, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, and tracing the roots of nationalism, peasant revolts (of which “anti-globalisation” is the current manifestation), and anti-Semitism back through the centuries, she shows that what is happening in Europe today is simply Europe—the continent of too many kings and too many wars—being Europe, adapted to present-day circumstances. The impression you're left with is that Europe isn't just the “sick man of the world”, but rather a continent afflicted with half a dozen or more separate diseases, all terminal: a large, un-assimilated immigrant population concentrated in ghettos; an unsustainable welfare state; a sclerotic economy weighed down by social charges, high taxes, and ubiquitous and counterproductive regulation; a collapsing birth rate and aging population; a “culture crash” (my term), where the religions and ideologies which have structured the lives of Europeans for millennia have evaporated, leaving nothing in their place; a near-total disconnect between elites and the general population on the disastrous project of European integration, most recently manifested in the controversy over the so-called European constitution; and signs that the rabid nationalism which plunged Europe into two disastrous wars in the last century and dozens, if not hundreds of wars in the centuries before, is seeping back up through the cracks in the foundation of the dystopian, ill-conceived European Union.

In some regards, the author does seem to overstate the case, or generalise from evidence so narrow it lacks persuasiveness. The most egregious example is chapter 8, which infers an emerging nihilist neo-Nazi nationalism in Germany almost entirely based on the popularity of the band Rammstein. Well, yes, but whatever the lyrics, the message of the music, and the subliminal message of the music videos, there is a lot more going on in Germany, a nation of more than 80 million people, than the antics of a single heavy metal band, however atavistic.

U.S. readers inclined to gloat over the woes of the old continent should keep in mind the author's observation, a conclusion I had come to long before I ever opened this book, that the U.S. is heading directly for the same confluence of catastrophes as Europe, and, absent a fundamental change of course, will simply arrive at the scene of the accident somewhat later; and that's only taking into account the problems they have in common; the European economy, unlike the American, is able to function without borrowing on the order of two billion dollars a day from China and Japan.

If you live in Europe, as I have for the last fifteen years (thankfully outside, although now encircled by, the would-be empire that sprouted from Brussels), you'll probably find little here that's new, but you may get a better sense of how the problems interact with one another to make a real crisis somewhere in the future a genuine possibility. The target audience in the U.S., which is so often lectured by their elite that Europe is so much more sophisticated, nuanced, socially and environmentally aware, and rational, may find this book an eye opener; 344,955 American soldiers perished in European wars in the last century, and while it may be satisfying to say, “To Hell with Europe!”, the lesson of history is that saying so is most unwise.

An Instapundit podcast interview with the author is freely available on-line.

July 2006 Permalink

Berman, Morris. The Twilight of American Culture. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. ISBN 0-393-32169-X.

April 2003 Permalink

Bovard, James. Feeling Your Pain. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. ISBN 0-312-23082-6.

May 2001 Permalink

Bovard, James. The Bush Betrayal. New York: Macmillan, 2004. ISBN 1-4039-6727-X.
Having dissected the depredations of Clinton and Socialist Party A against the liberty of U.S. citizens in Feeling Your Pain (May 2001), Bovard now turns his crypto-libertarian gaze toward the ravages committed by Bush and Socialist Party B in the last four years. Once again, Bovard demonstrates his extraordinary talent in penetrating the fog of government propaganda to see the crystalline absurdity lurking within. On page 88 we discover that under the rules adopted by Colorado pursuant to the “No Child Left Behind Act”, a school with 1000 students which had a mere 179 or fewer homicides per year would not be classified as “persistently dangerous”, permitting parents of the survivors to transfer their children to less target-rich institutions.

On page 187, we encounter this head-scratching poser asked of those who wished to become screeners for the “Transportation Security Administration”:

Question: Why is it important to screen bags for IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices]?
  1. The IED batteries could leak and damage other passenger bags.
  2. The wires in the IED could cause a short to the aircraft wires.
  3. IEDs can cause loss of lives, property, and aircraft.
  4. The ticking timer could worry other passengers.
I wish I were making this up. The inspector general of the “Homeland Security Department” declined to say how many of the “screeners” who intimidate citizens, feel up women, and confiscate fingernail clippers and putatively dangerous and easily-pocketed jewelry managed to answer this one correctly.

I call Bovard a “crypto-libertarian” because he clearly bases his analysis on libertarian principles, yet rarely observes that any polity with unconstrained government power and sedated sheeple for citizens will end badly, regardless of who wins the elections. As with his earlier books, sources for this work are exhaustively documented in 41 pages of endnotes.

December 2004 Permalink

Breitbart, Andrew. Righteous Indignation. New York: Grand Central, 2011. ISBN 978-0-446-57282-8.
Andrew Breitbart has quickly established himself as the quintessential happy warrior in the struggle for individual liberty. His breitbart.com and breitbart.tv sites have become “go to” resources for news and video content, and his ever-expanding constellation of “Big” sites (Big Hollywood, Big Government, Big Journalism, etc.) have set the standard for group blogs which break news rather than just link to or comment upon content filtered through the legacy media.

In this book, he describes his personal journey from growing up in “the belly of the beast”—the Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood, his party days at college, and rocky start in the real world, then discovering while watching the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings on television, that much of the conventional “wisdom” he had uncritically imbibed from the milieu in which he grew up, his education, and the media just didn't make any sense or fit with his innate conception of right and wrong. This caused him to embark upon an intellectual journey which is described here, and a new career in the centre of the New Media cyclone, helping to create the Huffington Post, editing the Drudge Report, and then founding his own media empire and breaking stories which would never have seen the light of day in the age of the legacy media monopoly, including the sting which brought down ACORN.

Although he often comes across as grumpy and somewhat hyper in media appearances, I believe Breitbart well deserves the title “happy warrior” because he clearly loves every moment of what he's doing—striding into the lion's den, exploding the lies and hypocrisy of his opponents with their own words and incontrovertible audio and video evidence, and prosecuting the culture war, however daunting the odds, with the ferocity of Churchill's Britain in 1940. He seems to relish being a lightning rod—on his Twitter feed, he “re-tweets” all of the hate messages he receives.

This book is substantially more thoughtful than I expected; I went in thinking I'd be reading the adventures of a gadfly-provocateur, and while there's certainly some of that, there is genuine depth here which may be enlightening to many readers. While I can't assume agreement with someone whom I've never met, I came away thinking that Breitbart's view of his opponents is similar to the one I have arrived at independently, as described in Enemies. Breitbart describes a “complex” consisting of the legacy media, the Democrat party, labour unions (particularly those of public employees), academia and the education establishment, and organs of the regulatory state which reinforce one another, ruthlessly suppress opposition, and advance an agenda which is inimical to liberty and the rule of law. I highly recommend this book; it far exceeded my expectations and caused me to think more deeply about several things which were previously ill-formed in my mind. I'll discuss them below, but note that these are my own thoughts and should not be attributed to this book.

While reading Breitbart's book, I became aware that the seemingly eternal conflict in human societies is between slavers: people who see others as a collective to be used to “greater ends” (which are usually startlingly congruent with the slavers' own self-interest), and individuals who simply want to be left alone to enjoy their lives, keep the fruits of their labour, not suffer from aggression, and be free to pursue their lives as they wish as long as they do not aggress against others. I've re-purposed Larry Niven's term “slavers” from the known space universe to encompass all of the movements over the tawdry millennia of human history and pre-history which have seen people as the means to an end instead of sovereign beings, whether they called themselves dictators, emperors, kings, Jacobins, socialists, progressives, communists, fascists, Nazis, “liberals”, Islamists, or whatever deceptive term they invent tomorrow after the most recent one has been discredited by its predictably sorry results. Looking at all of these manifestations of the enemy as slavers solves a number of puzzles which might otherwise seem contradictory. For example, why did the American left so seamlessly shift its allegiance from communist dictators to Islamist theocrats who, looked at dispassionately, agree on almost nothing? Because they do agree on one key point: they are slavers, and that resonates with wannabe slavers in a society living the twilight of liberty.

Breitbart discusses the asymmetry of the tactics of the slavers and partisans of individual liberty at some length. He argues that the slavers consistently use the amoral Alinsky playbook while their opponents restrict themselves to a more constrained set of tactics grounded in their own morality. In chapter 7, he presents his own “Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Revolutionaries” which attempts to navigate this difficult strait. My own view, expressed more crudely, is that “If you're in a fair fight, your tactics suck”.

One of the key tactics of the slavers is deploying the mob into the streets. As documented by Ann Coulter in Demonic, the mob has been an integral part of the slaver arsenal since antiquity, and since the French revolution its use has been consistent by the opponents of liberty. In the United States and, to a lesser extent, in other countries, we are presently seeing the emergence of the “Occupy” movement, which is an archetypal mob composed of mostly clueless cannon fodder manipulated by slavers to their own ends. Many dismiss this latest manifestation of the mob based upon the self-evident vapidity of its members; I believe this to be a mistake. Most mobs in history were populated by people much the same—what you need to look at is the élite vanguard who is directing them and the greater agenda they are advancing. I look at the present manifestation of the mob in the U.S. like the release of a software product. The present “Occupy” protests are the “alpha test”: verifying the concept, communication channels, messaging in the legacy media, and transmission of the agenda from those at the top to the foot soldiers. The “beta test” phase will be August 2012 at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. There we shall see a mob raised nationwide and transported into that community to disrupt the nomination process (although, if it goes the way I envision infra, this may be attenuated and be smaller and more spontaneous). The “production release” will be in the two weeks running up the general election on November 6th, 2012—that is when the mob will be unleashed nationwide to intimidate voters, attack campaign headquarters, deface advertising messages, and try to tilt the results. Mob actions will not be reported in the legacy media, which will be concentrating on other things.

One key take-away from this book for me is just how predictable the actions of the Left are—they are a large coalition of groups of people most of whom (at the bottom) are ill-informed and incapable of critical thinking, and so it takes a while to devise, distribute, and deploy the kinds of simple-minded slogans they're inclined to chant. This, Breitbart argues, makes them vulnerable to agile opponents able to act within their OODA loop, exploiting quick reaction time against a larger but more lethargic opponent.

The next U.S. presidential election is scheduled for November 6th, 2012, a little less than one spin around the Sun from today. Let me go out on a limb and predict precisely what the legacy media will be talking about as the final days before the election click off. The Republican contender for the presidency will be Mitt Romney, who will have received, in the entire nomination process, a free pass from legacy media precisely as McCain did in 2008, while taking down each “non-Romney” in turn on whatever vulnerability they can find or, failing that, invent. People seem to be increasingly resigned to the inevitability of Romney as the nominee, and on the Intrade prediction market as I write this, the probability of his nomination is trading at 67.1% with Perry in second place at 8.8%.

Within a week of Romney's nomination, the legacy media will, in unison as if led by an invisible hand, pivot to the whole “Mormon thing”, and between August and November 2012, the electorate will be educated through every medium and incessantly until, to those vulnerable to such saturation and without other sources of information, issues such as structural unemployment, confiscatory taxation, runaway regulation, unsustainable debt service and entitlement obligations, monetary collapse, and external threats will be entirely displaced by discussions of golden plates, seer stones, temple garments, the Book of Abraham, Kolob, human exaltation, the plurality of gods, and other aspects of Romney's religion of record, which will be presented so as to cause him to be perceived as a member of a cult far outside the mainstream and unacceptable to the Christian majority of the nation and particularly the evangelical component of the Republican base (who will never vote for Obama, but might be encouraged to stay home rather than vote for Romney).

In writing this, I do not intend in any way to impugn Romney's credentials as a candidate and prospective president (he would certainly be a tremendous improvement over the present occupant of that office, and were I a member of the U.S. electorate, I'd be happy affixing a “Romney: He'll Do” bumper sticker to my Bradley Fighting Vehicle), nor do I wish to offend any of my LDS friends. It's just that if, as appears likely at the moment, Romney becomes the Republican nominee, I believe we're in for one of the ugliest religious character assassination campaigns ever seen in the history of the Republic. Unlike the 1960 campaign (which I am old enough to recall), where the anti-Catholic animus against Kennedy was mostly beneath the surface and confined to the fringes, this time I expect the anti-Mormon slander to be everywhere in the legacy media, couched, of course, as “dispassionate historical reporting”.

This will, of course, be shameful, but the slavers are shameless. Should Romney be the nominee, I'm simply saying that those who see him as the best alternative to avert the cataclysm of a second Obama term be fully prepared for what is coming in the general election campaign.

Should these ugly predictions play out as I envision, those who cherish freedom should be thankful Andrew Breitbart is on our side.

November 2011 Permalink

Brimelow, Peter. Alien Nation. New York: HarperPerennial, 1996. ISBN 0-06-097691-8.

September 2002 Permalink

Brin, David. The Transparent Society. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1998. ISBN 0-7382-0144-8.
Having since spent some time pondering The Digital Imprimatur, I find the alternative Brin presents here rather more difficult to dismiss out of hand than when I first encountered it.

October 2003 Permalink

Brink, Anthony. Debating AZT: Mbeki and the AIDS Drug Controversy. Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: Open Books, 2000. ISBN 0-620-26177-3.
I bought this volume in a bookshop in South Africa; none of the principal on-line booksellers have ever heard of it. The complete book is now available on the Web.

July 2002 Permalink

Buchanan, Patrick J. The Death of the West. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2002. ISBN 0-312-28548-5.

January 2002 Permalink

Buchanan, Patrick J. Day of Reckoning. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007. ISBN 978-0-312-37696-3.
In the late 1980s, I decided to get out of the United States. Why? Because it seemed to me that for a multitude of reasons, many of which I had experienced directly as the founder of a job-creating company, resident of a state whose border the national government declined to defend, and investor who saw the macroeconomic realities piling up into an inevitable disaster, that the U.S. was going down, and I preferred to spend the remainder of my life somewhere which wasn't.

In 1992, the year I moved to Switzerland, Pat Buchanan mounted an insurgent challenge to George H. W. Bush for the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency, gaining more than three million primary votes. His platform featured protectionism, immigration restriction, and rolling back the cultural revolution mounted by judicial activism. I opposed most of his agenda. He lost.

This book can be seen as a retrospective on the 15 years since, and is particularly poignant to me, as it's a reality check on whether I was wise in getting out when I did. Bottom line: I've no regrets whatsoever, and I'd counsel any productive individual in the U.S. to get out as soon as possible, even though it's harder than when I made my exit.

Is the best of the free life behind us now?
Are the good times really over for good?

Merle Haggard

Well, that's the way to bet. As usual, economics trumps just about everything. Just how plausible is it that a global hegemon can continue to exert its dominance when its economy is utterly dependent upon its ability to borrow two billion dollars a day from its principal rivals: China and Japan, and from these hired funds, it pumps more than three hundred billion dollars a year into the coffers of its enemies: Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran, and others to fund its addiction to petroleum?

The last chapter presents a set of policy prescriptions to reverse the imminent disasters facing the U.S. Even if these policies could be sold to an electorate in which two generations have been brainwashed by collectivist nostrums, it still seems like “too little, too late”—once you've shipped your manufacturing industries offshore and become dependent upon immigrants for knowledge workers, how precisely do you get back to first world status? Beats me.

Some will claim I am, along with the author, piling on recent headlines. I'd counsel taking a longer-term view, as I did when I decided to get out of the U.S. If you're into numbers, note the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar versus the Euro, and the price of gold and oil in U.S. dollars today, then compare them to the quotes five years hence. If the dollar has appreciated, then I'm wrong; if it's continuing its long-term slide into banana republic status, then maybe this rant wasn't as intemperate as you might have initially deemed it.

His detractors call Pat Buchanan a “paleoconservative”, but how many “progressives” publish manuscripts written in the future? The acknowledgements (p. 266) is dated October 2008, ten months after I read it, but then I'm cool with that.

January 2008 Permalink

Buckley, Christopher. Boomsday. New York: Twelve, 2007. ISBN 0-446-57981-5.
Cassandra Devine is twenty-nine, an Army veteran who served in Bosnia, a PR genius specialising in damage control for corporate malefactors, a high-profile blogger in her spare time, and hopping mad. What's got her Irish up (and she's Irish on both sides of the family) is the imminent retirement of the baby boom generation—boomsday—when seventy-seven million members of the most self-indulgent and -absorbed generation in history will depart the labour pool and begin to laze away their remaining decades in their gated, golf-course retirement communities, sending the extravagant bills to their children and grandchildren, each two of whom can expect to support one retired boomer, adding up to an increase in total taxes on the young between 30% and 50%.

One night, while furiously blogging, it came to her. A modest proposal which would, at once, render Social Security and Medicare solvent without any tax increases, provide free medical care and prescription drugs to the retired, permit the elderly to pass on their estates to their heirs tax-free, and reduce the burden of care for the elderly on the economy. There is a catch, of course, but the scheme polls like pure electoral gold among the 18–30 “whatever generation”.

Before long, Cassandra finds herself in the middle of a presidential campaign where the incumbent's slogan is “He's doing his best. Really.” and the challenger's is “No Worse Than The Others”, with her ruthless entrepreneur father, a Vatican diplomat, a southern media preacher, Russian hookers, a nursing home serial killer, the North Koreans, and what's left of the legacy media sucked into the vortex. Buckley is a master of the modern political farce, and this is a thoroughly delightful read which makes you wonder just how the under-thirties will react when the bills run up by the boomers start to come due.

May 2007 Permalink

Buckley, Christopher. Thank You for Smoking. New York: Random House, 1994. ISBN 0-8129-7652-5.
Nick Naylor lies for a living. As chief public “smokesman” for the Big Tobacco lobby in Washington, it's his job to fuzz the facts, deflect the arguments, and subvert the sanctimonious neo-prohibitionists, all with a smile. As in Buckley's other political farces, it seems to be an axiom that no matter how far down you are on the moral ladder in Washington D.C., there are always an infinite number of rungs below you, all occupied, mostly by lawyers. Nick's idea of how to sidestep government advertising bans and make cigarettes cool again raises his profile to such an extent that some of those on the rungs below him start grasping for him with their claws, tentacles, and end-effectors, with humourous and delightfully ironic (at least if you aren't Nick) consequences, and then when things have gotten just about as bad as they can get, the FBI jumps in to demonstrate that things are never as bad as they can get.

About a third of the way through reading this book, I happened to see the 2005 movie made from it on the illuminatus. I've never done this before—watch a movie based on a book I was currently reading. The movie was enjoyable and very funny, and seeing it didn't diminish my enjoyment of the book one whit; this is a wickedly hilarious book which contains dozens of laugh out loud episodes and subplots that didn't make it into the movie.

October 2007 Permalink

Buckley, Christopher. No Way to Treat a First Lady. New York: Random House, 2002. ISBN 978-0-375-75875-1.
First Lady Beth MacMann knew she was in for a really bad day when she awakened to find her philandering war hero presidential husband dead in bed beside her, with the hallmark of the Paul Revere silver spittoon she'd hurled at him the night before as he'd returned from an assignation in the Lincoln Bedroom “etched, etched” upon his forehead. Before long, Beth finds herself charged with assassinating the President of the United States, and before the spectacle a breathless media are pitching as the “Trial of the Millennium” even begins, nearly convicted in the court of public opinion, with the tabloids referring to her as “Lady Bethmac”.

Enter superstar trial lawyer and fiancé Beth dumped in law school Boyce “Shameless” Baylor who, without the benefit of a courtroom dream team, mounts a defence involving “a conspiracy so vast…” that the world sits on the edge of its seats to see what will happen next. What happens next, and then, and later, and still later is side-splittingly funny even by Buckley's high standards, perhaps the most hilarious yarn ever spun around a capital murder trial. As in many of Buckley's novels, everything works out for the best (except, perhaps, for the deceased commander in chief, but he's not talking), and yet none of the characters is admirable in any way—welcome to Washington D.C.! Barbs at legacy media figures and celebrities abound, and Dan Rather's inane folksiness comes in for delicious parody on the eve of the ignominious end of his career. This is satire at its most wicked, one of the funniest of Buckley's novels I've read (Florence of Arabia [March 2006] is comparable, but a very different kind of story). This may be the last Washington farce of the “holiday from history” epoch—the author completed the acknowledgements page on September 9th, 2001.

January 2008 Permalink

Buckley, Christopher. Supreme Courtship. New York: Twelve, 2008. ISBN 978-0-446-57982-7.
You know you're about to be treated to the highest level of political farce by a master of the genre when you open a book which begins with the sentence:
Supreme Court Associate Justice J. Mortimer Brinnin's deteriorating mental condition had been the subject of talk for some months now, but when he showed up for oral argument with his ears wrapped in aluminum foil, the consensus was that the time had finally come for him to retire.
The departure of Mr. Justice Brinnin created a vacancy which embattled President Donald Vanderdamp attempted to fill with two distinguished jurists boasting meagre paper trails, both of whom were humiliatingly annihilated in hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, loquacious loose cannon and serial presidential candidate Dexter Mitchell, coveted the seat for himself.

After rejection of his latest nominee, the frustrated president was channel surfing at Camp David when he came across the wildly popular television show Courtroom Six featuring television (and former Los Angeles Superior Court) judge Pepper Cartwright dispensing down-home justice with her signature Texas twang and dialect. Let detested Senator Mitchell take on that kind of popularity, thought the Chief Executive, chortling at the prospect, and before long Judge Pepper is rolled out as the next nominee, and prepares for the confirmation fight.

I kind of expected this story to be about how an authentic straight-talking human being confronts the “Borking” judicial nominees routinely receive in today's Senate, but it's much more and goes way beyond that, which I shall refrain from discussing to avoid spoilers. I found the latter half of the book less satisfying that the first—it seemed like once on the court Pepper lost some of her spice, but I suppose that's realistic (yet who expects realism in farces?). Still, this is a funny book, with hundreds of laugh out loud well-turned phrases and Buckley's customary delightfully named characters. The fractured Latin and snarky footnotes are an extra treat. This is not a roman à clef, but you will recognise a number of Washington figures upon which various characters were modelled.

November 2008 Permalink

Buckley, Reid. USA Today: The Stunning Incoherence of American Civilization. Camden, SC: P.E.N. Press, 2002. ISBN 0-972-1000-0-8.

The author, brother of William F. Buckley, is founder of a school of public speaking and author of several books on public speaking and two novels. Here, however, we have Buckley's impassioned, idiosyncratic, and (as far as I can tell) self-published rant against the iniquities of contemporary U.S. morals, politics, and culture. Bottom line: he doesn't like it—the last two sentences are “The supine and swinish American public is the reason why our society has become so vile. We are vile.” This book would have been well served had the author enlisted brother Bill or his editor to red-pencil the manuscript. How the humble apostrophe causes self-published authors to stumble! On page 342 we trip over the “biography of John Quincy Adam's” among numerous other exemplars of proletarian mispunctuation. On page 395, Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box has his name given as “Rehe” (and in the index too). On page 143, he misquotes Alan Guth's Inflationary Universe as saying the grand unification energy is “1016 GeV”, thereby getting it wrong by thirteen orders of magnitude compared to the 1016 GeV a sharp-eyed proofreader would have caught. All of this, and Buckley's meandering off into anecdotes of his beloved hometown of Camden, South Carolina and philosophical disquisitions distract from the central question posed in the book which is both profound and disturbing: can a self-governing republic survive without a consensus moral code shared by a large majority of its citizens? This is a question stalwarts of Western civilisation need to be asking themselves in this non-judgemental, multi-cultural age, and I wish Buckley had posed it more clearly in this book, which despite the title, has nothing whatsoever to do with that regrettable yet prefixally-eponymous McNewspaper.

January 2004 Permalink

Buckley, William F. The Redhunter. Boston: Little, Brown, 1999. ISBN 0-316-11589-4.
It's not often one spots an anachronism in one of WFB's historical novels. On page 330, two characters imitate “NBC superstar nightly newsers Chet Huntley and David Brinkley” in a scene set in late 1953. Huntley and Brinkley did not, in fact, begin their storied NBC broadcasts until October 29th, 1956.

April 2003 Permalink

Buckley, William F. Getting It Right. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0-89526-138-3.

May 2003 Permalink

Burkett, B.G. and Glenna Whitley. Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History. Dallas: Verity Press, 1998. ISBN 1-56530-284-2.

September 2001 Permalink

Caplan, Bryan. The Myth of the Rational Voter. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-691-13873-2.
Every survey of the electorate in Western democracies shows it to be woefully uninformed: few can name their elected representatives or identify their party affiliation, nor answer the most basic questions about the political system under which they live. Economists and political scientists attribute this to “rational ignorance”: since there is a vanishingly small probability that the vote of a single person will be decisive, it is rational for that individual to ignore the complexities of the issues and candidates and embrace the cluelessness which these polls make manifest.

But, the experts contend, there's no problem—even if a large majority of the electorate is ignorant knuckle-walkers, it doesn't matter because they'll essentially vote at random. Their uninformed choices will cancel out, and the small informed minority will be decisive. Hence the “miracle of aggregation”: stir in millions of ignoramuses and thousands of political junkies and diligent citizens and out pops true wisdom.

Or maybe not—this book looks beyond the miracle of aggregation, which assumes that the errors of the uninformed are random, to examine whether there are systematic errors (or biases) among the general population which cause democracies to choose policies which are ultimately detrimental to the well-being of the electorate. The author identifies four specific biases in the field of economics, and documents, by a detailed analysis of the Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy , that while economists, reputed to always disagree amongst themselves, are in fact, on issues which Thomas Sowell terms Basic Economics (September 2008), almost unanimous in their opinions, yet widely at variance from the views of the general public and the representatives they elect.

Many economists assume that the electorate votes what economists call its “rational choice”, yet empirical data presented here shows that democratic electorates behave very differently. The key insight is that choice in an election is not a preference in a market, where the choice directly affects the purchaser, but rather an allocation in a commons, where the consequences of an individual vote have negligible results upon the voter who casts it. And we all know how commons inevitably end.

The individual voter in a large democratic polity bears a vanishingly small cost in voting their ideology or beliefs, even if they are ultimately damaging to their own well-being, because the probability their own single vote will decide the election is infinitesimal. As a result, the voter is liberated to vote based upon totally irrational beliefs, based upon biases shared by a large portion of the electorate, insulated by the thought, “At least my vote won't decide the election, and I can feel good for having cast it this way”.

You might think that voters would be restrained from indulging their feel-good inclinations by considering their self interest, but studies of voter behaviour and the preferences of subgroups of voters demonstrate that in most circumstances voters support policies and candidates they believe are best for the polity as a whole, not their narrow self interest. Now, this would be a good thing if their beliefs were correct, but at least in the field of economics, they aren't, as defined by the near-unanimous consensus of professional economists. This means that there is a large, consistent, systematic bias in policies preferred by the uninformed electorate, whose numbers dwarf the small fraction who comprehend the issues in contention. And since, once again, there is no cost to an individual voter in expressing his or her erroneous beliefs, the voter can be “rationally irrational”: the possibility of one vote being decisive vanishes next to the cost of becoming informed on the issues, so it is rational to unknowingly vote irrationally. The reason democracies so often pursue irrational policies such as protectionism is not unresponsive politicians or influence of special interests, but instead politicians giving the electorate what it votes for, which is regrettably ultimately detrimental to its own self-interest.

Although the discussion here is largely confined to economic issues, there is no reason to believe that this inherent failure of democratic governance is confined to that arena. Indeed, one need only peruse the daily news to see abundant evidence of democracies committing folly with the broad approbation of their citizenry. (Run off a cliff? Yes, we can!) The author contends that rational irrationality among the electorate is an argument for restricting the scope of government and devolving responsibilities it presently undertakes to market mechanisms. In doing so, the citizen becomes a consumer in a competitive market and now has an individual incentive to make an informed choice because the consequences of that choice will be felt directly by the person making it. Naturally, as you'd expect with an irrational electorate, things seem to have been going in precisely the opposite direction for much of the last century.

This is an excellently argued and exhaustively documented book (The ratio of pages of source citations and end notes to main text may be as great as anything I've read) which will make you look at democracy in a different way and begin to comprehend that in many cases where politicians do stupid things, they are simply carrying out the will of an irrational electorate. For a different perspective on the shortcomings of democracy, also with a primary focus on economics, see Hans-Hermann Hoppe's superb Democracy: The God that Failed (June 2002), which approaches the topic from a hard libertarian perspective.

June 2009 Permalink

Carlos [Ilich Ramírez Sánchez]. L'Islam révolutionnaire. Textes et propos recueillis, rassemblés et présentés par Jean-Michel Vernochet. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2003. ISBN 2-268-04433-5.
Prior to his capture in Sudan in 1994 and “exfiltration” to a prison in France by the French DST, Carlos (“the Jackal”), nom de guerre of Venezuelan-born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (a true red diaper baby, his brothers were named “Vladimir” and “Lenin”) was one of the most notorious and elusive terrorists of the latter part of the twentieth century. This is a collection of his writings and interviews from prison, mostly dating from the early months of 2003. I didn't plan it that way, but I found reading Carlos immediately after Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies (above) extremely enlightening, particularly in explaining the rather mysterious emerging informal alliance among Western leftists and intellectuals, the political wing of Islam, the remaining dribs and drabs of Marxism, and third world kleptocratic and theocratic dictators. Unlike some Western news media, Carlos doesn't shrink from the word “terrorism”, although he prefers to be referred to as a “militant revolutionary”, but this is in many ways a deeply conservative book. Carlos decries Western popular culture and its assault on traditional morality and family values in words which wouldn't seem out of place in a Heritage Foundation white paper. A convert to Islam in 1975, he admits he paid little attention to the duties and restrictions of his new religion until much later. He now believes that only Islam provides the framework to resist what he describes as U.S. totalitarian imperialism. Essentially, he's exchanged utopian Marxism for Islam as a comprehensive belief system. Now consider Popper: the essence of what he terms the open society, dating back to the Athens of Pericles, is the absence of any utopian vision, or plan, or theory of historical inevitability, religious or otherwise. Open societies have learned to distinguish physical laws (discovered through the scientific method) from social laws (or conventions), which are made by fallible humans and evolve as societies do. The sense of uncertainty and requirement for personal responsibility which come with an open society, replacing the certainties of tribal life and taboos which humans evolved with, induce what Popper calls the “strain of civilisation”, motivating utopian social engineers from Plato through Marx to attempt to create an ideal society, an endpoint of human social evolution, forever frozen in time. Look at Carlos; he finds the open-ended, make your own rules, everything's open to revision outlook of Western civilisation repellent. Communism having failed, he seizes upon Islam as a replacement. Now consider the motley anti-Western alliance I mentioned earlier. What unifies them is simply that they're anti-Western: Popper's enemies of the open society. All have a vision of a utopian society (albeit very different from one another), and all share a visceral disdain for Western civilisation, which doesn't need no steenkin' utopias but rather proceeds incrementally toward its goals, in a massively parallel trial and error fashion, precisely as the free market drives improvements in products and services.

December 2003 Permalink

Cashill, Jack. Deconstructing Obama. New York: Threshold Editions, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4516-1111-3.
Barack Obama's 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father (henceforth Dreams), proved instrumental in his rise from an obscure Chicago lawyer and activist to the national stage and eventually the presidency. Almost universally praised for its literary merit, it establishes Obama's “unique personal narrative” which is a key component of his attraction to his many supporters. Amidst the buzz of the 2008 presidential campaign, the author decided to buy a copy of Dreams as an “airplane book”, and during the flight and in the days that followed, was astonished by what he was reading. The book was not just good, it was absolutely superb—the kind of work editors dream of having land on their desk. In fact, it was so good that Cashill, a veteran author and editor who has reviewed the portfolios of hundreds of aspiring writers, found it hard to believe that a first time writer, however smart, could produce such a work on his own. In the writing craft, it is well known that almost all authors should plan to throw away their first million words or equivalently invest on the order of 10,000 hours mastering their craft before producing a publishable book-length work, no less a bestselling masterpiece like Dreams. There was no evidence for such an investment or of natural talent in any of Obama's earlier (and meagre) publications: they are filled with clichés, clumsy in phrasing, and rife with grammatical problems such as agreement of subject and verb.

Further, it was well documented that Obama had defaulted upon his first advance for the book, changed the topic, and then secured a second advance from a different publisher, then finally, after complaining of suffering from writer's block, delivering a manuscript in late 1994. At the time he was said to be writing Dreams, he had a full time job at a Chicago law firm, was teaching classes at the University of Chicago, and had an active social life. All of this caused Cashill to suspect Obama had help with the book. Now, it's by no means uncommon for books by politicians to be largely or entirely the work of ghostwriters, who may work entirely behind the scenes, leaving the attribution of authorship entirely to their employers. But when Dreams was written, Obama was not a politician, but rather a lawyer and law school instructor still burdened by student loans. It is unlikely he could have summoned the financial resources nor had the reputation to engage a ghostwriter sufficiently talented to produce Dreams. Further, if the work is not Obama's, then he is a liar, for, speaking to a group of teachers in June 2008, he said, “I've written two books. I actually wrote them myself.”

These observations set the author, who has previously undertaken literary and intellectual detective work, on the trail of the origin of Dreams. He discovers that, just at the time the miraculous manuscript appeared, Obama had begun to work with unrepentant Weather Underground domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, who had reinvented himself as an “education reformer” in Chicago. At the time, Obama's ambition was to become mayor of Chicago, an office which would allow him to steer city funds into the coffers of Ayers's organisations in repayment of his contribution to Obama's political ascendancy (not to mention the potential blackmail threat an unacknowledged ghostwriter has over a principal who claims sole authorship). In any case, Dreams not only matches contemporary works by Ayers on many metrics used to test authorship, it is rich in nautical metaphors, many expressed in the same words as in Ayers's own work. Ayers once worked as a merchant seaman; Obama's only experience at sea was bodysurfing in Hawaii.

Cashill examines Dreams in fine-grained detail, both bolstering the argument that Ayers was the principal wordsmith behind the text, and also documenting how the narrative in the book is at variance with the few well-documented facts we have about Obama's life and career. He then proceeds to speculate upon Obama's parentage, love life before he met Michelle, and other aspects of the canonical Obama story. As regards Ayers as the author of Dreams, I consider the case as not proved beyond a reasonable doubt (that would require one of the principals in the matter speaking out and producing believable documentation), but to me the case here meets the standard of preponderance of evidence. The more speculative claims are intriguing but, in my opinion, do not rise to that level.

What is beyond dispute is just how little is known about the current occupant of the Oval Office, how slim the paper trail is of his origin and career, and how little interest the legacy media have expressed in investigating these details. There are obvious and thoroughly documented discrepancies between what is known for sure about Obama and the accounts in his two memoirs, and the difference in literary style between the two is, in itself, cause to call their authorship into question. When the facts about Obama begin to come out—and they will, the only question is when—if only a fraction of what is alleged in this well-researched and -argued book is true, it will be the final undoing of any credibility still retained by the legacy media.

The Kindle edition is superbly produced, with the table of contents, notes, and index all properly linked to the text.

March 2011 Permalink

Cashill, Jack. TWA 800. Washington: Regnery History, 2016. ISBN 978-1-62157-471-2.
On the evening of July 17th, 1996, TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747 bound from New York to Paris, exploded 12 minutes after takeoff, its debris falling into the Atlantic Ocean. There were no survivors: all 230 passengers and crew died. The disaster happened in perfect weather, and there were hundreds of witnesses who observed from land, sea, and air. There was no distress call from the airliner before its transponder signal dropped out; whatever happened appeared to be near-instantaneous.

Passenger airliners are not known for spontaneously exploding en route: there was no precedent for such an occurrence in the entire history of modern air travel. Responsibility for investigating U.S. civil transportation accidents including air disasters falls to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who usually operates in conjunction with personnel from the aircraft and engine manufacturers, airline, and pilots' union. Barely was the investigation of TWA 800 underway, however, when the NTSB was removed as lead agency and replaced by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which usually takes the lead only when criminal activity has been determined to be the cause. It is very unusual for the FBI to take charge of an investigation while debris from the crash is still being recovered, no probable cause has been suggested,, and no terrorist or other organisation has claimed responsibility for the incident. Early FBI communications to news media essentially assumed the airliner had been downed by a bomb on-board or possibly a missile launched from the ground.

The investigation that followed was considered highly irregular by experienced NTSB personnel and industry figures who had participated in earlier investigations. The FBI kept physical evidence, transcripts of interviews with eyewitnesses, and other information away from NTSB investigators. All of this is chronicled in detail in First Strike, a 2003 book by the author and independent journalist James Sanders, who was prosecuted by the U.S. federal government for his attempt to have debris from the crash tested for evidence of residue from missile propellant and/or explosives.

The investigation concluded that Flight 800 was destroyed by an explosion in the centre fuel tank, due to a combination of mechanical and electrical failures which had happened only once before in the eighty year history of aviation and has never happened since. This ruled out terrorism or the action of a hostile state party, and did not perturb the Clinton administration's desire to project an image of peace and prosperity while heading into the re-election campaign. By the time the investigation report was issued, the crash was “old news”, and the testimony of the dozens of eyewitnesses who reported sightings consistent with a missile rising toward the aircraft was forgotten.

This book, published on the twentieth anniversary of the loss of TWA 800, is a retrospective on the investigation and report on subsequent events. In the intervening years, the author was able to identify a number of eyewitnesses identified only by number in the investigation report, and discuss the plausibility of the official report's findings with knowledgeable people in a variety of disciplines. He reviews some new evidence which has become available, and concludes the original investigation was just as slipshod and untrustworthy as it appeared to many at the time.

What happened to TWA 800? We will probably never know for sure. There were so many irregularities in the investigation, with evidence routinely made available in other inquiries withheld from the public, that it is impossible to mount an independent review at this remove. Of the theories advanced shortly after the disaster, the possibility of a terrorist attack involving a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile (MANPADS) can be excluded because missiles which might have been available to potential attackers are incapable of reaching the altitude at which the 747 was flying. A bomb smuggled on board in carry-on or checked luggage seems to have been ruled out by the absence of the kinds of damage to the recovered aircraft structure and interior as well as the bodies of victims which would be consistent with a high-energy detonation within the fuselage.

One theory advanced shortly after the disaster and still cited today is that the plane was brought down by an Iranian SA-2 surface to air missile. The SA-2 (NATO designation) or S-75 Dvina is a two stage antiaircraft missile developed by the Soviet Union and in service from 1957 to the present by a number of nations including Iran, which operates 300 launchers purchased from the Soviet Union/Russia and manufactures its own indigenous version of the missile. The SA-2 easily has the performance needed to bring down an airliner at TWA 800's altitude (it was an SA-2 which shot down a U-2 overflying the Soviet Union in 1960), and its two stage design, with a solid fuel booster and storable liquid fuel second stage and “swoop above, dive to attack” profile is a good match for eyewitness reports. Iran had a motive to attack a U.S. airliner: in July 1988, Iran Air 655, an Airbus A300, was accidentally shot down by a missile launched by the U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes, killing all 290 on board. The theory argued that the missile, which requires a large launcher and radar guidance installation, was launched from a ship beneath the airliner's flight path. Indeed, after the explosion, a ship was detected on radar departing the scene at a speed in excess of twenty-five knots. The ship has never been identified. Those with knowledge of the SA-2 missile system contend that adapting it for shipboard installation would be very difficult, and would require a large ship which would be unlikely to evade detection.

Another theory pursued and rejected by the investigation is that TWA 800 was downed by a live missile accidentally launched from a U.S. Navy ship, which was said to be conducting missile tests in the region. This is the author's favoured theory, for which he advances a variety of indirect evidence. To me this seems beyond implausible. Just how believable is it that a Navy which was sufficiently incompetent to fire a live missile from U.S. waters into airspace heavily used by civilian traffic would then be successful in covering up such a blunder, which would have been witnessed by dozens of crew members, for two decades?

In all, I found this book unsatisfying. There is follow up on individuals who appeared in First Strike, and some newly uncovered evidence, but nothing which, in my opinion, advances any of the theories beyond where they stood 13 years ago. If you're interested in the controversy surrounding TWA 800 and the unusual nature of the investigation that followed, I recommend reading the original book, which is available as a Kindle edition. The print edition is no longer available from the publisher, but used copies are readily available and inexpensive.

For the consensus account of TWA 800, here is an episode of “Air Crash Investigation” devoted to the disaster and investigation. The 2001 film Silenced, produced and written by the author, presents the testimony of eyewitnesses and parties to the investigation which calls into doubt the conclusions of the official report.

November 2016 Permalink

Cashill, Jack and James Sanders. First Strike. Nashville: WND Books, 2003. ISBN 978-0-7852-6354-8.
On July 17, 1996, just 12 minutes after takeoff, TWA Flight 800 from New York to Paris exploded in mid-air off the coast of Long Island and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. All 230 passengers and crew on board were killed. The disaster occurred on a summer evening in perfect weather, and was witnessed by hundreds of people from land, sea, and air—the FBI interviewed more than seven hundred eyewitnesses in the aftermath of the crash.

There was something “off” about the accident investigation from the very start. Many witnesses, including some highly credible people with military and/or aviation backgrounds, reported seeing a streak of light flying up and reaching the airliner, followed by a bright flash like that produced by a high-velocity explosive. Only later did a fireball from burning fuel appear and begin to fall to the ocean. In total disregard of the stautory requirements for an air accident investigation, which designate the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as the lead agency, the FBI was given prime responsibility and excluded NTSB personnel from interviews with eyewitnesses, restricted access to interview transcripts and physical evidence, and denied NTSB laboratories the opportunity to test debris recovered from the crash field.

NTSB investigations involve “partners”: representatives from the airline, aircraft manufacturer, the pilots' and aerospace workers' unions, and others. These individuals observed and remarked pointedly upon how different this investigation was from the others in which they had participated. Further, and more disturbingly, some saw what appeared to be FBI tampering with the evidence, falsifying records such as the location at which debris had been recovered, altering flight recorder data, and making key evidence as varied as the scavenge pump which was proposed as the ignition source for the fuel tank explosion advanced as the cause of the crash, seats in the area contaminated with a residue some thought indicative of missile propellant or a warhead explosion, and dozens of eyewitness sketches disappear.

Captain Terrell Stacey was the TWA representive in the investigation. He was in charge of all 747 pilot operations for the airline and had flown the Flight 800 aircraft into New York the night before its final flight. After observing these irregularities in the investigation, he got in touch with author Sanders, a former police officer turned investigative reporter, and arranged for Sanders to obtain samples of the residue on the seats for laboratory testing. The tests found an elemental composition consistent with missile propellant or explosive, which was reported on the front page of a Southern California newspaper on March 10th, 1997. The result: the FBI seized Sanders's phone records, tracked down Stacey, and arrested and perp-walked Sanders and his wife (a TWA trainer and former flight attendant). They were hauled into court and convicted of a federal charge intended to prosecute souvenir hunters disturbing crash sites. The government denied Sanders was a journalist (despite his work having been published in mainstream venues for years) and disallowed a First Amendment defence.

This is just a small part of what stinks to high heaven about this investigation. So shoddy was control of the chain of custody of the evidence and so blatant the disregard of testimony of hundreds of eyewitnesses, that alternative theories of the crash have flourished since shortly after the event until the present day. It is difficult to imagine what might have been the motives behind a cover-up of a missile attack against a U.S. airliner, but as the author notes, only a few months remained before the 1996 U.S. presidential election, in which Clinton was running on a platform of peace and prosperity. A major terrorist attack might subvert this narrative, so perhaps the well-documented high-level meetings which occurred in the immediate aftermath of the crash might have decided to direct a finding of a mechanical failure of a kind which had occurred only once before in the eighty-year history of aviation, with that incident being sometimes attributed to terrorism. What might have been seen as a wild conspiracy theory in the 1990s seems substantially more plausible in light of the Benghazi attack in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election and its treatment by the supine legacy media.

A Kindle edition is available. If you are interested in this independent investigation of Flight 800, be sure to see the documentary Silenced which was produced by the authors and includes interviews with many of the key eyewitnesses and original documents and data. Finally, if this was just an extremely rare mechanical malfunction, why do so many of the documents from the investigation remain classified and inaccessible to Freedom of Information Act requests seventeen years thereafter?

July 2013 Permalink

Charpak, Georges et Richard L. Garwin. Feux follets et champignons nucléaires. Paris: Odile Jacob, [1997] 2000. ISBN 978-2-7381-0857-9.
Georges Charpak won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1992, and was the last person, as of this writing, to have won an unshared Physics Nobel. Richard Garwin is a quintessential “defence intellectual”: he studied under Fermi, did the detailed design of Ivy Mike, the first thermonuclear bomb, has been a member of Jason and adviser on issues of nuclear arms control and disarmament for decades, and has been a passionate advocate against ballistic missile defence and for reducing the number of nuclear warheads and the state of alert of strategic nuclear forces.

In this book the authors, who do not agree on everything and take the liberty to break out from the main text on several occasions to present their individual viewpoints, assess the state of nuclear energy—civil and military—at the turn of the century and try to chart a reasonable path into the future which is consistent with the aspirations of people in developing countries, the needs of a burgeoning population, and the necessity of protecting the environment both from potential risks from nuclear technology but also the consequences of not employing it as a source of energy. (Even taking Chernobyl into account, the total radiation emitted by coal-fired power plants is far greater than that of all nuclear stations combined: coal contains thorium, and when it is burned, it escapes in flue gases or is captured and disposed of in landfills. And that's not even mentioning the carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels.)

The reader of this book will learn a great deal about the details of nuclear energy: perhaps more than some will have the patience to endure. I made it through, and now I really understand, for the first time, why light water reactors have a negative thermal coefficient: as the core gets hotter, the U-238 atoms are increasingly agitated by the heat, and consequently are more likely due to Doppler shift to fall into one of the resonances where their neutron absorption is dramatically enhanced.

Charpak and Garwin are in complete agreement that civil nuclear power should be the primary source of new electrical generation capacity until and unless something better (such as fusion) comes along. They differ strongly on the issue of fuel cycle and waste management: Charpak argues for the French approach of reprocessing spent fuel, extracting the bred plutonium, and burning it in power reactors in the form of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. Garwin argues for the U.S. approach of a once-through fuel cycle, with used fuel buried, its plutonium energy content discarded in the interest of “economy”. Charpak points out that the French approach drastically reduces the volume of nuclear waste to be buried, and observes that France does not have a Nevada in which to bury it.

Both authors concur that breeder reactors will eventually have a rôle to play in nuclear power generation. Not only do breeders multiply the energy which can be recovered from natural uranium by a factor of fifty, they can be used to “burn up” many of the radioactive waste products of conventional light water reactors. Several next-generation reactor concepts are discussed, including Carlo Rubbia's energy amplifier, in which the core is inherently subcritical, and designs for more conventional reactors which are inherently safe in the event of loss of control feedback or cooling. They conclude, however, that further technology maturation is required before breeders enter into full production use and that, in retrospect, Superphénix was premature.

The last third of the book is devoted to nuclear weapons and the prospects for reducing the inventory of declared nuclear powers, increasing stability, and preventing proliferation. There is, as you would expect from Garwin, a great deal of bashing the concept of ballistic missile defence (“It can't possibly work, and if it did it would be bad”). This is quite dated, as many of the arguments and the lengthy reprinted article date from the mid 1980s when the threat was a massive “war-gasm” salvo launch of thousands of ICBMs from the Soviet Union, not one or two missiles from a rogue despot who's feeling “ronery”. The authors quite reasonably argue that current nuclear force levels are absurd, and that an arsenal about the size of France's (on the order of 500 warheads) should suffice for any conceivable deterrent purpose. They dance around the option of eliminating nuclear arms entirely, and conclude that such a goal is probably unachievable in a world in which such a posture would create an incentive for a rogue state to acquire even one or two weapons. They suggest a small deterrent force operated by an international authority—good luck with that!

This is a thoughtful book which encourages rational people to think for themselves about the energy choices facing humanity in the coming decades. It counters emotional appeals and scare trigger words with the best antidote: numbers. Numbers which demonstrate, for example, that the inherent radiation of atoms in the human body (mostly C-14 and K-40) and the variation in natural background radiation from one place to another on Earth is vastly greater than the dose received from all kinds of nuclear technology. The Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents are examined in detail, and the lessons learnt for safely operating nuclear power stations are explored. I found the sections on nuclear weapons weaker and substantially more dated. Although the book was originally published well after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the perspective is still very much that of superpower confrontation, not the risk of proliferation to rogue states and terrorist groups. Certainly, responsibly disposing of the excess fissile material produced by the superpowers in their grotesquely hypertrophied arsenals (ideally by burning it up in civil power reactors, as opposed to insanely dumping it into a hole in the ground to remain a risk for hundreds of thousands of years, as some “green” advocates urge) is an important way to reduce the risks of proliferation, but events subsequent to the publication of this book have shown that states are capable of mounting their own indigenous nuclear weapons programs under the eyes of international inspectors. Will an “international community” which is incapable of stopping such clandestine weapons programs have any deterrent credibility even if armed with its own nuclear-tipped missiles?

An English translation of this book, entitled Megawatts and Megatons, is available.

September 2009 Permalink

Chomsky, Noam. Year 501: The Conquest Continues. Boston: South End Press, 1993. ISBN 0-89608-444-2.

March 2002 Permalink

Clarey, Aaron. Enjoy the Decline. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4802-8476-0.
Many readers may find this book deeply cynical, disturbing, and immoral. I found it cynical, disturbing, and immoral, but also important, especially for younger people who wish to make the most of their lives and find themselves in a United States in an epoch in which it is, with the consent of the majority, descending into a grey collectivist tyranny and surveillance state, where productive and creative people are seen as subjects to be exploited to benefit an ever-growing dependent class which supports the state which supports them.

I left the United States in 1991 and have only returned since for brief visits with family or to attend professional conferences. Since 2001, as the totalitarian vibe there has grown rapidly, I try to make these visits as infrequent as possible, my last being in 2011. Since the 1990s, I have been urging productive people in the U.S. to consider emigrating but, with only a couple of exceptions, nobody has taken this advice. I've always considered this somewhat odd, since most people in the U.S. are descended from those who left their countries of birth and came there to escape tyranny and seek opportunity. But most people in the U.S. seem to recoil from the idea of leaving, even as their own government becomes more repressive and exploits them to a greater extent than the regimes their ancestors fled.

This book is addressed to productive people (primarily young ones with few existing responsibilities) who have decided to remain in the United States. (Chapter 10 discusses emigration, and while it is a useful introduction to the topic, I'd suggest those pondering that option read Time to Emigrate? [January 2007], even though it is addressed to people in the United Kingdom.) The central message is that with the re-election of Obama in 2012, the U.S. electorate have explicitly endorsed a path which will lead to economic and geopolitical decline and ever-increasing exploitation of a shrinking productive class in favour of a growing dependent population. How is a productive person, what the author calls a “Real American”, to respond to this? One could dedicate oneself to struggling to reverse the trend through political activism, or grimly struggle to make the best of the situation while working hard even as more of the fruits of one's labour are confiscated. Alternatively, one can seek to “enjoy the decline”: face the reality that once a democratic society reaches the tipping point where more than half of the electorate receives more in government transfer payments than they pay in taxes it's game over and a new set of incentives have been put in place which those wishing to make the most of their lives must face forthrightly unless they wish to live in a delusional state.

In essence, the author argues, the definition of the “good life” is fundamentally transformed once a society begins the slide into collectivist tyranny. It is a fool's errand to seek to get an advanced education when that only burdens one with debt which will take most of a lifetime to repay and make capital formation in the most productive working years impossible. Home ownership, once the goal of young people and families, and their main financial asset, only indentures you to a state which can raise property taxes at any time and confiscate your property if you cannot pay. Marriage and children must be weighed, particularly by men, against the potential downside in case things don't work out, which is why, increasingly, men are going on strike. Scrimping and saving to contribute to a retirement plan is only piling up assets a cash-strapped government may seize when it can't pay its bills, as has already happened in Argentina and other countries.

What matters? Friends, family (if you can get along with them), having a good time, making the most of the years when you can hike, climb mountains, ride motorcycles way too fast, hunt, fish, read books that interest you, and share all of this and more with a compatible companion. And you're doing this while your contemporaries are putting in 60 hour weeks, seeing half or more of their income confiscated, and hoping to do these things at some distant time in the future, assuming their pensions don't default and their retirement funds aren't stolen or inflated away.

There are a number of things here which people may find off-putting, if not shocking. In chapter 7, the author discusses the “ ‘Smith and Wesson’ Retirement Plan”—not making any provision for retirement, living it up while you can, and putting a bullet in your head when you begin to fail. I suspect this sounds like a lot better idea when you're young (the author was 38 years old at the publication date of this book) than when you're getting closer to the checkered flag. In chapter 8, introduced by a quote from Ayn Rand, he discusses the strategy of minimising one's income and thereby qualifying for as many government assistance programs as possible. Hey, if the people have legitimately voted for them, why not be a beneficiary instead of the sucker who pays for them?

Whatever you think of the advice in this book (which comes across as sincere, not satirical), the thing to keep in mind is that it is an accurate description of the incentives which now exist in the U.S. While it's unlikely that many productive people will read this book and dial their ambitions back into slacker territory or become overt parasites, what's important is the decisions made on the margin by those unsure how to proceed in their lives. As the U.S. becomes poorer, weaker, and less free, perhaps the winners, at least on a relative basis, will be those who do not rage against the dying of the light or struggle to exist as they are progressively enslaved, but rather people who opt out to the extent possible and react rationally to the incentives as they exist. I would (and have) emigrated, but if that's not possible or thinkable, this book may provide a guide to making the best of a tragic situation.

The book contains numerous citations of resources on the Web, each of which is linked in the text: in the Kindle edition, clicking the link takes you to the cited Web page.

August 2013 Permalink

Codevilla, Angelo. The Character of Nations. New York: Basic Books, [1997] 2009. ISBN 978-0-465-02800-9.
As George Will famously observed, “statecraft is soulcraft”. This book, drawing on examples from antiquity to the present day, and from cultures all around the world, explores how the character, culture, and morals of a people shape the political institutions they create and how, in turn, those institutions cause the character of those living under them to evolve over time. This feedback loop provides important insights into the rise and fall of nations and empires, and is acutely important in an age where the all-encompassing administrative state appears triumphant in developed nations at the very time it reduces its citizens to subservient, ovine subjects who seek advancement not through productive work but by seeking favours from those in power, which in turn imperils the wealth creation upon which the state preys.

This has, of course, been the state of affairs in the vast majority of human societies over the long span of human history but, as the author notes, for most of that history the intrusiveness of authority upon the autonomy of the individual was limited by constraints on transportation, communication, and organisation, so the scope of effective control of even the most despotic ruler rarely extended far beyond the seat of power. The framers of the U.S. Constitution were deeply concerned whether self-government of any form could function on a scale beyond that of a city-state: there were no historical precedents for such a polity enduring beyond a generation or two. Thomas Jefferson and others who believed such a government could be established and survive in America based their optimism on the character of the American people: their independence, self-reliance, morality grounded in deep religious convictions, strong families, and willingness to take up arms to defend their liberty would guide them in building a government which would reflect and promote those foundations.

Indeed, for a century and a half, despite a disastrous Civil War and innumerable challenges and crises, the character of the U.S. continued to embody that present at the founding, and millions of immigrants from cultures fundamentally different from those of the founders were readily assimilated into an ever-evolving culture which nonetheless preserved its essential character. For much of American history, people in the U.S. were citizens in the classic sense of the word: participants in self-government, mostly at a local level, and in turn accepting the governance of their fellow citizens; living lives centred around family, faith, and work, with public affairs rarely intruding directly into their lives, yet willing to come to the defence of the nation with their very lives when it was threatened.

How quaint that all seems today. Statecraft is soulcraft, and the author illustrates with numerous examples spanning millennia how even the best-intentioned changes in the relationship of the individual to the state can, over a generation or two, fundamentally and often irreversibly alter the relationship between government and the governed, transforming the character of the nation—the nature of its population, into something very different which will, in turn, summon forth a different kind of government. To be specific, and to cite the case most common in the the last century, there is a pernicious positive feedback loop which is set into motion by the enactment of even the most apparently benign social welfare programs. Each program creates a dependent client class, whose political goals naturally become to increase their benefits at the expense of the productive classes taxed to fund them. The dependent classes become reliable voting blocs for politicians who support the programs that benefit them, which motivates those politicians to expand benefits and thus grow the dependent classes. Eventually, indeed almost inevitably, the society moves toward a tipping point where net taxpayers are outvoted by tax eaters, after which the business of the society is no longer creation of wealth but rather a zero sum competition for the proceeds of redistribution by the state.

Note that the client classes in a mature redistributive state go far beyond the “poor, weak, and infirm” the politicians who promote such programs purport to champion. They include defence contractors, financial institutions dependent upon government loan guarantees and bailouts, nationalised companies, subsidised industries and commodity prices, public employee unions, well-connected lobbying and law firms, and the swarm of parasites that darken the sky above any legislature which expends the public patrimony at its sole discretion, and of course the relatives and supporters of the politicians and bureaucrats dispensing favours from the public purse.

The author distinguishes “the nation” (the people who live in a country), “the regime” (its governing institutions), and “the establishment” (the ruling class, including politicians but also media, academia, and opinion makers). When these three bodies are largely aligned, the character of the nation will be reflected in its institutions and those institutions will reinforce that character. In many circumstances, for example despotic societies, there has never been an alignment and this has often been considered the natural order of things: rulers and ruled. It is the rarest of exceptions when this triple alignment occurs, and the sad lesson of history is that even when it does, it is likely to be a transient phenomenon: we are doomed!

This is, indeed, a deeply pessimistic view of the political landscape, perhaps better read on the beach in mid-summer than by the abbreviated and wan daylight of a northern hemisphere winter solstice. The author examines in detail how seventy years of communist rule transformed the character of the Soviet population in such a manner that the emergence of the authoritarian Russian gangster state was a near-inevitable consequence. Perhaps had double-domed “defence intellectuals” read this book when it was originally published in 1997 (the present edition is revised and updated based upon subsequent events), ill-conceived attempts at “nation building” might have been avoided and many lives and vast treasure not squandered in such futile endeavours.

December 2009 Permalink

Codevilla, Angelo. The Ruling Class. New York: Beaufort Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8253-0558-0.
This slim volume (just 160 pages) is a somewhat expanded version of the author's much discussed essay with the same title which appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of The American Spectator. One of the key aspects of “American exceptionalism” over most of the nation's history has been something it didn't have but which most European and Asian nations did: a ruling class distinct from the general citizenry. Whether the ruling class was defined by heredity (as in Britain), or by meritocratic selection (as in France since the Revolution and Germany after Bismarck), most countries had a class of rulers who associated mostly with themselves, and considered themselves to uniquely embody the expertise and wisdom to instruct the masses (a word of which they tended to be fond) in how to live their lives.

In the U.S., this was much less the case. Before the vast centralisation and growth of the federal government in the New Deal and afterward, the country was mostly run by about fifty thousand people who got involved in grass roots public service: school boards, county commissions, and local political party organisations, from whom candidates for higher office were chosen based upon merit, service, and demonstrated track record. People who have come up by such a path will tend to be pretty well anchored to the concerns of ordinary citizens because they are ordinary citizens who have volunteered their time to get involved in res publica.

But with the grand centralisation of governance in Imperial Washington over the last century, a new kind of person was attracted to what used to be, and is still called, with exquisite irony, “public service”. These are people who have graduated from a handful of élite universities and law schools, and with the exception of perhaps a brief stint at a large law firm dealing mainly with the government, spent their entire careers in the public sector and its cloud of symbiotic institutions: regulatory agencies, appointed offices, elected positions, lobbying firms, and “non-governmental organisations” which derive their entire income from the government. These individuals make up what I have been calling, after Milovan Đilas, the New Class, but which Codevilla designates the Ruling Class in the present work.

In the U.S., entry to the ruling class is not, as it is in France, a meritocracy based on competitive examinations and performance in demanding academic institutions. Instead, it is largely a matter of who you, or your family, knows, what university you attended, and how well you conform to the set of beliefs indoctrinated there. At the centre of this belief system is that a modern nation is far too complicated to be governed by citizen-legislators chosen by ignorant rubes who didn't attend Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or one of the other ruling class feeder belts, but rather must be guided by enlightened experts like, well, themselves, and that all the ills of society can be solved by giving the likes of, well, themselves, more power over the population. They justify this by their reliance on “science” (the details of which they are largely ignorant), and hence they fund a horde of “scientists” who produce “studies” which support the policies they advocate.

Codevilla estimates that about a third of the U.S. population are either members of the ruling class (a small fraction), or aligned with its policies, largely due to engineered dependency on government programs. This third finds its political vehicle in the Democratic party, which represents their interests well. What about the other two thirds, which he dubs the “Country Class” (which I think is a pretty lame term, but no better comes immediately to mind)? Well, they don't have a political party at all, really. The Republican party is largely made up of ruling class people (think son of a president George W. Bush, or son of an admiral John McCain), and quickly co-opts outsiders who make it to Washington into the Imperial ruling class mindset.

A situation where one third of the population is dictating its will to the rest, and taxing a minority to distribute the proceeds to its electoral majority, in which only about a fifth of the population believes the federal government has the consent of the governed, and two thirds of the population have no effective political vehicle to achieve their agenda is, as Jimmy Carter's pollster Pat Caddell put it, pre-revolutionary. Since the ruling class has put the country on an unsustainable course, it is axiomatic that it will not be sustained. How it will end, however, is very much up in the air. Perhaps the best outcome would be a take-over of the Republican party by those genuinely representative of the “country party”, but that will be extremely difficult without a multitude of people (encouraged by their rulers toward passivity and resignation to the status quo) jumping into the fray. If the Republicans win a resounding victory in the elections of November 2010 (largely due to voters holding their noses and saying “they can't be worse than the current bums in office”) and then revert to ruling class business as usual, it's almost certain there will be a serious third party in play in 2012, not just at the presidential level (as the author notes, for a while in 1992, Ross Perot out-polled both the first Bush and Clinton before people concluded he was a flake with funny ears), but also in congressional races. If the Republicans are largely running in 2010 on a platform of, “Hey, at least we aren't the Democrats!”, then the cry in 2012 may be “We aren't either of those foul, discredited parties.”

As fiscally responsible people, let's talk about value for money. This book just doesn't cut it. You can read the original essay for free online. Although the arguments and examples therein are somewhat fleshed out in this edition, there's no essential you'll miss in reading the magazine essay instead of this book. Further, the 160 page book is padded—I can summon no kinder word—by inclusion of the full text of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. Now, these are certainly important documents, but it's not like they aren't readily available online, nor that those inclined to read the present volume are unfamiliar with them. I think their presence is mostly due to the fact that were they elided, the book would be a mere hundred pages and deemed a pamphlet at best.

This is an enlightening and important argument, and I think spot-on in diagnosing the central problem which is transforming the U.S. from an engine of innovation and productivity into a class warfare redistributive nanny state. But save your money and read the magazine article, not the book.

October 2010 Permalink

Cody, Beth. Looking Backward: 2162–2012. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4681-7895-1.
Julian West was a professor of history at Fielding College, a midwestern U.S. liberal arts institution, where he shared the assumptions of his peers: big government was good; individual initiative was suspect; and the collective outweighed the individual. At the inauguration of a time capsule on the campus, he found himself immured within it and, after inhaling a concoction consigned to the future by the chemistry department, wakes up 150 years later, when the capsule is opened, to discover himself in a very different world.

The United States, which was the foundation of his reference frame, have collapsed due to unsustainable debt and entitlement commitments. North America has fragmented into a variety of territories, including the Free States of America, which include the present-day states of Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota. The rest of the former U.S. has separated into autonomous jurisdictions with very different approaches to governance. The Republic of Texas has become entirely Texan, while New Hampshire has chosen to go it alone, in keeping with their porky-spine tradition. A rump USA, composed of failed states, continues to pursue the policies which caused the collapse of their railroad-era, continental-scale empire.

West returns to life in the Free States, which have become a classical libertarian republic as imagined by Rothbard. The federal government is supported only by voluntary contributions, and state and local governments are constrained by the will of their constituents. West, disoriented by all of this, is taken under the wing of David Seeton, a history professor at Fielding in the 22nd century, who welcomes West into his home and serves a guide to the new world in which West finds himself.

West and Seeton explore this world, so strange to West, and it slowly dawns on West (amidst flashbacks to his past life), that this might really be a better way of organising society. There is a great amount of preaching and didactic conversation here; while it's instructive if you're really interested in how a libertarian society might work, many may find it tedious.

Finally, West, who was never really sure his experience of the future mightn't have been a dream, has a dream experience which forces him to confront the conflict of his past and future.

This is a book I found both tiresome and enlightening. I would highly recommend it to anybody who has contemplated a libertarian society but dismissed it as “That couldn't ever work”. The author is clear that no solution is perfect, and that any society will reflect the flaws of the imperfect humans who compose it. The libertarian society is presented as the “least bad discovered so far”, with the expectation that free people will eventually discover even better ways to organise themselves. Reading this book is much like slogging through Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged (April 2010)—it takes some effort, but it's worth doing so. It is obviously derivative of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward which presented a socialist utopia, but I'd rather live in Cody's future than Bellamy's.

June 2013 Permalink

Corsi, Jerome L. The Obama Nation. New York: Threshold Editions, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4165-9806-0.
The author of this book was co-author, with John O'Neill, of the 2004 book about John Kerry, Unfit for Command (October 2004), which resulted in the introduction of the verb “to swiftboat” into the English language. In this outing, the topic is Barack Obama, whose enigmatic origin, slim paper trail, and dubious associates are explored here. Unlike the earlier book, where his co-author had first-hand experience with John Kerry, this book is based almost entirely on secondary sources, well documented in end notes, with many from legacy media outlets, in particular investigative reporting by the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune.

The author concludes that behind Obama's centrist and post-partisan presentation is a thoroughly radical agenda, with long-term associations with figures on the extreme left-wing fringe of American society. He paints an Obama administration, especially if empowered by a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a House majority, as likely to steer American society toward a European-like social democratic agenda in the greatest veer to the left since the New Deal.

Is this, in fact, likely? Well, there are many worrisome, well-sourced, items here, but then one wonders about the attention to detail of an author who believes that Germany is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (p. 262). Lapses like this and a strong partisan tone undermine the persuasiveness of the case made here. I hear that David Freddoso's The Case Against Barack Obama is a better put argument, grounded in Obama's roots in Chicago machine politics rather than ideology, but I haven't read that book and I probably won't as the election will surely have gone down before I'd get to it.

If you have no idea where Obama came from or what he believes, there are interesting items here to follow up, but I wouldn't take the picture presented here as valid without independently verifying the source citations and making my own judgement as to their veracity.

October 2008 Permalink

Coulter, Ann. Slander. New York: Crown Publishers, 2002. ISBN 1-4000-4661-0.

October 2002 Permalink

Coulter, Ann. Demonic. New York: Crown Forum, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-35348-1.
The author has a well-deserved reputation as thriving on controversy and not hesitating to incite her intellectual adversaries to paroxysms of spittle-spewing rage by patiently demonstrating their hypocrisy and irrationality. In the present volume, we have something substantially different from Coulter's earlier work. Drawing upon Gustave Le Bon's 1895 classic The Crowd, Coulter traces the behaviour of mobs and their influence upon societies and history from classical times to the present day.

The leaders of the American revolution and founders of the American republic were steeped in the history of mob behaviour in ancient Greece and Rome, and how it ultimately led to the downfall of consensual self-government in both of these polities. They were acutely aware that many of their contemporaries, in particular Montesquieu, argued that self-governance was not possible on a scale larger than that of a city-state. The structure devised for the new republic in North America was deliberately crafted to channel the enthusiasms of the citizenry into considered actions by a distributed set of institutions which set ambition against ambition in the interest of stability, protection of individual liberty, and defence of civil society against the will of a moment's majority.

By contrast to the American Secession from the British Empire (I deem it a secession since the main issue at dispute was the sovereignty of the King and Parliament over the colonies—after the conclusion of the conflict, the newly-independent colonies continued to govern themselves much as before, under the tradition of English common law), the French Revolution a few years later was a mob unleashed against the institutions of a society. In two well crafted chapters Coulter sketches the tragic and tawdry history of that episode which is often known to people today only from romantic accounts which elide the absurdity, collective insanity, and rivers of blood occasioned by the actual events. (For more details, see Citizens [October 2004], which is cited here as a source.)

The French Revolution was the prototype of all the mob revolutions which followed. Whether they called themselves Bolsheviks, Nazis, Maoists, or Khmer Rouge, their goal was to create heaven on Earth and if the flawed humans they hoped to forge into their bright shining utopia were unworthy, well then certainly killing off enough of those recalcitrant dissenters would do the trick.

Bringing this home to America, Coulter argues that although mob politics is hardly new to America, for the first time it is approaching a tipping point in having a near majority which pays no Federal income tax and whose net income consists of transfer payments from others. Further, the mob is embodied in an institution, the Democratic party, which, with its enablers in the legacy media, academia, labour unions, ethnic grievance groups, and other constituencies, is not only able to turn out the vote but also to bring mobs into the street whenever it doesn't get its way through the institutions of self-governance. As the (bare) majority of productive citizens attempt to stem the slide into the abyss, they will be pitted against the mob, aroused by the Democrat political apparatus, supported by the legacy media (which covers up their offences, while accusing orderly citizens defending their rights of imagined crimes), and left undefended by “law enforcement”, which has been captured by “public employee unions” which are an integral part of the mob.

Coulter focuses primarily on the U.S., but the phenomenon she describes is global in scope: one need only see the news from Athens, London, Madrid, Paris, or any number of less visible venues to see the savage beast of the mob baring its teeth against the cowering guardians of civilisation. Until decent, productive people who, just two generations ago, had the self-confidence not only to assume the progress to which they were the heirs would continue into the indefinite future but, just for a lark, go and visit the Moon, see the mob for what it is, the enemy, and deal with it appropriately, the entire heritage of civilisation will remain in peril.

July 2011 Permalink

Cox, Joseph. The City on the Heights. Modiin, Israel: Big Picture Books, 2017. ISBN 978-0-9764659-6-6.
For more than two millennia the near east (which is sloppily called the “middle east” by ignorant pundits who can't distinguish north Africa from southwest Asia) has exported far more trouble than it has imported from elsewhere. You need only consult the chronicles of the Greeks, the Roman Empire, the histories of conflicts among them and the Persians, the expansion of Islam into the region, internecine conflicts among Islamic sects, the Crusades, Israeli-Arab wars, all the way to recent follies of “nation building” to appreciate that this is a perennial trouble spot.

People, and peoples hate one another there. It seems like whenever you juxtapose two religions (even sects of one), ethnicities, or self-identifications in the region, before long sanguinary conflict erupts, with each incident only triggering even greater reprisals and escalation. In the words of Lenin, What is to be done?

Now, my inclination would be simply to erect a strong perimeter around the region, let anybody who wished enter, but nobody leave without extreme scrutiny to ensure they were not a risk and follow-up as long as they remained as guests in the civilised regions of the world. This is how living organisms deal with threats to their metabolism: encyst upon it!

In this novel, the author explores another, more hopeful and optimistic, yet perhaps less realistic alternative. When your computer ends up in a hopeless dead-end of resource exhaustion, flailing software, and errors in implementation, you reboot it, or turn it off and on again. This clears out the cobwebs and provides a fresh start. It's difficult to do this in a human community, especially one where grievances are remembered not just over generations but millennia.

Here, archetypal NGO do-gooder Steven Gold has another idea. In the midst of the European religious wars, Amsterdam grew and prospered by being a place that people of any faith could come together and do business. Notwithstanding having a nominal established religion, people of all confessions were welcome as long as they participated in the peaceful commerce and exchange which made the city prosper.

Could this work in the near east? Steven Gold thought it was worth a try, and worth betting his career upon. But where should such a model city be founded? The region was a nightmarish ever-shifting fractal landscape of warring communities with a sole exception: the state of Israel. Why on Earth would Israel consider ceding some of its territory (albeit mostly outside its security perimeter) for such an idealistic project which might prove to be a dagger aimed at its own heart? Well, Steven Gold is very persuasive, and talented at recruiting allies able to pitch the project in terms those needed to support it understand.

And so, a sanctuary city on the Israel-Syria border is born. It is anything but a refugee camp. Residents are expected to become productive members of a multicultural, multi-ethnic community which will prosper along the lines of renaissance Amsterdam or, more recently, Hong Kong and Singapore. Those who wish to move to the City are carefully vetted, but they include a wide variety of people including a former commander of the Islamic State, a self-trained engineer and problem solver who is an escapee from a forced marriage, religious leaders from a variety of faiths, and supporters including a billionaire who made her fortune in Internet payment systems.

And then, since it's the near east, it all blows up. First there are assassinations, then bombings, then a sorting out into ethnic and sectarian districts within the city, and then reprisals. It almost seems like an evil genius is manipulating the communities who came there to live in peace and prosper into conflict among one another. That this might be possible never enters the mind of Steven Gold, who probably still believes in the United Nations and votes for Democrats, notwithstanding their resolute opposition to the only consensual democracy in the region.

Can an act of terrorism redeem a community? Miryam thinks so, and acts accordingly. As the consequences play out, and the money supporting the city begins to run out, a hierarchical system of courts which mix up the various contending groups is established, and an economic system based upon electronic payments which provides a seamless transition between subsidies for the poor (but always based upon earned income: never a pure dole) and taxation for the more prosperous.

A retrospective provides a look at how it all might work. I remain dubious at the prospect. There are many existing communities in the near east which are largely homogeneous in terms of religion and ethnicity (as seen by outsiders) which might be prosperous if they didn't occupy themselves with bombing and killing one another by any means available, and yet the latter is what they choose to do. Might it be possible, by establishing sanctuaries, to select for those willing to set ancient enmities aside? Perhaps, but in this novel, grounded in reality, that didn't happen.

The economic system is intriguing but, to me, ultimately unpersuasive. I understand how the income subsidy encourages low-income earners to stay within the reported income economy, but the moment you cross the tax threshold, you have a powerful incentive to take things off the books and, absent some terribly coercive top-down means to force all transactions through the electronic currency system, free (non-taxed) exchange will find a way.

These quibbles aside, this is a refreshing and hopeful look at an alternative to eternal conflict. In the near east, “the facts on the ground” are everything and the author, who lives just 128 km from the centre of civil war in Syria is far more acquainted with the reality than somebody reading his book far away. I hope his vision is viable. I hope somebody tries it. I hope it works.

December 2017 Permalink

Dalrymple, Theodore. Life at the Bottom. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001. ISBN 1-56663-382-6.

September 2002 Permalink

Dalrymple, Theodore. Our Culture, What's Left of It. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005. ISBN 1-56663-643-4.
Theodore Dalrymple is the nom de plume of Anthony Daniels, a British physician and psychiatrist who, until his recent retirement, practiced in a prison medical ward and public hospital in Birmingham, England. In his early career, he travelled widely, visiting such earthly paradises as North Korea, Afghanistan, Cuba, Zimbabwe (when it was still Rhodesia), and Tanzania, where he acquired an acute sense of the social prerequisites for the individual disempowerment which characterises the third world. This experience superbly equipped him to diagnose the same maladies in the city centres of contemporary Britain; he is arguably the most perceptive and certainly among the most eloquent contemporary observers of that society.

This book is a collection of his columns from City Journal, most dating from 2001 through 2004, about equally divided between “Arts and Letters” and “Society and Politics”. There are gems in both sections: you'll want to re-read Macbeth after reading Dalrymple on the nature of evil and need for boundaries if humans are not to act inhumanly. Among the chapters of social commentary is a prophetic essay which almost precisely forecast the recent violence in France three years before it happened, one of the clearest statements of the inherent problems of Islam in adapting to modernity, and a persuasive argument against drug legalisation by somebody who spent almost his entire career treating the victims of both illegal drugs and the drug war. Dalrymple has decided to conclude his medical career in down-spiralling urban Britain for a life in rural France where, notwithstanding problems, people still know how to live. Thankfully, he will continue his writing.

Many of these essays can be found on-line at the City Journal site; I've linked to those I cited in the last paragraph. I find that writing this fine is best enjoyed away from the computer, as ink on paper in a serene time, but it's great that one can now read material on-line to decide whether it's worth springing for the book.

January 2006 Permalink

Day, Vox [Theodore Beale]. SJWs Always Lie. Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2015. ASIN B014GMBUR4.
Vox Day is the nom de plume and now nom de guerre of Theodore Beale, a musician with three Billboard Top 40 credits, video game designer, author of science fiction and fantasy and three-time Hugo Award nominee, and non-fiction author and editor.

If you're not involved in the subcultures of computer gaming or science fiction and fantasy, you may not be acquainted with terms such as SJW (Social Justice Warrior), GamerGate, or Sad Puppies. You may conclude that such matters are arcana relating to subcultures of not-particularly-socially-adept people which have little bearing on the larger culture. In this, you would be wrong. For almost fifty years, collectivists and authoritarians have been infiltrating cultural institutions, and now occupy the high ground in institutions such as education, the administrative state, media, and large corporations. This is the “long march through the institutions” foreseen by Antonio Gramsci, and it has, so far, been an extraordinary success, not only advancing its own agenda with a slow, inexorable ratchet, but intimidating opponents into silence for fear of having their careers or reputations destroyed. Nobody is immune: two Nobel Prize winners, James Watson and Tim Hunt, have been declared anathema because of remarks deemed offensive by SJWs. Nominally conservative publications such as National Review, headquartered in hives of collectivist corruption such as New York and Washington, were intimidated into a reflexive cringe at the slightest sign of outrage by SJWs, jettisoning superb writers such as Ann Coulter and John Derbyshire in an attempt to appease the unappeasable.

Then, just as the SJWs were feeling triumphant, GamerGate came along, and the first serious push-back began. Few expected the gamer community to become a hotbed of resistance, since gamers are all over the map in their political views (if they have any at all), and are a diverse bunch, although a majority are younger males. But they have a strong sense of right and wrong, and are accustomed to immediate and decisive negative feedback when they choose unwisely in the games they play. What they came to perceive was that the journalists writing about games were applauding objectively terrible games, such as Depression Quest, due to bias and collusion among the gaming media.

Much the same had been going on in the world of science fiction. SJWs had infiltrated the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to such an extent that they directed their Nebula Awards to others of their ilk, and awarded them based upon “diversity” rather than merit. The same rot had corrupted fandom and its Hugo Awards.

Vox Day was near the centre of the cyclone in the revolt against all of this. The campaign to advance a slate of science fiction worthy of the Hugos rather than the pap selected by the SJWs resulted in the 2015 Hugos being blown up, demonstrating that SJWs would rather destroy a venerable institution than cede territory.

This book is a superbly written history of GamerGate and the revolt against SJWs in science fiction and fantasy writers' associations and fandom, but also provides deep insight into the seriously dysfunctional world of the SJW and advice about how to deal with them and what to do if you find yourself a target. The tactics of the SJWs are laid bare, and practical advice is given as to how to identify SJWs before they enter your organisation and how to get rid of them if they're already hired. (And get rid of them you must; they're like communists in the 1930s–1950s: once in place they will hire others and promote their kind within the organisation. You have to do your homework, and the Internet is your friend—the most innocuous co-worker or prospective employee may have a long digital trail you can find quickly with a search engine.)

There is no compromising with these people. That has been the key mistake of those who have found themselves targeted by SJWs. Any apology will be immediately trumpeted as an admission of culpability, and nothing less than the complete destruction of the career and life of the target will suffice. They are not well-meaning adversaries; they are enemies, and you must, if they attack you, seek to destroy them just as they seek to destroy you. Read Alinsky; they have. I'm not suggesting you call in SWAT raids on their residences, dig up and release damaging personal information on them, or make anonymous bomb threats when they gather. But be aware that they have used these tactics repeatedly against their opponents.

You must also learn that SJWs have no concern for objective facts. You can neither persuade nor dissuade them from advancing their arguments by citing facts that falsify their claims. They will repeat their objectively false talking points until they tire you out or drown out your voice. You are engaging in dialectic while they are employing rhetoric. To defeat them, you must counter their rhetoric with your own rhetoric, even when the facts are on your side.

Vox Day was in the middle of these early battles of the counter-revolution, both in GamerGate and the science fiction insurrection, and he provides a wealth of practical advice for those either attacked by SJWs or actively fighting back. This is a battle, and somebody is going to win and somebody else will lose. As he notes, “There can be no reconciliation between the observant and the delusional.” But those who perceive reality as it is, not as interpreted through a “narrative” in which they have been indoctrinated, have an advantage in this struggle. It may seem odd to find gamers and science fiction fans in the vanguard of the assault against this insanity but, as the author notes, “Gamers conquer Dragons and fight Gods for a hobby.”

October 2015 Permalink

Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy. New York: Spiegel & Grau, [2009] 2010. ISBN 978-0-385-52391-2.
The last decade or so I lived in California, I spent a good deal of my time being angry—so much so that I didn't really perceive the extent that anger had become part of who I was and how I lived my life. It was only after I'd gotten out of California and the U.S. in 1991 and lived a couple of years in Switzerland that I discovered that the absence of driving on crumbling roads overcrowded with aggressive and incompetent drivers, a government bent on destroying productive enterprise, and a culture collapsing into vulgarity and decadence had changed who I was: in short, only after leaving Marin County California, had I become that thing which its denizens delude themselves into believing they are—mellow.

What, you might be asking yourself, does this have to do with a book about the lives of ordinary people in North Korea? Well, after a couple of decades in Switzerland, it takes quite a bit of provocation to bring back the old hair-on-fire white flash, like passing through a U.S. airport or…reading this book. I do not mean that this book angered me; it is a superb work of reportage on a society so hermetically closed that obtaining even the slightest details on what is really going on there is near-impossible, as tourists and journalists are rarely permitted to travel outside North Korea's capital of Pyongyang, a Stalinist Potemkin village built to deceive them as to the situation in other cities and the countryside. What angered me is the horrible, pointless, and needless waste of the lives of tens of millions of people, generation after generation, at the hands of a tyranny so abject it seems to have read Orwell's 1984 not as a dystopian warning, but an instruction manual. The victims of this tragedy are not just the millions who have died in the famines, ended their lives in the sprawling complex of prisons and forced labour camps, or were executed for “crimes” such as trying to communicate with relatives outside the country; but the tens of millions forced to live in a society which seems to have been engineered to extinguish every single pleasure which makes human life worth living. Stunted due to lack of food, indoctrinated with the fantasy that the horror which is their lives is the best for which they can hope, and deprived of any contact with the human intellectual heritage which does not serve the interests of their rulers, they live in an environment which a medieval serf would view as a huge step down from their lot in life, all while the rulers at the top of the pyramid live in grand style and are treated as legitimate actors on the international stage by diplomatic crapweasels from countries that should be shamed by their behaviour.

In this book the author tackles the formidable task of penetrating the barrier of secrecy and lies which hides the reality of life in North Korea from the rest of the world by recounting the lives of six defectors all of whom originated in Chongjin, the third largest city in North Korea, off limits to almost all foreign visitors. The names of the witnesses to this horror have been changed to protect relatives still within the slave state, but their testimony is quoted at length and provides a chilling view of what faces the 24 million who have so far been unable to escape. Now, clearly, if you're relying exclusively on the testimony of those who have managed to escape an oppressive regime, you're going to get a different picture than if you'd interviewed those who remain—just as you'd get a different view of California and the U.S. from somebody who got out of there twenty years ago compared to a current resident—but the author takes pains to corroborate the accounts of defectors against one another and the sparse information available from international aid workers who have been infrequently allowed to visit Chongjin. The accounts of the culture shock escapees from North Korea experience not just in 21st century South Korea but even in rural China are heartrending: Kim Ji-eun, a medical doctor who escaped to China after seeing the children in her care succumb to starvation without anything she could do, describes her first memory of China as discovering a dog's bowl filled with white rice and bits of meat and realising that dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.

As Lenin asked, “What is to be done?” Taking on board the information in this narrative may cause you to question many of what appear to be sound approaches to bringing an end to this horror. For, according to the accounts of the defectors, tyranny of the North Korean style actually works quite well: escapees are minuscule compared to the population which remains behind, many of whom actually appear to believe the lies of the regime that they are a superior race and have it better than the balance of humanity, even as they see members of their family starve to death or disappear into the gulag. For some years I have been thinking about “freedom flights”. This is where a bunch of liberty-loving philanthropists hire a fleet of cargo aircraft to scatter several million single-shot pistols, each with its own individual parachute and accompanied by a translation of Major von Dach's book, across the territory of tyrannical Hell-holes and “let the people rule”. After reading this book, I'm not sure that would suffice. So effectively has the population been brainwashed that it seems a substantial fraction believe the lies of the regime and accept their sorry lot as the normal state of human existence. Perhaps we'll also need to drop solar-powered or hand-cranked satellite radio receivers to provide a window into the outside world—along with the guns, of course, to take care of snitches who try to turn in those who choose to widen their perspective and the minions of the state who come to arrest them.

By almost any measure, North Korea is an extreme outlier. By comparison, Iran is almost a paradise. Even Zimbabwe, while Hell on earth for those unfortunate enough to live there, is relatively transparent to outsiders who document what is going on and much easier to escape. But studying the end point of trends which seem to be relatively benign when they get going can be enlightening, and this book provides a chilling view of what awaits at the final off-ramp of the road to serfdom.

September 2011 Permalink

Derbyshire, John. We Are Doomed. New York: Crown Forum, 2009. ISBN 978-0-307-40958-4.
In this book, genial curmudgeon John Derbyshire, whose previous two books were popular treatments of the Riemann hypothesis and the history of algebra, argues that an authentically conservative outlook on life requires a relentlessly realistic pessimism about human nature, human institutions, and the human prospect. Such a pessimistic viewpoint immunises one from the kind of happy face optimism which breeds enthusiasm for breathtaking ideas and grand, ambitious schemes, which all of history testifies are doomed to failure and tragedy.

Adopting a pessimistic attitude is, Derbyshire says, not an effort to turn into a sourpuss (although see the photograph of the author on the dust jacket), but simply the consequence of removing the rose coloured glasses and looking at the world as it really is. To grind down the reader's optimism into a finely-figured speculum of gloom, a sequence of chapters surveys the Hellbound landscape of what passes for the modern world: “diversity”, politics, popular culture, education, economics, and third-rail topics such as achievement gaps between races and the assimilation of immigrants. The discussion is mostly centred on the United States, but in chapter 11, we take a tour d'horizon and find that things are, on the whole, as bad or worse everywhere else.

In the conclusion the author, who is just a few years my senior, voices a thought which has been rattling around my own brain for some time: that those of our generation living in the West may be seen, in retrospect, as having had the good fortune to live in a golden age. We just missed the convulsive mass warfare of the 20th century (although not, of course, frequent brushfire conflicts in which you can be killed just as dead, terrorism, or the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War), lived through the greatest and most broadly-based expansion of economic prosperity in human history, accompanied by more progress in science, technology, and medicine than in all of the human experience prior to our generation. Further, we're probably going to hand in our dinner pails before the economic apocalypse made inevitable by the pyramid of paper money and bogus debt we created, mass human migrations, demographic collapse, and the ultimate eclipse of the tattered remnants of human liberty by the malignant state. Will people decades and centuries hence look back at the Boomer generation as the one that reaped all the benefits for themselves and passed on the bills and the adverse consequences to their descendants? That's the way to bet.

So what is to be done? How do we turn the ship around before we hit the iceberg? Don't look for any such chirpy suggestions here: it's all in the title—we are doomed! My own view is that we're in a race between a technological singularity and a new dark age of poverty, ignorance, subjugation to the state, and pervasive violence. Sharing the author's proclivity for pessimism, you can probably guess which I judge more probable. If you concur, you might want to read this book, which will appear in this chronicle in due time.

The book includes neither bibliography nor index. The lack of the former is particularly regrettable as a multitude of sources are cited in the text, many available online. It would be wonderful if the author posted a bibliography of clickable links (to online articles or purchase links for books cited) on his Web site, where there is a Web log of comments from readers and the author's responses.

October 2009 Permalink

Derbyshire, John. From the Dissident Right. Litchfield, CT: VDare.com, 2013. ISBN 978-1-304-00154-2.
This is a collection of columns dating from 2001–2013, mostly from VDare.com, but also from Taki's Magazine (including the famous “The Talk: Nonblack Version”, which precipitated the author's departure from National Review).

Subtitled “Essays on the National Question”, the articles mostly discuss the composition of the population and culture of the United States, and how mass immigration (both legal and illegal) from cultures very different from that of the largely homogeneous majority culture of the U.S. prior to the Immigration and Nationality Acy of 1965, from regions of the world with no tradition of consensual government, individual and property rights, and economic freedom is changing the U.S., eroding what once contributed to its exceptionalism. Unlike previous waves of immigration from eastern and southern Europe, Ireland, and Asia, the prevailing multicultural doctrine of ruling class élites is encouraging these new immigrants to retain their languages, cultures, and way of life, while public assistance frees them from the need to assimilate to earn a living.

Frankly discussing these issues today is guaranteed to result in one's being deemed a racist, nativist, and other pejorative terms, and John Derbyshire has been called those and worse. This is incongruous since he is a naturalised U.S. citizen who immigrated from England married to a woman born in China. To me, Derbyshire comes across as an observer much like George Orwell who sees the facts on the ground, does his research, and writes with an unrelenting realism about the actual situation with no regard for what can and cannot be spoken according to the guardians of the mass culture. Derbyshire sees a nation at risk, with its ruling class either enthusiastically promoting or passively accepting its transformation into the kind of economically stratified, authoritarian, and impoverished society which caused so many immigrants to leave their nations of origin and come to the U.S. in the first place.

If you are a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, the Kindle edition is free. This essays in this book are available online for free, so I wouldn't buy the paperback or pay full price for the Kindle version, but if you have Kindle Unlimited, the price is right.

August 2015 Permalink

Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. ISBN 0-374-52221-9.

January 2004 Permalink

Djavann, Chahdortt. Que pense Allah de l'Europe?. Paris: Gallimard, 2004. ISBN 2-07-077202-0.
The author came of age in revolutionary Iran. After ten years living in Paris, she sees the conflict over the Islamic veil in French society as one in which those she calls “islamists” use the words of the West in ways which mean one thing to westerners and something entirely different to partisans of their own cause. She argues what while freedom of religion is a Western value which cannot be compromised, neither should it be manipulated to subvert the social liberty which is equally a contribution of the West to civilisation. Europe, she believes, is particularly vulnerable to infiltration by those who do not share its values but can employ its traditions and institutions to subvert them. This is not a book length treatment, but rather an essay of 55 pages. For a less personally impassioned but more in-depth view of the situation across the Channel, see Le Londonistan (July 2003).

October 2004 Permalink

Drezner, Daniel W. Theories of International Politics and Zombies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-691-14783-3.
“A specter is haunting world politics….” (p. 109) Contemporary international politics and institutions are based upon the centuries-old system of sovereign nation-states, each acting in its own self interest in a largely anarchic environment. This system has seen divine right monarchies supplanted by various forms of consensual government, dictatorships, theocracies, and other forms of governance, and has survived industrial and technological revolutions, cataclysmic wars, and reorganisation of economic systems and world trade largely intact. But how will this system come to terms with a new force on the world stage: one which transcends national borders, acts upon its own priorities regardless of the impact upon nation-states, inexorably recruits adherents wherever its presence becomes established, admits of no defections from its ranks, is immune to rational arguments, presents an asymmetrical threat against which conventional military force is largely ineffective and tempts free societies to sacrifice liberty in the interest of security, and is bent on supplanting the nation-state system with a worldwide regime free of the internal conflicts which seem endemic in the present international system?

I am speaking, of course, about the Zombie Menace. The present book is a much-expanded version of the author's frequently-cited article on his Web log at Foreign Policy magazine. In it, he explores how an outbreak of flesh-eating ghouls would be responded to based on the policy prescriptions of a variety of theories of international relations, including structural realism, liberal institutionalism, neoconservatism, and postmodern social constructivism. In addition, he describes how the zombie threat would affect domestic politics in Western liberal democracies, and how bureaucratic institutions, domestic and international, would react to the emerging crisis (bottom line: turf battles).

The author makes no claim to survey the policy prescriptions of all theories: “To be blunt, this project is explicitly prohuman, whereas Marxists and feminists would likely sympathize more with the zombies.” (p. 17, footnote) The social implications of a burgeoning zombie population are also probed, including the inevitable emergence of zombie rights groups and non-governmental organisations on the international stage. How long can it be until zombie suffrage marchers take (or shuffle) to the streets, waving banners proclaiming “Zombies are (or at least were) people too!”?

This is a delightful and thoughtful exploration of a hypothetical situation in international politics which, if looked at with the right kind of (ideally, non-decaying) eyes, has a great deal to say about events in the present-day world. There are extensive source citations, both to academic international relations and zombie literature, and you're certain to come away with a list of films you'll want to see. Anne Karetnikov's illustrations are wonderful.

The author is professor of international politics at Tufts University and a member of the Zombie Research Society. I must say I'm dismayed that Princeton University Press condones the use of the pejorative and hurtful term “zombie”. How hard would it be to employ the non-judgemental “person of reanimation” instead?

April 2011 Permalink

Drury, Allen. Come Nineveh, Come Tyre. New York: Avon, 1973. ISBN 978-0-380-00126-2.
This novel is one of the two alternative conclusions the author wrote for the series which began with his Pulitzer Prize winning Advise and Consent. As the series progressed, Drury became increasingly over the top (some would say around the bend) in skewering the media, academia, and the Washington liberal establishment of the 1960s and 1970 with wickedly ironic satire apt to make the skulls of contemporary bien pensants explode.

The story is set in a time in which the U.S. is involved in two protracted and broadly unpopular foreign wars, one seemingly winding down, the other an ongoing quagmire, both launched by a deeply despised president derided by the media and opposition as a warmonger. Due to a set of unexpected twists and turns in an electoral campaign like no other, a peace candidate emerges as the nominee of his party—a candidate with no foreign policy experience but supreme self-confidence, committed to engaging America's adversaries directly in one-on-one diplomacy, certain the outstanding conflicts can be thus resolved and, with multilateral good will, world peace finally achieved. This eloquent, charismatic, almost messianic candidate mobilises the support of a new generation, previously disengaged from politics, who not only throw their youthful vigour behind his campaign but enter the political arena themselves and support candidates aligned with the presidential standard bearer. Around the world, the candidate is praised as heralding a new era in America. The media enlist themselves on his side in an unprecedented manner, passing, not just on editorial pages but in supposedly objective news coverage, from artful bias to open partisanship. Worrisome connections between the candidate and radicals unwilling to renounce past violent acts, anti-American demagogues, and groups which resort to thuggish tactics against opponents and critics do not figure in the media's adulatory coverage of their chosen one. The media find themselves easily intimidated by even veiled threats of violence, and quietly self-censor criticism of those who oppose liberty for fear of “offending.” The candidate, inspiring the nation with hope for peace and change for the better, wins a decisive victory, sweeping in strong majorities in both the House and Senate, including many liberal freshmen aligned with the president-elect and owing their seats to the coattails of his victory. Bear in mind that this novel was published in 1973!

This is the story of what happens after the candidate of peace, change, and hope takes office, gives a stunningly eloquent, visionary, and bold inaugural address, and basks in worldwide adulation while everything goes swimmingly—for about twelve hours. Afterward, well, things don't, and a cataclysmic set of events are set into motion which threaten to change the U.S. in ways other than were hoped by those who elected the new man.

Now, this book was published three and a half decades ago, and much has changed in the intervening time, which doubtless explains why all of the books in the series are now long out of print. But considering the précis above, and how prophetic many of its elements were of the present situation in the U.S., maybe there's some wisdom here relevant to the changes underway there. Certainly one hopes that used booksellers aren't getting a lot of orders for this volume from buyers in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Tehran. I had not read this book since its initial publication (when, despite almost universal disdain from the liberal media, it sold almost 200,000 copies in hardcover), and found in re-reading it that the story, while obviously outdated in some regards (the enemy of yore, the Soviet Bear, is no more, but who knows where Russia's headed?), especially as regards the now-legacy media, stands up better than I remembered it from the first reading. The embrace of media content regulation by a “liberal” administration is especially chilling at a time when talk of re-imposing the “Fairness Doctrine” and enforcing “network neutrality” is afoot in Washington.

All editions of this book are out of print, but used copies of the mass-market paperback are presently available for little more than the shipping cost. Get yours before the bad guys clean out the shelves!

December 2008 Permalink

Duesberg, Peter H. Inventing the AIDS Virus. Washington: Regnery, 1996. ISBN 0-89526-470-6.

June 2001 Permalink

Fallaci, Oriana. La rage et l'orgueil. Paris: Plon, 2002. ISBN 2-259-19712-4.
An English translation of this book was published in October 2002.

June 2002 Permalink

Fallaci, Oriana. La Force de la Raison. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2004. ISBN 2-268-05264-8.
If, fifty years from now, there still are historians permitted to chronicle the civilisation of Western Europe (which, if the trends described in this book persist, may not be the way to bet), Fallaci may be seen as a figure like Churchill in the 1930s, willing to speak the truth about a clear and present danger, notwithstanding the derision and abuse doing so engenders from those who prefer to live the easy life, avoid difficult decisions, and hope things will just get better. In this, and her earlier La rage et l'orgueil (June 2002), Fallaci warns, in stark and uncompromising terms verging occasionally on a rant, of the increasing Islamicisation of Western Europe, and decries the politicians, church figures, and media whose inaction or active efforts aid and abet it. She argues that what is at risk is nothing less than European civilisation itself, which Islamic figures openly predict among themselves eventually being transformed through the inexorable power of demographics and immigration into an Islamic Republic of “Eurabia”. The analysis of the “natural alliance” between the extreme political left and radical Islam is brilliant, and brings to mind L'Islam révolutionnaire (December 2003) by terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez). There is a shameful little piece of paper tipped into the pages of the book by the publisher, who felt no need for a disclaimer when earlier publishing the screed by mass murderer “Carlos”. In language worthy of Pierre Laval, they defend its publication in the interest of presenting a «différent» viewpoint, and ask readers to approach it “critically, in light of the present-day international context” (my translation).

December 2004 Permalink

Fergusson, Adam. When Money Dies. New York: PublicAffairs, [1975] 2010. ISBN 978-1-58648-994-6.

This classic work, originally published in 1975, is the definitive history of the great inflation in Weimar Germany, culminating in the archetypal paroxysm of hyperinflation in the Fall of 1923, when Reichsbank printing presses were cranking out 100 trillion (1012) mark banknotes as fast as paper could be fed to them, and government expenditures were 6 quintillion (1018) marks while, in perhaps the greatest achievement in deficit spending of all time, revenues in all forms accounted for only 6 quadrillion (1015) marks. The book has long been out of print and much in demand by students of monetary madness, driving the price of used copies into the hundreds of dollars (although, to date, not trillions and quadrillions—patience). Fortunately for readers interested in the content and not collectibility, the book has been re-issued in a new paperback and electronic edition, just as inflation has come back onto the radar in the over-leveraged economies of the developed world. The main text is unchanged, and continues to use mid-1970s British nomenclature for large numbers (“millard” for 109, “billion” for 1012 and so on) and pre-decimalisation pounds, shillings, and pence for Sterling values. A new note to this edition explains how to convert the 1975 values used in the text to their approximate present-day equivalents.

The Weimar hyperinflation is an oft-cited turning point in twentieth century, but like many events of that century, much of the popular perception and portrayal of it in the legacy media is incorrect. This work is an in-depth antidote to such nonsense, concentrating almost entirely upon the inflation itself, and discussing other historical events and personalities only when relevant to the main topic. To the extent people are aware of the German hyperinflation at all, they'll usually describe it as a deliberate and cynical ploy by the Weimar Republic to escape the reparations for World War I exacted under the Treaty of Versailles by inflating away the debt owed to the Allies by debasing the German mark. This led to a cataclysmic episode of hyperinflation where people had to take a wheelbarrow of banknotes to the bakery to buy a loaf of bread and burning money would heat a house better than the firewood or coal it would buy. The great inflation and the social disruption it engendered led directly to the rise of Hitler.

What's wrong with this picture? Well, just about everything…. Inflation of the German mark actually began with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 when the German Imperial government, expecting a short war, decided to finance the war effort by deficit spending and printing money rather than raising taxes. As the war dragged on, this policy continued and was reinforced, since it was decided that adding heavy taxes on top of the horrific human cost and economic privations of the war would be disastrous to morale. As a result, over the war years of 1914–1918 the value of the mark against other currencies fell by a factor of two and was halved again in the first year of peace, 1919. While Germany was committed to making heavy reparation payments, these payments were denominated in gold, not marks, so inflating the mark did nothing to reduce the reparation obligations to the Allies, and thus provided no means of escaping them. What inflation and the resulting cheap mark did, however, was to make German exports cheap on the world market. Since export earnings were the only way Germany could fund reparations, promoting exports through inflation was both a way to accomplish this and to promote social peace through full employment, which was in fact achieved through most of the early period of inflation. By early 1920 (well before the hyperinflationary phase is considered to have kicked in), the mark had fallen to one fortieth of its prewar value against the British pound and U.S. dollar, but the cost of living in Germany had risen only by a factor of nine. This meant that German industrialists and their workers were receiving a flood of marks for the products they exported which could be spent advantageously on the domestic market. Since most of Germany's exports at the time relied little on imported raw materials and products, this put Germany at a substantial advantage in the world market, which was much remarked upon by British and French industrialists at the time, who were prone to ask, “Who won the war, anyway?”.

While initially beneficial to large industry and its organised labour force which was in a position to negotiate wages that kept up with the cost of living, and a boon to those with mortgaged property, who saw their principal and payments shrink in real terms as the currency in which they were denominated declined in value, the inflation was disastrous to pensioners and others on fixed incomes denominated in marks, as their standard of living inexorably eroded.

The response of the nominally independent Reichsbank under its President since 1908, Dr. Rudolf Havenstein, and the German government to these events was almost surreally clueless. As the originally mild inflation accelerated into dire inflation and then headed vertically on the exponential curve into hyperinflation they universally diagnosed the problem as “depreciation of the mark on the foreign exchange market” occurring for some inexplicable reason, which resulted in a “shortage of currency in the domestic market”, which could only be ameliorated by the central bank's revving up its printing presses to an ever-faster pace and issuing notes of larger and larger denomination. The concept that this tsunami of paper money might be the cause of the “depreciation of the mark” both at home and abroad, never seemed to enter the minds of the masters of the printing presses.

It's not like this hadn't happened before. All of the sequelæ of monetary inflation have been well documented over forty centuries of human history, from coin clipping and debasement in antiquity through the demise of every single unbacked paper currency ever created. Lord D'Abernon, the British ambassador in Berlin and British consular staff in cities across Germany precisely diagnosed the cause of the inflation and reported upon it in detail in their dispatches to the Foreign Office, but their attempts to explain these fundamentals to German officials were in vain. The Germans did not even need to look back in history at episodes such as the assignat hyperinflation in revolutionary France: just across the border in Austria, a near-identical hyperinflation had erupted just a few years earlier, and had eventually been stabilised in a manner similar to that eventually employed in Germany.

The final stages of inflation induce a state resembling delirium, where people seek to exchange paper money for anything at all which might keep its value even momentarily, farmers with abundant harvests withhold them from the market rather than exchange them for worthless paper, foreigners bearing sound currency descend upon the country and buy up everything for sale at absurdly low prices, employers and towns, unable to obtain currency to pay their workers, print their own scrip, further accelerating the inflation, and the professional and middle classes are reduced to penury or liquidated entirely, while the wealthy, industrialists, and unionised workers do reasonably well by comparison.

One of the principal problems in coping with inflation, whether as a policy maker or a citizen or business owner attempting to survive it, is inherent in its exponential growth. At any moment along the path, the situation is perceived as a “crisis” and the current circumstances “unsustainable”. But an exponential curve is self-similar: when you're living through one, however absurd the present situation may appear to be based on recent experience, it can continue to get exponentially more bizarre in the future by the inexorable continuation of the dynamic driving the curve. Since human beings have evolved to cope with mostly linear processes, we are ill-adapted to deal with exponential growth in anything. For example, we run out of adjectives: after you've used up “crisis”, “disaster”, “calamity”, “catastrophe”, “collapse”, “crash”, “debacle”, “ruin”, “cataclysm”, “fiasco”, and a few more, what do you call it the next time they tack on three more digits to all the money?

This very phenomenon makes it difficult to bring inflation to an end before it completely undoes the social fabric. The longer inflation persists, the more painful wringing it out of an economy will be, and consequently the greater the temptation to simply continue to endure the ruinous exponential. Throughout the period of hyperinflation in Germany, the fragile government was painfully aware that any attempt to stabilise the currency would result in severe unemployment, which radical parties of both the Left and Right were poised to exploit. In fact, the hyperinflation was ended only by the elected government essentially ceding its powers to an authoritarian dictatorship empowered to put down social unrest as the costs of its policies were felt. At the time the stabilisation policies were put into effect in November 1923, the mark was quoted at six trillion to the British pound, and the paper marks printed and awaiting distribution to banks filled 300 ten-ton railway boxcars.

What lessons does this remote historical episode have for us today? A great many, it seems to me. First and foremost, when you hear pundits holding forth about the Weimar inflation, it's valuable to know that much of what they're talking about is folklore and conventional wisdom which has little to do with events as they actually happened. Second, this chronicle serves to remind the reader of the one simple fact about inflation that politicians, bankers, collectivist media, organised labour, and rent-seeking crony capitalists deploy an entire demagogic vocabulary to conceal: that inflation is caused by an increase in the money supply, not by “greed”, “shortages”, “speculation”, or any of the other scapegoats trotted out to divert attention from where blame really lies: governments and their subservient central banks printing money (or, in current euphemism, “quantitative easing”) to stealthily default upon their obligations to creditors. Third, wherever and whenever inflation occurs, its ultimate effect is the destruction of the middle class, which has neither the political power of organised labour nor the connections and financial resources of the wealthy. Since liberal democracy is, in essence, rule by the middle class, its destruction is the precursor to establishment of authoritarian rule, which will be welcomed after the once-prosperous and self-reliant bourgeoisie has been expropriated by inflation and reduced to dependence upon the state.

The Weimar inflation did not bring Hitler to power—for one thing the dates just don't work. The inflation came to an end in 1923, the year Hitler's beer hall putsch in Munich failed ignominiously and resulted in his imprisonment. The stabilisation of the economy in the following years was widely considered the death knell for radical parties on both the Left and Right, including Hitler's. It was not until the onset of the Great Depression following the 1929 crash that rising unemployment, falling wages, and a collapsing industrial economy as world trade contracted provided an opening for Hitler, and he did not become chancellor until 1933, almost a decade after the inflation ended. And yet, while there was no direct causal connection between the inflation and Hitler's coming to power, the erosion of civil society and the rule of law, the destruction of the middle class, and the lingering effects of the blame for these events being placed on “speculators” all set the stage for the eventual Nazi takeover.

The technology and complexity of financial markets have come a long way from “Railway Rudy” Havenstein and his 300 boxcars of banknotes to “Helicopter BenBernanke. While it used to take years of incompetence and mismanagement, leveling of vast forests, and acres of steam powered printing presses to destroy an industrial and commercial republic and impoverish those who sustain its polity, today a mere fat-finger on a keyboard will suffice. And yet the dynamic of inflation, once unleashed, proceeds on its own timetable, often taking longer than expected to corrode the institutions of an economy, and with ups and downs which tempt investors back into the market right before the next sickening slide. The endpoint is always the same: destruction of the middle class and pensioners who have provided for themselves and the creation of a dependent class of serfs at the mercy of an authoritarian regime. In past inflations, including the one documented in this book, this was an unintended consequence of ill-advised monetary policy. I suspect the crowd presently running things views this as a feature, not a bug.

A Kindle edition is available, in which the table of contents and notes are properly linked to the text, but the index is simply a list of terms, not linked to their occurrences in the text.

May 2011 Permalink

Ferrigno, Robert. Prayers for the Assassin. New York: Scribner, 2006. ISBN 0-7432-7289-7.
The year is 2040. The former United States have fissioned into the coast-to-coast Islamic Republic in the north and the Bible Belt from Texas eastward to the Atlantic, with the anything-goes Nevada Free State acting as a broker between them, pressure relief valve, and window to the outside world. The collapse of the old decadent order was triggered by the nuclear destruction of New York and Washington, and the radioactive poisoning of Mecca by a dirty bomb in 2015, confessed to by an agent of the Mossad, who revealed a plot to set the Islamic world and the West against one another. In the aftermath, a wave of Islamic conversion swept the West, led by the glitterati and opinion leaders, with hold-outs fleeing to the Bible Belt, which co-exists with the Islamic Republic in a state of low intensity warfare. China has become the world's sole superpower, with Russia, reaping the benefit of refugees from overrun Israel, the high-technology centre.

This novel is set in the Islamic Republic, largely in the capital of Seattle (no surprise—even pre-transition, that's where the airheads seem to accrete, and whence bad ideas and flawed technologies seep out to despoil the heartland). The society sketched is believably rich and ambiguous: Muslims are divided into “modern”, “moderate”, and “fundamentalist” communities which more or less co-exist, like the secular, religious, and orthodox communities in present-day Israel. Many Catholics have remained in the Islamic Republic, reduced to dhimmitude and limited in their career aspirations, but largely left alone as long as they keep to themselves. The Southwest, with its largely Catholic hispanic population, is a zone of relative personal liberty within the Islamic Republic, much like Kish Island in Iran. Power in the Islamic Republic, as in Iran, is under constant contention among national security, religious police, the military, fanatic “fedayeen”, and civil authority, whose scheming against one another leaves cracks in which the clever can find a modicum of freedom.

But the historical events upon which the Islamic Republic is founded may not be what they seem, and the protagonists, the adopted but estranged son and daughter of the shadowy head of state security, must untangle decades of intrigue and misdirection to find the truth and make it public. There are some thoughtful and authentic touches in the world sketched in this novel: San Francisco has become a hotbed of extremist fundamentalism, which might seem odd until you reflect that moonbat collectivism and environmentalism share much of the same desire to make the individual submit to externally imposed virtue which suffuses radical Islam. Properly packaged and marketed, Islam can be highly attractive to disillusioned leftists, as the conversion of Carlos “the Jackal” from fanatic Marxist to “revolutionary Islam” demonstrates.

There are a few goofs. Authors who include nuclear weapons in their stories really ought seek the advice of somebody who knows about them, or at least research them in the Nuclear Weapons FAQ. The “fissionable fuel rods from a new Tajik reactor…made from a rare isotope, supposedly much more powerful than plutonium” on p. 212, purportedly used to fabricate a five megaton bomb, is the purest nonsense in about every way imaginable. First of all, there are no isotopes, rare or otherwise, which are better than highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium for fission weapons. Second, there's no way you could possibly make a five megaton fission bomb, regardless of the isotope you used—to get such a yield you'd need so much fission fuel that it would be much more than a critical mass and predetonate, which would ruin your whole day. The highest yield fission bomb ever built was Ted Taylor's Mk 18F Super Oralloy Bomb (SOB), which contained about four critical masses of U-235, and depended upon the very low neutron background of HEU to permit implosion assembly before predetonation. The SOB had a yield of about 500 kt; with all the short half-life junk in fuel rods, there's no way you could possibly approach that yield, not to speak of something ten times as great. If you need high yield, tritium boosting or a full-fledged two stage Teller-Ulam fusion design is the only way to go. The author also shares the common misconception in thrillers that radiation is something like an infectuous disease which permanently contaminates everything it touches. Unfortunately, this fallacy plays a significant part in the story.

Still, this is a well-crafted page-turner which, like the best alternative history, is not only entertaining but will make you think. The blogosphere has been chattering about this book (that's where I came across it), and they're justified in recommending it. The Web site for the book, complete with Flash animation and an annoying sound track, includes background information and the author's own blog with links to various reviews.

March 2006 Permalink

Ferrigno, Robert. Sins of the Assassin. New York: Scribner, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4165-3765-6.
Here we have the eagerly awaited sequel to the author's compelling thriller Prayers for the Assassin (March 2006), now billed as the second volume in the eventual Assassin Trilogy. The book in the middle of a trilogy is often the most difficult to write. Readers are already acquainted with the setting, scenario, and many of the main characters, and aren't engaged by the novelty of discovering something entirely new. The plot usually involves ramifying the events of the first installment, while further developing characters and introducing new ones, but the reader knows at the outset that, while there may be subplots which are resolved, the book will end with the true climax of the story reserved for the final volume. These considerations tend to box in an author, and pulling off a volume two which is satisfying even when you know you're probably going to have to wait another two years to see how it all comes out is a demanding task, and one which Robert Ferrigno accomplishes magnificently in this novel.

Set three years after Prayers, the former United States remains divided into a coast-to-coast Islamic Republic, with the Christian fundamentalist Bible Belt in Texas and the old South, Mormon Territories and the Nevada Free State in the West, and the independent Nuevo Florida in the southeast, with low intensity warfare and intrigue at the borders. Both northern and southern frontiers are under pressure from green technology secular Canada and the expansionist Aztlán Empire, which is chipping away at the former U.S. southwest.

Something is up in the Bible Belt, and retired Fedayeen shadow warrior Rakkim Epps returns to his old haunts in the Belt to find out what's going on and prevent a potentially destabilising discovery from shifting the balance of power on the continent. He is accompanied by one of the most unlikely secret agents ever, whose story of self-discovery and growth is a delightful theme throughout. This may be a dystopian future, but it is populated by genuine heroes and villains, all of whom are believable human beings whose character and lives have made them who they are. There are foul and despicable characters to be sure, but also those you're inclined to initially dismiss as evil but discover through their honour and courage to be good people making the best of bad circumstances.

This novel is substantially more “science fiction-y” than Prayers—a number of technological prodigies figure in the tale, some of which strike this reader as implausible for a world less than forty years from the present, absent a technological singularity (which has not happened in this timeline), and especially with the former United States and Europe having turned into technological backwaters. I am not, however, going to engage in my usual quibbling: most of the items in question are central to the plot and mysteries the reader discovers as the story unfolds, and simply to cite them would be major spoilers. Even if I put them inside a spoiler warning, you'd be tempted to read them anyway, which would detract from your enjoyment of the book, which I don't want to do, given how much I enjoyed it. I will say that one particular character has what may be potentially the most itchy bioenhancement in all of modern fiction, and perhaps that contributes to his extravagantly foul disposition. In addition to the science fictional aspects, the supernatural appears to enter the story on several occasions—or maybe not—we'll have to wait until the next book to know for sure.

One thing you don't want to do is to read this book before first reading Prayers for the Assassin. There is sufficient background information mentioned in passing for the story to be comprehensible and enjoyable stand-alone, but if you don't understand the character and history of Redbeard, the dynamics of the various power centres in the Islamic Republic, or the fragile social equilibrium among the various communities within it, you'll miss a great deal of the richness of this future history. Fortunately, a mass market paperback edition of the first volume is now available.

You can read the first chapter of this book online at the author's Web site.

March 2008 Permalink

Ferrigno, Robert. Heart of the Assassin. New York: Scribner, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4165-3767-0.
This novel completes the author's Assassin Trilogy, which began with Prayers for the Assassin (March 2006) and continued with Sins of the Assassin (March 2008). This is one of those trilogies in which you really want to read the books in order. While there is some effort to provide context for readers who start in the middle, you'll miss so much of the background of the scenario and the development and previous interactions of characters that you'll miss a great deal of what's going on. If you're unfamiliar with the world in which these stories are set, please see my comments on the earlier books in the series.

As this novel opens, a crisis is brewing as a heavily armed and increasingly expansionist Aztlán is ready to exploit the disunity of the Islamic Republic and the Bible Belt, most of whose military forces are arrayed against one another, to continue to nibble away at both. Visionaries on both sides imagine a reunification of the two monotheistic parts of what were once the United States, while the Old One and his mega-Machiavellian daughter Baby work their dark plots in the background. Former fedayeen shadow warrior Rakkim Epps finds himself on missions to the darkest part of the Republic, New Fallujah (the former San Francisco), and to the radioactive remains of Washington D.C., seeking a relic which might have the power to unite the nation once again.

Having read and tremendously enjoyed the first two books of the trilogy, I was very much looking forward to this novel, but having now read it, I consider it a disappointment. As the trilogy has progressed, the author seems to have become ever more willing to invent whatever technology he needs at the moment to advance the plot, whether or not it is plausible or consistent with the rest of the world he has created, and to admit the supernatural into a story which started out set in a world of gritty reality. I spent the first 270 pages making increasingly strenuous efforts to suspend disbelief, but then when one of the characters uses a medical oxygen tank as a flamethrower, I “lost it” and started laughing out loud at each of the absurdities in the pages that followed: “DNA knives” that melt into a person's forearm, holodeck hotel rooms with faithful all-senses stimulation and simulated lifeforms, a ghost, miraculous religious relics, etc., etc. The first two books made the reader think about what it would be like if a post-apocalyptic Great Awakening reorganised the U.S. around Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. In this book, all of that is swept into the background, and it's all about the characters (who one ceases to care much about, as they become increasingly comic book like) and a political plot so preposterous it makes Dan Brown's novels seem like nonfiction.

If you've read the first two novels and want to discover how it all comes out, you will find all of the threads resolved in this book. For me, there were just too many “Oh come on, now!” moments for the result to be truly satisfying.

A podcast interview with the author is available. You can read the first chapter of this book online at the author's Web site.

October 2009 Permalink

Finkbeiner, Ann. The Jasons. New York: Viking, 2006. ISBN 0-670-03489-4.
Shortly after the launch of Sputnik thrust science and technology onto the front lines of the Cold War, a group of Manhattan Project veterans led by John Archibald Wheeler decided that the government needed the very best advice from the very best people to navigate these treacherous times, and that the requisite talent was not to be found within the weapons labs and other government research institutions, but in academia and industry, whence it should be recruited to act as an independent advisory panel. This fit well with the mandate of the recently founded ARPA (now DARPA), which was chartered to pursue “high-risk, high-payoff” projects, and needed sage counsel to minimise the former and maximise the latter.

The result was Jason (the name is a reference to Jason of the Argonauts, and is always used in the singular when referring to the group, although the members are collectively called “Jasons”). It is unlikely such a scientific dream team has ever before been assembled to work together on difficult problems. Since its inception in 1960, a total of thirteen known members of Jason have won Nobel prizes before or after joining the group. Members include Eugene Wigner, Charles Townes (inventor of the laser), Hans Bethe (who figured out the nuclear reaction that powers the stars), polymath and quark discoverer Murray Gell-Mann, Freeman Dyson, Val Fitch, Leon Lederman, and more, and more, and more.

Unlike advisory panels who attend meetings at the Pentagon for a day or two and draft summary reports, Jason members gather for six weeks in the summer and work together intensively, “actually solving differential equations”, to produce original results, sometimes inventions, for their sponsors. The Jasons always remained independent—while the sponsors would present their problems to them, it was the Jasons who chose what to work on.

Over the history of Jason, missile defence and verification of nuclear test bans have been a main theme, but along the way they have invented adaptive optics, which has revolutionised ground-based astronomy, explored technologies for detecting antipersonnel mines, and created, in the Vietnam era, the modern sensor-based “electronic battlefield”.

What motivates top-ranked, well-compensated academic scientists to spend their summers in windowless rooms pondering messy questions with troubling moral implications? This is a theme the author returns to again and again in the extensive interviews with Jasons recounted in this book. The answer seems to be something so outré on the modern university campus as to be difficult to vocalise: patriotism, combined with a desire so see that if such things be done, they should be done as wisely as possible.

October 2006 Permalink

Freeh, Louis J. with Howard Means. My FBI. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005. ISBN 0-312-32189-9.
This may be one of the most sanctimonious and self-congratulatory books ever written by a major U.S. public figure who is not Jimmy Carter. Not only is the book titled “My FBI” (gee, I always thought it was supposed to belong to the U.S. taxpayers who pay the G-men's salaries and buy the ammunition they expend), in the preface, where the author explains why he reversed his original decision not to write a memoir of his time at the FBI, he uses the words “I”, “me”, “my”, and “myself” a total of 91 times in four pages.

Only about half of the book covers Freeh's 1993–2001 tenure as FBI director; the rest is a straightforward autohagiography of his years as an altar boy, Eagle Scout, idealistic but apolitical law student during the turbulent early 1970s, FBI agent, crusading anti-Mafia federal prosecutor in New York City, and hard-working U.S. district judge, before bring appointed to the FBI job by Bill Clinton, who promised him independence and freedom from political interference in the work of the Bureau. Little did Freeh expect, when accepting the job, that he would spend much of his time in the coming years investigating the Clintons and their cronies. The tawdry and occasionally bizarre stories of those events as seen from the FBI fills a chapter and sets the background for the tense relations between the White House and FBI on other matters such as terrorism and counter-intelligence. The Oklahoma City and Saudi Arabian Khobar Towers bombings, the Atlanta Olympics bomb, the identification and arrest of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, and the discovery of long-term Soviet mole Robert Hanssen in the FBI all occurred on Freeh's watch; he provides a view of these events and the governmental turf battles they engendered from the perspective of the big office in the Hoover Building, but there's little or no new information about the events themselves. Freeh resigned the FBI directorship in June 2001, and September 11th of that year was the first day at his new job. (What do you do after nine years running the FBI? Go to work for a credit card company!) In a final chapter, he provides a largely exculpatory account of the FBI's involvement in counter-terrorism and what might have been done to prevent such terrorist strikes. He directly attacks Richard A. Clarke and his book Against All Enemies as a self-aggrandising account by a minor player including some outright fabrications.

Freeh's book provides a peek into the mind of a self-consciously virtuous top cop—if only those foolish politicians and their paranoid constituents would sign over the last shreds of their liberties and privacy (on p. 304 he explicitly pitches for key escrow and back doors in encryption products, arguing “there's no need for this technology to be any more intrusive than a wiretap on a phone line”—indeed!), the righteous and incorruptible enforcers of the law and impartial arbiters of justice could make their lives ever so much safer and fret-free. And perhaps if the human beings in possession of those awesome powers were, in fact, as righteous as Mr. Freeh seems to believe himself to be, then there would nothing to worry about. But evidence suggests cause for concern. On the next to last page of the book, p. 324, near the end of six pages of acknowledgements set in small type with narrow leading (didn't think we'd read that far, Mr. Freeh?), we find the author naming, as an exemplar of one of the “courageous and honorable men who serve us”, who “deserve the nation's praise and lasting gratitude”, one Lon Horiuchi, the FBI sniper who shot and killed Vicki Weaver (who was accused of no crime) while she was holding her baby in her hands during the Ruby Ridge siege in August of 1992. Horiuchi later pled the Fifth Amendment in testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 1995, ten years prior to Freeh's commendation of him here.

March 2006 Permalink

Fregosi, Paul. Jihad in the West. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998. ISBN 1-57392-247-1.

July 2002 Permalink

Galt, John [pseud.]. The Day the Dollar Died. Florida: Self-published, 2011.
I have often remarked in this venue how fragile the infrastructure of the developed world is, and how what might seem to be a small disruption could cascade into a black swan event which could potentially result in the end of the world as we know it. It is not only physical events such as EMP attacks, cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, or natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes which can set off the downspiral, but also loss of confidence in the financial system in which all of the myriad transactions which make up the global division of labour on which our contemporary society depends. In a fiat money system, where currency has no intrinsic value and is accepted only on the confidence that it will be subsequently redeemable for other goods without massive depreciation, loss of that confidence can bring the system down almost overnight, and this has happened again and again in the sorry millennia-long history of paper money. As economist Herbert Stein observed, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop”. But, when pondering the many “unsustainable” trends we see all around us today, it's important to bear in mind that they can often go on for much longer, diverging more into the world of weird than you ever imagined before stopping, and that when they finally do stop the débâcle can be more sudden and breathtaking in its consequences than even excitable forecasters conceived.

In this gripping thriller, the author envisions the sudden loss in confidence of the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar and the ability of the U.S. government to make good on its obligations catalysing a meltdown of the international financial system and triggering dire consequences within the United States as an administration which believes “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste” exploits the calamity to begin “fundamentally transforming the United States of America”. The story is told in a curious way: by one first-person narrator and from the viewpoint of other people around the country recounted in third-person omniscient style. This is unusual, but I didn't find it jarring, and the story works.

The recounting of the aftermath of sudden economic collapse is compelling, and will probably make you rethink your own preparations for such a dire (yet, I believe, increasingly probable) event. The whole post-collapse scenario is a little too black helicopter for my taste: we're asked to simultaneously believe that a government which has bungled its way into an apocalyptic collapse of the international economic system (entirely plausible in my view) will be ruthlessly efficient in imposing its new order (nonsense—it will be as mindlessly incompetent as in everything else it attempts). But the picture painted of how citizens can be intimidated or co-opted into becoming collaborators rings true, and will give you pause as you think about your friends and neighbours as potential snitches working for the Man. I found it particularly delightful that the author envisions a concept similar to my 1994 dystopian piece, Unicard, as playing a part in the story.

At present, this book is available only in PDF format. I read it with Stanza on my iPad, which provides a reading experience equivalent to the Kindle and iBooks applications. The author says other electronic editions of this book will be forthcoming in the near future; when they're released they should be linked to the page cited above. The PDF edition is perfectly readable, however, so if this book interests you, there's no reason to wait. And, hey, it's free! As a self-published work, it's not surprising there are a number of typographical errors, although very few factual errors I noticed. That said, I've read novels published by major houses with substantially more copy editing goofs, and the errors here never confuse the reader nor get in the way of the narrative. For the author's other writings and audio podcasts, visit his Web site.

August 2011 Permalink

Gelernter, David. America-Lite. New York: Encounter Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-59403-606-4.
At the end of World War II, the United States bestrode the world like a colossus. All of its industrial competitors had been devastated by the war; it was self-sufficient in most essential resources; it was the unquestioned leader in science, technology, and medicine; its cultural influence was spread around the world by Hollywood movies; and the centre of the artistic and literary world had migrated from Paris to New York. The generation which had won the war, enabled by the G.I. Bill, veterans swarmed into institutions of higher learning formerly reserved for scions of the wealthy and privileged—by 1947, fully 49% of college admissions were veterans.

By 1965, two decades after the end of the war, it was pretty clear to anybody with open eyes that it all had begun to go seriously wrong. The United States was becoming ever more deeply embroiled in a land war in Asia without a rationale comprehensible to those who paid for it and were conscripted to fight there; the centres of once-great cities were beginning a death spiral in which a culture of dependency spawned a poisonous culture of crime, drugs, and the collapse of the family; the humiliatingly defeated and shamefully former Nazi collaborator French were draining the U.S. Treasury of its gold reserves, and the U.S. mint had replaced its silver coins with cheap counterfeit replacements. In August of 1965, the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles exploded in riots, and the unthinkable—U.S. citizens battling one another with deadly force in a major city, became the prototype for violent incidents to come. What happened?

In this short book (just 200 pages in the print edition), the author argues that it was what I have been calling the “culture crash” for the last decade. Here, this event is described as the “cultural revolution”: not a violent upheaval as happened in China, but a steady process through which the keys to the élite institutions which transmit the culture from generation to generation were handed over, without a struggle, from the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) patricians which had controlled them since Colonial days, to a new intellectual class, influenced by ideas from Continental Europe, which the author calls PORGIs (post-religious globalist intellectuals). Now, this is not to say that there were not intellectuals at top-tier institutions of higher learning before the cultural revolution; but they were not in charge: those who were saw their mission in a fundamentally conservative way—to conserve the grand tradition of Western civilisation by transmitting it to each successive generation, while inculcating in them the moral compass which would make them worthy leaders in business, the military, and public affairs.

The PORGIs had no use for this. They had theory, and if the facts weren't consistent with the theory and the consequences of implementing it disastrously different from those intended, well then the facts must be faulty because the theory was crystalline perfection in itself. (And all of this became manifest well before the cognitive dissonance between academic fantasy and the real world became so great that the intellectuals had to invent postmodernism, denying the very existence of objective reality.)

The PORGIs (Well, I suppose we can at least take comfort that the intellectual high ground wasn't taken over by Corgis; imagine the chaos that would have engendered!) quickly moved to eliminate the core curricula in higher learning which taught Western history, culture, and moral tradition. This was replaced (theory being supreme, and unchallenged), with indoctrination in an ideology unmoored to the facts. Rather than individuals able to think and learn on their own, those educated by the PORGIs became servomechanisms who, stimulated by this or that keyword, would spit out a rote response: “Jefferson?” “White slaveowner!”

These, the generation educated by the PORGIs, starting around the mid 1960s, the author calls PORGI airheads. We all have our own “mental furniture” which we've accumulated over our lives—the way we make sense of the bewildering flow of information from the outside world: sorting it into categories, prioritising it, and deciding how to act upon it. Those with a traditional (pre-PORGI) education, or those like myself and the vast majority of people my age or older who figured it out on their own by reading books and talking to other people, have painfully built our own mental furniture, re-arranged it as facts came in which didn't fit with the ways we'd come to understand things, and sometimes heaved the old Barcalounger out the window when something completely contradicted our previous assumptions. With PORGI airheads, none of this obtains. They do not have the historical or cultural context to evaluate how well their pre-programmed responses fit the unforgiving real world. They are like parrots: you wave a French fry at them and they say, “Hello!” Another French fry, “Hello!” You wave a titanium billet painted to look like a French fry, “Hello!” Beak notched from the attempt to peel a titanium ingot, you try it once again.


Is there anybody who has been visible on the Internet for more than a few years who has not experienced interactions with these people? Here is my own personal collection of greatest hits.

Gelernter argues that Barack Obama is the first PORGI airhead to be elected to the presidency. What some see as ideology may be better explained as servomechanism “Hello!” response to stimuli for which his mentors have pre-programmed him. He knows nothing of World War II, or the Cold War, or of colonialism in Africa, or of the rôle of the British Empire in eradicating the slave trade. All of these were deemed irrelevant by the PORGIs and PORGI airheads who trained him. And the 53% who voted for him were made a majority by the PORGI airheads cranked out every year and injected into the bloodstream of the dying civil society by an educational system almost entirely in the hands of the enemy.

What is to be done? The author's prescription is much the same as my own. We need to break the back of the higher education (and for that matter, the union-dominated primary and secondary education) system and replace it with an Internet-based educational delivery system where students will have access to courses taught by the best pedagogues in the world (ranked in real time not just by student thumbs up and down, but by objectively measured outcomes, such as third-party test scores and employment results). Then we need independent certification agencies, operating in competition with one another much like bond rating agencies, which issue “e-diplomas” based on examinations (not just like the SAT and bar exams, but also in-person and gnarly like a Ph.D. defence for the higher ranks). The pyramid of prestige would remain, as well as the cost structure: a Doctorate in Russian Literature from Harvard would open more doors at the local parking garage or fast food joint than one from Bob's Discount Degrees, but you get what you pay for. And, in any case, the certification would cost a tiny fraction of spending your prime intellectually productive years listening to tedious lectures given by graduate students marginally proficient in your own language.

The PORGIs correctly perceived the U.S. educational system to be the “keys to the kingdom”. They began, in Gramsci's long march through the institutions, to put in place the mechanisms which would tilt the electorate toward their tyrannical agenda. It is too late to reverse it; the educational establishment must be destroyed. “Destroyed?”, you ask—“These are strong words! Do you really mean it? Is it possible?” Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational global data network! Record stores…gone! Book stores…gone! Universities….

In the Kindle edition (which costs almost as much as the hardcover), the end-notes are properly bidirectionally linked to citations in the text, but the index is just a useless list of terms without links to references in the text. I'm sorry if I come across as a tedious “index hawk”, but especially when reviewing a book about declining intellectual standards, somebody has to do it.

August 2012 Permalink

Geraghty, Jim. The Weed Agency. New York: Crown Forum, 2014. ISBN 978-0-7704-3652-0.
During the Carter administration, the peanut farmer become president, a man very well acquainted with weeds, created the Agency of Invasive Species (AIS) within the Department of Agriculture to cope with the menace. Well, not really—the agency which occupies centre stage in this farce is fictional but, as the author notes in the preface, the Federal Interagency Committee for the Management of Noxious and Exotic Weeds, the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, the Federal Interagency Committee on Invasive Terrestrial Animals and Pathogens, and the National Invasive Species Council of which they are members along with a list of other agencies, all do exist. So while it may seem amusing that a bankrupt and over-extended government would have an agency devoted to weeds, in fact that real government has an entire portfolio of such agencies, along with, naturally, a council to co-ordinate their activities.

The AIS has a politically appointed director, but the agency had been run since inception by Administrative Director Adam Humphrey, career civil service, who is training his deputy, Jack Wilkins, new to the civil service after a frustrating low-level post in the Carter White House, in the ways of the permanent bureaucracy and how to deal with political appointees, members of congress, and rival agencies. Humphrey has an instinct for how to position the agency's mission as political winds shift over the decades: during the Reagan years as American agriculture's first line of defence against the threat of devastation by Soviet weeds, at the cutting edge of information technology revolutionising citizens' interaction with government in the Gingrich era, and essential to avert even more disastrous attacks on the nation after the terrorist attacks in 2001.

Humphrey and Wilkins are masters of the care and feeding of congressional allies, who are rewarded with agency facilities in their districts, and neutralising the occasional idealistic budget cutter who wishes to limit the growth of the agency's budget or, horror of horrors, abolish it.

We also see the agency through the eyes of three young women who arrived at the agency in 1993 suffused with optimism for “reinventing government” and “building a bridge to the twenty-first century”. While each of them—Lisa, hired in the communications office; Jamie, an event co-ordinator; and Ava, a technology systems analyst—were well aware that their positions in the federal bureaucracy were deep in the weeds, they believed they had the energy and ambition to excel and rise to positions where they would have the power to effect change for the better.

Then they began to actually work within the structure of the agency and realise what the civil service actually was. Thomas Sowell has remarked that the experience in his life which transformed him from being a leftist (actually, a Marxist) to a champion of free markets and individual liberty was working as a summer intern in 1960 in a federal agency. He says that after experiencing the civil service first-hand, he realised that whatever were the problems of society that concerned him, government bureaucracy was not the solution. Lisa, Jamie, and Ava all have similar experiences, and react in different ways. Ava decides she just can't take it any more and is tempted by a job in the middle of the dot com boom. Her experience is both entertaining and enlightening.

Even the most obscure federal agency has the power to mess up on a colossal scale and wind up on the front page of the Washington Post and the focus of a congressional inquest. So it was to be for the AIS, when an ill wind brought a threat to agriculture in the highly-visible districts of powerful members of congress. All the bureaucratic and political wiles of the agency had to be summoned to counter the threat and allow the agency to continue to do what such organisations do best: nothing.

Jim Geraghty is a veteran reporter, contributing editor, and blogger at National Review; his work has appeared in a long list of other publications. His reportage has always been characterised by a dry wit, but for a first foray into satire and farce, this is a masterful accomplishment. It is as funny as some of the best work of Christopher Buckley, and that's about as good as contemporary political humour gets. Geraghty's plot is not as zany as most of Buckley's, but it is more grounded in the political reality of Washington. One of the most effective devices in the book is to describe this or that absurdity and then add a footnote documenting that what you've just read actually exists, or that an outrageous statement uttered by a character was said on the record by a politician or bureaucrat.

Much of this novel reads like an American version of the British sitcom Yes Minister (Margaret Thatcher's favourite television programme), and although the author doesn't mention it in the author's note or acknowledgements, I suspect that the master civil servant's being named “Humphrey” is an homage to that series. Sharp-eyed readers will discover another oblique reference to Yes Minister in the entry for November 2012 in the final chapter.

June 2014 Permalink

Gertz, Bill. Breakdown. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-89526-148-0.

October 2002 Permalink

Gingrich, Newt. Real Change. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59698-053-2.
Conventional wisdom about the political landscape in the United States is that it's split right down the middle (evidenced by the last two extremely close Presidential elections), with partisans of the Left and Right increasingly polarised, unwilling and/or unable to talk to one another, both committed to a “no prisoners” agenda of governance should they gain decisive power. Now, along comes Newt Gingrich who argues persuasively in this book, backed by extensive polling performed on behalf of his American Solutions organisation (results of these polls are freely available to all on the site), that the United States have, in fact, a centre-right majority which agrees on many supposedly controversial issues in excess of 70%, with a vocal hard-left minority using its dominance of the legacy media, academia, and the activist judiciary and trial lawyer cesspits to advance its agenda through non-democratic means.

Say what you want about Newt, but he's one of the brightest intellects to come onto the political stage in any major country in the last few decades. How many politicians can you think of who write what-if alternative history novels? I think Newt is onto something here. Certainly there are genuinely divisive issues upon which the electorate is split down the middle. But on the majority of questions, there is a consensus on the side of common sense which only the legacy media's trying to gin up controversy obscures in a fog of bogus conflict.

In presenting solutions to supposedly intractable problems, the author contrasts “the world that works”: free citizens and free enterprise solving problems for the financial rewards from doing so, with “the world that fails”: bureaucracies seeking to preserve and expand their claim upon the resources of the productive sector of the economy. Government, as it has come to be understood in our foul epoch, exclusively focuses upon the latter. All of this can be seen as consequences of Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy, which states that in any bureaucratic organisation there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organisation, and those who work for the organisation itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who seek to protect and augment the compensation of all teachers, including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organisation, and will thence write the rules under which the organisation functions, to the detriment of those who are coerced to fund it.

Bureaucracy and bureaucratic government can be extremely efficient and effective, as long as its ends are understood! Gingrich documents how the Detroit school system, for example, delivers taxpayer funds to the administrators, union leaders, and unaccountable teachers who form its political constituency. Educating the kids? Well, that's not on the agenda! The world that fails actually works quite well for those it benefits—the problem is that without the market feedback which obtains in the world that works, the supposed beneficiaries of the system have no voice in obtaining the services they are promised.

This is a book so full of common sense that I'm sure it will be considered “outside the mainstream” in the United States. But those who live there, and residents of other industrialised countries facing comparable challenges as demographics collide with social entitlement programs, should seriously ponder the prescriptions here which, if presented by a political leader willing to engage the population on an intellectual level, might command majorities which remake the political map.

July 2008 Permalink

Gingrich, Newt with Joe DeSantis et al.. To Save America. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2010. ISBN 978-1-59698-596-4.
In the epilogue of Glenn Beck's The Overton Window (June 2010), he introduces the concept of a “topical storm”, defined as “a state in which so many conflicting thoughts are doing battle in your brain that you lose your ability to discern and act on any of them.” He goes on to observe that:

This state was regularly induced by PR experts to cloud and control issues in the public discourse, to keep thinking people depressed and apathetic on election days, and to discourage those who might be tempted to actually take a stand on a complex issue.

It is easy to imagine responsible citizens in the United States, faced with a topical storm of radical leftist “transformation” unleashed by the Obama administration and its Congressional minions, combined with a deep recession, high unemployment, impending financial collapse, and empowered adversaries around the world, falling into a lethargic state where each day's dismaying news simply deepens the depression and sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. Whether deliberately intended or not, this is precisely what the statists want, and it leads to a citizenry reduced to a despairing passivity as the chains of dependency are fastened about them.

This book is a superb antidote for those in topical depression, and provides common-sense and straightforward policy recommendations which can gain the support of the majorities needed to put them into place. Gingrich begins by surveying the present dire situation in the U.S. and what is at stake in the elections of 2010 and 2012, which he deems the most consequential elections in living memory. Unless stopped by voters at these opportunities, what he describes as a “secular-socialist machine” will be able to put policies in place which will restructure society in such as way as to create a dependent class of voters who will reliably return their statist masters to power for the foreseeable future, or at least until the entire enterprise collapses (which may be sooner, rather than later, but should not be wished for by champions of individual liberty as it will entail human suffering comparable to a military conquest and may result in replacement of soft tyranny by that of the jackbooted variety).

After describing the hole the U.S. have dug themselves into, the balance of the book contains prescriptions for getting out. The situation is sufficiently far gone, it is argued, that reforming the present corrupt bureaucratic system will not suffice—a regime pernicious in its very essence cannot be fixed by changes around the margin. What is needed, then, is not reform but replacement: repealing or sunsetting the bad policies of the present and replacing them with ones which make sense. In certain domains, this may require steps which seem breathtaking to present day sensibilities, but when something reaches its breaking point, drastic things will happen, for better or for worse. For example, what to do about activist left-wing Federal judges with lifetime tenure, who negate the people's will expressed through their elected legislators and executive branch? Abolish their courts! Hey, it worked for Thomas Jefferson, why not now?

Newt Gingrich seeks a “radical transformation” of U.S. society no less than does Barack Obama. Unlike Obama, however, his prescriptions, unlike his objectives, are mostly relatively subtle changes on the margin which will shift incentives in such a way that the ultimate goal will become inevitable in the fullness of time. One of the key formative events in Gingrich's life was the fall of the French Fourth Republic in 1958, which he experienced first hand while his career military stepfather was stationed in France. This both acquainted him with the possibility of unanticipated discontinuous change when the unsustainable can no longer be sustained, and the risk of a society with a long tradition of republican government and recent experience with fascist tyranny welcoming with popular acclaim what amounted to a military dictator as an alternative to chaos. Far better to reset the dials so that the society will start heading in the right direction, even if it takes a generation or two to set things aright (after all, depending on how you count, it's taken between three and five generations to dig the present hole) than to roll the dice and hope for the best after the inevitable (should present policies continue) collapse. That, after all, didn't work out too well for Russia, Germany, and China in the last century.

I have cited the authors in the manner above because a number of the chapters on specific policy areas are co-authored with specialists in those topics from Gingrich's own American Solutions and other organisations.

June 2010 Permalink

Goldberg, Bernard. Bias. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-89526-190-1.

January 2002 Permalink

Goldberg, Jonah. Liberal Fascism. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-51184-1.
This is a book which has been sorely needed for a long, long time, and the author has done a masterful job of identifying, disentangling, and dismantling the mountain of disinformation and obfuscation which has poisoned so much of the political discourse of the last half century.

As early as 1946, George Orwell observed in his essay “Politics and the English Language” that “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’”. This situation has only worsened in the succeeding decades, and finally we have here a book which thoroughly documents the origins of fascism as a leftist, collectivist ideology, grounded in Rousseau's (typically mistaken and pernicious) notion of the “general will”, and the direct descendant of the God-state first incarnated in the French Revolution and manifested in the Terror.

I'd have structured this book somewhat differently, but then when you've spent the last fifteen years not far from the French border, you may adopt a more top-down rationalist view of things; call it “geographical hazard”. There is a great deal of discussion here about the definitions and boundaries among the categories “progressive”, “fascist”, “Nazi”, “socialist”, “communist”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “reactionary”, “social Darwinist”, and others, but it seems to me there's a top-level taxonomic divide which sorts out much of the confusion: collectivism versus individualism. Collectivists—socialists, communists, fascists—believe the individual to be subordinate to the state and subject to its will and collective goals, while individualists believe the state, to the limited extent it exists, is legitimate only as it protects the rights of the sovereign citizens who delegate to it their common defence and provision of public goods.

The whole question of what constitutes conservatism is ill-defined until we get to the Afterword where, on p. 403, there is a beautiful definition which would far better have appeared in the Introduction: that conservatism consists in conserving what is, and that consequently conservatives in different societies may have nothing whatsoever in common among what they wish to conserve. The fact that conservatives in the United States wish to conserve “private property, free markets, individual liberty, freedom of conscience, and the rights of communities to determine for themselves how they will live within these guidelines” in no way identifies them with conservatives in other societies bent on conserving monarchy, a class system, or a discredited collectivist regime.

Although this is a popular work, the historical scholarship is thorough and impressive: there are 54 pages of endnotes and an excellent index. Readers accustomed to the author's flamboyant humorous style from his writings on National Review Online will find this a much more subdued read, appropriate to the serious subject matter.

Perhaps the most important message of this book is that, while collectivists hurl imprecations of “fascist” or “Nazi” at defenders of individual liberty, it is the latter who have carefully examined the pedigree of their beliefs and renounced those tainted by racism, authoritarianism, or other nostrums accepted uncritically in the past. Meanwhile, the self-described progressives (well, yes, but progress toward what?) have yet to subject their own intellectual heritage to a similar scrutiny. If and when they do so, they'll discover that both Mussolini's Fascist and Hitler's Nazi parties were considered movements of the left by almost all of their contemporaries before Stalin deemed them “right wing”. (But then Stalin called everybody who opposed him “right wing”, even Trotsky.) Woodrow Wilson's World War I socialism was, in many ways, the prototype of fascist governance and a major inspiration of the New Deal and Great Society. Admiration for Mussolini in the United States was widespread, and H. G. Wells, the socialist's socialist and one of the most influential figures in collectivist politics in the first half of the twentieth century said in a speech at Oxford in 1932, “I am asking for a Liberal Fascisti, for enlightened Nazis.”

If you're interested in understanding the back-story of the words and concepts in the contemporary political discourse which are hurled back and forth without any of their historical context, this is a book you should read. Fortunately, lots of people seem to be doing so: it's been in the top ten on Amazon.com for the last week. My only quibble may actually be a contributor to its success: there are many references to current events, in particular the 2008 electoral campaign for the U.S. presidency; these will cause the book to be dated when the page is turned on these ephemeral events, and it shouldn't be—the historical message is essential to anybody who wishes to decode the language and subtexts of today's politics, and this book should be read by those who've long forgotten the runners-up and issues of the moment.

A podcast interview with the author is available.

January 2008 Permalink

Goldman, David P. How Civilizations Die. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-1-596-98273-4.
I am writing this review in the final days of July 2013. A century ago, in 1913, there was a broad consensus as to how the 20th century would play out, at least in Europe. A balance of power had been established among the great powers, locked into alliances and linked with trade relationships which made it seem to most observers that large-scale conflict was so contrary to the self-interest of nations that it was unthinkable. And yet, within a year, the irrevocable first steps toward what would be the most sanguinary conflict in human history so far would be underway, a global conflict which would result in more than 37 million casualties, with 16 million dead. The remainder of the 20th century was nothing like the conventional wisdom of 1913, with an even more costly global war to come, the great powers of 1913 reduced to second rank, and a bipolar world emerging stabilised only by the mutual threat of annihilation by weapons which could destroy entire cities within a half hour of being launched.

What if our expectations for the 21st century are just as wrong as those of confident observers in 1913?

The author writes the “Spengler” column for Asia Times Online. It is commonplace to say “demographics is destiny”, yet Goldman is one a very few observers who really takes this to heart and projects the consequences of demographic trends which are visible to everybody but rarely projected to their logical conclusions. Those conclusions portend a very different 21st century than most anticipate. Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and increasingly, the so-called developing world are dying: they have fertility rates not just below replacement (around 2.1 children per woman), but in many cases deep into “demographic death spiral” territory from which no recovery is possible. At present fertility rates, by 2100 the population of Japan will have fallen by 55%, Russia 53%, Germany 46%, and Italy 39%. For a social welfare state, whose financial viability presumes a large population of young workers who will pay for the pensions and medical care of a smaller cohort of retirees, these numbers are simply catastrophic. The inverted age pyramid places an impossible tax burden upon workers, which further compounds the demographic collapse since they cannot afford to raise families large enough to arrest it.

Some in the Islamic world have noted this trend and interpreted it as meaning ultimate triumph for the ummah. To this, Goldman replies, “not so fast”—the book is subtitled “And Why Islam is Dying Too”. In fact, the Islamic world is in the process of undergoing a demographic transition as great as that of the Western nations, but on a time scale so short as to be unprecedented in human history. And while Western countries will face imposing problems coping with their aging populations, at least they have sufficient wealth to make addressing the problem, however painful, possible. Islamic countries without oil (which is where the overwhelming majority of Muslims live) have no such financial or human resources. Egypt, for example, imports about half its food calories and has a functional illiteracy rate of around 40%. These countries not only lack a social safety net, they cannot afford to feed their current population, not to mention a growing fraction of retirees.

When societies are humiliated (as Islam has been in its confrontation with modernity), they not only lose faith in the future, but lose their faith, as has happened in post-Christian Europe, and then they cease to have children. Further, as the author observes, while in traditional society children were an asset who would care for their parents in old age, “In the modern welfare state, child rearing is an act of altruism.” (p. 194) This altruism becomes increasingly difficult to justify when, increasingly, children are viewed as the property of the state, to be indoctrinated, medicated, and used to its ends and, should the parents object, abducted by an organ of the state. Why bother? Fewer and fewer couples of childbearing age make that choice. Nothing about this is new: Athens, Sparta, and Rome all experienced the same collapse in fertility when they ceased to believe in their future—and each one eventually fell.

This makes for an extraordinarily dangerous situation. The history of warfare shows that in many conflicts the majority of casualties on the losing side occur after it was clear to those in political and military leadership that defeat was inevitable. As trends forecaster Gerald Celente says, “When people have nothing to lose, they lose it.” Societies which become aware of their own impending demographic extinction or shrinking position on the geopolitical stage will be tempted to go for the main prize before they scroll off the screen. This means that calculations based upon rational self-interest may not predict the behaviour of dying countries, any more than all of the arguments in 1913 about a European war being irrational kept one from erupting a year later.

There is much, much more in this book, with some of which I agree and some of which I find dubious, but it is all worthy of your consideration. The author sees the United States and Israel as exceptional states, as both have largely kept their faith and maintained a sustainable birthrate to carry them into the future. He ultimately agrees with me (p. 264) that “It is cheaper to seal off the failed states from the rest of the world than to attempt to occupy them and control the travel of their citizens.”

The twenty-first century may be nothing like what the conventional wisdom crowd assume. Here is a provocative alternative view which will get you thinking about how different things may be, as trends already in progress, difficult or impossible to reverse, continue in the coming years.

In the Kindle edition, end notes are properly linked to the text and in notes which cite a document on the Web, the URL is linked to the on-line document. The index, however, is simply a useless list of terms without links to references in the text.

July 2013 Permalink

Greene, Graham. The Comedians. New York: Penguin Books, 1965. ISBN 0-14-018494-5.

April 2003 Permalink

Guéhenno, Jean-Marie. La fin de la démocratie. Paris: Flammarion, 1993. ISBN 2-08-081322-6.
This book, written over a decade ago, provides a unique take on what is now called “globalisation” and the evolution of transnational institutions. It has been remarkably prophetic in the years since its publication and a useful model for thinking about such issues today. Guéhenno argues that the concept of the nation-state emerged in Europe and North America due to their common history. The inviolability of borders, parliamentary democracy as a guarantor of liberty, and the concept of shared goals for the people of a nation are all linked to this peculiar history and consequently non-portable to regions with different histories and cultural heritages. He interprets most of disastrous post-colonial history of the third world as a mistaken attempt to implant the European nation-state model where the precursors and prerequisites for it do not exist. The process of globalisation and the consequent transformation of hierarchical power structures, both political and economic, into self-organising and dynamic networks is seen as rendering the nation-state obsolete even in the West, bringing to a close a form of organisation dating from the Enlightenment, replacing democratic rule with a system of administrative rules and regulations similar to the laws of the Roman Empire. While offering hope of eliminating the causes of the large-scale conflicts which characterised the 20th century, this scenario has distinct downsides: an increased homogenisation of global cultures and people into conformist “interchangeable parts”, a growing sense that while the system works, it lacks a purpose, erosion of social solidarity in favour of insecurity at all levels, pervasive corruption of public officials, and the emergence of diffuse violence which, while less extreme than 20th century wars, is also far more common and difficult to deter. That's a pretty good description of the last decade as I saw it, and an excellent list of things to ponder in the years to come. An English translation, The End of the Nation-State, is now available; I've not read it.

January 2004 Permalink

Hannan, Daniel. What Next. London: Head of Zeus, 2016. ISBN 978-1-78669-193-4.
On June 23rd, 2016, the people of the United Kingdom, against the advice of most politicians, big business, organised labour, corporate media, academia, and their self-styled “betters”, narrowly voted to re-assert their sovereignty and reclaim the independence of their proud nation, slowly being dissolved in an “ever closer union” with the anti-democratic, protectionist, corrupt, bankrupt, and increasingly authoritarian European Union (EU). The day of the referendum, bookmakers gave odds which implied less than a 20% chance of a Leave vote, and yet the morning after the common sense and perception of right and wrong of the British people, which had caused them to prevail in the face of wars, economic and social crises, and a changing international environment re-asserted itself, and caused them to say, “No more, thank you. We prefer our thousand year tradition of self-rule to being dictated to by unelected foreign oligarchic technocrats.”

The author, Conservative Member of the European Parliament for South East England since 1999, has been one of the most vociferous and eloquent partisans of Britain's reclaiming its independence and campaigners for a Leave vote in the referendum; the vote was a personal triumph for him. In the introduction, he writes, “After forty-three years, we have pushed the door ajar. A rectangle of light dazzles us and, as our eyes adjust, we see a summer meadow. Swallows swoop against the blue sky. We hear the gurgling of a little brook. Now to stride into the sunlight.” What next, indeed?

Before presenting his vision of an independent, prosperous, and more free Britain, he recounts Britain's history in the European Union, the sordid state of the institutions of that would-be socialist superstate, and the details of the Leave campaign, including a candid and sometimes acerbic view not just of his opponents but also nominal allies. Hannan argues that Leave ultimately won because those advocating it were able to present a positive future for an independent Britain. He says that every time the Leave message veered toward negatives of the existing relationship with the EU, in particular immigration, polling in favour of Leave declined, and when the positive benefits of independence—for example free trade with Commonwealth nations and the rest of the world, local control of Britain's fisheries and agriculture, living under laws made in Britain by a parliament elected by the British people—Leave's polling improved. Fundamentally, you can only get so far asking people to vote against something, especially when the establishment is marching in lockstep to create fear of the unknown among the electorate. Presenting a positive vision was, Hannan believes, essential to prevailing.

Central to understanding a post-EU Britain is the distinction between a free-trade area and a customs union. The EU has done its best to confuse people about this issue, presenting its single market as a kind of free trade utopia. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A free trade area is just what the name implies: a group of states which have eliminated tariffs and other barriers such as quotas, and allow goods and services to cross borders unimpeded. A customs union such as the EU establishes standards for goods sold within its internal market which, through regulation, members are required to enforce (hence, the absurdity of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels telling the French how to make cheese). Further, while goods conforming to the regulations can be sold within the union, there are major trade barriers with parties outside, often imposed to protect industries with political pull inside the union. For example, wine produced in California or Chile is subject to a 32% tariff imposed by the EU to protect its own winemakers. British apparel manufacturers cannot import textiles from India, a country with long historical and close commercial ties, without paying EU tariffs intended to protect uncompetitive manufacturers on the Continent. Pointy-headed and economically ignorant “green” policies compound the problem: a medium-sized company in the EU pays 20% more for energy than a competitor in China and twice as much as one in the United States. In international trade disputes, Britain in the EU is represented by one twenty-eighth of a European Commissioner, while an independent Britain will have its own seat, like New Zealand, Switzerland, and the US.

Hannan believes that after leaving the EU, the UK should join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and demonstrates how ETFA states such as Norway and Switzerland are more prosperous than EU members and have better trade with countries outside it. (He argues against joining the European Economic Area [EEA], from which Switzerland has wisely opted out. The EEA provides too much leverage to the Brussels imperium to meddle in the policies of member states.) More important for Britain's future than its relationship to the EU is its ability, once outside, to conclude bilateral trade agreements with important trading partners such as the US (even, perhaps, joining NAFTA), Anglosphere countries such as Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand, and India, China, Russia, Brazil and other nations: all of which it cannot do while a member of the EU.

What of Britain's domestic policy? Free of diktats from Brussels, it will be whatever Britons wish, expressed through their representatives at Westminster. Hannan quotes the psychologist Kurt Lewin, who in the 1940s described change as a three stage process. First, old assumptions about the way things are and the way they have to be become “unfrozen”. This ushers in a period of rapid transformation, where institutions become fluid and can adapt to changed circumstances and perceptions. Then the new situation congeals into a status quo which endures until the next moment of unfreezing. For four decades, Britain has been frozen into an inertia where parliamentarians and governments respond to popular demands all too often by saying, “We'd like to do that, but the EU doesn't permit it.” Leaving the EU will remove this comfortable excuse, and possibly catalyse a great unfreezing of Britain's institutions. Where will this ultimately go? Wherever the people wish it to. Hannan has some suggestions for potential happy outcomes in this bright new day.

Britain has devolved substantial governance to Scotland, and yet Scottish MPs still vote in Westminster for policies which affect England but to which their constituents are not subject. Perhaps federalisation might progress to the point where the House of Commons becomes the English Parliament, with either a reformed House of Lords or a new body empowered to vote only on matters affecting the entire Union such as national defence and foreign policy. Free of the EU, the UK can adopt competitive corporate taxation and governance policies, and attract companies from around the world to build not just headquarters but also research and development and manufacturing facilities. The national VAT could be abolished entirely and replaced with a local sales tax, paid at point of retail, set by counties or metropolitan areas in competition with one another (current payments to these authorities by the Treasury are almost exactly equal to revenue from the VAT); with competition, authorities will be forced to economise lest their residents vote with their feet. With their own source of revenue, decision making for a host of policies, from housing to welfare, could be pushed down from Whitehall to City Hall. Immigration can be re-focused upon the need of the country for skills and labour, not thrown open to anybody who arrives.

The British vote for independence has been decried by the elitists, oligarchs, and would-be commissars as a “populist revolt”. (Do you think those words too strong? Did you know that all of those EU politicians and bureaucrats are exempt from taxation in their own countries, and pay a flat tax of around 21%, far less than the despised citizens they rule?) What is happening, first in Britain, and before long elsewhere as the corrupt foundations of the EU crumble, is that the working classes are standing up to the smirking classes and saying, “Enough.” Britain's success, which (unless the people are betrayed and their wishes subverted) is assured, since freedom and democracy always work better than slavery and bureaucratic dictatorship, will serve to demonstrate to citizens of other railroad-era continental-scale empires that smaller, agile, responsive, and free governance is essential for success in the information age.

March 2017 Permalink

Hanson, Victor Davis. Mexifornia. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003. ISBN 1-893554-73-2.

August 2003 Permalink

Harsanyi, David. Nanny State. New York: Broadway Books, 2007. ISBN 0-7679-2432-0.
In my earlier review of The Case Against Adolescence (July 2007), I concluded by observing that perhaps the end state of the “progressive” vision of the future is “being back in high school—forever”. Reading this short book (just 234 pages of main text, with 55 pages of end notes, bibliography, and index) may lead you to conclude that view was unduly optimistic. As the author documents, seemingly well-justified mandatory seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws in the 1980s punched through the barrier which used to deflect earnest (or ambitious) politicians urging “We have to do something”. That barrier, the once near-universal consensus that “It isn't the government's business”, had been eroded to a paper-thin membrane by earlier encroachments upon individual liberty and autonomy. Once breached, a torrent of infantilising laws, regulations, and litigation was unleashed, much of it promoted by single-issue advocacy groups and trial lawyers with a direct financial interest in the outcome, and often backed by nonexistent or junk science. The consequence, as the slippery slope became a vertical descent in the nineties and oughties, is the emergence of a society which seems to be evolving into a giant kindergarten, where children never have the opportunity to learn to be responsible adults, and nominal adults are treated as production and consumption modules, wards of a state which regulates every aspect of their behaviour, and surveils their every action.

It seems to me that the author has precisely diagnosed the fundamental problem: that once you accept the premise that the government can intrude into the sphere of private actions for an individual's own good (or, Heaven help us, “for the children”), then there is no limit whatsoever on how far it can go. Why, you might have security cameras going up on every street corner, cities banning smoking in the outdoors, and police ticketing people for listening to their iPods while crossing the street—oh, wait. Having left the U.S. in 1991, I was unaware of the extent of the present madness and the lack of push-back by reasonable people and the citizens who are seeing their scope of individual autonomy shrink with every session of the legislature. Another enlightening observation is that this is not, as some might think, entirely a phenomenon promoted by paternalist collectivists and manifest primarily in moonbat caves such as Seattle, San Francisco, and New York. The puritanical authoritarians of the right are just as willing to get into the act, as egregious examples from “red states” such as Texas and Alabama illustrate.

Just imagine how many more intrusions upon individual choice and lifestyle will be coming if the U.S. opts for socialised medicine. It's enough to make you go out and order a Hamdog!

October 2007 Permalink

Hayward, Steven F. The Real Jimmy Carter. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-89526-090-5.
In the acknowledgements at the end, the author says one of his motivations for writing this book was to acquaint younger readers and older folks who've managed to forget with the reality of Jimmy Carter's presidency. Indeed, unless one lived through it, it's hard to appreciate how Carter's formidable intellect allowed him to quickly grasp the essentials of a situation, absorb vast amounts of detailed information, and then immediately, intuitively leap to the absolutely worst conceivable course of action. It's all here: his race-baiting 1970 campaign for governor of Georgia; the Playboy interview; “ethnic purity”; “I'll never lie to you”; the 111 page list of campaign promises; alienating the Democratic controlled House and Senate before inaugural week was over; stagflation; gas lines; the Moral Equivalent of War (MEOW); turning down the thermostat; spending Christmas with the Shah of Iran, “an island of stability in one of he more troubled areas of the world”; Nicaragua; Afghanistan; “malaise” (which he actually never said, but will be forever associated with his presidency); the cabinet massacre; kissing Brezhnev; “Carter held Hostage”, and more. There is a side-splitting account of the “killer rabbit” episode on page 155. I'd have tried to work in Billy Beer, but I guess you gotta stop somewhere. Carter's post-presidential career, hobnobbing with dictators, loose-cannon freelance diplomacy, and connections with shady middle-east financiers including BCCI, are covered along with his admirable humanitarian work with Habitat for Humanity. That this sanctimonious mountebank who The New Republic, hardly a right wing mouthpiece, called “a vain, meddling, amoral American fool” in 1995 after he expressed sympathy for Serbian ethnic cleanser Radovan Karadzic, managed to win the Nobel Peace Prize, only bears out the assessment of Carter made decades earlier by notorious bank robber Willie Sutton, “I've never seen a bigger confidence man in my life, and I've been around some of the best in the business.”

October 2004 Permalink

Hayward, Steven F. Greatness. New York: Crown Forum, 2005. ISBN 0-307-23715-X.
This book, subtitled “Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders ”, examines the parallels between the lives and careers of these two superficially very different men, in search of the roots of their ability, despite having both been underestimated and disdained by their contemporaries (which historical distance has caused many to forget in the case of Churchill, a fact of which Hayward usefully reminds the reader), and considered too old for the challenges facing them when they arrived at the summit of power.

The beginning of the Cold War was effectively proclaimed by Churchill's 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, and its end foretold by Reagan's “Tear Down this Wall” speech at the Berlin wall in 1987. (Both speeches are worth reading in their entirety, as they have much more to say about the world of their times than the sound bites from them you usually hear.) Interestingly, both speeches were greeted with scorn, and much of Reagan's staff considered it fantasy to imagine and an embarrassment to suggest the Berlin wall falling in the foreseeable future.

Only one chapter of the book is devoted to the Cold War; the bulk explores the experiences which formed the character of these men, their self-education in the art of statecraft, their remarkably similar evolution from youthful liberalism in domestic policy to stalwart confrontation of external threats, and their ability to talk over the heads of the political class directly to the population and instill their own optimism when so many saw only disaster and decline ahead for their societies. Unlike the vast majority of their contemporaries, neither Churchill nor Reagan considered Communism as something permanent—both believed it would eventually collapse due to its own, shall we say, internal contradictions. This short book provides an excellent insight into how they came to that prophetic conclusion.

January 2006 Permalink

Healy, Gene, ed. Go Directly to Jail. Washington: Cato Institute, 2004. ISBN 1-930865-63-5.
Once upon a time, when somebody in the U.S. got carried away and started blowing something out of proportion, people would chide them, “Don't make a federal case out of it.” For most of U.S. history, “federal cases”—criminal prosecutions by the federal government—were a big deal because they were about big things: treason, piracy, counterfeiting, bribery of federal officials, and offences against the law of nations. With the exception of crimes committed in areas of exclusive federal jurisdiction such as the District of Columbia, Indian reservations, territories, and military bases, all other criminal matters were the concern of the states. Well, times have changed. From the 17 original federal crimes defined by Congress in 1790, the list of federal criminal offences has exploded to more than 4,000 today, occupying 27,000 pages of the U.S. Code, the vast majority added since 1960. But it's worse than that—many of these “crimes” consist of violations of federal regulations, which are promulgated by executive agencies without approval by Congress, constantly changing, often vague and conflicting, and sprawling through three hundred thousand or so pages of the Code of Federal Regulations.

This creates a legal environment in which the ordinary citizen or, for that matter, even a professional expert in an area of regulation cannot know for certain what is legal and what is not. And since these are criminal penalties and prosecutors have broad discretion in charging violators, running afoul of an obscure regulation can lead not just to a fine but serious downtime at Club Fed, such as the seafood dealers facing eight years in the pen for selling lobster tails which violated no U.S. law. And don't talk back to the Eagle—a maintenance supervisor who refused to plead guilty to having a work crew bury some waste paint cans found himself indicted on 43 federal criminal counts (United States v. Carr, 880 F.2d 1550 (1989)). Stir in enforcement programs which are self-funded by the penalties and asset seizures they generate, and you have a recipe for entrepreneurial prosecution at the expense of liberty.

This collection of essays is frightening look at criminalisation run amok, trampling common law principles such as protection against self-incrimination, unlawful search and seizure, and double jeopardy, plus a watering down of the rules of evidence, standard of proof, and need to prove both criminal intent (mens rea) and a criminal act (actus reus). You may also be amazed and appalled at how the traditional discretion accorded trial judges in sentencing has been replaced by what amount to a “spreadsheet of damnation” of 258 cells which, for example, ranks possession of 150 grams of crack cocaine a more serious offence than second-degree murder (p. 137). Each essay concludes with a set of suggestions as to how the trend can be turned around and something resembling the rule of law re-established, but that's not the way to bet. Once the ball of tyranny starts to roll, even in the early stage of the soft tyranny of implied intimidation, it gains momentum all by itself. I suppose we should at be glad they aren't torturing people. Oh, right….

April 2005 Permalink

Herrnstein, Richard J. and Charles Murray. The Bell Curve. New York: The Free Press, [1994] 1996. ISBN 0-684-82429-9.

August 2003 Permalink

Hiltzik, Michael. Colossus. New York: Free Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4165-3216-3.
This book, subtitled “Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century” chronicles the protracted, tangled, and often ugly history which led up to the undertaking, in the depths of the Great Depression, of the largest single civil engineering project ever attempted in the world up to that time, its achievement ahead of schedule and only modestly above budget, and its consequences for the Colorado River basin and the American West, which it continues to profoundly influence to this day.

Ever since the 19th century, visionaries, ambitious politicians, builders and engineers, and more than a few crackpots and confidence men had dreamt of and promoted grand schemes to harness the wild rivers of the American southwest, using their water to make the barren deserts bloom and opening up a new internal frontier for agriculture and (with cheap hydroelectric power) industry. Some of the schemes, and their consequences, were breathtaking. Consider the Alamo Canal, dug in 1900 to divert water from the Colorado River to irrigate the Imperial Valley of California. In 1905, the canal, already silted up by the water of the Colorado, overflowed, creating a flood which submerged more than five hundred square miles of lowlands in southern California, creating the Salton Sea, which is still there today (albeit smaller, due to evaporation and lack of inflow). Just imagine how such an environmental disaster would be covered by the legacy media today. President Theodore Roosevelt, considered a champion of the environment and the West, declined to provide federal assistance to deal with the disaster, leaving it up to the Southern Pacific Railroad, who had just acquired title to the canal, to, as the man said, “plug the hole”.

Clearly, the challenges posed by the notoriously fickle Colorado River, known for extreme floods, heavy silt, and a tendency to jump its banks and establish new watercourses, would require a much more comprehensive and ambitious solution. Further, such a solution would require the assent of the seven states within the river basin: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, among the sparsely populated majority of which there was deep distrust that California would exploit the project to loot them of their water for its own purposes. Given the invariant nature of California politicians and subsequent events, such suspicion was entirely merited.

In the 1920s, an extensive sequence of negotiations and court decisions led to the adoption of a compact between the states (actually, under its terms, only six states had to approve it, and Arizona did not until 1944). Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover played a major part in these negotiations, although other participants dispute that his rôle was as central as he claimed in his memoirs. In December 1928, President Coolidge signed a bill authorising construction of the dam and a canal to route water downstream, and Congress appropriated US$165 million for the project, the largest single federal appropriation in the nation's history to that point.

What was proposed gave pause even to the master builders who came forward to bid on the project: an arch-gravity dam 221 metres high, 379 metres long, and 200 metres wide at its base. Its construction would require 3.25 million cubic yards (2.48 million cubic metres) of concrete, and would be, by a wide margin, the largest single structure ever built by the human species. The dam would create a reservoir containing 35.2 cubic kilometres of water, with a surface area of 640 square kilometres. These kinds of numbers had to bring a sense of “failure is not an option” even to the devil-may-care roughneck engineers of the epoch. Because, if for no other reason, they had a recent example of how the devil might care in the absence of scrupulous attention to detail. Just months before the great Colorado River dam was approved, the St. Francis Dam in California, built with the same design proposed for the new dam, suddenly failed catastrophically, killing more than 600 people downstream. William Mulholland, an enthusiastic supporter of the Colorado dam, had pronounced the St. Francis dam safe just hours before it failed. The St. Francis dam collapse was the worst civil engineering failure in American history and arguably remains so to date. The consequences of a comparable failure of the new dam were essentially unthinkable.

The contract for construction was won by a consortium of engineering firms called the “Six Companies” including names which would be celebrated in twentieth century civil engineering including Kaiser, Bechtel, and Morrison-Knudsen. Work began in 1931, as the Depression tightened its grip upon the economy and the realisation sank in that a near-term recovery was unlikely to occur. With this project one of the few enterprises hiring, a migration toward the job site began, and the labour market was entirely tilted toward the contractors. Living and working conditions at the outset were horrific, and although the former were eventually ameliorated once the company town of Boulder City was constructed, the rate of job-related deaths and injuries remained higher than those of comparable projects throughout the entire construction.

Everything was on a scale which dwarfed the experience of earlier projects. If the concrete for the dam had been poured as one monolithic block, it would have taken more than a century to cure, and the heat released in the process would have caused it to fracture into rubble. So the dam was built of more than thirty thousand blocks of concrete, each about fifty feet square and five feet high, cooled as it cured by chilled water from a refrigeration plant running through more than six hundred miles of cooling pipes embedded in the blocks. These blocks were then cemented into the structure of the dam with grout injected between the interlocking edges of adjacent blocks. And this entire structure had to be engineered to last forever and never fail.

At the ceremony marking the start of construction, Secretary of the Interior Ray Wilbur surprised the audience by referring to the project as “Hoover Dam”—the first time a comparable project had been named after a sitting president, which many thought unseemly, notwithstanding Hoover's involvement in the interstate compact behind the project. After Hoover's defeat by Roosevelt in 1932, the new administration consistently referred to the project as “Boulder Dam” and so commemorated it in a stamp issued on the occasion of the dam's dedication in September 1935. This was a bit curious as well, since the dam was actually built in Black Canyon, since the geological foundations in Boulder Canyon had been found unsuitable to anchor the structure. For years thereafter, Democrats called it “Boulder Dam”, while Republican stalwarts insisted on “Hoover Dam”. In 1947, newly-elected Republican majorities in the U.S. congress passed a bill officially naming the structure after Hoover and, signed by President Truman, so it has remained ever since.

This book provides an engaging immersion in a very different age, in which economic depression was tempered by an unshakable confidence in the future and the benefits to flow from continental scale collective projects, guided by wise men in Washington and carried out by roughnecks risking their lives in the savage environment of the West. The author discusses whether such a project could be accomplished today and concludes that it probably couldn't. (Of course, since all of the rivers with such potential for irrigation and power generation have already been dammed, the question is largely moot, but is relevant for grand scale projects such as solar power satellites, ocean thermal energy conversion, and other engineering works of comparable transformative consequences on the present-day economy.) We have woven such a web of environmental constraints, causes for litigation, and a tottering tower of debt that it is likely that a project such as Hoover Dam, without which the present-day U.S. southwest would not exist in its present form, could never have been carried out today, and certainly not before its scheduled completion date. Those who regard such grand earthworks as hubristic folly (to which the author tips his hat in the final chapters) might well reflect that history records the achievements of those who have grand dreams and bring them into existence, not those who sputter out their lives in courtrooms or trading floors.

December 2010 Permalink

Hirsi Ali, Ayaan. The Challenge of Dawa. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2017.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia in 1969. In 1992 she was admitted to the Netherlands and granted political asylum on the basis of escaping an arranged marriage. She later obtained Dutch citizenship, and was elected to the Dutch parliament, where she served from 2001 through 2006. In 2004, she collaborated with Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on the short film Submission, about the abuse of women in Islamic societies. After release of the film, van Gogh was assassinated, with a note containing a death threat for Hirsi Ali pinned to his corpse with a knife. Thereupon, she went into hiding with a permanent security detail to protect her against ongoing threats. In 2006, she moved to the U.S., taking a position at the American Enterprise Institute. She is currently a Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

In this short book (or long pamphlet: it is just 105 pages, with 70 pages of main text), Hirsi Ali argues that almost all Western commentators on the threat posed by Islam have fundamentally misdiagnosed the nature of the challenge it poses to Western civilisation and the heritage of the Enlightenment, and, failing to understand the tactics of Islam's ambition to dominate the world, dating to Mohammed's revelations in Medina and his actions in that period of his life, have adopted strategies which are ineffective and in some cases counterproductive in confronting the present danger.

The usual picture of Islam presented by politicians and analysts in the West (at least those who admit there is any problem at all) is that most Muslims are peaceful, productive people who have no problems becoming integrated in Western societies, but there is a small minority, variously called “radical”, “militant”, “Islamist”, “fundamentalist”, or other names, who are bent on propagating their religion by means of violence, either in guerrilla or conventional wars, or by terror attacks on civilian populations. This view has led to involvement in foreign wars, domestic surveillance, and often intrusive internal security measures to counter the threat, which is often given the name of “jihad”. A dispassionate analysis of these policies over the last decade and a half must conclude that they are not working: despite trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, turning air travel into a humiliating and intimidating circus, and invading the privacy of people worldwide, the Islamic world seems to be, if anything, more chaotic than it was in the year 2000, and the frequency and seriousness of so-called “lone wolf” terrorist attacks against soft targets does not seem to be abating. What if we don't really understand what we're up against? What if jihad isn't the problem, or only a part of something much larger?

Dawa (or dawah, da'wah, daawa, daawah—there doesn't seem to be anything associated with this religion which isn't transliterated at least three different ways—the Arabic is “دعوة”) is an Arabic word which literally means “invitation”. In the context of Islam, it is usually translated as “proselytising” or spreading the religion by nonviolent means, as is done by missionaries of many other religions. But here, Hirsi Ali contends that dawa, which is grounded in the fundamental scripture of Islam: the Koran and Hadiths (sayings of Mohammed), is something very different when interpreted and implemented by what she calls “political Islam”. As opposed to a distinction between moderate and radical Islam, she argues that Islam is more accurately divided into “spiritual Islam” as revealed in the earlier Mecca suras of the Koran, and “political Islam”, embodied by those dating from Medina. Spiritual Islam defines a belief system, prayers, rituals, and duties of believers, but is largely confined to the bounds of other major religions. Political Islam, however, is a comprehensive system of politics, civil and criminal law, economics, the relationship with and treatment of nonbelievers, and military strategy, and imposes a duty to spread Islam into new territories.

Seen through the lens of political Islam, dawa and those engaged in it, often funded today by the deep coffers of petro-tyrannies, is nothing like the activities of, say, Roman Catholic or Mormon missionaries. Implemented through groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), centres on Islamic and Middle East studies on university campuses, mosques and Islamic centres in communities around the world, so-called “charities” and non-governmental organisations, all bankrolled by fundamentalist champions of political Islam, dawa in the West operates much like the apparatus of Communist subversion described almost sixty years ago by J. Edgar Hoover in Masters of Deceit. You have the same pattern of apparently nonviolent and innocuously-named front organisations, efforts to influence the influential (media figures, academics, politicians), infiltration of institutions along the lines of Antonio Gramsci's “long march”, exploitation of Western traditions such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion to achieve goals diametrically opposed to them, and redefinition of the vocabulary and intimidation of any who dare state self-evident facts (mustn't be called “islamophobic”!), all funded from abroad. Unlike communists in the heyday of the Comintern and afterward the Cold War, Islamic subversion is assisted by large scale migration of Muslims into Western countries, especially in Europe, where the organs of dawa encourage them to form their own separate communities, avoiding assimilation, and demanding the ability to implement their own sharia law and that others respect their customs. Dawa is directed at these immigrants as well, with the goal of increasing their commitment to Islam and recruiting them for its political agenda: the eventual replacement of Western institutions with sharia law and submission to a global Islamic caliphate. This may seem absurdly ambitious for communities which, in most countries, aren't much greater than 5% of the population, but they're patient: they've been at it for fourteen centuries, and they're out-breeding the native populations in almost every country where they've become established.

Hirsi Ali argues persuasively that the problem isn't jihad: jihad is a tactic which can be employed as part of dawa when persuasion, infiltration, and subversion prove insufficient, or as a final step to put the conquest over the top, but it's the commitment to global hegemony, baked right into the scriptures of Islam, which poses the most dire risk to the West, especially since so few decision makers seem to be aware of it or, if they are, dare not speak candidly of it lest they be called “islamophobes” or worse. This is something about which I don't need to be persuaded: I've been writing about it since 2015; see “Clash of Ideologies: Communism, Islam, and the West”. I sincerely hope that this work by an eloquent observer who has seen political Islam from the inside will open more eyes to the threat it poses to the West. A reasonable set of policy initiatives to confront the threat is presented at the end. The only factual error I noted is the claim on p. 57 that Joseph R. McCarthy was in charge of the House Committee on Un-American Activities—in fact, McCarthy, a Senator, presided over the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

This is a publication of the Hoover Institution. It has no ISBN and cannot be purchased through usual booksellers. Here is the page for the book, whence you can download the PDF file for free.

August 2017 Permalink

Hitchens, Christopher. No One Left to Lie To. London: Verso, 2000. ISBN 1-85984-284-4.

January 2001 Permalink

Hitchens, Christopher. A Long Short War. New York: Plume, 2003. ISBN 0-452-28498-8.

August 2003 Permalink

Hitchens, Peter. The Abolition of Liberty. London: Atlantic Books, [2003] 2004. ISBN 1-84354-149-1.
This is a revised edition of the hardcover published in 2003 as A Brief History of Crime. Unlike the police of most other countries (including most of the U.S.), since the founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, police in England and Wales focused primarily on the prevention of crime through a regular, visible presence and constant contact with the community, as opposed to responding after the commission of a crime to investigate and apprehend those responsible. Certainly, detection was among the missions of the police, but crime was viewed as a failure of policing, not an inevitable circumstance to which one could only react. Hitchens argues that it is this approach which, for more than a century, made these lands among the safest, civil, and free on Earth, with police integrated in the society as uniformed citizens, not a privileged arm of the state set above the people. Starting in the 1960s, all of this began to change, motivated by a mix of utopian visions and the hope of cutting costs. The bobby on the beat was replaced by police in squad cars with sirens and flashing lights, inevitably arriving after a crime was committed and able to do little more than comfort the victims and report yet another crime unlikely to be solved. Predictably, crime in Britain exploded to the upside, with far more police and police spending per capita than before the “reforms” unable to even reduce its rate of growth. The response of the government elite has not been to return to preventive policing, but rather to progressively infringe the fundamental liberties of citizens, trending toward the third world model of a police state with high crime. None of this would have surprised Hayek, who foresaw it all The Road to Serfdom (May 2002). Theodore Dalrymple's Life at the Bottom (September 2002) provides a view from the streets surrendered to savagery, and the prisons and hospitals occupied by the perpetrators and their victims. In this edition, Hitchens deleted two chapters from the hardcover which questioned Britain's abolition of capital punishment and fanatic program of victim disarmament (“gun control”). He did so “with some sadness” because “the only way to affect politics in this country is to influence the left”, and these issues are “articles of faith with the modern left”. As “People do not like to be made to think about their faith”, he felt the case better put by their exclusion. I have cited these quotes from pp. xi–xii of the Preface without ellipses but, I believe, fairly.

May 2004 Permalink

Hitchens, Peter. The Abolition of Britain. 2nd. ed. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002. ISBN 1-893554-39-2.
History records many examples of the collapse of once great and long-established cultures. Usually, such events are the consequence of military defeat, occupation or colonisation by a foreign power, violent revolution and its totalitarian aftermath, natural disasters, or other dramatic and destructive events. In this book, Peter Hitchens chronicles the collapse, within the span of a single human lifetime (bracketed by the funerals of Winston Churchill in 1965 and Princess Diana in 1997), of the culture which made Britain British, and maintained domestic peace in England and Wales since 1685 (and Scotland since Culloden in 1746) while the Continent was repeatedly convulsed by war and revolution. The collapse in Britain, however, occurred following victory in a global conflict in which, at the start, Britain stood alone against tyranny and barbarism, and although rooted in a time of postwar privation, demotion from great power status, and loss of empire, ran its course as the nation experienced unprecedented and broadly-based prosperity.

Hitchens argues that the British cultural collapse was almost entirely the result of well-intentioned “reform” and “modernisation” knocking out the highly evolved and subtly interconnected pillars which supported the culture, set in motion, perhaps, by immersion in American culture during World War II (see chapter 16—this argument seems rather dubious to me, since many of the postwar changes in Britain also occurred in the U.S., but afterward), and reinforced and accelerated by television broadcasting, the perils of which were prophetically sketched by T.S. Eliot in 1950 (p. 128). When the pillars of a culture: historical memory, national identity and pride, religion and morality, family, language, community, landscape and architecture, decency, and education are dislodged, even slightly, what ensues is much like the “controlled implosion” demolition of a building, with the Hobbesian forces of “every man for himself” taking the place of gravity in pulling down the structure and creating the essential preconditions for the replacement of bottom-up self-government by self-reliant citizens with authoritarian rule by élite such as Tony Blair's ambition of U.S.-style presidential power and, the leviathan where the road to serfdom leads, the emerging anti-democratic Continental super-state.

This U.S second edition includes notes which explain British terms and personalities unlikely to be familiar to readers abroad, a preface addressed to American readers, and an afterword discussing the 2001 general election and subsequent events.

November 2005 Permalink

Hoover, Herbert. American Individualism. Introduction by George H. Nash. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, [1922] 2016. ISBN 978-0-8179-2015-9.
After the end of World War I, Herbert Hoover and the American Relief Administration he headed provided food aid to the devastated nations of Central Europe, saving millions from famine. Upon returning to the United States in the fall of 1919, he was dismayed by what he perceived to be an inoculation of the diseases of socialism, autocracy, and other forms of collectivism, whose pernicious consequences he had observed first-hand in Europe and in the peace conference after the end of the conflict, into his own country. In 1920, he wrote, “Every wind that blows carries to our shores an infection of social disease from this great ferment; every convulsion there has an economic reaction upon our own people.”

Hoover sensed that in the aftermath of war, which left some collectivists nostalgic for the national mobilisation and top-down direction of the economy by “war socialism”, and growing domestic unrest: steel and police strikes, lynchings and race riots, and bombing attacks by anarchists, that it was necessary to articulate the principles upon which American society and its government were founded, which he believed were distinct from those of the Old World, and the deliberate creation of people who had come to the new continent expressly to escape the ruinous doctrines of the societies they left behind.

After assuming the post of Secretary of Commerce in the newly inaugurated Harding administration in 1921, and faced with massive coal and railroad strikes which threatened the economy, Hoover felt a new urgency to reassert his vision of American principles. In December 1922, American Individualism was published. The short book (at 72 pages, more of a long pamphlet), was based upon a magazine article he had published the previous March in World's Work.

Hoover argues that five or six philosophies of social and economic organisation are contending for dominance: among them Autocracy, Socialism, Syndicalism, Communism, and Capitalism. Against these he contrasts American Individualism, which he believes developed among a population freed by emigration and distance from shackles of the past such as divine right monarchy, hereditary aristocracy, and static social classes. These people became individuals, acting on their own initiative and in concert with one another without top-down direction because they had to: with a small and hands-off government, it was the only way to get anything done. Hoover writes,

Forty years ago [in the 1880s] the contact of the individual with the Government had its largest expression in the sheriff or policeman, and in debates over political equality. In those happy days the Government offered but small interference with the economic life of the citizen.

But with the growth of cities, industrialisation, and large enterprises such as railroads and steel manufacturing, a threat to this frontier individualism emerged: the reduction of workers to a proletariat or serfdom due to the imbalance between their power as individuals and the huge companies that employed them. It is there that government action was required to protect the other component of American individualism: the belief in equality of opportunity. Hoover believes, and supports, intervention in the economy to prevent the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few, and to guard, through taxation and other means, against the emergence of a hereditary aristocracy of wealth. Yet this poses its own risks,

But with the vast development of industry and the train of regulating functions of the national and municipal government that followed from it; with the recent vast increase in taxation due to the war;—the Government has become through its relations to economic life the most potent force for maintenance or destruction of our American individualism.

One of the challenges American society must face as it adapts is avoiding the risk of utopian ideologies imported from Europe seizing this power to try to remake the country and its people along other lines. Just ten years later, as Hoover's presidency gave way to the New Deal, this fearful prospect would become a reality.

Hoover examines the philosophical, spiritual, economic, and political aspects of this unique system of individual initiative tempered by constraints and regulation in the interest of protecting the equal opportunity of all citizens to rise as high as their talent and effort permit. Despite the problems cited by radicals bent on upending the society, he contends things are working pretty well. He cites “the one percent”: “Yet any analysis of the 105,000,000 of us would show that we harbor less than a million of either rich or impecunious loafers.” Well, the percentage of very rich seems about the same today, but after half a century of welfare programs which couldn't have been more effective in destroying the family and the initiative of those at the bottom of the economic ladder had that been their intent, and an education system which, as a federal commission was to write in 1983, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America …, we might well have viewed it as an act of war”, a nation with three times the population seems to have developed a much larger unemployable and dependent underclass.

Hoover also judges the American system to have performed well in achieving its goal of a classless society with upward mobility through merit. He observes, speaking of the Harding administration of which he is a member,

That our system has avoided the establishment and domination of class has a significant proof in the present Administration in Washington, Of the twelve men comprising the President, Vice-President, and Cabinet, nine have earned their own way in life without economic inheritance, and eight of them started with manual labor.

Let's see how that has held up, almost a century later. Taking the 17 people in equivalent positions at the end of the Obama administration in 2016 (President, Vice President, and heads of the 15 executive departments), we find that only 1 of the 17 inherited wealth (I'm inferring from the description of parents in their biographies) but that precisely zero had any experience with manual labour. If attending an Ivy League university can be taken as a modern badge of membership in a ruling class, 11 of the 17—65%, meet this test (if you consider Stanford a member of an “extended Ivy League”, the figure rises to 70%).

Although published in a different century in a very different America, much of what Hoover wrote remains relevant today. Just as Hoover warned of bad ideas from Europe crossing the Atlantic and taking root in the United States, the Frankfurt School in Germany was laying the groundwork for the deconstruction of Western civilisation and individualism, and in the 1930s, its leaders would come to America to infect academia. As Hoover warned, “There is never danger from the radical himself until the structure and confidence of society has been undermined by the enthronement of destructive criticism.” Destructive criticism is precisely what these “critical theorists” specialised in, and today in many parts of the humanities and social sciences even in the most eminent institutions the rot is so deep they are essentially a write-off.

Undoing a century of bad ideas is not the work of a few years, but Hoover's optimistic and pragmatic view of the redeeming merit of individualism unleashed is a bracing antidote to the gloom one may feel when surveying the contemporary scene.

December 2016 Permalink

Hoppe, Hans-Hermann. Democracy: The God That Failed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001. ISBN 0-7658-0868-4.
As of June 2002, the paperback edition of this book cited above is in short supply. The hardcover, ISBN 0-7658-0088-8, remains generally available.

June 2002 Permalink

Hoppe, Hans-Hermann. A Short History of Man. Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2015. ISBN 978-1-61016-591-4.
The author is one of the most brilliant and original thinkers and eloquent contemporary expositors of libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, and Austrian economics. Educated in Germany, Hoppe came to the United States to study with Murray Rothbard and in 1986 joined Rothbard on the faculty of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he taught until his retirement in 2008. Hoppe's 2001 book, Democracy: The God That Failed (June 2002), made the argument that democratic election of temporary politicians in the modern all-encompassing state will inevitably result in profligate spending and runaway debt because elected politicians have every incentive to buy votes and no stake in the long-term solvency and prosperity of the society. Whatever the drawbacks (and historical examples of how things can go wrong), a hereditary monarch has no need to buy votes and every incentive not to pass on a bankrupt state to his descendants.

This short book (144 pages) collects three essays previously published elsewhere which, taken together, present a comprehensive picture of human development from the emergence of modern humans in Africa to the present day. Subtitled “Progress and Decline”, the story is of long periods of stasis, two enormous breakthroughs, with, in parallel, the folly of ever-growing domination of society by a coercive state which, in its modern incarnation, risks halting or reversing the gains of the modern era.

Members of the collectivist and politically-correct mainstream in the fields of economics, anthropology, and sociology who can abide Prof. Hoppe's adamantine libertarianism will probably have their skulls explode when they encounter his overview of human economic and social progress, which is based upon genetic selection for increased intelligence and low time preference among populations forced to migrate due to population pressure from the tropics where the human species originated into more demanding climates north and south of the Equator, and onward toward the poles. In the tropics, every day is about the same as the next; seasons don't differ much from one another; and the variation in the length of the day is not great. In the temperate zone and beyond, hunter-gatherers must cope with plant life which varies along with the seasons, prey animals that migrate, hot summers and cold winters, with the latter requiring the knowledge and foresight of how to make provisions for the lean season. Predicting the changes in seasons becomes important, and in this may have been the genesis of astronomy.

A hunter-gatherer society is essentially parasitic upon the natural environment—it consumes the plant and animal bounty of nature but does nothing to replenish it. This means that for a given territory there is a maximum number (varying due to details of terrain, climate, etc.) of humans it can support before an increase in population leads to a decline in the per-capita standard of living of its inhabitants. This is what the author calls the “Malthusian trap”. Looked at from the other end, a human population which is growing as human populations tend to do, will inevitably reach the carrying capacity of the area in which it lives. When this happens, there are only three options: artificially limit the growth in population to the land's carrying capacity, split off one or more groups which migrate to new territory not yet occupied by humans, or conquer new land from adjacent groups, either killing them off or driving them to migrate. This was the human condition for more than a hundred millennia, and it is this population pressure, the author contends, which drove human migration from tropical Africa into almost every niche on the globe in which humans could survive, even some of the most marginal.

While the life of a hunter-gatherer band in the tropics is relatively easy (or so say those who have studied the few remaining populations who live that way today), the further from the equator the more intelligence, knowledge, and the ability to transmit it from generation to generation is required to survive. This creates a selection pressure for intelligence: individual members of a band of hunter-gatherers who are better at hunting and gathering will have more offspring which survive to maturity and bands with greater intelligence produced in this manner will grow faster and by migration and conquest displace those less endowed. This phenomenon would cause one to expect that (discounting the effects of large-scale migrations) the mean intelligence of human populations would be the lowest near the equator and increase with latitude (north or south). This, in general terms, and excluding marginal environments, is precisely what is observed, even today.

After hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers parasitic upon nature, sometime around 11,000 years ago, probably first in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, what is now called the Neolithic Revolution occurred. Humans ceased to wander in search of plants and game, and settled down into fixed communities which supported themselves by cultivating plants and raising animals they had domesticated. Both the plants and animals underwent selection by humans who bred those most adapted to their purposes. Agriculture was born. Humans who adopted the new means of production were no longer parasitic upon nature: they produced their sustenance by their own labour, improving upon that supplied by nature through their own actions. In order to do this, they had to invent a series of new technologies (for example, milling grain and fencing pastures) which did not exist in nature. Agriculture was far more efficient than the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in that a given amount of land (if suitable for known crops) could support a much larger human population.

While agriculture allowed a large increase in the human population, it did not escape the Malthusian trap: it simply increased the population density at which the carrying capacity of the land would be reached. Technological innovations such as irrigation and crop rotation could further increase the capacity of the land, but population increase would eventually surpass the new limit. As a result of this, from 1000 B.C. to A.D. 1800, income per capita (largely measured in terms of food) barely varied: the benefit of each innovation was quickly negated by population increase. To be sure, in all of this epoch there were a few wealthy people, but the overwhelming majority of the population lived near the subsistence level.

But once again, slowly but surely, a selection pressure was being applied upon humans who adopted the agricultural lifestyle. It is cognitively more difficult to be a farmer or rancher than to be a member of a hunter-gatherer band, and success depends strongly upon having a low time preference—to be willing to forgo immediate consumption for a greater return in the future. (For example, a farmer who does not reserve and protect seeds for the next season will fail. Selective breeding of plants and animals to improve their characteristics takes years to produce results.) This creates an evolutionary pressure in favour of further increases in intelligence and, to the extent that such might be genetic rather than due to culture, for low time preference. Once the family emerged as the principal unit of society rather than the hunter-gatherer band, selection pressure was amplified since those with the selected-for characteristics would produce more offspring and the phenomenon of free riding which exists in communal bands is less likely to occur.

Around the year 1800, initially in Europe and later elsewhere, a startling change occurred: the Industrial Revolution. In societies which adopted the emerging industrial means of production, per capita income, which had been stagnant for almost two millennia, took off like a skyrocket, while at the same time population began to grow exponentially, rising from around 900 million in 1800 to 7 billion today. The Malthusian trap had been escaped; it appeared for the first time that an increase in population, far from consuming the benefits of innovation, actually contributed to and accelerated it.

There are some deep mysteries here. Why did it take so long for humans to invent agriculture? Why, after the invention of agriculture, did it take so long to invent industrial production? After all, the natural resources extant at the start of both of these revolutions were present in all of the preceding period, and there were people with the leisure to think and invent at all times in history. The author argues that what differed was the people. Prior to the advent of agriculture, people were simply not sufficiently intelligent to invent it (or, to be more precise, since intelligence follows something close to a normal distribution, there was an insufficient fraction of the population with the requisite intelligence to discover and implement the idea of agriculture). Similarly, prior to the Industrial Revolution, the intelligence of the general population was insufficient for it to occur. Throughout the long fallow periods, however, natural selection was breeding smarter humans and, eventually, in some place and time, a sufficient fraction of smart people, the required natural resources, and a society sufficiently open to permit innovation and moving beyond tradition would spark the fire. As the author notes, it's much easier to copy a good idea once you've seen it working than to come up with it in the first place and get it to work the first time.

Some will argue that Hoppe's hypothesis that human intelligence has been increasing over time is falsified by the fact that societies much closer in time to the dawn of agriculture produced works of art, literature, science, architecture, and engineering which are comparable to those of modern times. But those works were produced not by the average person but rather outliers which exist in all times and places (although in smaller numbers when mean intelligence is lower). For a general phase transition in society, it is a necessary condition that the bulk of the population involved have intelligence adequate to work in the new way.

After investigating human progress on the grand scale over long periods of time, the author turns to the phenomenon which may cause this progress to cease and turn into decline: the growth of the coercive state. Hunter-gatherers had little need for anything which today would be called governments. With bands on the order of 100 people sharing resources in common, many sources of dispute would not occur and those which did could be resolved by trusted elders or, failing that, combat. When humans adopted agriculture and began to live in settled communities, and families owned and exchanged property with one another, a whole new source of problems appeared. Who has the right to use this land? Who stole my prize animal? How are the proceeds of a joint effort to be distributed among the participants? As communities grew and trade among them flourished, complexity increased apace. Hoppe traces how the resolution of these conflicts has evolved over time. First, the parties to the dispute would turn to a member of an aristocracy, a member of the community respected because of their intelligence, wisdom, courage, or reputation for fairness, to settle the matter. (We often think of an aristocracy as hereditary but, although many aristocracies evolved into systems of hereditary nobility, the word originally meant “rule by the best”, and that is how the institution began.)

With growing complexity, aristocrats (or nobles) needed a way to resolve disputes among themselves, and this led to the emergence of kings. But like the nobles, the king was seen to apply a law which was part of nature (or, in the English common law tradition, discovered through the experience of precedents). It was with the emergence of absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, and finally democracy that things began to go seriously awry. In time, law became seen not as something which those given authority apply, but rather something those in power create. We have largely forgotten that legislation is not law, and that rights are not granted to us by those in power, but inhere in us and are taken away and/or constrained by those willing to initiate force against others to work their will upon them.

The modern welfare state risks undoing a thousand centuries of human progress by removing the selection pressure for intelligence and low time preference. Indeed, the welfare state punishes (taxes) the productive, who tend to have these characteristics, and subsidises those who do not, increasing their fraction within the population. Evolution works slowly, but inexorably. But the effects of shifting incentives can manifest themselves long before biology has its way. When a population is told “You've made enough”, “You didn't build that”, or sees working harder to earn more as simply a way to spend more of their lives supporting those who don't (along with those who have gamed the system to extract resources confiscated by the state), that glorious exponential curve which took off in 1800 may begin to bend down toward the horizontal and perhaps eventually turn downward.

I don't usually include lengthy quotes, but the following passage from the third essay, “From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy”, is so brilliant and illustrative of what you'll find herein I can't resist.

Assume now a group of people aware of the reality of interpersonal conflicts and in search of a way out of this predicament. And assume that I then propose the following as a solution: In every case of conflict, including conflicts in which I myself am involved, I will have the last and final word. I will be the ultimate judge as to who owns what and when and who is accordingly right or wrong in any dispute regarding scarce resources. This way, all conflicts can be avoided or smoothly resolved.

What would be my chances of finding your or anyone else's agreement to this proposal?

My guess is that my chances would be virtually zero, nil. In fact, you and most people will think of this proposal as ridiculous and likely consider me crazy, a case for psychiatric treatment. For you will immediately realize that under this proposal you must literally fear for your life and property. Because this solution would allow me to cause or provoke a conflict with you and then decide this conflict in my own favor. Indeed, under this proposal you would essentially give up your right to life and property or even any pretense to such a right. You have a right to life and property only insofar as I grant you such a right, i.e., as long as I decide to let you live and keep whatever you consider yours. Ultimately, only I have a right to life and I am the owner of all goods.

And yet—and here is the puzzle—this obviously crazy solution is the reality. Wherever you look, it has been put into effect in the form of the institution of a State. The State is the ultimate judge in every case of conflict. There is no appeal beyond its verdicts. If you get into conflicts with the State, with its agents, it is the State and its agents who decide who is right and who is wrong. The State has the right to tax you. Thereby, it is the State that makes the decision how much of your property you are allowed to keep—that is, your property is only “fiat” property. And the State can make laws, legislate—that is, your entire life is at the mercy of the State. It can even order that you be killed—not in defense of your own life and property but in the defense of the State or whatever the State considers “defense” of its “state-property.”

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License and may be redistributed pursuant to the terms of that license. In addition to the paperback and Kindle editions available from Amazon The book may be downloaded for free from the Library of the Mises Institute in PDF or EPUB formats, or read on-line in an HTML edition.

May 2015 Permalink

Horowitz, David. Radical Son. New York: Touchstone Books, 1997. ISBN 0-684-84005-7.
One the mysteries I have never been able to figure out—I remember discussing it with people before I left the U.S., so that makes it at least fifteen years of bewilderment on my part—is why so many obviously highly intelligent people, some of whom have demonstrated initiative and achieved substantial success in productive endeavours, are so frequently attracted to collectivist ideologies which deny individual excellence, suppress individualism, and seek to replace achievement with imposed equality in mediocrity. Even more baffling is why so many people remain attracted to these ideas which are as thoroughly discredited by the events of the twentieth century as any in the entire history of human intellectual endeavour, in a seeming willingness to ignore evidence, even when it takes the form of a death toll in the tens of millions of human beings.

This book does not supply a complete answer, but it provides several important pieces of the puzzle. It is the most enlightening work on this question I've read since Hayek's The Fatal Conceit (March 2005), and complements it superbly. While Hayek's work is one of philosophy and economics, Radical Son is a searching autobiography by a person who was one of the intellectual founders and leaders of the New Left in the 1960s and 70s. The author was part of the group which organised the first demonstration against the Vietnam war in Berkeley in 1962, published the standard New Left history of the Cold War, The Free World Colossus in 1965, and in 1968, the very apogee of the Sixties, joined Ramparts magazine, where he rapidly rose to a position of effective control, setting its tone through the entire period of radicalisation and revolutionary chaos which ensued. He raised the money for the Black Panther Party's “Learning Center” in Oakland California, and became an adviser and regular companion of Huey Newton. Throughout all of this his belief in the socialist vision of the future, the necessity of revolution even in a democratic society, and support for the “revolutionary vanguard”, however dubious some of their actions seemed, never wavered.

He came to these convictions almost in the cradle. Like many of the founders of the New Left (Tom Hayden was one of the rare exceptions), Horowitz was a “red diaper baby”. In his case both his mother and father were members of the Communist Party of the United States and met through political activity. Although the New Left rejected the Communist Party as a neo-Stalinist anachronism, so many of its founders had parents who were involved with it directly or knowingly in front organisations, they formed part of a network of acquaintances even before they met as radicals in their own right. It is somewhat ironic that these people who believed themselves to be and were portrayed in the press as rebels and revolutionaries were, perhaps more than their contemporaries, truly their parents' children, carrying on their radical utopian dream without ever questioning anything beyond the means to the end.

It was only in 1974, when Betty Van Patter, a former Ramparts colleague he had recommended for a job helping the Black Panthers sort out their accounts, was abducted and later found brutally murdered, obviously by the Panthers (who expressed no concern when she disappeared, and had complained of her inquisitiveness), that Horowitz was confronted with the true nature of those he had been supporting. Further, when he approached others who were, from the circumstances of their involvement, well aware of the criminality and gang nature of the Panthers well before he, they continued to either deny the obvious reality or, even worse, deliberately cover it up because they still believed in the Panther mission of revolution. (To this day, nobody has been charged with Van Patter's murder.)

The contemporary conquest of Vietnam and Cambodia and the brutal and bloody aftermath, the likelihood of which had also been denied by the New Left (as late as 1974, Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda released a film titled Introduction to the Enemy which forecast a bright future of equality and justice when Saigon fell), reinforced the author's second thoughts, leading eventually to a complete break with the Left in the mid-1980s and his 1989 book with Peter Collier, Destructive Generation, the first sceptical look at the beliefs and consequences of Sixties radicalism by two of its key participants.

Radical Son mixes personal recollection, politics, philosophy, memoirs of encounters with characters ranging from Bertrand Russell to Abbie Hoffman, and a great deal of painful introspection to tell the story of how reality finally shattered second-generation utopian illusions. Even more valuable, the reader comes to understand the power those delusions have over those who share them, and why seemingly no amount of evidence suffices to induce doubt among those in their thrall, and why the reaction to any former believer who declares their “apostasy” is so immediate and vicious.

Horowitz is a serious person, and this is a serious, and often dismaying and tragic narrative. But one cannot help to be amused by the accounts of New Leftists trying to put their ideology into practice in running communal households, publishing enterprises, and political movements. Inevitably, before long everything blows up in the tediously familiar ways of such things, as imperfect human beings fail to meet the standards of a theory which requires them to deny their essential humanity. And yet they never learn; it's always put down to “errors”, blamed on deviant individuals, oppression, subversion, external circumstances, or some other cobbled up excuse. And still they want to try again, betting the entire society and human future on it.

March 2007 Permalink

Houellebecq, Michel. Soumission. Paris: J'ai Lu, [2015] 2016. ISBN 978-2-290-11361-5.
If you examine the Pew Research Center's table of Muslim Population by Country, giving the percent Muslim population for countries and territories, one striking thing is apparent. Here are the results, binned into quintiles.

Quintile   % Muslim   Countries
1 100–80 36
2 80–60 5
3 60–40 8
4 40–20 7
5 20–0 132

The distribution in this table is strongly bimodal—instead of the Gaussian (normal, or “bell curve”) distribution one encounters so often in the natural and social sciences, the countries cluster at the extremes: 36 are 80% or more Muslim, 132 are 20% or less Muslim, and only a total of 20 fall in the middle between 20% and 80%. What is going on?

I believe this is evidence for an Islamic population fraction greater than some threshold above 20% being an attractor in the sense of dynamical systems theory. With the Islamic doctrine of its superiority to other religions and destiny to bring other lands into its orbit, plus scripturally-sanctioned discrimination against non-believers, once a Muslim community reaches a certain critical mass, and if it retains its identity and coherence, resisting assimilation into the host culture, it will tend to grow not just organically but by making conversion (whether sincere or motivated by self-interest) an attractive alternative for those who encounter Muslims in their everyday life.

If this analysis is correct, what is the critical threshold? Well, that's the big question, particularly for countries in Europe which have admitted substantial Muslim populations that are growing faster than the indigenous population due to a higher birthrate and ongoing immigration, and where there is substantial evidence that subsequent generations are retaining their identity as a distinct culture apart from that of the country where they were born. What happens as the threshold is crossed, and what does it mean for the original residents and institutions of these countries?

That is the question explored in this satirical novel set in the year 2022, in the period surrounding the French presidential election of that year. In the 2017 election, the Front national narrowly won the first round of the election, but was defeated in the second round by an alliance between the socialists and traditional right, resulting in the election of a socialist president in a country with a centre-right majority.

Five years after an election which satisfied few people, the electoral landscape has shifted substantially. A new party, the Fraternité musulmane (Muslim Brotherhood), led by the telegenic, pro-European, and moderate Mohammed Ben Abbes, French-born son of a Tunisian immigrant, has grown to rival the socialist party for second place behind the Front national, which remains safely ahead in projections for the first round. When the votes are counted, the unthinkable has happened: all of the traditional government parties are eliminated, and the second round will be a run-off between FN leader Marine Le Pen and Ben Abbes.

These events are experienced and recounted by “François” (no last name is given), a fortyish professor of literature at the Sorbonne, a leading expert on the 19th century French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, who was considered a founder of the decadent movement, but later in life reverted to Catholicism and became a Benedictine oblate. François is living what may be described as a modern version of the decadent life. Single, living alone in a small apartment where he subsists mostly on microwaved dinners, he has become convinced his intellectual life peaked with the publication of his thesis on Huysmans and holds nothing other than going through the motions teaching his classes at the university. His amorous life is largely confined to a serial set of affairs with his students, most of which end with the academic year when they “meet someone” and, in the gaps, liaisons with “escorts” in which he indulges in the kind of perversion the decadents celebrated in their writings.

About the only thing which interests him is politics and the election, but not as a participant but observer watching television by himself. After the first round election, there is the stunning news that in order to prevent a Front national victory, the Muslim brotherhood, socialist, and traditional right parties have formed an alliance supporting Ben Abbes for president, with an agreed division of ministries among the parties. Myriam, François' current girlfriend, leaves with her Jewish family to settle in Israel, joining many of her faith who anticipate what is coming, having seen it so many times before in the history of their people.

François follows in the footsteps of Huysmans, visiting the Benedictine monastery in Martel, a village said to have been founded by Charles Martel, who defeated the Muslim invasion of Europe in a.d. 732 at the Battle of Tours. He finds no solace nor inspiration there and returns to Paris where, with the alliance triumphant in the second round of the election and Ben Abbes president, changes are immediately apparent.

Ethnic strife has fallen to a low level: the Muslim community sees itself ascendant and has no need for political agitation. The unemployment rate has fallen to historical lows: forcing women out of the workforce will do that, especially when they are no longer counted in the statistics. Polygamy has been legalised, as part of the elimination of gender equality under the law. More and more women on the street dress modestly and wear the veil. The Sorbonne has been “privatised”, becoming the Islamic University of Paris, and all non-Muslim faculty, including François, have been dismissed. With generous funding from the petro-monarchies of the Gulf, François and other now-redundant academics receive lifetime pensions sufficient that they never need work again, but it grates upon them to see intellectual inferiors, after a cynical and insincere conversion to Islam, replace them at salaries often three times higher than they received.

Unemployed, François grasps at an opportunity to edit a new edition of Huysmans for Pléiade, and encounters Robert Rediger, an ambitious academic who has been appointed rector of the Islamic University and has the ear of Ben Abbes. They later meet at Rediger's house, where, over a fine wine, he gives François a copy of his introductory book on Islam, explains the benefits of polygamy and arranged marriage to a man of his social standing, and the opportunities open to Islamic converts in the new university.

Eventually, François, like France, ends in submission.

As G. K. Chesterton never actually said, “When a man stops believing in God he doesn't then believe in nothing; he believes anything.” (The false quotation appears to be a synthesis of similar sentiments expressed by Chesterton in a number of different works.) Whatever the attribution, there is truth in it. François is an embodiment of post-Christian Europe, where the nucleus around which Western civilisation has been built since the fall of the Roman Empire has evaporated, leaving a void which deprives people of the purpose, optimism, and self-confidence of their forbears. Such a vacuum is more likely to be filled with something—anything, than long endure, especially when an aggressive, virile, ambitious, and prolific competitor has established itself in the lands of the decadent.

An English translation is available. This book is not recommended for young readers due to a number of sex scenes I found gratuitous and, even to this non-young reader, somewhat icky. This is a social satire, not a forecast of the future, but I found it more plausible than many scenarios envisioned for a Muslim conquest of Europe. I'll leave you to discover for yourself how the clever Ben Abbes envisions co-opting Eurocrats in his project of grand unification.

April 2017 Permalink

Huntington, Samuel P. Who Are We? New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. ISBN 0-684-87053-3.
The author, whose 1996 The Clash of Civilisations anticipated the conflicts of the early 21st century, here turns his attention inward toward the national identity of his own society. Huntington (who is, justifiably, accorded such respect by his colleagues that you might think his full name is “Eminent Scholar Samuel P. Huntington”) has written a book few others could have gotten away with without being villified in academia. His scholarship, lack of partisan agenda, thoroughness, and meticulous documentation make his argument here, that the United States were founded as what he calls an “Anglo-Protestant” culture by their overwhelmingly English Protestant settlers, difficult to refute. In his view, the U.S. were not a “melting pot” of immigrants, but rather a nation where successive waves of immigrants accepted and were assimilated into the pre-existing Anglo-Protestant culture, regardless of, and without renouncing, their ethnic origin and religion. The essentials of this culture—individualism, the work ethic, the English language, English common law, high moral standards, and individual responsibility—are not universals but were what immigrants had to buy into in order to “make it in America”. In fact, as Huntington points out, in the great waves of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of those who came to America were self-selected for those qualities before they boarded the boat. All of this has changed, he argues, with the mass immigration which began in the 1960s. For the first time, a large percentage of immigrants share a common language (Spanish) and hail from a common culture (Mexico), with which it is easy to retain contact. At the same time, U.S. national identity has been eroded among the elite (but not the population as a whole) in favour of transnational (U.N., multinational corporation, NGO) and subnational (race, gender) identities. So wise is Huntington that I found myself exclaiming every few pages at some throw-away insight I'd never otherwise have had, such as that most of the examples offered up of successful multi-cultural societies (Belgium, Canada, Switzerland) owe their stability to fear of powerful neighbours (p. 159). This book is long on analysis but almost devoid of policy prescriptions. Fair enough: the list of viable options with any probability of being implemented may well be the null set, but even so, it's worthwhile knowing what's coming. While the focus of this book is almost entirely on the U.S., Europeans whose countries are admitting large numbers of difficult to assimilate immigrants will find much to ponder here. One stylistic point—Huntington is as fond of enumerations as even the most fanatic of the French encyclopédistes: on page 27 he indulges in one with forty-eight items and two levels of hierarchy! The enumerations form kind of a basso continuo to the main text.

September 2004 Permalink

Invisible Committee, The. The Coming Insurrection. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)/MIT Press, [2007] 2009. ISBN 978-1-58435-080-4.
I have not paid much attention to the “anti-globalisation” protesters who seem to pop up at gatherings of international political and economic leaders, for example at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle in 1999 and the Genoa G8 Summit in 2001. In large part this is because I have more interesting things with which to occupy my time, but also because, despite saturation media coverage of such events, I was unable to understand the agenda of the protesters, apart from smashing windows and hurling epithets and improvised projectiles at the organs of state security. I understand what they're opposed to, but couldn't for the life of me intuit what policies would prevail if they had their way. Still, as they are often described as “anarchists”, I, as a flaming anarchist myself, could not help but be intrigued by those so identified in the legacy media as taking the struggle to the street.

This book, written by an anonymous group of authors, has been hailed as the manifesto of this movement, so I hoped that reading it would provide some insight into what it was all about. My hope was in vain. The writing is so incoherent and the prose so impenetrable that I closed it with no more knowledge of the philosophy and programme of its authors than when I opened it. My general perception of the “anti-globalisation” movement was one of intellectual nonentities spewing inchoate rage at the “system” which produces the wealth that allows them to live their slacker lives and flit from protest to protest around the globe. Well, if this is their manifesto, then indeed that's all there is to it. The text is nearly impossible to decipher, being written in a dialect of no known language. Many paragraphs begin with an unsubstantiated and often absurd assertion, then follow it with successive verb-free sentence fragments which seem to be intended to reinforce the assertion. I suppose that if you read it as a speech before a mass assembly of fanatics who cheer whenever they hear one of their trigger words it may work, but one would expect savvy intellectuals to discern the difference in media and adapt accordingly. Whenever the authors get backed into an irreconcilable logical corner, they just drop an F-bomb and start another paragraph.

These are people so clueless that I'll have to coin a new word for those I've been calling clueless all these many years. As far as I can figure out, they assume that they can trash the infrastructure of the “system”, and all of the necessities of their day to day urban life will continue to flow to them thanks to the magic responsible for that today. These “anarchists” reject the “exploitation” of work—after all, who needs to work? “Aside from welfare, there are various benefits, disability money, accumulated student aid, subsidies drawn off fictitious childbirths, all kinds of trafficking, and so many other means that arise with every mutation of control.” (p. 103) Go anarchism! Death to the state, as long as the checks keep coming! In fact, it is almost certain that the effete would-be philosophes who set crayon (and I don't mean the French word for “pencil”) to paper to produce this work will be among the first wave of those to fall in the great die-off starting between 72 and 96 hours after that event towards which they so sincerely strive: the grid going down. Want to know what I'm talking about? Turn off the water main where it enters your house and see what happens in the next three days if you assume you can't go anywhere else where the water is on. It's way too late to learn about “rooftop vegetable gardens” when the just-in-time underpinnings which sustain modern life come to a sudden halt. Urban intellectuals may excel at publishing blows against the empire, but when the system actually goes down, bet on rural rednecks to be the survivors. Of course, as far as I can figure out what these people want, it may be that Homo sapiens returns to his roots—namely digging for roots and grubs with a pointed stick. Perhaps rather than flying off to the next G-20 meeting to fight the future, they should spend a week in one of the third world paradises where people still live that way and try it out for themselves.

The full text of the book is available online in English and French. Lest you think the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a beacon of rationality and intelligence in a world going dark, it is their university press which distributes this book.

May 2010 Permalink

Itzkoff, Seymour W. The Decline of Intelligence in America. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994. ISBN 0-275-95229-0.
This book had the misfortune to come out in the same year as the first edition of The Bell Curve (August 2003), and suffers by comparison. Unlike that deservedly better-known work, Itzkoff presents few statistics to support his claims that dysgenic reproduction is resulting in a decline in intelligence in the U.S. Any assertion of declining intelligence must confront the evidence for the Flynn Effect (see The Rising Curve, July 2004), which seems to indicate IQ scores are rising about 15 points per generation in a long list of countries including the U.S. The author dismisses Flynn's work in a single paragraph as irrelevant to international competition since scores of all major industrialised countries are rising at about the same rate. But if you argue that IQ is a measure of intelligence, as this book does, how can you claim intelligence is falling at the same time IQ scores are rising at a dizzying rate without providing some reason that Flynn's data should be disregarded? There's quite a bit of hand wringing about the social, educational, and industrial prowess of Japan and Germany which sounds rather dated with a decade's hindsight. The second half of the book is a curious collection of policy recommendations, which defy easy classification into a point on the usual political spectrum. Itzkoff advocates economic protectionism, school vouchers, government-led industrial policy, immigration restrictions, abolishing affirmative action, punitive taxation, government incentives for conventional families, curtailment of payments to welfare mothers and possibly mandatory contraception, penalties for companies which export well-paying jobs, and encouragement of inter-racial and -ethnic marriage. I think that if an ADA/MoveOn/NOW liberal were to read this book, their head might explode. Given the political climate in the U.S. and other Western countries, such policies had exactly zero chance of being implemented either when he recommended them in 1994 and no more today.

October 2004 Permalink

Jacobs, Jane. Dark Age Ahead. New York: Random House, 2004. ISBN 1-4000-6232-2.
The reaction of a reader who chooses this book solely based on its title or the dust-jacket blurb is quite likely to be, “Huh?” The first chapter vividly evokes the squalor and mass cultural amnesia which followed the fall of Western Rome, the collapse of the Chinese global exploration and trade in the Ming dynasty, and the extinction of indigenous cultures in North America and elsewhere. Then, suddenly, we find ourselves talking about urban traffic planning, the merits of trolley buses vs. light rail systems, Toronto metropolitan government, accounting scandals, revenue sharing with municipalities, and a host of other issues which, however important, few would rank as high on the list of probable causes of an incipient dark age. These are issues near and dear to the author, who has been writing about them ever since her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Jacobs was born in 1916 and wrote this book at the age of 87). If you're unfamiliar with her earlier work, the extensive discussion of “city import replacement” in the present volume will go right over your head as she never defines it here. Further, she uses the word “neoconservative” at variance with its usual meaning in the U.S. and Europe. It's only on page 113 (of 175 pages of main text) that we discover this is a uniquely Canadian definition. Fine, she's been a resident of Toronto since 1969, but this book is published in New York and addressed to an audience of “North Americans” (another Canadian usage), so it's unnecessarily confusing. I find little in this book to disagree with, but as a discussion of the genuine risks which face Western civilisation, it's superficial and largely irrelevant.

October 2004 Permalink

Kagan, Robert. Of Paradise and Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. ISBN 1-4000-4093-0.

June 2003 Permalink

Kimball, Roger. Tenured Radicals. 3rd. ed. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, [1990, 1991, 1998] 2008. ISBN 978-1-56663-796-1.
If you want to understand what's happening in the United States today, and how the so-called millennial generation (May 2008) came to be what it is, there's no better place to start than this book, originally published eighteen years ago, which has just been released in a new paperback edition with an introduction and postscript totalling 65 pages which update the situation as of 2008. The main text has been revised as well, and a number of footnotes added to update matters which have changed since earlier editions.

Kimball's thesis is that, already by 1990, and far more and broadly diffused today, the humanities departments (English, Comparative Literature, Modern Languages, Philosophy, etc.) of prestigious (and now almost all) institutions of higher learning have been thoroughly radicalised by politically-oriented academics who have jettisoned the traditional canon of literature, art, and learning and rejected the traditional mission of a liberal arts education in favour of indoctrinating students in a nominally “multicultural” but actually anti-Western ideology which denies the existence of objective truth and the meaning of text, and inculcates the Marxist view that all works can be evaluated only in terms of their political context and consequences. These pernicious ideas, which have been discredited by their disastrous consequences in the last century and laughed out of public discourse everywhere else, have managed to achieve an effective hegemony in the American academy, with tenured radicals making hiring and tenure decisions based upon adherence to their ideology as opposed to merit in disinterested intellectual inquiry.

Now, putting aside this being disastrous to a society which, like all societies, is never more than one generation away from losing its culture, and catastrophic to a country which now has a second generation of voters entering the electorate who are ignorant of the cultural heritage they inherited and the history of the nation whose leadership they are about to assume, this spectacle can also be quite funny if observed with special goggles which only transmit black humour. For the whole intellectual tommyrot of “deconstruction” and “postmodernism” has become so trendy that intellectuals in other fields one would expect to be more immune to such twaddle are getting into the act, including the law (“Critical Legal Studies”) and—astoundingly—architecture. An entire chapter is devoted to “Deconstructivist Architecture”, which by its very name seems to indicate you wouldn't want to spend much time in buildings “deconstructed” by its proponents. And yet, it has a bevy of earnest advocates, including Peter Eisenman, one of the most distinguished of U.S. architects, who advised those wishing to move beyond the sterility of modernism to seek

a theory of the center, that is, a theory which occupies the center. I believe that only when such a theory of the center is articulated will architecture be able to transform itself as it always has and as it always will…. But the center that I am talking about is not a center that can be the center that we know is in the past, as a nostalgia for center. Rather, this not new but other center will be … an interstitial one—but one with no structure, but one also that embraces as periphery in its own centric position. … A center no longer sustained by nostalgia and no longer sustained by univocal discourse. (p. 187)
Got that? I'd hate to be a client explaining to him that I want the main door to be centred between these two windows.

But seriously, apart from the zaniness, intellectual vapidity and sophistry, and obscurantist prose (all of which are on abundant display here), what we're seeing what Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci called the “long march through the institutions” arriving at the Marxist promised land: institutions of higher education funded with taxpayer money and onerous tuition payments paid by hard-working parents and towering student loans disgorging class after class of historically and culturally ignorant, indoctrinated, and easily influenced individuals into the electorate, just waiting for a charismatic leader who knows how to eloquently enunciate the trigger words they've been waiting for.

In the 2008 postscript the author notes that a common reaction to the original 1990 edition of the book was the claim that he had cherry-picked for mockery a few of the inevitably bizarre extremes you're sure to find in a vibrant and diverse academic community. But with all the news in subsequent years of speech codes, jackboot enforcing of “diversity”, and the lockstep conformity of much of academia, this argument is less plausible today. Indeed, much of the history of the last two decades has been the diffusion of new deconstructive and multicultural orthodoxy from elite institutions into the mainstream and its creeping into the secondary school curriculum as well. What happens in academia matters, especially in a country in which an unprecedented percentage of the population passes through what style themselves as institutions of higher learning. The consequences of this should be begin to be manifest in the United States over the next few years.

November 2008 Permalink

Klein, Aaron with Brenda J. Elliott. The Manchurian President. New York: WND Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-935071-87-7.
The provocative title of this book is a reference to Richard Condon's classic 1959 Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, in which a Korean War veteran, brainwashed by the Chinese while a prisoner of war in North Korea, returns as a sleeper agent, programmed to perform political assassinations on behalf of his Red controllers. The climax comes as a plot unfolds to elect a presidential candidate who will conduct a “palace coup”, turning the country over to the conspirators. The present book, on the other hand, notwithstanding its title, makes no claim that its subject, Barack Obama, has been brainwashed in any way, nor that there is any kind of covert plot to enact an agenda damaging to the United States, nor is any evidence presented which might support such assertions. Consequently, I believe the title is sensationalistic and in the end counterproductive. But what about the book?

Well, I'd argue that there is no reason to occupy oneself with conspiracy theories or murky evidence of possible radical connections in Obama's past, when you need only read the man's own words in his 1995 autobiography, Dreams from My Father, describing his time at Occidental College:

To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and the structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Frantz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy.

The sentence fragments. Now, certainly, many people have expressed radical thoughts in their college days, but most, writing an autobiography fifteen years later, having graduated from Harvard Law School and practiced law, might be inclined to note that they'd “got better”; to my knowledge, Obama makes no such assertion. Further, describing his first job in the private sector, also in Dreams, he writes:

Eventually, a consulting house to multinational corporations agreed to hire me as a research assistant. Like a spy behind enemy lines, I arrived every day at my mid-Manhattan office and sat at my computer terminal, checking the Reuters machine that blinked bright emerald messages from across the globe.

Now bear in mind that this is Obama on Obama, in a book published the same year he decided to enter Illinois politics, running for a state senate seat. Why would a politician feigning moderation in order to gain power, thence to push a radical agenda, explicitly brag of his radical credentials and background?

Well, he doesn't because he's been an overt hard left radical with a multitude of connections to leftist, socialist, communist, and militant figures all of his life, from the first Sunday school he attended in Hawaii to the circle of advisers he brought into government following his election as president. The evidence of this has been in plain sight ever since Obama came onto the public scene, and he has never made an effort to cover it up or deny it. The only reason it is not widely known is that the legacy media did not choose to pursue it. This book documents Obama's radical leftist history and connections, but it does so in such a clumsy and tedious manner that you may find it difficult to slog through. The hard left in the decades of Obama's rise to prominence is very much like that of the 1930s through 1950s: a multitude of groups with platitudinous names concealing their agenda, staffed by a cast of characters whose names pop up again and again as you tease out the details, and with sources of funding which disappear into a cloud of smoke as you try to pin them down. In fact, the “new new left” (or “contemporary progressive movement”, as they'd doubtless prefer) looks and works almost precisely like what we used to call “communist front organisations” back in the day. The only difference is that they aren't funded by the KGB, seek Soviet domination, or report to masters in Moscow—at least as far as we know….

Obama's entire career has been embedded in such a tangled web of radical causes, individuals, and groups that following any one of them is like pulling up a weed whose roots extend in all directions, tangling with other weeds, which in turn are connected every which way. What we have is not a list of associations, but rather a network, and a network is a difficult thing to describe in the linear narrative of a book. In the present case, the authors get all tangled up in the mess, and the result is a book which is repetitive, tedious, and on occasions so infuriating that it was mostly a desire not to clean up the mess and pay the repair cost which kept me from hurling it through a window. If they'd mentioned just one more time that Bill Ayers was a former Weatherman terrorist, I think I might have lost that window.

Each chapter starts out with a theme, but as the web of connections spreads, we get into material and individuals covered elsewhere, and there is little discipline in simply cross-referencing them or trusting the reader to recall their earlier mention. And when there are cross-references, they are heavy handed. For example at the start of chapter 12, they write: “Two of the architects of that campaign, and veterans of Obama's U.S. senatorial campaign—David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett—were discussed by the authors in detail in Chapter 10 of this book.” Hello, is there an editor in the house? Who other than “the authors” would have discussed them, and where else than in “this book”? And shouldn't an attentive reader be likely to recall two prominent public figures discussed “in detail” just two chapters before?

The publisher's description promises much, including “Obama's mysterious college years unearthed”, but very little new information is delivered, and most of the book is based on secondary sources, including blog postings the credibility of which the reader is left to judge. Now, I did not find much to quibble about, but neither did I encounter much material I did not already know, and I've not obsessively followed Obama. I suppose that people who exclusively get their information from the legacy media might be shocked by what they read here, but most of it has been widely mentioned since Obama came onto the radar screen in 2007. The enigmatic lacunæ in Obama's paper trail (SAT and LSAT scores, college and law school transcripts, etc.) are mentioned here, but remain mysterious.

If you're interested in this topic, I'd recommend giving this book a miss and instead starting with the Barack Obama page on David Horowitz's Discover the Networks site, following the links outward from there. Horowitz literally knows the radical left from inside and out: the son of two members of the Communist Party of the United States, he was a founder of the New Left and editor of Ramparts magazine. Later, repelled by the murderous thuggery of the Black Panthers, he began to re-think his convictions and has since become a vocal opponent of the Left. His book, Radical Son (March 2007), is an excellent introduction to the Old and New Left, and provides insight into the structure and operation of the leftists behind and within the Obama administration.

June 2010 Permalink

Koman, Victor. Solomon's Knife. Mill Valley, CA: Pulpless.Com, [1989] 1999. ISBN 1-58445-072-X.

November 2002 Permalink

Lamb, David. The Africans. New York: Vintage Books, 1987. ISBN 0-394-75308-9.

April 2002 Permalink

Lamb, David. The Arabs. 2nd. ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. ISBN 1-4000-3041-2.

June 2002 Permalink

Lebeau, Caroline. Les nouvelles preuves sur l'assassinat de J. F. Kennedy. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2003. ISBN 2-268-04915-9.
If you don't live in Europe, you may not be fully aware just how deranged the Looney Left can be in their hatred of Western civilisation, individual liberty, and the United States in particular. This book, from the same publisher who included a weasel-word disclaimer in each copy of Oriana Fallaci's La Force de la Raison (December 2004), bears, on its cover, in 42 point white type on a red background, the subtitle «Le clan Bush est-il coupable?»—“Is the Bush clan guilty?” This book was prominently displayed in French language bookstores in 2004. The rambling narrative and tangled illogic finally pile up to give an impression reminiscent of the JFK assassination headline in The Onion's Our Dumb Century: “Kennedy Slain by CIA, Mafia, Castro, Teamsters, Freemasons”. Lebeau declines to implicate the Masons, but fleshes out the list, adding multinational corporations, defence contractors, the Pentagon, Khrushchev, anti-Casto Cuban exiles, a cabal within the Italian army (I'm not making this up—see pp. 167–168), H.L. Hunt, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, the mayor of Dallas … and the Bush family, inter alia. George W. Bush, who was 17 years old at the time, is not accused of being a part of the «énorme complot», but his father is, based essentially on the deduction: “Kennedy was killed in Dallas. Dallas is in Texas. George H. W. Bush lived in Texas at the time—guilty, guilty, guilty!

“Independent investigative journalist” Lebeau is so meticulous in her “investigations” that she confuses JFK's older brother's first and middle names, misspells Nixon's middle name, calls the Warren Report the product of a Republican administration, confuses electoral votes with Senate seats, consistently misspells “grassy knoll”, thinks a “dum-dum” bullet is explosive, that Gerald Ford was an ex-FBI agent, and confuses H. L. Hunt and E. Howard Hunt on the authority of “journalist” Mumia Abu-Jamal, not noting that he is a convicted cop killer. Her studies in economics permit her to calculate (p. 175) that out of a total cost of 80 billion dollars, the Vietnam war yielded total profits to the military-industrial complex and bankers of 220 trillion dollars, which is about two centuries worth of the U.S. gross national product as of 1970. Some of the illustrations in the book appear to have been photographed off a television screen, and many of the original documents reproduced are partially or entirely illegible.

March 2005 Permalink

Lelièvre, Domnique. L'Empire américain en échec sous l'éclairage de la Chine impériale. Chatou, France: Editions Carnot, 2004. ISBN 2-84855-097-X.
This is a very odd book. About one third of the text is a fairly conventional indictment of the emerging U.S. “virtuous empire” along the lines of America the Virtuous (earlier this month), along with the evils of globalisation, laissez-faire capitalism, cultural imperialism, and the usual scélérats du jour. But the author, who has published three earlier books of Chinese history, anchors his analysis of current events in parallels between the present day United States and the early Ming dynasty in China, particularly the reign of Zhu Di (朱棣), the Emperor Yongle (永樂), A.D. 1403-1424. (Windows users: if you didn't see the Chinese characters in the last sentence and wish to, you'll need to install Chinese language support using the Control Panel / Regional Options / Language Settings item, enabling “Simplified Chinese”. This may require you to load the original Windows install CD, reboot your machine after the installation is complete, and doubtless will differ in detail from one version of Windows to another. It may be a global village, but it can sure take a lot of work to get from one hut to the next.) Similarities certainly exist, some of them striking: both nations had overwhelming naval superiority and command of the seas, believed themselves to be the pinnacle of civilisation, sought large-scale hegemony (from the west coast of Africa to east Asia in the case of China, global for the U.S.), preferred docile vassal states to allies, were willing to intervene militarily to preserve order and their own self-interests, but for the most part renounced colonisation, annexation, territorial expansion, and religious proselytising. Both were tolerant, multi-cultural, multi-racial societies which believed their values universal and applicable to all humanity. Both suffered attacks from Islamic raiders, the Mongols under Tamerlane (Timur) and his successors in the case of Ming China. And both even fought unsuccessful wars in what is now Vietnam which ended in ignominious withdrawals. All of this is interesting, but how useful it is in pondering the contemporary situation is problematic, for along with the parallels, there are striking differences in addition to the six centuries of separation in time and all that implies for cultural and technological development including communications, weapons, and forms of government. Ming dynasty China was the archetypal oriental despotism, where the emperor's word was law, and the administrative and military bureaucracy was in the hands of eunuchs. The U.S., on the other hand, seems split right about down the middle regarding its imperial destiny, and many observers of U.S. foreign and military policy believe it suffers a surfeit of balls, not their absence. Fifteenth century China was self-sufficient in everything except horses, and its trade with vassal states consisted of symbolic potlatch-type tribute payments in luxury goods. The U.S., on the other hand, is the world's largest debtor nation, whose economy is dependent not only on an assured supply of imported petroleum, but also a wide variety of manufactured goods, access to cheap offshore labour, and the capital flows which permit financing its chronic trade deficits. I could go on listing fundamental differences which make any argument by analogy between these two nations highly suspect, but I'll close by noting that China's entire career as would-be hegemon began with Yongle and barely outlasted his reign—six of the seven expeditions of the great Ming fleet occurred during his years on the throne. Afterward China turned inward and largely ignored the rest of the world until the Europeans came knocking in the 19th century. Is it likely the U.S. drift toward empire which occupied most of the last century will end so suddenly and permanently? Stranger things have happened, but I wouldn't bet on it.

August 2004 Permalink

Levin, Mark R. Men in Black. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0-89526-050-6.
Let's see—suppose we wanted to set up a system of self-government—a novus ordo seclorum as it were—which would be immune to the assorted slippery slopes which delivered so many other such noble experiments into the jaws of tyranny, and some dude shows up and suggests, “Hey, what you really need is a branch of government composed of non-elected people with lifetime tenure, unable to be removed from office except for the most egregious criminal conduct, granted powers supreme above the legislative and executive branches, and able to define and expand the scope of their own powers without constraint.”

What's wrong with this picture? Well, it's pretty obvious that it's a recipe for an imperial judiciary, as one currently finds ascendant in the United States. Men in Black, while focusing on recent abuses of judicial power, demonstrates that there's nothing new about judges usurping the prerogatives of democratically elected branches of government—in fact, the pernicious consequences of “judicial activism” are as old as America, winked at by each generation of politicians as long as it advanced their own agenda more rapidly than the ballot box permitted, ignoring (as politicians are inclined to do, never looking beyond the next election), that when the ideological pendulum inevitably swings back the other way, judges may thwart the will of elected representatives in the other direction for a generation or more.

But none of this is remotely new. Robert Yates, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention who came to oppose the ratification of that regrettable document, wrote in 1788:

They will give the sense of every article of the constitution, that may from time to time come before them. And in their decisions they will not confine themselves to any fixed or established rules, but will determine, according to what appears to them, the reason and spirit of the constitution. The opinions of the supreme court, whatever they may be, will have the force of law; because there is no power provided in the constitution, that can correct their errors, or controul [sic] their adjudications. From this court there is no appeal.
The fact that politicians are at loggerheads over the selection of judges has little or nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with judges having usurped powers explicitly reserved for representatives accountable to their constituents in regular elections.

How to fix it? Well, I proposed my own humble solution here not so long ago, and the author of this book suggests 12 year terms for Supreme Court judges staggered with three year expiry. Given how far the unchallenged assertion of judicial supremacy has gone, a constitutional remedy in the form of a legislative override of judicial decisions (with the same super-majority as required to override an executive veto) might also be in order.

May 2005 Permalink

Levin, Mark R. Liberty and Tyranny. New York: Threshold Editions, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4165-6285-6.
Even at this remove, I can recall the precise moment when my growing unease that the world wasn't turning into the place I'd hoped to live as an adult became concrete and I first began to comprehend the reasons for the trends which worried me. It was October 27th, 1964 (or maybe a day or so later, if the broadcast was tape delayed) when I heard Ronald Reagan's speech “A Time for Choosing”, given in support of Barry Goldwater's U.S. presidential campaign. Notwithstanding the electoral disaster of the following week, many people consider Reagan's speech (often now called just “The Speech”) a pivotal moment both in the rebirth of conservatism in the United States and Reagan's own political career. I know that I was never the same afterward: I realised that the vague feelings of things going the wrong way were backed up by the facts Reagan articulated and, further and more important, that there were alternatives to the course the country and society was presently steering. That speech, little appreciated at the time, changed the course of American history and changed my life.

Here is a book with the potential to do the same for people today who, like me in 1964, are disturbed at the way things are going, particularly young people who, indoctrinated in government schools and the intellectual monoculture of higher education, have never heard the plain and yet eternal wisdom the author so eloquently and economically delivers here. The fact that this book has recently shot up to the number one rank in Amazon.com book sales indicates that not only is the message powerful, but that an audience receptive to it exists.

The author admirably cedes no linguistic ground to the enemies of freedom. At the very start he dismisses the terms “liberal” (How is it liberal to advocate state coercion as the answer to every problem?) and “progressive” (How can a counter-revolution against the inherent, unalienable rights of individual human beings in favour of the state possibly be deemed progress?) for “Statist”, which is used consistently thereafter. He defines a “Conservative” not as one who cherishes the past or desires to return to it, but rather a person who wishes to conserve the individual liberty proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence and supposedly protected by the Constitution (the author and I disagree about the wisdom of the latter document and the motives of those who promoted it). A Conservative is not one who, in the 1955 words of William F. Buckley “stands athwart history, yelling Stop”, but rather believes in incremental, prudential reform, informed by the experience of those who went before, from antiquity up until yesterday, with the humility to judge every policy not by its intentions but rather by the consequences it produces, and always ready to reverse any step which proves, on balance, detrimental.

The Conservative doesn't believe in utopia, nor in the perfectibility or infinite mutability of human nature. Any aggregate of flawed humans will be inevitably flawed; that which is least flawed and allows individuals the most scope to achieve the best within themselves is as much as can be hoped for. The Conservative knows from history that every attempt by Statists to create heaven on Earth by revolutionary transformation and the hope of engendering a “new man” has ended badly, often in tragedy.

For its length, this book is the best I've encountered at delivering the essentials of the conservative (or, more properly termed, but unusable due to corruption of the language, “classical liberal”) perspective on the central issues of the time. For those who have read Burke, Adam Smith, de Tocqueville, the Federalist Papers, Hayek, Bastiat, Friedman, and other classics of individual and economic liberty (the idea that these are anything but inseparable is another Statist conceit), you will find little that is new in the foundations, although all of these threads are pulled together in a comprehensible and persuasive way. For people who have never heard of any of the above, or have been taught to dismiss them as outdated, obsolete, and inapplicable to our age, this book may open the door to a new, more clear way of thinking, and through its abundant source citations (many available on the Web) invites further exploration by those who, never having thought of themselves before as “conservative”, find their heads nodding in agreement with many of the plain-spoken arguments presented here.

As the book progresses, there is less focus on fundamentals and more on issues of the day such as the regulatory state, environmentalism, immigration, welfare dependency, and foreign relations and military conflicts. This was, to me, less satisfying than the discussion of foundational principles. These issues are endlessly debated in a multitude of venues, and those who call themselves conservatives and agree on the basics nonetheless come down on different sides of many of these issues. (And why not? Conservatives draw on the lessons of the past, and there are many ways of interpreting the historical record.) The book concludes with “A Conservative Manifesto” which, while I concur that almost every point mentioned would be a step in the right direction for the United States, I cannot envision how, in the present environment, almost any of the particulars could be adopted. The change that is needed is not the election of one set of politicians to replace another—there is precious little difference between them—but rather the slow rediscovery and infusion into the culture of the invariant principles, founded in human nature rather than the theories of academics, which are so lucidly explained here. As the author notes, the statists have taken more than eight decades on their long march through the institutions to arrive at the present situation. Champions of liberty must expect to be as patient and persistent if they are to prevail. The question is whether they will enjoy the same freedom of action their opponents did, or fall victim as the soft tyranny of the providential state becomes absolute tyranny, as has so often been the case.

April 2009 Permalink

Levin, Mark R. Ameritopia. New York: Threshold Editions, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4391-7324-4.
Mark Levin seems to have a particularly virtuous kind of multiple personality disorder. Anybody who has listened to his radio program will know him as a combative “no prisoners” advocate for the causes of individual liberty and civil society. In print, however, he comes across as a scholar, deeply versed in the texts he is discussing, who builds his case as the lawyer he is, layer by layer, into a persuasive argument which is difficult to refute except by recourse to denial and emotion, which are the ultimate refuge of the slavers.

In this book, Levin examines the utopian temptation, exploring four utopian visions: Plato's Republic, More's Utopia, Hobbes's Leviathan, and Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto in detail, with lengthy quotations from the original texts. He then turns to the philosophical foundations of the American republic, exploring the work of Locke, Montesquieu, and the observations of Tocqueville on the reality of democracy in America.

Levin argues that the framers of the U.S. Constitution were well aware of utopian visions, and explicitly rejected them in favour of a system, based upon the wisdom of Locke and Montesquieu, which was deliberately designed to operate in spite of the weaknesses of the fallible humans which would serve as its magistrates. As Freeman Dyson observed, “The American Constitution is designed to be operated by crooks, just as the British constitution is designed to be operated by gentlemen.” Engineers who value inherent robustness in systems will immediately grasp the wisdom of this: gentlemen are scarce and vulnerable to corruption, while crooks are an inexhaustible resource.

For some crazy reason, most societies choose lawyers as legislators and executives. I think they would be much better advised to opt for folks who have designed, implemented, and debugged two or more operating systems in their careers. A political system is, after all, just an operating system that sorts out the rights and responsibilities of a multitude of independent agents, all acting in their own self interest, and equipped with the capacity to game the system and exploit any opportunity for their own ends. Looking at the classic utopias, what strikes this operating system designer is how sadly static they all are—they assume that, uniquely after billions of years of evolution and thousands of generations of humans, history has come to an end and that a wise person can now figure out how all people in an indefinite future should live their lives, necessarily forgoing improvement through disruptive technologies or ideas, as that would break the perfect system.

The American founding was the antithesis of utopia: it was a minimal operating system which was intended to provide the rule of law which enabled civil society to explore the frontiers of not just a continent but the human potential. Unlike the grand design of utopian systems, the U.S. Constitution was a lean operating system which devolved almost all initiative to “apps” created by the citizens living under it.

In the 20th century, as the U.S. consolidated itself as a continental power, emerged as a world class industrial force, and built a two ocean navy, the utopian temptation rose among the political class, who saw in the U.S. not just the sum of the individual creativity and enterprise of its citizens but the potential to build heaven on Earth if only those pesky constitutional constraints could be shed. Levin cites Wilson and FDR as exemplars of this temptation, but for most of the last century both main political parties more or less bought into transforming America into Ameritopia.

In the epilogue, Levin asks whether it is possible to reverse the trend and roll back Ameritopia into a society which values the individual above the collective and restores the essential liberty of the citizen from the intrusive state. He cites hopeful indications, such as the rise of the “Tea Party” movement, but ultimately I find these unpersuasive. Collectivism always collapses, but usually from its own internal contradictions; the way to bet in the long term is on individual liberty and free enterprise, but I expect it will take a painful and protracted economic and societal collapse to flense the burden of bad ideas which afflict us today.

In the Kindle edition the end notes are properly bidirectionally linked to the text, but the note citations in the main text are so tiny (at least when read with the Kindle application on the iPad) that it is almost impossible to tap upon them.

May 2012 Permalink

Levin, Mark R. The Liberty Amendments. New York: Threshold Editions, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4516-0627-0.
To many observers including this one, the United States appear to be in a death spiral, guided by an entrenched ruling class toward a future where the only question is whether a financial collapse will pauperise the citizenry before or after they are delivered into tyranny. Almost all of the usual remedies seem to have been exhausted. Both of the major political parties are firmly in the control of the ruling class who defend the status quo, and these parties so control access to the ballot, media, and campaign funding that any attempt to mount a third party challenge appears futile. Indeed, the last time a candidate from a new party won the presidency was in 1860, and that was because the Whig party was in rapid decline and the Democrat vote was split two ways.

In this book Levin argues that the time is past when a solution could be sought in electing the right people to offices in Washington and hoping they would appoint judges and executive department heads who would respect the constitution. The ruling class, which now almost completely controls the parties, has the tools to block any effective challenge from outside their ranks, and even on the rare occasion an outsider is elected, the entrenched administrative state and judiciary will continue to defy the constitution, legislating from within the executive and judicial branches. What does a written constitution mean when five lawyers, appointed for life, can decide what it means, with their decision not subject to appeal by any other branch of government?

If a solution cannot be found by electing better people to offices in Washington then, as Lenin asked, “What is to be done?” Levin argues that the framers of the constitution (in particular George Mason) anticipated precisely the present situation and, in the final days of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, added text to Article Five providing that the constitution can be amended when:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments,…

Of the 27 amendments adopted so far, all have been proposed by Congress—the state convention mechanism has never been used (although in some cases Congress proposed an amendment to preempt a convention when one appeared likely). As Levin observes, the state convention process completely bypasses Washington: a convention is called by the legislatures of two thirds of the states, and amendments it proposes are adopted if ratified by three quarters of the states. Congress, the president, and the federal judiciary are completely out of the loop.

Levin proposes 11 amendments, all of which he argues are consistent with the views of the framers of the constitution and, in some cases, restore constitutional provisions which have been bypassed by clever judges, legislators, and bureaucrats. The amendments include term limits for all federal offices (including the Supreme Court); repeal of the direct election of senators and a return to their being chosen by state legislatures; super-majority overrides of Supreme Court decisions, congressional legislation, and executive branch regulations; restrictions on the taxing and spending powers (including requiring a balanced budget); reining in expansive interpretation of the commerce clause; requiring compensation for takings of private property; provisions to guard against voter fraud; and making it easier for the states to amend the constitution.

In evaluating Levin's plan, the following questions arise:

  1. Is amending the constitution by the state convention route politically achievable?
  2. Will the proposed amendments re-balance the federal system sufficiently to solve (or at least make it possible to begin to solve) its current problems?
  3. Are there problems requiring constitutional change not addressed by the proposed amendments?
  4. Will leviathan be able to wiggle out of the new constitutional straitjacket (or ignore its constraints with impunity) as it has done with the existing constitution?

I will address each of these questions below. Some these matters will take us pretty deep into the weeds, and you may not completely understand the discussion without having read the book (which, of course, I heartily recommend you do).

Is amending the constitution by the state convention route politically achievable?

Today, the answer to this is no. Calling a convention to propose amendments requires requests by two thirds of state legislatures, or at least 34. Let us assume none of the 17 Democrat-controlled legislatures would vote to call a convention. That leaves 27 Republican-controlled legislatures, 5 split (one house Republican, one Democrat), and quirky Nebraska, whose legislature is officially non-partisan. Even if all of these voted for the convention, you're still one state short. But it's unlikely any of the 5 split houses would vote for a convention, and even in the 27 Republican-controlled legislatures there will be a substantial number of legislators sufficiently wedded to the establishment or fearful of loss of federal funds propping up their state's budget that they'd vote against the convention.

The author forthrightly acknowledges this, and states clearly that this is a long-term process which may take decades to accomplish. In fact, since three quarters of the states must vote to ratify amendments adopted by a convention, it wouldn't make sense to call one until there was some confidence 38 or more states would vote to adopt them. In today's environment, obtaining that kind of super-majority seems entirely out of reach.

But circumstances can change. Any attempt to re-balance the constitutional system to address the current dysfunction is racing against financial collapse at the state and federal level and societal collapse due to loss of legitimacy of the state in the eyes of its subjects, a decreasing minority of whom believe it has the “consent of the governed”. As states go bankrupt, pension obligations are defaulted upon, essential services are curtailed, and attempts to extract ever more from productive citizens through taxes, fees, regulations, depreciation of the currency, and eventually confiscation of retirement savings, the electorate in “blue” states may shift toward a re-balancing of a clearly dysfunctional and failing system.

Perhaps the question to ask is not whether this approach is feasible at present or may be at some point in the future, but rather whether any alternative plan has any hope of working.

Will the proposed amendments re-balance the federal system sufficiently to solve (or at least make it possible to begin to solve) its current problems?

It seems to me that a constitution with these amendments adopted will be far superior in terms of balance than the constitution in effect today. I say “in effect” because the constitution as intended by the framers has been so distorted and in some cases ignored that the text has little to do with how the federal government actually operates. These amendments are intended in large part to restore the original intent of the framers.

As an engineer, I am very much aware of the need for stable systems to incorporate negative feedback: when things veer off course, there needs to be a restoring force exerted in the opposite direction to steer back to the desired bearing. Many of these amendments create negative feedback mechanisms to correct excesses the framers did not anticipate. The congressional and state overrides of Supreme Court decisions and regulations provide a check on the making of law by judges and bureaucrats which were never anticipated in the original constitution. The spending and taxing amendments constrain profligate spending, runaway growth of debt, and an ever-growing tax burden on the productive sector.

I have a number of quibbles with the details and drafting of these amendments. I'm not much worried about these matters, since I'm sure that before they are presented to the states in final form for ratification they will be scrutinised in detail by eminent constitutional law scholars parsing every word for how it might be (mis)interpreted by mischievous judges. Still, here's what I noted in reading the amendments.

Some of the amendments write into the constitution matters which were left to statute in the original document. The spending amendment fixes the start of the fiscal year and cites the “Nation's gross domestic product” (defined how?). The amendments to limit the bureaucracy, protect private property, and grant the states the authority to check Congress all cite specific numbers denominated in dollars. How is a dollar to be defined in decades and centuries to come? Any specification of a specific dollar amount in the constitution is prone to becoming as quaint and irrelevant as the twenty dollars clause of the seventh amendment. The amendment to limit the bureaucracy gives constitutional status to the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office, which are defined nowhere else in the document.

In the amendment to grant the states the authority to check Congress there is a drafting error. In section 4, the cross-reference (do we really want to introduce brackets into the text of the constitution?) cites “An Amendment Establishing How the States May Amend the Constitution”, while “An Amendment to Limit the Federal Bureaucracy” is clearly intended. That amendment writes the two party system into the constitution by citing a “Majority Leader” and “Minority Leader”. Yes, that's how it works now, but is it wise to freeze this political structure (which I suspect would have appalled Washington) into the fundamental document of the republic?

Are there problems requiring constitutional change not addressed by the proposed amendments?

The economic amendments fail to address the question of sound money. Ever since the establishment of the Federal Reserve System, the dollar (which, as noted above, is cited in several of the proposed amendments) has lost more than 95% of its purchasing power according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator. Inflation is the most insidious tax of all, as it penalises savers to benefit borrowers, encourages short-term planning and speculation, and allows the federal government to write down its borrowings by depreciating the monetary unit in which they are to be repaid. Further, inflation runs the risk of the U.S. dollar being displaced as the world reserve currency (which is already happening, in slow motion so far, as bilateral agreements between trading partners to use their own currencies and bypass the dollar are negotiated). A government which can print money at will can evade the taxing constraints of the proposed amendment by inflating its currency and funding its expenditures with continually depreciating dollars. This is the route most countries have taken as bankruptcy approaches.

Leaving this question unaddressed opens a dangerous loophole by which the federal government can escape taxing and spending constraints by running the printing press (as it is already doing at this writing). I don't know what the best solution would be (well, actually, I do, but they'd call me a nut if I proposed it), so let me suggest an amendment banning all legal tender laws and allowing parties to settle contracts in any unit of account they wish: dollars, euros, gold, copper, baseball cards, or goats.

I fear that the taxing amendment may be a Trojan horse with as much potential for mischief as the original commerce clause. It leaves the entire incomprehensible and deeply corrupt Internal Revenue Code in place, imposing only a limit on the amount extracted from each taxpayer and eliminating the estate tax. This means that Congress remains free to use the tax code to arbitrarily coerce or penalise behaviour as it has done ever since the passage of the sixteenth amendment. While the total take from each taxpayer is capped, the legislature is free to favour one group against another, subsidise activities by tax exemption or discourage them by penalties (think the Obamacare mandate jujitsu of the Roberts opinion), and penalise investment through punitive taxation of interest, dividends, and capital gains. A prohibition of a VAT or national sales tax is written into the constitution, thus requiring another amendment to replace the income tax (repealing the sixteenth amendment) with a consumption-based tax. If you're going to keep the income tax, I'm all for banning a VAT on top of it, but given how destructive and costly the income tax as presently constituted is to prosperity, I'd say if you're going to the trouble of calling a convention and amending the constitution, drive a stake through it and replace it with a consumption tax which wouldn't require any individual to file any forms ever. Write the maximum tax rate into the amendment, thus requiring another amendment to change it. In note 55 to chapter 5 the author states, “I do not object to ‘the Fair Tax,’ which functions as a national sales tax and eliminates all forms of revenue-based taxation, should it be a preferred amendment by delegates to a state convention.” Since eliminating the income tax removes a key mechanism by which the central government can coerce the individual citizen, I would urge it as a positive recommendation to such a convention.

Will leviathan be able to wiggle out of the new constitutional straitjacket (or ignore its constraints with impunity) as it has done with the existing constitution?

This is an issue which preoccupied delegates to the constitutional convention, federalists and anti-federalists alike, in the debate over ratification of the constitution, and delegates to the ratification conventions in the states. It should equally concern us now in regard to these amendments. After all, only 14 years after the ratification of the constitution the judicial branch made a power grab in Marbury v. Madison and got away with it, establishing a precedent for judicial review which has been the foundation for troublemaking to this day. In the New Deal, the previously innocuous commerce clause was twisted to allow the federal government to regulate a farmer's growing wheat for consumption on his own farm.

A key question is the extent to which the feedback mechanisms created by these amendments will deter the kind of Houdini-like escapes from the original constitution which have brought the U.S. to its present parlous state. To my mind, they will improve things: certainly if the Supreme Court or a regulatory agency knows its decisions can be overruled, they will be deterred from overreaching even if the overrule is rarely used. Knowing how things went wrong with the original constitution will provide guidance in the course corrections to come. One advantage of an amendment convention called by the states is that the debate will be open, on the record, and ideally streamed to anybody interested in it. Being a bottom-up process, the delegates will have been selected by state legislatures close to their constituents, and their deliberations will be closely followed and commented upon by academics and legal professionals steeped in constitutional and common law, acutely aware of how clever politicians are in evading constitutional constraints.


Can the U.S. be saved? I have no idea. But this is the first plan I have encountered which seems to present a plausible path to restoring its original concept of a constitutional republic. It is a long shot; it will certainly take a great deal of effort from the bottom-up and many years to achieve; the U.S. may very well collapse before it can be implemented; but can you think of any other approach? People in the U.S. and those concerned with the consequences of its collapse will find a blueprint here, grounded in history and thoroughly documented, for an alternative path which just might work.

In the Kindle edition the end notes are properly bidirectionally linked to the text, and references to Web documents in the notes are linked directly to the on-line documents.

August 2013 Permalink

Lewis, Sinclair. It Can't Happen Here. New York: Signet, [1935] 1993. ISBN 0-451-52582-5.
Just when you need it, this classic goes out of print. Second-hand copies at reasonable prices are available from the link above or through abebooks.com. I wonder to what extent this novel might have motivated Heinlein to write For Us, The Living (February 2004) a few years later. There are interesting parallels between Lewis's authoritarian dystopia and the 1944–1950 dictatorial interregnum in Heinlein's novel. Further, one of the utopian reformers Lewis mocks is Upton Sinclair, of whom Heinlein was a committed follower at the time, devoting much of the latter part of For Us, The Living to an exposition of Sinclair's economic system.

March 2004 Permalink

Liddy, G. Gordon. When I Was a Kid, This Was a Free Country. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-89526-175-8.

January 2003 Permalink

Lindenberg, Daniel. Le rappel à l'ordre. Paris: Seuil, 2002. ISBN 2-02-055816-5.

May 2003 Permalink

Mailer, Norman. Miami and the Siege of Chicago. New York: New York Review Books, [1968] 2008. ISBN 978-1-59017-296-4.
In the midst of the societal, political, and cultural chaos which was 1968 in the United States, Harper's magazine sent Norman Mailer to report upon the presidential nominating conventions in August of that year: first the Republicans in Miami Beach and then the Democrats in Chicago. With the prospect, forty years later, of two U.S. political conventions in which protest and street theatre may play a role not seen since 1968 (although probably nowhere near as massive or violent, especially since the political establishments of both parties appear bent upon presenting the appearance of unity), and a watershed election which may change the direction of the United States, New York Review Books have reissued this long out-of-print classic of “new journalism” reportage of the 1968 conventions. As with the comparable, but edgier, account of the 1972 campaign by Hunter S. Thompson, a good deal of this book is not about the events but rather “the reporter”, who identifies himself as such in the narrative.

If you're looking for detailed documentation of what transpired at the conventions, this is not the book to read. Much of Mailer's reporting took place in bars, in the streets, in front of the television, and on two occasions, in custody. This is an impressionistic account of events which leaves you with the feeling of what it was like to be there (at least if you were there and Norman Mailer), not what actually happened. But, God, that man could write! As reportage (the work was completed shortly after the conventions and long before the 1968 election) and not history, there is no sense of perspective, just immersion in the events. If you're old enough to recall them, as I am, you'll probably agree that he got it right, and that this recounting both stands the test of time and summons memories of the passions of that epoch.

On the last page, there are two phrases which have a particular poignancy four decades hence. Mailer, encountering Eugene McCarthy's daughter just before leaving Chicago thinks of telling her “Dear Miss, we will be fighting for forty years.” And then he concludes the book by observing, “We yet may win, the others are so stupid. Heaven help us when we do.” Wise words for the partisans of hope and change in the 2008 campaign!

August 2008 Permalink

Malanga, Steven. The New New Left. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005. ISBN 1-56663-644-2.
This thin book (or long essay—the main text is less than 150 pages), argues that urban politics in the United States has largely been captured by an iron triangle of “tax eaters”: unionised public employees, staff of government funded social and health services, and elected officials drawn largely from the first two groups and put into office by their power to raise campaign funds, get out the vote, and direct involvement in campaigns due to raw self-interest: unlike private sector voters, they are hiring their own bosses.

Unlike traditional big-city progressive politics or the New Left of the 1960s, which were ideologically driven and motivated by a genuine desire to improve the lot of the disadvantaged (even if many of their policy prescriptions proved to be counterproductive in practice), this “new new left” puts its own well-being squarely at the top of the agenda: increasing salaries, defeating attempts to privatise government services, expanding taxpayer-funded programs, and forcing unionisation and regulation onto the private sector through schemes such as “living wage” mandates. The author fears that the steady growth in the political muscle of public sector unions may be approaching or have reached a tipping point—where, albeit not yet a numerical majority, through their organised clout they have the power to elect politicians beholden to them, however costly to the productive sector or ultimately disastrous for their cities, whose taxpayers and businesses may choose to vote with their feet for places where they are viewed as valuable members of the community rather than cash cows to be looted.

Chapter 5 dismantles Richard Florida's crackpot “Creative Class” theory, which argues that by taxing remaining workers and businesses even more heavily and spending the proceeds on art, culture, “diversity”, bike paths, and all the other stuff believed to attract the golden children of the dot.com bubble, rust belt cities already devastated by urban socialism can be reborn. Post dot.bomb, such notions are more worthy of a belly laugh than thorough refutation, but if it's counter-examples and statistics you seek, they're here.

The last three chapters focus almost entirely on New York City. I suppose this isn't surprising, both because New York is often at the cutting edge in urban trends in the U.S., and also because the author is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to its City Journal, where most of this material originally appeared.

December 2005 Permalink

Malkin, Michelle. Culture of Corruption. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59698-109-6.
This excellent book is essential to understanding what is presently going on in the United States. The author digs into the backgrounds and interconnections of the Obamas, the Clintons, their associates, the members of the Obama administration, and the web of shady organisations which surround them such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and ACORN, and demonstrates, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the United States is now ruled by a New Class of political operatives entirely distinct from the productive class which supports them and the ordinary citizens they purport to serve. Let me expand a bit on that term of art. In 1957, Milovan Đilas, Yugoslavian Communist revolutionary turned dissident, published a book titled The New Class, in which he described how, far from the egalitarian ideals of Marx and Engels, modern Communism had become captive to an entrenched political and bureaucratic class which used the power of the state to exploit its citizens. The New Class moved in different social and economic circles than the citizenry, and was moving in the direction of a hereditary aristocracy, grooming their children to take over from them.

In this book, we see a portrait of America's New Class, as exemplified by the Obama administration. (Although the focus is on Obama's people and the constituencies of the Democratic party, a similar investigation of a McCain administration wouldn't probably look much different: the special interests would differ, but not the character of the players. It's the political class as a whole and the system in which they operate which is corrupt, which is how mighty empires fall.) Reading through the biographies of the players, what is striking is that very few of them have ever worked a single day in the productive sector of the economy. They went from law school to government agency or taxpayer funded organisation to political office or to well-paid positions in a political organisation. They are members of a distinct political class which is parasitic upon the society, and whose interests do not align with the well-being of its citizens, who are coerced to support them.

And this, it seems to me, completes the picture of the most probable future trajectory of the United States. To some people Obama is the Messiah, and to others he is an American Lenin, but I think both of those views miss the essential point. He is, I concluded while reading this book, an American Juan Perón, a charismatic figure (with a powerful and ambitious wife) who champions the cause of the “little people” while amassing power and wealth to reward the cronies who keep the game going, looting the country (Argentina was the 10th wealthiest nation per capita in 1913) for the benefit of the ruling class, and setting the stage for economic devastation, political instability, and hyperinflation. It's pretty much the same game as Chicago under mayors Daley père and fils, but played out on a national scale. Adam Smith wrote, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation”, but as demonstrated here, there is a great deal of ruination in the New Class Obama has installed in the Executive branch in Washington.

As the experience of Argentina during the Perón era and afterward demonstrates, it is possible to inflict structural damage on a society which cannot be reversed by an election, or even a coup or revolution. Once the productive class is pauperised or driven into exile and the citizenry made dependent upon the state, a new equilibrium is reached which, while stable, drastically reduces national prosperity and the standard of living of the populace. But, if the game is played correctly, as despots around the world have figured out over millennia, it can enrich the ruling class, the New Class, beyond their dreams of avarice (well, not really, because those folks are really good when it comes to dreaming of avarice), all the time they're deploring the “greed” of those who oppose them and champion the cause of the “downtrodden” ground beneath their own boots.

To quote a politician who figures prominently in this book, “let me be clear”: the present book is a straightforward investigation of individuals staffing the Obama administration and the organisations associated with them, documented in extensive end notes, many of which cite sources accessible online. All of the interpretation of this in terms of a New Class is entirely my own and should not be attributed to this book or its author.

November 2009 Permalink

Mamet, David. The Secret Knowledge. New York: Sentinel, 2011. ISBN 978-1-595-23097-3.
From time to time I am asked to recommend a book for those who, immersed in the consensus culture and mass media, have imbibed the collectivist nostrums of those around them without thinking about them very much, have, confronted with personal experiences of the consequences of these policies, begun to doubt their wisdom. I have usually recommended the classics: Bastiat, Hayek, and Rothbard, but these works can be challenging to those marinated in the statist paradigm and unfamiliar with history before the age of the omnipresent state. Further, these works, while they speak to eternal truths, do not address the “wedge issues” of modern discourse, which are championed by soi-disant “progressives” and “liberals”, distancing themselves from “traditional values”.

Well, now I have just the book to recommend. This book will not persuade committed ideologues of the left, who will not be satisfied until all individualism has been hammered into a uniform terrain of equality on the North Korean model (see Agenda 21 [November 2012]), but rather the much larger portion of the population who vote for the enemies of prosperity and freedom because they've been indoctrinated in government schools and infiltrated higher education, then fed propaganda by occupied legacy media. In Western societies which are on the razor edge between liberty and enslavement, shifting just 10% of the unengaged electorate who vote unknowingly for serfdom can tip the balance toward an entirely different future.

It is difficult to imagine an author better qualified to write such a work. David Mamet was born into the Jewish intellectual community in Chicago and educated in a progressive school and college. Embarking upon a career in literature, theatre, and film, he won a Pulitzer prize, two Tony nominations, and two Oscar nominations. He has written and directed numerous films, and written screenplays for others. For most of his life he was immersed in the liberal consensus of the intellectual/media milieu he inhabited and no more aware of it than a fish is of water. Then, after reaching the big six-zero milestone in his life, he increasingly became aware that all of the things that he and his colleagues accepted at face value without critical evaluation just didn't make any sense. As one with the rare talent of seeing things as they are, unfiltered by an inherited ideology, he wrote a 2008 essay titled “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’ ”, of which this book is a much extended elaboration. (Read the comments on this article to see just how “liberal” those with whom he has come to dissent actually are.)

Mamet surveys culture, economics, and politics with a wide-angle perspective, taking a ruthlessly empirical approach born of his life experience. To those who came early to these views, there's a temptation to say, “Well, finally you've got it”, but at the same time Mamet's enlightenment provides hope that confrontation with reality may awake others swimming in the collectivist consensus to the common sense and heritage of humankind so readily accessible by reading a book like this.

In the Kindle edition the end-notes are properly bi-directionally linked to the text, but the index is just a useless list of terms, without links to references in the text.

September 2013 Permalink

Mauldin, Bill. Back Home. Mattituck, New York: Amereon House, 1947. ISBN 0-89190-856-0.

October 2001 Permalink

Meyssan, Thierry. L'effroyable imposture. Chatou, France: Editions Carnot, 2002. ISBN 2-912362-44-X.
An English translation of this book was published in August 2002.

July 2002 Permalink

Meyssan, Thierry ed. Le Pentagate. Chatou, France: Editions Carnot, 2002. ISBN 2-912362-77-6.
This book is available online in both Web and PDF editions from the book's Web site. An English translation is available, but only in a print edition, not online.

June 2004 Permalink

Miller, John J. and Mark Molesky. Our Oldest Enemy. New York: Doubleday, 2004. ISBN 0-385-51219-8.
In this history of relations between the America and France over three centuries—starting in 1704, well before the U.S. existed, the authors argue that the common perception of sympathy and shared interest between the “two great republics” from Lafayette to “Lafayette, we are here” and beyond is not borne out by the facts, that the recent tension between the U.S. and France over Iraq is consistent with centuries of French scheming in quest of its own, now forfeit, status as a great power. Starting with French-incited and led Indian raids on British settlements in the 18th century, through the undeclared naval war of 1798–1800, Napoleon's plans to invade New Orleans, Napoleon III's adventures in Mexico, Clemenceau's subverting Wilson's peace plans after being rescued by U.S. troops in World War I, Eisenhower's having to fight his way through Vichy French troops in North Africa in order to get to the Germans, Stalinst intellectuals in the Cold War, Suez, de Gaulle's pulling out of NATO, Chirac's long-term relationship with his “personal friend” Saddam Hussein, through recent perfidy at the U.N., the case is made that, with rare exceptions, France has been the most consistent opponent of the U.S. over all of their shared history. The authors don't hold France and the French in very high esteem, and there are numerous zingers and turns of phrase such as “Time and again in the last two centuries, France has refused to come to grips with its diminished status as a country whose greatest general was a foreigner, whose greatest warrior was a teenage girl, and whose last great military victory came on the plains of Wagram in 1809” (p. 10). The account of Vichy in chapter 9 is rather sketchy and one-dimensional; readers interested in that particular shameful chapter in French history will find more details in Robert Paxton's Vichy France and Marc Ferro's biography, Pétain or the eponymous movie made from it.

November 2004 Permalink

Minc, Alain. Épîtres à nos nouveaux maîtres. Paris: Grasset, 2002. ISBN 2-24-661981-5.

May 2003 Permalink

Minogue, Kenneth. Alien Powers. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, [1985] 2007. ISBN 978-0-7658-0365-8.
No, this isn't a book about Roswell. Subtitled “The Pure Theory of Ideology”, it is a challenging philosophical exploration of ideology, ideological politics, and ideological arguments and strategies in academia and the public arena. By “pure theory”, the author means to explore what is common to all ideologies, regardless of their specifics. (I should note here, as does the author, that in sloppy contemporary discourse “ideology” is often used simply to denote a political viewpoint. In this work, the author restricts it to closed intellectual systems which ascribe a structural cause to events in the world, posit a mystification which prevents people from understanding what is revealed to the ideologue, and predict an inevitable historical momentum [“progress”] toward liberation from the unperceived oppression of the present.)

Despite the goal of seeking a pure theory, independent of any specific ideology, a great deal of time is necessarily spent on Marxism, since although the roots of modern ideology can be traced (like so many other pernicious things) to Rousseau and the French Revolution, it was Marx and Engels who elaborated the first complete ideological system, providing the intellectual framework for those that followed. Marxism, Fascism, Nazism, racism, nationalism, feminism, environmentalism, and many other belief systems are seen as instantiations of a common structure of ideology. In essence, this book can be seen as a “Content Wizard” for cranking out ideological creeds: plug in the oppressor and oppressed, the supposed means of mystification and path to liberation, and out pops a complete ideological belief system ready for an enterprising demagogue to start peddling. The author shows how ideological arguments, while masquerading as science, are the cuckoo's egg in the nest of academia, as they subvert and shortcut the adversarial process of inquiry and criticism with a revelation not subject to scrutiny. The attractiveness of such bogus enlightenment to second-rate minds and indolent intellects goes a long way to explaining the contemporary prevalence in the academy of ideologies so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.

The author writes clearly, and often with wit and irony so dry it may go right past unless you're paying attention. But this is nonetheless a difficult book: it is written at such a level of philosophical abstraction and with so many historical and literary references that many readers, including this one, find it heavy going indeed. I can't recall any book on a similar topic this formidable since chapters two through the end of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. If you want to really understand the attractiveness of ideology to otherwise intelligent and rational people, and how ideology corrupts the academic and political spheres (with numerous examples of how slippery ideological arguments can be), this is an enlightening read, but you're going to have to work to make the most of it.

This book was originally published in 1985. This edition includes a new introduction by the author, and two critical essays reflecting upon the influence of the book and its message from a contemporary perspective where the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War have largely discredited Marxism in the political arena, yet left its grip and that of other ideologies upon humanities and the social sciences in Western universities, if anything, only stronger.

March 2008 Permalink

O'Neill, John E. and Jerome L. Corsi. Unfit for Command. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-89526-017-4.

October 2004 Permalink

O'Rourke, P. J. Don't Vote—It Just Encourages the Bastards. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8021-1960-5.
P. J. O'Rourke is one of the most astute observers of the contemporary scene who isn't, I believe, taken as seriously as he deserves to be simply because his writing is so riotously funny. In the present book, he describes the life-changing experience which caused him to become a conservative (hint: it's the same one which can cause otherwise sane adults to contemplate buying a minivan and discover a new and distasteful definition of the word “change”), and explores the foundations of conservatism in a world increasingly dominated by nanny states, an out-of-touch and increasingly inbred ruling class, and a growing fraction of the electorate dependent upon the state and motivated to elect politicians who will distribute public largesse to them, whatever the consequences for the nation as a whole.

This is, of course, all done with great wit (and quite a bit of profanity, which may be off-putting to the more strait-laced kind of conservative), but there are a number of deep insights you'll never come across in the legacy media. For example, “We live in a democracy, rule by the people. Fifty percent of people are below average intelligence. This explains everything about politics.” The author then moves on to survey the “burning issues of our time” including the financial mess, “climate change” (where he demolishes the policy prescriptions of the warm-mongers in three paragraphs occupying less than a page), health care, terrorism, the collapse of the U.S. auto industry, and foreign policy, where he brings the wisdom of Kipling to bear on U.S. adventures in the Hindu Kush.

He concludes, in a vein more libertarian than conservative, that politics and politicians are, by their very nature, so fundamentally flawed (Let's give a small number of people a monopoly on the use of force and the ability to coercively take the earnings of others—what could possibly go wrong?) that the only solution is to dramatically reduce the scope of government, getting it out of our lives, bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, cars, and all of the other places its slimy tendrils have intruded, and, for those few remaining functions where government has a legitimate reason to exist, that it be on the smallest and most local scale possible. Government is, by its very nature, a monopoly (which explains a large part of why it produces such destructive outcomes), but an ensemble of separate governments (for example, states, municipalities, and school districts in the U.S.) will be constrained by competition from their peers, as evidenced by the demographic shift from high tax to low tax states in the U.S. and the disparate economic performance of highly regulated states and those with a business climate which favours entrepreneurship.

In all, I find O'Rourke more optimistic about the prospects of the U.S. than my own view. The financial situation is simply intractable, and decades of policy implemented by both major political parties have brought the U.S. near the tipping point where a majority of the electorate pays no income tax, and hence has no motivation to support policies which would reduce the rate of growth of government, not to speak of actually shrinking it. The government/academia/media axis has become a self-reinforcing closed loop which believes things very different than the general populace, of which it is increasingly openly contemptuous. It seems to me the most likely outcome is collapse, not reform, with the form of the post-collapse society difficult to envision from a pre-discontinuity perspective. I'll be writing more about possible scenarios and their outcomes in the new year.

This book presents a single argument; it is not a collection of columns. Consequently, it is best read front to back. I would not recommend reading it straight through, however, but rather a chapter a day or every few days. In too large doses, the hilarity of the text may drown out the deeper issues being discussed. In any case, this book will leave you not only entertained but enlightened.

A podcast interview with the author is available in which he concedes that he does, in fact, actually vote.

December 2010 Permalink

Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7432-7702-0.
The ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” marked the transition of the U.S. Federal government into a nanny state, which occupied itself with the individual behaviour of its citizens. Now, certainly, attempts to legislate morality and regulate individual behaviour were commonplace in North America long before the United States came into being, but these were enacted at the state, county, or municipality level. When the U.S. Constitution was ratified, it exclusively constrained the actions of government, not of individual citizens, and with the sole exception of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abridged the “freedom” to hold people in slavery and involuntary servitude, this remained the case into the twentieth century. While bans on liquor were adopted in various jurisdictions as early as 1840, it simply never occurred to many champions of prohibition that a nationwide ban, written into the federal constitution, was either appropriate or feasible, especially since taxes on alcoholic beverages accounted for as much as forty percent of federal tax revenue in the years prior to the introduction of the income tax, and imposition of total prohibition would zero out the second largest source of federal income after the tariff.

As the Progressive movement gained power, with its ambitions of continental scale government and imposition of uniform standards by a strong, centralised regime, it found itself allied with an improbable coalition including the Woman's Christian Temperance Union; the Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches; advocates of women's suffrage; the Anti-Saloon League; Henry Ford; and the Ku Klux Klan. Encouraged by the apparent success of “war socialism” during World War I and empowered by enactment of the Income Tax via the Sixteenth Amendment, providing another source of revenue to replace that of excise taxes on liquor, these players were motivated in the latter years of the 1910s to impose their agenda upon the entire country in as permanent a way as possible: by a constitutional amendment. Although the supermajorities required were daunting (two thirds in the House and Senate to submit, three quarters of state legislatures to ratify), if a prohibition amendment could be pushed over the bar (if you'll excuse the term), opponents would face what was considered an insuperable task to reverse it, as it would only take 13 dry states to block repeal.

Further motivating the push not just for a constitutional amendment, but enacting one as soon as possible, were the rapid demographic changes underway in the U.S. Support for prohibition was primarily rural, in southern and central states, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon. During the 1910s, population was shifting from farms to urban areas, from the midland toward the coasts, and the immigrant population of Germans, Italians, and Irish who were famously fond of drink was burgeoning. This meant that the electoral landscape following reapportionment after the 1920 census would be far less receptive to the foes of Demon Rum.

One must never underestimate the power of an idea whose time has come, regardless of how stupid and counterproductive it might be. And so it came to pass that the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified by the 36th state: Utah, appropriately, on January 16th, 1919, with nationwide Prohibition to come into effect a year hence. From the outset, it was pretty obvious to many astute observers what was about happen. An Army artillery captain serving in France wrote to his fiancée in Missouri, “It looks to me like the moonshine business is going to be pretty good in the land of the Liberty Loans and Green Trading Stamps, and some of us want to get in on the ground floor. At least we want to get there in time to lay in a supply for future consumption.” Captain Harry S. Truman ended up pursuing a different (and probably less lucrative career), but was certainly prescient about the growth industry of the coming decade.

From the very start, Prohibition was a theatre of the absurd. Since it was enforced by a federal statute, the Volstead Act, enforcement, especially in states which did not have their own state Prohibition laws, was the responsibility of federal agents within the Treasury Department, whose head, Andrew Mellon, was a staunch opponent of Prohibition. Enforcement was always absurdly underfunded compared to the magnitude of the bootlegging industry and their customers (the word “scofflaw” entered the English language to describe them). Federal Prohibition officers were paid little, but were nonetheless highly prized patronage jobs, as their holders could often pocket ten times their salary in bribes to look the other way.

Prohibition unleashed the American talent for ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and the do-it-yourself spirit. While it was illegal to manufacture liquor for sale or to sell it, possession and consumption were perfectly legal, and families were allowed to make up to 200 gallons (which should suffice even for the larger, more thirsty households of the epoch) for their own use. This led to a thriving industry in California shipping grapes eastward for householders to mash into “grape juice” for their own use, being careful, of course, not to allow it to ferment or to sell some of their 200 gallon allowance to the neighbours. Later on, the “Vino Sano Grape Brick” was marketed nationally. Containing dried crushed grapes, complete with the natural yeast on the skins, you just added water, waited a while, and hoisted a glass to American innovation. Brewers, not to be outdone, introduced “malt syrup”, which with the addition of yeast and water, turned into beer in the home brewer's basement. Grocers stocked everything the thirsty householder needed to brew up case after case of Old Frothingslosh, and brewers remarked upon how profitable it was to outsource fermentation and bottling to the customers.

For those more talented in manipulating the law than fermenting fluids, there were a number of opportunities as well. Sacramental wine was exempted from Prohibition, and wineries which catered to Catholic and Jewish congregations distributing such wines prospered. Indeed, Prohibition enforcers noted they'd never seen so many rabbis before, including some named Patrick Houlihan and James Maguire. Physicians and dentists were entitled to prescribe liquor for medicinal purposes, and the lucrative fees for writing such prescriptions and for pharmacists to fill them rapidly caused hard liquor to enter the materia medica for numerous maladies, far beyond the traditional prescription as snakebite medicine. While many pre-Prohibition bars re-opened as speakeasies, others prospered by replacing “Bar” with ”Drug Store” and filling medicinal whiskey prescriptions for the same clientele.

Apart from these dodges, the vast majority of Americans slaked their thirst with bootleg booze, either domestic (and sometimes lethal), or smuggled from Canada or across the ocean. The obscure island of St. Pierre, a French possession off the coast of Canada, became a prosperous entrepôt for reshipment of Canadian liquor legally exported to “France”, then re-embarked on ships headed for “Rum Row”, just outside the territorial limit of the U.S. East Coast. Rail traffic into Windsor, Ontario, just across the Detroit River from the eponymous city, exploded, as boxcar after boxcar unloaded cases of clinking glass bottles onto boats bound for…well, who knows? Naturally, with billions and billions of dollars of tax-free income to be had, it didn't take long for criminals to stake their claims to it. What was different, and deeply appalling to the moralistic champions of Prohibition, is that a substantial portion of the population who opposed Prohibition did not despise them, but rather respected them as making their “money by supplying a public demand”, in the words of one Alphonse Capone, whose public relations machine kept him in the public eye.

As the absurdity of the almost universal scorn and disobedience of Prohibition grew (at least among the urban chattering classes, which increasingly dominated journalism and politics at the time), opinion turned toward ways to undo its increasingly evident pernicious consequences. Many focussed upon amending the Volstead Act to exempt beer and light wines from the definition of “intoxicating liquors”—this would open a safety valve, and at least allow recovery of the devastated legal winemaking and brewing industries. The difficulty of actually repealing the Eighteenth Amendment deterred many of the most ardent supporters of that goal. As late as September 1930, Senator Morris Sheppard, who drafted the Eighteenth Amendment, said “There is a much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.”

But when people have had enough (I mean, of intrusive government, not illicit elixir), it's amazing what they can motivate a hummingbird to do! Less than two years later, the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing Prohibition, was passed by the Congress, and on December 5th, 1933, it was ratified by the 36th state (appropriately, but astonishingly, Utah), thus putting an end to what had not only become generally seen as a farce, but also a direct cause of sanguinary lawlessness and scorn for the rule of law. The cause of repeal was greatly aided not only by the thirst of the populace, but also by the thirst of their government for revenue, which had collapsed due to plunging income tax receipts as the Great Depression deepened, along with falling tariff income as international trade contracted. Reinstating liquor excise taxes and collecting corporate income tax from brewers, winemakers, and distillers could help ameliorate the deficits from New Deal spending programs.

In many ways, the adoption and repeal of Prohibition represented a phase transition in the relationship between the federal government and its citizens. In its adoption, they voted, by the most difficult of constitutional standards, to enable direct enforcement of individual behaviour by the national government, complete with its own police force independent of state and local control. But at least they acknowledged that this breathtaking change could only be accomplished by a direct revision of the fundamental law of the republic, and that reversing it would require the same—a constitutional amendment, duly proposed and ratified. In the years that followed, the federal government used its power to tax (many partisans of Repeal expected the Sixteenth Amendment to also be repealed but, alas, this was not to be) to promote and deter all kinds of behaviour through tax incentives and charges, and before long the federal government was simply enacting legislation which directly criminalised individual behaviour without a moment's thought about its constitutionality, and those who challenged it were soon considered nutcases.

As the United States increasingly comes to resemble a continental scale theatre of the absurd, there may be a lesson to be learnt from the final days of Prohibition. When something is unsustainable, it won't be sustained. It's almost impossible to predict when the breaking point will come—recall the hummingbird with the Washington Monument in tow—but when things snap, it doesn't take long for the unimaginable new to supplant the supposedly secure status quo. Think about this when you contemplate issues such as immigration, the Euro, welfare state spending, bailouts of failed financial institutions and governments, and the multitude of big and little prohibitions and intrusions into personal liberty of the pervasive nanny state—and root for the hummingbird.

In the Kindle edition, all of the photographic illustrations are collected at the very end of the book, after the index—don't overlook them.

June 2010 Permalink

Orizio, Riccardo. Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators. Translated by Avril Bardoni. London: Secker & Warburg, 2003. ISBN 0-436-20999-3.
A U.S. edition was published in April 2003.

February 2003 Permalink

Orlov, Dmitry. Reinventing Collapse. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2008. ISBN 978-0-86571-606-3.
The author was born in Leningrad and emigrated to the United States with his family in the mid-1970s at the age of 12. He experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent events in Russia on a series of extended visits between the late 1980s and mid 1990s. In this book he describes firsthand what happens when a continental scale superpower experiences economic and societal collapse, what it means to those living through it, and how those who survived managed to do so, in some cases prospering amid the rubble.

He then goes on to pose the question of whether the remaining superpower, the United States, is poised to experience a collapse of the same magnitude. This he answers in the affirmative, with only the timing uncertain (these events tend to happen abruptly and with little warning—in 1985 virtually every Western analyst assumed the Soviet Union was a permanent fixture on the world stage; six years later it was gone). He presents a U.S. collapse scenario in the form of the following theorem on p. 3, based upon the axioms of “Peak Oil” and the unsustainability of the debt the U.S. is assuming to finance its oil imports (as well as much of the rest of its consumer economy and public sector).

Oil powers just about everything in the US economy, from food production and distribution to shipping, construction and plastics manufacturing. When less oil becomes available, less is produced, but the amount of money in circulation remains the same, causing the prices for the now scarcer products to be bid up, causing inflation. The US relies on foreign investors to finance its purchases of oil, and foreign investors, seeing high inflation and economic turmoil, flee in droves. Result: less money with which to buy oil and, consequently, less oil with which to produce things. Lather, rinse, repeat; stop when you run out of oil. Now look around: Where did that economy disappear to?
Now if you believe in Peak Oil (as the author most certainly does, along with most of the rest of the catechism of the environmental left), this is pretty persuasive. But even if you don't, you can make the case for a purely economic collapse, especially with the unprecedented deficits and money creation as the present process of deleveraging accelerates into debt liquidation (either through inflation or outright default and bankruptcy). The ultimate trigger doesn't make a great deal of difference to the central argument: the U.S. runs on oil (and has no near-term politically and economically viable substitute) and depends upon borrowed money both to purchase oil and to service its ever-growing debt. At the moment creditors begin to doubt they're every going to be repaid (as happened with the Soviet Union in its final days), it's game over for the economy, even if the supply of oil remains constant.

Drawing upon the Soviet example, the author examines what an economic collapse on a comparable scale would mean for the U.S. Ironically, he concludes that many of the weaknesses which were perceived as hastening the fall of the Soviet system—lack of a viable cash economy, hoarding and self-sufficiency at the enterprise level, failure to produce consumer goods, lack of consumer credit, no private ownership of housing, and a huge and inefficient state agricultural sector which led many Soviet citizens to maintain their own small garden plots— resulted, along with the fact that the collapse was from a much lower level of prosperity, in mitigating the effects of collapse upon individuals. In the United States, which has outsourced much of its manufacturing capability, depends heavily upon immigrants in the technology sector, and has optimised its business models around high-velocity cash transactions and just in time delivery, the consequences post-collapse may be more dire than in the “primitive” Soviet system. If you're going to end up primitive, you may be better starting out primitive.

The author, although a U.S. resident for all of his adult life, did not seem to leave his dark Russian cynicism and pessimism back in the USSR. Indeed, on numerous occasions he mocks the U.S. and finds it falls short of the Soviet standard in areas such as education, health care, public transportation, energy production and distribution, approach to religion, strength of the family, and durability and repairability of capital and the few consumer goods produced. These are indicative of what he terms a “collapse gap”, which will leave the post-collapse U.S. in much worse shape than ex-Soviet Russia: in fact he believes it will never recover and after a die-off and civil strife, may fracture into a number of political entities, all reduced to a largely 19th century agrarian lifestyle. All of this seems a bit much, and is compounded by offhand remarks about the modern lifestyle which seem to indicate that his idea of a “sustainable” world would be one largely depopulated of humans in which the remainder lived in communities much like traditional African villages. That's what it may come to, but I find it difficult to see this as desirable. Sign me up for L. Neil Smith's “freedom, immortality, and the stars” instead.

The final chapter proffers a list of career opportunities which proved rewarding in post-collapse Russia and may be equally attractive elsewhere. Former lawyers, marketing executives, financial derivatives traders, food chemists, bank regulators, university administrators, and all the other towering overhead of drones and dross whose services will no longer be needed in post-collapse America may have a bright future in the fields of asset stripping, private security (or its mirror image, violent racketeering), herbalism and medical quackery, drugs and alcohol, and even employment in what remains of the public sector. Hit those books!

There are some valuable insights here into the Soviet collapse as seen from the perspective of citizens living through it and trying to make the best of the situation, and there are some observations about the U.S. which will make you think and question assumptions about the stability and prospects for survival of the economy and society on its present course. But there are so many extreme statements you come away from the book feeling like you've endured an “end is nigh” rant by a wild-eyed eccentric which dilutes the valuable observations the author makes.

April 2009 Permalink

Orlov, Dmitry. The Five Stages of Collapse. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2013. ISBN 978-0-86571-736-7.
The author was born in Leningrad and emigrated to the United States with his family in the mid-1970s at the age of 12. He experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent events in Russia on a series of extended visits between the late 1980s and mid 1990s. In his 2008 book Reinventing Collapse (April 2009) he described the Soviet collapse and assessed the probability of a collapse of the United States, concluding such a collapse was inevitable.

In the present book, he steps back from the specifics of the collapse of overextended superpowers to examine the process of collapse as it has played out in a multitude of human societies since the beginning of civilisation. The author argues that collapse occurs in five stages, with each stage creating the preconditions for the next.

  1. Financial collapse. Faith in “business as usual” is lost. The future is no longer assumed to resemble the past in any way that allows risk to be assessed and financial assets to be guaranteed. Financial institutions become insolvent; savings are wiped out and access to capital is lost.
  2. Commercial collapse. Faith that “the market shall provide” is lost. Money is devalued and/or becomes scarce, commodities are hoarded, import and retail chains break down and widespread shortages of survival necessities become the norm.
  3. Political collapse. Faith that “the government will take care of you” is lost. As official attempts to mitigate widespread loss of access to commercial sources of survival necessities fail to make a difference, the political establishment loses legitimacy and relevance.
  4. Social collapse. Faith that “your people will take care of you” is lost, as social institutions, be they charities or other groups that rush in to fill the power vacuum, run out of resources or fail through internal conflict.
  5. Cultural collapse. Faith in the goodness of humanity is lost. People lose their capacity for “kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, charity.” Families disband and compete as individuals for scarce resources, The new motto becomes “May you die today so that I can die tomorrow.”

Orlov argues that our current globalised society is the product of innovations at variance with ancestral human society which are not sustainable: in particular the exponentially growing consumption of a finite source of energy from fossil fuels and an economy based upon exponentially growing levels of debt: government, corporate, and individual. Exponential growth with finite resources cannot go on forever, and what cannot go on forever is certain to eventually end. He argues that we are already seeing the first symptoms of the end of the order which began with the industrial revolution.

While each stage of collapse sows the seeds of the next, the progression is not inevitable. In post-Soviet Russia, for example, the collapse progressed into stage 3 (political collapse), but was then arrested by the re-assertion of government authority. While the Putin regime may have many bad aspects, it may produce better outcomes for the Russian people than progression into a stage 4 or 5 collapse.

In each stage of collapse, there are societies and cultures which are resilient against the collapse around them and ride it out. In some cases, it's because they have survived many collapses before and have evolved not to buy into the fragile institutions which are tumbling down and in others it's older human forms of organisation re-asserting themselves as newfangled innovations founder. The author cites these collapse survivors:

  1. Financial collapse: Iceland
  2. Commercial collapse: The Russian Mafia
  3. Political collapse: The Pashtun
  4. Social collapse: The Roma
  5. Cultural collapse: The Ik

This is a simultaneously enlightening and infuriating book. While the author has deep insights into how fragile our societies are and how older forms of society emerge after they collapse, I think he may make the error of assuming that we are living at the end of history and that regression to the mean is the only possible outcome. People at every stage of the development of society which brought us to the present point doubtless argued the same. “When we've cut down all the forests for firewood, what shall we do?” they said, before the discovery of coal. “When the coal seams are mined out, what will happen?” they said, before petroleum was discovered to be a resource, not a nuisance seeping from the ground. I agree with Orlov that our civilisation has been founded on abundant cheap energy and resources, but there are several orders of magnitude more energy and resources available for our taking in the solar system, and we already have the technology, if not the imagination and will, to employ them to enrich all of the people of Earth and beyond.

If collapse be our destiny, I believe our epitaph will read “Lack of imagination and courage”. Sadly, this may be the way to bet. Had we not turned inward in the 1970s and squandered our wealth on a futile military competition and petroleum, Earth would now be receiving most of its energy from solar power satellites and futurists would be projecting the date at which the population off-planet exceeded the mudboots deep down in the gravity well. Collapse is an option—let's hope we do not choose it.

Here is a talk by the author, as rambling as this book, about the issues discussed therein.

December 2013 Permalink

Ortega y Gasset, José. The Revolt of the Masses. New York: W. W. Norton, [1930, 1932, 1964] 1993. ISBN 0-393-31095-7.
This book, published more than seventy-five years ago, when the twentieth century was only three decades old, is a simply breathtaking diagnosis of the crises that manifested themselves in that century and the prognosis for human civilisation. The book was published in Spanish in 1930; this English translation, authorised and approved by the author, by a translator who requested to remain anonymous, first appeared in 1932 and has been in print ever since.

I have encountered few works so short (just 190 pages), which are so densely packed with enlightening observations and thought-provoking ideas. When I read a book, if I encounter a paragraph that I find striking, either in the writing or the idea it embodies, I usually add it to my “quotes” archive for future reference. If I did so with this book, I would find myself typing in a large portion of the entire text. This is not an easy read, not due to the quality of the writing and translation (which are excellent), nor the complexity of the concepts and arguments therein, but simply due to the pure number of insights packed in here, each of which makes you stop and ponder its derivation and implications.

The essential theme of the argument anticipated the crunchy/soggy analysis of society by more than 65 years. In brief, over-achieving self-motivated elites create liberal democracy and industrial economies. Liberal democracy and industry lead to the emergence of the “mass man”, self-defined as not of the elite and hostile to existing elite groups and institutions. The mass man, by strength of numbers and through the democratic institutions which enabled his emergence, seizes the levers of power and begins to use the State to gratify his immediate desires. But, unlike the elites who created the State, the mass man does not think or plan in the long term, and is disinclined to make the investments and sacrifices which were required to create the civilisation in the first place, and remain necessary if it is to survive. In this consists the crisis of civilisation, and grasping this single concept explains much of the history of the seven decades which followed the appearance of the book and events today. Suddenly some otherwise puzzling things start to come into focus, such as why it is, in a world enormously more wealthy than that of the nineteenth century, with abundant and well-educated human resources and technological capabilities which dwarf those of that epoch, there seems to be so little ambition to undertake large-scale projects, and why those which are embarked upon are so often bungled.

In a single footnote on p. 119, Ortega y Gasset explains what the brilliant Hans-Hermann Hoppe spent an entire book doing: why hereditary monarchies, whatever their problems, are usually better stewards of the national patrimony than democratically elected leaders. In pp. 172–186 he explains the curious drive toward European integration which has motivated conquerors from Napoleon through Hitler, and collectivist bureaucratic schemes such as the late, unlamented Soviet Union and the odious present-day European Union. On pp. 188–190 he explains why a cult of youth emerges in mass societies, and why they produce as citizens people who behave like self-indulgent perpetual adolescents. In another little single-sentence footnote on p. 175 he envisions the disintegration of the British Empire, then at its zenith, and the cultural fragmentation of the post-colonial states. I'm sure that few of the author's intellectual contemporaries could have imagined their descendants living among the achievements of Western civilisation yet largely ignorant of its history or cultural heritage; the author nails it in chapters 9–11, explaining why it was inevitable and tracing the consequences for the civilisation, then in chapter 12 he forecasts the fragmentation of science into hyper-specialised fields and the implications of that. On pp. 184–186 he explains the strange attraction of Soviet communism for European intellectuals who otherwise thought themselves individualists—recall, this is but six years after the death of Lenin. And still there is more…and more…and more. This is a book you can probably re-read every year for five years in a row and get something more out of it every time.

A full-text online edition is available, which is odd since the copyright of the English translation was last renewed in 1960 and should still be in effect, yet the site which hosts this edition claims that all their content is in the public domain.

June 2006 Permalink

Paul, Pamela. Pornified. New York: Times Books, 2005. ISBN 0-8050-7745-6.
If you've been on the receiving end of Internet junk mail as I've been until I discovered a few technical tricks (here and here) which, along with Annoyance Filter, have essentially eliminated spam from my mailbox, you're probably aware that the popular culture of the Internet is, to a substantial extent, about pornography and that this marvelous global packet switching medium is largely a means for delivering pornography both to those who seek it and those who find it, unsolicited, in their electronic mailboxes or popping up on their screens.

This is an integral part of the explosive growth of pornography along with the emergence of new media. In 1973, there were fewer than a thousand pornographic movie theatres in the U.S. (p 54). Building on the first exponential growth curve driven by home video, the Internet is bringing pornography to everybody connected and reducing the cost asymptotically to zero. On “peer to peer” networks such as Kazaa, 73% of all movie searches are for pornography and 24% of image searches are for child pornography (p. 60).

It's one thing to talk about free speech, but another to ask what the consequences might be of this explosion of consumption of material which is largely directed at men, and which not only objectifies but increasingly, as the standard of “edginess” ratchets upward, degrades women and supplants the complexity of adult human relationships with the fantasy instant gratification of “adult entertainment”.

Mark Schwartz, clinical director of the Masters and Johnson Clinic in St. Louis, hardly a puritanical institution, says (p. 142) “Pornography is having a dramatic effect on relationships at many different levels and in many different ways—and nobody outside the sexual behavior field and the psychiatric community is talking about it.” This book, by Time magazine contributor Pamela Paul, talks about it, interviewing both professionals surveying the landscape and individuals affected in various ways by the wave of pornography sweeping over developed countries connected to the Internet. Paul quotes Judith Coché, a clinical psychologist who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and has 25 years experience in therapy practice as saying (p. 180), “We have an epidemic on our hands. The growth of pornography and its impact on young people is really, really dangerous. And the most dangerous part is that we don't even realize what's happening.”

Ironically, part of this is due to the overwhelming evidence of the pernicious consequences of excessive consumption of pornography and its tendency to progress into addictive behaviour from the Zillman and Bryant studies and others, which have made academic ethics committees reluctant to approve follow-up studies involving human subjects (p. 90). Would you vote, based on the evidence in hand, for a double blind study of the effects of tobacco or heroin on previously unexposed subjects?

In effect, with the technologically-mediated collapse of the social strictures against pornography, we've embarked upon a huge, entirely unplanned, social and cultural experiment unprecedented in human history. This book will make people on both sides of the debate question their assumptions; the author, while clearly appalled by the effects of pornography on many of the people she interviews, is forthright in her opposition to censorship. Even if you have no interest in pornography nor strong opinions for or against it, there's little doubt that the ever-growing intrusiveness and deviance of pornography on the Internet will be a “wedge issue” in the coming battle over the secure Internet, so the message of this book, unwelcome as it may be, should be something which everybody interested in preserving both our open society and the fragile culture which sustains it ponders at some length.

October 2005 Permalink

Paul, Ron. The Revolution. New York: Grand Central, 2008. ISBN 978-0-446-53751-3.
Ron Paul's campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination has probably done more to expose voters in the United States to the message of limited, constitutional governance, individual liberty, non-interventionist foreign policy, and sound money than any political initiative in decades. Although largely ignored by the collectivist legacy media, the stunning fund-raising success of the campaign, even if not translated into corresponding success at the polls, is evidence that this essentially libertarian message (indeed, Dr. Paul ran for president in 1988 as the standard bearer of the Libertarian Party) resonates with a substantial part of the American electorate, even among the “millennial generation”, which conventional wisdom believes thoroughly indoctrinated with collectivist dogma and poised to vote away the last vestiges of individual freedom in the United States. In the concluding chapter, the candidate observes:
The fact is, liberty is not given a fair chance in our society, neither in the media, nor in politics, nor (especially) in education. I have spoken to many young people during my career, some of whom had never heard my ideas before. But as soon as I explained the philosophy of liberty and told them a little American history in light of that philosophy, their eyes lit up. Here was something they'd never heard before, but something that was compelling and moving, and which appealed to their sense of idealism. Liberty had simply never been presented to them as a choice. (p. 158)
This slender (173 page) book presents that choice as persuasively and elegantly as anything I have read. Further, the case for liberty is anchored in the tradition of American history and the classic conservatism which characterised the Republican party for the first half of the 20th century. The author repeatedly demonstrates just how recent much of the explosive growth in government has been, and observes that people seemed to get along just fine, and the economy prospered, without the crushing burden of intrusive regulation and taxation. One of the most striking examples is the discussion of abolishing the personal income tax. “Impossible”, as other politicians would immediately shout? Well, the personal income tax accounts for about 40% of federal revenue, so eliminating it would require reducing the federal budget by the same 40%. How far back would you have to go in history to discover an epoch where the federal budget was 40% below that of 2007? Why, you'd have to go all the way back to 1997! (p. 80)

The big government politicians who dominate both major political parties in the United States dismiss the common-sense policies advocated by Ron Paul in this book by saying “you can't turn back the clock”. But as Chesterton observed, why not? You can turn back a clock, and you can replace disastrous policies which are bankrupting a society and destroying personal liberty with time-tested policies which have delivered prosperity and freedom for centuries wherever adopted. Paul argues that the debt-funded imperial nanny state is doomed in any case by simple economic considerations. The only question is whether it is deliberately and systematically dismantled by the kinds of incremental steps he advocates here, or eventually collapses Soviet-style due to bankruptcy and/or hyperinflation. Should the U.S., as many expect, lurch dramatically in the collectivist direction in the coming years, it will only accelerate the inevitable debacle.

Anybody who wishes to discover alternatives to the present course and that limited constitutional government is not a relic of the past but the only viable alternative for a free people to live in peace and prosperity will find this book an excellent introduction to the libertarian/constitutionalist perspective. A five page reading list cites both classics of libertarian thought and analyses of historical and contemporary events from a libertarian viewpoint.

May 2008 Permalink

Paul, Ron. End the Fed. New York: Grand Central, 2000. ISBN 978-0-446-54919-6.
Imagine a company whose performance, measured over almost a century by the primary metric given in its charter, looked like this:

USD Purchasing Power 1913--2009

Now, would you be likely, were your own personal prosperity and that of all of those around you on the line, to entrust your financial future to their wisdom and demonstrated track record? Well, if you live in the United States, or your finances are engaged in any way in that economy (whether as an investor, creditor, or trade partner), you are, because this is the chart of the purchasing power of the United States Dollar since it began to be managed by the Federal Reserve System in 1913. Helluva record, don't you think?

Now, if you know anything about basic economics (which puts you several rungs up the ladder from most present-day politicians and members of the chattering classes), you'll recall that inflation is not defined as rising prices but rather an increase in the supply of money. It's just as if you were at an auction and you gave all of the bidders 10% more money: the selling price of the item would be 10% greater, not because it had appreciated in value but simply because the bidders had more to spend on acquiring it. And what is, fundamentally, the function of the Federal Reserve System? Well, that would be to implement an “elastic currency”, decoupled from real-world measures of value, with the goal of smoothing out the business cycle. Looking at this shorn of all the bafflegab, the mission statement is to create paper money out of thin air in order to fund government programs which the legislature lacks the spine to fund from taxation or debt, and to permit banks to profit by extending credit well beyond the limits of prudence, knowing they're backed up by the “lender of last resort” when things go South. The Federal Reserve System is nothing other than an engine of inflation (money creation), and it's hardly a surprise that the dollars it issues have lost more than 95% of their value in the years since its foundation.

Acute observers of the economic scene have been warning about the risks of such a system for decades—it came onto my personal radar well before there was a human bootprint on the Moon. But somehow, despite dollar crises, oil shocks, gold and silver bubble markets, saving and loan collapse, dot.bomb, housing bubble, and all the rest, the wise money guys somehow kept all of the balls in the air—until they didn't. We are now in the early days of an extended period in which almost a century of bogus prosperity founded on paper (not to mention, new and improved pure zap electronic) money and debt which cannot ever be repaid will have to be unwound. This will be painful in the extreme, and the profligate borrowers who have been riding high whilst running up their credit cards will end up marked down, not only in the economic realm but in geopolitical power.

Nobody imagines today that it would be possible, as Alan Greenspan envisioned in the days he was a member of Ayn Rand's inner circle, to abolish the paper money machine and return to honest money (or, even better, as Hayek recommended, competing moneys, freely interchangeable in an open market). But then, nobody imagines that the present system could collapse, which it is in the process of doing. The US$ will continue its slide toward zero, perhaps with an inflection point in the second derivative as the consequences of “bailouts” and “stimuli” kick in. The Euro will first see risk premiums increase across sovereign debt issued by Eurozone nations, and then the weaker members drop out to avoid the collapse of their own economies. No currency union without political union has ever survived in the long term, and the Euro is no exception.

Will we finally come to our senses and abandon this statist paper in favour of the mellow glow of gold? This is devoutly to be wished, but I fear unlikely in my lifetime or even in those of the koi in my pond. As long as politicians can fiddle with the money in order to loot savers and investors to fund their patronage schemes and line their own pockets they will: it's been going on since Babylon, and it will probably go to the stars as we expand our dominion throughout the universe. One doesn't want to hope for total economic and societal collapse, but that appears to be the best bet for a return to honest and moral money. If that's your wish, I suppose you can be heartened that the present administration in the United States appears bent upon that outcome. Our other option is opting out with technology. We have the ability today to electronically implement Hayek's multiple currency system online. This has already been done by ventures such as e-gold, but The Man has, to date, effectively stomped upon them. It will probably take a prickly sovereign state player to make this work. Hello, Dubai!

Let me get back to this book. It is superb: read it and encourage all of your similarly-inclined friends to do the same. If they're coming in cold to these concepts, it may be a bit of a shock (“You mean, the government doesn't create money?”), but there's a bibliography at the end with three levels of reading lists to bring people up to speed. Long-term supporters of hard money will find this mostly a reinforcement of their views, but for those experiencing for the first time the consequences of rapidly depreciating dollars, this will be an eye-opening revelation of the ultimate cause, and the malignant institution which must be abolished to put an end to this most pernicious tax upon the most prudent of citizens.

October 2009 Permalink

Peron, Jim. Zimbabwe: the Death of a Dream. Johannesburg: Amagi Books, 2000. ISBN 0-620-26191-9.

June 2001 Permalink

Phares, Walid. Future Jihad. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, [2005] 2006. ISBN 1-4039-7511-6.
It seems to me that at the root of the divisive and rancorous dispute over the war on terrorism (or whatever you choose to call it), is an individual's belief in one of the following two mutually exclusive propositions.

  1. There is a broad-based, highly aggressive, well-funded, and effective jihadist movement which poses a dire threat not just to secular and pluralist societies in the Muslim world, but to civil societies in Europe, the Americas, and Asia.
  2. There isn't.

In this book, Walid Phares makes the case for the first of these two statements. Born in Lebanon, after immigrating to the United States in 1990, he taught Middle East studies at several universities, and is currently a professor at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of a number of books on Middle East history, and appears as a commentator on media outlets ranging from Fox News to Al Jazeera.

Ever since the early 1990s, the author has been warning of what he argued was a constantly growing jihadist threat, which was being overlooked and minimised by the academic experts to whom policy makers turn for advice, largely due to Saudi-funded and -indoctrinated Middle East Studies programmes at major universities. Meanwhile, Saudi funding also financed the radicalisation of Muslim communities around the world, particularly the large immigrant populations in many Western European countries. In parallel to this top-down approach by the Wahabi Saudis, the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated groups, including Hamas and the Front Islamique du Salut in Algeria, pursued a bottom-up strategy of radicalising the population and building a political movement seeking to take power and impose an Islamic state. Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, a third stream of jihadism has arisen, principally within Shiite communities, promoted and funded by Iran, including groups such as Hezbollah.

The present-day situation is placed in historical content dating back to the original conquests of Mohammed and the spread of Islam from the Arabian peninsula across three continents, and subsequent disasters at the hands of the Mongols and Crusaders, the reconquista of the Iberian peninsula, and the ultimate collapse of the Ottoman Empire and Caliphate following World War I. This allows the reader to grasp the world-view of the modern jihadist which, while seemingly bizarre from a Western standpoint, is entirely self-consistent from the premises whence the believers proceed.

Phares stresses that modern jihadism (which he dates from the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923, an event which permitted free-lance, non-state actors to launch jihad unconstrained by the central authority of a caliph), is a political ideology with imperial ambitions: the establishment of a new caliphate and its expansion around the globe. He argues that this is only incidentally a religious conflict: although the jihadists are Islamic, their goals and methods are much the same as believers in atheistic ideologies such as communism. And just as one could be an ardent Marxist without supporting Soviet imperialism, one can be a devout Muslim and oppose the jihadists and intolerant fundamentalists. Conversely, this may explain the curious convergence of the extreme collectivist left and puritanical jihadists: red diaper baby and notorious terrorist Carlos “the Jackal” now styles himself an Islamic revolutionary, and the corpulent caudillo of Caracas has been buddying up with the squinty dwarf of Tehran.

The author believes that since the terrorist strikes against the United States in September 2001, the West has begun to wake up to the threat and begin to act against it, but that far more, both in realising the scope of the problem and acting to avert it, remains to be done. He argues, and documents from post-2001 events, that the perpetrators of future jihadist strikes against the West are likely to be home-grown second generation jihadists radicalised and recruited among Muslim communities within their own countries, aided by Saudi financed networks. He worries that the emergence of a nuclear armed jihadist state (most likely due to an Islamist takeover of Pakistan or Iran developing its own bomb) would create a base of operations for jihad against the West which could deter reprisal against it.

Chapter thirteen presents a chilling scenario of what might have happened had the West not had the wake-up call of the 2001 attacks and begun to mobilise against the threat. The scary thing is that events could still go this way should the threat be real and the West, through fatigue, ignorance, or fear, cease to counter it. While defensive measures at home and direct action against terrorist groups are required, the author believes that only the promotion of democratic and pluralistic civil societies in the Muslim world can ultimately put an end to the jihadist threat. Toward this end, a good first step would be, he argues, for the societies at risk to recognise that they are not at war with “terrorism” or with Islam, but rather with an expansionist ideology with a political agenda which attacks targets of opportunity and adapts quickly to countermeasures.

In all, I found the arguments somewhat over the top, but then, unlike the author, I haven't spent most of my career studying the jihadists, nor read their publications and Web sites in the original Arabic as he has. His warnings of cultural penetration of the West, misdirection by artful propaganda, and infiltration of policy making, security, and military institutions by jihadist covert agents read something like J. Edgar Hoover's Masters of Deceit, but then history, in particular the Venona decrypts, has borne out many of Hoover's claims which were scoffed at when the book was published in 1958. But still, one wonders how a “movement” composed of disparate threads many of whom hate one another (for example, while the Saudis fund propaganda promoting the jihadists, most of the latter seek to eventually depose the Saudi royal family and replace it with a Taliban-like regime; Sunni and Shiite extremists view each other as heretics) can effectively co-ordinate complex operations against their enemies.

A thirty page afterword in this paperback edition provides updates on events through mid-2006. There are some curious things: while transliteration of Arabic and Farsi into English involves a degree of discretion, the author seems very fond of the letter “u”. He writes the name of the leader of the Iranian revolution as “Khumeini”, for example, which I've never seen elsewhere. The book is not well-edited: occasionally he used “Khomeini”, spells Sayid Qutb's last name as “Kutb” on p. 64, and on p. 287 refers to “Hezbollah” and “Hizbollah” in the same sentence.

The author maintains a Web site devoted to the book, as well as a personal Web site which links to all of his work.

September 2007 Permalink

Phillips, Kevin. American Theocracy. New York: Viking, 2006. ISBN 0-670-03486-X.
In 1969, the author published The Emerging Republican Majority, which Newsweek called “The political bible of the Nixon Era.” The book laid out the “Sun Belt” (a phrase he coined) strategy he developed as a senior strategist for Richard Nixon's successful 1968 presidential campaign, and argued that demographic and economic trends would reinforce the political power of what he termed the “heartland” states, setting the stage for long-term Republican dominance of national politics, just as FDR's New Deal coalition had maintained Democratic power (especially in the Congress) for more than a generation.

In this book he argues that while his 1969 analysis was basically sound and would have played out much as he forecast, had the Republican steamroller not been derailed by Watergate and the consequent losses in the 1974 and 1976 elections, since the Reagan era, and especially during the presidency of George W. Bush, things have gone terribly wrong, and that the Republican party, if it remains in power, is likely to lead the United States in disastrous directions, resulting in the end of its de facto global hegemony.

Now, this is a view with which I am generally sympathetic, but if the author's reason for writing the present volume is to persuade people in that direction, I must judge the result ineffectual if not counterproductive. The book is ill-reasoned, weakly argued, poorly written, strongly biased, scantily documented, grounded in dubious historical analogies, and rhetorically structured in the form of “proof by assertion and endless repetition”.

To start with, the title is misleading if read without the subtitle, “The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century”, which appears in 8 point sans-serif type on the cover, below an illustration of a mega-church reinforcing the the words “American Theocracy” in 60 and 48 point roman bold. In fact, of 394 pages of main text, only 164—about 40%—are dedicated to the influence of religion on politics. (Yes, there are mentions of religion in the rest, but there is plenty of discussion of the other themes in the “Too Many Preachers” part as well; this book gives the distinct impression of having been shaken, not stirred.) And nothing in that part, or elsewhere in the book provides any evidence whatsoever, or even seriously advances a claim, that there is a genuine movement toward, threat of, or endorsement by the Republican party of theocracy, which Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines as:

  1. A form of government in which God or a deity is recognized as the supreme civil ruler, the God's or deity's laws being interpreted by the ecclesiastical authorities.
  2. A system of government by priests claiming a divine commission.
  3. A commonwealth or state under such a form or system of government.

And since Phillips's argument is based upon the Republican party's support among religious groups as diverse as Southern Baptists, northern Midwest Lutherans, Pentecostals, Mormons, Hasidic Jews, and Eastern Rite and traditionalist Catholics, it is difficult to imagine how precisely how the feared theocracy would function, given how little these separate religious groups agree upon. It would have to be an “ecumenical theocracy”, a creature for which I can recall no historical precedent.

The greater part of the book discusses the threats to the U.S. posed by a global peak in petroleum production and temptation of resource wars (of which he claims the U.S. intervention in Iraq is an example), and the explosion of debt, public and private, in the U.S., the consequent housing bubble, and the structural trade deficits which are flooding the world with greenbacks. But these are topics which have been discussed more lucidly and in greater detail by authors who know far more about them than Phillips, who cites secondary and tertiary sources and draws no novel observations.

A theme throughout the work is comparison of the present situation of the U.S. with previous world powers which fell into decline: ancient Rome, Spain in the seventeenth century, the Netherlands in the second half of the eighteenth century, and Britain in the first half of the twentieth. The parallels here, especially as regards fears of “theocracy” are strained to say the least. Constantine did not turn Rome toward Christianity until the fourth century A.D., by which time, even Gibbon concedes, the empire had been in decline for centuries. (Phillips seems to have realised this part of the way through the manuscript and ceases to draw analogies with Rome fairly early on.) Few, if any, historians would consider Spain, Holland, or Britain in the periods in question theocratic societies; each had a clear separation between civil authority and the church, and in the latter two cases there is plain evidence of a decline in the influence of organised religion on the population as the nation's power approached a peak and began to ebb. Can anybody seriously contend that the Anglican church was responsible for the demise of the British Empire? Hello—what about the two world wars, which were motivated by power politics, not religion?

Distilled to the essence (and I estimate a good editor could cut a third to half of this text just by flensing the mind-numbing repetition), Phillips has come to believe in the world view and policy prescriptions advocated by the left wing of the Democratic party. The Republican party does not agree with these things. Adherents of traditional religion share this disagreement, and consequently they predominately vote for Republican candidates. Therefore, evangelical and orthodox religious groups form a substantial part of the Republican electorate. But how does that imply any trend toward “theocracy”? People choose to join a particular church because they are comfortable with the beliefs it espouses, and they likewise vote for candidates who advocate policies they endorse. Just because there is a correlation between preferences does not imply, especially in the absence of any evidence, some kind of fundamentalist conspiracy to take over the government and impose a religious dictatorship. Consider another divisive issue which has nothing to do with religion: the right to keep and bear arms. People who consider the individual right to own and carry weapons for self-defence are highly probable to be Republican voters as well, because that party is more closely aligned with their views than the alternative. Correlation is not evidence of causality, not to speak of collusion.

Much of the writing is reminiscent of the lower tier of the UFO literature. There are dozens of statements like this one from p. 93 (my italics), “There are no records, but Cheney's reported early 2001 plotting may well have touched upon the related peril to the dollar.” May I deconstruct? So what's really being said here is, “Some conspiracy theorist, with no evidence to support his assertion, claims that Cheney was plotting to seize Iraqi oil fields, and it is possible that this speculated scheme might have been motivated by fears for the dollar.”

There are more than thirty pages of end notes set in small type, but there is less documentation here than strains the eye. Many citations are to news stories in collectivist legacy media and postings on leftist advocacy Web sites. Picking page 428 at random, we find 29 citations, only five of which are to a total of three books, one by the present author.

So blinded is the author by his own ideological bias that he seems completely oblivious to the fact that a right-wing stalwart could produce an almost completely parallel screed about the Democratic party being in thrall to a coalition of atheists, humanists, and secularists eager to use the power of the state to impose their own radical agenda. In fact, one already has. It is dubious that shrill polemics of this variety launched back and forth between the trenches of an increasingly polarised society promote the dialogue and substantive debate which is essential to confront the genuine and daunting challenges all its citizens ultimately share.

March 2007 Permalink

Phillips, Kevin. Bad Money. New York: Viking, 2008. ISBN 978-0-670-01907-6.
I was less than impressed by the author's last book, American Theocracy (March 2007), so I was a little hesitant about picking up this volume—but I'm glad I did. This is, for its length, the best resource for understanding the present financial mess I've read. While it doesn't explain everything, and necessarily skips over much of the detail, it correctly focuses on the unprecedented explosion of debt in recent decades; the dominance of finance (making money by shuffling money around) over manufacturing (making stuff) in the United States; the emergence of a parallel, unregulated, fantasy-land banking system based on arcane financial derivatives; politicians bent on promoting home ownership whatever the risk to the financial system; and feckless regulators and central bankers who abdicated their responsibility and became “serial bubblers” instead. The interwoven fate of the dollar and petroleum prices, the near-term impact of a global peak in oil production and the need to rein in carbon emissions, and their potential consequences for an already deteriorating economic situation are discussed in detail. You will also learn why government economic statistics (inflation rate, money supply, etc.) should be treated with great scepticism.

The thing about financial bubbles, and why such events are perennial in human societies, is that everybody wins—as long as the bubble continues to inflate and more suckers jump on board. Asset owners see their wealth soar, speculators make a fortune, those producing the assets enjoy ever-increasing demand, lenders earn more and more financing the purchase of appreciating assets, brokers earn greater and greater fees, and government tax revenues from everybody in the loop continue to rise—until the bubble pops. Then everybody loses, as reality reasserts itself. That's what we're beginning to see occur in today's financial markets: a grand-scale deleveraging of which events as of this writing (mid-October 2008) are just the opening act (or maybe the overture).

The author sketches possible scenarios for how the future may play out. On the whole, he's a bit more optimistic than I (despite the last chapter's being titled “The Global Crisis of American Capitalism”), but then that isn't difficult. The speculations about the future seem plausible to me, but I can imagine things developing in far different ways than those envisioned here, many of which would seem far-fetched today. There are a few errors (for example, Vladimir Putin never “headed the KGB” [p. 192]: in fact he retired from the KGB in 1991 after returning from having served as an agent in Dresden), but none seriously affects the arguments presented.

I continue to believe the author overstates the influence of the evangelical right in U.S. politics, and understates the culpability of politicians of both parties in creating the moral hazard which has now turned into the present peril. But these quibbles do not detract from this excellent primer on how the present crisis came to be, and what the future may hold.

October 2008 Permalink

Pinnock, Don. Gangs, Rituals and Rites of Passage. Cape Town: African Sun Press, 1997. ISBN 1-874915-08-3.

July 2001 Permalink

Podhoretz, Norman. World War IV. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-52221-2.
Whether you agree with it or not, here is one of the clearest expositions of the “neoconservative” (a term the author, who is one of the type specimens, proudly uses to identify himself) case for the present conflict between Western civilisation and the forces of what he identifies as “Islamofascism”, an aggressive, expansionist, and totalitarian ideology which is entirely distinct from Islam, the religion. The author considers the Cold War to have been World War III, and hence the present and likely as protracted a conflict, as World War IV. He deems it to be as existential a struggle for civilisation against the forces of tyranny as any of the previous three wars.

If you're sceptical of such claims (as am I, being very much an economic determinist who finds it difficult to believe a region of the world whose exports, apart from natural resources discovered and extracted largely by foreigners, are less than those of Finland, can truly threaten the fountainhead of the technologies and products without which its residents would remain in the seventh century utopia they seem to idolise), read Chapter Two for the contrary view: it is argued that since 1970, a series of increasingly provocative attacks were made against the West, not in response to Western actions but due to unreconcilably different world-views. Each indication of weakness by the West only emboldened the aggressors and escalated the scale of subsequent attacks.

The author argues the West is engaged in a multi-decade conflict with its own survival at stake, in which the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are simply campaigns. This war, like the Cold War, will be fought on many levels: not just military, but also proxy conflicts, propaganda, covert action, economic warfare, and promotion of the Western model as the solution to the problems of states imperiled by Islamofascism. There is some discussion in the epilogue of the risk posed to Europe by the radicalisation of its own burgeoning Muslim population while its indigenes are in a demographic death spiral, but for the most part the focus is on democratising the Middle East, not the creeping threat to democracy in the West by an unassimilated militant immigrant population which a feckless, cringing political class is unwilling to confront.

This book is well written and argued, but colour me unpersuaded. Instead of spending decades spilling blood and squandering fortune in a region of the world which has been trouble for every empire foolish enough to try to subdue it over the last twenty centuries, why not develop domestic energy sources to render the slimy black stuff in the ground there impotent and obsolete, secure the borders against immigration from there (except those candidates who demonstrate themselves willing to assimilate to the culture of the West), and build a wall around the place and ignore what happens inside? Works for me.

July 2008 Permalink

Ponnuru, Ramesh. The Party of Death. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1-59698-004-4.
One party government is not a pretty thing. Just as competition in the marketplace reins in the excesses of would-be commercial predators (while monopoly encourages them to do their worst), long-term political dominance by a single party inevitably leads to corruption, disconnection of the ruling elites from their constituents, and unsustainable policy decisions which are destructive in the long term; this is precisely what has eventually precipitated the collapse of most empires. In recent years the federal government of the United States has been dominated by the Republican party, with all three branches of government and both houses of the congress in Republican hands. Chapter 18 of this fact-packed book cites a statistic which provides a stunning insight into an often-overlooked aspect of the decline of the Democratic party. In 1978, Democrats held 292 seats in the House of Representatives: an overwhelming super-majority of more than two thirds. Of these Democrats, 125, more than 40%, were identified as “pro-life”—opposed to abortion on demand and federal funding of abortion. But by 2004, only 35 Democrats in the House were identified as pro-life: fewer than 18%, and the total number of Democrats had shrunk to only 203, a minority of less than 47%. It is striking to observe that over a period of 26 years the number of pro-life Democrats has dropped by 90, almost identical to the party's total loss of 89 seats.

Now, the Democratic decline is more complicated than any single issue, but as the author documents, the Democratic activist base and large financial contributors are far more radical on issues of human life: unrestricted and subsidised abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, stem cell research which destroys human embryos, and human cloning for therapeutic purposes, than the American public at large. (The often deceptive questions used to manipulate the results of public opinion polls and the way they are spun in the overwhelmingly pro-abortion legacy media are discussed at length.) The activists and moneybags make the Democratic party a hostile environment for pro-life politicians and has, over the decades, selected them out, applying an often explicit litmus test to potential candidates, who are not allowed to deviate from absolutist positions. Their adherence to views not shared by most voters then makes them vulnerable in the general election.

Apart from the political consequences, the author examines the curious flirtation of the American left with death in all its forms—a strange alliance for a political philosophy which traditionally stressed protecting the weak and vulnerable: in the words of Hubert Humphrey (who was pro-life), “those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped” (p. 131).

The author argues against the panoply of pro-death policies exclusively from a human rights standpoint. Religion is not mentioned except to refute the claim that pro-life policies are an attempt to impose a sectarian agenda on a secular society. The human rights argument could not be simpler to grasp: if you believe that human beings have inherent, unalienable rights, simply by being human, then what human right could conceivably be more fundamental than the right not to be killed. If one accepts this (and the paucity of explicitly pro-murder voters would seem to indicate the view is broadly shared), then the only way one can embrace policies which permit the destruction of a living human organism is to define criteria which distinguish a “person” who cannot be killed, from those who are not persons and therefore can. Thus one hears the human embryo or fetus (which has the potential of developing into an adult human) described as a “potential human”, and medical patients in a persistent vegetative state as having no personhood. Professor Peter Singer, bioethicist at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University argues (p. 176), “[T]he concept of a person is distinct from that of a member of the species Homo sapiens, and that it is personhood, not species membership, that is most significant in determining when it is wrong to end a life.”

But the problem with drawing lines that divide unarguably living human beings into classes of persons and nonpersons is that the distinctions are rarely clear-cut. If a fetus in the first three months of pregnancy is a nonperson, then what changes on the first day of the fourth month to confer personhood on the continuously developing baby? Why not five months, or six? And if a woman in the U.S. has a constitutionally protected right to have her child killed right up until the very last part of its body emerges from the birth canal (as is, in fact, the regime in effect today in the United States, notwithstanding media dissimulation of this reality), then what's so different about killing a newborn baby if, for example, it was found to have a birth defect which was not detected in utero. Professor Singer has no problem with this at all; he enumerates a variety of prerequisites for personhood: “rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”, and then concludes “Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.”

It's tempting to dismiss Singer as another of the many intellectual Looney Tunes which decorate the American academy, but Ponnuru defends him for having the intellectual integrity to follow the premises he shares with many absolutists on these issues all the way to their logical conclusions, which lead Singer to conclude (p. 186), “[d]uring the next 35 years, the traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse…. By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.” Doesn't that sound like a wonderful world, especially for those of us who expect to live out our declining years as that brave new era dawns, at least for those suitably qualified “persons” permitted to live long enough to get there?

Many contend that such worries are simply “the old slippery slope argument”, thinking that settles the matter. But the problem is that the old slippery slope argument is often right, and in this case there is substantial evidence that it very much applies. The enlightened Dutch seem to have slid further and faster than others in the West, permitting both assisted suicide for the ill and euthanasia for seriously handicapped infants at the parents' request—in theory. In fact, it is estimated that five percent of of all deaths in The Netherlands are the result of euthanasia by doctors without request (which is nominally illegal), and that five percent of infanticide occurs without the request or consent of the parents, and it is seldom noted in the media that the guidelines which permit these “infanticides” actually apply to children up to the age of twelve. Perhaps that's why the Dutch are so polite—young hellions run the risk not only of a paddling but also of “post-natal abortion”. The literally murderous combination of an aging population supported by a shrinking number of working-age people, state-sanctioned euthanasia, and socialised medicine is fearful to contemplate.

These are difficult issues, and the political arena has become so polarised into camps of extremists on both sides that rational discussion and compromise seem almost impossible. This book, while taking a pro-life perspective, eschews rhetoric in favour of rational argumentation grounded in the principles of human rights which date to the Enlightenment. One advantage of applying human rights to all humans is that it's simple and easy to understand. History is rich in examples which show that once a society starts sorting people into persons and nonpersons, things generally start to go South pretty rapidly. Like it or not, these are issues which modern society is going to have to face: advances in medical technologies create situations that call for judgements people never had to make before. For those who haven't adopted one extreme position or another, and are inclined to let the messy democratic process of decision making sort this out, ideally leaving as much discretion as possible to the individuals involved, as opposed to absolutist “rights” discovered in constitutional law and imposed by judicial diktat, this unsettling book is a valuable contribution to the debate. Democratic party stalwarts are unlikely in the extreme to read it, but they ignore this message at their peril.

The book is not very well-edited. There are a number of typographical errors and on two occasions (pp.  94 and 145), the author's interpolations in the middle of extended quotations are set as if they were part of the quotation. It is well documented; there are thirty-four pages of source citations.

July 2006 Permalink

Posner, Gerald L. Secrets of the Kingdom. New York: Random House, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-6291-8.
Most of this short book (196 pages of main text) is a straightforward recounting of the history of Saudi Arabia from its founding as a unified kingdom in 1932 under Ibn Saud, and of the petroleum-dominated relationship between the United States and the kingdom up to the present, based almost entirely upon secondary sources. Chapter 10, buried amidst the narrative and barely connected to the rest, and based on the author's conversations with an unnamed Mossad (Israeli intelligence) officer and an unidentified person claiming to be an eyewitness, describes a secret scheme called “Petroleum Scorched Earth” (“Petro SE”) which, it is claimed, was discovered by NSA intercepts of Saudi communications which were shared with the Mossad and then leaked to the author.

The claim is that the Saudis have rigged all of their petroleum infrastructure so that it can be destroyed from a central point should an invader be about to seize it, or the House of Saud fall due to an internal revolution. Oil and gas production facilities tend to be spread out over large areas and have been proven quite resilient—the damage done to Kuwait's infrastructure during the first Gulf War was extensive, yet reparable in a relatively short time, and the actual petroleum reserves are buried deep in the Earth and are essentially indestructible—if a well is destroyed, you simply sink another well; it costs money, but you make it back as soon as the oil starts flowing again. Refineries and storage facilities are more easily destroyed, but the real long-term wealth (and what an invader or revolutionary movement would covet most) lies deep in the ground. Besides, most of Saudi Arabia's export income comes from unrefined products (in the first ten months of 2004, 96% of Saudi Arabia's oil exports to the U.S. were crude), so even if all the refineries were destroyed (which is difficult—refineries are big and spread out over a large area) and took a long time to rebuild, the core of the export economy would be up and running as soon as the wells were pumping and pipelines and oil terminals were repaired.

So, it is claimed, the Saudis have mined their key facilities with radiation dispersal devices (RDDs), “dirty bombs” composed of Semtex plastic explosive mixed with radioactive isotopes of cesium, rubidium (huh?), and/or strontium which, when exploded, will disperse the radioactive material over a broad area, which (p. 127) “could render large swaths of their own country uninhabitable for years”. What's that? Do I hear some giggling from the back of the room from you guys with the nuclear bomb effects computers? Well, gosh, where shall we begin?

Let us commence by plinking an easy target, the rubidium. Metallic rubidium burns quite nicely in air, which makes it easy to disperse, but radioactively it's a dud. Natural rubidium contains about 28% of the radioactive isotope rubidium-87, but with a half-life of about 50 billion years, it's only slightly more radioactive than dirt when dispersed over any substantial area. The longest-lived artificially created isotope is rubidium-83 with a half-life of only 86 days, which means that once dispersed, you'd only have to wait a few months for it to decay away. In any case, something which decays so quickly is useless for mining facilities, since you'd need to constantly produce fresh batches of the isotope (in an IAEA inspected reactor?) and install it in the bombs. So, at least the rubidium part of this story is nonsense; how about the rest?

Cesium-137 and strontium-90 both have half-lives of about 30 years and are readily taken up and stored in the human body, so they are suitable candidates for a dirty bomb. But while a dirty bomb is a credible threat for contaminating high-value, densely populated city centres in countries whose populations are wusses about radiation, a sprawling oil field or petrochemical complex is another thing entirely. The Federation of American Scientists report, “Dirty Bombs: Response to a Threat”, estimates that in the case of a cobalt-salted dirty bomb, residents who lived continuously in the contaminated area for forty years after the detonation would have a one in ten chance of death from cancer induced by the radiation. With the model cesium bomb, five city blocks would be contaminated at a level which would create a one in a thousand chance of cancer for residents.

But this is nothing! To get a little perspective on this, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's Leading Causes of Death Reports, people in the United States never exposed to a dirty bomb have a 22.8% probability of dying of cancer. While the one in ten chance created by the cobalt dirty bomb is a substantial increase in this existing risk, that's the risk for people who live for forty years in the contaminated area. Working in a contaminated oil field is quite different. First of all, it's a lot easier to decontaminate steel infrastructure and open desert than a city, and oil field workers can be issued protective gear to reduce their exposure to the remaining radiation. In any case, they'd only be in the contaminated area for the work day, then return to a clean area at the end of the shift. You could restrict hiring to people 45 years and older, pay a hazard premium, and limit their contract to either a time period (say two years) or based on integrated radiation dose. Since radiation-induced cancers usually take a long time to develop, older workers are likely to die of some other cause before the effects of radiation get to them. (This sounds callous, but it's been worked out in detail in studies of post nuclear war decontamination. The rules change when you're digging out of a hole.)

Next, there is this dumb-as-a-bag-of-dirt statement on p. 127:

Saudi engineers calculated that the soil particulates beneath the surface of most of their three hundred known reserves are so fine that radioactive releases there would permit the contamination to spread widely through the soil subsurface, carrying the radioactivity far under the ground and into the unpumped oil. This gave Petro SE the added benefit of ensuring that even if a new power in the Kingdom could rebuild the surface infrastructure, the oil reserves themselves might be unusable for years.
Hey, you guys in the back—enough with the belly laughs! Did any of the editors at Random House think to work out, even if you stipulated that radioactive contamination could somehow migrate from the surface down through hundreds to thousands of metres of rock (how, due to the abundant rain?), just how much radioactive contaminant you'd have to mix with the estimated two hundred and sixty billion barrels of crude oil in the Saudi reserves to render it dangerously radioactive? In any case, even if you could magically transport the radioactive material into the oil bearing strata and supernaturally mix it with the oil, it would be easy to separate during the refining process.

Finally, there's the question of why, if the Saudis have gone to all the trouble to rig their oil facilities to self-destruct, it has remained a secret waiting to be revealed in this book. From a practical standpoint, almost all of the workers in the Saudi oil fields are foreigners. Certainly some of them would be aware of such a massive effort and, upon retirement, say something about it which the news media would pick up. But even if the secret could be kept, we're faced with the same question of deterrence which arose in the conclusion of Dr. Strangelove with the Soviet doomsday machine—it's idiotic to build a doomsday machine and keep it a secret! Its only purpose is to deter a potential attack, and if attackers don't know there's a doomsday machine, they won't be deterred. Precisely the same logic applies to the putative Saudi self-destruct button.

Now none of this argumentation proves in any way that the Saudis haven't rigged their oil fields to blow up and scatter radioactive material on the debris, just that it would be a phenomenally stupid thing for them to try to do. But then, there are plenty of precedents for the Saudis doing dumb things—they have squandered the greatest fortune in the history of the human race and, while sitting on a quarter of all the world's oil, seen their per capita GDP erode to fall between that of Poland and Latvia. If, indeed, they have done something so stupid as this scorched earth scheme, let us hope they manage the succession to the throne, looming in the near future, in a far more intelligent fashion.

July 2005 Permalink

Postrel, Virginia. The Future and Its Enemies. New York: Touchstone Books, 1998. ISBN 0-684-86269-7.
Additional references, updates, and a worth-visiting blog related to the topics discussed in this book are available at the author's Web site, www.dynamist.com.

March 2003 Permalink

Powell, Jim. FDR's Folly. New York: Crown Forum, 2003. ISBN 0-7615-0165-7.

May 2004 Permalink

Rabinowitz, Dorothy. No Crueler Tyrannies. New York: Free Press, 2003. ISBN 0-7432-2834-0.

October 2003 Permalink

Rand, Ayn. We the Living. New York: Signet, [1936] 1959. ISBN 0-451-18784-9.
This is Ayn Rand's first novel, which she described to be “as near to an autobiography as I will ever write”. It is a dark story of life in the Soviet Union in 1925, a year after the death of Lenin and a year before Ayn Rand's own emigration to the United States from St. Petersburg / Petrograd / Leningrad, the city in which the story is set. Originally published in 1936, this edition was revised by Rand in 1958, shortly after finishing Atlas Shrugged. Somehow, I had never gotten around to reading this novel before, and was surprised to discover that the characters were, in many ways, more complex and believable and the story less preachy than her later work. Despite the supposedly diametrically opposed societies in which they are set and the ideologies of their authors, this story and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle bear remarkable similarities and are worth reading together for an appreciation of how horribly things can go wrong in any society in which, regardless of labels, ideals, and lofty rhetoric, people do not truly own their own lives.

April 2005 Permalink

Raspail, Jean. Le Camp des Saints. Paris: Robert Laffont, [1973, 1978, 1985] 2006. ISBN 978-2-221-08840-1.
This is one of the most hauntingly prophetic works of fiction I have ever read. Although not a single word has been changed from its original publication in 1973 to the present edition, it is at times simply difficult to believe you're reading a book which was published thirty-five years ago. The novel is a metaphorical, often almost surreal exploration of the consequences of unrestricted immigration from the third world into the first world: Europe and France in particular, and how the instincts of openness, compassion, and generosity which characterise first world countries can sow the seeds of their destruction if they result in developed countries being submerged in waves of immigration of those who do not share their values, culture, and by their sheer numbers and rate of arrival, cannot be assimilated into the society which welcomes them.

The story is built around a spontaneous, almost supernatural, migration of almost a million desperate famine-struck residents from the Ganges on a fleet of decrepit ships, to the “promised land”, and the reaction of the developed countries along their path and in France as they approach and debark. Raspail has perfect pitch when it comes to the prattling of bien pensants, feckless politicians, international commissions chartered to talk about a crisis until it turns into catastrophe, humanitarians bent on demonstrating their good intentions whatever the cost to those they're supposed to be helping and those who fund their efforts, media and pundits bent on indoctrination instead of factual reporting, post-Christian clerics, and the rest of the intellectual scum which rises to the top and suffocates the rationality which has characterised Western civilisation for centuries and created the prosperity and liberty which makes it a magnet for people around the world aspiring to individual achievement.

Frankly addressing the roots of Western exceptionalism and the internal rot which imperils it, especially in the context of mass immigration, is a sure way to get yourself branded a racist, and that has, of course been the case with this book. There are, to be sure, many mentions of “whites” and “blacks”, but I perceive no evidence that the author imputes superiority to the first or inferiority to the second: they are simply labels for the cultures from which those actors in the story hail. One character, Hamadura, identified as a dark skinned “Français de Pondichéry” says (p. 357, my translation), “To be white, in my opinion, is not a colour of skin, but a state of mind”. Precisely—anybody, whatever their race or origin, can join the first world, but the first world has a limited capacity to assimilate new arrivals knowing nothing of its culture and history, and risks being submerged if too many arrive, particularly if well-intentioned cultural elites encourage them not to assimilate but instead work for political power and agendas hostile to the Enlightenment values of the West. As Jim Bennett observed, “Democracy, immigration, multiculturalism. Pick any two.”

Now, this is a novel from 1973, not a treatise on immigration and multiculturalism in present-day Europe, and the voyage of the fleet of the Ganges is a metaphor for the influx of immigrants into Europe which has already provoked many of the cringing compromises of fundamental Western values prophesied, of which I'm sure most readers in the 1970s would have said, “It can't happen here”. Imagine an editor fearing for his life for having published a cartoon (p. 343), or Switzerland being forced to cede the values which have kept it peaceful and prosperous by the muscle of those who surround it and the intellectual corruption of its own elites. It's all here, and much more. There's even a Pope Benedict XVI (albeit very unlike the present occupant of the throne of St. Peter).

This is an ambitious literary work, and challenging for non mother tongue readers. The vocabulary is enormous, including a number of words you won't find even in the Micro Bob. Idioms, many quite obscure (for example “Les carottes sont cuites”—all is lost), abound, and references to them appear obliquely in the text. The apocalyptic tone of the book (whose title is taken from Rev. 20:9) is reinforced by many allusions to that Biblical prophecy. This is a difficult read, which careens among tragedy, satire, and farce, forcing the reader to look beyond political nostrums about the destiny of the West and seriously ask what the consequences of mass immigration without assimilation and the accommodation by the West of values inimical to its own are likely to be. And when you think that Jean Respail saw all of this coming more than three decades ago, it almost makes you shiver. I spent almost three weeks working my way through this book, but although it was difficult, I always looked forward to picking it up, so rewarding was it to grasp the genius of the narrative and the masterful use of the language.

An English translation is available. Given the language, idioms, wordplay, and literary allusions in the original French, this work would be challenging to faithfully render into another language. I have not read the translation and cannot comment upon how well it accomplished this formidable task.

For more information about the author and his works, visit his official Web site.

June 2008 Permalink

Reagan, Ronald. The Reagan Diaries. Edited by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. ISBN 978-0-06-155833-7.
What's it actually like to be the president of the United States? There is very little first-person testimony on this topic: among American presidents, only Washington, John Quincy Adams, Polk, and Hayes kept comprehensive diaries prior to the twentieth century, and the present work, an abridged edition of the voluminous diaries of Ronald Reagan, was believed, at the time of its publication, to be the only personal, complete, and contemporaneous account of a presidency in the twentieth century. Since its publication, a book purporting to be the White House diaries of Jimmy Carter has been published, but even if you believe the content, who cares about the account of the presidency of a feckless crapweasel whose damage to the republic redounds unto the present day?

Back in the epoch, the media (a couple of decades later to become the legacy media), portrayed Reagan as a genial dunce, bumbling through his presidency at the direction of his ideological aides. That illusion is dispelled in the first ten pages of these contemporaneous diary entries. In these pages, rife with misspellings (he jokes to himself that he always spells the Libyan dictator's name the last way he saw it spelt in the newspaper, and probably ended up with at least a dozen different spellings) and apostrophe abuse, you experience Reagan not writing for historians but rather memos to file about the decisions he was making from day to day.

As somebody who was unfortunate enough to spend a brief part of his life as CEO of an S&P 500 company in the Reagan years, the ability of Reagan, almost forty years my senior, to keep dozens of balls in the air, multitask among grave matters of national security and routine paperwork, meetings with heads of states of inconsequential countries, criminal investigations of his subordinates, and schmooze with politicians staunchly opposed to his legislative agenda to win the votes needed to enact the parts he deemed most important is simply breathtaking. Here we see a chief executive, honed by eight years as governor of California, at the top of his game, deftly out-maneuvering his opponents in Congress not, as the media would have you believe, by his skills in communicating directly to the people (although that played a part), but mostly by plain old politics: faking to the left and then scoring the point from the right. Reading these abridged but otherwise unedited diary entries gives lie to any claim that Reagan was in any way intellectually impaired or unengaged at any point of his presidency. This is a master politician getting done what he can in the prevailing political landscape and committing both his victories and teeth-gritting compromises to paper the very day they occurred.

One of the most stunning realisations I took away from this book is that when Reagan came to office, he looked upon his opposition in the Congress and the executive bureaucracy as people who shared his love of the country and hope for its future, but who simply disagreed as to the best course to achieve their shared goals. You can see it slowly dawning upon Reagan, as year followed year, that although there were committed New Dealers and Cold War Democrats among his opposition, there was a growing movement, both within the bureaucracy and among elected officials, who actually wanted to bring America down—if not to actually capitulate to Soviet hegemony, at least to take it down from superpower status to a peer of others in the “international community”. Could Reagan have imagined that the day would come when a president who bought into this agenda might actually sit in the Oval Office? Of course: Reagan was well-acquainted with worst case scenarios.

The Kindle edition is generally well-produced, but in lieu of a proper index substitutes a lengthy and entirely useless list of “searchable terms” which are not linked in any way to their appearances in the text.

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan.

February 2011 Permalink

Red Eagle, John and Vox Day [Theodore Beale]. Cuckservative. Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2015. ASIN B018ZHHA52.
Yes, I have read it. So read me out of the polite genteel “conservative” movement. But then I am not a conservative. Further, I enjoyed it. The authors say things forthrightly that many people think and maybe express in confidence to their like-minded friends, but reflexively cringe upon even hearing in public. Even more damning, I found it enlightening on a number of topics, and I believe that anybody who reads it dispassionately is likely to find it the same. And finally, I am reviewing it. I have reviewed (or noted) every book I have read since January of 2001. Should I exclude this one because it makes some people uncomfortable? I exist to make people uncomfortable. And so, onward….

The authors have been called “racists”, which is rather odd since both are of Native American ancestry and Vox Day also has Mexican ancestors. Those who believe ancestry determines all will have to come to terms with the fact that these authors defend the values which largely English settlers brought to America, and were the foundation of American culture until it all began to come apart in the 1960s.

In the view of the authors, as explained in chapter 4, the modern conservative movement in the U.S. dates from the 1950s. Before that time both the Democrat and Republican parties contained politicians and espoused policies which were both conservative and progressive (with the latter word used in the modern sense), often with regional differences. Starting with the progressive era early in the 20th century and dramatically accelerating during the New Deal, the consensus in both parties was centre-left liberalism (with “liberal” defined in the corrupt way it is used in the U.S.): a belief in a strong central government, social welfare programs, and active intervention in the economy. This view was largely shared by Democrat and Republican leaders, many of whom came from the same patrician class in the Northeast. At its outset, the new conservative movement, with intellectual leaders such as Russell Kirk and advocates like William F. Buckley, Jr., was outside the mainstream of both parties, but more closely aligned with the Republicans due to their wariness of big government. (But note that the Eisenhower administration made no attempt to roll back the New Deal, and thus effectively ratified it.)

They argue that since the new conservative movement was a coalition of disparate groups such as libertarians, isolationists, southern agrarians, as well as ex-Trotskyites and former Communists, it was an uneasy alliance, and in forging it Buckley and others believed it was essential that the movement be seen as socially respectable. This led to a pattern of conservatives ostracising those who they feared might call down the scorn of the mainstream press upon them. In 1957, a devastating review of Atlas Shrugged by Whittaker Chambers marked the break with Ayn Rand's Objectivists, and in 1962 Buckley denounced the John Birch Society and read it out of the conservative movement. This established a pattern which continues to the present day: when an individual or group is seen as sufficiently radical that they might damage the image of conservatism as defined by the New York and Washington magazines and think tanks, they are unceremoniously purged and forced to find a new home in institutions viewed with disdain by the cultured intelligentsia. As the authors note, this is the exact opposite of the behaviour of the Left, which fiercely defends its most radical extremists. Today's Libertarian Party largely exists because its founders were purged from conservatism in the 1970s.

The search for respectability and the patient construction of conservative institutions were successful in aligning the Republican party with the new conservatism. This first manifested itself in the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Following his disastrous defeat, conservatives continued their work, culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. But even then, and in the years that followed, including congressional triumphs in 1994, 2010, and 2014, Republicans continued to behave as a minority party: acting only to slow the rate of growth of the Left's agenda rather than roll it back and enact their own. In the words of the authors, they are “calling for the same thing as the left, but less of it and twenty years later”.

The authors call these Republicans “cuckservative” or “cuck” for short. The word is a portmanteau of “cuckold” and “conservative”. “Cuckold” dates back to A.D. 1250, and means the husband of an unfaithful wife, or a weak and ineffectual man. Voters who elect these so-called conservatives are cuckolded by them, as through their fecklessness and willingness to go along with the Left, they bring into being and support the collectivist agenda which they were elected to halt and roll back. I find nothing offensive in the definition of this word, but I don't like how it sounds—in part because it rhymes with an obscenity which has become an all-purpose word in the vocabulary of the Left and, increasingly, the young. Using the word induces a blind rage in some of those to whom it is applied, which may be its principal merit.

But this book, despite bearing it as a title, is not about the word: only three pages are devoted to defining it. The bulk of the text is devoted to what the authors believe are the central issues facing the U.S. at present and an examination of how those calling themselves conservatives have ignored, compromised away, or sold out the interests of their constituents on each of these issues, including immigration and the consequences of a change in demographics toward those with no experience of the rule of law, the consequences of mass immigration on workers in domestic industries, globalisation and the flight of industries toward low-wage countries, how immigration has caused other societies in history to lose their countries, and how mainstream Christianity has been subverted by the social justice agenda and become an ally of the Left at the same time its pews are emptying in favour of evangelical denominations. There is extensive background information about the history of immigration in the United States, the bizarre “Magic Dirt” theory (that, for example, transplanting a Mexican community across the border will, simply by changing its location, transform its residents, in time, into Americans or, conversely, that “blighted neighbourhoods” are so because there's something about the dirt [or buildings] rather than the behaviour of those who inhabit them), and the overwhelming and growing scientific evidence for human biodiversity and the coming crack-up of the “blank slate” dogma. If the Left continues to tighten its grip upon the academy, we can expect to see research in this area be attacked as dissent from the party line on climate science is today.

This is an excellent book: well written, argued, and documented. For those who have been following these issues over the years and observed the evolution of the conservative movement over the decades, there may not be much here that's new, but it's all tied up into one coherent package. For the less engaged who've just assumed that by voting for Republicans they were advancing the conservative cause, this may prove a revelation. If you're looking to find racism, white supremacy, fascism, authoritarianism, or any of the other epithets hurled against the dissident right, you won't find them here unless, as the Left does, you define the citation of well-documented facts as those things. What you will find is two authors who love America and believe that American policy should put the interests of Americans before those of others, and that politicians elected by Americans should be expected to act in their interest. If politicians call themselves “conservatives”, they should act to conserve what is great about America, not compromise it away in an attempt to, at best, delay the date their constituents are delivered into penury and serfdom.

You may have to read this book being careful nobody looks over your shoulder to see what you're reading. You may have to never admit you've read it. You may have to hold your peace when somebody goes on a rant about the “alt-right”. But read it, and judge for yourself. If you believe the facts cited are wrong, do the research, refute them with evidence, and publish a response (under a pseudonym, if you must). But before you reject it based upon what you've heard, read it—it's only five bucks—and make up your own mind. That's what free citizens do.

As I have come to expect in publications from Castalia House, the production values are superb. There are only a few (I found just three) copy editing errors. At present the book is available only in Kindle and Audible audiobook editions.

May 2016 Permalink

Reynolds, Glenn. An Army of Davids. Nashville: Nelson Current, 2006. ISBN 1-5955-5054-2.
In this book, law professor and über blogger (InstaPundit.com) Glenn Reynolds explores how present and near-future technology is empowering individuals at the comparative expense of large organisations in fields as diverse as retailing, music and motion picture production, national security, news gathering, opinion journalism, and, looking further out, nanotechnology and desktop manufacturing, human longevity and augmentation, and space exploration and development (including Project Orion [pp. 228–233]—now there's a garage start-up I'd love to work on!). Individual empowerment is, like the technology which creates it, morally neutral: good people can do more good, and bad people can wreak more havoc. Reynolds is relentlessly optimistic, and I believe justifiably so; good people outnumber bad people by a large majority, and in a society which encourages them to be “a pack, not a herd” (the title of chapter 5), they will have the means in their hands to act as a societal immune system against hyper-empowered malefactors far more effective than heavy-handed top-down repression and fear-motivated technological relinquishment.

Anybody who's seeking “the next big thing” couldn't find a better place to start than this book. Chapters 2, 3 and 7, taken together, provide a roadmap for the devolution of work from downtown office towers to individual entrepreneurs working at home and in whatever environments attract them, and the emergence of “horizontal knowledge”, supplanting the top-down one-to-many model of the legacy media. There are probably a dozen ideas for start-ups with the potential of eBay and Amazon lurking in these chapters if you read them with the right kind of eyes. If the business and social model of the twenty-first century indeed comes to resemble that of the eighteenth, all of those self-reliant independent people are going to need lots of products and services they will find indispensable just as soon as somebody manages to think of them. Discovering and meeting these needs will pay well.

The “every person an entrepreneur” world sketched here raises the same concerns I expressed in regard to David Bolchover's The Living Dead (January 2006): this will be a wonderful world, indeed, for the intelligent and self-motivated people who will prosper once liberated from corporate cubicle indenture. But not everybody is like that: in particular, those people tend to be found on the right side of the bell curve, and for every one on the right, there's one equally far to the left. We have already made entire categories of employment for individuals with average or below-average intelligence redundant. In the eighteenth century, there were many ways in which such people could lead productive and fulfilling lives; what will they do in the twenty-first? Further, ever since Bismarck, government schools have been manufacturing worker-bees with little initiative, and essentially no concept of personal autonomy. As I write this, the élite of French youth is rioting over a proposal to remove what amounts to a guarantee of lifetime employment in a first job. How will people so thoroughly indoctrinated in collectivism fare in an individualist renaissance? As a law professor, the author spends much of his professional life in the company of high-intelligence, strongly-motivated students, many of whom contemplate an entrepreneurial career and in any case expect to be judged on their merits in a fiercely competitive environment. One wonders if his optimism might be tempered were he to spend comparable time with denizens of, say, the school of education. But the fact that there will be problems in the future shouldn't make us fear it—heaven knows there are problems enough in the present, and the last century was kind of a colossal monument to disaster and tragedy; whatever the future holds, the prescription of more freedom, more information, greater wealth and health, and less coercion presented here is certain to make it a better place to live.

The individualist future envisioned here has much in common with that foreseen in the 1970s by Timothy Leary, who coined the acronym “SMIILE” for “Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension”. The “II” is alluded to in chapter 12 as part of the merging of human and machine intelligence in the singularity, but mightn't it make sense, as Leary advocated, to supplement longevity research with investigation of the nature of human intelligence and near-term means to increase it? Realising the promise and avoiding the risks of the demanding technologies of the future are going to require both intelligence and wisdom; shifting the entire bell curve to the right, combined with the wisdom of longer lives may be key in achieving the much to be desired future foreseen here.

InstaPundit visitors will be familiar with the writing style, which consists of relatively brief discussion of a multitude of topics, each with one or more references for those who wish to “read the whole thing” in more depth. One drawback of the print medium is that although many of these citations are Web pages, to get there you have to type in lengthy URLs for each one. An on-line edition of the end notes with all the on-line references as clickable links would be a great service to readers.

March 2006 Permalink

Richelson, Jeffrey T. The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8133-6699-2.

May 2002 Permalink

Robinson, Peter. How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003. ISBN 978-0-06-052400-5.
In 1982, the author, a recent graduate of Dartmouth College who had spent two years studying at Oxford, then remained in England to write a novel, re-assessed his career prospects and concluded that, based upon experience, novelist did not rank high among them. He sent letters to everybody he thought might provide him leads on job opportunities. Only William F. Buckley replied, suggesting that Robinson contact his son, Christopher, then chief speechwriter for Vice President George H. W. Bush, who might know of some openings for speechwriters. Hoping at most for a few pointers, the author flew to Washington to meet Buckley, who was planning to leave the White House, creating a vacancy in the Vice President's speechwriting shop. After a whirlwind of interviews, Robinson found himself, in his mid-twenties, having never written a speech before in his life, at work in the Old Executive Office Building, tasked with putting words into the mouth of the Vice President of the United States.

After a year and a half writing for Bush, two of the President's speechwriters quit at the same time. Forced to find replacements on short notice, the head of the office recruited the author to write for Reagan: “He hired me because I was already in the building.” From then through 1988, he wrote speeches for Reagan, some momentous (Reagan's June 1987 speech at the Brandenburg gate, where Robinson's phrase, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”, uttered by Reagan against vehement objections from the State Department and some of his senior advisers, was a pivotal moment in the ending of the Cold War), but also many more for less epochal events such as visits of Boy Scouts to the White House, ceremonies honouring athletes, and the dozens of other circumstances where the President was called upon to “say a few words”. And because the media were quick to pounce on any misstatement by the President, even the most routine remarks had to be meticulously fact-checked by a team of researchers. For every grand turn of phrase in a high profile speech, there were many moments spent staring at the blank screen of a word processor as the deadline for some inconsequential event loomed ever closer and wondering, “How am I supposed to get twenty minutes out of that?“.

But this is not just a book about the life of a White House speechwriter (although there is plenty of insight to be had on that topic). Its goal is to collect and transmit the wisdom that a young man, in his first job, learned by observing Ronald Reagan masterfully doing the job to which he had aspired since entering politics in the 1960s. Reagan was such a straightforward and unaffected person that many underestimated him. For example, compared to the hard-driving types toiling from dawn to dusk who populate many White House positions, Reagan never seemed to work very hard. He would rise at his accustomed hour, work for five to eight hours at his presidential duties, exercise, have dinner, review papers, and get to bed on time. Some interpreted this as his being lazy, but Robinson's fellow speechwriter, Clark Judge, remarked “He never confuses inputs with output. … Who cares how many hours a day a President puts in? It's what a President accomplishes that matters.”

These are lessons aplenty here, all illustrated with anecdotes from the Reagan White House: the distinction between luck and the results from persistence in the face of adversity seen in retrospect; the unreasonable effectiveness and inherent dignity of doing one's job, whatever it be, well; viewing life not as background scenery but rather an arena in which one can act, changing not just the outcome but the circumstances one encounters; the power of words, especially those sincerely believed and founded in comprehensible, time-proven concepts; scepticism toward the pronouncements of “experts” whose oracle-like proclamations make sense only to other experts—if it doesn't make sense to an intelligent person with some grounding in the basics, it probably doesn't make sense period; the importance of marriage, and how the Reagans complemented one another in facing the challenges and stress of the office; the centrality of faith, tempered by a belief in free will and the importance of the individual; how both true believers and pragmatists, despite how often they despise one another, are both essential to actually getting things done; and that what ultimately matters is what you make of whatever situation in which you find yourself.

These are all profound lessons to take on board, especially in the drinking from a firehose environment of the Executive Office of the President, and in one's twenties. But this is not a dour self-help book: it is an insightful, beautifully written, and often laugh-out-loud funny account of how these insights were gleaned on the job, by observing Reagan at work and how he and his administration got things done, often against fierce political and media opposition. This is one of those books that I wish I could travel back in time and hand a copy to my twenty-year-old self—it would have saved a great deal of time and anguish, even for a person like me who has no interest whatsoever in politics. Fundamentally, it's about getting things done, and that's universally applicable.

People matter. Individuals matter. Long before Ronald Reagan was a radio broadcaster, actor, or politician, he worked summers as a lifeguard. Between 1927 and 1932, he personally saved 77 people from drowning. “There were seventy-seven people walking around northern Illinois who wouldn't have been there if it hadn't been for Reagan—and Reagan knew it.” It is not just a few exceptional people who change the world for the better, but all of those who do their jobs and overcome the challenges with which life presents them. Learning this can change anybody's life.

More recently, Mr. Robinson is the host of Uncommon Knowledge and co-founder of Ricochet.com.

December 2014 Permalink

Ronson, Jon. Them: Adventures with Extremists. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. ISBN 0-7432-3321-2.
Journalist and filmmaker Jon Ronson, intrigued by political and religious extremists in modern Western societies, decided to try to get inside their heads by hanging out with a variety of them as they went about their day to day lives on the fringe. Despite his being Jewish, a frequent contributor to the leftist Guardian newspaper, and often thought of as primarily a humorist, he found himself welcomed into the inner circle of characters as diverse as U.K. Muslim fundamentalist Omar Bakri, Randy Weaver and his daughter Rachel, Colonel Bo Gritz, who he visits while helping to rebuild the Branch Davidian church at Waco, a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan attempting to remake the image of that organisation with the aid of self-help books, and Dr. Ian Paisley on a missionary visit to Cameroon (where he learns why it's a poor idea to order the “porcupine” in the restaurant when visiting that country).

Ronson is surprised to discover that, as incompatible as the doctrines of these characters may be, they are nearly unanimous in believing the world is secretly ruled by a conspiracy of globalist plutocrats who plot their schemes in shadowy venues such as the Bilderberg conferences and the Bohemian Grove in northern California. So, the author decides to check this out for himself. He stalks the secretive Bilderberg meeting to a luxury hotel in Portugal and discovers to his dismay that the Bilderberg Group stalks back, and that the British Embassy can't help you when they're on your tail. Then, he gatecrashes the bizarre owl god ritual in the Bohemian Grove through the clever expedient of walking in right through the main gate.

The narrative is entertaining throughout, and generally sympathetic to the extremists he encounters, who mostly come across as sincere (if deluded), and running small-time operations on a limited budget. After becoming embroiled in a controversy during a tour of Canada by David Icke, who claims the world is run by a cabal of twelve foot tall shape-shifting reptilians, and was accused of anti-Semitic hate speech on the grounds that these were “code words” for a Zionist conspiracy, the author ends up concluding that sometimes a twelve foot tall alien lizard is just an alien lizard.

January 2006 Permalink

Ross, John F. Unintended Consequences. St. Louis: Accurate Press, 1996. ISBN 1-888118-04-0.
I don't know about you, but when I hear the phrases “first novel” and “small press” applied to the same book, I'm apt to emit an involuntary groan, followed by a wince upon hearing said volume is more than 860 pages in length. John Ross has created the rarest of exceptions to this prejudice. This is a big, sprawling, complicated novel with a multitude of characters (real and fictional) and a plot which spans most of the 20th century, and it works. What's even more astonishing is that it describes an armed insurrection against the United States government which is almost plausible. The information age has changed warfare at the national level beyond recognition; Ross explores what civil war might look like in the 21st century. The book is virtually free of typographical errors and I only noted a few factual errors—few bestsellers from the largest publishers manifest such attention to detail. Some readers may find this novel intensely offensive—the philosophy, morality, and tolerance for violence may be deemed “out of the mainstream” and some of the characterisations in the last 200 pages may be taken as embodying racial stereotypes—you have been warned.

December 2003 Permalink

Royce, Kenneth W. Hologram of Liberty. Ignacio, CO: Javelin Press, 1997. ISBN 1-888766-03-4.
The author, who also uses the nom de plume “Boston T. Party”, provides a survey of the tawdry machinations which accompanied the drafting and adoption of the United States Constitution, making the case that the document was deliberately designed to permit arbitrary expansion of federal power, with cosmetic limitations of power to persuade the states to ratify it. It is striking the extent to which not just vocal anti-federalists like Patrick Henry, but also Thomas Jefferson, anticipated precisely how the federal government would slip its bonds—through judiciary power and the creation of debt, both of which were promptly put into effect by John Marshall and Alexander Hamilton, respectively. Writing on this topic seems to have, as an occupational hazard, a tendency to rant. While Royce never ascends to the coruscating rhetoric of Lysander Spooner's No Treason, there is a great deal of bold type here, as well as some rather curious conspiracy theories (which are, in all fairness, presented for the reader's consideration, not endorsed by the author). Oddly, although chapter 11 discusses the 27th amendment (Congressional Pay Limitation)—proposed in 1789 as part of the original Bill of Rights, but not ratified until 1992—it is missing from the text of the Constitution in appendix C.

July 2004 Permalink

Royce, Kenneth W. Môlon Labé. Ignacio, CO: Javelin Press, [1997] 2004. ISBN 978-1-888766-07-3.
Legend has it that when, in 480 B.C. at Thermopylae, Emperor Xerxes I of Persia made an offer to the hopelessly outnumbered Greek defenders that they would be allowed to leave unharmed if they surrendered their weapons, King Leonidas I of Sparta responded “μολὼν λαβέ” (molōn labe!)—“Come and take them!” Ever since, this laconic phrase has been a classic (as well as classical) expression of defiance, even in the face of overwhelming enemy superiority. It took almost twenty-five centuries until an American general uttered an even more succinct reply to a demand for capitulation.

In this novel, the author, who uses the nom de plume “Boston T. Party”, sketches a scenario as to how an island of liberty might be established within a United States which is spiraling into collectivism; authoritarian rule over a docile, disarmed, and indoctrinated population; and economic collapse. The premise is essentially that of the Free State Project, before they beclowned themselves by choosing New Hampshire as their target state. Here, Wyoming is the destination of choice, and the author documents how it meets all criteria for an electoral coup d'état by a relatively small group of dedicated “relocators” and how the established population is likely to be receptive to individual liberty oriented policies once it's demonstrated that a state can actually implement them.

Libertarians are big thinkers, but when it comes to actually doing something which requires tedious and patient toil, not so much. They love to concentrate on grand scenarios of taking over the federal government of the United States and reversing a century of usurpation of liberty, but when it comes to organising at the county level, electing school boards, sheriffs, and justices of the peace, and then working up to state legislature members, they quickly get bored and retreat into ethereal arguments about this or that theoretical detail, or dreaming about how some bolt from the blue might bring them to power nationwide. Just as Stalin rescoped the Communist project from global revolution to “socialism in one country”, this book narrows the libertarian agenda to “liberty in one state”, with the hope that its success will be the spark which causes like-minded people in adjacent states to learn from the example and adopt similar policies themselves.

This is an optimistic view of a future which plausibly could happen. Regular readers of this chronicle know that my own estimation of the prospects for the United States on its present course is bleak—that's why I left in 1991 and have not returned except for family emergencies since then. I have taken to using the oracular phrase “Think Pinochet, not Reagan” when describing the prospects for the U.S. Let me now explain what I mean by that. Many conservatives assume that the economic circumstances in the U.S. are so self-evidently dire that all that is needed is a new “great communicator” like Ronald Reagan to explain them to the electorate in plain language to begin to turn the situation around. But they forget that Reagan, notwithstanding his world-historic achievements, only slowed the growth of the federal beast on his watch and, in fact, presided over the greatest peacetime expansion of the national debt in history (although, by present-day standards, the numbers look like pocket change). Further, Reagan did nothing to arrest the “long march through the institutions” which has now resulted in near-total collectivist/statist hegemony in the legacy media, academia from kindergarten to graduate and professional education, government bureaucracies at all levels, and even management of large corporations who are dependent upon government for their prosperity.

In an environment where the tax eaters will soon, if they don't already, outnumber and outvote the taxpayers, the tipping point has arrived, and the way to bet is on a sudden and complete economic collapse due to a “debt spiral”, possibly accompanied by hyperinflation as the Federal Reserve becomes the only buyer of U.S. Treasury debt left in the market.

When the reality of twenty dollar a gallon gasoline (rising a dollar a day as the hyperinflation exponential starts to kick in, then tens, hundreds, etc.) hits home; when three and four hour waits to fill up the tank become the norm after “temporary and emergency” price controls are imposed, and those who have provided for their own retirement see the fruits of their lifetime of labour and saving wiped out in a matter of weeks by runaway inflation, people will be looking for a way out. That's when the Man on the White Horse will appear.

I do not know who he will be—in all likelihood it's somebody entirely beneath the radar at the moment. “When it's steam engine time, it steam engines.” When it's Pinochet time, it Pinochets.

I do not know how this authoritarian ruler will come to power. Given the traditions of the United States, I doubt it will be by a military coup, but rather the election of a charismatic figure as President, along with a compliant legislature willing to rubber-stamp his agenda and enact whatever “enabling acts” he requests. Think something like Come Nineveh, Come Tyre (December 2008). But afterward the agenda will be clear: “clean out” the media, educators, judiciary, and bureaucrats who are disloyal. Defund the culturally destructive apparatus of the state. Sunset all of the programs which turn self-reliant citizens into wards of the state. Adjust the institutions of democracy to weight political influence according to contribution to the commonwealth. And then, one hopes (although that's not the way to bet), retire and turn the whole mess over to a new bunch of politicians who will proceed to foul things up again, but probably sufficiently slowly there will be fifty years or so of prosperity before the need to do it all over again.

When I talk about an “American Pinochet” I'm not implying that such an outcome would involve “disappeared people” or other sequelæ of authoritarian tyranny. But it would involve, at the bare minimum, revocation of tenure at all state-supported educational institutions, review of educators, media figures, judges, and government personnel by loyalty boards empowered to fire them and force them to seek employment in the productive sector of the economy, and a comprehensive review of the actions of all government agents who may have violated the natural rights of citizens.

I do not want this to happen! For my friends in the United States who have not heeded my advice over the last 15 years to get out while they can, I can say only that this is the best case scenario I can envision given the present circumstances. You don't want to know about my darker views of the future there—really, you don't.

This novel points to a better way—an alternative which, although improbable is not impossible, in which a small cadre of lovers of liberty might create a haven which attracts like-minded people, compounding the effect and mounting a challenge to the illegitimate national government. Along with the price of admission, you'll get tutorials in the essentials of individual liberty such as main battle rifles, jury nullification, hard money, strong encryption, and the balancing act between liberty and life-affirming morality.

What more can I say? Read this book.

March 2011 Permalink

Rumsfeld, Donald. Known and Unknown. New York: Sentinel, 2011. ISBN 978-1-595-23067-6.
In his career in public life and the private sector, spanning more than half a century, the author was:

  • A Naval aviator, reaching the rank of Captain.
  • A Republican member of the House of Representatives from Illinois spanning the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.
  • Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Economic Stabilization Program in the Nixon administration, both agencies he voted against creating while in Congress.
  • Ambassador to NATO in Brussels.
  • White House Chief of Staff for Gerald Ford.
  • Secretary of Defense in the Ford administration, the youngest person to have ever held that office.
  • CEO of G. D. Searle, a multinational pharmaceutical company, which he arranged to be sold to Monsanto.
  • Special Envoy to the Middle East during the Reagan administration.
  • National chairman of Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.
  • Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration, the oldest person to have ever held that office.

This is an extraordinary trajectory through life, and Rumsfeld's memoir is correspondingly massive: 832 pages in the hardcover edition. The parts which will be most extensively dissected and discussed are those dealing with his second stint at DOD, and the contentious issues regarding the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, treatment of detainees, interrogation methods, and other issues which made him a lightning rod during the administration of Bush fils. While it was interesting to see his recollection of how these consequential decisions were made, documented by extensive citations of contemporary records, I found the overall perspective of how decision-making was done over his career most enlightening. Nixon, Ford, and Bush all had very different ways of operating their administrations, all of which were very unlike those of an organisation such as NATO or a private company, and Rumsfeld, who experienced all of them in a senior management capacity, has much wisdom to share about what works and what doesn't, and how one must adapt management style and the flow of information to the circumstances which obtain in each structure.

Many supportive outside observers of the G. W. Bush presidency were dismayed at how little effort was made by the administration to explain its goals, strategy, and actions to the public. Certainly, the fact that it was confronted with a hostile legacy media which often seemed to cross the line from being antiwar to rooting for the other side didn't help, but Rumsfeld, the consummate insider, felt that the administration forfeited opportunity after opportunity to present its own case, even by releasing source documents which would in no way compromise national security but show the basis upon which decisions were made in the face of the kind of ambiguous and incomplete information which confronts executives in all circumstances.

The author's Web site provides a massive archive of source documents cited in the book, along with a copy of the book's end notes which links to them. Authors, this is how it's done! A transcript of an extended interview with the author is available; it was hearing this interview which persuaded me to buy the book. Having read it, I recommend it to anybody who wishes to comprehend how difficult it is to be in a position where one must make decisions in a fog of uncertainty, knowing the responsibility for them will rest solely with the decider, and that not to decide is a decision in itself which may have even more dire consequences. As much as Bush's national security team was reviled at the time, one had the sense that adults were in charge.

A well-produced Kindle edition is available, with the table of contents, footnotes, and source citations all properly linked to the text. One curiosity in the Kindle edition is that in the last 40% of the book the word “after” is capitalised everywhere it appears, even in the middle of a sentence. It seems that somebody in the production process accidentally hit “global replace” when attempting to fix a single instance. While such fat-finger errors happen all the time whilst editing documents, it's odd that a prestigious publisher (Sentinel is a member of the Penguin Group) would not catch such a blunder in a high profile book which went on to top the New York Times best seller list.

April 2011 Permalink

Ryn, Claes G. America the Virtuous. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2003. ISBN 0-7658-0219-8.
If you've been following political commentary of the more cerebral kind recently, you may have come across the term “neo-Jacobin” and thought “Whuzzat? I thought those guys went out with the tumbrels and guillotines.” Claes Ryn coined the term “neo-Jacobin” more than decade ago, and in this book explains the philosophical foundation, historical evolution, and potential consequences of that tendency for the U.S. and other Western societies. A neo-Jacobin is one who believes that present-day Western civilisation is based on abstract principles, knowable through pure reason, which are virtuous, right, and applicable to all societies at all times. This is precisely what the original Jacobins believed, with Jacobins old and new drawing their inspiration from Rousseau and John Locke. The claim of superiority of Western civilisation makes the neo-Jacobin position superficially attractive to conservatives, who find it more congenial than post-modernist villification of Western civilisation as the source of all evil in the world. But true conservatism, and the philosophy shared by most of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, rejects abstract theories and utopian promises in favour of time-proven solutions which take into account the imperfections of human beings and the institutions they create. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 6, “Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, the weaknesses, and the evils incident to society in every shape.” Sadly, we have not, and are unlikely to ever see the end of such theories as long as pointy-heads with no practical experience, but armed with intimidating prose, are able to persuade true believers they've come up with something better than the collective experience of every human who's ever lived on this planet before them. The French Revolution was the first modern attempt to discard history and remake the world based on rationality, but its lessons failed to deter numerous subsequent attempts, at an enormous cost in human life and misery, the most recently concluded such experiment being Soviet Communism. They all end badly. Ryn believes the United States is embarking on the next such foredoomed adventure, declaring its “universal values” (however much at variance with those of its founders) to be applicable everywhere, and increasingly willing to impose them by the sword “in the interest of the people” where persuasion proves inadequate. Although there is some mention of contemporary political figures, this is not at all a partisan argument, nor does it advocate (nor even present) an alternative agenda. Ryn believes the neo-Jacobin viewpoint so deeply entrenched in both U.S. political parties, media, think tanks, and academia that the choice of a candidate or outcome of an election is unlikely to make much difference. Although the focus is primarily on the U.S. (and rightly so, because only in the U.S. do the neo-Jacobins have access to the military might to impose their will on the rest of the world), precisely the same philosophy can be seen in the ongoing process of “European integration”, where a small group of unelected elite theorists are positioning themselves to dictate the “one best way” hundreds of millions of people in dozens of diverse cultures with thousands of years of history should live their lives. For example, take a look at the hideous draft “constitution” (PDF) for the European Union: such a charter of liberty and democracy that those attemping to put it into effect are doing everything in their power to deprive those who will be its subjects the chance to vote upon it. As Michael Müller, Social Democrat member of parliament in Germany said, “Sometimes the electorate has to be protected from making the wrong decisions.” The original Jacobins had their ways, as well.

August 2004 Permalink

Sacco, Joe. Palestine. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2001. ISBN 1-56097-432-X.

November 2003 Permalink

Sammon, Bill. At Any Cost. New York: Regnery Publishing, 2001. ISBN 0-89526-227-4.

June 2001 Permalink

Schulman, J. Neil. Stopping Power. Pahrump, NV: Pulpless.Com, [1994] 1999. ISBN 1-58445-057-6.
The paperback edition is immediately available from the link above. This and most of the author's other works are supposed to be available in electronic form for online purchase and download from his Web site, but the ordering links appear to be broken at the moment. Note that the 1999 paperback contains some material added since the original 1994 hardcover edition.

February 2004 Permalink

Sharansky, Natan with Ron Dermer. The Case for Democracy. New York: PublicAffairs, 2004. ISBN 1-58648-261-0.
Every now and then you come across a book which cuts through the fog of contemporary political discourse with pure clarity of thought. Well of course, the programmer peanut gallery shouts in unison, Sharansky was a computer scientist before becoming a Soviet dissident and political prisoner, then Israeli politician! In this book Sharansky draws a line of unambiguous binary distinction between “free societies” and “fear societies”. In a free society, you can walk into the town square and express your views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm (p. 41); in a “fear society”, you can't—it's that simple. Note that, as Sharansky is quick to observe, this counts as free societies without a trace of democracy, with dirigiste economies, and which discriminate against minorities and women—yet permit those who live there to protest these and other shortcomings without fear of recrimination. A society which he deems “free” may not be just, but a society which doesn't pass this most basic test of freedom is always unjust.

From this viewpoint, every compromise with fear societies and their tyrants in the interest of “stability” and “geopolitics” is always ill-considered, not just in terms of the human rights of those who live there, but in the self-interest of all free people. Fear societies require an enemy, internal or external, to unite their victims behind the tyrant, and history shows how fickle the affections of dictators can be when self-interest is at stake.

The disastrous example of funding Arafat's ugly dictatorship over the Palestinian people is dissected in detail, but the message is applicable everywhere diplomats argue for a “stable partner” over the inherent human right of people to own their own lives and govern themselves. Sharansky is forthright in saying it's better to face a democratically elected fanatic opponent than a dictator “we can do business with”, because ultimately the democratic regime will converge on meeting the needs of its citizens, while the dictator will focus on feathering his own nest at the expense of those he exploits.

If you're puzzled about which side to back in all the myriad conflicts around the globe, you could do a lot worse that simply picking the side which comes out best in Sharansky's “town square test”. Certainly, the world would be a better place if the diplomats who prattle on about “complexity” and realpolitik were hit over the head with the wisdom of an author who spent 13 years in Siberian labour camps rather than compromise his liberty.

May 2005 Permalink

Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man. New York: Harper Perennial, [2007] 2008. ISBN 978-0-06-093642-6.
The conventional narrative of the Great Depression and New Deal is well-defined, and generations have been taught the story of how financial hysteria and lack of regulation led to the stock market crash of October 1929, which tipped the world economy into depression. The do-nothing policies of Herbert Hoover and his Republican majority in Congress allowed the situation to deteriorate until thousands of banks had failed, unemployment rose to around a quarter of the work force, collapsing commodity prices bankrupted millions of farmers, and world trade and credit markets froze, exporting the Depression from the U.S. to developed countries around the world. Upon taking office in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt embarked on an aggressive program of government intervention in the economy, going off the gold standard, devaluing the dollar, increasing government spending and tax rates on corporations and the wealthy by breathtaking amounts, imposing comprehensive regulation on every aspect of the economy, promoting trade unions, and launching public works and job creation programs on a massive scale. Although neither financial markets nor unemployment recovered to pre-crash levels, and full recovery did not occur until war production created demand for all industry could produce, at least FDR's New Deal kept things from getting much worse, kept millions from privation and starvation, and just possibly, by interfering with the free market in ways never before imagined in America, preserved it, and democracy, from the kind of revolutionary upheaval seen in the Soviet Union, Italy, Japan, and Germany. The New Deal pitted plutocrats, big business, and Wall Street speculators against the “forgotten man”—the people who farmed their land, toiled in the factories, and strove to pay their bills and support their families and, for once, allied with the Federal Government, the little guys won.

This is a story of which almost any student having completed an introductory course in American history can recount the key points. It is a tidy story, an inspiring one, and both a justification for an activist government and demonstration that such intervention can work, even in the most dire of economic situations. But is it accurate? In this masterful book, based largely on primary and often contemporary sources, the author makes a forceful argument that is is not—she does not dispute the historical events, most of which did indeed occur as described above, but rather the causal narrative which has been erected, largely after the fact, to explain them. Looking at what actually happened and when, the tidily wrapped up package begins to unravel and discordant pieces fall out.

For example, consider the crash of 1929. Prior to the crash, unemployment was around three percent (the Federal Government did not compile unemployment figures at the time, and available sources differ in methodology and hence in the precise figures). Following the crash, unemployment began to rise steeply and had reached around 9% by the end of 1929. But then the economy began to recover and unemployment fell. President Hoover was anything but passive: the Great Engineer launched a flurry of initiatives, almost all disastrously misguided. He signed the Hawley-Smoot Tariff (over the objection of an open letter signed by 1,028 economists and published in the New York Times). He raised taxes and, diagnosing the ills of the economy as due to inflation, encouraged the Federal Reserve to contract the money supply. To counter falling wages, he jawboned industry leaders to maintain wage levels which predictably resulted in layoffs instead of reduced wages. It was only after these measures took hold that the economy, which before seemed to be headed into a 1921-like recession, nosed over and began to collapse toward the depths of the Depression.

There was a great deal of continuity between the Hoover and early Roosevelt administrations. Roosevelt did not rescind Hoover's disastrous policies, but rather piled on intrusive regulation of agriculture and industry, vastly increased Federal spending (he almost doubled the Federal budget in his first term), increased taxes to levels before unimaginable in peacetime, and directly attacked private enterprise in sectors such as electrical power generation and distribution, which he felt should be government enterprises. Investment, the author contends, is the engine of economic recovery, and Roosevelt's policies resulted in a “capital strike” (a phrase used at the time), as investors weighed their options and decided to sit on their money. Look at this way: suppose you're a plutocrat and have millions at your disposal. You can invest them in a business, knowing that if the business fails you're out your investment, but that if it generates a profit the government will tax away more than 75% of your gains. Or, you can put your money in risk- and tax-free government bonds and be guaranteed a return. Which would you choose?

The story of the Great Depression is told largely by following a group of individuals through the era. Many of the bizarre aspects of the time appear here: Father Divine; businesses and towns printing their own scrip currency; the Schechter Brothers kosher poultry butchers taking on FDR's NRA and utterly defeating it in the Supreme Court; the prosecution of Andrew Mellon, Treasury Secretary to three Presidents, for availing himself of tax deductions the government admitted were legal; and utopian “planned communities” such as Casa Grande in Arizona, where displaced farmers found themselves little more than tenants in a government operation resembling Stalin's collective farms.

From the tone of some of the reaction to the original publication of this book, you might think it a hard-line polemic longing to return to the golden days of the Coolidge administration. It is nothing of the sort. This is a fact-based re-examination of the Great Depression and the New Deal which, better than any other book I've read, re-creates the sense of those living through it, when nobody really understood what was happening and people acting with the best of intentions (and the author imputes nothing else to either Hoover or Roosevelt) could not see what the consequences of their actions would be. In fact, Roosevelt changed course so many times that it is difficult to discern a unifying philosophy from his actions—sadly, this very pragmatism created an uncertainty in the economy which quite likely lengthened and deepened the Depression. This paperback edition contains an afterword in which the author responds to the principal criticisms of the original work.

It is hard to imagine a more timely book. Since this book was published, the U.S. have experienced a debt crisis, real estate bubble collapse, sharp stock market correction, rapidly rising unemployment and economic contraction, with an activist Republican administration taking all kinds of unprecedented actions to try to avert calamity. A Democratic administration, radiating confidence in itself and the power of government to make things better, is poised to take office, having promised programs in its electoral campaign which are in many ways reminiscent of those enacted in FDR's “hundred days”. Apart from the relevance of the story to contemporary events, this book is a pure delight to read.

December 2008 Permalink

Simon, Roger L. Blacklisting Myself. New York: Encounter Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59403-247-9.
The author arrived in Hollywood in the tumultuous year of 1968, fired by his allegiance to the New Left and experience in the civil rights struggle in the South to bring his activism to the screen and, at the same time, driven by his ambition to make it big in the movie business. Unlike the multitudes who arrive starry-eyed in tinseltown only to be frustrated trying to “break in”, Simon succeeded, both as a screenwriter (he was nominated for an Oscar for his screen adaptation of Enemies: A Love Story and as a novelist, best known for his Moses Wine detective fiction. One of the Moses Wine novels, The Big Fix, made it to the screen, with Simon also writing the screenplay. Such has been his tangible success that the author today lives in the Hollywood Hills house once shared by Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe.

This is in large part a memoir of a life in Hollywood, with pull-no-punches anecdotes about the celebrities and players in the industry, and the often poisonous culture of the movie business. But is also the story of the author's political evolution from the New Left through Hollywood radical chic (he used to hang with the Black Panthers) and eventual conversion to neo-conservatism which has made him a “Hollywood apostate” and which he describes on the first page of the book as “the ideological equivalent of a sex change operation”. He describes how two key events—the O. J. Simpson trial and the terrorist attacks of 2001—caused him to question assumptions he'd always taken as received wisdom and how, once he did start to think for himself instead of nodding in agreement with the monolithic leftist consensus in Hollywood, began to perceive and be appalled by the hypocrisy not only in the beliefs of his colleagues but between their lifestyles and the values they purported to champion. (While Simon has become a staunch supporter of efforts, military and other, to meet the threat of Islamic aggression and considers himself a fiscal conservative, he remains as much on the left as ever when it comes to social issues. But, as he describes, any dissent whatsoever from the Hollywood leftist consensus is enough to put one beyond the pale among the smart set, and possibly injure the career of even somebody as well-established as he.)

While never suggesting that he or anybody else has been the victim of a formal blacklist like that of suspected Communist sympathisers in the 1940s and 1950s, he does describe how those who dissent often feign support for leftist causes or simply avoid politically charged discussions to protect their careers. Simon was one of the first Hollywood figures to jump in as a blogger, and has since reinvented himself as a New Media entrepreneur, founding Pajamas Media and its associated ventures; he continues to actively blog. An early adopter of technology since the days of the Osborne 1 and CompuServe forums, he believes that new technology provides the means for an end-run around Hollywood groupthink, but by itself is insufficient (p. 177):

The answer to the problem of Hollywood for those of a more conservative or centrist bent is to go make movies of their own. Of course, to do so means finding financing and distribution. Today's technologies are making that simpler. Cameras and editing equipment cost a pittance. Distribution is at hand for the price of a URL. All that's left is the creativity. Unfortunately, that's the difficult part.

A video interview with the author is available.

February 2009 Permalink

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, [1905] 2003. ISBN 1-884365-30-2.
A century ago, in 1905, the socialist weekly The Appeal to Reason began to run Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle in serial form. The editors of the paper had commissioned the work, giving the author $500 to investigate the Chicago meat packing industry and conditions of its immigrant workers. After lengthy negotiations, Macmillan rejected the novel, and Sinclair took the book to Doubleday, which published it in 1906. The book became an immediate bestseller, has remained in print ever since, spurred the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act in the very year of its publication, and launched Sinclair's career as the foremost American muckraker. The book edition published in 1906 was cut substantially from the original serial in The Appeal to Reason, which remained out of print until 1988 and the 2003 publication of this slightly different version based upon a subsequent serialisation in another socialist periodical.

Five chapters and about one third of the text of the original edition presented here were cut in the 1906 Doubleday version, which is considered the canonical text. This volume contains an introduction written by a professor of American Literature at that august institution of higher learning, the Pittsburg State University of Pittsburg, Kansas, which inarticulately thrashes about trying to gin up a conspiracy theory behind the elisions and changes in the book edition. The only problem with this theory is, as is so often the case with postmodern analyses by Literature professors (even those who are not “anti-corporate, feminist” novelists), the facts. It's hard to make a case for “censorship”, when the changes to the text were made by the author himself, who insisted over the rest of his long and hugely successful career that the changes were not significant to the message of the book. Given that The Appeal to Reason, which had funded the project, stopped running the novel two thirds of the way through due to reader complaints demanding news instead of fiction, one could argue persuasively that cutting one third was responding to reader feedback from an audience highly receptive to the subject matter. Besides, what does it mean to “censor” a work of fiction, anyway?

One often encounters mentions of The Jungle which suggest those making them aren't aware it's a novel as opposed to factual reportage, which probably indicates the writer hasn't read the book, or only encountered excerpts years ago in some college course. While there's no doubt the horrors Sinclair describes are genuine, he uses the story of the protagonist, Jurgis Rudkos, as a Pilgrim's Progress to illustrate them, often with implausible coincidences and other story devices to tell the tale. Chapters 32 through the conclusion are rather jarring. What was up until that point a gritty tale of life on the streets and in the stockyards of Chicago suddenly mutates into a thinly disguised socialist polemic written in highfalutin English which would almost certainly go right past an uneducated immigrant just a few years off the boat; it reminded me of nothing so much as John Galt's speech near the end of Atlas Shrugged. It does, however, provide insight into the utopian socialism of the early 1900s which, notwithstanding many present-day treatments, was directed as much against government corruption as the depredations of big business.

April 2005 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil. Lever Action. Las Vegas: Mountain Media, 2001. ISBN 0-9670259-1-5.

March 2002 Permalink

Smith, L. Neil. Down with Power. Rockville, MD: Phoenix Pick, 2012. ISBN 978-1-61242-055-4.
In the first chapter of this superb book, the author quotes Scott Adams, creator of “Dilbert”, describing himself as being “a libertarian minus the crazy stuff”, and then proceeds to ask precisely what is crazy about adopting a strict interpretation of the Zero Aggression Principle:

A libertarian is a person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being for any reason whatever; nor will a libertarian advocate the initiation of force, or delegate it to anyone else.

Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not. Those who fail to act consistently with it are not libertarians, regardless of what they may claim. (p. 20)

The subsequent chapters sort out the details of what this principle implies for contentious issues such as war powers; torture; money and legal tender laws; abortion; firearms and other weapons; “animal rights”; climate change (I do not use scare quotes on this because climate change is real and has always happened and always will—it is the hysteria over anthropogenic contributions to an eternally fluctuating process driven mostly by the Sun which is a hoax); taxation; national defence; prohibition in all of its pernicious manifestations; separation of marriage, science, and medicine from the state; immigration; intellectual property; and much more. Smith's viewpoint on these questions is largely informed by Robert LeFevre, whose wisdom he had the good fortune to imbibe at week-long seminar in 1972. (I encountered LeFevre just once, at a libertarian gathering in Marin County, California [believe it or not, such things exist, or at least existed] around 1983, and it was this experience that transformed me from a “nerf libertarian” who was prone to exclaiming “Oh, come on!” whilst reading Rothbard to the flinty variety who would go on to author the Evil Empires bumper sticker.) Sadly, Bob LeFevre is no longer with us, but if you wish to be inoculated with the burning fever of liberty which drove him and inspired those who heard him speak, this book is as close as you can come today to meeting him in person. The naïve often confuse libertarians with conservatives: to be sure, libertarians often wish to impede “progressives” whose agenda amounts to progress toward serfdom and wish, at the least, for a roll-back of the intrusions upon individual liberty which were the hallmark of the twentieth century. But genuine libertarianism, not the nerf variety, is a deeply radical doctrine which calls into question the whole leader/follower, master/slave, sovereign/subject, and state/citizen structure which has characterised human civilisation ever since hominids learned to talk and the most glib of them became politicians (“Put meat at feet of Glub and Glub give you much good stuff”).

And here is where I both quibble with and enthusiastically endorse the author's agenda. The quibble is that I fear that our species, formed by thousands of generations of hunter/gatherer and agricultural experience, has adapted, like other primates, to a social structure in which most individuals delegate decision making and even entrust their lives to “leaders” chosen by criteria deeply wired into our biology and not remotely adapted to the challenges we face today and in the future. (Hey, it could be worse: peacocks select for the most overdone tail—it's probably a blessing nakes don't have tails—imagine trying to fit them all into a joint session of Congress.) The endorsement is that I don't think it's possible to separate the spirit of individualism which is at the heart of libertarianism from the frontier. There were many things which contributed to the first American war of secession and the independent republics which emerged from it, but I believe their unique nature was in substantial part due to the fact that they were marginal settlements on the edge of an unexplored and hostile continent, where many families were entirely on their own and on the front lines, confronted by the vicissitudes of nature and crafty enemies.

Thomas Jefferson worried that as the population of cities grew compared to that of the countryside, the ethos of self-sufficiency would be eroded and be supplanted by dependency, and that this corruption and reliance upon authority founded, at its deepest level, upon the initiation of force, would subvert the morality upon which self-government must ultimately rely. In my one encounter with Robert LeFevre, he disdained the idea that “maybe if we could just get back to the Constitution” everything would be fine. Nonsense, he said: to a substantial degree the Constitution is the problem—after all, look at how it's been “interpreted” to permit all of the absurd abrogations of individual liberty and natural law since its dubious adoption in 1789. And here, I think the author may put a bit too much focus on documents (which can, have been, and forever will be) twisted by lawyers into things they never were meant to say, and too little on the frontier.

What follows is both a deeply pessimistic and unboundedly optimistic view of the human and transhuman prospect. I hope I don't lose you in the loop-the-loop. Humans, as presently constituted, have wired-in baggage which renders most of us vulnerable to glib forms of persuasion by “leaders” (who are simply those more talented than others in persuasion). The more densely humans are packed, and the greater the communication bandwidth available to them (in particular, one to many media), the more vulnerable they are to such “leadership”. Individual liberty emerges in frontier societies: those where each person and each family must be self-sufficient, without any back-up other than their relations to neighbours, but with an unlimited upside in expanding the human presence into new territory. The old America was a frontier society; the new America is a constrained society, turning inward upon itself and devouring its best to appease its worst.

So, I'm not sure this or that amendment to a document which is largely ignored will restore liberty in an environment where a near-majority of the electorate receive net benefits from the minority who pay most of the taxes. The situation in the United States, and on Earth, may well be irreversible. But the human and posthuman destiny is much, much larger than that. Perhaps we don't need a revision of governance documents as much as the opening of a frontier. Then people will be able to escape the stranglehold where seven eighths of all of their work is confiscated by the thugs who oppress them and instead use all of their sapient facilities to their own ends. As a sage author once said:

Freedom, immortality, and the stars!

Works for me. Free people expand at a rate which asymptotically approaches the speed of light. Coercive government and bureaucracy grow logarithmically, constrained by their own internal dissipation. We win; they lose.

In the Kindle edition the index is just a list of page numbers. Since the Kindle edition includes real page numbers, you can type in the number from the index, but that's not as convenient as when index citations are linked directly to references in the text.

October 2012 Permalink

Smith, Lee. The Strong Horse. New York: Doubleday, 2010. ISBN 978-0-385-51611-2.
After the attacks upon the U.S. in September 2001, the author, who had been working as an editor in New York City, decided to find out for himself what in the Arab world could provoke such indiscriminate atrocities. Rather than turn to the works of establishment Middle East hands or radical apologists for Islamist terror, he pulled up stakes and moved to Cairo and later Beirut, spending years there living in the community, meeting people from all walks of life from doormen, cab drivers, students, intellectuals, clerics, politicians, artists, celebrities, and more. This book presents his conclusions in a somewhat unusual form: it is hard to categorise—it's part travelogue; collection of interviews; survey of history, exploration of Arab culture, art, and literature; and geopolitical analysis. What is clear is that this book is a direct assault upon the consensus view of the Middle East among Western policymakers which, if correct (and the author is very persuasive indeed) condemns many of the projects of “democratisation”, “peace processes”, and integration of the nations of the region into a globalised economy to failure; it calls for an entirely different approach to the Arab world, one from which many Western feel-good diplomats and politically correct politicians will wilt in horror.

In short, Smith concludes that the fundamental assumption of the program whose roots can be traced from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush—that all people, and Arabs in particular, strive for individual liberty, self-determination, and a civil society with democratically elected leaders—is simply false: those are conditions which have been purchased by Western societies over centuries at the cost of great bloodshed and suffering by the actions of heroes. This experience has never occurred in the Arab world, and consequently its culture is entirely different. One can attempt to graft the trappings of Western institutions onto an Arab state, but without a fundamental change in the culture, the graft will not take and before long things will be just as before.

Let me make clear a point the author stresses. There is not the slightest intimation in this book that there is some kind of racial or genetic difference (which are the same thing) between Arabs and Westerners. Indeed, such a claim can be immediately falsified by the large community of Arabs who have settled in the West, assimilated themselves to Western culture, and become successful in all fields of endeavour. But those are Arabs, often educated in the West, who have rejected the culture in which they were born, choosing consciously to migrate to a very different culture they find more congenial to the way they choose to live their lives. What about those who stay (whether by preference, or due to lack of opportunity to emigrate)?

No, Arabs are not genetically different in behaviour, but culture is just as heritable as any physical trait, and it is here the author says we must look to understand the region. The essential dynamic of Arab political culture and history, as described by the 14th century Islamic polymath Ibn Khaldun, is that of a strong leader establishing a dynasty or power structure to which subjects submit, but which becomes effete and feckless over time, only to eventually be overthrown violently by a stronger force (often issuing from desert nomads in the Arab experience), which begins the cycle again. The author (paraphrasing Osama bin Laden) calls this the “strong horse” theory: Arab populations express allegiance to the strongest perceived power, and expect changes in governance to come through violent displacement of a weaker existing order.

When you look at things this way, many puzzles regarding the Middle East begin to make more sense. First of all, the great success which imperial powers over the millennia, including the Persian, Ottoman, French, and British empires, have had in subduing and ruling Arabs without substantial internal resistance is explained: the empire was seen as the strong horse and Arab groups accepted subordination to it. Similarly, the ability of sectarian minorities to rule on a long-term basis in modern states such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq is explained, as is the great stability of authoritarian regimes in the region—they usually fall only when deposed by an external force or by a military coup, not due to popular uprisings.

Rather than presenting a lengthy recapitulation of the arguments in the book filtered through my own comprehension and prejudices, this time I invite you to read a comprehensive exposition of the author's arguments in his own words, in a transcript of a three hour interview by Hugh Hewitt. If you're interested in the topics raised so far, please read the interview and return here for some closing comments.

Is the author's analysis correct? I don't know—certainly it is at variance with that of a mass of heavy-hitting intellectuals who have studied the region for their entire careers and, if correct, means that much of Western policy toward the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire has been at best ill-informed and at worst tragically destructive. All of the debate about Islam, fundamentalist Islam, militant Islam, Islamism, Islamofascism, etc., in Smith's view, misses the entire point. He contends that Islam has nothing, or next to nothing, to do with the present conflict. Islam, born in the Arabian desert, simply canonised, with a few minor changes, a political and social regime already extant in Arabia for millennia before the Prophet, based squarely on rule by the strong horse. Islam, then, is not the source of Arab culture, but a consequence of it, and its global significance is as a vector which inoculates Arab governance by the strong horse into other cultures where Islam takes root. The extent to which the Arab culture is adopted depends upon the strength and nature of the preexisting local culture into which Islam is introduced: certainly the culture and politics of Islamic Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia are something very different from that of Arab nations, and from each other.

The author describes democracy as “a flower, not a root”. An external strong horse can displace an Arab autocracy and impose elections, a legislature, and other trappings of democracy, but without the foundations of the doctrine of natural rights, the rule of law, civil society, free speech and the tolerance of dissent, freedom of conscience, and the separation of the domain of the state from the life of the individual, the result is likely to be “one person, one vote, one time” and a return to strong horse government as has been seen so many times in the post-colonial era. Democracy in the West was the flowering of institutions and traditions a thousand years in the making, none of which have ever existed in the Arab world. Those who expect democracy to create those institutions, the author would argue, suffer from an acute case of inverting causes and effects.

It's tempting to dismiss Arab culture as described here as “dysfunctional”, but (if the analysis be correct), I don't think that's a fair characterisation. Arab governance looks dysfunctional through the eyes of Westerners who judge it based on the values their own cultures cherish, but then turnabout's fair play, and Arabs have many criticisms of the West which are equally well founded based upon their own values. I'm not going all multicultural here—there's no question that by almost any objective measure such as per capita income; industrial and agricultural output; literacy and education; treatment of women and minorities; public health and welfare; achievements in science, technology, and the arts; that the West has drastically outperformed Arab nations, which would be entirely insignificant in the world economy absent their geological good fortune to be sitting on top of an ocean of petroleum. But again, that's applying Western metrics to Arab societies. When Nasser seized power in Egypt, he burned with a desire to do the will of the Egyptian people. And like so many people over the millennia who tried to get something done in Egypt, he quickly discovered that the will of the people was to be left alone, and the will of the bureaucracy was to go on shuffling paper as before, counting down to their retirement as they'd done for centuries. In other words, by their lights, the system was working and they valued stability over the risks of change. There is also what might be described as a cultural natural selection effect in action here. In a largely static authoritarian society, the ambitious, the risk-takers, and the innovators are disproportionately prone to emigrate to places which value those attributes, namely the West. This deprives those who remain of the élite which might improve the general welfare, resulting in a population even more content with the status quo.

The deeply pessimistic message of this book is that neither wishful thinking, soaring rhetoric, global connectivity, precision guided munitions, nor armies of occupation can do very much to change a culture whose general way of doing things hasn't changed fundamentally in more than two millennia. While change may be possible, it certainly isn't going to happen on anything less than the scale of several generations, and then only if the cultural transmission belt from generation to generation can be interrupted. Is this depressing? Absolutely, but if this is the case, better to come to terms with it and act accordingly than live in a fantasy world where one's actions may lead to catastrophe for both the West and the Arab world.

March 2010 Permalink

Sowell, Thomas. The Quest for Cosmic Justice. New York: Touchstone Books, 1999. ISBN 0-684-86463-0.

October 2003 Permalink

Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005. ISBN 1-59403-086-3.
One of the most pernicious calumnies directed at black intellectuals in the United States is that they are “not authentic”—that by speaking standard English, assimilating into the predominant culture, and seeing learning and hard work as the way to get ahead, they have somehow abandoned their roots in the ghetto culture. In the title essay in this collection, Thomas Sowell demonstrates persuasively that this so-called “black culture” owes its origins, in fact, not to anything blacks brought with them from Africa or developed in times of slavery, but rather to a white culture which immigrants to the American South from marginal rural regions of Britain imported and perpetuated long after it had died out in the mother country. Members of this culture were called “rednecks” and “crackers” in Britain long before they arrived in America, and they proceeded to install this dysfunctional culture in much of the rural South. Blacks arriving from Africa, stripped of their own culture, were immersed into this milieu, and predictably absorbed the central values and characteristics of the white redneck culture, right down to patterns of speech which can be traced back to the Scotland, Wales, and Ulster of the 17th century. Interestingly, free blacks in the North never adopted this culture, and were often well integrated into the community until the massive northward migration of redneck blacks (and whites) from the South spawned racial prejudice against all blacks. While only 1/3 of U.S. whites lived in the South, 90% of blacks did, and hence the redneck culture which was strongly diluted as southern whites came to the northern cities, was transplanted whole as blacks arrived in the north and were concentrated in ghetto communities.

What makes this more than an anthropological and historical footnote is, that as Sowell describes, the redneck culture does not work very well—travellers in the areas of Britain it once dominated and in the early American South described the gratuitous violence, indolence, disdain for learning, and a host of other characteristics still manifest in the ghetto culture today. This culture is alien to the blacks who it mostly now afflicts, and is nothing to be proud of. Scotland, for example, largely eradicated the redneck culture, and became known for learning and enterprise; it is this example, Sowell suggests, that blacks could profitably follow, rather than clinging to a bogus culture which was in fact brought to the U.S. by those who enslaved their ancestors.

Although the title essay is the most controversial and will doubtless generate the bulk of commentary, it is in fact only 62 pages in this book of 372 pages. The other essays discuss the experience of “middleman minorities” such as the Jews, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Lebanese in Africa, overseas Chinese, etc.; the actual global history of slavery, as a phenomenon in which people of all races, continents, and cultures have been both slaves and slaveowners; the history of ethnic German communities around the globe and whether the Nazi era was rooted in the German culture or an aberration; and forgotten success stories in black education in the century prior to the civil rights struggles of the mid 20th century. The book concludes with a chapter on how contemporary “visions” and agendas can warp the perception of history, discarding facts which don't fit and obscuring lessons from the past which can be vital in deciding what works and what doesn't in the real world. As with much of Sowell's work, there are extensive end notes (more than 60 pages, with 289 notes on the title essay alone) which contain substantial “meat” along with source citations; they're well worth reading over after the essays.

July 2005 Permalink

Sowell, Thomas. Basic Economics. 2nd. ed. New York: Basic Books, [2004] 2007. ISBN 978-0-465-08145-5.
Want to know what's my idea of a financial paradise? A democratic country where the electorate understands the material so lucidly explained in this superb book. Heck, I'd settle for a country where even a majority of the politicians grasped these matters. In fewer than four hundred pages, without a single graph or equation, the author explains the essentials of economics, which he defines as “the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses”. While economics is a large and complex field with many different points of view, he argues that there are basic economic principles upon which virtually all economists agree, across the spectrum from libertarians to Marxists, that these fundamentals apply to all forms of economic and social organisation—feudalism, capitalism, fascism, socialism, communism, whatever—and in all times: millennia of human history provide abundant evidence for the functioning of these basic laws in every society humans have ever created.

But despite these laws being straightforward (if perhaps somewhat counterintuitive until you learn to “think like an economist”), the sad fact is that few citizens and probably even a smaller fraction of politicians comprehend them. In their ignorance, they confuse intentions and goals (however worthy) with incentives and their consequences, and the outcomes of their actions, however predictable, only serve to illustrate the cost when economic principles are ignored. As the author concludes on the last page:

Perhaps the most important distinction is between what sounds good and what works. The former may be sufficient for purposes of politics or moral preening, but not for the economic advancement of people in general or the poor in particular. For those willing to stop and think, basic economics provides some tools for evaluating policies and proposals in terms of their logical implications and empirical consequences.

And this is precisely what the intelligent citizen needs to know in these times of financial peril. I know of no better source to acquire such knowledge than this book.

I should note that due to the regrettably long bookshelf latency at Fourmilab, I read the second edition of this work after the third edition became available. Usually I wouldn't bother to mention such a detail, but while the second edition I read was 438 pages in length, the third is a 640 page ker-whump on the desktop. Now, my experience in reading the works of Thomas Sowell over the decades is that he doesn't waste words and that every paragraph encapsulates wisdom that's worth taking away, even if you need to read it four or five times over a few days to let it sink in. But still, I'm wary of books which grow to such an extent between editions. I read the second edition, and my unconditional endorsement of it as something you absolutely have to read as soon as possible is based upon the text I read. In all probability the third edition is even better—Dr. Sowell understands the importance of reputation in a market economy better than almost anybody, but I can neither evaluate nor endorse something I haven't yet read. That said, I'm confident that regardless of which edition of this book you read, you will close it as a much wiser citizen of a civil society and participant in a free economy than when you opened the volume.

September 2008 Permalink

Sowell, Thomas. The Housing Boom and Bust. 2nd. ed. New York: Basic Books, [2009] 2010. ISBN 978-0-465-01986-1.
If you rely upon the statist legacy media for information regarding the ongoing financial crisis triggered by the collapse of the real estate bubble in certain urban markets in the United States, everything you know is wrong. This book is a crystal-clear antidote to the fog of disinformation emanating from the politicians and their enablers in media and academia.

If, as five or six people still do, you pay attention to the legacy media in the United States, you'll hear that there was a nationwide crisis in the availability of affordable housing, and that government moved to enable more people to become homeowners. The lack of regulation caused lenders to make risky loans and resell them as “toxic assets” which nobody could actually value, and these flimsy pieces of paper were sold around the world as if they were really worth something.

Everything you know is wrong.

In fact, there never was a nationwide affordable housing crisis. The percentage of family income spent on housing nationwide fell in the nineties and oughties. The bubble market in real estate was largely confined to a small number of communities which had enacted severe restrictions upon development that reduced the supply of housing—in fact, of 26 urban areas rated as “severely unaffordable”, 23 had adopted “smart growth” policies. (Rule of thumb: whenever government calls something “smart”, it's a safe bet that it's dumb.)

But the bubble was concentrated in the collectivist enclaves where the chattering class swarm and multiply: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, and hence featured in the media, ignoring markets such as Dallas and Houston where, in the absence of limits on development, housing prices were stable.

As Eric Sevareid observed, “The chief cause of problems is solutions”, and this has never been better demonstrated than in the sorry sequence of interventions in the market documented here. Let's briefly sketch the “problems” and “solutions” which, over decades, were the proximate cause of the present calamity.

First of all, back in the New Deal, politicians decided the problem of low rates of home ownership and the moribund construction industry of the Depression could be addressed by the solution of government (or government sponsored) institutions to provide an aftermarket in mortgages by banks, which could then sell the mortgages on their books and free up the capital to make new loans. When the economy started to grow rapidly after the end of World War II, this solution caused a boom in residential construction, enabling working class families to buy new houses in the rapidly expanding suburbs. This was seen as a problem, “suburban sprawl”, to which local politicians, particularly in well-heeled communities on the East and West coasts, responded with the solution of enacting land use restrictions (open space, minimum lot sizes, etc.) to keep the “essential character” of their communities from being changed by an invasion of hoi polloi and their houses made of ticky-tacky, all the same. This restriction of the supply of housing predictably led to a rapid rise in the price of housing in these markets (while growth-oriented markets without such restrictions experienced little nor no housing price increases, even at the height of the bubble). The increase in the price of housing priced more and more people out of the market, particularly younger first-time home buyers and minorities, which politicians proclaimed as an “affordable housing crisis”, and supposed, contrary to readily-available evidence, was a national phenomenon. They enacted solutions, such as the Community Reinvestment Act, regulation which required lenders to effectively meet quotas of low-income and minority mortgage lending, which compelled lenders to make loans their usual standards of risk evaluation would have caused them to decline. Expanding the pool of potential home buyers increased the demand for housing, and with the supply fixed due to political restrictions on development, the increase in housing prices inevitably accelerated, pricing more people out of the market. Politicians responded to this problem by encouraging lenders to make loans which would have been considered unthinkably risky just a few years before: no down payment loans, loans with a low-ball “teaser” rate for the first few years which reset to the prevailing rate thereafter, and even “liar loans” where the borrower was not required to provide documentation of income or net worth. These forms of “creative financing” were, in fact, highly-leveraged bets upon the housing bubble continuing—all would lead to massive defaults in the case of declining or even stable valuations of houses.

Because any rational evaluation of the risk of securities based upon the aggregation of these risky loans would cause investors to price them accordingly, securities of Byzantine complexity were created which allowed financial derivatives based upon them, with what amounted to insurance provided by counterparty institutions, which could receive high credit ratings by the government-endorsed rating agencies (whose revenue stream depended upon granting favourable ratings to these securities). These “mortgage-backed securities” were then sold all around the world, and ended up in the portfolios of banks, pension funds, and individual investors, including this scrivener (saw it coming; sold while the selling was good).

Then, as always happens in financial bubbles, the music stopped. Back in the days of ticker tape machines, you could hear the popping of a bubble. The spasmodic buying by the greatest fools of all would suddenly cease its clatter and an ominous silence would ensue. Then, like the first raindrops which presage a great deluge, you'd hear the tick-tick-tick of sell orders being filled below the peak price. And then the machine would start to chatter in earnest as sell orders flooded into the market, stops were hit and taken out, and volume exploded to the downside. So it has always been, and so it will always be. And so it was in this case, although in the less liquid world of real estate it took a little longer to play out.

As you'll note in these comments, and also in Sowell's book, the words “politicians” and “government” appear disproportionately as the subject of sentences which describe each step in how a supposed problem became a solution which became a problem. The legacy media would have you believe that “predatory lenders”, “greedy Wall Street firms”, “speculators”, and other nefarious private actors are the causes of the present financial crisis. These players certainly exist, and they've been evident as events have been played out, but the essence of the situation is that all of them are creations and inevitable consequences of the financial environment created by politicians who are now blaming others for the mess they created and calling for more “regulation” by politicians (as if, in the long and sorry history of regulation, it has ever made anything more “regular” than the collective judgement of millions of people freely trading with one another in an open market).

There are few people as talented as Thomas Sowell when it comes to taking a complex situation spanning decades and crossing the boundary of economics and politics, and then dissecting it out into the essentials like an anatomy teacher, explaining in clear as light prose the causes and effects, and the unintended and yet entirely predictable consequences (for those acquainted with basic economics) which led to the present mess. This is a masterpiece of such work, and anybody who's interested in the facts and details behind the obfuscatory foam emerging from the legacy media will find this book an essential resource.

Dr. Sowell's books tend to be heavily footnoted, with not only source citations but also expansions upon the discussion in the main text. The present volume uses a different style, with a lengthy “Sources” section, a full 19% of the book, listing citations for items in the text in narrative form, chapter by chapter. Expressing these items in text, without the abbreviations normally used in foot- or end-notes balloons the length of this section and introduces much redundancy. Perhaps it's due to the publisher feeling a plethora of footnotes puts off the causal reader, but for me, footnotes just work a lot better than these wordy source notes.

March 2010 Permalink

Sowell, Thomas. Intellectuals and Society. New York: Basic Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-465-01948-9.
What does it mean to be an intellectual in today's society? Well, certainly one expects intellectuals to engage in work which is mentally demanding, which many do, particularly within their own narrow specialities. But many other people perform work which is just as cognitively demanding: chess grandmasters, musical prodigies, physicists, engineers, and entrepreneurs, yet we rarely consider them “intellectuals” (unless they become “public intellectuals”, discussed below), and indeed “real” intellectuals often disdain their concern with the grubby details of reality.

In this book, the author identifies intellectuals as the class of people whose output consists exclusively of ideas, and whose work is evaluated solely upon the esteem in which it is held by other intellectuals. A chess player who loses consistently, a composer whose works summon vegetables from the audience, an engineer whose aircraft designs fall out of the sky are distinguished from intellectuals in that they produce objective results which succeed or fail on their own merits, and it is this reality check which determines the reputation of their creators.

Intellectuals, on the other hand, are evaluated and, in many cases, hired, funded, and promoted solely upon the basis of peer review, whether formal as in selection for publication, grant applications, or awarding of tenure, or informal: the estimation of colleagues and their citing of an individual's work. To anybody with the slightest sense of incentives, this seems a prescription for groupthink, and it is no surprise that the results confirm that supposition. If intellectuals were simply high-performance independent thinkers, you'd expect their opinions to vary all over the landscape (as is often the case among members of other mentally demanding professions). But in the case of intellectuals, as defined here, there is an overwhelming acceptance of the nostrums of the political left which appears to be unshakable regardless of how many times and how definitively they have been falsified and discredited by real world experience. But why should it be otherwise? Intellectuals themselves are not evaluated by the real world outcomes of their ideas, so it's only natural they're inclined to ignore the demonstrated pernicious consequences of the policies they advocate and bask instead in the admiration of their like-thinking peers. You don't find chemists still working with the phlogiston theory or astronomers fine-tuning geocentric models of the solar system, yet intellectuals elaborating Marxist theories are everywhere in the humanities and social sciences.

With the emergence of mass media in the 20th century, the “public intellectual” came into increasing prominence. These are people with distinguished credentials in a specialised field who proceed to pronounce upon a broad variety of topics in which their professional expertise provides them no competence or authority whatsoever. The accomplishments of Bertrand Russell in mathematics and philosophy, of Noam Chomsky in linguistics, or of Paul Erlich in entomology are beyond dispute. But when they walk onto the public stage and begin to expound upon disarmament, colonialism, and human population and resources, almost nobody in the media or political communities stops to ask just why their opinion should be weighed more highly than that of anybody else without specific expertise in the topic under discussion. And further, few go back and verify their past predictions against what actually happened. As long as the message is congenial to the audience, it seems like public intellectuals can get a career-long pass from checking their predictions against outcomes, even when the discrepancies are so great they would have caused a physical scientist to be laughed out of the field or an investor to have gone bankrupt. As biographer Roy Harrod wrote of eminent economist and public intellectual John Maynard Keynes:

He held forth on a great range of topics, on some of which he was thoroughly expert, but on others of which he may have derived his views from the few pages of a book at which he happened to glance. The air of authority was the same in both cases.
As was, of course, the attention paid by his audience.

Intellectuals, even when pronouncing within their area of specialisation, encounter the same “knowledge problem” Hayek identified in conjunction with central planning of economies. While the expert, or the central planning bureau, may know more about the problem domain than 99% of individual participants in the area, in many cases that expertise constitutes less than 1% of the total information distributed among all participants and expressed in their individual preferences and choices. A free market economy can be thought of as a massively parallel cloud computer for setting prices and allocating scarce resources. Its information is in the totality of the system, not in any particular place or transaction, and any attempt to extract that information by aggregating data and working on bulk measurements is doomed to failure both because of the inherent loss of information in making the aggregations and also because any such measure will be out of date long before it is computed and delivered to the would-be planner. Intellectuals have the same conceit: because they believe they know far more about a topic than the average person involved with it (and in this they may be right), they conclude that they know much more about the topic than everybody put together, and that if people would only heed their sage counsel much better policies would be put in place. In this, as with central planning, they are almost always wrong, and the sorry history of expert-guided policy should be adequate testament to its folly.

But it never is, of course. The modern administrative state and the intelligentsia are joined at the hip. Both seek to concentrate power, sucking it out from individuals acting at their own discretion in their own perceived interest, and centralising it in order to implement the enlightened policies of the “experts”. That this always ends badly doesn't deter them, because it's power they're ultimately interested in, not good outcomes. In a section titled “The Propagation of the Vision”, Sowell presents a bill of particulars as damning as that against King George III in the Declaration of Independence, and argues that modern-day intellectuals, burrowed within the institutions of academia, government, and media, are a corrosive force etching away the underpinnings of a free society. He concludes:

Just as a physical body can continue to live, despite containing a certain amount of microorganisms whose prevalence would destroy it, so a society can survive a certain amount of forces of disintegration within it. But that is very different from saying that there is no limit to the amount, audacity and ferocity of those disintegrative forces which a society can survive, without at least the will to resist.
In the past century, it has mostly been authoritarian tyrannies which have “cleaned out the universities” and sent their effete intellectual classes off to seek gainful employment in the productive sector, for example doing some of those “jobs Americans won't do”. Will free societies, whose citizens fund the intellectual class through their taxes, muster the backbone to do the same before intellectuals deliver them to poverty and tyranny? Until that day, you might want to install my “Monkeying with the Mainstream Media”, whose Red Meat edition translates “expert” to “idiot”, “analyst” to “moron”, and “specialist” to “nitwit” in Web pages you read.

An extended video interview with the author about the issues discussed in this book is available, along with a complete transcript.

July 2010 Permalink

Sowell, Thomas. Dismantling America. New York: Basic Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-465-02251-9.
Thomas Sowell has been, over his career, an optimist about individual liberty and economic freedom in the United States and around the world. Having been born in the segregated South, raised by a single mother in Harlem in the 1940s, he said that the progress he had observed in his own lifetime, rising from a high school dropout to the top of his profession, convinced him that America ultimately gets it right, and that opportunity for those who wish to advance through their own merit and hard work is perennial. In recent years, however, particularly since the rise and election of Barack Obama, his outlook has darkened considerably, almost approaching that of John Derbyshire. Do you think I exaggerate? Consider this passage from the preface:

No one issue and no one administration in Washington has been enough to create a perfect storm for a great nation that has weathered many storms in its more than two centuries of existence. But the Roman Empire lasted many times longer, and weathered many storms in its turbulent times—and yet it ultimately collapsed completely.

It has been estimated that a thousand years passed before the standard of living in Europe rose again to the level it had achieved in Roman times. The collapse of civilization is not just the replacement of rulers or institutions with new rulers and new institutions. It is the destruction of a whole way of life and the painful, and sometimes pathetic, attempts to begin rebuilding amid the ruins.

Is that where America is headed? I believe it is. Our only saving grace is that we are not there yet—and that nothing is inevitable until it happens.

Strong stuff! The present volume is a collection of the author's syndicated columns dating from before the U.S. election of 2008 into the first two years of the Obama administration. In them he traces how the degeneration and systematic dismantling of the underpinnings of American society which began in the 1960s culminated in the election of Obama, opening the doors to power to radicals hostile to what the U.S. has stood for since its founding and bent on its “fundamental transformation” into something very different. Unless checked by the elections of 2010 and 2012, Sowell fears the U.S. will pass a “point of no return” where a majority of the electorate will be dependent upon government largesse funded by a minority who pay taxes. I agree: I deemed it the tipping point almost two years ago.

A common theme in Sowell's writings of the last two decades has been how public intellectuals and leftists (but I repeat myself) attach an almost talismanic power to words and assume that good intentions, expressed in phrases that make those speaking them feel good about themselves, must automatically result in the intended outcomes. Hence the belief that a “stimulus bill” will stimulate the economy, a “jobs bill” will create jobs, that “gun control” will control the use of firearms by criminals, or that a rise in the minimum wage will increase the income of entry-level workers rather than price them out of the market and send their jobs to other countries. Many of the essays here illustrate how “progressives” believe, with the conviction of cargo cultists, that their policies will turn the U.S. from a social Darwinist cowboy capitalist society to a nurturing nanny state like Sweden or the Netherlands. Now, notwithstanding that the prospects of those two countries and many other European welfare states due to demographic collapse and Islamisation are dire indeed, the present “transformation” in the U.S. is more likely, in my opinion, to render it more like Perón's Argentina than France or Germany.

Another part of the “perfect storm” envisioned by Sowell is the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, the imperative that will create for other states in the region to go nuclear, and the consequent possibility that terrorist groups will gain access to these weapons. He observes that Japan in 1945 was a much tougher nation than the U.S. today, yet only two nuclear bombs caused them to capitulate in a matter of days. How many cities would the U.S. have to lose? My guess is at least two but no more than five. People talk about there being no prospect of a battleship Missouri surrender in the War on Terror (or whatever they're calling it this week), but the prospect of a U.S. surrender on the carrier Khomeini in the Potomac is not as far fetched as you might think.

Sowell dashes off epigrams like others write grocery lists. Here are a few I noted:

  • One of the painful consequences of studying history is that it makes you realize how long people have been doing the same foolish things with the same disastrous results.
  • There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs.
  • Do not expect sound judgments in a society where being “non-judgmental” is an exalted value. As someone has said, if you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything.
  • Progress in general seems to hold little interest for people who call themselves “progressives”. What arouses them are denunciations of social failures and accusations of wrong-doing.
      One wonders what they would do in heaven.
  • In a high-tech age that has seen the creation of artificial intelligence by computers, we are also seeing the creation of artificial stupidity by people who call themselves educators.
  • Most people on the left are not opposed to freedom. They are just in favor of all sorts of things that are incompatible with freedom.
  • Will those who are dismantling this society from within or those who seek to destroy us from without be the first to achieve their goal? It is too close to call.

As a collection of columns, you can read this book in any order you like (there are a few “arcs” of columns, but most are standalone), and pick it up and put it down whenever you like without missing anything. There is some duplication among the columns, but they never become tedious. Being newspaper columns, there are no source citations or notes, and there is no index. What are present in abundance are Sowell's acute observations of the contemporary scene, historical perspective, rigorous logic, economic common sense, and crystal clear exposition. I had read probably 80% of these columns when they originally appeared, but gleaned many new insights revisiting them in this collection.

The author discusses the book, topics raised in it, and the present scene in an extended video interview, for which a transcript exists. A shorter podcast interview with the author is also available.

October 2010 Permalink

Steil, Benn. The Battle of Bretton Woods. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-691-14909-7.
As the Allies advanced toward victory against the Axis powers on all fronts in 1944, in Allied capitals thoughts increasingly turned to the postwar world and the institutions which would define it. Plans were already underway to expand the “United Nations” (at the time used as a synonym for the Allied powers) into a postwar collective security organisation which would culminate in the April 1945 conference to draft the charter of that regrettable institution. Equally clamant was the need to define monetary mechanisms which would facilitate free trade.

The classical gold standard, which was not designed but evolved organically in the 19th century as international trade burgeoned, had been destroyed by World War I. Attempts by some countries to reestablish the gold standard after the end of the war led to economic dislocation (particularly in Great Britain), currency wars (competitive devaluations in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage in international trade), and trade wars (erecting tariff or other barriers to trade to protect domestic or imperial markets against foreign competition).

World War II left all of the major industrial nations with the sole exception of the United States devastated and effectively bankrupt. Despite there being respected and influential advocates for re-establishing the classical gold standard (in which national currencies were defined as a quantity of gold, with central banks issuing them willing to buy gold with their currency or exchange their currency for gold at the pegged rate), this was widely believed impossible. Although the gold standard had worked well when in effect prior to World War I, and provided negative feedback which tended to bring the balance of payments among trading partners back into equilibrium and provided a mechanism for countries in economic hard times to face reality and recover by devaluing their currencies against gold, there was one overwhelming practical difficulty in re-instituting the gold standard: the United States had almost all of the gold. In fact, by 1944 it was estimated that the U.S. Treasury held around 78% of all of the world's central bank reserve gold. It is essentially impossible to operate under a gold standard when a single creditor nation, especially one with its industry and agriculture untouched by the war and consequently sure to be the predominant exporter in the years after it ended, has almost all of the world's gold in its vaults already. Proposals to somehow reset the system by having the U.S. transfer its gold to other nations in exchange for their currencies was a non-starter in Washington, especially since many of those nations already owed large dollar-denominated debts to the U.S.

The hybrid gold-exchange standard put into place after World War I had largely collapsed by 1934, with Britain forced off the standard by 1931, followed quickly by 25 other nations. The 1930s were a period of economic depression, collapsing international trade, competitive currency devaluations, and protectionism, hardly a model for a postwar monetary system.

Also in contention as the war drew to its close was the location of the world's financial centre and which currency would dominate international trade. Before World War I, the vast majority of trade cleared through London and was denominated in sterling. In the interwar period, London and New York vied for preeminence, but while Wall Street prospered financing the booming domestic market in the 1920s, London remained dominant for trade between other nations and maintained a monopoly within the British Empire. Within the U.S., while all factions within the financial community wished for the U.S. to displace Britain as the world's financial hub, many New Dealers in Roosevelt's administration were deeply sceptical of Wall Street and “New York bankers” and wished to move decision making to Washington and keep it firmly under government control.

While ambitious plans were being drafted for a global monetary system, in reality there were effectively only two nations at the negotiating table when it came time to create one: Britain and the U.S. John Maynard Keynes, leader of the British delegation, referred to U.S. plans for a broad-based international conference on postwar monetary policy as “a major monkey-house”, with non-Anglo-Saxon delegations as the monkeys. On the U.S. side, there was a three way power struggle among the Treasury Department, the State Department, and the nominally independent Federal Reserve to take the lead in international currency policy.

All of this came to a head when delegates from 44 countries arrived at a New Hampshire resort hotel in July 1944 for the Bretton Woods Conference. The run-up to the conference had seen intensive back-and-forth negotiation between the U.S. and British delegations, both of whom arrived with their own plans, each drafted to give their side the maximum advantage.

For the U.S., Treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. was the nominal head of the delegation, but having no head for nor interest in details, deferred almost entirely to his energetic and outspoken subordinate Harry Dexter White. The conference became a battle of wits between Keynes and White. While White was dwarfed by Keynes's intellect and reputation (even those who disagreed with his unorthodox economic theories were impressed with his wizardry in financing the British war efforts in both world wars), it was White who held all the good cards. Not only did the U.S. have most of the gold, Britain was entirely dependent upon Lend-Lease aid from the U.S., which might come to an abrupt end when the war was won, and owed huge debts which it could never repay without some concessions from the U.S. or further loans on attractive terms.

Morgenthau and White, with Roosevelt's enthusiastic backing, pressed their case relentlessly. Not only did Roosevelt concur that the world's financial centre should be Washington, he saw an opportunity to break the British Empire, which he detested. Roosevelt remarked to Morgenthau after a briefing, “I had no idea that England was broke. I will go over there and make a couple of talks and take over the British Empire.”

Keynes described an early U.S. negotiating position as a desire by the U.S. to make Britain “lose face altogether and appear to capitulate completely to dollar diplomacy.” And in the end, this is essentially what happened. Morgenthau remarked, “Now the advantage is ours here, and I personally think we should take it,” then later expanded, “If the advantage was theirs, they would take it.”

The system crafted at the conference was formidably complex: only a few delegates completely understood it, and, foreshadowing present-day politics in the U.S., most of the delegations which signed it at the conclusion of the conference had not read the final draft which was thrown together at the last minute. The Bretton Woods system which emerged prescribed fixed exchange rates, not against gold, but rather the U.S. dollar, which was, in turn, fixed to gold. Central banks would hold their reserves primarily in dollars, and could exchange excess dollars for gold upon demand. A new International Monetary Fund (IMF) would provide short-term financing to countries with trade imbalances to allow them to maintain their currency's exchange rate against the dollar, and a World Bank was created to provide loans to support reconstruction after the war and development in poor countries. Finally a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was adopted to reduce trade barriers and promote free trade.

The Bretton Woods system was adopted at a time when the reputation of experts and technocrats was near its peak. Keynes believed that central banking should “be regarded as a kind of beneficent technique of scientific control such as electricity and other branches of science are.” Decades of experience with the ever more centralised and intrusive administrative state has given people today a more realistic view of the capabilities of experts and intellectuals of all kinds. Thus it should be no surprise that the Bretton Woods system began to fall apart almost as soon as it was put in place. The IMF began operations in 1947, and within months a crisis broke out in the peg of sterling to the dollar. In 1949, Britain was forced to devalue the pound 30% against the dollar, and in short order thirty other countries also devalued. The Economist observed:

Not many people in this country believe the Communist thesis that it is the deliberate and conscious aim of American policy to ruin Britain and everything Britain stands for in the world. But the evidence can certainly be read that way. And if every time aid is extended, conditions are attached which make it impossible for Britain to ever escape the necessity of going back for still more aid, to be obtained with still more self-abasement and on still more crippling terms, then the result will certainly be what the Communists predict.

Dollar diplomacy had triumphed completely.

The Bretton Woods system lurched from crisis to crisis and began to unravel in the 1960s when the U.S., exploiting its position of issuing the world's reserve currency, began to flood the world with dollars to fund its budget and trade deficits. Central banks, increasingly nervous about their large dollar positions, began to exchange their dollars for gold, causing large gold outflows from the U.S. Treasury which were clearly unsustainable. In 1971, Nixon “closed the gold window”. Dollars could no longer be redeemed in gold, and the central underpinning of Bretton Woods was swept away. The U.S. dollar was soon devalued against gold (although it hardly mattered, since it was no longer convertible), and before long all of the major currencies were floating against one another, introducing uncertainty in trade and spawning the enormous global casino which is the foreign exchange markets.

A bizarre back-story to the creation of the postwar monetary system is that its principal architect, Harry Dexter White, was, during the entire period of its construction, a Soviet agent working undercover in his U.S. government positions, placing and promoting other agents in positions of influence, and providing a steady stream of confidential government documents to Soviet spies who forwarded them to Moscow. This was suspected since the 1930s, and White was identified by Communist Party USA defectors Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley as a spy and agent of influence. While White was defended by the usual apologists, and many historical accounts try to blur the issue, mentions of White in the now-declassified Venona decrypts prove the issue beyond a shadow of a doubt. Still, it must be said that White was a fierce and effective advocate at Bretton Woods for the U.S. position as articulated by Morgenthau and Roosevelt. Whatever other damage his espionage may have done, his pro-Soviet sympathies did not detract from his forcefulness in advancing the U.S. cause.

This book provides an in-depth view of the protracted negotiations between Britain and the U.S., Lend-Lease and other war financing, and the competing visions for the postwar world which were decided at Bretton Woods. There is a tremendous amount of detail, and while some readers may find it difficult to assimilate, the economic concepts which underlie them are explained clearly and are accessible to the non-specialist. The demise of the Bretton Woods system is described, and a brief sketch of monetary history after its ultimate collapse is given.

Whenever a currency crisis erupts into the news, you can count on one or more pundits or politicians to proclaim that what we need is a “new Bretton Woods”. Before prescribing that medicine, they would be well advised to learn just how the original Bretton Woods came to be, and how the seeds of its collapse were built in from the start. U.S. advocates of such an approach might ponder the parallels between the U.S. debt situation today and Britain's in 1944 and consider that should a new conference be held, they may find themselves sitting the seats occupied by the British the last time around, with the Chinese across the table.

In the Kindle edition the table of contents, end notes, and index are all properly cross-linked to the text.

October 2013 Permalink

Steyn, Mark. America Alone. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2006. ISBN 0-89526-078-6.
Leave it to Mark Steyn to write a funny book about the collapse of Western civilisation. Demographics are destiny, and unlike political and economic trends, are easier to extrapolate because the parents of the next generation have already been born: if there are more of them than their own parents, a population is almost certain to increase, and if there are fewer, the population is destined to fall. Once fertility drops to 1.3 children per woman or fewer, a society enters a demographic “death spiral” from which there is no historical precedent for recovery. Italy, Spain, and Russia are already below this level, and the European Union as a whole is at 1.47, far below the replacement rate of 2.1. And what's the makeup of this shrinking population of Europe? Well, we might begin by asking what is the most popular name for boys born in Belgium…and Amsterdam…and Malmö, Sweden: Mohammed. Where is this going? Well, in the words of Mullah Krekar of Norway (p. 39), “We're the ones who will change you. Every Western woman in the EU is producing an average of 1.4 children. Every Muslim woman in the same countries is producing 3.5 children. By 2050, 30 percent of the population in Europe will be Muslim. Our way of thinking…will prove more powerful than yours.”

The author believes, and states forthrightly, that it is the purest fantasy to imagine that this demographic evolution, seen by many of the élite as the only hope of salvation for the European welfare state, can occur without a profound change in the very nature of the societies in which it occurs. The end-point may not be “Eutopia”, but rather “Eurabia”, and the timidity of European nations who already have an urban Muslim population approaching 30% shows how a society which has lost confidence in its own civilisation and traditions and imbibed the feel-good but ultimately debilitating doctrine of multiculturalism ends up assimilating to the culture of the immigrants, not the other way around. Steyn sees only three possible outcomes for the West (p. 204):

  1. Submit to Islam
  2. Destroy Islam
  3. Reform Islam
If option one is inconceivable and option two unthinkable (and probably impossible, certainly without changing Western civilisation beyond recognition and for the worse), you're left with number three, but, as Steyn notes, “Ultimately, only Muslims can reform Islam”. Unfortunately, the recent emergence of a global fundamentalist Islamic identity with explicitly political goals may be the Islamic Reformation, and if that be the case, the trend is going in the wrong direction. So maybe option one isn't off the table, after all.

The author traces the roots of the European predicament to the social democratic welfare state, which like all collectivist schemes, eventually creates a society of perpetual adolescents who never mature into and assume the responsibilities of adults. When the state becomes responsible for all the things the family once had to provide for, and is supported by historically unprecedented levels of taxation which impoverish young families and make children unaffordable, why not live for the present and let the next generation, wherever it may come from, worry about itself? In a static situation, this is a prescription for the kind of societal decline which can be seen in the histories of both Greece and Rome, but when there is a self-confident, rapidly-proliferating immigrant population with no inclination to assimilate, it amounts to handing the keys over to the new tenants in a matter of decades.

Among Western countries, the United States is the great outlier, with fertility just at the replacement rate and immigrants primarily of Hispanic origin who have, historically, assimilated to U.S. society in a generation or two. (There are reasons for concern about the present rate of immigration to the U.S. and the impact of multiculturalism on assimilation there, but that is not the topic of this book.) Steyn envisages a future, perhaps by 2050, where the U.S. looks out upon the world and sees not an “end of history” with liberal democracy and free markets triumphant around the globe but rather (p. 205), “a totalitarian China, a crumbling Russia, an insane Middle East, a disease-ridden Africa, [and] a civil war-torn Eurabia”—America alone.

Heavy stuff, but Steyn's way with words will keep you chuckling as you contemplate the apocalypse. The book is long on worries and short on plausible solutions, other than a list of palliatives which it is unlikely Western societies, even the U.S., have the will to adopt, although the author predicts (p. 192) “By 2015, almost every viable political party in the West will be natalist…”. But demographics don't turn on a dime, and by then, whatever measures are politically feasible may be too little to make much difference.

November 2006 Permalink

Steyn, Mark. After America. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-1-596-98100-3.
If John Derbyshire's We Are Doomed (October 2009) wasn't gloomy enough for you, this book will have you laughing all way from the event horizon to the central singularity toward which what remains of Western civilisation is free falling. In the author's view, the West now faces a perfect storm of demographic collapse (discussed in detail in his earlier America Alone [November 2006]); financial cataclysm due to unsustainable debt and “entitlement” commitments made by the welfare state; a culture crash after two generations have been indoctrinated in dependency, multiculturalism, and not just ignorance but a counterfactual fantasy view of history; and a political and cultural élite which has become so distinct and disconnected from the shrinking productive classes it almost seems to be evolving into a separate species.

Steyn uses H. G. Wells's The Time Machine as his guide to the future, arguing that Wells got the details right but that bifurcation of mankind into the effete Eloi and the productive but menacing Morlocks is not in the remote future, but has already happened in Western society in every sense but the biological, and even that is effectively the case as the two castes increasingly rarely come into contact with one another, no less interbreed. The Eloi, what Angelo Codevilla called The Ruling Class (October 2010), are the product of top-ranked universities and law schools and dominate government, academia, and the media. Many of them have been supported by taxpayers their entire lives and have never actually done anything productive in their careers. The Obama administration, which is almost devoid of individuals with any private sector experience at the cabinet level, might be deemed the first all-Eloi government in the U.S. As Wells's Time Traveller discovered, the whole Eloi/Morlock thing ended badly, and that's what Steyn envisions happening in the West, not in the distant future or even by mid-century, but within this decade, absent radical and painful course changes which are difficult to imagine being implemented by the feckless political classes of Europe, the U.S., and Japan.

In a chilling chapter, Steyn invokes the time machine once again to deliver a letter from the middle of our century to a reader in the America of 1950. In a way the world he describes would be as alien to its Truman administration reader as any dystopian vision of Wells, Orwell, or Huxley, and it is particularly disturbing to note that most of the changes he forecasts have already taken place or their precipitating events already underway in trends which are either impossible or extremely difficult to reverse. A final chapter, which I'll bet was added at the insistence of the publisher, provides a list of things which might be done to rescue the West from its imminent demise. They all make perfect sense, are easily understood, and would doubtless improve the situation even if inadequate to entirely avoid the coming calamity. And there is precisely zero chance of any of them being implemented in a country where 52.9% of the population voted for Barack Obama in 2008, at the tipping point where a majority dependent on the state and state employees who tend to them outvote a minority of productive taxpayers.

Regular readers of Steyn's columns will find much of this material familiar—I suspect there was more than a little cut and paste in assembling this manuscript. The tone of the argument is more the full-tilt irony, mockery, and word play one expects in a column than the more laid back voice customary in a book. You might want to read a chapter every few days rather than ploughing right through to the end to avoid getting numbed. But then the writing is so good it's difficult to put down.

In the Kindle edition, end notes are properly linked to the text and in notes which cite a document on the Web, the URL is linked to the on-line document. The index, however, is simply a useless list of terms without links to references in the text.

August 2011 Permalink

Stöhlker, Klaus J. Adieu la Suisse—Good Morning Switzerland. Le Mont-sur-Lausanne: Éditions LEP, 2003. ISBN 2-606-01086-8.
This is a French translation of the original German edition, which has the same French-and-English title. The French edition can be found in almost any bookshop in la Suisse romande, but I know of no online source.

March 2004 Permalink

Suprynowicz, Vin. The Ballad of Carl Drega. Reno: Mountain Media, 2002. ISBN 978-0-9670259-2-6.
I was about write “the author is the most prominent libertarian writing for the legacy media today”, but in fact, to my knowledge, he is the only genuine libertarian employed by a major metropolitan newspaper (the Las Vegas Review-Journal), where he writes editorials and columns, the latter syndicated to a number of other newspapers. This book, like his earlier Send In The Waco Killers, is a collection of these writings, plus letters from readers and replies, along with other commentary. This volume covers the period from 1994 through the end of 2001, and contains his columns reacting to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, which set him at odds with a number of other prominent libertarians.

Suprynowicz is not one of those go-along, get-along people L. Neil Smith describes as “nerf libertarians”. He is a hard-edged lover of individual liberty, and defends it fiercely in all of its aspects here. As much of the content of the book was written as columns to be published weekly, collected by topic rather than chronologically, it may occasionally seem repetitive if you read the whole book cover to cover. It is best enjoyed a little at a time, which is why it did not appear here until years after I started to read it. If you're a champion of liberty who is prone to hypertension, you may want to increase your blood pressure medication before reading some of the stories recounted here. The author's prognosis for individual freedom in the U.S. seems to verge upon despair; in this I concur, which is why I no longer live there, but still it's depressing for people everywhere. Chapter 9 (pp. 441–476) is a collection of the “Greatest Hits from the Mailbag”, a collection of real mail (and hilarious replies) akin to Fourmilab's own Titanium Cranium Awards.

This book is now out of print, and used copies currently sell at almost twice the original cover price.

February 2009 Permalink

Thernstrom, Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom. No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. ISBN 0-7432-0446-8.

January 2004 Permalink

Thomas, Dominique. Le Londonistan. Paris: Éditions Michalon, 2003. ISBN 2-84186-195-3.

July 2003 Permalink

Thompson, Hunter S. Kingdom of Fear. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. ISBN 0-684-87323-0.
Autodesk old-timers who recall the IPO era will find the story recounted on pages 153–157 amusing, particularly those also present at the first encounter.

March 2003 Permalink

Thornton, Bruce. Decline and Fall. New York: Encounter Books, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59403-206-6.
This slim volume (135 pages of main text, 161 pages in its entirety—the book is erroneously listed on Amazon.com as 300 pages in length) is an epitaph for the postwar European experiment. The author considers Europe, as defined by the post-Christian, post-national “EUtopia” envisioned by proponents of the European Union as already irretrievably failed, facing collapse in the coming decades due to economic sclerosis from bloated and intrusive statist policies, unsustainable welfare state expenditures, a demographic death spiral already beyond recovery, and transformation by a burgeoning Islamic immigrant population which Europeans lack the will to confront and compel to assimilate as a condition of residence. The book is concise, well-argued, and persuasive, but I'm not sure why it is ultimately necessary.

The same issues are discussed at greater length, more deeply, and with abundant documentation in recent books such as Mark Steyn's America Alone (November 2006), Claire Berlinski's Menace in Europe (July 2006), and Bruce Bawer's While Europe Slept (June 2007), all of which are cited as sources in this work. If you're looking for a very brief introduction and overview of Europe's problems, this book provides one, but readers interested in details of the present situation and prospects for the future will be better served by one of the books mentioned above.

A video interview with the author is available.

May 2008 Permalink

Todd, Emmanuel. Après l'empire. Paris: Gallimard, 2002. ISBN 2-07-076710-8.
An English translation is scheduled to be published in January 2004.

November 2002 Permalink

Todd, Emmanuel. Après la démocratie. Paris: Gallimard, 2009. ISBN 978-2-07-078683-1.
This book is simultaneously enlightening, thought-provoking, and infuriating. The author is known for having forecast the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1976 and, in 2002, the end of U.S. hegemony in the political, military, and financial spheres, as we are currently witnessing. In the present work, he returns his focus to Europe, and France in particular, and examines how the economic consequences of globalisation, the emergence of low-wage economies such as China and India in direct competition with workers in the developed West, the expansion of college education from a small fraction to around a third of the population, changes in the structure of the family due to a longer lifespan and marital customs, the near eclipse of Christianity as a social and moral force in Western Europe, and the collapse of traditional political parties with which individuals would identify over long periods of time have led to a crisis in confidence among the voting public in the élites who (especially in France) have traditionally governed them, escalating to a point where serious thinkers question the continued viability of democratic governance.

Dubiety about democracy is neither limited to the author nor to France: right-like-a-stopped-clock pundit Thomas Friedman has written admiringly of China's autocracy compared to the United States, Gaia theorist James Lovelock argues that “climate change” may require the West to “put democracy on hold for a while” while other ManBearPig fabulists argue that the “failure of democracy” on this issue requires it to give way to “a form of authoritarian government by experts”.

The take in the present book is somewhat different, drawing on Todd's demographic and anthropological approach to history and policy. He argues that liberal democracy, as it emerged in Britain, France, and the United States, had as a necessary condition a level of literacy among the population of between one third and two thirds. With a lower level of literacy the general population is unable to obtain the information they need to form their own conclusions, and if a society reaches a very high level of literacy without having adopted democratic governance (for example Germany from Bismarck through World War II or the Soviet Union), then the governing structure is probably sufficiently entrenched so as to manage the flow of information to the populace and suppress democratic movements. (Actually, the author would like to believe that broad-based literacy is a necessary and sufficient condition for democracy in the long run, but to this reader he didn't make the sale.)

Once democratic governance is established, literacy tends to rise toward 100% both because governments promote it by funding education and because the citizenry has an incentive to learn to read and write in order to participate in the political process. A society with universal literacy and primary education, but only a very small class with advanced education tends to be stable, because broad political movements can communicate with the population, and the élites which make up the political and administrative class must be responsive to the electorate in order to keep their jobs. With the broad population starting out with pretty much the same educational and economic level, the resulting society tends toward egalitarianism in wealth distribution and opportunity for advancement based upon merit and enterprise. Such a society will be an engine of innovation and production, and will produce wealth which elevates the standard of living of its population, yielding overall contentment which stabilises the society against radical change.

In the twentieth century, and particularly in the latter half, growing prosperity in developed nations led to a social experiment on a massive scale entirely unprecedented in human history. For the first time, universal secondary education was seen as a social good (and enforced by compulsory education and rising school-leaving ages), with higher (college/university) education for the largest possible fraction of the population becoming the ultimate goal. Indeed, political rhetoric in the United States presently advocates making college education available for all. In France, the number of students in “tertiary” education (the emerging term of art, to avoid calling it “superior”, which would imply that those without it are inferior) burgeoned from 200,000 in 1950 to 2,179,000 in 1995, an increase of 990%, while total population grew just 39% (p. 56). Since then, the rate of higher education has remained almost constant, with the number of students growing only 4% between 1995 and 2005, precisely the increase in population during that decade. The same plateau was achieved earlier in the U.S., while Britain, which began the large-scale expansion of higher education later, only attained a comparable level in recent years, so it's too early to tell whether that will also prove a ceiling there as well.

The author calls this “stagnation” in education and blames it for a cultural pessimism afflicting all parts of the political spectrum. (He does not discuss the dumbing-down of college education which has accompanied its expansion and the attendant devaluing of the credential; this may be less the case on the Continent than in the Anglosphere.) At the same time, these societies now have a substantial portion of their population, around one third, equipped nominally with education previously reserved for a tiny élite, whose career prospects are limited simply because there aren't enough positions at the top to go around. At the same time, the educational stratification of the society into a tiny governing class, a substantial educated class inclined to feel entitled to economic rewards for all the years of their lives spent sitting in classrooms, and a majority with a secondary education strikes a blow at egalitarianism, especially in France where broad-based equality of results has been a central part of the national identity since the Revolution.

The pessimism created by this educational stagnation has, in the author's view, been multiplied to the point of crisis by what he considers to be a disastrous embrace of free trade. While he applauds the dismantling of customs barriers in Europe and supported the European “Constitution”, he blames the abundance of low-wage workers in China and India for what he sees as relentless pressure on salaries in Europe and the loss of jobs due to outsourcing of manufacturing and, increasingly, service and knowledge worker jobs. He sees this as benefiting a tiny class, maybe 1% of the population, to the detriment of all the rest. Popular dissatisfaction with this situation, and frustration in an environment where all major political parties across the ideological spectrum are staunch defenders of free trade, has led to the phenomenon of “wipeout” elections, where the dominant political party is ejected in disgust, only to be replaced by another which continues the same policies and in turn is rejected by the electorate.

Where will it all end? Well, as the author sees it, with Nicholas Sarkozy. He regards Sarkozy and everything he represents with such an actinic detestation that one expects the crackling of sparks and odour of ozone when opening the book. Indeed, he uses Sarkozy's personal shortcomings as a metaphor for what's wrong with France, and as the structure of the book as a whole. And yet he is forced to come to terms with the fact that Sarkozy was elected with the votes of 53% of French voters after, in the first round, effectively wiping out the National Front, Communists, and Greens. And yet, echoing voter discontent, in the municipal elections a year later, the left was seen as the overall winner.

How can a democratic society continue to function when the electorate repeatedly empowers people who are neither competent to govern nor aligned with the self-interest of the nation and its population? The author sees only three alternatives. The first (p. 232) is the redefinition of the state from a universal polity open to all races, creeds, and philosophies to a racially or ethnically defined state united in opposition to an “other”. The author sees Sarkozy's hostility to immigrants in France as evidence for such a redefinition in France, but does not believe that it will be successful in diverting the electorate's attention from a falling standard of living due to globalisation, not from the immigrant population. The second possibility he envisions (p. 239) is the elimination, either outright or effectively, of universal suffrage at the national level and its replacement by government by unelected bureaucratic experts with authoritarian powers, along the general lines of the China so admired by Thomas Friedman. Elections would be retained for local officials, preserving the appearance of democracy while decoupling it from governance at the national level. Lest this seem an absurd possibility, as the author notes on p. 246, this is precisely the model emerging for continental-scale government in the European Union. Voters in member states elect members to a European “parliament” which has little real power, while the sovereignty of national governments is inexorably ceded to the unelected European Commission. Note that only a few member states allowed their voters a referendum on the European “constitution” or its zombie reanimation, the Treaty of Lisbon.

The third alternative, presented in the conclusion to the work, is the only one the author sees as preserving democracy. This would be for the economic core of Europe, led by France and Germany, to adopt an explicit policy of protectionism, imposing tariffs on imports from low-wage producers with the goal of offsetting the wage differential and putting an end to the pressure on European workers, the outsourcing of jobs, and the consequent destruction of the middle class. This would end the social and economic pessimism in European societies, realign the policies of the governing class with the electorate, and restore the confidence among voters in those they elect which is essential for democracy to survive. (Due to its centuries-long commitment to free trade and alignment with the United States, Todd does not expect Great Britain to join such a protectionist regime, but believes that if France and Germany were to proclaim such a policy, their economic might and influence in the European Union would be sufficient to pull in the rest of the Continent and build a Wirtschaftsfestung Europa from the Atlantic to the Russian border.) In such a case, and only in that case, the author contends, will what comes after democracy be democracy.

As I noted at the start of these comments, I found this book, among other things, infuriating. If that's all it were, I would neither have finished it nor spent the time to write such a lengthy review, however. The work is worth reading, if for nothing else, to get a sense of the angst and malaise in present-day Europe, where it is beginning to dawn upon the architects and supporters of the social democratic welfare state that it is not only no longer competitive in the global economy but also unsustainable within its own borders in the face of a demographic collapse and failure to generate new enterprises and employment brought about by its own policies. Amidst foreboding that there are bad times just around the corner iTunes Store, and faced with an electorate which empowers candidates which leftists despise for being “populist”, “crude”, and otherwise not the right kind of people, there is a tendency among the Left to claim that “democracy is broken”, and that only radical, transformative change (imposed from the top down, against the will of the majority, if necessary) can save democracy from itself. This book is, I believe, an exemplar of this genre. I would expect several such books authored by leftist intellectuals to appear in the United States in the first years of a Palin administration.

What is particularly aggravating about the book is its refusal to look at the causes of the problems it proposes to address through a protectionist policy. Free trade did not create the regime of high taxation, crushing social charges, inability to dismiss incompetent workers, short work weeks and long vacations, high minimum wages and other deterrents to entry level jobs, and regulatory sclerosis which have made European industry uncompetitive, and high tariffs alone will not solve any of these problems, but rather simply allow them to persist for a while within a European bubble increasingly decoupled from the world economy. That's pretty much what the Soviet Union did for seventy years, if you think about it, and how well did that work out for the Soviet people?

Todd is so focused on protectionism as panacea that he Panglosses over major structural problems in Europe which would be entirely unaffected by its adoption. He dismisses demographic collapse as a problem for France, noting that the total fertility rate has risen over the last several years back to around 2 children per woman, the replacement rate. What he doesn't mention is that this is largely due to a high fertility rate among Muslim immigrants from North Africa, whose failure to assimilate and enter the economy is a growing crisis in France along with other Western European countries. The author dismisses this with a wave of the hand, accusing Sarkozy of provoking the “youth” riots of 2005 to further his own career, and argues that episode was genuinely discouraged young versus the ruling class and had little to do with Islam or ethnic conflict. One wonders how much time Dr. Todd has spent in the “no go” Muslim banlieues of Paris and other large European cities.

Further, Todd supports immigration and denounces restrictionists as opportunists seeking to distract the electorate with a scapegoat. But how is protectionism (closing the border to products from low wage countries) going to work, precisely, if the borders remain open to people from the Third World, many lacking any skills equipping them to participate in a modern industrialised society, and bringing with them, in many cases, belief systems hostile to the plurality, egalitarianism, secularism, and tolerance of European nations? If the descendants of immigrants do not assimilate, they pose a potentially disastrous social and political problem, while if they do, their entry into the job market will put pressure on wages just as surely as goods imported from China.

Given Todd's record in predicting events conventional wisdom deemed inconceivable, one should be cautious in dismissing his analysis here, especially as it drawn from the same kind of reasoning based in demographics, anthropology, and economics which informs his other work. If nothing else, it provides an excellent view of how more than fifty years journey down the social democratic road to serfdom brings into doubt how long the “democratic” part, as well as the society, can endure.

April 2010 Permalink

Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August. New York: Presidio Press, [1962, 1988] 2004. ISBN 978-0-345-47609-8.
In 1871 Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, chief of the Prussian General Staff and architect of modern German military strategy, wrote “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force”, an observation which is often paraphrased as “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. This is doubtless the case, but as this classic history of the diplomatic run-up to World War I and the initial hostilities from the outbreak of the war through the First Battle of the Marne demonstrates, plans, treaties, and military and political structures put into place long before open conflict erupts can tie the hands of decision makers long after events have proven them obsolete.

I first read this book in the 1980s, and I found upon rereading it now with the benefit of having since read a number of other accounts of the period, both contemporary and historical, that I'd missed or failed to fully appreciate some important points on the first traverse.

The first is how crunchy and rigid the system of alliances among the Great Powers was in the years before the War, and also the plans of mobilisation of the land powers: France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Viewed from a prewar perspective many thought these arrangements were guarantors of security: creating a balance of power in which the ultimate harm to any aggressor was easily calculated to be far greater than any potential gain, especially as their economies became increasingly interlinked and dependent upon international trade. For economic reasons alone, any war was expected to be short—no power was believed to have the resources to sustain a protracted conflict once its trade was disrupted by war. And yet this system, while metastable near the local minimum it occupied since the 1890s, proved highly unstable to perturbations which dislodged it from that perch. The mobilisation plans of the land powers (Britain, characteristically, had no such plan and expected to muddle through based upon events, but as the preeminent sea power with global obligations it was, in a sense, perpetually mobilised for naval conflicts) were carefully choreographed at the level of detail of railroad schedules. Once the “execute” button was pushed, events would begin to occur on a nationwide scale: call-ups of troops, distribution of supplies from armories, movement of men and munitions to assembly points, rationing of key supplies, etc. Once one nation had begun to mobilise, its potential opponents ran an enormous risk if they did not also mobilise—every day they delayed was a day the enemy, once assembled in battle order, could attack them before their own preparations were complete.

This interlocking set of alliances and scripted mobilisation plans finally proved lethal in 1914. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and began mobilisation. Russia, as an ally of Serbia and seeing its position in the Balkans threatened, declared a partial mobilisation on July 29. Germany, allied to Austria-Hungary and threatened by the Russian mobilisation, decreed its own mobilisation on July 30. France, allied with Russia and threatened by Germany, began mobilisation on August 1st. Finally, Britain, allied with France and Russia, declared war on Germany on August 4th. Europe, at peace the morning of Tuesday, July 28th, was, by the evening of Tuesday, August 4th, at war with itself, almost entirely due to treaties and mobilisation plans concluded in peacetime with the best of intentions, and not overt hostilities between any of the main powers involved.

It is a commonplace that World War I surpassed all historical experience and expectations at its outbreak for the scale of destruction and the brutality of the conflict (a few prescient observers who had studied the second American war of secession and developments in weaponry since then were not surprised, but they were in the minority), but this is often thought to have emerged in the period of static trench warfare which predominated from 1915 until the very end of the war. But this account makes clear that even the initial “war of maneuver” in August and September 1914 was characterised by the same callous squandering of life by commanders who adhered to their pre-war plans despite overwhelming evidence from the field that the assumptions upon which they were based were completely invalid. Both French and German commanders sent wave after wave of troops armed only with bolt-action rifles and bayonets against fortified positions with artillery and machine guns, suffering tens of thousands of casualties (some units were almost completely wiped out) with no effect whatsoever. Many accounts of World War I portray the mindless brutality of the conflict as a product of the trenches, but it was there from the very start, inherent in the prevailing view that the citizen was the property of the state to expend as it wished at the will of the ruling class (with the exception of the British, all armies in the conflict were composed largely of conscripts).

Although originally published almost half a century ago, this book remains one of the definitive accounts of the origins of World War I and the first month of the conflict, and one of outstanding literary merit (it is a Pulitzer prize winner). John F. Kennedy read the book shortly after its publication, and it is said to have made such an impression upon him that it influenced his strategy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, seeking to avoid actions which could trigger the kind of reciprocal automatic responses which occurred in the summer of 1914. Those who bewail the soggy international institutions and arrangements of the present day, where nothing is precisely as it seems and every commitment is balanced with a dozen ways to wiggle out of it, may find this book a cautionary tale of the alternative, and how a crunchy system of alliances may be far more dangerous. While reading the narrative, however, I found myself thinking not so much about diplomacy and military matters but rather how much today's globalised economic and financial system resembles the structure of the European great powers in 1914. Once again we hear that conflict is impossible because the damage to both parties would be unacceptable; that the system can be stabilised by “interventions” crafted by wise “experts”; that entities which are “too big to fail”, simply by being so designated, will not; and that the system is ultimately stable against an unanticipated perturbation which brings down one part of the vast interlocking structure. These beliefs seem to me, like those of the political class in 1914, to be based upon hope rather than evidence, and anybody interested in protecting their assets should think at some length about the consequences should one or more of them prove wrong.

October 2011 Permalink

Vazsonyi, Balint. America's Thirty Years War. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 1998. ISBN 0-89526-354-8.

November 2003 Permalink

Walden, George. Time to Emigrate? London: Gibson Square, 2006. ISBN 1-90393393-5.
Readers of Theodore Dalrymple's Life at the Bottom and Our Culture, What's Left of It may have thought his dire view of the state of civilisation in Britain to have been unduly influenced by his perspective as a prison and public hospital physician in one of the toughest areas of Birmingham, England. Here we have, if not the “view from the top”, a brutally candid evaluation written by a former Minister of Higher Education in the Thatcher government and Conservative member of the House of Commons from 1983 until his retirement in 1997, and it is, if anything, more disturbing.

The author says of himself (p. 219), “My life began unpromisingly, but everything's always got better. … In other words, in personal terms I've absolutely no complaints.” But he is deeply worried about whether his grown children and their children can have the same expectations in the Britain of today and tomorrow. The book is written in the form of a long (224 page) and somewhat rambling letter to a fictional son and his wife who are pondering emigrating from Britain after their young son was beaten into unconsciousness by immigrants within sight of their house in London. He describes his estimation of the culture, politics, and economy of Britain as much like the work of a house surveyor: trying to anticipate the problems which may befall those who choose to live there. Wherever he looks: immigration, multiculturalism, education, transportation, the increasingly debt-supported consumer economy, public health services, mass media, and the state of political discourse, he finds much to fret about. But this does not come across as the sputtering of an ageing Tory, but rather a thoroughly documented account of how most of the things which the British have traditionally valued (and have attracted immigrants to their shores) have eroded during his lifetime, to such an extent that he can no longer believe that his children and grandchildren will have the same opportunities he had as a lower middle class boy born twelve days after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939.

The curious thing about emigration from the British Isles today is that it's the middle class that is bailing out. Over most of history, it was the lower classes seeking opportunity (or in the case of my Irish ancestors, simply survival) on foreign shores, and the surplus sons of the privileged classes hoping to found their own dynasties in the colonies. But now, it's the middle that's being squeezed out, and it's because the collectivist state is squeezing them for all they're worth. The inexorably growing native underclass and immigrants benefit from government services and either don't have the option to leave or else consider their lot in life in Britain far better than whence they came. The upper classes can opt out of the sordid shoddiness and endless grey queues of socialism; on p. 153 the author works out the cost: for a notional family of two parents and two children, “going private” for health care, education for the kids, transportation, and moving to a “safe neighbourhood” would roughly require doubling income from what such a typical family brings home.

Is it any wonder we have so many billionaire collectivists (Buffett, Gates, Soros, etc.)? They don't have to experience the sordid consequences of their policies, but by advocating them, they can recruit the underclass (who benefit from them and are eventually made dependent and unable to escape from helotry) to vote them into power and keep them there. And they can exult in virtue as their noble policies crush those who might aspire to their own exalted station. The middle class, who pay for all of this, forced into minority, retains only the franchise which is exercised through shoe leather on pavement, and begins to get out while the property market remains booming and the doors are still open.

The author is anything but a doctrinaire Tory; he has, in fact, quit the party, and savages its present “100% Feck-Free” (my term) leader, David Cameron as, among other things, a “transexualised [Princess] Diana” (p. 218). As an emigrant myself, albeit from a different country, I think his conclusion and final recommendation couldn't be wiser (and I'm sorry if this is a spoiler, but if you're considering such a course you should read this book cover to cover anyway): go live somewhere else (I'd say, anywhere else) and see how you like it. You may discover that you're obsessed with what you miss and join the “International Club” (which usually means the place they speak the language of the Old Country), or you may find that after struggling with language, customs, and how things are done, you fit in rather well and, after a while, find most of your nightmares are about things in the place you left instead of the one you worried about moving to. There's no way to know—it could go either way. I think the author, as many people, may have put somewhat more weight on the question of emigration that it deserves. I've always looked at countries like any other product. I've never accepted that because I happened to be born within the borders of some state to whose creation and legitimacy I never personally consented, that I owe it any obligation whatsoever apart from those in compensation for services provided directly to me with my assent. Quitting Tyrania to live in Freedonia is something anybody should be able do to, assuming the residents of Freedonia welcome you, and it shouldn't occasion any more soul-searching on the part of the emigrant than somebody choosing to trade in their VW bus for a Nissan econobox because the 1972 bus was a shoddy crapwagon. Yes, you should worry and even lose sleep over all the changes you'll have to make, but there's no reason to gum up an already difficult decision process by cranking all kinds of guilt into it. Nobody (well, nobody remotely sane) gets all consumed by questions of allegiance, loyalty, or heritage when deciding whether their next computer will run Windows, MacOS, Linux, or FreeBSD. It seems to me that once you step back from the flags and anthems and monuments and kings and presidents and prime ministers and all of the other atavistic baggage of the coercive state, it's wisest to look at your polity like an operating system; it's something that you have to deal with (increasingly, as the incessant collectivist ratchet tightens the garrote around individuality and productivity), but you still have a choice among them, and given how short is our tenure on this planet, we shouldn't waste a moment of it living somewhere that callously exploits our labours in the interest of others. And, the more productive people exercise that choice, the greater the incentive is for the self-styled rulers of the various states to create an environment which will attract people like ourselves.

Many of the same issues are discussed, from a broader European perspective, in Claire Berlinski's Menace in Europe and Mark Steyn's America Alone. To fend off queries, I emigrated from what many consider the immigration magnet of the world in 1991 and have never looked back and rarely even visited the old country except for business and family obligations. But then I suspect, as the author notes on p. 197, I am one of those D4-7 allele people (look it up!) who thrive on risk and novelty; I'm not remotely claiming that this is better—Heaven knows we DRD4 7-repeat folk have caused more than our cohort's proportion of chaos and mayhem, but we just can't give it up—this is who we are.

January 2007 Permalink

Weiner, Tim. Legacy of Ashes. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-51445-3.
I've always been amused by those overwrought conspiracy theories which paint the CIA as the spider at the centre of a web of intrigue, subversion, skullduggery, and ungentlemanly conduct stretching from infringements of the rights of U.S. citizens at home to covert intrusion into internal affairs in capitals around the globe. What this outlook, however entertaining, seemed to overlook in my opinion is that the CIA is a government agency, and millennia of experience demonstrate that long-established instruments of government (the CIA having begun operations in 1947) rapidly converge upon the intimidating, machine-like, and ruthless efficiency of the Post Office or the Department of Motor Vehicles. How probable was it that a massive bureaucracy, especially one which operated with little Congressional oversight and able to bury its blunders by classifying documents for decades, was actually able to implement its cloak and dagger agenda, as opposed to the usual choke and stagger one expects from other government agencies of similar staffing and budget? Defenders of the CIA and those who feared its menacing, malign competence would argue that while we find out about the CIA's blunders when operations are blown, stings end up getting stung, and moles and double agents are discovered, we never know about the successes, because they remain secret forever, lest the CIA's sources and methods be disclosed.

This book sets the record straight. The Pulitzer prize-winning author has covered U.S. intelligence for twenty years, most recently for the New York Times. Drawing on a wealth of material declassified since the end of the Cold War, most from the latter half of the 1990s and afterward, and extensive interviews with every living Director of Central Intelligence and numerous other agency figures, this is the first comprehensive history of the CIA based on the near-complete historical record. It is not a pretty picture.

Chartered to collect and integrate information, both from its own sources and those of other intelligence agencies, thence to present senior decision-makers with the data they need to formulate policy, from inception the CIA neglected its primary mission in favour of ill-conceived and mostly disastrous paramilitary and psychological warfare operations deemed “covert”, but which all too often became painfully overt when they blew up in the faces of those who ordered them. The OSS heritage of many of the founders of the CIA combined with the proclivity of U.S. presidents to order covert operations which stretched the CIA's charter to its limits and occasionally beyond combined to create a litany of blunders and catastrophe which would be funny were it not so tragic for those involved, and did it not in many cases cast long shadows upon the present-day world.

While the clandestine service was tripping over its cloaks and impaling itself upon its daggers, the primary intelligence gathering mission was neglected and bungled to such an extent that the agency provided no warning whatsoever of Stalin's atomic bomb, the Korean War, the Chinese entry into that conflict, the Suez crisis, the Hungarian uprising, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran/Iraq War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998, and more. The spider at the centre of the web appears to have been wearing a blindfold and earplugs. (Oh, they did predict both the outbreak and outcome of the Six Day War—well, that's one!)

Not only have the recently-declassified documents shone a light onto the operations of the CIA, they provide a new perspective on the information from which decision-makers were proceeding in many of the pivotal events of the latter half of the twentieth century including Korea, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and the past and present conflicts in Iraq. This book completely obsoletes everything written about the CIA before 1995; the source material which has become available since then provides the first clear look into what was previously shrouded in secrecy. There are 154 pages of end notes in smaller type—almost a book in itself—which expand, often at great length, upon topics in the main text; don't pass them up. Given the nature of the notes, I found it more convenient to read them as an appendix rather than as annotations.

February 2008 Permalink

West, Diana. The Death of the Grown-Up. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2007. ISBN 978-0-312-34049-0.
In The Case Against Adolescence (July 2007), Robert Epstein argued that the concept of adolescence as a distinct phase of life is a recently-invented social construct which replaced the traditional process of childhood passing into an apprenticeship to adulthood around the time of puberty. In this book, acid-penned author Diana West, while not discussing Epstein's contentions, suggests that the impact of adolescence upon the culture is even greater and more pernicious, and that starting with the Boomer generation, the very goal of maturing into an adult has been replaced by a “forever young” narcissism which elevates the behaviour of adolescence into the desideratum of people who previously would have been expected to put such childish things behind them and assume the responsibilities of adults.

What do you get when you have a society full of superannuated adolescents? An adolescent culture, of course, addicted to instant gratification (see the debt crisis), lack of respect for traditional virtues and moderation, a preference for ignoring difficult problems in favour of trivial distractions, and for euphemisms instead of unpleasant reality. Such a society spends so much time looking inward that it forgets who it is or where it has come from, and becomes as easily manipulated as an adolescent at the hands of a quick-talking confidence man. And there are, as always, no shortage of such predators ready to exploit it.

This situation, the author argues, crossing the line from cultural criticism into red meat territory, becomes an existential threat when faced with what she calls “The Real Culture War”: the challenge to the West from Islam (not “Islamists”, “Islamofascists”, “Islamic terrorists”, “militant fundamentalists” or the like, but Islam—the religion, in which she contends the institutions of violent jihad and dhimmitude for subjected populations which do not convert have been established from its early days). Islam, she says. is a culture which, whatever its shortcomings, does know what it is, exhorts its adherents to propagate it, and has no difficulty proclaiming its superiority over all others or working toward a goal of global domination. Now this isn't of course, the first time the West has faced such a threat: in just the last century the equally aggressive and murderous ideologies of fascism and communism were defeated, but they were defeated by an adult society, not a bunch of multicultural indoctrinated, reflexively cringing, ignorant or disdainful of their own culture, clueless about history, parents and grandparents whose own process of maturation stopped somewhere in their teens.

This is a polemic, and sometimes reads like a newspaper op-ed piece which has to punch its message through in limited space as opposed to the more measured development of an argument appropriate to the long form. I also think the author really misses a crucial connection in not citing the work of Epstein and others on the damage wrought by the concept of adolescence itself—when you segregate young adults by age and cut them off from the contact with adults which traditionally taught them what adulthood meant and how and why they should aspire to it, is it any surprise that you end up with a culture filled with people who have never figured out how to behave as adults?

October 2008 Permalink

Wheen, Francis. How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. London: Fourth Estate, 2004. ISBN 0-00-714096-7.
I picked up this book in an airport bookshop, expecting a survey of contemporary lunacy along the lines of Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds or Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Instead, what we have is 312 pages of hateful, sneering political rant indiscriminately sprayed at more or less every target in sight. Mr Wheen doesn't think very much of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher (who he likens repeatedly to the Ayatollah Khomeini). Well, that's to be expected, I suppose, in a columnist for the Guardian, but there's no reason they need to be clobbered over and over, for the same things and in almost the same words, every three pages or so throughout this tedious, ill-organised, and repetitive book. Neither does the author particularly fancy Tony Blair, who comes in for the same whack-a-mole treatment. A glance at the index (which is not exhaustive) shows that between them, Blair, Thatcher, and Reagan appear on 85 pages equally sprinkled throughout the text. In fact, Mr Wheen isn't very keen on almost anybody or anything dating from about 1980 to the present; one senses an all-consuming nostalgia for that resplendent utopia which was Britain in the 1970s. Now, the crusty curmudgeon is a traditional British literary figure, but masters of the genre leaven their scorn with humour and good will which are completely absent here. What comes through instead is simply hate: the world leaders who dismantled failed socialist experiments are not, as a man of the left might argue, misguided but rather Mrs Thatcher's “drooling epigones” (p. 263). For some months, I've been pondering a phenomenon in today's twenty-something generation which I call “hate kiddies.” These are people, indoctrinated in academia by ideologues of the Sixties generation to hate their country, culture, and all of its achievements—supplanting the pride which previous generations felt with an all-consuming guilt. This seems, in many otherwise gifted and productive people, to metastasise in adulthood into an all-consuming disdain and hate for everything; it's like the end point of cultural relativism is the belief that everything is evil. I asked an exemplar of this generation once whether he could name any association of five or more people anywhere on Earth which was not evil: nope. Detesting his “evil” country and government, I asked whether he could name any other country which was less evil or even somewhat good: none came to mind. (If you want to get a taste of this foul and poisonous weltanschauung, visit the Slashdot site and read the comments posted for almost any article. This site is not a parody—this is how the young technological elite really think, or rather, can't think.) In Francis Wheen, the hate kiddies have found their elder statesman.

July 2004 Permalink

White, Andrew Dickson. Fiat Money Inflation in France. Bayonne, NJ: Blackbird Books, [1876, 1896, 1912, 1914] 2011. ISBN 978-1-61053-004-0.
One of the most sure ways to destroy the economy, wealth, and morals of a society is monetary inflation: an inexorable and accelerating increase in the supply of money, which inevitably (if not always immediately) leads to ever-rising prices, collapse in saving and productive investment, and pauperisation of the working classes in favour of speculators and those with connections to the regime issuing the money.

In ancient times, debasement of the currency was accomplished by clipping coins or reducing their content of precious metal. Ever since Marco Polo returned from China with news of the tremendous innovation of paper money, unbacked paper currency (or fiat money) has been the vehicle of choice for states to loot their productive and thrifty citizens.

Between 1789 and 1796, a period encompassing the French Revolution, the French National Assembly issued assignats, paper putatively backed by the value of public lands seized from the Roman Catholic Church in the revolution. Assignats could theoretically be used to purchase these lands, and initially paid interest—they were thus a hybrid between a currency and a bond. The initial issue revived the French economy and rescued the state from bankruptcy but, as always happens, was followed by a second, third, and then a multitude of subsequent issues totally decoupled from the value of the land which was supposed to back them. This sparked an inflationary and eventually hyperinflationary spiral with savers wiped out, manufacturing and commerce grinding to a halt (due to uncertainty, inability to invest, and supply shortages) which caused wages to stagnate even as prices were running away to the upside, an enormous transfer of wealth from the general citizenry to speculators and well-connected bankers, and rampant corruption within the political class. The sequelæ of monetary debasement all played out as they always have and always will: wage and price controls, shortages, rationing, a rush to convert paper money into tangible assets as quickly as possible, capital and foreign exchange controls, prohibition on the ownership of precious metals and their confiscation, and a one-off “wealth tax” until the second, and the third, and so on. Then there was the inevitable replacement of the discredited assignats with a new paper currency, the mandats, which rapidly blew up. Then came Napoleon, who restored precious metal currency; hyperinflation so often ends up with a dictator in power.

What is remarkable about this episode is that it happened in a country which had experienced the disastrous John Law paper money bubble in 1716–1718, within the living memory of some in the assignat era and certainly in the minds of the geniuses who decided to try paper money again because “this time is different”. When it comes to paper money, this time is never different.

This short book (or long pamphlet—the 1896 edition is just 92 pages) was originally written in 1876 by the author, a president of Cornell University, as a cautionary tale against advocates of paper money and free silver in the United States. It was subsequently revised and republished on each occasion the U.S. veered further toward unbacked or “elastic” paper money. It remains one of the most straightforward accounts of a hyperinflationary episode ever written, with extensive citations of original sources. For a more detailed account of the Weimar Republic inflation in 1920s Germany, see When Money Dies (May 2011); although the circumstances were very different, the similarities will be apparent, confirming that the laws of economics manifest here are natural laws just as much as gravitation and electromagnetism, and ignoring them never ends well.

If you are looking for a Kindle edition of this book, be sure to download a free sample of the book before purchasing. As the original editions of this work are in the public domain, anybody is free to produce an electronic edition, and there are some hideous ones available; look before you buy.

April 2013 Permalink

Wilson, Cody. Come and Take It. New York: Gallery Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4767-7826-6.
Cody Wilson is the founder of Defense Distributed, best known for producing the Liberator single-shot pistol, which can be produced largely by additive manufacturing (“3D printing”) from polymer material. The culmination of the Wiki Weapon project, the Liberator, whose plans were freely released on the Internet, demonstrated that antiquated organs of the state who thought they could control the dissemination of simple objects and abridge the inborn right of human beings to defend themselves has been, like so many other institutions dating from the era of railroad-era continental-scale empires, transcended by the free flow of information and the spontaneous collaboration among like-minded individuals made possible by the Internet. The Liberator is a highly visible milestone in the fusion of the world of bits (information) with the world of atoms: things. Earlier computer technologies put the tools to produce books, artwork, photography, music, and motion pictures into the hands of creative individuals around the world, completely bypassing the sclerotic gatekeepers in those media whose offerings had become all too safe and predictable, and who never dared to challenge the economic and political structures in which they were embedded.

Now this is beginning to happen with physical artifacts. Additive manufacturing—building up a structure by adding material based upon a digital model of the desired object—is still in its infancy. The materials which can be used by readily-affordable 3D printers are mostly various kinds of plastics, which are limited in structural strength and thermal and electrical properties, and resolution has not yet reached that achievable by other means of precision manufacturing. Advanced additive manufacturing technologies, such as various forms of metal sintering, allow use of a wider variety of materials including high-performance metal alloys, but while finding applications in the aerospace industry, are currently priced out of the reach of individuals.

But if there's one thing we've learned from the microelectronics and personal computer revolutions since the 1970s, it's that what's scoffed at as a toy today is often at the centre of tomorrow's industrial revolution and devolution of the means of production (as somebody said, once upon a time) into the hands of individuals who will use it in ways incumbent industries never imagined. The first laser printer I used in 1973 was about the size of a sport-utility vehicle and cost more than a million dollars. Within ten years, a laser printer was something I could lift and carry up a flight of stairs, and buy for less than two thousand dollars. A few years later, laser and advanced inkjet printers were so good and so inexpensive people complained more about the cost of toner and ink than the printers themselves.

I believe this is where we are today with mass-market additive manufacturing. We're still in an era comparable to the personal computer world prior to the introduction of the IBM PC in 1981: early adopters tend to be dedicated hobbyists such as members of the “maker subculture”, the available hardware is expensive and limited in its capabilities, and evolution is so fast that it's hard to keep up with everything that's happening. But just as with personal computers, it is in this formative stage that the foundations are being laid for the mass adoption of the technology in the future.

This era of what I've come to call “personal manufacturing” will do to artifacts what digital technology and the Internet did to books, music, and motion pictures. What will be of value is not the artifact (book, CD, or DVD), but rather the information it embodies. So it will be with personal manufacturing. Anybody with the design file for an object and access to a printer that works with material suitable for its fabrication will be able to make as many of that object as they wish, whenever they want, for nothing more than the cost of the raw material and the energy consumed by the printer. Before this century is out, I believe these personal manufacturing appliances will be able to make anything, ushering in the age of atomically precise manufacturing and the era of Radical Abundance (August 2013), the most fundamental change in the economic organisation of society since the industrial revolution.

But that is then, and this book is about now, or the recent past. The author, who describes himself as an anarchist (although I find his views rather more heterodox than other anarchists of my acquaintance), sees technologies such as additive manufacturing and Bitcoin as ways not so much to defeat the means of control of the state and the industries who do its bidding, but to render them irrelevant and obsolete. Let them continue to legislate in their fancy marble buildings, draw their plans for passive consumers in their boardrooms, and manufacture funny money they don't even bother to print any more in their temples of finance. Lovers of liberty and those who cherish the creativity that makes us human will be elsewhere, making our own future with tools we personally understand and control.

Including guns—if you believe the most fundamental human right is the right to one's own life, then any infringement upon one's ability to defend that life and the liberty that makes it worth living is an attempt by the state to reduce the citizen to the station of a serf: dependent upon the state for his or her very life. The Liberator is hardly a practical weapon: it is a single-shot pistol firing the .380 ACP round and, because of the fragile polymer material from which it is manufactured, often literally a single-shot weapon: failing after one or at most a few shots. Manufacturing it requires an additive manufacturing machine substantially more capable and expensive than those generally used by hobbyists, and post-printing steps described in Part XIV which are rarely mentioned in media coverage. Not all components are 3D printed: part of the receiver is made of steel which is manufactured with a laser cutter (the steel block is not functional; it is only there to comply with the legal requirement that the weapon set off a metal detector). But it is as a proof of concept that the Liberator has fulfilled its mission. It has demonstrated that even with today's primitive technology, access to firearms can no longer be restricted by the state, and that crude attempts to control access to design and manufacturing information, as documented in the book, will be no more effective than any other attempt to block the flow of information across the Internet.

This book is the author's personal story of the creation of the first 3D printed pistol, and of his journey from law student to pioneer in using this new technology in the interest of individual liberty and, along the way, becoming somewhat of a celebrity, dubbed by Wired magazine “one of the most dangerous men in the world”. But the book is much more than that. Wilson thinks like a philosopher and writes like a poet. He describes a new material for 3D printing:

In this new material I saw another confirmation. Its advent was like the signature of some elemental arcanum, complicit with forces not at all interested in human affairs. Carbomorph. Born from incomplete reactions and destructive distillation. From tar and pitch and heavy oils, the black ichor that pulsed thermonous through the arteries of the very earth.

On the “Makers”:

This insistence on the lightness and whimsy of farce. The romantic fetish and nostalgia, to see your work as instantly lived memorabilia. The event was modeled on Renaissance performance. This was a crowd of actors playing historical figures. A living charade meant to dislocate and obscure their moment with adolescent novelty. The neckbeard demiurge sees himself keeling in the throes of assembly. In walks the problem of the political and he hisses like the mathematician at Syracuse: “Just don't molest my baubles!”

But nobody here truly meant to give you a revolution. “Making” was just another way of selling you your own socialization. Yes, the props were period and we had kept the whole discourse of traditional production, but this was parody to better hide the mechanism.

We were “making together,” and “making for good” according to a ritual under the signs of labor. And now I knew this was all apolitical on purpose. The only goal was that you become normalized. The Makers had on their hands a Last Man's revolution whose effeminate mascots could lead only state-sanctioned pep rallies for feel-good disruption.

The old factory was still there, just elevated to the image of society itself. You could buy Production's acrylic coffins, but in these new machines was the germ of the old productivism. Dead labor, that vampire, would still glamour the living.

This book recounts the history of the 3D printed pistol, the people who made it happen, and why they did what they did. It recounts recent history during the deployment of a potentially revolutionary technology, as seen from the inside, and the way things actually happen: where nobody really completely understands what is going on and everybody is making things up as they go along. But if the promise of this technology allows the forces of liberty and creativity to prevail over the grey homogenisation of the state and the powers that serve it, this is a book which will be read many years from now by those who wish to understand how, where, and when it all began.

October 2016 Permalink

Winograd, Morley and Michael D. Hais. Millennial Makeover. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8135-4301-7.
This is a disturbing book on a number of different levels. People, especially residents of the United States or subject to its jurisdiction, who cherish individual liberty and economic freedom should obtain a copy of this work (ideally, by buying a used copy to avoid putting money in the authors' pockets), put a clothespin on their noses, and read the whole thing (it only takes a day or so), being warned in advance that it may induce feelings of nausea and make you want to take three or four showers when you're done.

The premise of the book is taken from Strauss and Howe's Generations, which argues that American history is characterised by a repeating pattern of four kinds of generations, alternating between “idealistic” and “civic” periods on a roughly forty year cycle (two generations in each period). These periods have nothing to do with the notions of “right” and “left”—American history provides examples of periods of both types identified with each political tendency.

The authors argue that the United States are approaching the end of an idealistic period with a rightward tendency which began in 1968 with the election of Richard Nixon, which supplanted the civic leftward period which began with the New Deal and ended in the excesses of the 1960s. They argue that the transition between idealistic and civic periods is signalled by a “realigning election”, in which the coalitions supporting political parties are remade, defining a new alignment and majority party which will dominate government for the next four decades or so.

These realignment elections usually mark the entrance of a new generation into the political arena (initially as voters and activists, only later as political figures), and the nature of the coming era can be limned, the authors argue, by examining the formative experiences of the rising generation and the beliefs they take into adulthood. Believing that a grand realignment is imminent, if not already underway, and that its nature will be determined by what they call the “Millennial Generation” (the cohort born between 1982 through 2003: a group larger in numbers than the Baby Boom generation), the authors examine the characteristics and beliefs of this generation, the eldest members of which are now entering the electorate, to divine the nature of the post-realignment political landscape. If they are correct in their conclusions, it is a prospect to induce fear, if not despair, in lovers of liberty. Here are some quotes.

The inevitable loss in privacy and freedom that has been a constant characteristic of the nation's reaction to any crisis that threatens America's future will more easily be accepted by a generation that willingly opts to share personal information with advertisers just for the sake of earning a few “freebies.” After 9/11 and the massacres at Columbine and Virginia Tech, Millennials are not likely to object to increased surveillance and other intrusions into their private lives if it means increased levels of personal safety. The shape of America's political landscape after a civic realignment is thus more likely to favor policies that involve collective action and individual accountability than the libertarian approaches so much favored by Gen-Xers. (p. 200)
Note that the authors applaud these developments. Digital Imprimatur, here we come!
As the newest civic realignment evolves, the center of America's public policy will continue to shift away from an emphasis on individual rights and public morality toward a search for solutions that benefit the entire community in as equitable and orderly way as possible. Majorities will coalesce around ideas that involve the entire group in the solution and downplay the right of individuals to opt out of the process. (p. 250)
Millennials favor environmental protection even at the cost of economic growth by a somewhat wider margin than any other generation (43% for Millennials vs. 40% for Gen-Xers and 38% for Baby Boomers), hardly surprising, given the emphasis this issue received in their favorite childhood television programs such as “Barney” and “Sesame Street” (Frank N. Magid Associates, May 2007). (p. 263)
Deep thinkers, those millennials! (Note that these “somewhat wider” margins are within the statistical sampling error of the cited survey [p. xiv].)

The whole scheme of alternating idealist and civic epochs is presented with a historicist inevitability worthy of Hegel or Marx. While one can argue that this kind of cycle is like the oscillation between crunchy and soggy, it seems to me that the authors must be exceptionally stupid, oblivious to facts before their faces, or guilty of a breathtaking degree of intellectual dishonesty to ignore the influence of the relentless indoctrination of this generation with collectivist dogma in government schools and the legacy entertainment and news media—and I do not believe the authors are either idiots nor imperceptive. What they are, however, are long-term activists (since the 1970s) in the Democratic party, who welcome the emergence of a “civic” generation which they view as the raw material for advancing the agenda which FDR launched with the aid of the previous large civic generation in the 1930s.

Think about it. A generation which has been inculcated with the kind of beliefs illustrated by the quotations above, and which is largely ignorant of history (and much of the history they've been taught is bogus, agenda-driven propaganda), whose communications are mostly “peer-to-peer”—with other identically-indoctrinated members of the same generation, is the ideal putty in the hands of a charismatic leader bent on “unifying” a nation by using the coercive power of the state to enforce the “one best way”.

The authors make an attempt to present the millenials as a pool of potential voters in search of a political philosophy and party embodying it which, once chosen, they will likely continue to identify with for the rest of their lives (party allegiance, they claim, is much stronger in civic than in idealist eras). But it's clear that the book is, in fact, a pitch to the Democratic party to recruit these people: Republican politicians and conservative causes are treated with thinly veiled contempt.

This is entirely a book about political strategy aimed at electoral success. There is no discussion whatsoever of the specific policies upon which campaigns will be based, how they are to be implemented, or what their consequences will be for the nation. The authors almost seem to welcome catastrophes such as a “major terrorist attack … major environmental disaster … chronic, long-lasting war … hyperinflation … attack on the U.S. with nuclear weapons … major health catastrophe … major economic collapse … world war … and/or a long struggle like the Cold War” as being “events of significant magnitude to trigger a civic realignment” (p. 201).

I've written before about my decision to get out of the United States in the early 1990s, which decision I have never regretted. That move was based largely upon economic fundamentals, which I believed, and continue to believe, are not sustainable and will end badly. Over the last decade, I have been increasingly unsettled by my interactions with members of the tail-end of Generation X and the next generation, whatever you call it. If the picture presented in this book is correct (and I have no way to know whether it is), and their impact upon the U.S. political scene is anything like that envisioned by the authors, anybody still in the U.S. who values their liberty and autonomy has an even more urgent reason to get out, and quickly.

May 2008 Permalink

Wood, Peter. Diversity: The Invention of a Concept. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003. ISBN 1-893554-62-7.

August 2003 Permalink

Woods, Thomas E., Jr. The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-89526-047-6.
You know you're getting old when events you lived through start showing up in history textbooks! Upon reaching that milestone (hey, it beats the alternative), you'll inevitably have the same insight which occurs whenever you see media coverage of an event at which you were personally present or read a popular account of a topic which you understand in depth—“Hey, it wasn't like that at all!”…and then you begin to wonder about all the coverage of things about which you don't have direct knowledge.

This short book (246 pages of widely-leaded text with broad margins and numerous sidebars and boxed quotations, asides, and recommendations for further reading) provides a useful antidote to the version of U.S. history currently taught in government brainwashing institutions, written from a libertarian/conservative standpoint. Those who have made an effort to educate themselves on the topics discussed will find little here they haven't already encountered, but those whose only knowledge of U.S. history comes from contemporary textbooks will encounter many eye-opening “stubborn facts” along with source citations to independently verify them (the excellent bibliography is ten pages long).

The topics covered appear to have been selected based on the degree to which the present-day collectivist academic party line is at variance with the facts (although, as Woods points out, in many cases historians specialising in given areas themselves diverge from textbook accounts). This means that while “hot spots” such as the causes of the Civil War, the events leading to U.S. entry in World War I, and the reasons for the Great Depression and the rôle of New Deal programs in ending it are discussed, many others are omitted entirely; the book is suitable as a corrective for those who know an outline of U.S. history but not as an introduction for those college graduates who believe that FDR defeated Santa Anna at the Little Big Horn.

September 2005 Permalink

Wright, Robert. Nonzero. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000. ISBN 0-679-44252-9.
Yuck. Four hundred plus pages of fuzzy thinking, tangled logic, and prose which manages to be simultaneously tortured and jarringly colloquial ends up concluding that globalisation and the attendant extinction of liberty and privacy are not only good things, but possibly Divine (chapter 22). Appendix 1 contains the lamest description of the iterated prisoner's dilemma I have ever read, and the key results table on 341 is wrong (top right entry, at least in the hardback). Bill Clinton loved this book. A paperback edition is now available.

June 2003 Permalink

York, Byron. The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy. New York: Crown Forum, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-8238-2.
The 2004 presidential election in the United States was heralded as the coming of age of “new media”: Internet-based activism such as MoveOn, targeted voter contact like America Coming Together, political Weblogs, the Air America talk radio network, and politically-motivated films such as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Robert Greenwald's Uncovered and Outfoxed. Yet, in the end, despite impressive (in fact unprecedented) fund-raising, membership numbers, and audience figures, the thoroughly conventional Bush campaign won the election, performing better in essentially every way compared to the 2000 results. This book explores what went wrong with the “new politics” revolution, and contains lessons that go well beyond the domain of politics and the borders of the United States.

The many-to-many mass medium which is the Internet provides a means for those with common interests to find one another, organise, and communicate unconstrained by time and distance. MoveOn, for example, managed so sign up 2.5 million members, and this huge number and giddy rate of growth persuaded those involved that they had tapped into a majority which could be mobilised to not only win, but as one of the MoveOn founders said not long before the election, “Yeah, we're going to win by a landslide” (p. 45). But while 2.5 million members is an impressive number, it is quite small compared to the approximately 120 million people who voted in the presidential election. That electorate is made up of about 15 million hard-core liberals and about the same number of uncompromising conservatives. The remaining 90 million are about evenly divided in leaning one direction or another, but are open to persuasion.

The Internet and the other new media appear to have provided a way for committed believers to connect with one another, ending up in an echo chamber where they came to believe that everybody shared their views. The approximately USD 200 million that went into these efforts was spent, in effect, preaching to the choir—reaching people whose minds were already made up. Outreach to swing voters was ineffective because if you're in a community which believes that anybody who disagrees is insane or brainwashed, it's difficult to persuade the undecided. Also, the closed communication loop of believers pushes rhetoric to the extremes, which alienates those in the middle.

Although the innovations in the 2004 campaign had negligible electoral success, they did shift the political landscape away from traditional party organisations to an auxiliary media-savvy network funded by wealthy donors. The consequences of this will doubtless influence U.S. politics in the future. The author, White House correspondent for National Review, writes from a conservative standpoint but had excellent access to the organisations about which he writes in the run-up to the election and provides an inside view of the new politics in the making. You have to take the author's research on faith, however, as there is not a single source citation in the book. The book's title was inspired by a 2001 Slate article, “Wanted: A Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy”; there is no suggestion of the existence of a conspiracy in a legal sense.

August 2005 Permalink

Young, Michael. The Rise of the Meritocracy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, [1958] 1994. ISBN 1-56000-704-4.
The word “meritocracy” has become so commonplace in discussions of modern competitive organisations and societies that you may be surprised to learn the word did not exist before 1958—a year after Sputnik—when the publication of this most curious book introduced the word and concept into the English language. This is one of the oddest works of serious social commentary ever written—so odd, in fact, its author despaired of its ever seeing print after the manuscript was rejected by eleven publishers before finally appearing, whereupon it was quickly republished by Penguin and has been in print ever since, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and being translated into seven different languages.

Even though the author was a quintessential “policy wonk”: he wrote the first postwar manifesto for the British Labour Party, founded the Open University and the Consumer Association, and sat in the House of Lords as Lord Young of Dartington, this is a work of…what shall we call it…utopia? dystopia? future history? alternative history? satire? ironic social commentary? science fiction?…beats me. It has also perplexed many others, including one of the publishers who rejected it on the grounds that “they never published Ph.D. theses” without having observed that the book is cast as a thesis written in the year 2034! Young's dry irony and understated humour has gone right past many readers, especially those unacquainted with English satire, moving them to outrage, as if George Orwell were thought to be advocating Big Brother. (I am well attuned to this phenomenon, having experienced it myself with the Unicard and Digital Imprimatur papers; no matter how obvious you make the irony, somebody, usually in what passes for universities these days, will take it seriously and explode in rage and vituperation.)

The meritocracy of this book is nothing like what politicians and business leaders mean when they parrot the word today (one hopes, anyway)! In the future envisioned here, psychology and the social sciences advance to the point that it becomes possible to determine the IQ of individuals at a young age, and that this IQ, combined with motivation and effort of the person, is an almost perfect predictor of their potential achievement in intellectual work. Given this, Britain is seen evolving from a class system based on heredity and inherited wealth to a caste system sorted by intelligence, with the high-intelligence élite “streamed” through special state schools with their peers, while the lesser endowed are directed toward manual labour, and the sorry side of the bell curve find employment as personal servants to the élite, sparing their precious time for the life of the mind and the leisure and recreation it requires.

And yet the meritocracy is a thoroughly socialist society: the crème de la crème become the wise civil servants who direct the deployment of scarce human and financial capital to the needs of the nation in a highly-competitive global environment. Inheritance of wealth has been completely abolished, existing accumulations of wealth confiscated by “capital levies”, and all salaries made equal (although the élite, naturally, benefit from a wide variety of employer-provided perquisites—so is it always, even in merito-egalitopias). The benevolent state provides special schools for the intelligent progeny of working class parents, to rescue them from the intellectual damage their dull families might do, and prepare them for their shining destiny, while at the same time it provides sports, recreation, and entertainment to amuse the mentally modest masses when they finish their daily (yet satisfying, to dullards such as they) toil.

Young's meritocracy is a society where equality of opportunity has completely triumphed: test scores trump breeding, money, connections, seniority, ethnicity, accent, religion, and all of the other ways in which earlier societies sorted people into classes. The result, inevitably, is drastic inequality of results—but, hey, everybody gets paid the same, so it's cool, right? Well, for a while anyway…. As anybody who isn't afraid to look at the data knows perfectly well, there is a strong hereditary component to intelligence. Sorting people into social classes by intelligence will, over the generations, cause the mean intelligence of the largely non-interbreeding classes to drift apart (although there will be regression to the mean among outliers on each side, mobility among the classes due to individual variation will preserve or widen the gap). After a few generations this will result, despite perfect social mobility in theory, in a segregated caste system almost as rigid as that of England at the apogee of aristocracy. Just because “the masses” actually are benighted in this society doesn't mean they can't cause a lot of trouble, especially if incited by rabble-rousing bored women from the élite class. (I warned you this book will enrage those who don't see the irony.) Toward the end of the book, this conflict is building toward a crisis. Anybody who can guess the ending ought to be writing satirical future history themselves.

Actually, I wonder how many of those who missed the satire didn't actually finish the book or simply judged it by the title. It is difficult to read a passage like this one on p. 134 and mistake it for anything else.

Contrast the present — think how different was a meeting in the 2020s of the National Joint Council, which has been retained for form's sake. On the one side sit the I.Q.s of 140, on the other the I.Q.s of 99. On the one side the intellectual magnates of our day, on the other honest, horny-handed workmen more at home with dusters than documents. On the one side the solid confidence born of hard-won achievement; on the other the consciousness of a just inferiority.
Seriously, anybody who doesn't see the satire in this must be none too Swift. Although the book is cast as a retrospective from 2038, and there passing references to atomic stations, home entertainment centres, school trips to the Moon and the like, technologically the world seems very much like that of 1950s. There is one truly frightening innovation, however. On p. 110, discussing the shrinking job market for shop attendants, we're told, “The large shop with its more economical use of staff had supplanted many smaller ones, the speedy spread of self-service in something like its modern form had reduced the number of assistants needed, and piped distribution of milk, tea, and beer was extending rapidly.” To anybody with personal experience with British plumbing and English beer, the mere thought of the latter being delivered through the former is enough to induce dystopic shivers of 1984 magnitude.

Looking backward from almost fifty years on, this book can be read as an alternative history of the last half-century. In the eyes of many with a libertarian or conservative inclination, just when the centuries-long battle against privilege and prejudice was finally being won: in the 1950s and early 60s when Young's book appeared, the dream of equal opportunity so eloquently embodied in Dr. Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream” speech began to evaporate in favour of equality of results (by forced levelling and dumbing down if that's what it took), group identity and entitlements, and the creation of a permanently dependent underclass from which escape was virtually impossible. The best works of alternative history are those which change just one thing in the past and then let the ripples spread outward over the years. You can read this story as a possible future in which equal opportunity really did completely triumph over egalitarianism in the sixties. For those who assume that would have been an unqualifiedly good thing, here is a cautionary tale well worth some serious reflexion.

January 2006 Permalink

Zabel, Bryce. Surrounded by Enemies. Minneapolis: Mill City Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-62652-431-6.
What if John F. Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt in Dallas? That is the point of departure for this gripping alternative history novel by reporter, author, and screenwriter Bryce Zabel. Spared an assassin's bullet by a heroic Secret Service agent, a shaken Kennedy returns to Washington and convenes a small group of his most trusted inner circle led by his brother Robert, the attorney general, to investigate who might have launched such an attack and what steps could be taken both to prevent a second attempt and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Surveying the landscape, they conclude it might be easier to make a list of powerful forces who might not wish to kill the president. Kennedy's actions in office had given actors ranging from Cuba, anti-Castro groups in the U.S., the Mafia, FBI, CIA, senior military commanders, the Secret Service, Texas oil interests, and even Vice President Johnson potential motivations to launch or condone an attack. At the same time, while pursuing their own quiet inquiry, they must try to avert a Congressional investigation which might turn into a partisan circus, diverting attention from their strategy for Kennedy's 1964 re-election campaign.

But in the snake pit which is Washington, there is more than one way to assassinate a man, and Kennedy's almost grotesque womanising and drug use (both he and his wife were regular patients of Max Jacobson, “Dr. Feelgood”, whose “tissue regenerator” injections were laced with amphetamines) provided the ammunition his enemies needed to try to bring him down by assassinating his character in the court of public opinion.

A shadowy figure begins passing FBI files to two reporters of Top Story, a recently-launched news magazine struggling in the shadow of Time and Newsweek. After investigating the allegations and obtaining independent corroboration for some of them, Top Story runs a cover story on “The Secret Life of the President”, creating a firestorm of scrutiny of the president's private life by media who never before considered such matters worthy of investigation or reporting.

The political implications quickly assume the dimensions of a constitutional crisis, where the parties involved are forced to weigh appropriate sanctions for a president whose behaviour may have put the national security at risk versus taking actions which may give those who plotted to kill the president what they tried to achieve in Dallas with a bullet.

The plot deftly weaves historical events from the epoch with twists and turns which all follow logically from the point of departure, and the result is a very different history of the 1960s and 1970s which, to this reader who lived through those decades, seems entirely plausible. The author, who identifies himself in the introduction as “a lifelong Democrat”, brings no perceptible ideological or political agenda to the story—the characters are as complicated as the real people were, and behave in ways which are believable given the changed circumstances.

The story is told in a clever way: as a special issue of Top Story commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination attempt. Written in weekly news magazine style, this allows it to cite memoirs, recollections by those involved in years after the events described, and documents which became available much later. There are a few goofs regarding historical events in the sixties which shouldn't have been affected by the alternative timeline, but readers who notice them can just chuckle and get on with the story. The book is almost entirely free of copy-editing errors.

This is a superb exemplar of alternative history, and Harry Turtledove, the cosmic grand master of the genre, contributes a foreword to the novel.

November 2013 Permalink

Zakaria, Fareed. The Future of Freedom. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. ISBN 0-393-04764-4.
The discussion of the merits of the European Union bureaucracy and World Trade Organisation on pages 241–248 will get you thinking. For a treatment of many of the same issues from a hard libertarian perspective, see Hans-Hermann Hoppe's Democracy: The God That Failed (June 2002).

July 2003 Permalink

Zelman, Aaron and L. Neil Smith. Hope. Hartford, WI: Mazel Freedom Press, 2001. ISBN 0-9642304-5-3.

March 2002 Permalink

Zubrin, Robert. The Holy Land. Lakewood, CO: Polaris Books, 2003. ISBN 0-9741443-0-4.
Did somebody say science fiction doesn't do hard-hitting social satire any more? Here, Robert Zubrin, best known for his Mars Direct mission design (see The Case for Mars) turns his acid pen (caustic keyboard?) toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with plenty of barbs left over for the absurdities and platitudes of the War on Terrorism (or whatever). This is a novel which will have you laughing out loud while thinking beyond the bumper-sticker slogans mouthed by politicians into the media echo chamber.

February 2004 Permalink

Zubrin, Robert Energy Victory. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007. ISBN 1-59102-591-5.
This is a tremendous book—jam-packed with nerdy data of every kind. The author presents a strategy aiming for the total replacement of petroleum as a liquid fuel and chemical feedstock with an explicit goal of breaking the back of OPEC and, as he says, rendering the Middle East's near-monopoly on oil as significant on the world economic stage as its near-monopoly on camel milk.

The central policy recommendation is a U.S. mandate that all new vehicles sold in the U.S. be “flex-fuel” capable: able to run on gasoline, ethanol, or methanol in any mix whatsoever. This is a proven technology; there are more than 6 million gasoline/ethanol vehicles on the road at present, more than five times the number of gasoline/electric hybrids (p. 27), and the added cost over a gas-only vehicle is negligible. Gasoline/ethanol flex-fuel vehicles are approaching 100% of all new sales in Brazil (pp. 165–167), and that without a government mandate. Present flex vehicles are either gasoline/ethanol or gasoline/methanol, not tri-fuel, but according to Zubrin that's just a matter of tweaking the exhaust gas sensor and reprogramming the electronic fuel injection computer.

Zubrin argues that methanol capability in addition to ethanol is essential because methanol can be made from coal or natural gas, which the U.S. has in abundance, and it enables utilisation of natural gas which is presently flared due to being uneconomical to bring to market in gaseous form. This means that it isn't necessary to wait for a biomass ethanol economy to come on line. Besides, even if you do produce ethanol from, say, maize, you can still convert the cellulose “waste” into methanol economically. You can also react methanol into dimethyl ether, an excellent diesel fuel that burns cleaner than petroleum-based diesel. Coal-based methanol production produces greenhouse gases, but less than burning the coal to make electricity, then distributing it and using it in plug-in hybrids, given the efficiencies along the generation and transmission chain.

With full-flex, the driver becomes a genuine market player: you simply fill up from whatever pump has the cheapest fuel among those available wherever you happen to be: the car will run fine on any mix you end up with in the tank. People in Brazil have been doing this for the last several years, and have been profiting from their flex-fuel vehicles now that domestic ethanol is cheaper than gasoline. Brazil, in fact, reduced its net petroleum imports to zero in 2005 (from 80% in 1974), and is now a net exporter of energy (p. 168), rendering the Brazilian economy entirely immune to the direct effects of OPEC price shocks.

Zubrin also demolishes the argument that ethanol is energy neutral or a sink: recent research indicates that corn ethanol multiplies the energy input by a factor between 6 and 20. Did you know that of the two authors of an oft-cited 2005 “ethanol energy sink” paper, one (David Pimentel) is a radical Malthusian who wants to reduce the world population by a factor of three and the other (Tadeusz Patzek) comes out of the “all bidness” (pp. 126–135)?

The geopolitical implications of energy dependence and independence are illustrated with examples from both world wars and the present era, and a hopeful picture sketched in which the world transitions from looting developed countries to fill the coffers of terror masters and kleptocrats to a future where the funds for the world's liquid fuel energy needs flow instead to farmers in the developing world who create sustainable, greenhouse-neutral fuel by their own labour and intellect, rather than pumping expendable resources from underground.

Here we have an optimistic, pragmatic, and open-ended view of the human prospect. The post-petroleum era could be launched on a global scale by a single act of the U.S. Congress which would cost U.S. taxpayers nothing and have negligible drag on the domestic or world economy. The technologies required date mostly from the 19th century and are entirely mature today, and the global future advocated has already been prototyped in a large, economically and socially diverse country, with stunning success. Perhaps people in the second half of the 21st century will regard present-day prophets of “peak oil” and “global warming” as quaint as the doomsayers who foresaw the end of civilisation when firewood supplies were exhausted, just years before coal mines began to fuel the industrial revolution.

December 2007 Permalink

Zubrin, Robert Merchants of Despair. New York: Encounter Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-594-03476-3.
This is one of the most important paradigm-changing books since Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism (January 2008). Zubrin seeks the common thread which unites radical environmentalism, eugenics, population control, and opposition to readily available means of controlling diseases due to hysteria engendered by overwrought prose in books written by people with no knowledge of the relevant science.

Zubrin identifies the central thread of all of these malign belief systems: anti-humanism. In 1974, the Club of Rome, in Mankind at the Turning Point, wrote, “The world has cancer and the cancer is man.” A foul synthesis of the ignorant speculations of Malthus and a misinterpretation of the work of Darwin led to a pernicious doctrine which asserted that an increasing human population would deplete a fixed pool of resources, leading to conflict and selection among a burgeoning population for those most able to secure the resources they needed to survive.

But human history since the dawn of civilisation belies this. In fact, per capita income has grown as population has increased, demonstrating that the static model is bogus. Those who want to constrain the human potential are motivated by a quest for power, not a desire to seek the best outcome for the most people. The human condition has improved over time, and at an accelerating pace since the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, because of human action: the creativity of humans in devising solutions to problems and ways to meet needs often unperceived before the inventions which soon became seen as essentials were made. Further, the effects of human invention in the modern age are cumulative: any at point in history humans have access to all the discoveries of the past and, once they build upon them to create a worthwhile innovation, it is rapidly diffused around the world—in our days at close to the speed of light. The result of this is that in advanced technological societies the poor, measured by income compared to the societal mean, would have been considered wealthy not just by the standards of the pre-industrial age, but compared to those same societies in the memory of people now alive. The truly poor in today's world are those whose societies, for various reasons, are not connected to the engine of technological progress and the social restructuring it inevitably engenders.

And yet the anti-humanists have consistently argued for limiting the rate of growth of population and in many cases actually reducing the total population, applying a “precautionary principle” to investigation of new technologies and their deployment, and relinquishment of technologies deemed to be “unsustainable”. In short, what they advocate is reversing the progress since the year 1800 (and in many ways, since the Enlightenment), and returning to an imagined bucolic existence (except for, one suspects, the masters in their gated communities, attended to by the serfs as in times of old).

What Malthus and all of his followers to the present day missed is that the human population is not at all like the population of bacteria in a Petri dish or rabbits in the wild. Uniquely, humans invent things which improve their condition, create new resources by finding uses for natural materials previously regarded as “dirt”, and by doing so allow a larger population to enjoy a standard of living much better than that of previous generations. Put aside the fanatics who wish to reduce the human population by 80% or 90% (they exist, they are frighteningly influential in policy-making circles, and they are called out by name here). Suppose, for a moment, the author asks, societies in the 19th century had listened to Malthus and limited the human population to half of the historical value. Thomas Edison and Louis Pasteur did work which contributed to the well-being of their contemporaries around the globe and continue to benefit us today. In a world with half as many people, perhaps only one would have ever lived. Which would you choose?

But the influence of the anti-humans did not stop at theory. The book chronicles the sorry, often deceitful, and tragic consequences when their policies were put into action by coercive governments. The destruction wrought by “population control” measures approached, in some cases, the level of genocide. By 1975, almost one third of Puerto Rican women of childbearing age had been sterilised by programs funded by the U.S. federal government, and a similar program on Indian reservations sterilised one quarter of Native American women of childbearing age, often without consent. Every purebred woman of the Kaw tribe of Oklahoma was sterilised in the 1970s: if that isn't genocide, what is?

If you look beneath the hood of radical environmentalism, you'll find anti-humanism driving much of the agenda. The introduction of DDT in the 1940s immediately began to put an end to the age-old scourge of malaria. Prior to World War II, between one and six million cases of malaria were reported in the U.S. every year. By 1952, application of DDT to the interior walls of houses (as well as other uses of the insecticide) had reduced the total number of confirmed cases of malaria that year to two. By the early 1960s, use of DDT had cut malaria rates in Asia and Latin America by 99%. By 1958, Malthusian anti-humanist Aldous Huxley decried this, arguing that “Quick death by malaria has been abolished; but life made miserable by undernourishment and over-crowding is now the rule, and slow death by outright starvation threatens ever greater numbers.”

Huxley did not have long to wait to see his desires fulfilled. After the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, a masterpiece of pseudoscientific deception and fraud, politicians around the world moved swiftly to ban DDT. In Sri Lanka, where malaria cases had been cut from a million or more per year to 17 in 1963, DDT was banned in 1964, and by 1969 malaria cases had increased to half a million a year. Today, DDT is banned or effectively banned in most countries, and the toll of unnecessary death due to malaria in Africa alone since the DDT ban is estimated as in excess of 100 million. Arguably, Rachel Carson and her followers are the greatest mass murderers of the 20th century. There is no credible scientific evidence whatsoever that DDT is harmful to humans and other mammals, birds, reptiles, or oceanic species. To the anti-humanists, the carnage wrought by the banning of this substance is a feature, not a bug.

If you thought Agenda 21 (November 2012) was over the top, this volume will acquaint you with the real-world evil wrought by anti-humanists, and their very real agenda to exterminate a large fraction of the human population and reduce the rest (except for themselves, of course, they believe) to pre-industrial serfdom. As the author concludes:

If the idea is accepted that the world's resources are fixed with only so much to go around, then each new life is unwelcome, each unregulated act or thought is a menace, every person is fundamentally the enemy of every other person, and each race or nation is the enemy of every other race of nation. The ultimate outcome of such a worldview can only be enforced stagnation, tyranny, war, and genocide.

This is a book which should have an impact, for the better, as great as Silent Spring had for the worse. But so deep is the infiltration of the anti-human ideologues into the cultural institutions that you'll probably never hear it mentioned except here and in similar venues which cherish individual liberty and prosperity.

April 2013 Permalink