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Book Review: Confucius and the Chinese Way, by H. G. Creel

2017 August 8
by Ian Welsh

Statue of Confucius from Rizal Park in ManilaAmong ideologies and religions, one of the longest lasting and most influential was Confucianism. Confucianism was the most important ideology of the Chinese for about two thousand years, and China was either the first or second most advanced region of the world for most of that time (India being the other contender.)

The review is of an older book, published in 1949, before Confucian influence was so heavily hit by the rise of Communism.

Confucianism, by that time, was seen as an essentially reactionary philosophy: Everyone should know their place and stay in it, worship their ancestors, obey their parents, and so on, but Creel argues, convincingly, I believe, that Confucianism was a radical project at the start.

Confucius lived in a period of warring states. Huge armies were raised, battles were frequent, taxation and levies were harsh, and maiming and torture were common. Ordinary people were much afflicted, as noble families fought it out to see who would unify China.

Confucius believed that the welfare of the common people should be the goal of ruling, and he set out to do something about it. That something was to create a philosophy, and a teaching, which produced officers for the lords, officers who had been trained to believe the common weal was the goal of rulership.

Confucius astutely noticed that there was no formalized training for officials and created it. He wasn’t the only one to so notice: The legalists and the Mohists did as well, but in the end, it was his system that worked.

Confucius decided to build off human nature as he observed it: He noted that parents tend to love their children and care for them, and that children love their parents. He tried to take that love and transfer it to officials and rulers. Rulers were to treat those below them as beloved children, and those below were to obey their rulers as parents.

Confucius wasn’t a fool, of course. He understand that this could be abused, so he noted that if a ruler didn’t act like a loving parent, with beneficience to those he ruled, then he wasn’t actually a ruler, but a tyrant, and duty was to oppose him.

A ruler should pick the best officials, and leave the governing to them, with an eye to flourishing of all.

Confucians should act out of benevolence no matter the circumstances, or even the results. Confucius recognized that one could try to do good, and though “Heaven” could frustrate one, the merit lay in trying. Thus, a man who tried could feel secure that he had done his duty, whether he succeeded, or even was ever appointed at all. Willingness and ability to serve was enough.

Interestingly, Confucianism was most successful in two periods: before the unification of China and for something over a hundred years afterwards. The Confucians were quite popular with the people, and princes wanted their support. When the first Emperor of China won, he did it primarily through Legalist doctrines (individuals exist only to serve the state, and the Emperor is the absolute ruler), but his dynasty was soon overthrown with the aid of Confucians, and the first few Emperors were good Confucians, until an ambitious and smart one came along who decided to gain control over the Confucians.

How he did so is a lesson which should resonate though history: He formalized teaching of Confucianism with appointed masters and teachers with stipends and so on. He chose them, he controlled their finances. Confucianism seemed to benefit from this, but, of course, it put Confucians and Confucianism largely under Imperial control. From that point on, Confucianism (very generally speaking, we’re talking about two millenia of history) was never again so beneficial for the people, and much more of a prop for the ruling class.

The Confucian sages and scholars had been, to use the modern word, co-opted.

A few summers ago, I read a large number of books on Confucianism, and for my purposes this was the best, because what interested me most was the life cycle of the ideology: How it rose, how it gained power, and how it fell.

Confucius, famously, died thinking he was a failure (as Jesus may have, and many other reformers). Only after his death did his teachings become influential, and the day they truly took power, it seems to me, is when the days of their full benefit became numbered.

This is normal for ideologies, and Confucianism got a far, far longer run, than most at being beneficial.

Seeing this cycle play out millennia ago is a nice antidote to studying more recent rises and falls; such as the relating to the end of New Deal liberalism with Reagan/Thatcher, or the end of the world system put in place after Napoleon.

It is also, in some ways, a master class in the details of ideology creation: Confucius created a system which had innate rewards for those individuals who followed it, which was beneficial to the governments which adopted it, and which was able to create a large group of people who wanted it to continue, while ensuring a wide support base in the population.

All of this makes for fascinating reading, and I recommend this book highly, though it’s old and may be hard to find a copy.

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How Society Creates Ability

2017 August 7
by Ian Welsh

Let’s start with biological sex and the differences between men and women.

There are obvious differences, in size and upper body strength. There are large differences in some of the senses, such as taste and smell (women tend to be far more acute).

Other differences appear biological, but this is not as clear cut as it seems, because socialization feeds into biology.

A simple example is that people raised under constant stress have differences in their brains from people who aren’t raised under constant stress.

So let’s take a simple claim: Men are better at math. Seems straightforward, quite robust, but it turns out that in Iceland, which is very egalitarian, young women are now outperforming young men.

There is a well-known effect in the social sciences that runs as follows: People who feel inferior, perform worse. This is quite robust. Tell someone they suck, or that they are lower on the totem pole, and they will do worse by pretty much every metric.

So, if you live in a society where men are widely considered superior to women (and let’s not pretend our societies aren’t like this), then that will have an effect. If this goes on as people grow up, it’s unlikely that this effect won’t get baked into brain and body.

Take another standard observation: Women are more prone to anxiety and neuroticism.

The problem with this is that women live in societies where they are less powerful than men, have less money, and are less violently proficient, when violence is often used as coercion.

Put more brutally: They live amongst a bunch of potential rapists who are larger and stronger than them.

So, they’re under constant stress, a point which I don’t think many men truly understand. That constant fear has effects on the brain and body; again, if you’re constantly exposed to stress, you actually become more sensitive to it.

The point here is that it is very hard to determine what is “natural” and what is “social.” We can say, “This is natural in this sort of society,” but that can’t be used as a reason not to change society.

What we do know, I hope, is that it sucks to be scared and it sucks to be told you’re inferior, and that underperforming not because you are inferior but because you’ve been told you are, is unfair and a stupid way for us to run our society.

This feeds into a lot of different things, but the simplest is the misunderstanding of fitness to mean “winning in the current scheme.”

IQ correlates well to success in our society, so we say, “They’re smarter, they deserve success.” But IQ correlates well to success in society because it correlates to two things: (1) academic success, which gates almost all the good jobs in our lives, and; (2) verbal and cultural fluency in the dominant culture, which are necessary to get ahead as well.

In other words, we’ve created a society which says, “If you have a high IQ, we will let you have good jobs.” Well yes, that’s how we made it, it’s not independent. (The getting along with the dominant culture may always be with us, but that doesn’t mean we should always approve of it as a necessity, nor try not to mitigate it.)

Fitness, in racial terms, is actually about being able to survive changes in the environment. Fit species are diverse, and able to adapt, and if a species loses diversity, it is less likely to survive changes.

Much of our environment, as humans, is social. But society changes. The cluster of skills which make up IQ weren’t always highly valued, rather the contrary. Brave-to-the-point-of-insanity dunderheads were what many feudal and aristocratic societies wanted (reading 19th century British colonial military biographies makes this clear). Right now, geeks rule, but when I was growing up they sure as heck didn’t (and their rule, today, is somewhat exaggerated).

These periods come and go. There was a time in the 19th and early 20th century when geeks (actual engineers and scientists) did very well, seeming to rule the roost. Edison is a good example. But as the industries they had invented became mature, they were forced out and down. This took time, but basically after about 40 to 80 years, the engineers become nothing but tools of management: The money men and social glad-handers will eventually take over.

What you’re good at is at least 50 percent due to a simple luck of the draw (arguably entirely, as you didn’t choose your parents, and thus when or where you were born). At that point any genetic endowment you may have (innate ability) meets the environment, and the environment has the final say, in almost all cases, about how well that endowment flourishes, and certainly about how well it is rewarded.

Most of what seems like merit, in other words, is luck. If you have it, be grateful. If it’s rewarded, be even more grateful.

And don’t assume you know exactly which is which.

Those who have been lucky, and thus have merit in a society or environment, should recognize their luck, and be humble, knowing how little it had to do with them. And if you want a metric upon which to measure your life, perhaps it could be how much good you have done divided by how much “merit” you have.

By this measure, the rich are rarely worth saving, because as studies show, the poor give more compared to what they have than the rich do.

That fact should be chewed on very carefully.

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A Quick Note on Venezuela

2017 August 5

The common cry in right-wing circles to anyone who suggests anything resembling socialism is: “It failed in Venezuela.”

What failed in Venezuela was being a petro-economy, not diversifying the economy. Chavez spread money around, but was never able to get off oil.

When you combine that with US hostility, which included sanctions and robust support for opposition groups, along with the world system’s basic set up at this time (which is meant to make it impossible for countries to be able to meet their own needs), you have Venezuela’s downfall.

None of this is hard to predict. Back in 2004 or so, on the late BOP news, I wrote an article criticizing how Chavez was running the economy, very specifically on these exact points.

Socialism works when it is done correctly, just as capitalism does. Back in the 30s, if you were a capitalist, every time you tried to argue in it’s favor, I’m sure someone would say, “What about the Great Depression?”

It is also, again, hard to run a socialist economy in this world economy, because the world’s super power and most of the great powers will be hostile. If socialism is seen to work, after all, it could threaten the wealth and power of those who run capitalist countries.

I favor a mixed economy, with some role for the free market. But Venezuela’s problems prove nothing except that resource economies are vulnerable and that the world system and its super powers are hostile to socialists.

(See also: 7 Rules For Running A Left Wing Government.)

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Why Relying on People’s Vices Backfires

2017 August 4
by Ian Welsh

Image by [rom]

There are, roughly speaking, three views of human nature: We’re either 1) inherently good; 2) inherently bad, or; 3) about neutral.

Those on the left tend towards “good” and those on the right tend towards “bad.”

In addition there is a dispute about how one gets the best from people: treating them badly (punishment) or treating them well (encouragement). Are happy people better, or are scared people better? Machiavelli’s, “Is it better to be loved than feared?” may come to mind, though he was discussing a different issue.

Christianity has generally gone for “bad” and “punishment.” Humans are fallen, they are innately sinners, and one should not spare the rod, lest one spoil the child.

Different kinds of Confucians have had different views, though the master seems to have been in the “neutral” camp and Mencius was definitely in the innately “good” camp. (Others have been in the “bad.”)

Obviously, we can do this exercise in general terms, where we mean “most people.” If there are, perhaps, a few bad or good seeds, it wouldn’t change things, mostly.

Modern economics and economism has a world view which basically comes down to: “People are bad–selfish and greedy, but you can use their badness to get good stuff done by using incentives.” Economics tends to prefer positive inducements, the negative ones are there: homelessness, deprivation, even death for those who do not fit into the system.

My own view is that most people are neither good nor bad; but weak. They conform to the world around them, particularly their peer group and their masters. They bend. A small number are good pretty much no matter what (5 to 15 percent) and a small number are bad pretty much no matter what (5 to 15 percent).

As for incentives, they work, but they get only the behaviour they reward, and that usually leads to very perverse outcomes. If surgeons are paid more for certain types of surgery–or for surgery rather than non-surgery–then cut they will, whether it is needed or not.

As a result, I believe incentives should be used sparingly: Most jobs shouldn’t use them at all, and those that do should key them to general metrics. If you wanted to give politicians metrics, you might give them a lifetime salary, disallow them any other income, and tie it to increases in the welfare of bottom five percent and the median (the rich can take care of themselves). Then, of course, the politicians will start corrupting the indices, so they metrics would have to be as simple as possible.

Similar schemes can be done for various companies; in most cases, they shouldn’t be, and people who are responsible for human welfare should never get much or any of their salary from specific incentives.

It’s hard to argue that greed can’t get things done: It has. The problem is that greed gets the wrong things done, or it does too much, more than necessary–to the point where it’s harmful. Global climate change is the obvious example, but examples of this are innumerable.

The other issues is that means are ends. If you believe humans are bad and need to be treated badly to get stuff done, then your society will primarily run on meanness, and that will be the flavour and feel of everyday life. (Most of our current regime operates this principle. though most of the population is now motivated more by fear more greed, as almost all the gains go to the top one percent or less.)

The advantage of treating people well is that you’re treating them well. Even if it doesn’t always work (as greed and selfishness and punishment don’t always work), well, at least you’re doing something good anyway.

If you want to do something bad, or rely on bad motives to get something done, the onus is very high to prove that treating people well can’t get the job done just the same–because your method is polluting. It is, in itself bad, happens all too regularly, and makes life worse for people.

And making people unhappy is contagious: Unhappy people make other people unhappy.

It is for this reason that I believe in defaulting to kindness when it comes to policy. If it fails, well, you’ve still done good.

When times get worse we can get meaner or we can get kinder. FDR, in the 30s, chose kinder. For the last 40 years or so, ever since the oil crises and inflation, we’ve generally chosen meaner–and certainly since 2008, when Europe adopted austerity.

There is another choice. I think it can be defended as more likely to work; but we know that being mean isn’t working, so we might as well be kind. At least then, we’ll be doing some good.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Something Genuinely Good the Internet Has Allowed…

2017 August 2
by Ian Welsh

…is Sci-Hub, which hosts scholarly articles. SciHub, to be clear, is illegal in the US and other countries.

Sci-Hub can instantly provide access to more than two-thirds of all scholarly articles, an amount that Himmelstein says is “even higher” than he anticipated. For research papers protected by a paywall, the study found Sci-Hub’s reach is greater still, with instant access to 85 percent of all papers published in subscription journals. For some major publishers, such as Elsevier, more than 97 percent of their catalog of journal articles is being stored on Sci-Hub’s servers—meaning they can be accessed there for free.

Science, and scholarship in general, is supposed to be about the open sharing of information. What’s happened instead is that journals were bought up by a few companies, and access was made expensive. Getting a single article usually costs between $10 and $15 in my experience, and most are behind paywalls. University libraries have some access, though few can pay for all journals, but not everyone has access to university accounts.

(This is similar to accessing, say, Statistics Canada, which is also behind a paywall for most things. This limits who can effectively research Canadian subjects. Full access costs thousands of dollars. One can imagine what effect that might have on not just who uses the info, but in what sort of research is done with the information.)

Again, Sci-Hub is illegal. It is also entirely in the spirit of science and scholarship. Information doesn’t want to be free, but scholarly information should be, both because scholarship advances more quickly when everyone has access, and because (normative statement) everyone should have access to scholarly and scientific information.

Also, given that peer reviewers are not paid for by journals and that most research is done with public money, and, well, the internet now exists, the argument for subscription journals is weak. They restrict access to information in a way which is bad for researchers (who usually want their work read), as well.

So. This is one of the things the internet has done that is truly good. Note that it is illegal.

(Meanwhile Russia has made using VPNs and proxies illegal, which is far more important and harmful than expelling a few diplomats…well, as long as expelling those diplomats isn’t one of the steps towards a US/Russian war.)

Code is NOT law, but sometimes people can use it to the do the right thing.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

Relations with Russia Sour Further

2017 July 31
by Ian Welsh

So, we have an anti-Russia sanctions bill moving through Congress, which will increase sanctions on Russia and include fines on non-American companies who do business with Russia in specific ways. It will remove Trump’s ability to remove sanctions. While Trump could veto it, the two versions (House and Senate) both passed with super-super-majorities (the Senate version is 98-2).

The White House has indicated that Trump will likely pass it, and if he doesn’t, will seek a “harsher” bill.

Meanwhile Russia has expelled 755 diplomats and seized two US diplomatic buildings in Russia, a move which brings American diplomatic numbers in Russia to the exact same number as Russian diplomats in America. This is in retaliation for Obama’s seizure of two buildings and removal of Russia diplomats just before he left office.

Russia had put off retaliation in hopes that Trump would reverse Obama’s action.

One of the few good things one hoped for with respect to the Trump administration was an improvement in US-Russia relations.

But Russia hysteria is in full swing in the US; red-scare reborn, based on accusations that Russia put Trump in the White House. A lot of people believe this, there were certainly plenty of contacts between various Russians and the Trump campaign, and heck, Russia probably did prefer Trump, hoping he’d undo sanctions and be less hostile.

(Meanwhile, the US appears to be working to overthrow the Venezuelan government.)

Proof of significant action by Russia is lacking. It may be that some minor help was given, but I have yet to see any proof that hacking was ordered by the Russian government, only repeatedly asserted by a variety of intelligence agencies, all of whom have a long record of lying when convenient.

If interference did occur, it appears to have amounted to “release of true information that was harmful to Clinton.”

If this is worthy of sanctions, then the rest of the world should lock up America and throw away the key given America’s actions; repeatedly not just interfering in elections, but overthrowing governments–including democratically elected ones.

It is worth remembering, again, that Russia has enough nukes to destroy the world, and so does America. Good relations are in the interest of world survival.

It is perhaps also worth looking, with a cold eye, at whether America or Russia, over the last 20 years or so, has done more harm to other countries and their citizens? If you are honest in the exercise, you might begin to wonder who is the greater threat.

Meanwhile, we also have more sanctions against Iran and North Korea coming down the pipe.

North Korea is, by the way, still at war: The Korean war was never ended with a peace treaty, only with a truce. North Korea is under perhaps the most extensive sanctions in world history, but somehow those sanctions haven’t stopped it from getting nukes, and it’s possible they may even wind up with missiles able to strike the US.

There is a rumor that the current leader of North Korea was left a note by his father, which said, “Don’t give up your nukes. Saddam gave up his program, and that’s when the US went for him.” It has also been noted that Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program, played nice with the West, and as a reward, got sodomized with a knife and killed. (Clinton was very happy about this: “We came, we saw, he died.”)

I don’t know if the rumor is true, but I do know that North Korea would be insane to give up their nukes as anything but part of a comprehensive peace deal which removed sanctions, and maybe not even then. This is simply as a matter of survival. You don’t have to like the North Korean regime (I don’t) to not realize that people aren’t going to cut their own throats for your convenience.

As for Iran sanctions… bah, fill it in yourself. This is vile stupidity, and I hate any form of theocratic government.

I blame Democrats and the media for a ton of this. The hysterics have been never-ending. Better relations with Russia are a good thing under most circumstances. Instead, the US is ratcheting up tensions and giving Russia every reason to see the United States as its enemy. (Lets’ be frank, the US is Russia’s enemy, and, save for a brief period when they were allied against Germany, has never been anything else.)

So, the world gets stupider, more propaganda ridden, and more dangerous. The sanctions won’t “work” (and appear to be about forcing Europeans to buy American oil instead of Russian), not in the sense of making Russia do what the US wants or not do anything they can to undo damage done to their country.

If you don’t want someone to treat you as a threat, perhaps don’t act as a threat. (Insert long essay here about how, actually, the US is far more of a threat to Russia than Russia is to the US.)

This is all pathetic, and everyone involved in it should be ashamed, but is, instead, proud.


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The Only Person with Sense in the Trump Administration…

2017 July 29
by Ian Welsh

Steve Bannon

…is Steve Bannon. (Yes, he’s a nasty nativist as well.)

In the last few days, Bannon has suggested increasing the top marginal rate to 44 percent and regulating Google and Facebook.

Both of these are good ideas. I’m sure that Bannon’s regulations of Facebook and Google might not be what I’d want, but the bottom line is that these are now the primary media organizations of the world: What people read or see is mostly determined by Google or Facebook–their algorithms and employees.

For example, three months ago, Google put out a new algo to reduce fake news. Result?

In the three months since Google implemented the changes to its search engine, fewer people have accessed left-wing and anti-war news sites. Based on information available on Alexa analytics, other sites that have experienced sharp drops in ranking include WikiLeaks, Alternet, Counterpunch, Global Research, Consortium News and Truthout. Even prominent democratic rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International appear to have been hit.

Hey! What a surprise. Major corporation does something which makes people who tend to think badly of major corporations read less!

The bottom line is simple: Two companies control most of what people read and that should be under democratic control. And that’s before we even get to how Google and Facebook have systematically taken control of advertising, diverting more and more of the profit to them and away from actual content creators.

This is similar to the problem of railroads before major highways and trucking: farmers could only get crops to market through railroads, so railroads took almost all the profits. We have forgotten, but farmers hated the railroads with a sickly passion, and for good reason.

Google and Facebook determine who gets read, the political and economic repercussions of which are massive. (And Facebook’s CEO quite clearly wants to be President.)

Bannon is right, whether you like his other politics or not.

As far as the Trump admin goes, Ivanka and Jared are the ones who try to mitigate the nasty social stuff (often failing) and Bannon is the only one who wants ordinary Americans to do well.

You can despise all three, with good reason, but understand the reality.

Oh, and “fake news”? It exists, but the hysteria around it is being ridden heavily by people you want nothing to do with. And no fake news so far has ever equaled the New York Times lies which helped sell the Iraq war.

Fake news hysteria among elites is really just them saying: “Our monopoly on lies is being taken away from us! Only approved lies should be allowed!”

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A World Without Poor People (Sort of)

2017 July 27

Because the last time it was done, it was not forbidden, because good jobs cluster in only a few regions now, and because of vast influxes of foreign money, we have charts like this:

So, almost a 100 percent increase in five and a half years. (People living in Vancouver wish housing prices had only risen this much.)

Meanwhile, the Fed is muttering to itself about how there is almost no inflation, because they don’t measure housing price increases as inflation and consider the most important inflation that which does not include energy and food.

In other words, if the price of having a home, staying warm or cool in your home, driving your car, or feeding yourself is going up, well, that’s just not very important.

A lot of people got very rich in real estate speculation, mortgages, and downstream securities last time, and the vast majority of the rich ones got to keep the money they made. Even those who lost it, were mostly made whole by government. (Ordinary home owners were, uhhh, not made whole.)

Given it worked last time, and given that there was no real penalty for doing it, and that the Fed and other central banks proved they were willing to bail out the rich to the tune of trillions of dollars, why not run the play again? The profits are privatized; the losses at the end will be socialized. Heck, with a bit of luck the Fed will print money pre-emptively to make sure that there is never a crisis for rich people ever again, just ever-increasing asset prices.

(This applies to the stock market as well.)

There is, mind you, a real economy buried under all the money being funneled to rich people somewhere, and at some point that economy may just collapse. After all, all the people who own these fancy condos and houses expect a servant class to take care of them.

But perhaps that labor can all be turned over to robots, as Silicon Valley wants, and the poor can just be expelled from places like SoCal, DC, New York, Vancouver, and Toronto entirely, to slowly drug themselves to death, or perhaps just starve, in the vast interior wastelands of the continent where “real” people don’t want to live.

This is, fairly explicitly, what Silicon Valley techbros want; they want to eliminate the need for surplus people.

I wonder, though, how many of them will find that they too, are surplus, when AI becomes able to code and write ads.

It will, at least, be amusing.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.