The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: History Page 1 of 3

Understanding Absolute Vs. Comparative Advantage & Why It Matters

There are two types of advantages.

A comparative advantage is when you have or can produce more of something than someone else. (Person, country, whatever.)

An absolute advantage is when you have or can do or produce something others can’t. This can be threshold matter: in World War II the Allies had more than enough oil and the Axis didn’t have enough to run their war machine. While in numbers terms it looked like a comparative advantage, it was actually an absolute advantage: it strangled Axis production and their ability to field mechanized troops, aircraft and ships. Up until the nuclear bomb, in terms of tech, the opposing great powers were about equal, but in terms of the key resource required to run everything, the Allies were in surplus and the Axis never had enough.

Firearms were an absolute advantage. Once they spread, European firearms were usually still better and Europeans understood how to use them properly, while their opponents rarely did. Cultural understanding is often necessary to get the most out of a technology. In India, the British East India company often faced off against Indian armies with the same weapons as them, but they deployed them atrociously: they didn’t know how to use them properly.

Machine guns, when first deployed, were an absolute advantage. The Maxim gun, deployed in Africa, let British troops defeat armies literally 100 times larger than it.

Horse archers, properly deployed, were an absolute advantage. Genghis Khan didn’t just united Mongolia (making many tribes all into Mongols), he changed society and military organization and how horse archers were deployed. For about a century the Mongols were essentially undefeated, creating the largest land empire in history, and when the first real loss happened, the Mamluks inflicted it by using a Mongol style army effectively against the Mongols.

The steam engine plus factories produced goods in such quantities that it was a relative advantage which become an absolute advantage. Factories had existed before steam, indeed we have evidence of factories in India before the Aryan invasion, thousands of years ago. But add steam, and BOOM. (Oil and electricity merely increased production, but they weren’t the quantum leap.)

In the invasion and conquest of the Americas, the absolute advantage wasn’t cannons and firearms nearly so much as it was European diseases, which the Europeans had some immunity to and the natives had no immunity to. End result, 90% of the population killed off by disease. Without that Europeans might have done an “India” and conquered various North American areas, but they would never have been able to colonize all of it and drive most of the population to extinction so they could keep it in the long run.

Cannons were an absolute advantage for a time. The monarchs of the early Renaissance were able to use them to reduce the noble power massively and turn them from semi-independent rulers (feudalism) into aristocrats dependent on the king, since castles could no longer hold out in sieges for any length of time.

Further back, the European Knight had an absolute advantage over peasants and most European infantry (minus the Scots and Swiss and a few exceptions.) That advantage didn’t extend much out of Europe. Knights were better than Byzantine cataphractoi and Muslim cavalry, but not so much as to allow lasting conquest. However, against internal enemies in Europe, their superiority was massive, especially against peasant armies.

Absolute advantage is about having something or being able to do something your competitors don’t have or can’t do. The current imbroglios over computer chips and airplane manufacture are the West’s attempt to keep the few places where they still have an absolute advantage over China, since they’ve given (sold) the rest to China, and lost most of their comparative advantages.

In eras of absolute advantage, small societies can do astounding things. The Mongols conquered vastly more populous areas and so did Europeans in general and the British in particular.

Eras of relative advantage, on the other hand, are eras of the most and the biggest.

Reader question. Are we in an absolute or relative era?


Collins Five Principles Of The Expansion And Collapse of Nations

As long time readers know, Randall Collins is a sociologist I admire.

One of his books is Macrohistory: Essays In Sociology of the Long Run. The second chapter is a theory of the rise and fall of empires. It’s this theory which Collins used to predict the collapse of the USSR in advance.

Principle 1: Size and resource advantage favors expansion. Expansion and resource advantage includes satrapies and alliances. So Canada’s resources are America’s and so are Europe’s and Japan’s and Australia’s and so on. Athen’s “allies” resources were Athens’, etc…

Principle 2: Geopolitical or “marchland” advantage favors expansion. This means you want to be on the edge, in the corner of the map. Think Rome, on the edge of the Greek world. Russia on the edge of Europe and, indeed, America on the edge, and having no real enemies nearby.

All seven unifiers were from marchland, the central states always lost.

The history of Europe in the 20th century was war between central powers (and the old marchland, Britain), leading to exhaustion and then conquest by the two European marchland states, dividing Europe between Russia and the US. Americans had massive garrisons and overthrew governments who tried to resist them in Europe; they were occupiers just as were the Soviets.

The advantage here is the classical one of corner positions: you don’t have enemies on every side. Russia became a great power largely by having gunpowder weapons and expanding against people who didn’t, while having to defend only one border against European nations.  America, likewise, but with very little real risk from advanced nations once the revolution was gone (Canada was too sparsely populated, and Mexico/Spain were in radical decline.)

Principle 3: Interior states tend to fragment when not conquered by marchland states. Collins gives examples, “this happened in China during several interdynastic periods, in Kievan Russia, in the Balkans after the decline of the Ottoman and Austrian Empires, and when the medieval Holy Roman Empire fragmented in the kleinstaaterei of Germany and Italy. Fragmentation occurs because interior states become militarily weakened states incapable of controlling secessions.

Basically, you’ve got potential allies and enemies on every side, and  you tend towards balance of power politics and defensive postures. Even though central states tend to be on rich land, needing to defend against so many possible enemies leads to exhaustion, and they can’t handle revolts. Alternatively, though Collins doesn’t mention it, you can have self-disarmament in a successful balance of power regime, such as happened in the EU and if someone decides to take advantage of it, it may be too late to rearm.

Principle 4: Cumulative processes bring periodic long-term simplificiations, with massive arms races and showdown wars between a few contenders.

The first three rules lead to a couple large states becoming powerful (or putting them into alliances that amount to the same thing, as with Athens and the USA), then those two powers have a showdown. Sometimes it’s two marchlands who have conquered central areas (as with the USSR and America), sometimes it’s a peripheral state versus a central state which has conquered other central states (Britain v. Germany or Britain v. France), and sometimes to it’s a marchland just conquering the center as with the Mongols and China (though the Mongols conquered the Arab/Muslim center as well.)

These periods generally have huge arms races and buildups, which may or may not go to a showdown war. The US and USSR did not have their showdown war, but Athens and Sparta did. The competition, even if it doesn’t go to war can lead to both parties essentially losing, as with Germany and Britain in the two world wars. Britain’s “victory” was the loss of their empire and almost all their power and slow long term decline from that point as a manufacturing power, winding up a financialized satrapy of the real winner, the US.

The collapse of Britain, France and Germany allowed the US and the USSR to expand into what amounted to a vacuum.

Principle 5: Overextension brings resource strain and state disintegration.

Collins writes “the further military power is projected from the home base, the higher the costs.”

It’s this that made Paul Kennedy in his “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” think that the US was due to collapse. He was right, but what he didn’t see was that the USSR was under even more resource pressure, and had a smaller resource base. Remember that Nixon going to China turned Russia’s eastern border into a real worry, and they had to move large numbers of troops there and keep them ready for a potential war. Combined with the Warsaw pact and allies having less resources and people than the US, NATO and other allies and Russia was under more resource strain than the US with its widespread bases.

The odd thing here, as Kennedy showed, that empires expand and get more resources, but the cost of getting the resources expands faster than the resources gained.

Though Collins doesn’t discuss it here I’d say there are other processes. Empires tend to ship their production to the provinces. They financialize. They have inflated real-estate and other prices which drives out real production (Spain and the treasure fleets is the extreme example, but it can clearly be seen in 20th century America and 19th century England, and I bet it was visible in Periclean Athens.)

Concluding Remarks

These are the five principles of Collins basic geopolitical model. They were used to predict the collapse of the USSR, in advance, and they backfit quite nicely onto a large number of civilizations’ history.

One might wish to extend this to the current situation, evaluating China and its junior partner Russia in their conflict against the West. Who has the size and resource advantage (resources in the modern world include manufacturing capacity and tech). Which has more of a marchland advantage? (Remember, if the US feels it has to defend something, the mainland advantage only partially applies, and then there’s the question of hypersonic missiles and so on.)

I don’t see an interior state fragmentation process going on that matters, but maybe I’m missing it?

Is there an arms race going on? Will it lead to a direct war? Who will use less of their resources to maintain that arms race while remaining militarily viable?

Who is more in overextension? The US and allies or China and Russia?

I may write an article on this, but I think most readers can work thru it themselves and will find it more valuable to do so than to read me doing it.


How Gunpowder Ended the Middle Ages

Some time back I read a book called The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559. One thread I picked out as particularly clear was their explanation of the effects of gunpowder.

The first bit is what as known as pike and shot. Early gunpowder weapons were slow and inaccurate. But late medieval pike units had already changed warfare: not only could they withstand charges from knights, but they figured out how to charge themselves. Still, they weren’t as fast as knights, and there were ways to deal with them.

Pike and shot was the innovation that broke knights completely: early firearms would blow right through armor, and pikemen could protect the arquebusiers. Pike and shot units slaughtered knights.

The second issue is that gunpowder, or rather artillery, made medieval castles obsolete. Artillery enabled the conquest of both Normandy and Constantinople.

Thirdly, gunpowder at the beginning was very expensive. It “royalized” warfare, nobles couldn’t afford it, kings could, and they used it to destroy the independence of the feudal nobility: knights weren’t the dominant arm any more, castles couldn’t withstand sieges, and nobles couldn’t afford to upgrade their men to the new armaments in enough numbers.

The irony here is that gunpowder also “proletariatized” warfare: peasants could use guns just fine, without much training and pike work, while skilled, didn’t require the training of a knight. It was said that to truly train as a knight you had to start as a child, but a gunner or pikeman could be trained in a few months.

The result of all of this was larger armies, the breaking of the independent feudal nobility as independent military forces, and thus centralization. The full on absolutism monarchs like Louis the XIV “l’estat c’est moi” came later, but it’s this early process of gunpowder breaking the feudal nobility which allowed them to centralize power and turn the nobility into court aristocrats.

The loss of the nobles true source of power and their reduction into aristocrats (whose influence relies far more on their relation to the monarch than their own power) allowed for the rise of the early bourgeoisie. Feudal nobles had power because they had military force, and power trumped money, but as they lost that and as armies became much more expensive, money became a source of power all its own. Kings needed a lot of it to field the new armies, and the bourgeoisie had it. As a result a lot of bourgeoisie became nobles themselves, since owning land still had much more prestige than being a merchant, but over time it led to power moving away from the nobles, now an aristocratic courtier class, and to those with the money and that led rather directly to events like the English civil war and, later, the French revolution.

For those kings in-between, gunpowder must have seemed like a godsend: allowing them to break the troublesome nobles and centralize power, but it was a devil’s deal for them. The old feudal system was reasonably stable because knights were the decisive military arm, and knights and nobility were wrapped up together.

Once it was the king alone, surrounded by courtiers who had no real power themselves, but were parasites on the court, the days of Kings, too, were numbered.



The Decline and Fall of Post-war Liberalism and the Rise of Neoliberalism

strikes-involving-more-than-1k-workersIn the Anglo-US world, post-war liberalism has been on the defensive since the 1970s. This is normally shown through various wage or wealth graphs, but I’m going to show two graphs of a different nature. The first, to the right, is the number of strikes involving more than 1K workers. Fascinating, eh?

The second, below and to your left, is the incarceration rate. It isn’t adjusted for population increases, but even if it was, the picture wouldn’t change significantly.

This is the change caused by the Reagan revolution in the US, which, as is the case with most revolutions, started before its flagship personality.

(Article re-published as it’s important and a lot of current readers won’t have seen it.)

Graph of incarceration in the US over time

From Wikipedia


I was born in 1968. I remember the 70s, albeit from a child’s perspective. They were very different from today. My overwhelming impression is that people were more relaxed and having a lot more fun. They were also far more open. The omnipresent security personnel, the constant ID checks, and so forth, did not exist. Those came in to force, in Canada, in the early 1990s. As a bike courier in Ottawa, I would regularly walk around government offices to deliver packages. A few, like the Department of National Defense and Foreign Affairs, would make us call up or make us deliver to the mail room, but in most cases I’d just go up to the recipient’s office. Virtually all corporate offices were open, gated only by a receptionist. Even the higher security places were freer. I used to walk through Defense headquarters virtually every day, as they connected two bridges with a heated pedestrian walkway. That walkway closed in the Gulf War and has never, so far as I know, re-opened.

I also walked freely through Parliament Hill, un-escorted, with no ID check to get in.

This may seem like a sideline, but it isn’t. The post-war liberal state was fundamentally different from the one we have today. It was open. The bureaucrats and the politicians and even the important private citizens were not nearly as cut off from ordinary people as they are today. As a bike courier, I interrupted senior meetings of Assistant Deputy Ministers with deliveries. I walked right in. (They were very gracious — in every case.)

The post-war liberal state involved multiple sectors, in conflict, but in agreement about that conflict. Strikes were allowed, they were expected, and unions were considered to have their part to play. It was understood that workers had a right to fight for their part of the pie. Capitalism, liberal capitalism, meant collective action because only groups of ordinary workers can win their share of productivity increases.

productivity and wages

productivity and wages

Which leads us to our second chart. The moment you lock up everyone who causes trouble (usually for non-violent, non-compliance with drug laws), the moment you crack down on strikes, ordinary people don’t get their share of productivity increases. It’s really just that simple.

This is all of a piece. The closing off of politicians and bureaucrats from public contact, the soaring CEO and executive salaries which allow them to live without seeing anyone who isn’t part of their class or a servitor, the locking up of people who don’t obey laws that make no sense (and drug laws are almost always stupid laws), the crushing of unions, which are a way to give unfettered feedback to politicians and our corporate masters, are all about allowing them to take the lion’s share of the meat of economic gains and leave the scraps for everyone else.

But why did the liberal state fail? Why did this come about? Let’s highlight three reasons: (1) the rise of the disconnected technocrat; (2) the failure to handle the oil crisis, and; (3) the aging of the liberal generations.

The rise of the disconnected technocrat has been discussed often, generally with respect to the Vietnam war. The “best and the brightest” had all the numbers, managed the war, and lost it. They did so because they mistook the numbers for reality and lost control. The numbers they had were managed up, by the people on the ground. They were fake. The kill counts coming out of Vietnam, for example, were completely fake and inflated. Having never worked on the ground, having not “worked their way up from the mail room,” having not served in the military themselves, disconnected technocrats didn’t realize how badly they were being played. They could not call bullshit. This is a version of the same problem which saw the Soviet Politburo lose control over production in the USSR.

The second, specific failure was the inability to manage the oil shocks and the rise of OPEC. As a child in the 1970s, I saw the price of chocolate bars go from 25c to a dollar in a few years. The same thing happened to comic books. The same thing happened to everything. The post-war liberal state was built on cheap oil and the loss of it cascaded through the economy. This is related to the Vietnam war. As with the Iraq war in the 2000s, there was an opportunity cost to war. Attention was on an essentially meaningless war in SE Asia while the important events were occurring in the Middle East. The cost, the financial cost of the war, should have been spent instead on transitioning the economy to a more efficient one — to a “super-analog” world. All the techs were not in place, but enough were there, so that, with temporizing and research starting in the late 1960s, the transition could have been made.

Instead, the attempt was left too late, at which point the liberal state had lost most of its legitimacy. Carter tried, but was a bad politician and not trusted sufficiently. Nor did he truly believe in, or understand, liberalism, which is why Kennedy ran against him in 1980.

But Kennedy didn’t win and neither did Carter. Reagan did. And what Reagan bet was that new oil resources would come online soon enough to bail him out.  He was right. They did and the moment faded. Paul Volcker, as Fed Chairman, appointed by Carter, crushed inflation by crushing wages, but once inflation was crushed and he wanted to give workers their share of the new economy, he was purged and “the Maestro,” Alan Greenspan, was put in charge. Under Greenspan, the Fed treated so-called wage push inflation as the most important form of inflation.

Greenspan’s tenure as Fed chairman can be summed up as follows: Crush wage gains that are faster than inflation and make sure the stock market keeps rising no matter what (the Greenspan Put). Any time the market would falter, Greenspan would be there with cheap money. Any time workers looked like they might get their share of productivity gains, Greenspan would crush the economy. This wasn’t just so the rich could get richer, it was to keep commodity inflation under control, as workers would then spend their wages on activities and items which increased oil consumption.

The third reason for the failure of liberalism was the aging of the liberal generation. Last year, I read Chief Justice Robert Jackson’s brief biography of FDR (which you should read). At the end of the book are brief biographies of main New Deal figures other than Roosevelt. Reading them, I was struck by how many were dying in the 1970s. The great lions who created modern liberalism, who created the New Deal, who understood the moving parts were dead or old. They had not created successors who understood their system, who understood how the economy and the politics of the economy worked, or even who understood how to do rationing properly during a changeover to the new economy.

The hard-core of the liberal coalition, the people who were adults in the Great Depression, who felt in their bones that you had to be fair to the poor, because without the grace of God there go you, were old and dying.  The suburban part of the GI generation was willing to betray liberalism to keep suburbia; it was their version of the good life, for which everything else must be sacrificed. And sacrificed it was, and has been, because suburbia, as it is currently constituted, cannot survive high oil prices without draining the rest of society dry.

Reagan offered a way out, a way that didn’t involve obvious sacrifice. He attacked a liberal establishment which had not handled high oil prices, which had lost the Vietnam war, and which had alienated its core southern supporters by giving Blacks rights.

And he delivered, after a fashion. The economy did improve, many people did well, and inflation was brought under control (granted, it would have been if Carter had his second term, but people don’t think like that). The people who already had good jobs were generally okay, especially if they were older. If you were in your 40s or 50s when Reagan took charge in 1980, it was a good bet that you’d be dead before the bill really came due. You would win the death bet.

Liberalism failed because it couldn’t handle the war and crisis of the late 60s and 70s. The people who could have helped were dead or too old. They had not properly trained successors; those successors were paying attention to the wrong problem and had become disconnected from the reality on the ground. And the New Deal coalition was fracturing, more interested in hating blacks or keeping the “good” suburban lifestyle than in making sure that a rising tide lifted all boats (a prescriptive, not descriptive, statement).

There are those who say liberalism is dying now. That’s true, sort of, in Europe, ex-Britain. The social-democratic European state is being dismantled. The EU is turning, frankly, tyrannical, and the Euro is being used as a tool to extract value from peripheral nations by the core nations. But in the Anglo-American world, liberalism was already dead, with the few great spars like Glass-Steagall, defined benefit pensions, SS, Medicare, welfare, and so on, under constant assault.

Europe was cushioned from what happened to the US by high density and a different political culture. The oil shocks hit them hard, but as they were without significant suburbia, without sprawl, it hit them tolerably. They were able to maintain the social-democratic state. They are now losing it, not because they must, but because their elites want it. Every part of the social-democratic state is something which could be privatized to make money for your lords and masters, or it can be gotten rid of if no money can be made from it and the money once spent on it can be redirected towards elite priorities.

Liberalism died and is dying because liberals aren’t really liberal, and when they are, they can’t do anything about it.

None of this means that modern conservatism (which is far different from the conservatism of my childhood) is a success if one cares about mass well-being. It isn’t. But it is a success in the sense that it has done what its lords and masters wanted —- it has transferred wealth, income, and power to them. It is self-sustaining, in the sense that it transfers power to those who want it to continue. It builds and strengthens its own coalition.

Any political coalition, any ideology behind a political coalition, must do this: It must build and strengthen support. It must have people who know that, if it continues, they will do well, and that if it doesn’t, they won’t. Liberalism failed to make that case to Southerners, who doubled down on cheap factory jobs and racism, as well as to suburbanite GI Generation types, who wanted to keep the value of their homes and knew they couldn’t if oil prices and inflation weren’t controlled. Their perceived interests no longer aligned with liberalism and so they left the coalition.

We can have a new form of liberalism (or whatever we wish to call it) when we understand why the old form failed and can articulate the conditions for our new form’s success. Maybe more on that another time.

Published April 11, 2015, published back in the ’00s too, but I don’t remember when. Republishing doesn’t send out to lists, so I’m doing it as new piece. The original and comments can also be viewed.

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Colonization, Conquest, and Our Unconscious Civilization

Let’s start with this little video of the geographical spread of China over time.

Looks like the Han conquered a lot of other people. They then imposed their culture, their writing, and over time, their language on those people.

Here’s the rule: Any people who get a significant military advantage, use it to conquer. They may not do so immediately, but eventually they do so.

The Mongols conquered the largest land empire in history. They were undefeated for generations; absolutely crushing military advantage.

The Russians, later, with the gunpowder advantage, conquered their large land empire.

The gunpowder advantage was big, but not that big. It worked in the Americas because of a plague that killed off over 90 percent of the population. Absent that, at worst/best you have a situation closer to India, though probably with a bit more successful colonization.

In ancient history, the Greeks had a huge military advantage. They knew they had it for a while before it was used by Alexander to conquer a huge swathe of the ancient world. (This is similar to the Mongols’ horse-archer advantage; they had to wait for a Genghis Khan to use it effectively.)

Shaka would have done something similar, had he been born a thousand years earlier, but he had the bad luck to run into the Brits, who posessed a much larger advantage.

We know nothing about the Druids because the Romans slaughtered them, colonized most of their lands, and made the Gauls into semi-Romans. The Christians later finished the job.

The Norse are gone because they lost a multi-century religious war against the Christians. We have weird ideas about the Norse: They were reacting to a hegemonic religious ideology that was already force-converting pagans. Charlemagne (a profoundly evil man) forced Saxons to convert, then killed them. Figured he was saving their souls, no doubt.

So the Norse built a wall across the south of Denmark (being outnumbered) and took to the seas, where they had an advantage. They raided and destroyed monasteries not just because that’s where the loot was, but because it was Christianity driving the forced conversions.

The Norse, despite their “terror,” lost. The last Norse pagans, in Iceland, converted because if they didn’t, they would have lost the ensuing war.

The industrial revolution probably created the greatest military advantage the world has ever known. It was used to conquer most of the world that was still agrarian, and where it didn’t conquer, it humiliated. The second the Japanese industrialized, they went on their own conquering spree. Mao, unifying China, immediately conquered Tibet (ironically using a claim based on the notion that, “The Mongols conquered you and us at the same time, so you should be ours.”)

Again, the rule here is simple. People are people. When a group gets a massive military advantage, they use it to conquer and colonize (Greek colonies in the ancient world were endemic.) The larger the advantage, the more conquests. In time, conquests that are unsustainable go away, and those that have largely eradicated the indigenous culture (sometimes through genocide, sometimes by just getting rid of the culture), remain, even if nominally independent. Canada, Mexico, and even most South American countries are NOT resurgences of the people who ruled the countries before Europeans showed up. Neither are most of the areas China conquered in its millenia long march.

What China is doing in Tibet and to the Uighurs, in that light, is simply a modern version of what the Chinese have done for ages.

None of this means that colonialism and conquest and cultural or actual genocide are good. They aren’t.

They are, however, our current pattern. We are living through a holding pattern right now, to an extent, only because of nuclear weapons. If a massive advantage is obtained which neutralized nukes, this pattern would re-emerge.

If we want this pattern to end, we need to figure out why it happens: What creates the enabling conditions, and we need to become a conscious world civilization.

Right now, if you look at the “greenhouse gas” curve or at the “species extinction curve” and compare it to the curve of a bunch of bacteria in a petri dish growing uncontrollably until they die in their own waste, you won’t see any significant difference.

At the civilization and cultural level, we are not conscious. We do not make choices, much as we think we do. Instead we act like any other animal, driven by unconscious impulses and drives we apparently cannot control.

None of the evils we inflict, as societies, on each other or on the other species of the world, will cease for any significant amount of time, if we do not become conscious and work to change these behaviours.

If we can’t, we will likely go extinct. If not this time around, then next. We will keep careening into absolutely forseeable problems and doing nothing about them until its too late, and one of these days, it will kill us.

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Is Cruelty Required?

Is it possible to have a society without cruelty?

That’s really the fundamental political question. (Economics, as you know, is a subset of politics, not different from it. So it’s also the fundamental economic question.)

It’s fair to say that there has never been a major society without cruelty baked into it, at least not since the rise of agricultural kingdoms about three thousand years after the invention of agriculture. Previous societies often had a lot of violence, but it’s not clear they all did, and some hunter gatherer band level societies seem to have had little cruelty.

But every major agricultural civilization has been cruel, and so has every major industrial society, though some are less cruel than others (insert reference to Scandinavia). Even those, however, are enmeshed in a system of industrial production that is, at best, exploitative, as in the case of conflict minerals, low paid workers, killed union organizers, and so on. Because it is not possible to run a decent society in the modern work in autarchy, even relatively kind societies are enmeshed in economic arrangements that cause great suffering hundreds to thousands of miles from them.

Cruelty is endemic even in good societies in the sense that our fundamental economic relationships are based on coercion; if you don’t work for someone else, probably doing something you wouldn’t do without the whip of poverty at your heels, and under supervision, well, you will have a bad life. School is based on coercion; do what you’re told when you’re told, or else, and so is work for most people.

That’s just the way our societies work, and while details vary, it’s more or less how they’ve worked since agriculture. Oh, the peasant may not have had close supervision, but they gave up their crops, labor, and lives under threat of violence, and they knew it well.

Even positive incentives are coercive. Get good grades and you’ll get a good job, etc… Please the mast… er, I mean, boss, yes, boss, and you may get a raise.

But a great deal of real cruelty lies behind the positive coercion in our major societies. American jails are startlingly cruel, filled with violence, rape, and fear. Chinese prisons aren’t so nice either. Police exist to throw you out of your house if you fail to pay the rent, which some double digit percentage of Americans are about to experience, because their society has mishandled an epidemic.

Sell cigarettes without the sanction of the state and your last words may be, “I can’t breathe.”

Our societies are based on positive and negative incentives. The amount of each varies with time and place. Finland right now has a lot more positive, and a lot less negative and a lot less consequences for disobeying. 50 years ago, the US put a lot less people in jail and gave those it allowed good jobs (white males) much better, nicer lives.

But there’s still always that threat in the background. And it’s always based on cruelty: “Bad things will happen to you, either actively or passively if you don’t go along.”

Now there are things we need to get done, collectively, in society. Build and maintain housing, grow and distribute food, keep the internet running (these days), but how much cruelty and coercion is required to do those necessary things? How much do you have to threaten people to get them to do those things? How cruel do you have to be to them if they don’t do them?

But another problem is that most of the coercion and cruelty in our societies has nothing to do with creating necessities like food and shelter and medicine and internet.

It has to do with making sure that some people have far more than they need, and others have far less. That some people have good lives with little coercion, while others live in constant fear. One problem with the boss, you lose your job, and you wind up homeless or in prison, and then even more terrible things happen.

Terrible things that are meant to happen, of course. We could lock up a lot fewer people and treat those few far better. We have more empty homes than homeless people and throw out at least a third of our food. No one need go hungry or homeless, and as for the internet, well, ISPs make close to 100 percent profit, so yeah, I’m pretty sure there’s no reason anyone should go without basic internet access.

So the cruelty in our societies is a choice. We can feed and house everyone, give everyone health care and have plenty left over, but we want billionaires and huge militaries or something, so we’re cruel. We’re cruel in the small details of everyday life (those maste…, er bosses) and we’re cruel in how we structure life, and it’s all a choice we’ve made.

Is it necessary? Must we be cruel? If we must be cruel, how cruel? What cruelty is actually needed, how much is just a preference or only required because we want very unequal societies?

Are we cruel of necessity?

Or desire?

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So You Want to Be the Next Silicon Valley? One Thing You Must Not Do.

Recently I’ve been re-reading Peter Hall’s magisterial “Cities in Civilization.” It’s a huge doorstopper of a book, the majority of which is histories of cities’ Golden Ages. Artistic, technological, civic, and so on.

One of the histories is of Silicon Valley.

And if there is anything which is clear from that history it is that Silicon Valley could not exist if California allowed non-competes. Silicon Valley’s history is of people working for one firm, leaving and starting up a new company which directly competed with that firm. Fairchild Semiconductor was famous, or infamous for this, and among its children is the company Intel.

Non-competes are, well, non-competitive. The idea that someone should be locked out from doing what they know best just because it might hurt a previous employer is radically non-capitalistic.

Oh, there’s other stuff, of course. Like a lot of technological golden age cities, SV is a child of government and university. At the key stage of computer development, government was buying about half of all computers, and in effect paying the entire R&D budget of Silicon Valley. Likewise, without Stanford, there is no Silicon Valley.

But the engine that kept Silicon Valley going was that anyone could leave their current employer and start up a firm competing with them.

If your laws allow non-competes, you will not be the next Silicon Valley. Doesn’t mean you can’t be the next, say, Berlin (the core of the electrical revolution), or the next Detroit (er, back when that meant something good), but you won’t have what Silicon Valley did.

I do wonder, myself, if Silicon Valley can survive after having off-shored most of its production. Historically, that doesn’t tend to go very well. At first it doesn’t matter, as when Britain off-shored production to the US, and still produced the majority of new inventions. But eventually there is a drop off. Having the factory where the designers are seems to matter.

Perhaps that’s changed, but real change of fundamentals like that is rare.

We’ll see.

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Rising and Falling


In several recent threads on this blog, we discussed (i.e., argued passionately about) the current goings on in Europe (Brexit, Greece, Italy, etc.) as signs of the impending decay and demise of the European project. I used to share this view to some extent, because I too am sometimes in the grip of a moral fallacy that haunts left-wing discourse: that things that are good, work, and things that aren’t good, don’t work. I actually think that in the bigger picture, this is true, but only in the largest temporal and spatial frames. In the medium term, lots of things that are good, are not stable enough in context to work (as in, be sustained for more than a short period of time), and lots of things that are not good, are nevertheless stable enough to last decades and even centuries.

Predicting whether, when, and how some particular set of events will cause large institutions to rise or fall cannot be done lightly or easily, and such predictions, when done in the moment, are more likely wrong than right. You should expect unexpected things to occur; there are too many variables. Some people are better at it than others, but you should take even the best track records with a grain of salt. Even two to three years ago, I would have predicted that the build-up of “bad karma” in the European system would have caused the EU to break apart by now. Even a few months ago, the rise of Euroskeptic populists in some countries suggested to me that the situation is increasingly desperate for European unity. However, over that time, and somewhat unexpectedly to me I must admit, it appears that some sort of inflection point has been reached.

The EU, as it stands now, was designed by a set of people that had different attitudes and goals over time. Therefore, it is a mixed bag, when it comes to good, not good, works, doesn’t work. A good chunk of its institutions were designed at around the peak of the neoliberal revolt against state management of the economy. In the EU, this took its expression in an approach to the economy that militated against state attempts to protect or bolster industrial employment in both public and private sectors. Because Europe does not suffer so much from the “moralized” version of libertarianism from which the US suffers (essentially, that your bank account is a virtual extension of your physical body), there is a stronger commercial regulatory apparatus developed even in the neoliberal era than what other developed “capitalist” countries tend to have. The neoliberal bits, especially the most recent ones like the Eurozone, have increasingly showed themselves to be not good and not working.

But this cannot be taken out of the context of the whole. It’s increasingly clear to me that Europe is still not that far off from the overall intended trajectory of the two generations of designers of European convergence. It is absolutely true that those who built the system had, for a number of different reasons, a deep suspicion of the public and popular sovereignty, even while they were also against outright dictatorship. I generally consider this to be overall not good and probably won’t work in the long run. (But I must note that the designers of the EU also recognized that they might need to legitimize popular sovereignty at a European level and built in provisions for systems to implement it.) However, they believed both in the necessity of European unity (in the modern world, a disunited Europe is structurally, deeply vulnerable), and the difficulty in getting a multilingual, multicultural subcontinent of fallen empires to accept the necessity of unification, so they constructed a system of what are effectively one-way traps to ensure that the cost of departure is always greater than the cost of endurance, even when the system in some matters doesn’t work. The goal is therefore for this endurance to eventually result in a crisis whose only positive-sum resolution is the Europeanization of authority.

With Italy’s effective capitulation to the Commission, and yes, with Greece’s previous compliance, and yes again, with a Brexit that is already providing the necessary object lessons, it appears that the crisis-and-trap strategy is still operating, or rather, it cannot be said to have failed at this point in time. That is, it remains that case that the strategy of making a series of systems that don’t work is working.

Considering that this game of deliberate historical manipulation has real human costs and indeed a known death toll in itself, one may well choose to designate it as not good. But, the evidence is that it still works.

So what would the decline of the European project actually look like?  Well, there are, of course, phenomena that are hard to predict directly, like, sudden environmental cataclysms. If I were forced to make a prediction, however, the political coming-apart would probably have to look like one of the following options:

  1. A situation comes to pass where it is immediately more materially beneficial to leave than to stay (this has not yet happened).
  2. One or more countries decide to leave a major institution/treaty despite the costs, and they do economically better in the relatively short run after departure. (Brexit under the Tories is not likely to be an example of this.)
  3. A consensus develops in several countries that long-term economic suffering is more desirable than staying in the EU, even if that suffering is greater than what they might have experienced inside the EU, and they sustain this consensus even after feeling that suffering.

All of this may lead you to consider projects like the European unification, designed explicitly around creating consequences that override popular will, to be not good. I have given you at least three possibilities for it to not work. So I would say, as before, that it is a mixed bag.

Political theodicy is dead. Long live political theodicy.

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