December 25, 2006
December 23, 2006
The past and present have a very odd relationship. You would think that once something happens that it is finished and unchanging, yet while you cannot change the events of the past, as time moves on, things happen which change your views of the past, and you sometimes learn something about the past that puts things in a different light. Meanwhile the past changes the present.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my high school Latin teacher. One thing that he reinforced in me was a respect for both law and history, and a deep appreciation for classical Roman learning. Something that I wish I could do at some point would be to regain my fluency in Latin, but I still find the oratory of Cicero against the Catiline conspiracy to be stirring, and I still think deeply about the implications of the period between the Republic and the Empire to current events, and I also think much about the historical processes which led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The thing that you get when you read classical texts is that people 2000 years ago were still people, with motivations and ambitions that are still recognizable today. It’s important when living in a period of time in which everything is changing to realize that a lot of the important things, in fact probably most of the important things, haven’t changed in all of that time.
In thinking about Roman history, my sense is that the history and philosophy of classical Rome and that of classical China aren’t very far apart, and one of the things that civilization has lost is a sense of connection with its roots.
December 9, 2006
There is an interesting paradox in international law and in law in general. International law is based on the relations between actors such as nation-states whose existence is based on passion and emotion. China exists because there is a community of people that think that they have something in common with each other and have an emotional bond. When those emotional bonds break as in the case of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, the nation state disappears. At the same time, when emotional bonds are formed toward organizations, such as corporations, religions, or things like wikipedia, these items suddenly become powerful actors.
But you’ll never read an international lawyer talk about passion, about love, and you will find that they talk very rarely about individual people, even though love, passion, and relationships between individual people are the building blocks by which all of the international actors are founded on.
The thing that I’ve figured out over the last ten years is that the passions, love, and feelings that I have toward people cannot be seen in isolation, but are products of historical processes. In addition, the other thing that I’ve figured out as a physicist is that things that happen at one scale can tell you a lot about what is happening an other scale. If you understand the behavior of particles, you understand more about the behavior of the entire universe, and this applies to social relations. If you start to look deeply at how two people relate with each other, this will tell you a lot about how nations relate. And it works the other way, if you look at how nations relate to each other, you will start to understand how two people relate with each other.
There is a tendency in social science to trivialize feelings. This results from a basic misconception of Darwinian evolution that was used to justify British colonialism and the British class system. The idea was that there are “higher” and “lower” centers of the brain and that “higher” people and “higher” civilizations use “higher” centers of the brain. The parts of the brain that were more recently developed are those involving logic and language.
So using this incorrect interpretation of Darwinism, “higher” people and civilizations use only logic and language, and the older mammalian centers of the brain which are responsible for passion, emotion, sex, hunger, are the preserve of “lower” people, “lower” civilizations. This view has consequences to people’s views on how society should be structured. This incorrect view of Darwinism was used (and is used) to divide people into “thinkers”, “feelers” and “doers” with the “thinkers” obviously getting all of the power.
And when the people at the bottom get angry that they are being used, well anger is an example of emotion and obviously people with emotions are inferior and shouldn’t be allowed to intermix with us thinkers.
The trouble with all of this is that it is *TOTAL RUBBISH*. Darwinism doesn’t work that way, and you can look at the work of Stephen Jay Gould to see how this view of Darwinism as a ladder is incorrect. In truth, the differently evolved areas of the brain complement each other. The anger, hate, and rage I feel integrates with associative centers that are responsible for poetry and partial differential equations. As a physicist and a computer programmer, I don’t *think* about programs and equations, I *feel* them. The model that I use is an integrative model, in which different parts of the brain have different functions, but all of them are necessary for the functioning of the whole and should be treated with respect. This view of how the brain works extends to how I view society as working. People are complex. People do different things. But people all deserve respect and you get amazing things happening when you network different people together, and societies are about networks, about passion, and about love.
This is the fundamental difference between me and the woman I call the fairy princess. Her model of the world rejects passion. Mine embraces it. Her model of the world involves associating with only the “elite” and then “helping the lower classes.” Mine involves associating with everyone and both helping and being helped.
I think her ideas are incorrect, and incorrect ideas have bad consequences at the large scale level and at the small scale level. If one does not embrace love, if one does not embrace passion, then one denies one of the very foundations of human existence. Love and passion if not directed correctly and respected by the associative centers of the brain will fester and explode. It’s not a coincidence that the nation that has created a class system that is based on these incorrect views of evolution and Darwinism is facing a huge amount of Islamic radicalism, whereas a nation that is fundamentally based on equality and equal dignity of man is not.
I’ve been reading a lot of the work of Ben Kingsbury who is Professor of International Law at New York University, and he makes this fundamental error. He talks about a passionless system of “global adminstrative law” which rejects the passion and emotions of politics. We are being issued orders by the Iraq study group which are emotionless bureaucrats, objectively studying matters without realizing that war is all about passion and love.
This will not work to win the Long War. Wars, nations, and organizations are about passion. They are about love. Any system of international law which ignores this fundamental reality of human existence will create structures that accord with objective reality, and things that do not fit objective reality are doomed and cause unnecessary pain and agony, both at the level of international relations, and at the level of relations between two people.
I’m tired. I’ve been thinking and feeling too much the last week, and my mind and body are near exhaustion. I don’t know what is going to happen. I’m scared, and I think it is going to be worried. But I do think that I’ve broken free of some intellectual chains, of being ashamed of passion, of being unable to speak about love, that the fairy princess and people like her have put on me. I’m free of things that they aren’t, and that may be a good thing. I’m not afraid to challenge. I’m not afraid to fight.
But I am tired.
I want to end with the one thing that drives me. The one passion that I think explains everything in this blog. The one unifying principle that I would like to present.
I don’t like to think. Thinking is hard. Thinking is painful. Thinking will get you in trouble. Thinking leads to talking, and talking leads to invoking the name of past ghosts that one may wish to forget. Ghosts like the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward.
But I am utterly terrified by the consequences of being unable or unwilling to think, and I have unhealable wounds that keep me in constant pain, that are the result of what happens when one is unable or unwilling to think. The consequences of being unable or unwilling to think are horrific, both at the international/global level, and at the personal level.
I’ll talk more later. I need to sleep.
November 17, 2006
It’s quiet and peaceful right now where I am sitting, but in the calm, there is a fact that is easily forgetten. We are at war, and I fear that I shall not live to see the end of this war. People are talking about what the US should do in the next year or two, but I believe that we are in the middle of a grand struggle whose length be measured in decades. The key to winning this war is economic. Put simply the world must be raised to US/European standards of living over the next century.
The situation in Iraq is merely a small part of the larger war, and the decision about what to do in Iraq needs to be made with a view toward the context within the wider war. However, merely viewing Iraq as part of a wider effort does not in itself mandate a given course of action. One problem with discourse on the Long War, is that stating that this is a Long War has been used by some to justify a “no retreat” policy and the idea of a tactical retreat in Iraq to be able to redeploy to other fronts in a Long War is an option that should be rationally considered.
One risk in a tactical retreat is the formation of a “back stab” legend. People forget how popular the wars in Iraq and Vietnam were they first started, and if the US pulls out of Iraq because it is no longer political supportable, people will soon forget how unpopular the war was. If you go five or ten years past the pullout, memories fade and it’s easy for a “back stab” legend to form saying how we almost won the war if not for the traitors that undermined us from within. A “back stab” legend would be disastrous for the wider conflict. The war will last for far longer than the pull out from Iraq and division and recrimination within the wider war will make it easier for us to lose.
And we could lose this war. Bin-Laden has a strategy that can extend for over a century, and in order to win this war, we must fight for our cause with as much passion, as much energy, and as much fanaticism as his supporters fight for theirs.
A couple of books I’ve been reading. My copy of “Fooled by Randomness” by Nicholas Taleb arrived, and I’ve been reading the letters of William Tecumseh Sherman, who is one of the people (along with Dai Zhen, Alexander Hamilton, and Freidrich Hayek) who are people I’ve learned a lot from. The interesting thing about Sherman’s letters is that they have all sorts of seemingly boring mundane details which are only extraordinary when you remember that it was written over a hundred years ago. The interesting thing I found about Sherman is that he understood most clearly among all of the generals of his era the connection between economics and war, perhaps partly because of his being a failed banker.
As I’ve mentioned before, his “war is cruelty” letter to the city council of Atlanta is one of the most concise and passionate defenses of the “one China” policy. The other thing that I found fascinating about Sherman is that both he and Grant were deeply flawed individuals that carried out the roles that history assigned to them.
October 19, 2006
Can we look beyond the fall elections a moment…..
One of the interesting feelings is to look at something that happened in history, and think to yourself. “How could they be so stupid?” You look at things like Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia, or the Japanese decision to bomb Pearl Harbor, or the madness to led to World War I, and you wonder “what amount of self-destructive idiocy led people to do what they did?”
I think that someday historians will be asking the same thing about the US decision to invade Iraq. At this point, victory in the sense of creating a democracy revolution throughout Middle East is impossible. The choice at this point is between a bad outcome and a catastrophic one. The decision to invade Iraq violated three tried and true historical rules:
- people who start a war, almost always regret it
- wars always take longer and are more costly than people originally expect
and most importantly
- never think that you are immune from the lessons of history
So at this point, things need to be done to avoid a catastrophe. It is plainly obvious to anyone that sees the situation that insuring an outcome that is “merely bad” is going to require a continued US troop presence for five to ten years at considerable cost in lives and money. The dilemma is this, for this to happen, you need popular support for a continued US presence in Iraq, but to get that support, the political leadership needs to be honest with the US public about what the costs are. The trouble is that people are deathly afraid that this sort of straight-talk is going to cost them the next election, and they are right, but some things are more important than winning the next election, and in a very large sense, it really doesn’t matter who wins the next election since the issues are going to be the same.
I think that when people try to understand how the United States in the early 21st century undertook such destructive policies, part of the blame will be placed on the triumph of image over reality. The reality is that there are limits to the costs that the US public are willing to bear and the inability to discuss these costs and limits rationally has led to some irrational decisions.
In all of this, I have to reaffirm my faith in American democracy and the common sense of the common man. Part of what I see to be frustrating is that the common man is nowhere as stupid as the political ads make him out to be, and the only thing that is going to save us is if we put aside tabloid television, gotcha ads, and all of the nonsense that has infected political discourse and try to discuss the situation calmly, civilly, and rationally. Forget about trying to sell an idea or policy. The situation is such a mess that no one knows what the right idea or policy should be.
September 14, 2006
One of the things that I’ve read in reading about Hayek is that one of the purposes of a political philosopher is to say things that are totally absurd, but which makes sense two or three decades from now.
Let me say two unreasonable things…..
1) If we need to torture someone or deny them due process in order to prevent another 9-11 attack, then I say that we should let the attack happen, because the damage done to the United States by another such attack is minor compared to the damage done by torturing someone or denying them due process.
2) It is a moral imperative that the United States moves to a system of open borders, because without such a system we are creating a system of labor which is akin to slavery. A person born in Mexico City has as much right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the United States as someone born in Ohio. The United States could not survive the 19th century as a nation with the institution of slavery, and I believe that the United States cannot survive the 21st century without open borders.
I’ve been reading more about Fredrich Hayek, and I’m starting to understand a bit about what I find attractive about the Austrian School and the writings of Hayek and von Mises. In particular, there is this chapter on the Untimely Liberalism of Fredrich Hayek
The thing about this chapter is that it addresses squarely the paradox that think of myself both as a classical liberal, while also being a supporter of the Chinese Communist Party. This sort of paradox is also at the core of Austrian liberalism of the early 20th century and its attitudes toward the Habsburgs and Austria-Hungary. There is this paragraph about the early 20th century which is very relevant to the early 21st.
The deep irony of the late Habsburg empire was that an authoritarian Empire based on a medieval dynasty and tied to the heavily dogmatic ideology of the Counter-Reformation, in the end, under the stimulus of ethnic, chauvanistic centrifugal agitation, found its most eager defenders amongst individualist liberals, recruited in considerable part from an erstwhile parah group and standing outside the faith with which the state was once so deeply identified…
There are some other things that make sense to me. The similarity between the Jews of Eastern Europe circa 1900′s and ethnic Chinese circa 2000 are striking. The legal disabilities and discrimination that Eastern European Jews had suffered under had been removed several decades earlier just as the legal disabilities and discrimination that Chinese in the United States had suffered under had ended in the 1960′s. The multi-cultural polyglot civilization of Vienna-1900 is probably the same as that of the United States today, and out of that volatile mix, you end up with people like von Mises, Hayek, Freud, Einstein, ….. and Hitler.
And it seems that Hayek thought deeply about issues like what does it mean to be a loyal citizen of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, just like I’ve had to think very deeply about what it means to be an American or to be Chinese.
All of this ended with World War I, and fortunately in the early 21st century we seem to have avoided a war between Great Powers (i.e. the US and China) which would have been even more destructive to civilization than World War I was. The empires that fought World War I, all lost from it, and I’m happy that the prospect of a US-China confrontation over Taiwan is now receding.
But we are still in a war, and to figure out how to fight and win this war, we have to draw upon everything that we know about history. And one lesson of history is that wars almost always take a lot longer to finish that they people who start them think, and they almost always have extremely unpredictable consequences. (For example, the big winner in the war in Iraq is obviously Iran.)
One thing that scares me is that people in the United States just don’t seem to be thinking about what the world is going to be like in ten years. I’m not seeing much discussion about what the United States is going to be like after the next election. For a war that is supposedly about the virtues of democracy, that is more than a bit frightening. If after over two hundred years of constitutional government, the Republicans and the Democrats work together for the common good, what hope is there for the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in Iraq? If we can’t calm down the rhetoric and emotional and have useful rational discussions of the great issues of the day, then what chance do the Iraqis have? If we can’t fight terrorism without winking at torture, then who are we to draw the line against torture and death squads when bombs are going off daily in Baghdad?
Winning the Long War begins at home. The t errorists cannot destroy us. They can (and are very much trying to) set up a situation in which we destroy ourselves, and they seem to be doing a good job.
If we want to start winning the Long War, forget about focusing on Iraq. Start by taking each of the 400 or so detainees at Guantanamo, put each of them through civil or military trials. Convict the ones with crimes, release and apologize to the ones that don’t.
September 13, 2006
Since I’ve been getting at Bush and Cheney for not admiting to their mistakes, let me mention a few of my own.
The big one was about a year ago when I thought that threatening to have things fall apart in Iraq would be good. The logic was that if there might be a brief power struggle in which the Shiites and Kurds would win, and then they would be treat the Sunnis more or less as the North treated the South after the US Civil War or how the defeated warlords were treated after the Warlord era in the 1920′s.
What I didn’t consider was that in the case of both the US and China there were national institutions that existed before the war. Northern and Southern generals had gone to the same schools and were in many cases close personal friends. The same was true with Chinese warlords. By contrast, in Iraq, the sectional leaders don’t have any close personal bonds, and so the likely event if things fall apart is Bosnia.
The other mea culpa was that I was assuming that the large Chinese trade surplus was due to the business cycle and that imports which start catching up with exports as they did in the 1998. This meant that appreciation of the RMB was unnecessarily and pointless. Looking at the trade data in which that didn’t happen, leads me now to believe that some really has changed in the world economy since 2001, and that a gradual appreciation of the RMB is a good thing.
One other mistake that I made was to attribute the looting of Russia to ruble convertibility. In fact the Russian ruble wasn’t fully convertible in the 1990′s. I do think that differences in currency regimes made a huge difference, and the particular currency rules that Russia had until the 1998 crisis helped in the looting of Russia, but that is a different argument. I didn’t realize this mistake until I read that Russia just now made the ruble fully convertible, which made me look back at what I had believed. I’ve been doing some reading about the Russian economy, and that reading has lead me to conclude that economies are frightfully complex beasts.
This is in addition to the other mistakes in fact that people have kindly pointed out (i.e. the fact that I underestimated the endowment for Olin College and that I associated Opus Dei with the Jesuits). Keep those corrections coming.
Speaking of Bush and Cheney…..
I do think that Bush does realize that he has made some major mistakes in Iraq. You can see it in the way that he phrases things now, and you can also see it in his eyes when he talks. Cheney doesn’t behave this way, and I think he is a dangerous fool. Which leads to another mea culpa….
Surgeons and lawyers know which one of their colleagues are competent and which ones are dangerous, but there is a huge amount of reluctance to state that information publically. This has some bad ramifications.
One thing that I wish had been more widely known is how incompetent Dick Cheney was at running Halliburton, and I was able to witness this first hand, because I worked there for a number of years. The situation with Halliburton is far worse than the conspiracy theorists would have you think. I *wish* there were some evil conspiracy to control the oil of the Middle East in the name of corporate greed, because that would result in a situation which is much better than the one on the ground now..
The reality is ****far**** more frightening which is that we have some incompetent people running US foreign policy. If you have a selfish evil person, you stand next to them and watch your back. If you have someone incompetent, you aren’t safe there, because they might do something frighteningly self-destructive. After all of the basic corporate incompetence I saw at Halliburton, I’m not surprised at the incompetence I’ve seen in Iraq, and it truly scares me because we are dealing with an enemy that has some basic competence and can adapt and learn.
Yes, I’m a little afraid of the consequences of publicly speaking ill of a former employer since that might mark me as someone not to hire. But I’m much more frightened of the consequences of not talking which is that US foreign policy in the next five years is going to be as incompetent and frightfully self-destructive as the last five years.
We are in trouble….. We really are…..
One of the best articles on the Chinese economy I’ve seen in a long time.
A few notes.
The high savings rate is made possible by the fact that people in China are moving from low productivity agriculture to relatively high productivity industry. One of the blind spots of people in management is that they complain about how inefficient Chinese companies are. They are correct that Chinese companies are massively inefficient, but they miss the fact that even an inefficient, unproductive industrial company can generate more wealth than peasant agriculture, and moving people from agriculture to industry will generate a one-time increase in wealth, as it did in the Soviet Union in the 1950′s. The socialist economies of Eastern Europe didn’t run into problems until the 1960′s and 1970′s when they had become more industrialized, and the economies of Japan and East Asia didn’t run into those problems until the 1980′s and 1990′s. This is one reason I don’t think that “the Communist Party is going to collapse tomorrow” predictions are accurate. China has reached an stage of economic development, where is it possible to have a wildly dysfunctional and inefficient system, and still have reasonable amounts of growth. Something that people miss is that during the 1970′s, economic growth actually helped to *strengthen* authoritarian regimes in South Korea and Taiwan, and the same is likely to happen in Mainland China over the next decade or two.
It is possible that once China becomes industrialized that it will have problems. But that’s still two decades away, and that is long enough to do things to deal with the problem. One thing that is the case in China is that total factors productivity has steadily been increasing, and that bodes well for continued economic growth once China starts reaching the limits of the industrial transition.
Having said that there *are* some important characteristics of economic growth….
1) stable institutions – you simply cannot have economic growth in the middle of political chaos
2) low inflation – you cannot have savings and economic growth if people do not have a store of value. In China, people literally put cash in coffee cans and matresses. This would be unthinkable in Latin American or Russia where the currency has been destroyed several times.
The article mentions India as a rising economic force. I’d add one more surprising nation to the list. Russia. I think Russia has hit bottom and is starting to recover from the horrible economic policies of the early 1990′s.
All of this has a huge amount of relevance for Iraq. For Iraq to be a success, it has to start generating economic growth, and I fear that people are making the *EXACT SAME MISTAKE* that they made in 2003, which is not to look at things long term. Suppose everything goes as planned, and in two years, the bombs are no longer going off, and Iraq has a reasonable central government. What then?