Four Theories about the Great Depression

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More than most people, libertarians have beliefs about the Great Depression. Having spent several years studying the matter, I have some conclusions about four such beliefs: first, that what caused the depression was the Federal Reserve allowing a drop in the money supply; second, that what made it terrible was the passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which collapsed America’s foreign trade; third, that the New Deal really began under Herbert Hoover; and fourth, that what lengthened the Depression was fear of what the New Deal government would do.

In addressing these questions, I am relying heavily on my hometown newspapers — the Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Star — because newspapers are “the raw material of history.” They are not the only sources available, and they have their mistakes, omissions, and biases. But they are broader than politicians’ collected personal papers and broader, in a different sense, than the economists’ statistical tables. As sources for general research about a period, I like newspapers best. I know newspapers. I spent 37 years working for newspapers and magazines, about half that time on the business and financial pages.

The first of the four beliefs, associated with Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, is that the Federal Reserve was responsible for turning a recession into a depression — the deepest and longest in American history — by shrinking the money supply. It’s true that there was less money in people’s pockets, and that was a bad effect. But when economists talk about the Fed shrinking the money supply, they mean shrinking the money available to the banks — and during most of the Depression banks were loaded to the gunwales with money. With few willing and qualified borrowers, they simply parked depositors’ money in US Treasury bonds and local bonds and warrants (thereby helping to finance their local governments and the New Deal). Bankers talked about this on the business pages, and showed it in the year-end bank balance sheets presented in newspaper display ads. For those reasons I find it difficult to indict the Fed for starving the banking system of money.

Newspapers have their mistakes, omissions, and biases. But they are broader than politicians’ collected personal papers and broader, in a different sense, than the economists’ statistical tables.

A variant of this argument is that the Fed mistakenly turned a recession into a depression by raising interest rates.

Overall the Fed lowered interest rates in the depression. In the two years following the Crash of 1929, the Fed cut its rate on short-term loans to banks, going down from 6% to 1.5%. But to stop the outflow of the Treasury’s gold during the currency crisis of September 1931, the Fed temporarily raised the rate to 3.5%. This 2% bump is the “mistake” that the economists holler about. At the time the Fed did this, critics said it would retard recovery, and when recovery didn’t come, the critics pronounced themselves right. But at the time, the financial editor of the Seattle Times noted that the Fed’s supposedly stimulative 1.5% interest rate hadn’t done anything to stimulate recovery. (The Keynesians would later say the Fed was “pushing on a string.”) Investors weren’t holding back because of two percentage points. They were holding back because they were afraid to borrow at all.

I’m not a historian of the Fed, and am not claiming the Fed made no mistakes. But pinning the depression on the stinginess of the Fed to the banks doesn’t seem right. If it were true, the interest rates would have been higher. Also, there would have been furious complaints in the newspapers, even in Seattle. And I didn’t see it.

During most of the Depression banks were loaded to the gunwales with cash. With few willing and qualified borrowers, they simply parked depositors’ money.

The second belief is that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff caused the Depression by posting the highest taxes on imports in the 20th century. The figure usually cited is that the average tariff rate under Smoot-Hawley was 59% — a horrible rate. This, however, was the rate on dutiable goods, and excludes the many goods on the free list. The average rate on all goods was 19.8% — still bad, but something less than torture.

Free traders always reach for the Smoot-Hawley argument. I have heard it not only from libertarians but from supporters of the WTO, TPP, NAFTA, and the promoters of trade in my hometown. And politically, I am on free traders’ side. I agree that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, signed in June 1930 by Herbert Hoover, was bad medicine. And in this case, there was protest in the newspapers, with voices saying it was a terrible, self-defeating law, and predicting that other countries would retaliate. The newspapers ran stories when the other countries did retaliate.

Smoot-Hawley was also a contributing cause of the collapse in the international bond market in 1931, because it made it more difficult for America’s debtors — Britain, France, Germany, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and others — to earn the dollars to repay their debts. But this one bad law cannot bear all the blame for the subsequent implosion of America’s imports and exports.

I can think of four reasons why. First, the Depression was already on, so that by June 1930 imports and exports were already headed downward. Second, if you want to blame tariffs, put two-thirds of the blame on the tariffs in place before Smoot-Hawley was signed, which were an average of 13.5% on all goods. Third, in 1930 exports made up only about 5% of US output (versus 12.5% today), so that the shrinkage in trade, though dramatic in itself, was only two or three percentage points of the overall economy.

This one bad law cannot bear all the blame for the subsequent implosion of America’s imports and exports.

Finally, in September 1931, the British Commonwealth went off the gold standard. The British, Australian, and Canadian currencies were immediately devalued by 15 to 20%. Austria, Germany, Japan, and Sweden also went off gold, effectively devaluing their own currencies. The products of these fiat-money countries immediately dropped in price relative to the products of the United States. One example: Swedish wood pulp pushed US pulp out of world markets, so that almost all the pulp mills in Washington state shut down.

When Franklin Roosevelt came into office in March 1933, he ended the convertibility of the dollar into gold at the old rate of $20.67 an ounce. The reason for doing this was not a shortage of gold; the Treasury had stacks of it. The reason was to match the foreign devaluations and make American goods competitive again. And it did. Trade, the stock market, and the real economy jumped immediately when the dollar went off gold. From April to July 1933 there was a kind of boom, even though Smoot-Hawley was still in effect. (The boom ended because of the National Recovery Act and some other things, but that is another story.)

If you focus on principles, which libertarians like to do, you can lose sight of magnitudes and proportions that matter more.

The third belief, that Herbert Hoover was an interventionist and implemented a kind of proto-New Deal, is a thesis of Murray Rothbard in America’s Great Depression. Rothbard recounts that after the Crash of 1929, Hoover called leaders of industry to the White House and made them promise not to cut wages. The theory at the time was that this would maintain “purchasing power” and thereby prevent a depression. That was a precedent for the New Deal. It was noted at the time by business columnist Merryle Rukeyser (father of Louis Rukeyser, host of PBS-TV’s “Wall Street Week” from 1970 to 2002). Merryle Rukeyser wrote in December 1929 of the Hoover meetings, “The old-fashioned idea of leaving such matters to the individualism of business leaders — known as the doctrine of laissez faire among economists — has been formally laid to rest and buried.”

So Rothbard had a point: in principle, Hoover was an interventionist. But if you focus on principles, which libertarians like to do, you can lose sight of magnitudes and proportions that matter more. The larger fact is that the Hoover and Roosevelt regimes were hugely different in what the federal government undertook to do, what constitutional precedents they set, how many people they employed, how much money they spent, and how much they affected the world we still live in.

The fourth belief, that the New Deal prolonged the depression by frightening investors, is the thesis of libertarian historian Robert Higgs in his essay, “Regime Uncertainty: Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed After the War.” (Reprinted in Depression, War and Cold War, Independent Institute, 2006.) Higgs argues that the Depression lasted for more than ten years because of “a pervasive uncertainty among investors about the security of their property rights in their capital and its prospective returns” during the later New Deal of 1935–1940.

I can’t comment on much past the beginning of 1935, because that’s where I am in my reading. But I can verify that “regime uncertainty” was real, and that I saw evidence of it beginning in mid-1933, when the initial Roosevelt boom faltered.

At first Forbes advised his business readers to swallow it and said he was loyally swallowing it himself.

In the newspapers I read, the best barometer of this is B.C. Forbes’ business-page column. Forbes — the founder of the eponymous magazine — was very much a pro-capitalist guy. (The magazine calls itself a “capitalist tool.”) Forbes once wrote that his job as a newspaper columnist was to explain the economy to ordinary readers by interviewing industrialists and bankers. Much of the time Forbes was a transmission belt of their doings, thoughts, and feelings along with his own.

It was predictable that Forbes would not like the New Deal. At first he advised his business readers to swallow it and said he was loyally swallowing it himself. But he quickly began choking on the two principal “recovery” programs, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The NRA’s boss, Gen. Hugh Johnson, was a loud, imperious man who had been President Wilson’s boss of military conscription during World War I. During the early New Deal, Johnson helped to popularize two expressions: to chisel, meaning to lower one’s price below the government minimum, and to crack down, meaning to punish. In July 1933, Johnson went right to work, cracking down on the chiselers in American industry.

General Johnson was the closest that peacetime American business ever had to a military dictator. In August 1933, Forbes called him “a Vesuvius, in epochal, thundering eruption . . . Not even Teddy Roosevelt in his most explosive days matched General Johnson’s Titanic energy and action — or his wielding of the big stick.”

And: “Mussolini has nothing on him in readiness to undertake multitudinous tasks and to swing the Big Stick.” (This was when Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, was popular with many Americans.)

General Johnson was the closest that peacetime American business ever had to a military dictator.

In the fall of 1934, when Gen. Johnson was replaced by labor attorney Donald Richberg, Forbes wrote: “Reason is expected to replace ranting swashbucklerism.” Forbes loved to publicize good omens, but during these years he was repeatedly disappointed.

In March 1934, Forbes quoted an anonymous industrialist (probably Charles Schwab of Bethlehem Steel, whom he named elsewhere in the column): “No, don’t quote me as saying anything that would sound like criticism of the administration or any branch of it. It’s too dangerous. I don’t want to be cracked down on at this time when Washington has unlimited power to do what it likes.”

Later in the same month Forbes wrote, “The fear today is not of the law but of bureaucrats. Few employers regard themselves as in a position to stand up against dictation as Henry Ford has done.” (Ford had refused to accept the NRA’s “voluntary” price and production controls, and was not allowed to display the Blue Eagle and its motto “We Do Our Part.”)

One of Forbes’ October 1934 columns was an open letter to Franklin Roosevelt, titled in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer “Mr. President, All Employers Aren’t Crooks.”

Forbes loved to publicize good omens, but during these years he was repeatedly disappointed.

Forbes is not the only wellspring of business angst. Here is Merryle Rukeyser, a man more sympathetic to the New Deal than Forbes, in September 1934: “Business men are in a timid mood because of lack of assurance as to their tax liability and as to the attitude of the powers that be toward business profits.”

A doubter might argue that a handful of newspaper columns aren’t enough to prove Higgs’ thesis. I suppose so; but how would you prove it? It is about a state of mind — “confidence” — and how do you demonstrate that except by considering what people say and do? In fact, investors talked and acted as if they lacked confidence; statistics show a shortage of long-term investment. And in fact, there were statements by Roosevelt and by Hugh Johnson, Harold Ickes, Henry Wallace, Rexford Tugwell, and other New Dealers that might very well cause investors to lack confidence. And it was not only the New Dealers, but also their opponents on the left: Dr. Francis Townsend, who wanted every American over 60 to have $200 a month of government money (about $3000 in today’s terms); Upton Sinclair, the Democratic nominee for governor who wanted to set up a socialist economy in California; Father Coughlin, a radio priest who ranted against the rich; and Sen. Huey Long, the “Kingfish” of Louisiana who called his program “Share the Wealth,” and who was stopped only by an assassin’s bullet. This was a different time — and newspapers give you a flavor of it.

Of the four beliefs about the Depression I mentioned at the beginning, I think Robert Higgs’ “regime uncertainty” is most clearly verified. (Read his essay!) The crucial fact about the Depression of the 1930s is not that America got out of it; it always gets out. It’s that the getting out took more than ten years, which was longer any other depression in US history, and that Canada, Britain, Germany, and most other countries got out sooner, and that it took a worldwide war and the eclipse of the New Dealers for America to get all the way out.

Investors talked and acted as if they lacked confidence; statistics show a shortage of long-term investment.

But I don’t think the depression of the 1930s — the onset of it, the depth of it, the duration of it — was caused by any single thing. The commercial world is more complicated than that. I think the Austrian theory of overinvestment, or “mal-investment,” explains much of the setup of the crash, because in the late 1920s and into 1930 there were a lot of bad investments in real estate, commercial buildings, holding companies, and junky stocks. The Crash in 1929 shrank people’s assets and, more important, their confidence — for years. The Dow Jones Industrials went down almost 90%. The reparations owed by Germany to Britain and France, the sovereign debts owed to the United States by Germany, Britain, and France, as well as to Brazil and other South American republics, all had something to do with it, because in 1931 this grand edifice of debt went down in a heap. The bond market was so thoroughly wrecked that counties, cities, school districts, and corporations were locked out of long-term borrowing for several years. Smoot-Hawley and the whole movement toward economic nationalism had a bad effect. The gold standard deepened the Depression because it imposed a discipline on government finances — heavy spending cuts — at a time when they were painful, and when some countries freed themselves of that discipline it shifted the pain to the other ones. Finally, the anti-capitalist political currents and the ad hoc, experimental, extralegal character of the New Deal frightened investors, whose long-term commitments were needed for economic recovery.

That’s the best I can do. I’m still reading old newspapers.




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More Trumpeterian Trade Follies

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President Trump is nothing if not consistent on the matter of international trade. The Boss has had few fixed positions over the years. He’s been a Democrat — and a generous financial party donor, even giving money to Crooked Hillary — then a Republican when it suited him; pro-abortion then anti-abortion; pro-immigrant before becoming the king of nativism; religiously indifferent before his newfound flourishing of faith; and so on. But his opposition to global trade has never wavered.

When pressed, of course, he will feign support for free trade if it’s “fair” — “fair” being what philosophers call a “weasel-word.” It allows the speaker to shift meanings to suit the context. If we are talking about China, Trump says its trade is unfair because it steals intellectual property and forces our companies to share technology with Chinese companies — both practices that, all economists agree, violate the World Trade Organization rules — and because it has a large balance of trade surplus with the US — something that most economists view as usually not a problem, because any trade surplus is invariably balanced by an investment deficit.

Trump has had few fixed positions over the years. But his opposition to global trade has never wavered.

But Trump’s virulent attack upon NAFTA was merely based on the fact that Mexico posted a modest balance of payments deficit with us and Canada an even smaller one. Neither country, please note, has routinely (or even occasionally that I have heard reported) stolen our technology or forced transfers of it as the price of doing business in its markets. El Jefe, who apparently cannot grasp the concept of comparative advantage, has never understood that in any free trade deal with Mexico, a fair amount of low-level manufacturing would shift there, but a fair amount of agricultural production would move from there to the US. Both things happened, but most American critics of NAFTA never noticed the shift of agriculture to the US, just as Mexican critics of NAFTA never noticed the shift of manufacturing to their country.

I recall a business ethics class in which one of my students — a gabacho like me — waxed emotional about “Mexicans stealing our jobs”, while another student — una Mexicana — waxed equally emotional about how gringo farmers were stealing the jobs of campesinos. I suggested that this is what the law of comparative advantage would predict: in the case of a country blessed with a grotesque amount of deeply fecund land trading freely with a country blessed with a grotesque number of deeply hard-working but low-skilled laborers (and less fertile land), low-level manufacturing moves to the labor-heavy country, while agricultural production moves to the fertile-land-heavy country — to the obvious general benefit of both sides. At this, the clearly puzzled students fell silent.

Several recent stories bring to light the economic consequences of Trump’s economic incomprehension. The first is about the debate over the USMCA — the new agreement between the US, Mexico, and Canada that is intended to replace NAFTA. Our own International Trade Commission, a bipartisan body that is tasked with evaluating trade deals for Congress, has said that the effects of the new trade agreement would be limited, eventually raising the GDP of America by only 0.35%, while adding maybe 176,000 jobs. These are meager results compared to the benefits that the existing NAFTA has delivered. And the ITC found that (if the new agreement is ratified) the cost will be a considerable rise in prices for American-made cars — in great part because it requires Mexican companies to raise wages artificially to bring them closer to American unionized auto wages. Specifically, the agreement says that 75% of a car’s value must come from North America, 45% of the car must be made by workers earning $16 per hour or more, and more local aluminum and steel must be used.

He has never understood that in any free trade deal with Mexico, a fair amount of low-level manufacturing would shift there, but a fair amount of agricultural production would move from there to the US.

This is a great deal for Trump’s rentseeking union supporters, but a screw job for the American consumer. The ITC estimated that small American cars will rise 1.6% in price, leading to a 2.35% drop in sales — sales that are already shaky.

Worse yet, some economists predict that many auto industry companies will simply pay the tariffs rather than agree to the outrageous rules and regulations imposed by the unions’ catspaw Trump — ironically, a man who brags about eliminating regulations! This will again directly raise prices to consumers.

Another article reports on the aftermath of Trump’s reckless and thoughtless decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He figured that he killed the agreement when he announced that the US would drop out of the deal (negotiated under the Obama administration); however, the remaining 11 countries went ahead, renamed it the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and ratified it in 2018. In its first year, it is already producing great results for the countries in it, though not of course for us.

For instance, the General Department of Vietnam Customs has reported that Vietnam’s exports to Japan are up by 11.2%, and those to Canada are up by 36.7%, in the first two months of this year compared with last year. Japan reported that last year its beef imports rose 25% from the same period. New Zealand has seen a rise of 133% in beef exports to Japan, and Canada a rise of 345% this year over last.

In its first year, the renamed Trans-Pacific Partnership is already producing great results for the countries in it, though not of course for us.

The rise in beef imports threatens to trigger a Japanese protection mechanism that will jack up tariffs on beef imports from an insane 38.5% to a truly absurd 50%. This will not affect CPTPP ranchers, but it will non-CPTPP ones. More generally, as the Asian region continues its rapid economic growth, the US will be at a distinct disadvantage in exports to the region, compared with the CPTPP ones.

As another article notes, Japan is willing to deal. It has indicated that to avoid tariffs on its cars, it will open up its agricultural market. If Trump simply can’t stomach joining the CPTTP, he can still do a bilateral deal. We can only hope that he does. And Our Oyabun seems to think that he can get better deals if they are bilateral rather than multilateral, apparently under the schoolyard-bully theory that he can use his personal power to force concessions out of the other side.

That’s the theory. So far it hasn’t worked out.

Two other articles point out the idiocy of Trump’s trade policy. The first reports the results of the steep tariff on imported washing machines he ordered a year ago. Faced with stiff competition from evil Asian competitors — you know, horrible people who work harder, for less money, and produce a superior product! — especially the companies LG and Samsung, domestic company Whirlpool got the president to impose a whopping 50% tariff on all imported washing machines. That was a year ago. A new research report written by economists at the Federal Reserve and the University of Chicago gives the results. Profits at Whirlpool have risen a stunning fourfold, to $471 million; but only a measly 1,800 jobs are owing to this high tariff. Samsung plans to open a plant here employing 1,000 people, LG one employing 600, and Whirlpool — the crony capitalist villain of this story — will add a risible 200 jobs.

American consumers were ripped off to the tune of $1.5 billion. That works out to $800,000 for each of the 1,800 jobs!

What is the cost of this “fair-trade” charade? Prices on imported washing machines went up $86 on average (that is, about 12%). Of course, Whirlpool did not keep its own prices low — it jacked them up 13% to 17%! Hence Whirlpool’s whopping half-billion-buck profit. The report estimates that American consumers were ripped off to the tune of $1.5 billion. That works out to $800,000 for each of the 1,800 jobs! That was your tax dollars at work.

Another article reminds us that while China’s trade with us has been flawed by its often dishonest trade practices, we ourselves don’t exactly have clean hands. Consider “anti-dumping duties.” In America, as in most other countries, domestic companies that can’t compete with foreign ones routinely claim that the foreigners are “dumping.” Dumping is the (alleged) practice of selling what is traded in the foreign market for less than what is charged to home customers, or below the cost of production. Most economists doubt that this routinely occurs — it would cost a company a lot of capital to sell below market in another country to get a monopoly, especially when you realize that such a monopoly would be impossible to sustain. When the “dumper” raised prices back up, domestic firms would just start making the product again.

Trump has systematically used dumping charges to protect chosen industries here. China has been the target of 40% of American dumping investigations, and the US imposes the heaviest duties on Chinese companies — duties that have been rising recently. These charges are often dubious. The US protects its own industries, often by comparing a foreign company’s prices here only with full prices in that company’s home market, disregarding discounted prices it charges at home. Moreover, price deductions for such things as overhead and salespersons’ salaries are capped for sales at home but not here. In other cases, where the home market prices are lower, our trade officials simply ignore them.

We keep pulling these stunts, even though the WTO has shot many of them down. Funny, President Trump never mentions how we stick it to other countries. No, he has demagogically persuaded a large part of the American public that we are pure victims in these trade games.

Trump’s tariffs will cost the average American family over $800 per year. The amount will rise dramatically if he applies those tariffs to all Chinese imports.

Two other articles put a nice cap on this discussion. No doubt to Trump’s amazement, the Chinese are playing hardball. Their tariffs on our agricultural goods have devastated many of our farmers. Brazil — which long ago negotiated a free trade agreement with China — has now replaced us as China’s major supplier of soy beans and other crops. In fact, Brazil is opening more of its lands to cultivation, in order to increase exports. In soybean production, US exports to China fell from $12.3 billion in 2017 to a pathetic $3.2 billion last year.

To counter the decision by the Chinese to buy more from Brazil, and to keep the support of farmers here, Our Great Protector just announced that he will give another $16 billion in aid to farmers (in addition to the $11 billion he gave them last year). This is the president at work: using billions of our tax dollars to keep the farm states on his side. It’s a great illustration of public choice theory, or venality in office.

While Trump makes the claim that the subsidies for farmers are coming from the tariffs the Chinese are paying, that claim is ludicrous on its face. Tariffs are taxes imposed on foreign goods — but paid by the American consumer. As noted by US News, Trump’s tariffs will cost the average American family over $800 per year. The amount will rise dramatically if he applies those tariffs to all Chinese imports, as he has threatened to do.

Yet another article informs us about another unseen group of Trump’s economic victims, namely, American farm equipment manufacturers. As the piece reports, companies that make combines, tractors, and other farm machinery are looking at a double-Trump-whammy.

Trump’s high tariffs for the steel and other metals that farm equipment manufacturers use will further hurt them.

First, they face a loss in demand as farmers under pressure from low prices for crops choose to defer buying new equipment. US agricultural exports to China in the first few months of this year are down 40% from the same period last year. And in 2018 we shipped to China less than half of what we shipped in 2017. So Deere will cut production 20% in the second half of its fiscal year. Lindsay Corp said its profits will drop by 31%, because sales have declined 16% in the last three months through February. CNH and AGCO also reported lower sales of their machinery in the first quarter of this year, compared to last year. Titan has reported a 35% drop in first-quarter profit in farm machinery sales.

Second, Trump’s high tariffs for the steel and other metals that farm equipment manufacturers use will further hurt the manufacturers. For example, Vermeer Corp., manufacturer of hay balers, said that it will lose $4 million in direct tariff costs in 2019. CNH expects tariffs to drive up its costs by $50 to $100 million, and Deere estimates the tariffs will cost it $75 million. Moreover, both Vermeer Corp. and Lindsay Corp. report paying more for costs because of the tariffs.

Especially worrisome for the American agricultural industry is this question: once China and all the other countries we have hammered get robust supply chains set up with Argentina, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, and elsewhere, will they resume buying from us when we cease our tariff wars?

There’s no reason to think that Trump is open to a cessation of tariffs, which he seems to love, as an exercise in power.

Now, to this last point, one might cleverly respond that if a cessation of dumping would cause a quick resumption of competition, why wouldn’t a cessation of tariffs cause a quick resumption of competition?

Of course, there’s no reason to think that Trump is open to a cessation of tariffs, which he seems to love, as an exercise in power. But speaking to the general principle: if a country were truly to start dumping with an eye to putting its competition out of business, it would lose massive amounts of profit until it succeeded. Upon cessation of this dumping, the prior competition could just quickly reopen its factories. But when you tariff your own goods, your domestic producers lose market share as other countries create or expand facilities to meet the demand of satisfying your prior customers. But if you stop your tariffs, those other countries would still have their newly created or expanded production lines still in place.

In other words, this feeble reply is a false analogy. Dumping — a phenomenon most economists doubt really exists — would only temporarily shut down some of the pre-existing competitors’ facilities. But tariffs lead to the permanent creation of new facilities of competitors.

Even after any imagined cessation of tariffs, there will be an irreversible loss of trust.

Does anyone really think that after tariffs disappear — if they disappear — that the newly developed farmland in Brazil will just be converted back into rainforest? If you believe that, I have a high-rise Trollop Tower in Manhattan to sell you.

Finally, even after any imagined cessation of tariffs, there will be an irreversible loss of trust. If America, a loud exponent of free markets, private property, and free trade, from the end of WWII until recently, is now willing to wage tariff war for the most trivial of reasons, who will trust such a Republic of Lies?

The even more worrisome question raised above is this: will the tariff war end at all? Perhaps the Chinese have taken the measure of Trump and have concluded that he is a flawed and doomed president, and that they can just outlast him. Moreover, he has just announced that he will reattack — Mexico! His loopy proposal is aimed at getting Mexico to seal its borders, so Central Americans won’t keep coming here. He will start the tariff at 5% on all of Mexico’s exports immediately, and raise it 5% per month until it hits 25%. What a massive misuse of the tariff powers of the president! Trump seems to now view tariffs to be the ultimate skeleton key to open the door for any policy he wishes to achieve.

America will be increasingly consigned to third-rate status in world trade and influence.

Oh, and this just in: Trump has informed Prime Minister Modi (a man he professes to admire) that India — whose alliance we may need to counter a rising China — will shortly lose its designation as a beneficiary developing country. It will be removed from the Generalized System of Preferences, aimed at helping developing countries. We will now start jacking up taxes on Indian trade — starting with washing machines! To this, India has promised jacking up tariffs on American goods. In fine, a new front on the widening trades war.

This all raises the question of whether our standing in the world will recover any time soon. Color me skeptical. Trump’s widespread and indiscriminate use of tariffs, his refusal to join TPP, his upending of NAFTA, his failure to produce any new free trade agreements, his other bullying trade tactics — indeed, his whole crony capitalist betrayal of free market economics — mean that America will be increasingly consigned to third-rate status in world trade and influence.

Trump has made America small again. Quick — somebody order a bunch of “MASA” caps!




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Notes from the Islamic Republic

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Walking down the street in Tehran, if you’re from the Great Satan, is like starring in a triumphal procession, you attract so much attention. I was there last week and it’s the oddest feeling, nothing like what you expect, especially not those of us whose strongest images of Iranians involve mobs tearing into the American Embassy. People come up to you, not by ones and twos, but by the scores and hundreds and snap selfies and tell you how much they like Americans. If you happen to pass by a picnic, whole families will wave you over to join them. If it’s close to a mealtime, and it’s always close to a mealtime, strangers will invite you into their homes to eat.

Sometimes Iranians will elaborate a bit and tell you that, although they really do like Americans, they don’t approve of our government . . . which struck me as profoundly sensible, since I feel exactly the same way. Every now and then I’d wax especially geopolitical and opine that, all over the world . . . Canada, South Africa, India, you name it . . . nobody likes their own government. To which they’d reply, “Yes, but we don’t like our government a lot more than they don’t like theirs.”

It’s hard to figure where all this goodwill comes from. Back in the day, a lot of Iranians studied abroad and plenty of them must have brought home warm memories of their time in America. Part, I suspect, has to do with the fact that they don’t see that many of us anymore. I’ve had that theory for a long time that there’s an inverse relationship between how well-liked Americans are in any given place and the number of us who travel to that place. Some of the good thoughts may spring from the very public alternative we provide to the society they’re forced to live in. Whatever, two or three even told me they liked President Trump because “his sanctions force our government to pay attention to the people.”

It's nothing like what you expect, especially not those of us whose strongest images of Iranians involve mobs tearing into the American Embassy.

For a government trying its damnedest to turn the Islamic Republic into a police state, the mullahs aren’t getting a lot of buy-in at the interpersonal level, at least when the other person is a foreigner. Iranians will tell you right up front, “We like talking to foreigners because we can discuss politics with them.” The unspoken . . . and, sometimes, spoken . . . corollary is that they’re afraid to talk politics with their own countrymen, at least if they don’t know those countrymen well enough to share a drink with. In a society where the strictures of Islam are jammed down everybody’s throats, sharing a drink with a friend is the ultimate act of trust. In fact, drinking itself is an act of trust because, with the borders shut tight and the vineyards at Shiraz long since uprooted, most of the available alcohol is brewed up from raisins.

Public defiance happens in small ways, but small rebellions are the hardest to control. Women — every woman, foreigner and local alike, even female SCUBA divers — have to hide themselves under layers of cloth. Some of that cloth can be astonishingly form-fitting, and the head coverings that go with it pushed so far back on the skull that they become more of a tease, like a very low-cut gown in the West, than anything exemplifying feminine virtue. Once, in a mosque of all places, I saw a woman remove hers entirely. It was early morning and she stood in the light streaming through a curtainwall of stained glass, the colors dancing off her face and clothes, to have her picture taken. Then pulled off her scarf so her hair could be in the picture, too. A guard, who’d been posted in the shadows to protect the mosque from just such an outrage, marched over and ordered her to cover back up.

“Now.”

With the time-honored gesture imperious women everywhere give to dismiss bothersome males, she flicked her fingers at him, he retreated to the dark recesses he’d risen up from of, and she went back to the serious business of having her picture taken.

I’ve had that theory for a long time that there’s an inverse relationship between how well-liked Americans are in any given place and the number of us who travel to that place.

Iranians have rebelled in more substantial ways, too. After the Revolution, when a particularly crazed mullah ordered Persepolis bulldozed, townspeople lay down in front of the Gate of All Nations, the gorgeous bas reliefs, and the remnants of Darius’s palace and treasury, and stayed laid down until the mullah gave up and the bulldozers lumbered away.

Whatever religious feelings individual Iranians have, or don’t have, they pretty much keep to themselves. Or, at least, they don’t make a show of to foreigners. Aside from a lady in the Grand Bazaar in Isfahan who wanted to sell me a tile painted with lovely Farsi script, then commanded not to use it as a trivet because the script spelled out “In the name of God,” religion only came up one time. That was in a park in Tehran when a claque of schoolgirls presented me with a scrap of paper, also lettered in Farsi. It took some asking, but the paper turned out to be a prayer for the return of the Mahdi. It was his birthday and the girls were celebrating by passing out prayers to park-goers.

The Mahdi, for those not versed in the intricacies of the Shia brand of Islam, is the Occulted Imam who, in the fullness of time, will reveal himself and reign over the Latter Days before the Resurrection. Oddly, given the echoes of Christianity in the story, or fittingly, or eerily, or because of rotating calendars, or for reasons known only to the common God our more ecumenical theologians claim we all share, his birthday fell on Easter Sunday this year.

Townspeople lay down in front of the Gate of All Nations, the gorgeous bas reliefs, and the remnants of Darius’s palace and treasury, and stayed laid down until the bulldozers lumbered away.

To believers of a certain ilk, the Mahdi has already taken a stab at revealing himself. This happened in the 1880s when he led an uprising in Sudan. But it didn’t stick. He won a spectacular series of battles, then died and became occulted all over again. His movement fell apart a few years later when his successor in Mahdiship attracted the notice of a British army equipped with Maxim guns and Martini-Henry rifles. Whether he’s planning on re-revealing himself anytime soon has not been communicated to me but, whatever he has in mind, there’s not much doubt what those girls were thinking. Their faces were ablaze with the joy and light of the true believer.

All of which is to say that, whatever tensions exist between America and the Islamic Republic, they’re not on the personal level, or even the religious. Government-to-government is a different story. Citizens of almost any place in the world can pick up a visa to Iran upon arrival at Imam Khomeini International Airport City in Tehran. Those of us who live in Britain, Canada, or the Great Satan, though, can’t even APPLY for a visa. We have to apply for permission to apply for a visa . . . which means sending in a form four months in advance setting out, among other things, the complete itinerary of our hoped-for visit along with a curriculum vitae for the past 15 years . . . where we worked, what we did, what our employers did . . . and then waiting three of the four months while they check our bona fides. The people who aren’t bona fide, the ones they don’t want in their country, are employees of “certain” US government agencies, and those of us with a history of practicing journalism. That practicing journalism business gave me pause until I realized that scribbling the occasional screed for Liberty is about as removed from journalism as an honest writer can get.

If you pass muster in the government-employee and journalism departments, they’ll favor you with a document granting permission to apply for a visa. This lets you fill out a visa application, slip the document, the application, your passport, a couple of photos, and a money order into an envelope and . . . Iran not having an embassy in the US . . . send the envelope to the Islamic Republic of Iran Interest Section at the Embassy of Pakistan. Which leaves you with the uncomfortable thought that I just sent my passport to Pakistan.

Those of us who live in Britain, Canada, or the Great Satan, though, can’t even apply for a visa. We have to apply for permission to apply for a visa

Our government isn’t all that gung-ho about Americans travelling to Iran, either. Here’s what the State Department posts on its website for those of us who might be tempted:

“Do not travel to Iran due to the risk of kidnapping, arrest, detention of U.S. citizens. There is a very high risk of kidnapping, arrest, and detention of U.S. citizens in Iran . . . .” (Bolds copied directly from the original, State Department font.)

After warning you about kidnapping, arrest and detention, the site highly encourages you to register with the American embassy so that our folks in Tehran will know you’re in town and can help you get back out if things go awry. Since we don’t actually have an embassy in Tehran, it’s hard to see how this would work, and my wife and I didn’t bother registering. One of the ladies who traveled with us did, though, and got a note back instructing her to appoint a hostage negotiator before setting out. She submitted the name of her 14-month-old granddaughter on the ground of, “that girl always knows what she wants.”

In Iran, traveling with a group is pretty much de rigueur on account of you aren’t allowed go anywhere without a guide. (“Guide” is Farsi for “minder.”) After you leave the country, your guide goes down to the Internal Security Police and reports on you. One of our guides told me he hated doing that, not because he felt that he was betraying his clients, but because he never knew what to say. “They ask me where the tourists went and what they took pictures of and what they talked about. I tell them they went to Persepolis and took pictures of the Gate of All Nations, and talked about Alexander the Great, and the Security Police get mad and threaten to pull my license.”

Since we don’t actually have an embassy in Tehran, it’s hard to see how this would work, and my wife and I didn’t bother registering.

At the end of our trip we had to fly from Shiraz to Tehran to catch our flight home. Tehran has two airports. The old airport, for domestic flights, and the new Khomeini Airport for international travel. On a good day, meaning at midnight when traffic is lightest, these airports are an hour and a half apart. Our tour arranged for a cab to take us.

The driver was more than accommodating, even by the standards of an Iranian dealing with Americans. When we arrived at Khomeini, he insisted on carrying our bags into the terminal . . . even though all we had was carry-ons, and the carry-ons had wheels.

Then he insisted on waiting in line with us.

And accompanying us to the ticket counter, and on through to emigration . . . at which point he couldn’t insist any more, so, pulling out his phone, he took a selfie of the three of us with the emigration booth in the background. “To remember you by.”

To REMEMBER us by? This guy was a cab driver.

Or, when I thought about it, something more than a cab driver. The selfie documented the fact that he’d gotten us onto the plane.

Apparently, when you join Iran’s fighting forces nobody issues you a uniform. Instead, you go to a tailor and get fitted for one.

The mullahs weren’t as queasy about what we were allowed to see while we were in Iran as they were about making sure we didn’t overstay our welcome, and one of the first places we went was the Nest of Spies. Also known as the Den of Espionage or, more poetically, the Museum-Garden of Anti-Arrogance, where we were invited to inspect all of America’s latest (à la 1970s) high-tech computer gadgetry, Faraday cages, and shredding equipment left over from when the place really did harbor spies. So it’s not exactly true that we don’t have an embassy in Tehran, it’s just that we don’t currently have diplomatic personnel serving in the embassy.

A few days later we drove past, but weren’t invited to examine, the uranium processing facility at Natanz with, presumably, stuxnet still whirling away at the centrifuges.

Something else the mullahs seemed a bit lax about was military couture. Apparently, when you join Iran’s fighting forces nobody issues you a uniform. Instead, you go to a tailor and get fitted for one, which makes Iranian soldiers a lot spiffier in the personal appearance department than baggy fatigues make our guys look.

I find it very difficult to believe that anybody in the entire country has any stomach for war with America, or any other place for that matter.

The tailors have a full line of insignia to complete the look and, like merchants all over the Middle East, don’t seem to care whom they sell to. So, if you want, you can walk into one shop and get fitted out in the regalia of a full colonel in the Iranian air force. Or, as I did, come away more modestly accoutered with a black Revolutionary Guard shoulder patch embroidered in gold thread with a hand clutching an automatic rifle. I heard there were Hamas shoulder patches on offer, but didn’t get one.

Despite this military stuff I find it very difficult to believe that anybody in the entire country has any stomach for war with America, or any other place for that matter. In the been-there-done-that department, Iran is top of the line. Back in the Eighties . . . almost the whole of the Eighties . . . it got in a dispute with Iraq and refought World War I. Trenches. Machine guns. Gas. Shells. Barbed wire, and a lot of Iranians died. Two-hundred-thousand. Six-hundred-thousand. Eight-hundred-thousand, you can take your choice because nobody believes the official stats. Reminders are everywhere.

On bridges. On lampposts. On sides of buildings. And, especially, down the center lanes of highways leading into towns.

Unlike the men whose names are chiseled beneath the words “We shall never forget” on obelisks and the bases of statues in Britain and America, these dead really are hard to forget. Their faces are on big black-and-white portraits hanging, two at a time, every 20 meters or so along the center strips of highways as you drive into town. Every town, and back out on the other side. Kilometers of young men. Miles of young men leading into Tehran and Qom and Kashan and Isfahan and Yazd and Shiraz and every little village and berg in between, and into the countryside beyond. Hometown kids. Thousands of them. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands.

The very fact that you’re looking at their pictures tells you all you need to know, all you want to know, about what became of them.

As with people in photographs everywhere, you feel you can look them in the eye, that you can sense who they were, and who they could have been. Skinny, scared boys. Smirking cads. Athletes. Sad sacks. You make up stories in your mind. That one was proud to serve. Or a scholar. Or wishing he were home. Or back in school. Or in his uncle’s shop, or working the farm, or hanging out on a street corner. All . . . because you know what trench warfare is like, because you know what machine guns and gas and shells and barbed wire do to human flesh . . . destined for horrible, filthy deaths. The very fact that you’re looking at their pictures tells you all you need to know, all you want to know, about what became of them.

I don’t have any better idea than any other friend of Liberty what really happened to those four tankers that are said to have been sabotaged in the Persian Gulf in mid-May but, to a person of my generation, the news can’t help bring up memories of what we were told happened, but didn’t, in the Gulf of Tonkin. This time feels different, though, and I sure hope it is. Under Johnson we had a president who not only was looking for a fight but was willing to manufacture an incident to create one. Blunderbuss that some people will tell you our current president is, he’s said from the beginning he doesn’t want to get us involved in wars. So, maybe, he won’t.

Whatever is really going on between us and Iran and those tankers, Iranians are not people we want to fight. They are people who, in a different world, would be our closest friends. They are funny and spontaneous and laughing and much more like us than anybody else I know about in the Middle East, than many Europeans, for that matter, but I’m not sanguine about what’s going to happen. Not that I think we’ll get into a shooting war with them, I just can’t see how we can ever get out of each other’s faces.

Two presidents ago we elected a fool who broke that balance, and now we don’t have any choice but to maintain it ourselves.

Nobody who isn’t Iranian wants the Islamic Republic to control the Persian Gulf, and nobody who isn’t Saudi wants Arabia to control the Persian Gulf. The problem from the point of view of those of us who aren’t Iranian or Saudi is that Iran has the best army in the region, is a major industrial power, has a thriving agriculture sector, and is just short of world-class in high tech. Arabia can’t so much as make a ballpoint pen. Heck, Arabia can’t even feed itself. Wheat that sells for five dollars on the world market costs ten dollars worth of water to grow in Arabia. All of which puts America in a classic geopolitical bind.

Unless we want to send our own young people to the Persian Gulf to keep Iran from taking over the whole show, we don’t have any choice but to play balance-of-power, which means sanctions, and scaring away tourists, and pushing every country we have any sway with to keep cranking the screws down tighter.

It didn’t have to be this way. It used to be there was a built-in balance of power, with Iraq sitting on Iran’s western flank, tying up its army and its resources and generally putting the brakes on the Mullahs getting too frisky. But two presidents ago we elected a fool who broke that balance, and now we don’t have any choice but to maintain it ourselves. As one of the ayatollahs, or imams, or mullahs or somebody said at the time, “Allah has blinded the Great Satan into doing our work for us.” Or something along those lines.




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Libertarian Party Optimism

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I believe that within the next 50 years the Libertarian Party will become a major force in American politics, taking 20 to 30% of the vote nationally and electing a wide swath of candidates.

One reason is that the Millennial generation and the so-called Generation Z will live to see the day when Social Security runs out of money, and they will seek an alternative to the establishment out of sheer survival instincts. Another may be that if Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez becomes president and socialism destroys the economy, Generation Z will flock to the LP.

But today, unlike the tomorrow of the future, the Libertarian Party is held together by duct tape, some sticky half-chewed gum, and some old frayed shoe laces. This was evident at the 2019 convention of the Manhattan Libertarian Party. A lot of people were there, old and young, party stalwarts and people new to the LP, but the event was cozy and unpretentious, lacking the grand pomp and pageantry of a Democrat or Republican rally. It was held in a giant room in the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant in Manhattan, in what seems to be a Ukrainian state building. I would not have been surprised if Russian spies were listening to every word said in that room. The centerpiece of the event, other than the election of the 2019 Manhattan LP officers, was speeches given by Matt Welch of Reason magazine and Larry Sharpe, LP gubernatorial candidate. Sharpe got enough votes for the New York Libertarian Party to become an officially recognized party in the state, with full ballot access, after waging a courageous yet doomed campaign against Democratic juggernaut Andrew Cuomo and his corrupt New York political machine.

The Millennial generation and the so-called Generation Z will live to see the day when Social Security runs out of money, and they will seek an alternative to the establishment out of sheer survival instincts.

Hearing Mr. Sharpe speak, I found that he was a real libertarian, a smart man, a good public speaker, and a fighter, and he seemed to have a firm grasp of important issues. That having been said, it is clear why he did not, and could not, win: he simply lacked the network and political machine and fundraising dollars of, for example, an Andrew Cuomo or a Hillary Clinton. He also lacks the raw charisma and the hypnotizing, mesmerizing rhetorical skill of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and other populists. If you are not a member of the elite and can't be a populist, it is tough to win. Just being a nice guy is not enough, as Sharpe, Gary Johnson, and other Libertarians have learned every time they’ve run for office.

There is an important question, as the Libertarian Party matures, of whether it will evolve into a populist party or try to be seen as a respectable mainstream party fielding "real, legitimate" politicians. That tension was present at the convention, perhaps never more palpably than while Matt Welch of Reason spoke. I am not going to rehash what he said, but instead reflect on the role of Reason in the current moment of libertarianism. Reason projects an image of a libertarian version of the mainstream media, full of polished experts with extensive knowledge who come across as highly professional and whom it is easy to take seriously. Indeed, Reason is a libertarian medium that wants to be taken seriously by the establishment and the political elites, to move the needle on policy and to be read by the intellectual and educated classes. So, too, within the Libertarian Party, many of us want candidates who will be taken seriously by the voters and fit in with the political elites and the real politicians and not be a mere joke or token candidate who can't win.

But there is a catch. Core libertarian policies, such as abolishing the income tax, ending the Federal Reserve, putting currency back on a gold standard, terminating Social Security, legalizing the wide range of drugs, are not taken seriously, and will not be taken seriously, by the American public, and certainly never by the elites and the establishment. There are simply too many ways the government helps the rich, too many Wall Street bailouts, too many efforts of educated elites to use government to control the great unwashed masses of the public, for the educated class or the political elites to turn libertarian. So if the LP runs real candidates who want to be “taken seriously,” it loses something of its credibility and its integrity with its original ideals. Each Libertarian must grapple with what to sacrifice — principles, or being accepted by the establishment.

It is clear why the LP gubernatorial candidate did not, and could not, win: he simply lacked the network and political machine and fundraising dollars of, for example, an Andrew Cuomo or a Hillary Clinton.

You see the problem. Matt Welch even had to cut his speech short at the end because he was scheduled to appear on Kennedy’s show later that night. She and John Stossel do a lot to fold libertarianism into the Fox News vision. There is a certain type of person I think of as a Reason reader — affluent, young, male, highly educated, and very angry that he has to pay taxes and isn't allowed to smoke weed. He reads Reason with a sense of rebellion, yet as a member of the middle class or upper class he is himself a part of the establishment. Such people will one day face a choice — stay true to being real libertarians, or be taken seriously by the educated class and take their rightful place among the elite.

Still, by putting up a fight to be taken seriously as libertarians, Reason and people like Matt Welch slowly but surely shift the public's conception of what is to be taken seriously, and I am optimistic that in about 50 years it will shift enough for libertarians with integrity to our core principles to be taken seriously and be viewed as legitimate and get elected. If and when that happens, the tension and contradiction between being a real libertarian and being a member of the political class or the mainstream media establishment may end, and being libertarian may become mainstream.

This is a long way of explaining why I viewed Matt with caution and a sense of tension, despite the fact that he gave a fun, enjoyable talk about himself and Reason, and shared an interesting anecdote about Ayn Rand threatening to sue Reason in its early days after it acquired Nathaniel Branden's mailing list.

Core libertarian policies are not taken seriously, and will not be taken seriously, by the American public, and certainly never by the elites and the establishment.

There will never be a one-size-fits-all answer for a group as diverse as libertarians. During Q and A with Mr. Welch and Mr. Sharpe, there was some talk of whether libertarians should be radical or be moderate and seek the space between Left and Right. The consensus seemed to be that the moderate center is an illusion and radicals are more likely to get elected. Moderate or radical, freak or conformist sell-out, is another way to frame this question.

For decades, my other tribe, the LGBT community, has been grappling with whether to go mainstream or persist as proud to be freaks, and we still have not decided as a movement. There is still a cold war between the advocates of gay marriage and those among us who oppose marriage as an institution. So, too, may it be with the libertarian movement: an unending war between radicals and pragmatists.

The future of the Libertarian Party looks bright. Although the party today is small and splintered, check back in 50 years. I believe my prediction will prove correct.




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Muzungus in the Mist

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Part I: The Slow Cyclists

“Run!”

“Run where, Papa?”

“Into the bush! Now!

Little seven-year old D’Artagnan had no idea what was going on. Was he supposed to run “into the bush” alone? Why? Rwanda had very little “bush”; it was all agricultural small holdings.

As soon as the plane went down, the Rwandan genocide began. It had been well planned for a long time.

That was the evening of April 6, 1994. That afternoon Rwandan Hutu dictator and president, Juvénal Habyarimana, along with Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira, also a Hutu, were shot down by missiles fired at close range as their plane was landing at the Kigali airport. Officially, the attackers remain unidentified. Though Hutu extremists blame the Rwandan Patriotic Forces (RPF) — Tutsi and moderate Hutu rebels opposed to Habyarimana’s dictatorship — RPF forces were nowhere near the area. Only the elite presidential guard was nearby, stationed at the Kigali airport, next door to the president’s compound — and they were armed with missiles.

Habyarimana was just returning from Tanzania after a regional summit. Three months prior he’d signed the Arusha Peace Accords, a power-sharing deal with the RPF that was supposed to put an end to the long-running civil war between the National Revolutionary Movement (MRND) and the RPF. A cabal of Hutu extremists in high government posts, reluctant to cede any power or spoils, opposed the deal. Habyarimana himself was no fan of it; the international community and the RPF’s military might forced it on him.

As soon as the plane went down, the Rwandan genocide began. It had been well planned for a long time. Machetes imported from China, grenades from France (military support of several kinds had been provided by the French government), and masus, clubs with protruding nails on their heads, had been stockpiled for this moment. Extremist Hutu militias, known as the interahamwe (those who attack together), had trained for this moment since 1990. Within hours of the downing of the plane the interahamwe went house-to-house killing Tutsis, set up road blocks demanding identity cards and chopping down Tutsis on the spot, and murdering moderate Hutu politicians — including the Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana.

We’d gone to Rwanda to bike around the small country, our favorite way of discovering new places. With an undergraduate minor in primatology, I wanted to see gorillas up close. What better venue than the Virunga volcanoes where Dian Fossey had done her studies? And my wife Tina had never been to Africa. It was a bucket list thing.

Within hours the militias went house-to-house killing Tutsis, set up road blocks demanding identity cards and chopping down Tutsis on the spot, and murdering moderate Hutu politicians.

We signed up for an 8-day tour with Slow Cyclist, an outfit out of Britain. Having been an outdoor guide all my life, hiring a guide rankled. But the gorilla permits are difficult to acquire, there are no adequate maps of Rwanda’s back roads, my Kinyarwandan is non-existent, and Slow Cyclist promised a first-class mountain bike tour with a guaranteed gorilla trek at the end. So I held my nose and signed up for their Kigali to Virunga ride along the steepest, roughest backroads in East Africa (I was skeptical of their advertised nearly 5,000-foot altitude gain on a bike the first day, but wrote it off as a typo), with custom lodging at tea plantations, private homes, and reservation-only boutique inns.

After the Slow Cyclist tour, Tina and I would traverse the Congo-Nile Trail, a moderately hard world-class mountain bike trail along giant Lake Kivu on the Congo border. Because much of the single-track is difficult to follow and lodging scarce and variable, we planned on hiring a guide from Rwandan Adventures, a custom guide outfit. After that we’d be on our own across the southern half of the country and back up to Kigali. Our full route traced a circle around the western half of Rwanda, starting and ending in Kigali, which is approximately in the center of the country.

Even though we brought our bikes with us, entry formalities were search- and customs-free. The immigration official greeted us with a big smile and declared that we were VIPs. He asked my profession. I said I was a retired teacher. He responded, “My son says that teachers never retire.”

I was skeptical of their advertised nearly 5,000-foot altitude gain on a bike the first day, but wrote it off as a typo.

On the first day Slow Cyclist took us to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Two hundred and fifty thousand people are buried there. Our guide around the small museum was D’Artagnan. Something about our small custom group — seven participants from the US, Switzerland and Germany — seemed to affect D’Artagnan’s stock presentation. When he recounted the events of that April 6 evening he couldn’t hold back his tears. Neither could we.

“How did you survive?” we hesitantly but anxiously asked.

Little D’Artagnan had wandered lost for days until a kind old woman hid him. His entire family was annihilated. He added that the interahamwe grabbed small children by the feet and swung them against masonry walls to smash their heads; larger ones were decapitated by machete. No one left that museum tour without physically touching D’Artagnan, who nonetheless left us without ceremony.

In some ways the Rwandan genocide was much worse than the Nazi Holocaust. Patrick Mazimpaka, a minister in the 1997 RPF-led government reflected, “In Germany, the Jews were . . . moved to . . . distant locations, and killed there, almost anonymously. In Rwanda . . . your neighbors killed you. In Germany, if the population participated in the killing, it was not directly but indirectly.”

Little D’Artagnan had wandered lost for days until a kind old woman hid him. His entire family was annihilated.

Mahmood Mandami, in his scholarly analysis When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, says:

The technology of the Holocaust allowed a few to kill many, but [in Rwanda] the machete had to be wielded by a single pair of hands. It required not one but many hacks to kill even one person. With a machete, killing was hard work; that is why there were often several killers for every single victim . . . The Rwandan genocide was very much an intimate affair. It was carried out by hundreds of thousands, perhaps even more, and witnessed by millions.

Then there are the raw numbers. Rwanda had seven million inhabitants before the genocide. Nearly one million were Tutsis. During the 100 days the genocide proper lasted, 800,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. That’s at least 333 1/3 murders per hour — or 5 1/2 lives terminated every minute. That the entire Tutsi population wasn’t annihilated is due to the many waves of Tutsi refugees that found asylum in Uganda, Zaire, Burundi, and Tanzania before and during the killing.

The disaster didn’t begin there. The Hutu-Tutsi rivalry became deadly in 1897 when the ruling class — mostly Tutsis — imposed heavy duties on the peasants — mostly Hutus. Then it took another turn in1933 when the Belgian authorities decided to issue mandatory identity cards to all Ruandan-Urundis (as residents of the colony were then called), thereby freezing ethnic and class identity. It was then that infrequent pogroms — by both sides — began taking place. Before then, the Hutu-Tutsi classes were not fixed: a Hutu could become a Tutsi and vice versa. Intermarriage was common, to such a degree that an observer could not visually distinguish an archetypal Hutu from a Tutsi. (Except for the king, who was 7’2” tall; height is a supposedly defining Tutsi trait.) Neither could we make such visual distinctions during our one-month sojourn and 700-kilometer bike ride around the country.

During the 100 days the genocide proper lasted, 800,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. That’s at least 333 1/3 murders per hour — or 5 1/2 lives terminated every minute.

Killings began in earnest in 1959, with subsequent waves in 1962, 1963, 1967, and continued periodically until 1994. In 1972 there was a 250,000 reverse massacre: of Hutus in neighboring Burundi by the Tutsi-dominated government (even though the Hutu-Tutsi proportion in Burundi was the same as in Rwanda: 85% to 15%).

The RPF started their advance south from Mulindi, headquarters next to the Ugandan border, on April 7. Though Kigali was only about 80 kilometers away, they began a three-pronged pincer movement targeting Byumba — the first big city on the road south — Kigali, and Butare, Rwanda’s number two city and intellectual capital, with the intent of breaking supply chains and laying siege to all three. They were well-disciplined, armed with both guns and morale, and were led by Paul Kagame, who has been described as the African Napoleon — a tactical and strategic genius. When government troops faced the RPF advance, they often ran away. The Interahamwe, armed only with machetes and masus, followed them, while the Hutu Power militias evaporated. The Presidential Guard, the best trained soldiers of the regime, put up the most resistance. As Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, stated in his book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, “The RGF (Rwandan Government Forces) soldiers were killing for the sake of killing, not knowing or caring why. In this type of conflict, the men fighting for principles they believed in would inevitably win.”

Finally, after the RPF victory on the Fourth of July, 1994, the Hutu militias, Interahamwe, and remnants of the previous government’s army fled to Congo and regrouped there, with hopes of overthrowing the new RPF government in Rwanda. Kagame, the defense chief of the RPF (and later president of the country) would have none of that. He enlisted the aid of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whom he’d helped to topple Ugandan dictator Milton Obote with the RPF forces, to neutralize the génocidaires.

The RPF were well-disciplined, armed with both guns and morale, and were led by Paul Kagame, who has been described as the African Napoleon — a tactical and strategic genius.

Counting the killings before the genocide, the genocide itself, and killings that continued in wars directly resultant from the genocide, the death toll topped six million.

* * *

In Kigali, Slow Cyclist ensconced us in the Heaven Chalet, next door but one to President Paul Kagame’s residence and about two blocks from the Hotel Mille des Collines, site of the events depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda. If you think San Francisco is hilly, you haven’t been to Kigali, a city so much that way that it defies a grid system for roads. Each hill is overlaid with a paisley street pattern with connector avenues to the other hills.

Kigali is a spotlessly clean city. In fact, all of Rwanda is litter-free; plastic bags are even outlawed. Not only are the people proud of their country but on the last Saturday of every month all businesses shut down and a general cleanup ensues. Kigali is also a city without slums, beggars, homeless people, bare footedness, potholes, or animals — even dogs. Their curious absence drove home for us, more than anything, including the numbers of dead, how they died, and D’Artagnan’s tale, the enormity of the genocide.

If you think San Francisco is hilly, you haven’t been to Kigali, a city so much that way that it defies a grid system for roads.

When the genocide ended on July 4, 1994, a country of 10,000 square miles was peppered with one million dead. They lay both scattered and in clusters, many piled in churches where they’d sought refuge (although there were a few hastily dug mass graves). Rwanda’s neglected and hungry dogs dug into the corpses. As if carpets of corpses weren’t overwhelming enough, watching hungry dogs scavenging the dead was beyond anyone’s tolerance. All dogs were killed. Nearly 25 years later we encountered only two instances of dogs, both pets of foreigners.

The police, according to all accounts, are incorruptible. One informant told us that when offered a bribe, they are instructed to accept it and keep it — and then to write a citation for bribing. Emi, our driver and guide, said thieves and assaulters were lucky if caught by the police. Woe betide the miscreant who is set upon by witnessing passersby before the arrival of the cops.

Traffic laws are strictly enforced. One practice that wouldn’t pass muster in the US but makes the streets much safer for pedestrians and bikers is that any motorist who hits a pedestrian or biker is automatically incarcerated for six months before even facing a judge. Motorcycle taxis (moto-taxis), the most common mode of public transportation (along with buses and bicycles kitted up with a back seat), carry a spare helmet for fares. And they are scrupulously honest, with no price negotiation. Just flag one down, state your destination, and upon arrival hand over any denomination of Rwandan francs, and you’ll get the right change. How they figure the correct amount remains a mystery to me, but the fares for similar distances from different drivers remained consistent.

To avoid Kigali traffic — which isn’t particularly fast or outrageously dense — Slow Cyclist drove us to the outskirts of the city, and up the first thousand feet of our first day’s ride. With another 4,000 feet up to go, and 50 kilometers along impossibly steep and rugged dirt roads, we’d have been hard pressed to reach the Sorwathe Tea Plantation in Kinihira, our first night’s lodging, without that initial motorized boost.

Kinihira had been fought over in the civil war launched by the RPF in October 1990. It was here that much of the Arusha Peace Accords had been negotiated. It then became neutral ground and was the site of the official launch of the UNAMIR peace keeping force in October 1993. We slept on hallowed ground.

Any motorist who hits a pedestrian or biker is automatically incarcerated for six months before even facing a judge.

As avid bikers, Tina and I can hold our own in any group. But the four 26-year-old Swiss and one German, all experienced mountain bikers, made me feel my age; it was my birthday, and I’d turned 69 that day. Still, it was a tough day for us all: two flats, one lost biker, and a crash so bad it forced the German to ride in the four-wheel drive support vehicle for two days with a bandaged forearm. Was it going to be so difficult every day?

Pretty much. Fifty-five kilometers and 3,500 feet of altitude gain on the second day, all on rocky, rutted four-wheel drive back roads. We started, however, with a tour of the tea factory, with full-on hygienic suits. Observing the sophisticated operation, which was literally “in the middle of nowhere,”’ we were amazed that the entire factory was operated by four massive wood-burning boilers stoked round-the-clock.

During that day’s ride, Tim, one of the Swiss riders, and an economist by trade, with a take-no-prisoners approach to development economics, deigned to ride with this old fogy. He was open and friendly, with a confident arrogance that I found attractive. Since both of us were impatient with small talk, I told him I was an admirer of Hayek and Mises. He added Hernando de Soto, confirming that we shared some theoretical premises.

I then asked him what he thought of Jeffrey Sachs, the doyen of development economics. Tim found the man’s views deplorable and unrealistic, but had bought the main book that expounded his views. When he saw that the introduction was written by a rock star, Bono — Tim’s words were now dripping with sarcasm — he put off reading it.

On a roll, he moved on to a rant about “fair trade,” one of his favorite foils. Like the American economist Tyler Cowen, who observed that if you want to help the really poor, you don’t buy “fair trade,” Tim had his own beef with the concept, especially when thoughtlessly lumped in a basket of other trendy ideologies.

Was it going to be so difficult every day? Pretty much.

A friend back in Bern, an advocate of fair trade and sustainability, had been buying a “fair trade” avocado when Tim revealed to her that the inefficiencies behind that import did not fit a sustainable model — on any level. She sheepishly put the avocado back on the shelf. I sensed an opening to have fun by presenting a poser on economic inefficiencies, as follows.

Our biking guides, Olivier and Godfrey, came from Rwanda and Uganda respectively. Both were 23 years old, excellent competitive mountain bikers, personable and sensitive, with good English. Slow Cyclist also runs tours in Transylvania, Tuscany, and Greece that are manned by locals. Savannah, our Slow Cyclist head honcho on this tour, told me that Slow Cyclist was mulling over bringing Olivier and Godfrey to Transylvania as on-the-ground biking guides — initially on a training basis — and bringing Romanian guides to Rwanda. I told Tim about Savannah’s plans, drolly emphasizing how inefficient such a move would be.

Tim looked at me impishly and admitted that there were some things more important than economic efficiency. I could tell by his smile that a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, had found a new friend.

I elaborated: if you promise to stay together no matter what, there is a perverse incentive to become complacent and take each other for granted.

During the succeeding days we continued to enjoy various topics in economics. One evening after a couple of banana beers, I brought up a thought about incentives that I‘d been mulling over for a while when he asked me how long Tina and I had been married; a question, no doubt, precipitated by how well — and uninhibitedly — she and I got along.

I told him we weren’t married, but had been together for 30 years and had known each other for 40, adding that we thought marriage was premised on the wrong set of incentives. Tim was intrigued. I elaborated: if you promise to stay together no matter what, there is a perverse incentive to become complacent and take each other for granted. Better to promise to leave each other if not treated with love and respect; that way, you’re both always at your best and remain attractive to each other. Remember that love is a marketplace and that potential mates are everywhere and that we’re always comparing what we have to what we could have. So always be at your best so you remain your mate’s number one attraction.

Tim just stared at me, transfixed. There was little under the sun that he hadn’t thought about, but I could tell that what I had just said was new, really new, phrased in his economist’s language.

Tim’s fellow Swiss, all single and consisting of a lawyer, a tech whiz, and another economist — one whose work had been quoted in academic papers — were also of an intellectual bent. The following morning all four rode without their usual vigor; they’d stayed up most of the night drinking beer and discussing my views on marriage. Adrian, the other economist, thought me a bit cold, cynical, and outside the mainstream — hence the long discussion. But Tim was convinced of the soundness of my analysis and decided to approach relationships from a new perspective.

* * *

Our little group was mobbed by locals at every tiny village and water, rest, and regrouping stop. Rwanda is densely populated; there are people everywhere, though white people are very uncommon. As soon as they spotted us, kids would cry out, “Muzungus, muzungus!” in glee and run towards us, big smiles on their faces, palms or fists outstretched for high-fives or knuckle bumps. But when the cameras came out, so — often — did their shyness. Adults would also crowd around curiously, inspect our bikes, shake our hands, and try to engage us with smatterings of French or English, such as “Good morning” or “What is your name?”

Tina and I, with Kinyarwandan phrases taped to our handlebar packs, would respond in Kinyarwandan, a difficult and unintuitive language for us. Often, just for fun and to elicit laughs from the kids, I’d respond nonsensically and unexpectedly with some words I’d memorized, such as inkoko (chicken), umukondo (belly button), and ingrube (pig) — ordinary words, but out of the ordinary in introductory conversations. One of the words I memorized was umwirabura, black person, which I’d lob back at being called a muzungu.The pitch-black African faces would break into broad grins with teeth so uniform and white that we began to wonder how such perfect dental health resulted in this third world country. And it wasn’t just the nearly universal perfect dentition that was noteworthy. Like the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon, Rwandans — men, women, and children — are good-looking and of above average intelligence. In a month and 700 kilometers, we saw perhaps a handful of smokers and even fewer overweight people. At the risk of losing further credibility, I’ll add that — in our experience — they are all friendly, transparent, outgoing, honest, and helpful. When faced with a hill too steep, roadside Rwandans would pitch in to help us push our bikes. They are a people to fall in love with.

Muzungu: originally a Swahili word meaning “aimless wanderer,” but now generally used as a term for white people. However, it can also be used for any foreigner, including American black people. Emi, our driver, told us he’d driven many American actors, including Harrison Ford, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, and Isaiah Washington (an actor in Grey’s Anatomy)to and from the gorilla trekking. Though singling out Washington, Emi generalized to other American stars (mostly black, but including some whites), saying that they were all nice but had a propensity to use “jive” language that included terms such as “bad-ass,” “fucking amazing,” and other obscenities used as intensifying modifiers for compliments. Emi had to gently censure them. Rwandans are conservative in deportment though generally liberal in attitudes. They found jive language offensive and offputting.

As soon as they spotted us, kids would cry out, “Muzungus, muzungus!” in glee and run towards us, big smiles on their faces, palms or fists outstretched for high-fives or knuckle bumps.

On our third day out we approached the Rift Valley in northern Rwanda, with its lakes and volcanoes swaddled in mists that added an air of mystery to our anticipation. After a half-day of riding, which included a single-track section composed of an eight-inch ridge flanked by foot-and-a-half-deep ruts on each side that only Olivier and Godfrey could ride, we arrived at Lake Ruhondo. Two wooden boats with canopies, close relatives of the African Queen, awaited to take our bikes and us to the Foyer de Charité, a Catholic convent on a distant shore. Poor Godfrey and Olivier. They couldn’t swim and were terrified of the boat ride, snuggled in their Mae Wests and begging us not to move from our seats for fear of unbalancing the boats. After their display of expertise on the single-track, their worry was an endearing counterpoint.

The following day began with a walk down to the lake and another boat ride to an even farther shore, followed by a steep 2.5-mile uphill walk to the tony Virunga Lodge for a lunch of pea soup and tenderloin steak.

A mile before the lodge, we hit a newly-built public library, again in the middle of nowhere (yes, I know, it’s getting old . . . all of Rwanda seems to be in the middle of nowhere). It was a modest structure, but well-planned and executed. At least half a dozen people were using the new computers or perusing the stacks. One budding artist was drawing a charcoal portrait of a silverback. They were thrilled to have muzungu visitors. We got a tour. All of us made generous contributions to its upkeep and expansion.

Bicycling in Rwanda is a national sport and pastime, akin to baseball in the US, and, aside from walking, probably the primary form of transportation.

The Virunga Lodge sits atop a hill with stunning views of the Virunga volcanoes. We were welcomed by a drummer and two Intore (“warrior”) dancers. It’s only accessible by bike, helicopter, or very long four-wheel drive. You can’t get there by car unless you have a four-wheel drive. Inside, the Dian Fossey map room beckoned.

Louis Leakey was important in recommending primatologists to the National Geographic. He favored women: Dian Fossey for gorillas, Jane Goodall for chimps, and Birute Galdikas for orangutans. But I sought credit in that map room for George Schaller, the pioneer of mountain gorilla studies in the Virungas, and without whose groundbreaking research Fossey might not have gotten anywhere. And, taking pride of place . . . there he was, in a large framed article crediting him with initiating the gorilla studies.

In the afternoon we rode 26 kilometers, downhill, on perfect tarmac to Ruhengeri. On the outskirts we passed the headquarters of Team Rwanda, the national cycling team, and stopped for a short visit. It was a first-class operation, with some bike frames weighing as little as three pounds. Bicycling in Rwanda is a national sport and pastime, akin to baseball in the US, and, aside from walking, probably the primary form of transportation. The first set of high-end bikes was donated to the team by President Paul Kagame. When the team rides, either for practice or for competition during the Tour de Rwanda, people line the streets and cheer as they pass — behavior our group experienced often as we rode.

Bikes even played a part in the development of Rwandan coffee (heirloom bourbon of an Arabica strain), to my taste the best in the world, comparable to Jamaican Blue Mountain. In 2002, the world discovered Rwandan coffee. But there was a big problem for the small holders who grew the beans. The beans need to be processed within eight hours of being picked, or they begin fermenting, developing rotten flavors. Some farmers, after picking the coffee in the morning, would have to walk up to 15 miles in the sun, carrying hundreds of pounds of fast-fermenting cherries — the red fruit that contains the beans — on a home-made wooden bike or on their heads, balanced on woven baskets.

We ran across some of these old wooden bikes, more akin to scooters (see picture). They could carry over 100 pounds, but weighed nearly 100 pounds themselves and were impossible on even the slightest incline. In the “Land of a Thousand Hills” they weren’t much of a solution.

In 2005, Tom Ritchey, the developer of the mountain bike — in partnership with Gary Fisher — decided to help the Rwandan coffee farmers. He designed a cargo bike that could haul 330 pounds — two bags of coffee cherries, two goats, or three children. He launched it in 2007, named it the “Hope Bicycle,” and priced it at $110 (still a steep price for a coffee farmer), and sold at a subsidized price.

The bikes were a big success, saving farmers time and effort and allowing them to maximize their profits. However, as is the bane of many development schemes, a shortage of parts — brake pads, derailleurs, chains, etc. — in time made the bikes undependable. And as President Kagame’s emphasis on developing Rwanda’s infrastructure bore fruit, Ritchey’s Project Rwanda’s time came to its end. We were lucky to come across a couple of these Project Rwanda bikes, the Humvees of the bicycle world, still in use. Parts are more available today.

In Ruhengeri — hometown of our guide Olivier, and the past headquarters of Hutu Power, President Habyarimana’s organization that engineered the genocide, we stayed at The Garden House, a private home with five guest rooms, owned by a Brit-Rwandan couple with three pet dogs.

* * * *

We awoke at 5 a.m. to joyous singing and clapping — the cadets’ morning routine at the nearby police and military academies. Today was gorilla tracking day. At Volcanoes National Park we were broken up into small groups according to ability, were assigned a ranger, and underwent an orientation. The park was established in 1925, encompasses five volcanoes, and extends into Uganda and Congo (the Congo side was closed because of rebel activity in the area). Today in Rwanda there are about 600+ gorillas (up from 400 in 2016) in about 30 family groups of about 20 individuals each. Some groups are harder to access than others, hence the division of the tourists into groups by varying degrees of ability. This was about the only place in Rwanda where we saw other muzungus.

At this point our hearts were palpably beating in expectation while our vocalizations were reduced to low grunts, a sound our ranger told us to produce as a calming signal to the gorillas.

Our group consisted of four Slow Cyclists and one lady from New York. Our objective was the Hirwa or “Lucky” family group, up on “Old Man’s Teeth,” a volcano whose carapace had eroded and only its core, jagged and multi-summited, remained. We were escorted by an armed ranger, three trackers with walkie-talkies, and one porter who distributed hand-carved walking sticks, essential in the steep, muddy, and foliage-thick tracks that passed for “trails.”

A gorilla sighting is not guaranteed, even after one has paid $1,500 per person for the permit, and I resigned myself to our fate, whatever it turned out to be. Along the way the ranger explained that his gun was for protection against Cape buffalo, not gorillas. After about half an hour of uphill trudging, stumbling, machete hacking, losing shoes in the mud, and much walkie-talkie back-and-forth in Kinyarwandan, the ranger gathered us around a large tree and had us remove our backpacks and walking sticks and cache them there. One tracker had reported a member of the Lucky group up ahead. The removal of our extraneous gear made us more familiar to the primates and avoided their snatching our stuff, however playfully. At this point our hearts were palpably beating in expectation while our vocalizations were reduced to low grunts, a sound our ranger told us to produce as a calming signal to the gorillas.

Our first encounter was lightning fast — a young male surfaced above the undergrowth and gave three or four chest beats directed our way before quickly disappearing. Fiddling with my camera, I’d almost missed him. Nearby, an intermittent procession of gorillas wandered in one direction, a pattern I didn’t discern but which the trackers did. They directed us to a tiny clearing where females and youngsters were congregating. Finally the silverback male — papa — lumbered through, gave us a glance, and sat on his haunches about 30 feet from our little group, which was by now crouched on its haunches. The trackers and porter remained almost out of sight; I suppose to visually minimize the size of our group.

We remained in close proximity for over an hour, watching mothers and children interact, mothers and others groom each other, juveniles brachiate and chase each other around trees, and babies try to get papa to play (a hopeless task). At one point Tina put down her camera and phone in front of her, and lay down on the ground to just enjoy the show. That’s when a young juvenile gave her an impish glance and began approaching within two feet of her. “Take that phone away!” shouted the ranger in a muted voice.

Not a few minutes later, the same juvenile grabbed a stick and approached her again to play. “Do not engage!” came the ranger again. Contact is prohibited. Gorillas share about 97% of our DNA and so are susceptible to our pathogens. We were all vetted for coughs, sneezes, or any other visible signs of sickness before going.

Contact is prohibited. Gorillas share about 97% of our DNA and so are susceptible to our pathogens.

On the way back I felt the same way I had after listening to the Westminster Abbey choir performing their Christmas service — overwhelmed yet exalted, moist-eyed with respectful elation, quietly contemplative at the remarkable hour we’d just experienced with our closest primate relatives, our extraordinary and compelling creature cousins. Emi, our driver, broke our reverie, asking for our reaction. He’d visited the gorillas eight times, and each time he’d felt the same way we did.

“At $1,500 a pop each?” I exclaimed incredulously. He responded that each time, his clients had paid his way.

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Rwandans love their gorillas. At the base of Old Man’s Teeth volcano a beautiful outdoor ceremonial area has been built to hold “Gorilla Namings.” A three-story high silverback sculpted out of dry vines holds court over a promenade, a manicured courtyard, and other staging ornamentation. When a new gorilla is born, a naming ceremony is held at this arena — the newborn is not required to attend.

We brought up the disparity in gorilla trekking prices between Rwanda and Uganda, where a permit costs only $750. In 2017, Rwanda had doubled its price to $1,500. The price change has hit the Rwandan gorilla tourist industry hard. So the Rwandan Development Board has provided a 30% discount between November and May, the low season. Emi said that Rwanda wants to make its gorilla sanctuary fully sustainable and that the rangers and trackers are well paid. He added that each gorilla family in Rwanda is exposed to tourists for only one hour each day so as to minimize any possible stress. By contrast, in Uganda, even if permits are “sold out”, it is possible to approach “someone” and get a permit outside the normal channels. The result is that Uganda’s gorilla families are exposed to tourists all day, every day. Who knows where those last minute permit fees end up?

Rwanda is a fascinating place to visit — as I continued to find, in the second half of my journey.

...to be continued...




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Kashmir: The Constant Conflict

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On February 26, 2019, the Indian Air Force, for the first time since 1971, conducted a raid inside Pakistan, and allegedly hit a terrorist training camp, killing more than 250 terrorists. Pakistan showed photographs of damage to a tree or two. According to Pakistani officials, no one died and no infrastructure was damaged.

It is hard to know the truth, for India did not provide any evidence, nor did Pakistan allow journalists access to the site. Both governments blatantly lie to their citizens, retailing falsehoods so hilarious that even a half-sane person could see through them. But drunk in nationalism, Indians and Pakistanis normally don’t.

India’s intrusion was in response to a suicide car-bombing on February 14 in Kashmir, a bombing that killed 45 troops. Indians were moving a convoy of 2,500. They were in buses, not in armoured cars, as officially stated. Challenging the army is sacrilegious, so no one asks why their movement was so badly planned, and why they had not been airlifted, which would have been far cheaper and easier.

Both governments blatantly lie to their citizens, retailing falsehoods so hilarious that even a half-sane person could see through them.

In all the ramping up of emotions in the aftermath of the suicide bombing on the troops, it became very clear that the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, would lose the next elections, which are due in a couple of months, unless he retaliated. Sending India to war was a small price.

Soon after India’s intrusion, Pakistan closed its airspace. Tension at the border went up significantly, and continues.

A day later, Pakistan attempted airstrikes in India. In the ensuing challenge, one of India’s MIG-21, known as flying coffins because they are very old and outdated, was shot down by a Pakistani missile. The Indian pilot parachuted into Pakistani territory. India claimed to have downed a Pakistani F-16. Pakistan denied the claim.

TV stations in both countries were singing songs about the valor of their troops, which consist of uneducated rural people with no other job opportunities and absolutely no clue about what they’re fighting for. These troops act as gladiators for the spectacle of the bored, TV-watching masses, who feel vicariously brave while munching their chips. Of course, the social media warriors know that it is not they who would be at the frontlines in any serious conflict.

It became very clear that the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, would lose upcoming elections unless he retaliated. Sending India to war was a small price.

It is not in the culture of the Third World masses to feel peace and happiness. Either they are slogging away in the field and going to sleep a bit hungry — which helps to keep them focused and sane — or, if they have time on their hands, they become hedonistic and graduate to deriving pleasure from destructive activities. The latter becomes apparent as soon as they have enough to eat. This feedback system in their culture applies entropic force to take them back to Malthusian equilibrium.

Pakistan’s raison d'etre is to obsess over Kashmir and the human rights violations therein that the Indian army inflicts, oblivious of a much worse tyranny provided by its own army and fanatics, particularly in Baluchistan. Once Pakistan’s social media had put the people into a trance of war, officials had no option but to retaliate.

Both armies are thoroughly incompetent and disorganized, and extremely corrupt. (Troops in India actually double up as house-servants of their bosses — something that would be inconceivable to a well-organized and truly nationalistic body of soldiers.) The tribal societies of Pakistan and India merely posture; they have no courage to go into a real war. But alas! Posturing can become reality.

On this occasion, threats of nuclear bombing were made. The bombs would probably have failed to explode, but it was obvious that the United States could not be a bystander. Despite the fact that Trump was busy in Vietnam with another nuclear-armed country, North Korea, he had to make a few calls. He had to interfere, as an adult does when two kids are fighting. Those of us who complain — quite rightly — about the US military-industrial complex should consider the unseen, unrecognized good that the US does in helping to avoid a nuclear holocaust.

Once Pakistan’s social media had put the people into a trance of war, officials had no option but to retaliate.

The cause of such a war — the stated point of contention between between India and Pakistan — is Kashmir. They both want to have Kashmir. And, just to complicate things, some Kashmiris want full independence. But it must be said: the approach of everyone involved is grossly stupid.

Kashmir (including Jammu, “the gateway to Kashmir”) has a GDP of US $22 billion. It has only 1% of India’s population, but it gets 10% of federal grants. India’s defense budget is US $52 billion, with Kashmir as the primary reason; and because of Kashmir a lot of additional funds are spent on internal security, including the 500,000 Indian troops positioned there.

Kashmir is a bottomless pit for India, and the money does no good for Kashmir, either. Kashmir must exist under the tyranny of terrorists and of Indian forces, who under the law do not face accountability in the courts. Kashmir has no resources of value or any economy of substance; its populace is inward-looking and fanatic. There is no reason for India not to kick Kashmir out of the federation.

Pakistan, with a fraction of India’s economy, spends money comparable to India’s to try to take over Kashmir, occupy the one-third of Kashmir that it has right now, train terrorists, and, as a consequence, destroy itself economically and socially. Were Kashmir to join Pakistan, it would offer only negative value, dragging down Pakistan’s per capita GDP. There is no rational reason for Pakistan to accept Kashmir, let along fight for it.

Threats of nuclear bombing were made. The bombs would probably have failed to explode, but it was obvious that the United States could not be a bystander.

Kashmir as an independent country would be landlocked and not much different from Afghanistan. No sane Kashmiri would want to be independent from India. Although India is backward and wallows in poverty and tyranny, in relative terms it is the best hope for Kashmir. Moreover, Ahmadi Muslims who went to Pakistan after the separation of 1947 are deemed non-Muslims by mainstream Pakistanis and by Pakistan’s constitution. The same fate awaits Kashmiris if they join Pakistan.

In a sane world, there is nothing to negotiate. As you can see above, I could be on any of the three sides of the negotiating table and accept demands of the other two without asking for anything in return. Unfortunately, my compromises would not be seen as such. In keeping with Third World proclivities, they would be seen as signs of weakness, and new demands would soon be made, ceaselessly generated by superstition, ego, expediency, tribalism, and emotion. This, not Kashmir, is the primary problem, and this is the reason why here is no solution, ever.

Muslims are not the only culprits — it is merely that talking about them post-9/11 is politically more acceptable. In the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and Africa, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims are all included in the cycle of tyranny and irrationality. If Islam comes across as worse, it is mostly because in these places it has institutionalized irrationality, fed on it, and been self-victimized by it.

Kashmir is a bottomless pit for India, and the money does no good for Kashmir, either.

Since the inclusion of the sharia in Pakistan’s constitution in the 1980s, Pakistan, which was until then richer than India on a per capita basis, has taken a rapid slide downwards. Today, freedom of speech is so constrained that any accusation of having said a word against the “holy” book or the army can result in capital punishment — if, that is, one avoids getting lynched before reaching the courts.

A Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death in Pakistan in 2010 for the crime of drinking water from a cup reserved for Muslims. After a decade of prison, she was released, not because the supreme court saw the case as utterly stupid, which it should have, but because it didn’t see a clear proof that she had committed the “crime.” Pakistan erupted in civil chaos as millions walked the streets, asking for her blood. In my totem pole of values and consequences, Pakistan is 25 years ahead of India in self-destruction.

I arrived in India last week. Corruption these days hits me soon after I land. It has now become customary for the toilet-caretaker at the airport to demand a tip. With his dirty hands he offers tissue paper to me and tries to make me feel guilty if I don’t accept it.

In the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and Africa, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims are all included in the cycle of tyranny and irrationality.

The Indian government has tried to control corruption, through the demonetization of 86% of currency in 2016 and the imposition of a nationwide sales tax a year later. While these haven’t controlled corruption, they have managed to seriously harm the economy by destroying the informal sector, which employs 82% of Indians. And without the informal sector, the formal sector will falter.

Financial corruption is not even the real problem. Were bribery to stop, India would rapidly become North Korea or Eritrea. I say that because financial corruption is a necessary safety valve in overregulated societies. When such backward societies do manage to control bribery in isolation, they create extremely suffocating environments. North Korea and Eritrea have actually controlled bribery by getting their citizens to snitch on each other and by extraordinary levels of punishments. Backward societies like these are necessarily subdued and stagnant, lack of skills being the real reason for their backwardness; and the lack of the safety valve of bribery constricts whatever potential they have. But financial corruption, a symptomatic problem, is seen as the prime problem by politically correct kids who go to study at Ivy League colleges and then to work for IMF, the World Bank, etc., without a real-life experience. They see financial corruption being removed from one place, only to find it reappearing in another; they don’t understand what is happening.

India is an ocean of corruption, but it’s not just financial. More importantly, it’s cultural. The real corruption is cultural irrationality, the irrationality of people who operate not through honesty, pride, compassion, or honor, but through expediency. Trying to control bribery in such societies does not work, because bribes are just a part of the whole package of social corruption and irrationality.

Financial corruption is a necessary safety valve in overregulated societies. When such backward societies do manage to control bribery in isolation, they create extremely suffocating environments.

As the economy has grown, India has been on a path to increased fanaticism and violent nationalism. These days, if you are found to be in possession of beef, you risk getting lynched. Nationalism is on the rise, rather rapidly. You are forced to stand up for the national anthem before the start of movies in cinema halls. Complaining against the Prime Minister on social media can land you in prison. Opposing his policies can get you beaten up. India’s constitution stays secular, but the trend is in the same direction that Pakistan has been on.

The World Bank, IMF, etc. continue to report that India is among the fastest growing economies in the world, and is perhaps even faster growing than China. While these numbers are completely erroneous, even if they weren’t, institutionally the Indian subcontinent has been rudderless since the time the British left. All economic growth since the time of so-called independence has come because of importation of technology from the West.

But what about the fact that India has one of the largest numbers of engineers and PhDs in the world? It is easy to get a degree without studying — and not just in India — and the results are obvious. In the age of the internet, when a competent engineer can work remotely for a Western client, Indian “engineers” work as taxi drivers, deliver Amazon products, or get jobs as janitors. Their degrees are just degrees on paper.

India has been on a path to increased fanaticism and violent nationalism. These days, if you are found to be in possession of beef, you risk getting lynched.

Moreover, education is a tool; so is technology. They must be employed by reason. Without reason, “education” and technology serve the wrong masters: tribalism and superstitions. No wonder that with increasing prosperity, “educational” achievement, and better technology, India is regressing culturally.

India is massively lacking in skills. As I write sitting in India today, I ask my maid, who is joining the university soon, not to put the dusty carpet on my bed. But I must remind her this every day. She struggles to write her own name. Very simple algebra is beyond her grasp. Her case might be an extreme one, but most Indians are completely unprepared for the modern economy. This is the reason why you hardly see anything in Western markets that is made in India, despite India’s having more than one-sixth of the world’s population. It is virtually impossible to form a company of five people in India and expect it to work with any kind of efficiency.

People often blame China for copying Western technology. While that is true, one must recognize that copying takes a certain amount of skills that people in some other economies simply don’t have. The situation of India has worsened as the best of Indians now increasingly prefer to leave for greener pastures, even including Papua New Guinea. Lacking leadership, post-British India is rapidly becoming tribal, fanatic, and nationalistic. We must remember that India as a union is together only because of inertia from the days of the British. When the inertia is gone, India will fall into tribal units, as will Pakistan and much of the rest of the Third World.

Without reason, “education” and technology serve the wrong masters: tribalism and superstitions.

A horrible war will one day break out between India and Pakistan. It will not be because of Kashmir, which is just an excuse, but because irrational people always blame others, envy, and hate them. They fail to negotiate. They have no valor, but constant posturing will eventually trigger something. There is no solution to their problems. Every problem that the British left behind has simmered and gotten worse.

As soon as India reaches a stage where it can no longer grow economically because of imported technology, its cultural decline will become rapidly visible. Though India is 25 years behind Pakistan, both are walking toward self-destruction, to a tribal, medieval past.

As for the US, the job of any rational US president is to help ensure that destruction stays within the borders of India and Pakistan.




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The Economics of Compassion

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America’s elite class would argue that the US economic policies of the past half century have been, overall, quite successful. They produced strong economic growth while supporting the ever-expanding role of governments (federal, state and local) in American society. Adhering to an ideology of compassion that was adopted by the Democratic party of the Great Society era, these policies reeked with concern for the poor, the marginalized, the little guy — often including poor, marginalized, little guys in other countries. Yet, even under the enormous fiscal drag of their profligate benevolence, the US economy performed as desired. Consumption and corporate profits soared, and GDP growth tripled. Our rulers no doubt admire their work.

But admiration from American workers should be withheld. For only the expression of compassion has reached the American working class. The revealed compassion for the average worker has been wage stagnation, and for many millions of displaced workers and their families immeasurable harm. Until 1973, wage rates rose with productivity gains; workers were rewarded for their efforts. From 1973 to the present, however, while worker productivity increased 77%, wages for the average worker increased only 12.4%. Gains for the top 1% of wage earners exceeded 150% during this period; those of the bottom 90% increased by a meager 21%. The reason, explains the Economic Policy Institute: “the fruits of their labors have primarily accrued to those at the top and to corporate profits.”

Prior to 1973, those at the top (let’s call them the old aristocracy), paid workers a wage dictated by the limited supply of American workers. Ironically, the old aristocracy had few, if any, compassionate policies toward its workers. In those days, compassion was the responsibility of individuals, families, churches, local charities, and community organizations. Nevertheless, wages kept pace with productivity gains. By 1973, those at the top (let’s call them the new aristocracy) had shifted the responsibility for compassion to government and large corporations. Through War on Poverty programs, hiring quotas for women and minorities, education and welfare reforms, and many others, and through the decline of labor unions, the new aristocracy emerged as the champion of the working class — while stanching its wage increases. It began paying workers a wage dictated by a large supply of foreign labor. Outsourcing jobs to, and importing labor from, Third World nations suppressed the wages of American workers and threw millions of them into chronic unemployment.

From 1973 to the present, while worker productivity increased 77%, wages for the average worker increased only 12.4%.

After 50 years of ignoring wage stagnation and its effect on American workers and American families, the champions are prepared not only to ignore its continuation but additionally to ignore the ongoing, frenetic wave of automation. Even as numerous studies (e.g., here, here, and here) predict that by 2030 automation could reduce the demand for US workers by tens of millions, the new aristocracy pursues policies (e.g., higher fertility and more immigration) to increase the supply. It would be hard to find a better prescription for suppressing wage rates and widening the income inequality gap. A study by the Council on Foreign Relations, which is hardly an anti-immigration or anti-globalist group, warns that “automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are likely to exacerbate inequality and leave more Americans behind.”

Leaving Americans behind is a core economic principle of the new aristocracy. As far back as 1992, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, by liberal historian Christopher Lasch, described the new aristocracy as a globalist, professional-managerial class that is cosmopolitan in its world view, and unlike the aristocracy that it replaced, holds only a weak sense of civic responsibility to its local and regional communities. Happy to internationalize the division of labor, it follows policies that have diminished middle-income America and condemned low-income America to a permanent lower class. Lasch lamented its rise to power, chastising its members for “turning their back on the heartland and cultivating ties with the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion and popular culture. It is a question whether they think of themselves as American at all. . . . Theirs is essentially a tourist view of the world.”

This tourist view has shaped economic policies that prioritize the growth of GDP over the welfare of those who produce it, including the welfare of their families and communities and of American society. The new aristocracy professes its concern for American workers but treats them with disdain. In his 2012 book Coming Apart, libertarian Charles Murray discussed what he called the New American Divide, in which the common civic culture once maintained by the old aristocracy has been unraveled by the new aristocracy. In Murray’s account, one side of the divide lives in upper-middle-class suburbs, statistically represented by a fictitious neighborhood called Belmont. Its inhabitants have “advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America.” Its most powerful residents, our new aristocracy, run the country: “they are responsible for the films and television shows you watch, the news you see and read, the fortunes of the nation's corporations and financial institutions, and the jurisprudence, legislation and regulations produced by government.”

This tourist view has shaped economic policies that prioritize the growth of GDP over the welfare of those who produce it.

In contrast, the fictitious neighborhood of Fishtown represents working class America. Its inhabitants “have no academic degree higher than a high-school diploma.” They hold blue-collar jobs, low-skill service jobs, or low-skill white-collar jobs, if they work at all; the work ethic, along with the institutions of marriage and religion, plummets. Of the unraveling, Murray writes:

If you were an executive living in Belmont in 1960, income inequality would have separated you from the construction worker in Fishtown, but remarkably little cultural inequality. You lived a more expensive life, but not a much different life. . . . Your house might have had a den that the construction worker's lacked, but it had no StairMaster or lap pool, nor any gadget to monitor your percentage of body fat. You both drank Bud, Miller, Schlitz or Pabst, and the phrase "boutique beer" never crossed your lips. You probably both smoked. If you didn't, you did not glare contemptuously at people who did.

Little has changed since the publication of Coming Apart. If anything, the new aristocracy’s sense of civic responsibility has weakened. It glares even more contemptuously at Fishtown.

In his article “The Working Hypothesis,” Oren Cass asks, “What if people’s ability to produce matters more than how much they can consume?” and offers the hypothesis “that a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy.” Policies that have catered to “marginalized” identity groups and the cheap-labor demands of corporate America have failed to bring true prosperity to mainstream America. Without meaningful work at a wage that rewards the worker with dignity and respect, families suffer (if they are formed at all) and communities crumble. Who would marry a man who could not find a job, or one whose wages are so low that it’s not worth building a robot to replace him? Who would want to live in a decaying community overrun with unemployed and unmarried men, pacified by drugs and videogames, and unencumbered by civic responsibility? Writes Cass, “In a community where dependency is widespread, illegality a viable career path, and idleness an acceptable lifestyle, the full-time worker begins to look less admirable — and more like a chump.”

Yet this is the society that has emerged from the policies of the new aristocracy — an unraveled, divided culture in which any desire to rehabilitate the citizens of Fishtown has long since left Belmont. Equally shameful, it is a society that can find no productive use for tens of millions of its working-age adults. These citizens constitute an immense, chronically unemployed underclass that has been omitted from the political arithmetic of GDP growth because they have been deemed unsuitable for work: criminals, alcoholics, the homeless, the disabled, the suicidal, not to mention the victims of welfare dependence, family disintegration, and opioid addiction. Not that many members of this forlorn cohort are without responsibility for their predicament, but there are effectively no procedures to redeem their productive value. It makes better economic sense to replace them with clever machines and cost-effective foreign labor.

Who would marry a man who could not find a job, or one whose wages are so low that it’s not worth building a robot to replace him?

Indeed, mere replacement may not be enough. In a tasteless satire called “Only Mass Deportation Can Save America,” New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens recommends that to spur GDP growth “complacent, entitled and often shockingly ignorant” Americans should be deported. Why go through the trouble of making underclass Americans better citizens? Simply ship them out and order “new and better” upgrades: immigrants from the Third World. America’s criminals, academic underachievers, the unhealthy, infertile couples, and shockingly ignorant mothers (of out-of-wedlock children) are contemptible enough, laments Stephens, to jeopardize his deportation plan. “O.K.,” he comments, “so I’m jesting about deporting ‘real Americans’ en masse. (Who would take them in, anyway?)”

But aristocratic preference for younger, more fertile, harder working foreign labor could fade — as new and better immigrants are replaced by new and better machines. According to a recent Pew Research report, immigrants will constitute 100% of the increase in the US labor force between now and 2030. To a very large extent, however, the jobs that immigrants perform are the very jobs that, by 2030, automation will eliminate. For example, a 2016 Obama administration study found that automation-induced job destruction will be “highly concentrated among lower-paid, lower-skilled, and less-educated workers,” noting that “83 percent of jobs making less than $20 per hour would come under pressure from automation.” And the elite upper class will come under pressure to express its compassion for the millions of hastily invited immigrants who will then be herded into the underclass.

The idea that meaningful work might be important to the worker, and to American society, has escaped the new aristocracy, especially its members who inhabit America’s centers of economic power — hulking citadels for millionaires, hipsters, and tourists. In terms of consumption and GDP, they are the only cities that matter. Yet these cities are smothered by dense low-income populations, immigrant and native-born, and their diverse miseries. The new aristocracy is as oblivious to these miseries as it is to life in America’s heartland. It is not concerned that the economy that has enriched itself is headed to a lopsided state in which the number of unemployed exceeds the number of employed — the underclass outnumbering the chump class. Nor is it concerned that its policies have produced citadels such as San Francisco, where homelessness is rampant, “poop patrols” clean human feces from the sidewalks, and injection drug addicts outnumber high school students.

New Aristocratic preference for younger, more fertile, harder working foreign labor could fade — as new and better immigrants are replaced by new and better machines.

The new aristocracy should worry that working-class America will discover the hoax of liberal compassion. American gilets jaunes might take to the streets of Washington DC, the wellspring of policies that have relegated the working class to what French writer Christophe Guilluy would call “peripheral America.” In Guilluy’s view, while the globalist economic model produces much wealth, “it doesn’t need the majority of the population to function. It has no real need for the manual workers, labourers and even small-business owners outside of the big cities.” In France, as in America, the model is embraced by “celebrities, actors, the media and the intellectuals,” who are unconnected with life outside New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other economic juggernauts.

Chic liberal thinkers see no downside to the ongoing wave of automation. New compassionate polices, they assume, will surely be developed to help the many millions of workers — citizens of Fishtown — whose jobs will be eliminated. Displaced workers will be retrained; they will go back to school; and surely, this group will do better than the shiftless, slothful underclass that has already been left behind. But the new aristocracy, warns Guilluy, “needs a cultural revolution, particularly in universities and in the media. They need to stop insulting the working class, to stop thinking of all the gilets jaunes as imbeciles.” America’s imbeciles should heed Lasch’s warning that, with the liberal elite, “compassion has become the human face of contempt.”




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The Second Machine Age and Worker Creativity

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The United States is the most advanced industrialized nation in the world. Its economy produces the greatest GDP (total quantity of goods and services), doing so with the greatest productivity (GDP per capita). Rapid productivity increase through technological advance has been, and continues to be, the prosperous economic history of the US.

The present wave of technological progress (aka automation, which includes advances in software, semiconductor devices, artificial intelligence, and robotics) is accelerating the pace of productivity increase. That is, while automation is a tremendous gift that allows the US economy to produce more goods and services with less human labor, millions of workers will be displaced. It is incomprehensible, therefore, that the solution to a shrinking demand for workers is, apparently, to increase the supply.

As early as 2030, 39 to 73 million jobs could be eliminated by automation.

This shrinkage became evident at the turn of the century, when job growth, particularly among lower-paid, lower-skilled, and less-educated workers, fell into stagnation. According to MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, US job growth has now become decoupled from US productivity growth. They believe that productivity growth will increase relentlessly, as it has since the end of WWII, but US employment growth, which had previously risen with productivity growth until 2000, will remain flat, as it has done so since 2000. The authors attribute the cause of the Great Decoupling to the rapidly declining price of digital labor relative to human labor. The dramatic economic and cultural implications of such automation is examined in their bestselling book, The Second Machine Age.

A recent McKinsey Global Institute study estimates that, by as early as 2030, 39 million to 73 million US jobs could be eliminated by automation. There are numerous other studies with similarly ominous predictions. The jobs that are most susceptible to automation are ones that involve routine procedures that can be performed by computerized algorithms. These include machinery operation, vehicle operation, fast food preparation, data collection and processing, financial services, and customer services. Well-paying jobs that can be obtained today with only a high school education will be the first to go. The jobs that will survive, and thrive, are those involving cognitive tasks, favoring occupations where skill and education are important. They will include engineers, scientists, medical professionals, and teachers. Luckily, they will include jobs for those who apply high cognitive ability and skill to actual work, such as carpenters, electricians, mechanics, plumbers, and welders.

Future jobs, the jobs that will be created by the 2nd Machine Age, will no doubt favor those educated in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines. Beyond these job types, it’s anyone’s guess. In a Harvard Business Review interview, Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss three job categories that will survive automation. The first is “high-end creativity that generates things like great new business ideas, scientific breakthroughs, novels that grip you.” The second is deciphering body language. People who excel at “emotion, interpersonal relations, caring, nurturing, coaching, motivating, leading, and so on” will be in demand. Dexterity and mobility comprise the third category: because “it’s unbelievably hard to get a robot to walk across a crowded restaurant, bus a table, take the dishes back into the kitchen.”

Well-paying jobs that can be obtained today with only a high school education will be the first to go.

But it’s a pretty good guess that the jobs-of-the-future market will be much smaller than markets that followed any previous waves of technological advance. The number of high-end creativity jobs will be about the same. That is, the number of elites that currently hold such lofty positions is not likely to grow. Even if it did, say doubling, it would still be a statistically insignificant portion of the labor force. Similarly, it’s not likely that we will need a greater number of body language decipherers than we need today. Robot controllers will obviously be needed (e.g., to control fleets of driverless trucks and flocks of pilotless drones). And, of course, the demand for robot repairmen will skyrocket.

Elsewhere, things look bleak. Robots that serve up to 360 (basic to gourmet) sandwiches per hour are looming, and they don’t have to navigate crowded restaurants. Machine operator jobs will no doubt survive. After all, the machines of the future will need human operators. So the guy that ran the old machine that replaced ten workers will be retrained to operate the new machine that replaces a thousand workers. And even in occupations that experience an increase, the gains will be short-lived. For example, AI will eventually replace vaunted robot controllers. Technological advance is simply destroying jobs faster than it is creating them.

Why is it, then, that with a rapidly shrinking demand for labor, we need more workers? In an era of stagnant wage growth, an increase in the labor supply can only cause a decrease in wage rates. The standard answer is that the US economy must be infused with millions of young workers to support America’s aging population in retirement. That is, the working age tax base must be expanded to keep our intergenerational Ponzi schemes (aka Social Security and Medicare) from going broke. America’s declining birth rate, warns Lyman Stone, of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), “will likely have far-reaching negative economic consequences.” To stave off insolvency, Mr. Stone proposes a “fertility dividend” policy, where the benefits paid to retirees would be based, in part, on the payroll tax contributions of their children. Without some such scheme, “our long-term obligations will have to be financed with substantially fewer people (or, perhaps, substantially more immigrants).”

Technological advance is simply destroying jobs faster than it is creating them.

Our political leaders prefer the latter option: substantially more immigrants, including about 20 million working age adults projected to enter the US by 2030. It’s the only way to increase US GDP growth, say Republican stalwarts such as Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Larry Kudlow, and every Democrat worth his open-borders salt. As to the jobs of the future, education reform is their answer. They’ll simply transform the system that has, for many decades, failed many tens of millions of working class Americans, into a system that prepares students and retrains displaced workers for the millions of yet to be determined jobs that they hope will eventually materialize.

There is growing evidence that, over the next decade or two, tens of millions of jobs will be eliminated through automation. Many experts believe that technology has advanced to the point where an advanced industrialized nation can produce economic abundance with a paucity of human labor. Given this possibility, what responsible policymaker can conclude that the US economy needs more fertility and more immigration? Is he willing to bet that tens of millions of new jobs of the future will be created — jobs that will be accessible to working-class America? Or that our education system can be reformed to prepare students and retrain workers for jobs whose only currently known characteristic is that they will generally require greater technical knowledge, cognitive ability, and creativity than the jobs that they will eliminate?

Policymakers’ time would be better spent in contemplation of how American society can benefit from the prosperity that, thanks to automation, can be produced by a smaller and smaller labor force. For there is no evidence that a shrinking population is inimical to GDP growth in advanced industrialized nations. A recent study, “Secular Stagnation? The Effect of Aging on Economic Growth in the Age of Automation,” published in the American Economic Review, found “no negative association between aging and lower GDP per capita.” As one might expect, advanced industrialized economies with aging populations are the most likely to adopt automation. Indeed, “when capital is sufficiently abundant, a shortage of younger and middle-aged workers can trigger so much more adoption of new automation technologies that the negative effects of labor scarcity could be completely neutralized or even reversed.”

Is any reasonable policymaker willing to bet that tens of millions of new jobs of the future will be created — jobs that will be accessible to working-class America?

In the US, where capital is abundant, automation relentlessly propels GDP growth. If the projections of the McKinsey Global Institute, et al. are accurate, then by 2030, the US will produce more GDP with as few as 118 million, possibly as few as 84 million, workers — a truly remarkable feat of efficiency. The problem will be that the US labor force will then consist of 225 million working age adults. Those who clamor for more fertility and more immigration should explain their plan for the 39 to 73 million who will be waiting for the new jobs to open.

It had better be creative. At minimum it should include stipends for interim living expenses. One hopes it will include dexterity and mobility training. Nothing will be more important to tens of millions of former truck drivers, burger flippers, and farm workers than being defter than a robot. And those who are not drawn to body language deciphering, should bone up on their STEM skills.

Finally, no plan would be complete without staunch support for our best and brightest. These include many millions of students and displaced workers who will settle for nothing less than the envied high-end creativity jobs — the high-paying ones where you get to work on scientific breakthroughs and novels that grip.




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Pachacuti’s Revenge

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“Check your premises!”

Ayn Rand’s admonition still rings true, in spite of her abrasive personality and cultish intellectual heirs. The admonition, and the name of her philosophy, Objectivism, encapsulate the core of her obsession: epistemology.

A few years ago, my work forced me to examine some of my premises in ways I’d never considered when I had the good fortune of landing a job as a consulting anthropologist for a pair of Canadian Cree Indians, Wendy Bigcharles and Laurie Gauchier, who were filming a documentary about traversing — on foot — the entire Royal Inca Road, a prehistoric engineering marvel stretching from Quito, Ecuador to Santiago, Chile — well over 3,000 miles. The project’s sponsors included the Canadian Broadcasting Company and Statoil, the Norwegian state oil company.

The challenge, for a rational empiricist — me — was to explain belief systems without offending believers or pulling my punches.

I first met Laurie at the 14,000 foot mountaineers’ base camp on Aconcagua in Argentina. He was pursuing his attempt to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on all the continents. He’d become a hero to thousands of First Nations children and toured Canada’s Native Reserves lecturing and inspiring. He liked my understanding of aboriginal cultures. More importantly, we shared a libertarian outlook and similar sense of humor, laughing a lot together.

The Crees’ novel conceit was to explore aboriginal attitudes toward, and beliefs about, the earth, in hopes that these might have modern applications for conservation and sustainability. My job, among many other tasks, was to provide context for the project. The challenge, for a rational empiricist — me — was to explain belief systems (inevitably including the evolution of religion) without offending believers or pulling my punches. Ideally, I wanted to propose a paradigm everyone could enthusiastically embrace. What follows was my effort. Did I succeed? You be the judge.

The Empire Strikes Back

In 2001 Alejandro Toledo legitimately became the first Native American head of state in the Andes since Huascar Inca was murdered by his half-brother, Atahualpa, in 1532. The Stanford-trained economist proved honest and competent. By continuing the sound economic policies instituted under the previous Fujimori regime, he provided Peru with high growth and low inflation. However, for some unknown reason — perhaps his lack of personal pizzazz — he was dismally unpopular and declined to run again.

The 2006 elections pitted Ollanta Humala, another Native American — this time of a leftist, populist bent — against Alan Garcia, a disastrous ex-president, previously ideologically indistinguishable from his opponent but newly converted to liberal, free-market policies. Garcia narrowly defeated Humala and, against all expectations, stuck to his promises. For 2009, Peruvian economic growth proved to be the third highest in the world, after China and India. For the 2011 elections, Humala moved to the center-left with a promise of continuity. Even Nobel Prize-winning writer, one-time presidential candidate, and libertarian-leaning writer Mario Vargas Llosa endorsed Garcia. For the time being, economics trumped ethnicity, with the percentage of those in poverty dropping from 55% in 2001 to 21% in 2016.

For some unknown reason — perhaps his lack of personal pizzazz — Toledo was dismally unpopular and declined to run again.

In next-door Bolivia, Juan Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian and head of the indigenous coca growers union, was elected president in 2006. Morales never finished high school. To date, his rule has been marked by incompetence, confrontation, expropriation, power grabs, and the near destruction of the republic. Local councils, little more than mobs, bypass the courts and mete out justice with gasoline-filled tire-collars. Yet he retains a measure of popularity.

The Inca heartland is in the throes of a native revival. Though Ecuador hasn’t yet elected a native head of state, the Indians have gone on the warpath. In 2000, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, in alliance with junior military officers, overthrew President Jamil Mahaud and formed a new political party named after Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (1438–1471), tenth emperor of the Inca Empire. Pachacuti is still revered as pre-Columbian America’s most accomplished leader, combining the military prowess of Alexander the Great with the sagacity of Roman Emperor Justinian.

Tahuantinsuyu, as the Inca Empire called itself, did not go gently into that good night. Though Francisco Pizarro’s band seemed to make quick work of the conquest, mostly through luck, disease, and the confusion of an Inca civil war of succession, serious resistance to the new order continued for nearly 250 years. The last Inca rebellion, led by Tupac Amaru, culminated in the siege of Cusco in 1781 and the execution of the last Inca pretender. Ironically, the only firsthand account of the Spanish conquest and its initial aftermath was written by an Inca lord, Titu Cusi Yupanqui; it is still in print.

Evo Morales' rule has been marked by incompetence, confrontation, expropriation, power grabs, and the near destruction of the republic. Yet he retains a measure of popularity.

Native Andean resurgence has not been limited to politics or, for that matter, to South America. Over the past 20 years a quiet and low-key enthusiasm for Andean epistemology has burgeoned in Europe, North America, and South Africa, gaining prominence through the teachings of the Cusco school and elaborated by Americo Yabar, a paqo (or, loosely, a mystic-cum-management consultant); the writings of Joan Wilcox and Diane Dunn, now a paqo herself; anthropologists Inge Bolin and Catherine J. Allen, and Oakley Gordon, a psychologist who has tried to reconcile Yabar’s teachings with non-Andean epistemologies. Not that, from a certain perspective, there is any conflict — after all, if “Western” epistemology can accommodate chaos theory and postmodernist deconstructionism, it is truly an all-inclusive tent.

Epistemology?!

Nothing induces instant boredom in a reader more acutely than a word like epistemology in the title or first sentence of a casual read. And well it might. It’s not an easy concept to grasp, and is at least one or two categories of abstraction away from concrete reality. Epistemology is not what most people would consider as fun or relaxing as, say, Canadian politics or Chinese opera.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary eye-glazingly defines it as “the study of knowledge systems,” or “the theory of knowledge.” Dr. Oakley Gordon elaborates (and I paraphrase slightly), that it encompasses not only the formal fields of science, philosophy (of which it is also a subcategory), and religion, but also “patterns of assumptions, beliefs and behaviors” that are tacit, subconscious, or otherwise unexamined. Simply put, epistemology is the study of how we know what we know.

If “Western” epistemology can accommodate chaos theory and postmodernist deconstructionism, it is truly an all-inclusive tent.

The word is cobbled together by academics from the Greek “episteme” (knowledge) and “ology” (study of) because they had no run-of-the-mill word at hand to describe the convoluted concept they’d come up with. So they coined a new word, modeled on words like geo-logy (study of earth), bio-logy (study of life), philo-logy (study [or love] of words), psych-ology (study of the mind) and many other words ending in “ology.”

What makes epistemology so much more difficult to grasp is that epistemology is twice as abstract as these other “ologys.” Whereas most “ology” words are the study of the concrete things that precede them, epistemology is the study of those studies — in other words, the hows and whys of what we know.

But epistemology can attain an even more rarefied and abstract level. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is also “the study of the validity of knowledge.” So judgments can be — and often are — part of this philosophical endeavor.

Hector Sizes Me Up

On our first trip together down to the Andes one of my employers, Wendy introduced me to Hector, a Peruvian labor organizer who had spent 13 years in a Peruvian prison during the Fujimori and Toledo regimes. While there, he had dedicated his time to studying the Inca road system, over 15,000 miles in its entirety (including the Royal Road, its main trunk). It has been described as the Inca’s “dialogue with the land." Wendy characterized Hector as having “the sort of knowledge that can’t be put into a book.”

Well, to a professional writer and dyed-in-the-wool rational empiricist, that phrase bristled my neck hairs and set my BS antennae quivering apoplectically. I couldn’t wait to engage this sage of the unwritten.

Nevertheless, when I first met Hector I was struck by his modesty and transparency. Figuring that full disclosure was the best strategy for establishing rapport, I leveled with him about what Wendy had told me. Hector looked at me thoughtfully and, after a minute’s reflection, said that he could size up a person’s character within minutes of meeting him or her — and that that sort of knowledge he could not convey in writing.

He had a point.

To a professional writer and dyed-in-the-wool rational empiricist, that phrase bristled my neck hairs.

Still, though it might take thousands of words to describe the process one goes through when one sizes up someone, it can be done. Malcolm Gladwell did it in his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, 2007. And the skill is not uncommon. Research by Jefferson Duarte of Rice University suggests that one of a person’s most telling moral features, his creditworthiness — as well as his sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, teaching ability and personality — can be seen in his face, often after only half a minute’s exposure to even a years-old photograph.

On the other hand, effectively teaching the art of successful snap judgments is much more difficult. But I digress. What Hector’s lesson suggested to me is that well-honed intuition is not fundamentally in conflict with rational empiricism; both are ways of grasping and understanding the world around us — both are the proper study of epistemology.

Not too unrelated is kinesthetic knowledge, or physical, as opposed to intellectual, knowledge. Remember learning to ride a bike or play a musical instrument? No matter how long you leave it, your torso, fingers, and lips never lose that knowledge.

What Hector’s lesson suggested to me is that well-honed intuition is not fundamentally in conflict with rational empiricism; both are ways of grasping and understanding the world around us.

Timothy Leary, the late guru of LSD, and Carlos Castaneda, author of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, offer to expand epistemology’s territory even further — much further. They argue that the judicious use of psychotropic drugs yields an entirely different understanding of, and approach to, reality. For some people, psychoactive drugs have the unusual effect of suspending the perception of time. To these users, past and future disappear and all reality is concentrated into the here-and-now. This extraordinary sensation intensifies events experienced during the “trip” and alters the user’s perception of reality.

But Back to Chinese Opera

Have you ever read a poem or listened to a piece of music and had one of those “aha!” moments when a light bulb goes off in your mind and suddenly your understanding changes? Art, literature — even music — are media that help shape our view of reality. So then, these too are also the proper territory of epistemology: the study of how those transcendental endeavors create new insights. Problem is, one man’s Chinese opera is another’s cat-scratching-on-a-blackboard. Why the difference?

Different people, brought up in different cultures and traditions, respond differently to different sensory stimuli. Exactly why this might be is not only the subject of anthropology and psychology but also, ultimately, of epistemology. Language is a case in point.

Benjamin Whorf, in Language, Thought, and Reality, argues that since much of our conscious thought is in the language(s) we speak, its conventions affect our perception and interpretation of reality. Modern English grammar with its built-in verb tenses inadvertently forces us to think in terms of past, present, and future. Mandarin Chinese, on the other hand, has no tenses; a Chinese speaker must consciously include a reference to time if he wants to convey tense. Perhaps that’s why Chinese has such an aphoristic inscrutability.

The judicious use of psychotropic drugs yields an entirely different understanding of, and approach to, reality.

Quechua grammar, like that of many indigenous American languages, has a construct that would benefit Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence and science no end: referential reliability. This requires the speaker to attach suffixes that clarify his relationship to the data being conveyed. While English now has three basic tenses — past, present, and future — built into its verbs, Quechua has three levels of validation built into its.

When the content of a sentence is directly experienced by the speaker, he uses the first level of reliability indicator, called a witness validator suffix. When conveying information learned secondhand, the speaker uses the hearsay validator suffix. Finally, when speculating without evidence, or when uncertain, the speaker employs the conjectural validator, indicating that the reliability of the information is a complete crapshoot.

How might this structure affect a Quechua speaker’s perception of reality? How does it affect his social relationships and what he knows about people? Does our English grammatical structure with its tenses make us particularly vulnerable to the way psychedelic drugs stop time? Epistemology seeks to answer this and many other even more subtle relationships between the world, our senses and our minds.

Have We Lost our Minds?

Just how does one actually do epistemology? Is it anything like doing biology or geology? Let’s take a (short) look at epistemological investigations into the nature of consciousness.

For centuries, philosophers, biologists, social scientists, bartenders, and every sort of investigator of the human condition has been clawing away at that black box and, more importantly, at one of its central underlying assumptions, what is known as the mind-body problem: what is mind and how does it emerge from physical and chemical processes?

Quechua grammar, like that of many indigenous American languages, has a construct that would benefit Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence and science no end.

The investigations have yielded few answers but have shed much light on the nature of the problem. On the one hand, diehard advocates of mind still harbor faith in the existence of a “thing” that is mind and attribute our failure to unlock its secrets to not enough hard work. At the other extreme are those who have thrown up their hands in frustration, declared that we’ve done all possible research, still not found “mind,” and that therefore “mind” does not exist.

Into this quagmire jumped some researchers who decided that perhaps part of the problem lay in how we approached the problem. Traditional Victorian scientific investigative techniques approached a complex problem by analyzing its many parts separately, gaining individual insights and then summing the parts in order to understand the whole — a very productive methodology in most instances. However, in some cases, results were a bit like the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant: the particulars didn’t add up to the sum of the whole.

These investigators decided that perhaps it might be better not to analyze certain phenomena into their parts but rather to investigate complex entities — such as sentient beings — as a whole. That, perhaps, in order to understand the nature of sentient beings, these shouldn’t be approached as mind-body dualities but approached as a single entity — a monistic approach. Ironically, this “new” approach mimicked “primitive” animistic philosophies, according to which the interrelationship of everything was impossible to separate (a subject further investigated in the following subsection).

Zindler suggested that mind is better perceived as a process, a dynamic relation, an emergent property, and not a thing.

In the spirit of this new approach, Professor Frank R. Zindler, both a biologist and linguist, late of the State University of New York, and others decided to take a fresh look at “mind.” They believed that through purely historical accident the word mind, in all European languages, is grammatically a noun. Because of our grammar and the hidden assumptions of our language, we tend to think of nouns as substantive “things” such as tree, table, brick, etc., despite many nouns being quite insubstantial, e.g. truth, beauty, velocity, etc.

Zindler suggested that because mind was a noun, it was conceived to be a thing. Because it was thought to be a thing, it was thought to have existence apart from the brain. Neurobiological studies offer no supporting evidence for these ideas. Rather, mind is better perceived as a process, a dynamic relation, an emergent property, and not a thing. If we change the processes of the brain, we change the mind. If nothing else, psychedelic drugs have taught us that fact.

For perspective, Zindler posits that to wonder what happens to the mind after the brain decays is as silly as asking where the 70-miles-per-hour have gone after a speeding auto has crashed into a tree:

Now that scientists recognize mind as a process rather than a thing, they are making rapid advances in understanding the specific brain dynamics that correspond to the various subjective states collectively known as mind.

Foremost among these advances is the discovery (at Goldsmith’s College, London, and the University of Houston) that the previously mentioned “aha!” moments of insight are detectable with an electroencephalograph up to eight seconds before an individual’s mind is aware of them. More startling, Dr. Allen Snyder at the University of Sydney has been able to induce savant skills through repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation. Clearly, epistemology is useful.

John Dewey, in the early 20th century, was one of the first Western philosophers to minimize the mind-body duality. He argued that philosophers’ obsession on creating a problem of the relation between the mind and the world was a mistake. He retorted that no one had ever made a problem about the relation between, for example, the hand and the world. As Louis Menand puts it in The Metaphysical Club:

The function of the hand is to help the organism cope with the environment; in situations in which a hand doesn’t work, we try something else, such as a foot, or a fishhook, or an editorial . . . They just use a hand where a hand will do. Dewey thought that ideas and beliefs are the same as hands: instruments for coping. An idea has no greater metaphysical stature than, say, a fork. When your fork proves inadequate to the task of eating soup, it makes little sense to argue about whether there is something inherent in the nature of forks . . . or soup that accounts for the failure. You just reach for a spoon.

Pachacuti vs. Plato: The Nature of Religious Faith

With modern man facing a slew of problems ranging — according to some — from overpopulation, pollution, and global warming to the recent economic-fiscal crises, many people are questioning our approach to, and use of, knowledge. This analysis has resulted in the recognition of a distinct “Western” epistemology as opposed to epistemologies that developed outside the modern tradition — epistemologies that bear examination in hopes that these might be mined for some nuggets of wisdom. This was Wendy’s and Laurie’s project.

“Aha!” moments of insight are detectable with an electroencephalograph up to eight seconds before an individual’s mind is aware of them.

Western, or modern, epistemology has its roots in a movement that emerged independently throughout centers of high culture all across the Old World in the first millennium BC. Robert N. Bellah, an anthropologist, has characterized it as “an extremely negative evaluation of man and society and the exaltation of another realm of reality as alone true and infinitely valuable.” This dualistic perception emerged in Greece with Plato’s classic formulation of a realm of the ideal that mirrors mundane reality; in Israel with the conception of a transcendent god in whom alone there is any comfort; in India with the Buddha as the only refuge from a world of chaos; in China with the Taoist admonition of withdrawal from human society.

It is hardly necessary to cite comparable Christian sentiments, while the Koran stresses that the life to come is infinitely superior (virgins or no virgins) to present reality. Even in Japan, usually so innocently world-accepting, Shotoku Taishi declared that the world is a lie and only the Buddha is true, and in the Kamakura period the conviction that the world is hell led to orgies of religious suicide by seekers after paradise.

This world-rejection zeitgeist is unlike anything that came before or after. Prior to this radical shift in perception, epistemology was more concerned with the maintenance of personal, social, and cosmic harmony and with attaining specific goods — rain, harvest, children, health — as men have always been concerned. Salvation in an afterlife was virtually absent; the intellectual focus was on getting along with the natural forces that ruled existence — the sun, the earth, water, wind, thunder, fertility, game, plants, etc — in a word, animism.

Animism is a holistic approach that reveres natural phenomena without separating the whole into constituent parts — vital essences, soul, energy, their physical manifestations, or their subsystems — while still including them. It is a monistic perception as opposed to the later revolution’s dualism. Animism seeks integration while world rejection seeks transcendence.

This world-rejection zeitgeist is unlike anything that came before or after.

The revolution that took place in the first millennium BC, by creating a schism between the real world and an ideal reality, started an intellectual movement that helped humankind look at the world differently. If reality could be broken down into its constituent parts — real and ideal — couldn’t everything else? Might there be more than two parts? Now that natural phenomena could be analyzed into building blocks, these became much easier to understand and, ultimately control. It was the first step towards a philosophical reductionism that later culminated in Victorian science.

With the existence of an ideal world theorized, comparative analyses between the real and ideal worlds also led to the possibility of reform on this earth — of the self, society, government, technology, etc. — as separate entities. There was nothing that couldn’t bear some improvement. Even the ability to separate itself became a tool of reform. Power could be split into political-military and cultural-religious, as could social classes and economic specialties. Doubtlessly, this new paradigm greatly aided mankind’s adaptation to growing population pressures worldwide by facilitating technological innovation.

Still, the revolution was not democratic. Control was still vested in authority: church and state. It took yet another revolution another 2,000 years later (more or less) for epistemology to undergo as radical a change as it previously had with world rejection — the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation made man’s relationship with — and understanding of — reality, much more democratic. Prior to the Reformation only the religious elite had access to God’s revelation, the Bible. They, in turn, interpreted God’s word for the rest of society. In some European countries it was actually a crime to own a Bible in the vernacular.

There was nothing that couldn’t bear some improvement. Even the ability to separate itself became a tool of reform.

The second revolution that the Protestant Reformation wrought was simple: the concept that everyone had the right to own, read, and interpret God’s word for himself. This principle of individual autonomy and the devolution of ultimate authority spread to governmental and economic realms where it presaged the end of monarchy and the rise of capitalism. In the meta-sphere of epistemology, it was the beginning of the end for the earlier, world-rejection, revolution. Western epistemology diversified. It was an age of enlightenment — in science, philosophy, and even religious thought, where hundreds of new sects flowered.

Jerusalem, Rome, Mecca, Cusco

Whatever its benefits, the Protestant Reformation had little effect on the divide-and-conquer dualistic-reductionist approach that was still yielding so many insights. If anything, Victorian scientists were predicting mankind’s imminent omniscience. By first identifying the constituent parts of whatever was being studied (dualism), investigators could more easily analyze each part individually and finally re-assemble the lot into a complete explanation (reductionism).

However, there was a problem. With time, the dualistic-reductionist approach proved inadequate when faced with highly complex, integrated systems such as climate, ecosystems, economies, and living organisms. A new, more holistic approach was necessary because understanding constituent parts didn’t fully explain the whole.

Philosopher and ecologist Robert Ulanowicz said that science must develop techniques to study ways in which larger scales of organization influence smaller ones, and also ways in which feedback loops create structure at a given level, independently of details at a lower level of organization. In an attempt to reconcile this difficulty, James Lovelock, an exobiologist for NASA, postulated the Gaia Hypothesis, named after the Greek goddess of Earth.

With time, the dualistic-reductionist approach proved inadequate when faced with highly complex, integrated systems such as climate, ecosystems, economies, and living organisms.

The Gaia Hypothesis proposes that the biosphere and physical components of the earth — atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere — are closely integrated to form a complex interacting system that maintains the climatic and biogeochemical conditions on earth in a preferred homeostasis.

Today we are in the throes of a new revolution. If a more holistic approach has been productive in studying the mind, perhaps other fields of inquiry might also benefit from a less dualistic-reductionist approach. The door was opened for a re-evaluation of the animistic approach.

A New Age (literally) dawned. The democratization of religious belief, initiated so violently during the Reformation, flowered into a thousand blooms. Now that each person could find his own road to enlightenment, people scoured the world for alternative spiritual approaches, particularly holistic, natural phenomena-centered (as opposed to world-rejecting) beliefs.

In popular culture, that search probably began with the Beatles’ discovery and popularization of Transcendental Meditation as practiced by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Though world-renouncing in its transcendentalism, it did not renounce worldly involvement or pleasures.

The democratization of religious belief, initiated so violently during the Reformation, flowered into a thousand blooms.

More recently, the search for a new approach has focused on indigenous American animist epistemologies, particularly Andean epistemologies, not only because of their geographical isolation from world-rejection creeds but also because of the sophistication and success of Inca civilization — a civilization that absorbed virtually its entire known world, maintained a burgeoning population more-or-less peacefully and without famine; and displayed a reverence for their environment that attracts many today.

A Formicable Society

If nothing else, anthropological theory has taught us that increasing population density tends to beget technological innovation in a continuous feedback loop but is always associated with increased governmental power, regimentation, and social stratification.)

Inca society was the antithesis of a liberal ideal. Tax freedom day didn’t fall until September — in most years; subjects worked for state and church two-thirds of the year. Even when too old, poor, or incapacitated to pay, individuals had to at least pay their tribute in lice to maintain the integrity and fairness of the system. (Perhaps giving some of their lice in lieu of anything else was at least a required token of participation in the system.) There was no private property beyond one’s clothing, tools, guinea pigs, and such. Individual organized trade was not permitted; the government monopolized trade. Nuclear family autarky was the rule and the economy was rigidly centrally planned. Beyond the firstborn, a family’s children were at the disposal of the emperor and were sometimes subject to human sacrifice. Inca and subject populations were resettled at the whim of the emperor to discourage revolt. Inca society was the human equivalent of a bee or ant colony.

Food supplies, information, justice, and armies moved between what is today Colombia and southern Chile along a road system that rivaled the Roman Empire’s. And it was fast.

Still, it had its attractions. Tahuantinsuyu was the first successful, corruption-free welfare state in the world. Few starved, lacked a home, or suffered arbitrary injustice at the hands of local administrators. Corvée labor kept state granaries full to supply the army and areas hit with failed harvests. A sophisticated network of spies and informants provided instant polling to the Inca. Local chiefs and administrators guilty of malfeasance suffered swift punishment. Food supplies, information, justice, and armies moved between what is today Colombia and southern Chile along a road system that rivaled the Roman Empire’s. And it was fast. Trained relay runners with sophisticated mnemonic devices could cover 140 miles in one day and could go from Quito to Cusco in 7 days. (For comparison, the US Pony Express could cover 250 miles per day, or about 10 days from the Atlantic to the Pacific.) Giant llama caravans carried supplies and the armies’ kit over the paved, bridged and accommodation-replete Royal Roads. And medical care was free, with Inca cranial surgery being second to none.

Best of all, Inca rule created peace. The Pax Incaica was achieved with a minimum of bloodshed. Inca ambassadors would regale prospective conquests with the benefits of Inca rule while massive Inca armies camped outside the walls of the target city. Generous bribes were offered both to the chiefs — who would retain their positions, if accommodating — and the populace. Siege tactics could last for years but were always punctuated with truces during planting and harvest. But ultimately, if the peaceful incentives failed, Inca armies were known to inflict hideous torture and annihilate entire male populations.

The Cusco Creed

Inca theology reflected the sophistication of such an advanced civilization. Like the Romans, the Incas allowed their subjects religious freedom but required a few minimal doctrinal concessions. During his reign, Pachacuti convened the Council of Curicancha, which, like the Council of Nicaea, set out to standardize doctrine. It integrated all the beliefs of the newly conquered trans-Andean subjects with Inca theology. Pachacuti started by recognizing three contradictions in traditional simple sun worship:

  1. Inti — the Sun — cannot be universal if, while giving light to some, he withholds the light from others.
  2. Inti cannot be perfect if he can never remain at ease, resting.
  3. Nor can he be all-powerful when the smallest cloud may cover his face.

Therefore, the Council of Curicancha postulated the existence of Viracocha, an all-powerful, creator meta-deity that it imposed on all Inca subjects. Viracocha was more or less simply grafted onto what was becoming an extremely complex doctrinal edifice while not conflicting with minor, local deities, and the still intact Inti.

Generous bribes were offered both to the chiefs — who would retain their positions, if accommodating — and the populace.

Not only was Andean animism suddenly flirting with monotheism but its theological subtleties and elaborations — too numerous and esoteric to describe here, but including much practical wisdom in addition to abstruse arcana — were becoming every bit as mysterious and complex as the Christian creeds of transubstantiation and the Trinity. But instead of rejecting the world, Inca religion embraced and revered it. Alongside the more traditional (at least from a Judeo-Christian-Muslim perspective) — and challenging — coming-of-age ceremonies, fasts and trials of endurance, there were feasts, sex, drugs (such as ayahuasca), alcohol, and music. Faith, commitment, and pleasure were celebrated.

An important part of Andean animism is its self-help aspect. Practical nuggets of wisdom that promote character, conviviality, and satisfaction — akin to combining the teachings of Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey, and Deepak Chopra with the Bible — are canonical in it.

Heady stuff.

But probably Andean epistemology’s biggest draw today is its reverence for Pachamama, mother earth, and her myriad natural constituents — soil, water, wind, plants, animals, and even rocks. In today’s enlightenment-seeking, ecology-conscious, hedonistic modern world, Andean epistemology seeks to provide a holistic balance — in living with oneself, society, and the earth.

Animism vs. Atheism? Hector Weighs in

One evening after dinner Wendy sought Hector’s advice on a matter that had been troubling her. She asked me to translate.

She recounted that the Inca Road Project, to her great surprise, had not been well-received by certain members of her Cree Band. In fact, she’d been attacked by a shaman who tried to stab her between the shoulder blades with a porcupine quill. At the last moment, Laurie, her husband, deflected the thrust. Still, the medicine man succeeded in casting a spell. Ever since, Wendy had been troubled by headaches, chest pains and neurasthenia. Could Hector recommend an Andean shaman who might lift the spell?

instead of rejecting the world, Inca religion embraced and revered it.

By this time I was internally cringing and questioning my involvement with such people and this project. I braced myself for Hector’s response.

Hector looked at both of us thoughtfully and, after some moments’ reflection, said that Wendy had undertaken a big project with tremendous responsibility that generated a lot of envy and jealousy amongst a close-knit clan in an Indian reservation setting. She was no doubt stressed out and weary. Hector suggested rest, a positive attitude, and forging ahead with a clear conscience. When Wendy insisted on a referral to a medicine man, Hector recommended a more conventional doctor.

The contrast struck me. Wendy, a modern Canadian in every sense, had been raised in a fundamentalist Christian home. She had discovered her tribe’s animist Cree beliefs as an adult, and had embraced them — in my opinion — in a New Age-ish sort of way as a reaction to the hypocrisy that she believed she had encountered as a child. The dream catchers, medicine wheels, frequent allusions to Indian beliefs, and other paraphernalia that was now a part of her seemed necessary reinforcements for a new-found faith.

In fact, she’d been attacked by a shaman who tried to stab her between the shoulder blades with a porcupine quill.

Hector, on the other hand, had been raised in an Andean animist milieu that subtly permeated his practical character. His animism wasn’t a compensatory reaction. Their different approaches got me to thinking about my own epistemological evolution.

Keeping the Faith

Humankind’s oldest and most widely held religious beliefs are animism and ancestor worship — both almost always found together (a linkage that begs to be investigated) — and both labeled a bit too glibly by condescending observers with a monotheistic background, little regard for translation difficulties, and therefore scant appreciation for the depth, complexity, or subtlety of alien beliefs (especially the often slippery concept of hierarchical divinity).

Animism literally refers to a belief that everything — living or inanimate — has an essence — a soul, or anima, if you will — and that this soul need not be a spirit or ghost-like being with a potentially independent existence. Animism usually regards human beings as on a roughly equal footing with (other) animals, plants, natural forces, and even objects — all deserving respect. Humans are considered a part of nature, not superior to or separate from it. However, it is not a type of religion in itself but rather a constituent belief or virtue — analogous to polytheism, monotheism, or even filial piety — that is found in many belief systems.

In the Aristotelian version of animism all things are composed of matter and form — the essence — the latter being the defining characteristic and corresponding to a “soul,” albeit one that is neither immortal nor deserving of any sort of worship. It was merely an expedient he proposed to account for things such as butterflies whose “matter” undergoes radical transformations during its life cycle but whose “form” ostensibly remains a butterfly. This concept was appropriated and greatly elaborated by the early Christian church into the modern “soul” most of us are familiar with.

There is a constellation of “transformational” retreats and festivals in the United States that cater to New Age seekers. But to keep away the riff-raff, many charge hefty fees.

Likewise, ancestor worship is not a religion but rather a practice, one that is a part of nearly all religious traditions. And it is better rendered as “ancestor veneration,” a more accurate description of what practitioners actually do, which is to cultivate kinship values such as filial piety, family loyalty, and family continuity, often with rituals such as visiting graves, offering flowers and grave decorations, burning candles or incense, reciting genealogies, or simply displaying photographs in special locations. Prayer, actual worship, belief in the transformation of dead relatives into deities or communication with them may or may not be present.

Today’s shift from a world-rejection zeitgeist to a more holistic, New Age approach to spirituality is by no means limited to Andean epistemology. The August 25 issue of The Economist (“With Spirits Kaleidoscopic”) reports on a constellation of “transformational” retreats and festivals in the United States that cater to these seekers: the Beloved Festival, SoulPlay, Sonic Bloom, Kinnection Campout, Stilldream, Wanderlust, Symbiosis, and, yes, Burning Man. But to keep away the riff-raff, many charge hefty fees. Tickets for the Beloved Festival start at $265.77.

Not Keeping the Faith

Sometimes, when pressed for my religious beliefs, I’ll respond — as a heuristic device with a less polarizing tendency than, “I’m an atheist” — that I’m an adherent of reformed ancestor worship-animism. In other words, I venerate the DNA line that I now represent; and my habits are respectful and frugal — about life and the things that support it. Is there a conflict between these values and atheism? I don’t think so. What do you think?

Epilogue

After a few years, the Royal Inca Road Project was put on hold indefinitely. Wendy and Laurie, the Cree principals behind the project, waged a (so far) losing battle to maintain adequate funding from corporate and government donors while holding on to full-time jobs. But their efforts continue. They moved to Stavager, Norway where Laurie worked as a pilot for a subsidiary of SAS airlines and Wendy managed a branch of Statoil’s international office for indigenous affairs, a position that allowed her to pursue their quest.




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A Train to Nowhere

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The other day I watched Snowpiercer. I have a taste for post-apocalyptic science fiction, and also for stories that illustrate political ideas, and Snowpiercer is both of those. Co-written and directed by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, the 2013 movie also has a strong flavor of anti-capitalism. Wondering who had picked up on that, I googled “Snowpiercer, Socialism,” then “Snowpiercer, anti-capitalism.”

The socialists had picked up on it. On a web page called Socialist Action (“In Solidarity with Workers and the Oppressed Everywhere”) writer Gaetana Caldwell-Smith calls Snowpiercer “an original, inventive, futuristic work” that pictures “what might happen in the future if the outmoded and anarchistic capitalist system goes on unchecked for much longer.”

On another socialist web page, Jacobin writer Peter Frase calls Snowpiercer an “action-movie spectacle” with “a message of class struggle” that “evokes some of the thorniest dilemmas of socialism and revolution, in the twentieth century and today.”

In an attempt to reverse global warming, humanity overdid it and froze the planet.

Your Film Professor, the highbrow lefty, praises Snowpiercer’s “incredible capacity to cuttingly capture — or ‘cognitively map’ — how our current and future dystopian milieu is informed by our (globalized) capitalism system. . . . The reason this film is just SO important is because it cuts through the fog of ideological distractions (e.g., consumerism, status quo/reformist [capitalistic] rhetoric, patriotism, nationalism, etc.) and didactically spells out the REAL of ruling class ideologies in a way that is to my mind almost miraculous.”

I don’t know about all that. It does tell you how some on the Left think (and write).

Snowpiercer is a science fiction story set on a frozen earth. In an attempt to reverse global warming, humanity overdid it and froze the planet. But a capitalist named Wilford, who was fascinated with model trains as a kid, had put his corporate fortune into a high-speed train with an enclosed ecosystem: tanks of fish, hooches of chickens, an engine to propel the train and keep the contents warm. For 17 years, Wilford’s shinkansen has been rushing over the world’s continents, one full loop each year, pushing through the wasteland of snow and frozen machines around it. Every human alive is a passenger on this train.

After the police-state cars with hooded goons wielding truncheons and automatic pistols come the lumpenproletariat at the tail end.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense — but cut some slack for surrealism. The story of Snowpiercer is from a graphic novel, in other words, a comic book. A French socialist comic book. The film is quite well made, and on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) is rated 7.1. That’s not quite up to the 8.2 rating of V for Vendetta, another political tale based on a comic book, but well above the 6.2 for Waterworld (1995).

Snowpiercer’s train comes with a recognizably Marxist class structure. Wilford, the egoistic owner played by Ed Harris, is the deity at the train’s head. Next in line are train cars of sybarites with their club music, dancing, and drug-fueled orgies, then the genteel with their classical music and handmade sushi, then the obedient workers tending the orange groves, tanks of fish, and hooches of chickens, and the smiling teacher (Allison Pill) in the grade-school car of fresh-looking kids. After the police-state cars with hooded goons wielding truncheons and automatic pistols come the lumpenproletariat at the tail end. In Marxist terms, you might think of them as “workers,” but they mostly just suffer. They live in rags and squalor and are terrorized by goons. For food they are issued “protein bars” made from pulverized cockroaches.

And they are the folks the movie is about.

Wilford’s mouthpiece to them is an unctuous woman played by Tilda Swinton, who was the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). Early in Snowpiercer she instructs the rabble in a style that parodies Margaret Thatcher. “Order is the barrier that holds back the frozen death,” she declares. “We must all of us, in this train of life, remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position.”

The society around us has a “one percent,” but its membership is not fixed. People go in and out of the “one percent” all the time.

She holds a man’s shoe and puts it on the head of one of the proles. “A hat belongs to your head,” she bellows. “A shoe belongs to your foot. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot.”

And again: “I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, a sacred line is crossed. Know your place.”

Here is the message of the movie. Society — capitalist society — is a hierarchy of assigned privilege.

Well, the society around us is surely a hierarchy, just as its Canadian defender, Jordan Peterson, allows, though he calls it a hierarchy of competence. And it is mostly that, else today’s world would not work. It has a “one percent,” but its membership is not fixed. People go in and out of the “one percent” all the time. Margaret Thatcher was part of the political one percent, but she famously started out as a shopkeeper’s daughter, in what the Marxists call the petit bourgeoisie.

Capitalism is an economic system of private workers and owners who buy and sell in a market, making their own decisions. In Snowpiercer there is no market. Wilfred’s chickens produce eggs, and one of his men wheels them in a cart and gives them away. He doesn’t sell them. There is no buying or selling in Snowpiercer and no money. There is no property other than Wilford’s. The supposed “Wilford Industries” cannot buy or sell anything, because there is no other entity to sell to or buy from.

As an ideological venture, a kind of leftist "Anthem" or "Animal Farm," "Snowpiercer" does seem to be part of something.

Watching Snowpiercer, you can’t help but identify with the lumpen heroes (especially the characters played by John Hurt and Octavia Spencer) who disobey the faux Margaret Thatcher and refuse to remain “shoes” on the godhead’s foot.

But why care about a five-year-old movie that had only a limited release in the United States? Worldwide it did better; in its first year, Snowpiercer brought in $87 million, more than half of what V for Vendetta did. As a business venture Snowpiercer did all right. As an ideological venture, a kind of leftist Anthem or Animal Farm, it does seem to be part of something.

There has been a small upsurge of socialism in the United States. So far it is a pale image of the leftist tide of the 1930s, when private investment had collapsed and millions were out of work. Then it looked to many as if capitalism was finished. In the 1930s socialism was a relatively new thing, and intellectuals might be excused for not knowing what a defective product it was.

Now my hometown, Seattle, has a socialist on its city council. Her supporters are raucous and young, full of resentment of the billionaire rich. Maybe they believe because they read Karl Marx and Thomas Piketty, but more likely because they have imbibed their history and politics from left-wing teachers, or maybe from graphic novels and movies like Snowpiercer.

In the 1930s socialism was a relatively new thing, and intellectuals might be excused for not knowing what a defective product it was.

But socialism — really? Like Peterson, I want to yell at them: Did you miss the 20th century? And a lot of them did. They are that young.

I lived through the last third of that century as an adult. I saw socialism collapse in Europe, abandoned in China, and decaying in Cuba. Now it is collapsing again in Venezuela. It’s time for the socialists to give up.

All the Left’s bellowing about hierarchies and social classes makes me think of the guys I grew up with. The son of a small-town optometrist became an airline pilot. The son of an aerospace engineer became a sheet-metal worker, then lost it all when he married a crackhead. We are all of retirement age now, though some of us are still working and one, a teacher, has been retired on a fat pension for more than ten years. I have a grade-school friend who lived for years in a ruined trailer and a former colleague who lived for seven years in his truck. Both have now been put in decent housing, courtesy of the welfare state.

The kids I grew up with did not achieve equality, at least not as the Left defines it. They weren’t promised it, didn’t aim at it, and didn’t get it. They went in all different directions. None was assigned his position in life, and most of them, over time, changed what that position was. No doubt some of their paths were shaped by “power relations” under capitalism, and I know some were touched by luck. But where each one ended up depended mostly on the decisions he made, the sort of work he did and how diligently it was done, how much present satisfaction was sacrificed for the future, and, crucially, on whom he married.

Why would anyone think his world is like Snowpiercer?

A software man of the new generation predicted that robotics will extinguish so many jobs that the government will have to offer a universal guaranteed income.

I think back to when I was 20, and a student at the university. I used to go on long walks through a city neighborhood with big houses, many of them brick, built in the early 20th century. I was bunking in a rental house shared with other students, eating meals of hot dogs and ramen and working a part-time job for $1.75 an hour. That neighborhood of big homes was a foreign country to me. It would have been easy to think I was looking at the brick walls of an impenetrable class, and that I was doomed to a life of instant noodles. But I wasn’t.

There is another thought, which I heard recently from a software man of the new generation. Noting the divide in his fellows between those with brain work and those living in parents’ basements, he predicted that robotics will extinguish so many jobs that the government will have to offer a universal guaranteed income.

I do see the loss of jobs. My health clinic, which used to have a row of clerks checking in patients, has replaced them with touchscreens. The local superstore (which would have been called a department store, years ago) has replaced half of its checkers with touch screens. Several downtown parking garages that used to employ Ethiopians to collect the money have replaced them with card scanners.

Then again, three blocks from my house is a shop that concocts such fluffy desserts as Mexican chocolate pie. A pie from that shop costs $36; a slice, $6. That sort of pie was not available here two decades ago. Nor was nitrogen-infused ale. Or black sesame ice cream. My neighborhood now has artisan bread, artisan ice cream, artisan chocolate, artisan beer and, more recently, artisan spirits. Within a few miles are stores offering artisan cannabis.

A young man I know, the son of a bank vice president, has chosen to be an organic farmer. He shares in an old house on a muddy farm and produces organic vegetables and free-range, grass-fed beef. He sells his artisan hamburger for $6 a pound.

Capitalism can be about much more than efficiency.

A century ago, a middle-class family here might have a Swedish girl to cook, clean, tend the children, and mend the holes in socks. Now we have au pairs, housecleaning services, gardening services, and (I can hardly believe this) dog-walking services. I even know of a poop-removal service for people who keep dogs in backyards. In my neighborhood the environmentally sensitive no longer put in concrete walkways. They hire Mexican immigrants to put in brick walkways, carefully laying each brick by hand, using no mortar, so that rainwater can soak sustainably into the earth.

Back in the 1970s, my university professor of marketing predicted that the future of consumer products was Miller and Bud, two brands distinguishable only by labels and the ads on network television. All consumer markets were going to go that way, he said. I suppose it would have been the most efficient outcome. But look at the beer shelf at your grocery today. And what has happened to television? Capitalism can be about much more than efficiency.

The young man selling $6-a-pound hamburger makes far less money than a programmer at Amazon. Probably he officially qualifies as poor. But he is no serf. To him, the programmers working 60-hour weeks are the serfs.

Snowpiercer is, as the socialists say, “an original, inventive, futuristic work,” totally unlike the black-and-white TV westerns and World War II shows I grew up with. I enjoyed it. I cheered for the rebels at the back of the train along with everybody else. I just hope that most of those who saw the film took it as an artisan product of an affluent culture and not as any sort of wisdom on the world around them.




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