Why India Doesn’t Change

 | 

Recently, a federal cabinet minister in the Indian government, Pawan Kumar Bansal, was charged with taking a bribe of $160,000, via his nephew. The bribe was allegedly paid by an official of his own ministry. Were Bansal, within his own limited sense, rational, he would have started mobilizing his friends and bribing the news agencies, to avoid legal entanglements. Instead, he was found feeding a goat that was about to be sacrificed. It was a ritual to seek divine intervention.

To be elected a member of Parliament, Bansal must have been well perceived in his constituency, which is among the richest and most educated in India. The voters must have found him rational enough to be their representative. To be elected a top-level minister, he must have found acceptance among the majority of his political party, which rules the lives of 1.2 billion people. The prime minister must have found him charismatic, influential, and intelligent enough, or at least powerful enough to be a top-level minister, working daily on issues with serious influence on the direction India may take. Rising to the top in politics requires one to pass through umpteen filters. The fact that Bansal attained such a high position gives a glimpse of the psychology and character of the Indian body politic, its irrationality and medieval thinking.

I have almost never met a public official in India who did not ask for a bribe. But only a very rare public servant ever gets into trouble, and that happens mostly because of extreme stupidity or sheer bad luck. The investigative agencies are themselves totally corrupt, so they must find themselves cornered before they do anything. Even when the evidence is obvious, court cases simmer for several decades: eventually people die, or forget; witnesses change their stories, either because they are tired and want to end their court visits or because they lose their sanity under the pressures of an insane system; and prosecutors and judges keep changing. This is not just a result of financial corruption. The roots go much deeper.

There were riots in India in 1984, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The cases against the alleged culprits are still going on. Among people in government, there is apathy and lack of passion for what one does. Most of the job “satisfaction” public servants get is not from doing their job but from showing off their power, using it to obstruct and create problems for people. It is a very warped mentality that is not just about bribes (which in a narrow way is still a rational expectation) but is mostly a result of deep-rooted irrationality and the demands that irrational minds create. Indeed were bribes the only problem for India, it would have merely added a layer of cost to society, not made it stagnate or simmer in perpetual wretchedness.

Only a very rare public servant ever gets into trouble in India, and that happens mostly because of extreme stupidity or sheer bad luck.

I believe that the state is simply a visual symptom of the deeper social problem. The “anti-nutrients” come from the surrounding society. The underlying morality of this society — seen from the perspective of my own experience — is not that of “right or wrong” based on reason and evidence. Instead, motivations are often driven by astrology, circular thinking, superstitions, narrow tribal affiliations, and a completely erroneous understanding of causality, an understanding that results from medieval thinking with little or no influence by the scientific revolution. When I was in engineering, it was not uncommon for hordes of students to travel long distances to visit exotic temples or enact weird rituals to help them pass examinations. One must ask what happens elsewhere in society, when the top engineering students are so superstitious.

Industrialization was imposed on India before the country had time to go through a phase of the age of reason and enlightenment. Partial acceptance of reason has made Indians extreme rationalists, solidifying their superstitions. For example, a very good electrical engineer recently told me that touching the feet of the idol in a temple results in a flow of electricity through your body that is extremely beneficial to you, transferring to you the wisdom of the god by electrically changing the connections of your neurons. Educated people often take extreme pride in how our ancestors — the ancestors of Indians as expressed in Indian mythologies — had airplanes and time machines.

What about Indian spirituality and religiousness? Don’t they control people’s corrupt behaviour? I am an atheist, but I do understand those who see religion as a means of spiritual solace. But for Bansal, and a lot of other people in India, religion has nothing to do with philosophy or spirituality. It is about rituals conducted for material benefits, either in this life or in the next. It is about materialism, materialism, and materialism.

Recently a group has gained very high visibility in fighting against corruption. This group has been asking its followers not to pay their electricity and water bills, to force the government to reduce the charges. No thought is given to where the loss-making public sector company will get its money from. These people should have fought for the public electricity company to be privatized and to allow competition to work. But that is too much for their feel-good fight against corruption, in which some obscure fountain of wealth will provide for the shortfall. Visible, financial corruption is truly the tip of the iceberg. It is deep-rooted irrationality that is the true problem.

Most of my Indian acquaintances talk against corruption. But in their private lives not only do they pay the bribes they have to pay to conduct legitimate business, but they are more than happy to pay to get an unjust advantage over others. Despite the rhetoric, financial corruption has actually increased in India. And it has much deeper roots than most people realize. If he were truly rational, the hapless Bansal would certainly not have wasted his time on the goat, but the age of reason has not touched his thinking.

India’s problem is not just a lack of personal ethics among those in government. By itself, financial corruption would add only a certain, limited cost to the economy. It is the fundamental irrationality that keeps India from gaining traction, from being able to build its way out of wretchedness.




Share This


Detroit

 | 

I was born and reared in the state of Michigan, and its affairs remain very interesting to me. I regard Detroit’s bankruptcy as the virtually inevitable result of events I’ve been witnessing throughout my life.

First there was the triumph of modern labor-management relations, which kept the price of labor sky-high, as long as junky cars could be unloaded on a market largely free of good-quality foreign goods. With the help of union-friendly politicians, labor disputes were settled amicably, usually with an enormous increase in benefits for labor. When there actually was a strike or layoff, which happened so rarely that it was regarded as a kind of natural disaster, challenging the existence of God, Michiganians were treated to constant interviews with baffled assembly-line workers, who informed the 10 o’clock news that if this thing continued for even a day longer, they couldn’t meet the mortgage on the house at the lake, and they might even have to sell the boat. It was hard, really hard, to meet the payments on three cars. As for savings, who could keep money in the bank, considering all these expenses?

Such were the rewards of unskilled labor. So why should anyone learn any skills? Then came the nervous collapse of both labor and management, once genuine competition took hold.

But something else had happened, simultaneous with the monopoly of the Big Three automakers and their inseparable companion, the United Auto Workers. This was the triumph of Great Society liberalism and the new class of managers and planners who purveyed it. Many of the big chiefs came from auto company management. Remember Robert McNamara? He’s a sample. These people demonstrated that they could be failures in civic planning as well as business planning. After the 1967 race riots in Detroit, they backed every sorry, money-losing civic improvement project they could think of, applying social engineering to the city’s problems. You can guess how well that worked.

Tax money that is used to do anything more than protect your rights is going to be devoted to building things that will violate your rights by taking yet more taxes.

The logical product of the Great Society was the flight from Detroit of everyone, white or black, who could possibly escape and buy a home in the suburbs. The city’s population went from 1,850,000 (1950) to 701,000 (2010). The escapees left behind them an inner city that was poor in productive workers but rich in people who voted for a living. The natural product of that was a chronically corrupt political class, keeping itself elected by class warfare and racial resentment.

Now the city of Detroit is so poor that it is letting large areas of formerly choice real estate go back to the fields and forests. It is arranging not to keep the streets open, not to keep the power running in whole sections of the city. The people I feel for most are the African-American families who have hung on, kept their modest houses and modest jobs, survived the violence and criminality of their neighbors, and now find that their own jealously guarded homes are to be abandoned by the city they struggled to keep in operation. Looking down Woodward Avenue, once the Champs Élysées of the Midwest, I see block after block of emptiness — or worse: wonderful early 20th-century housing, places to live that would be worth a fortune to almost anyone, anywhere else, but that are now hopelessly derelict.

I suppose that most people understand these things, in general. But one factor that should be emphasized, and almost never is, except in a way that contrasts with the truth, is the influence of that mundane but vicious thing, the tax. It is oft lamented that Detroit’s taxes can’t keep up with its expenditures. The problem is that the taxes existed at all.

Right now, Detroit’s municipal income tax is 2.4% for residents and 1.2% for nonresidents who work in Detroit (if that be not a contradiction in terms). Before 1999 these taxes stood at 3.0 and 1.5, respectively, and were authorized by a special provision in the state tax law allowing cities with populations of more than 600,000 (of which Michigan has only one) to exceed the statewide cap of 1.0 and 0.5%. In 1999, Detroit began slowly and minutely reducing tax rates in accordance with a deal, politically extorted from the state, that gave the city a whopping special subsidy from the revenues of Michigan as a whole.

I say “special,” not just because Detroit was getting a deal that, say, Muskegon didn’t get, but because Michigan had already, for many years, been subsidizing major Detroit projects and institutions — something that did not prevent Detroit politicians from erecting giant signs in front of them, bearing their own names.

Anyhow, in 2011, which is about the time when the probability of a Detroit bankruptcy became common talk in Michigan, the Detroit income tax represented about $230 million out of the city’s $1.2 billion general fund revenue. This means that the average man, woman, or child connected with this impoverished town was somehow generating over $1,700 in revenue for the city alone, about $330 of it from income taxes. Overlapping with the income tax, of course, are many other taxes, including property taxes, which generate several hundreds of millions of dollars and would generate more if the owners of half the land parcels in the city were still paying their property taxes, which they aren’t.

Then there’s the income that the city gets from government-licensed gambling and, ah yes, the income it gets from corporate taxes. In 2012, the city council doubled the corporate income tax rate, taking it from 1 to 2%. The excuse was a threatened 10% pay cut for municipal workers. “I can't in good conscience,” said one council member, “ask city employees to give back 10% and not ask the corporate community to share in the sacrifice by raising their taxes." Oh. OK. I see the logic.

Meanwhile, the state of Michigan has been cooperating with Detroit in attempting to create a new stadium for the Red Wings hockey team, a stadium that, its advocates insist, will generate “as much as $1 billion in economic development over 30 years.” It won’t, of course. People will just keep driving into Detroit to see the games, then driving out again. But over the same 30-year period, the taxpayers of Michigan will have to pay $444 million for bonds to subsidize this scam. Let’s see . . . if there were a billion dollars of economic development (over 30 years, of course), and it were highly profitable (which it won’t be), it might possibly earn, say, 10% on investment, which means an average profit of maybe $22 million a year (it can’t all happen at once), from which the taxpayers of the state of Michigan would receive, in taxes from the grateful beneficiaries of their subsidy, something less than $1 million a year.

So that’s the way — not bread and circuses, but welfare and hockey. Isn’t there an old saying about castles being erected on the ruins of cottages?

The more Detroit taxed, and the more Michigan taxed and subsidized, the worse things got. And continue to get. But why oh why? Because, as Isabel Paterson explained long ago in The God of the Machine, tax money that is used to do anything more than protect your rights is going to be devoted to building things that will violate your rights by taking yet more taxes. The things it builds may simply be dead weight, from an economic point of view, and will therefore have to be supported by continued taxation. Or, more likely, they will be institutions devoted to extracting yet more money from the productive members of society.

The illness of Detroit has been blamed on “white flight,” as if whiteness were some magic elixir.

These may be institutions such as the welfare industry. These may be institutions such as Detroit race politics, which long defended and empowered every crook in the city government, so long as he or she was an African-American, and is currently demanding that Detroit’s debts be “canceled,” thus neatly averting the consequences of bankruptcy. Or these institutions may be government-“stimulated” businesses, erected by subsidies and continually devoted to extending them.

But two things are certain. The beneficiaries will not “give back.” And they will never, never be the productively working black, white, or Asian population of anywhere. These are the people who are tricked into voting for the money-extraction industry, told that more taxes are needed to support the schools or the police or the fire department or something, or defeating the hated Republican Party, and then, mysteriously, find that every increase in taxes is turned into more guns aimed against them.

The illness of Detroit has been blamed on “white flight,” as if whiteness were some magic elixir. If you had any thoughts along those lines, the social history of Detroit will show you that it isn’t. The illness has also been blamed on mysterious “changes” in the auto industry. That’s not the cause either. Business and labor that aren’t on the take from subsidies — subsidies in the form of bailouts, friendly legislation, and noncompetitive labor laws, all of which the Detroit auto industry got, and fattened on, and sickened on — can “change” without doing grave damage to their communities. And the illness has been blamed on “massive corruption,” as if corruption could be massive without the profits it derives from laws and taxes.

Enough. Just look at who’s taking money from whom.




Share This


Passing the Promethean Torch

 | 

The affinity between science fiction and libertarian thought is longstanding (think Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson — or, for that matter, Ayn Rand), so that when the Prometheus Award was created in 1979 to honor the best pro-freedom science-fiction novel of the year, it was an acknowledgment rather than an establishment of a trend. Each year the Libertarian Futurist Society gives out the Prometheus Award at the World Science Fiction Convention, and if the quality of the winners varies widely, year to year, well, that's a problem faced by all yearly awards. (To give the LFS full credit, "None of the Above" is always an option, but has carried the ballot only once.) Although this year's winner has now been announced, I beg the reader's indulgence for a few paragraphs; please endeavor to retain a certain feeling of suspense as I review this year's five nominees.

Unfortunately, the best novel among this year's finalists was perhaps the least libertarian. Kill Decision, by Daniel Suarez, is a well-crafted technothriller set in a near future in which unmanned drones are just a bit more scarily effective than they are today — and just a bit more scary is very scary indeed. The novel uses the tried-and-true technique of beginning with a broad selection of seemingly unrelated scenes, each well-described, and zeroing in on two main characters. In skilled hands, there is probably no thriller formula more satisfying. The mostly veiled but realistic villains, the horror of swarming drones, a satisfying dose of real science (including passages on "one of the few extirpator species on earth," weaver ants), all enhance this well-paced and ultimately quite thrilling thriller. Kill Decision is certainly a cautionary tale about the abuses of power in a technological age, but as most of the good guys are working for the government, and the bad guys are probably representative of one or more multinational corporations, it would be difficult to see it as reflecting libertarian ideas. But pro-human it certainly is.

The works' dedication to freedom has to matter, of course, but their quality as novels is important as well. It’s not easy to decide how much weight to give to literary accomplishment, how much to clarity of theme.

The other technothriller on the list, Arctic Rising, does, late in the novel, lay in a sudden vision of libertarian conclaves at the North Pole. But the vast majority of the novel's pages revel in nonstop action sequences that leave little room for reflection. Arctic Rising is told in the first person by Anika Duncan, an airship pilot; the action begins as she is shot out of the sky, for reasons unknown. Her narrative voice, though neither sophisticated nor literary, is fully adequate to the job, with just enough self-reflection to avoid dullness. The near-future setup is fun and intriguing — global warming has melted the ice caps to the point where Greenland and Baffin Island boom with development — and the action occurs in the newly thawed northern waters of the Northwest Passage. Author Tobias S. Buckell delivers a surfeit of action as well as an appropriately complex climax. An added pleasure is the pair of contrasting villains, one surprisingly sympathetic, the other the reverse, but equally convinced he is right. The bare bones of the thriller formula do for some reason show through the constant dangers, reducing the desired illusion of reality. But then thriller aficionados are known for their willingness to suspend disbelief.

Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema, the only young-adult novel among this year's nominees, is also the only one that does not depend on violence to provide its kicks. Kudos for that. Pirate Cinema is set in so near a future it is just barely science fiction at all. Like most of Doctorow's recent novels, it pits freedom-loving youths against an alliance of evil corporations and intrusive government.

Copyright issues are central to Pirate Cinema, and it's not hard to discover what Doctorow's own position is: he's a supporter of (and former participator in) the Creative Commons initiative, and his approach is to make his novels available digitally for free, but to continue to publish and sell both print and ebook editions in the ordinary way.

For the most part, the novel focuses narrowly on the plight of 16-year-old Trent McCauley, whose crime is sampling old movies in order to assemble his own pastiches. It might seem hard to muster the necessary moral self-righteousness on this issue; the right to sample copyrighted material for non-commercial use is not exactly a candidate for the Bill of Rights. Incredibly, though, according to Doctorow's foreword, Britain's new Digital Economy Act "allows corporate giants to disconnect whole families from the Internet if anyone in the house is accused (without proof) of copyright infringement." That definitely raises the stakes, in today's interconnected world.

Doctorow is a skilled writer, and he manages to make Trent McCauley's first-person narration both authentic and mostly interesting — no mean trick. The plot winds and twists appropriately, with first love fitting nicely with political considerations. The ending follows Doctorow's established formula, but that's all right; the reader would be disappointed with any other denouement.

We jump now to the farther future for two sequels to previous Award winners. It is so very hard for sequels to live up to their progenitors . . .

Sarah A. Hoyt's Darkship Thieves, which won the Prometheus Award in 2011, is an unusual genre-blending mix of fantasy, science fiction, and romance. Most of the fun of this, the original book, lay in its imaginative worldbuilding, complete with a portrait of an advanced, stateless society. But in its sequel, Darkship Renegades, the worldbuilding is done, and the reader is left with a first-person narration of the heroine's ongoing perils. Athena Sinistra's immaturity and lack of self-restraint, her obsession with looks and sexual attraction, soon turn what was space opera into something more like soap opera. And the stateless society itself seems to have also lost its balance, being unable to cope with the emergence of a monopolistic "Energy Board." The climax of the novel features a shootout in a crowded meeting hall, hardly the most appealing portrait of problem-solving in a supposedly advanced libertarian society.

Dani and Eytan Kollins' novel The Unincorporated Man, Prometheus Award winner of 2010, told the story of Justin Cord, a self-made billionaire who, on being reawakened three hundred years in the future, refuses to go along with the personal incorporation that is part of the new society's norms. The conflict is made more interesting because this incorporation of the individual, in which outsiders (including the state) come to own more shares than the person, seems in many ways a less onerous burden than the open-ended taxation that exists today. The "bad guys," defending a relatively benign status quo, elicit the reader's sympathy, even as we root for Cord's intransigent stand.

Unfortunately, the best novel among this year's finalists was perhaps the least libertarian.

No such nuance disturbs the black-and-white spacescape of The Unincorporated Future, the fourth and last in what turned out to be an "Unincorporated" series. (I have not read the intervening two novels, The Unincorporated War and The Unincorporated Woman.) Whereas the first novel was the story of a fight for freedom, the fourth is mostly just a fight. The unincorporated trend, though banned on Earth, has flourished on the asteroids and beyond, and the novel begins in the midst of an ongoing interplanetary war as Earth tries to subdue their rebellion. It is now a given that the Outer Alliance represents the good guys, and Earth the bad guys, and with that backdrop let the space opera begin.

War is of course a great destroyer of freedom (my son maintains that the opposite of war is the free market), so it is perhaps hardly surprising that the themes that animated the first book are missing here. Instead we have strong leaders, making on the one side painful decisions, on the other cold-blooded decisions, with both kinds costing millions of lives at a time. The ensuing space opera is entertaining enough, and the sequel is perhaps more consistent in tone and smoother in plot than the first novel in the series. But the issue of freedom has been left well in the background.

***

In the past, the Libertarian Futurist Society has shown a commendable willingness to honor novels that are not overtly libertarian. The works' dedication to freedom has to matter, of course, but their quality as novels is important as well. It’s not easy to decide how much weight to give to literary accomplishment, how much to clarity of theme.

This year's Best Novel award-winner, to be presented on August 30 at the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio, Texas, is Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema. Doctorow has won the award once before, in 2009, for his novel Little Brother, in which the villain was the bureaucratic Department of Homeland Security run amok. Although Pirate Cinema is a more narrowly focused work, libertarians should enjoy its youthful, anarchic spirit, part of Doctorow's ongoing novelistic campaign against conformity and coercion.

Easily beating out "None of the Above."




Share This


Athena 4, Gaia 0

 | 

From the start of the industrial revolution to the present day, many Green critics have decried the rise of technology. Gaia (Mother Earth) worshipers — Green neo-pagans — have viewed with alarm the dramatic rise in human flourishing, and the key determinant in this flourishing, which has been the development of plentiful energy. From the year 1800 to the year 2000, the world’s average per capita income rose tenfold (in real terms), while the world’s population rose sixfold, thanks to this productive and peaceful revolution. But the Gaia cult has resisted every step of the way.

During the past half century, the Gaia groupies have achieved tremendous political power in America and Europe. (They have yet not been able to dominate in Asia — one big reason Asia is so rapidly rising economically.) It is a struggle between those who embrace technological progress and those who reflexively and viscerally oppose it. The struggle can be viewed as a contest between Greek goddesses: Athena, goddess of wisdom and technology, is fighting Gaia, and Athena keeps winning — thank goddess!

Four recent reports of technological progress in energy production are worth noting. The first is about the fracking revolution, which I believe will be viewed by future historians as one of the major turning points in the evolving industrial age. It conveys the news that the largest American railroad, BNSF, is planning to test the use of natural gas as power for its locomotives. Currently, BNSF uses diesel fuel exclusively, and by its own estimates has the largest diesel-burning American fleet, second only to the US Navy.

It is not because but in spite of the neo-pagan policies of the Oval Office that we have the natural gas miracle.

The reason BNSF is considering the move is that because of the fracking revolution, natural gas is getting very cheap. Under current pricing, while a gallon of diesel fuel costs about $4, the same power can be produced for less than 50 cents worth of natural gas — though there are additional costs when you compress or liquefy it.

This is leading BNSF to follow other industries in moving toward natural gas. Utility companies are rapidly abandoning coal for gas, and manufacturers are moving toward it as well. Many municipal bus fleets have been using compressed natural gas (CNG) for years, and other commercial vehicle fleets (such as garbage trucks) are looking into switching to CNG. Already, tugboats are being fitted to run on liquefied natural gas (LNG). And long-haul freight companies are looking at LNG as well — in fact, Shell is planning to provide LNG in Ontario and Louisiana and distribute it at 200 truck stops.

The hurdle that BNSF faces is that it costs upwards of $1 million to retrofit a diesel locomotive to run on LNG as well, and BNSF has almost 7,000 locomotives to retrofit. So this conversion likely will take time, but given that the cost advantage of natural gas shows no sign of going away anytime soon, the conversion seems inevitable.

Lest anybody be addlepated enough to thank the current Green regime for this flourishing of clean, low-cost energy, let me disabuse him now. The crony-capitalist administration has placed all of its — oops! I mean, the taxpayers’ — money on solar and wind power, bankrolling numerous projects (headed by various Obama donors) that have gone nowhere but bankrupt. The EPA and the Department of the Interior have gone out of their way to stop drilling on federal lands. This is documented in a recent report from Marc Humphries of the Congressional Research Service. The report documents the fact that the fracking revolution has increased American natural gas production by 20% over the past five years alone — a total of 4 trillion additional cubic feet of natural gas pumped into the nation’s supply. But this overall increase hides a revealing disparity: while natural gas production on non-federal (mainly private) lands is up by 40% over this period, production on federal land has plummeted by 33%.

In short, it is not because but in spite of the neo-pagan policies of the Oval Office that we have the natural gas miracle.

But the miracle just might become even more miraculous. The second story about technological advances in energy production is a news release from the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals Corporation, which notes that it is preparing the first test of commercial production of natural gas from methane hydrate layers under the ocean. Essentially, methane hydrate is natural gas (methane) trapped in ice crystals along the ocean’s floor. This source of energy is estimated by some experts as potentially exceeding all of the world’s existing coal, natural gas, and petroleum reserves — combined! Developing the resource will be tricky, given the instability of the layers that have to be processed, but then, the minds of self-interested creative individuals are tricky as well.

The third technological development in energy production worth noting is the advent of a new type of nuclear (fission) reactor.

Nuclear power, of course, can’t get no respect from nobody. Despite its exemplary safety record in the US and other advanced economies (which always excluded, of course, the Soviet Union), people fear it. These fears were only intensified two years ago when a Japanese earthquake led to the destruction of four reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Actually, the quake — a massive magnitude 9.0 one that moved Japan’s main island eight feet to the east and shifted the Earth’s axis by six inches — didn’t destroy the reactors. They were ruined by the tsunami it generated (a tidal wave that destroyed 300,000 buildings and killed 20,000 people). Despite the fact that the reactors’ disaster killed nobody, sickened nobody, and is likely to cause few health problems in the future, organized pressure led to the shutdown of the country’s 53 other reactors. These reactors jointly produced 30% of the country’s electric power. As a consequence, last year Japan ran a record deficit ($78 billion) because it had to import more energy, increasing the cost of its manufactured goods, and reducing exports accordingly.

But nuclear power is by no means dead. There is a new company, Transatomic Power, that is perfecting a design for a molten-salt reactor — a design that may well cut in half the cost of future nuclear reactors. It is the high cost of building reactors, especially in the face of the dramatically dropping price of electricity from natural gas plants, along with the Green Regime’s preference for solar and wind power, that has been holding up the expansion of nuclear power in the US over the past few years. But this new reactor will probably reignite that expansion.

Molten-salt reactors were explored as long ago as the 1960s in the Oak Ridge Lab, but the design now being worked on would produce 20 times the power for the same size reactor. It would allow reactors smaller than the 1,000 megawatt behemoths currently running. Besides the smaller footprint, the reactor under design would save money because it could be factory-built (as opposed to being custom-built on site).

Its chief advantage, though, would be the use of molten-salt rather than water as a coolant. Water is the coolant used in all present reactors. The problem with water is that it boils at 100o C, whereas the fuel pellets in the core operate at about 2,000o C. So in the event of an emergency shutdown, unless water can be continuously pumped over the core to cool it, the water will vaporize and the core will melt down (as one did at Fukushima).

But the salt, which is combined with the fuel, has a boiling point much higher than 2,000o C. So if the reactor core starts to overheat, the salt will expand but not evaporate, separating the pellets and thus slowing the core reaction. In a complete shutdown, a stopper at the bottom of the core container would melt, and the molten fuel and salt would flow into a holding container, where the salt would solidify and encapsulate the fuel.

If global warming is real — as all good, pious Gaia supplicants believe — then it’s either nukes or solar and wind power, and the latter is clearly not economically viable.

The clever pups behind this innovative design are the cofounders of Transatomic Power, Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, who are still only Ph.D. candidates at MIT. These two are Schumpeterian entrepreneurs of the best sort. America is lucky to have them, as the Chinese are also working on a similar design.

This all comes at a crucial time for nuclear power. For as a recent Wall Street Journal article notes, the fracking revolution has lowered natural gas prices so much that gas powered electrical plants are driving both coal-fired plants and many nuclear plants (especially the smaller ones, and the ones facing expensive repairs) out of deregulated markets.

For examples, Excelon has announced that it will soon close its Oyster Creek, New Jersey nuke, ten years before its license expires. And Dominion Energy has announced that it will soon close its Kewaunee, Wisconsin nuke, a full 20 years before its operating license expires.

Pricing makes the reason for this clear. The fixed costs to run a nuke are $90,000 per megawatt; the fixed costs for coal fired plants are $30,000; for natural gas fired plants, only $15,000. And, of course, existing nukes require intensive security and safety costs, precisely because of the risk of meltdown. In the first 11 months of 2012, natural gas plant output rose by 24%, while the output for nuclear powered plants dropped by 2.5%.

This all presents an interesting dilemma for the Gaia communicants. As natural gas prices continue low, gas will, absent extensive subsidies or other protection for other forms of energy, supplant nuclear power. Now, natural gas emits just half the carbon that coal does, but nuclear plants emit none. So if global warming is a hoax, we could easily go all natural gas. But if global warming is real — as all good, pious Gaia supplicants believe — then it’s either nukes or solar and wind power, and the latter is clearly not economically viable. All this is clear except to the blindest Gaia devotees (and the greediest Green crony capitalists).

And indeed, there has been an interesting schism in the Green faith. In a recent piece, the excellent science writer Robert Bryce calls this “the rise of the nuclear Greens.” He notes that an increasing number of Gaia votaries now support nuclear power. One prominent convert is British environmental activist George Monbiot, who has now admitted — belatedly, to understate it massively — that solar energy (in the UK, and by extension everywhere else) is “a spectacular waste of scarce resources,” and that wind power is “largely worthless.” Referring to the Fukushima disaster, he concludes, “Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.”

Wow.

Monbiot now joins other Gaia disciples Stewart Brand, Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, Mark Lynas, James Lovelock, and Patrick Moore (co-founder of Greenpeace) in favoring nuclear power. This is nauseatingly ironic: it was the environmentalist zealots who stopped the growth of nuclear power 40 years ago. But the pro-nuke Gaia devotees are still a distinct minority. Most of the cult still lights candles in front of wind and solar power.

The fourth interesting development concerns an energy source that has been tantalizing but elusive for many decades: fusion power.

A news report out of Europe indicates that an important international project is moving forward. The “Iter” (Latin for “the way”) project is a collaboration of 34 nations working on building a pilot fusion nuclear reactor. Nuclear fusion is, of course, what powers the sun and other stars. In principle, it offers a chance to provide virtually unlimited supplies of reliable, consistent energy at the levels needed to power an industrial economy. And it would provide that power from clean, nontoxic fuel (extracted from water), with no possibility of any kind of core meltdown.

The new Iter experimental reactor has received an operating license. It is projected to be the first fusion reactor (“tokamak”) to generate more power than it uses — ten times more, in fact. The Iter design would serve as the prototype for the first generation of commercial fusion power plants.

The foundations for the reactor are now being laid, but the work of putting together the million or so components (made at factories all over the world) will take a long time. The tentative date for firing it up is about 15 years in the future — though with a project of this enormity, it will probably be longer. And it has cost about $20 billion. However, it signals that by the second half of this century, commercial fusion power will be a reality.

That would be nothing less than the crowning achievement of the industrial revolution. It would be the human mind harnessing the power of the stars to secure permanent prosperity for our species.

In spite of the Gaia cult, Athena is ascendant.




Share This


The Egyptian Mess

 | 

Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed . . .
                                                                                   —Isaiah 36:6

No one should be surprised by the recent events in Egypt. Indeed, this analyst foretold them here. A people unable to rule itself or even get its living without foreign assistance is bound to wind up in a bad place, and right now Egyptians are in a very bad place indeed.

The history of Egypt is well known, so I will touch on it only briefly here. The valley of the Nile was home to one of the earliest and greatest civilizations created by man. That civilization eventually declined, and Egypt became the booty of foreign conquerors — Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, and Turks. Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire; the bounty of the Nile fed the Roman mob for centuries. Egypt’s population has been overwhelmingly Muslim since the Arab conquest in the 7th century CE. About 10% of its people are Coptic Christians.

Egypt enjoyed brief renaissances under the Fatimid dynasty (969–1171 CE) and then in the early 19th century under Muhammad Ali Pasha (1805–1848), an able military commander who nearly brought down the decaying Ottoman (Turkish) empire. Muhammad Ali’s descendants were the nominal rulers of Egypt until 1952, though from 1882 until the end of World War II it was Great Britain that actually ran the country. In 1952 the Egyptian Army seized power, which it held until the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in the popular revolution of early 2011.

We should be under no illusions that there is a libertarian spirit running through the Egyptian body politic.

Mirabeau referred to Prussia as an army with a state. That description would aptly fit modern Egypt. The Army is the ultimate arbiter of politics in Egypt. It also plays a large role in the Egyptian economy, operating businesses and farms that account for a significant portion of Egypt’s GDP. Its businesses pay no license fees or taxes, and all profits disappear “off budget” into accounts under Army control. On top of this, it receives over $1 billion per year in American military aid. Its position in the state is comparable to that of the People’s Liberation Army in China — except that its political influence is probably even greater than that exercised by the PLA. The Egyptian Army projects itself as the guardian of the state and the people, but in reality it is a semi-parasitic organism whose primary goal is self-perpetuation.

The main counterweight to the Army is the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1928, it has survived persecution first by the British and then by its bitter rival, the Army. For decades it too has been a state within a state, operating clinics and schools generally regarded as superior to those provided by the government, and dispensing aid to widows, orphans, and others. Indeed, the social safety net created by the Brotherhood was not only tolerated but partly funded by the government, which came to see the Brotherhood’s work as a pillar of social stability. In part, the poorest of the poor in Egypt survive because the Brotherhood has been there for them.

Of course, the Brotherhood is first and foremost an Islamist organization. Its ultimate goal has been and remains the creation of an Islamic society guided by sharia law. After the revolution of 2011 and the Army’s withdrawal from direct governance, the Brotherhood sought to fill the power vacuum thus created.

The revolution of early 2011 was not instigated by the Brotherhood, but rather by Western-oriented and social network-connected young people, more secular than religious in outlook, who wished to see Egypt become something like a European social democracy. That the revolution occurred just as European social democracy was beginning to crumble is ironic but beside the point. We should be under no illusions that there is a libertarian spirit running through the Egyptian body politic. Even American-style political economy is incomprehensible to most Egyptians.

The young revolutionaries won out in 2011 because the Army had no desire to shoot people down in the streets. Moreover, repression might have forced America to rethink its relationship with the Egyptian military, thus jeopardizing that $1 billion in lucre for the Army’s coffers. Better to stand aside, the Army calculated, and sacrifice one of its own (the dictator Mubarak) to protect its corporate interest. It could wait upon events and intervene later if necessary.

Democracy had come to Egypt. . . Or had it? Only one-third of the electorate turned out to ratify the constitution.

After the revolution the “liberal” forces swiftly fell into disarray. The various groups differed among themselves; they lacked both organizational ability and an agreed-upon program. They frittered away the goodwill they had had garnered in the heady days immediately following Mubarak’s fall. When the interim military government relinquished power in 2012, the liberals were unprepared to govern or even mount an effective political campaign.

Enter the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time of the revolution the Brotherhood had downplayed its political ambitions, even claiming that it would not offer a candidate for president. But its rallies were attended by large and enthusiastic crowds, and as it saw its liberal rivals fragmenting, the prospect of power proved too alluring. With the military partially discredited by its past association with dictatorship, the Islamists (including the Brotherhood and the very conservative al-Nour Party) were free to jump into politics with both feet. In 2012 they won a majority in the new parliament and then elected Mohamed Morsi to the presidency with an absolute majority of 52%. A constitution promulgated by the Islamists was ratified by 64% of Egyptian voters. Democracy had come to Egypt.

Or had it? Only one-third of the electorate turned out to ratify the constitution; many non-Islamists refused to vote on a document that had been shaped along Islamist lines by the majority in parliament. Meanwhile, extra-constitutional steps were being taken against the judiciary and the media. This brought the secularists together again in opposition. The Brotherhood even alienated its Salafist allies in al-Nour, who found themselves marginalized as the Brotherhood’s arrogance grew.

Perhaps most important, the Brotherhood failed to grapple effectively with Egypt’s enormous economic problems. Forty percent of the population survives on the equivalent of $2 per day. Corruption is rife at all levels of society. Services as basic as electricity are often unavailable. It was certainly too much to expect that any man or party could correct these problems in a year’s time. But the Egyptian people were impatient. Many who had voted for the Islamists turned against the government when it failed to deliver basic improvements. Morsi and his supporters understandably took umbrage when the military warned them to compromise with the opposition forces. The president had been elected to a four-year term; surely he should be given that time to work out his plans for Egypt. That he had gone beyond constitutional bounds in some respects was not particularly unusual in the context of Egyptian politics. Nevertheless, when millions upon millions of Egyptians turned out across the country demanding his fall, the Army was bound to act. And the result was the recent coup.

When is a coup not a coup? When American law says that a country in which the military overthrows a democratically elected government cannot receive American aid. And so for the last few days we have witnessed the contemptible performances of the president and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as they wrestle to avoid the obvious. The ongoing massacre of language and truth being perpetrated by these men is prompted by the inexorable demands of empire: the Suez Canal remains a vital link for US forces deploying to the east. And the SUMED oil pipeline that crosses Egypt is vital to the transportation of Gulf oil to Europe. Already the current troubles in Egypt have caused West Texas intermediate to spike above $100 a barrel. If Egypt descends into chaos, that price could go to $140 or $150 a barrel, with terrible consequences for the American economy. So the servants of empire practice the art of obfuscation, and hope for the best.

Egypt is incurably dysfunctional. But as a member of the 21st century’s global society, it will limp along for many years, a charity case too important to be ignored.

What is the best that can come out of the current crisis in Egypt? It is important to recognize the naked truth: Egypt is not a functioning society. Its problems are insurmountable. To declare that something cannot be fixed is discordant to American ears. But Egypt is a basket case that lacks even a basket. Consider the following facts:

  • Two-fifths of the population lives in great poverty, surviving on that $2 a day. Necessities are subsidized by the state; how long this can continue, given the increasing wariness of international lenders, is an open question.
  • The official unemployment rate is 12.5%, but likely much higher, and youth employment is higher still.
  • The country’s principal source of hard currency is drying up as tourism declines.
  • Egypt would in fact be bankrupt were it not for the money it receives in the form of handouts from the US and the Gulf States, and from Suez Canal tolls. National debt is approaching 100% of GDP.
  • Business is mired in bureaucracy and corruption and suffers from a lack of innovation and entrepreneurship (despite recent reforms), not to mention unfair competition from state enterprises.
  • The population has tripled in the past 50 years. It is expected to double again by 2050. Self-sufficient in food as recently as 1960, Egypt now imports over 40% of its total food needs, and 60% of its wheat.
  • Domestic oil production is declining while domestic consumption is increasing.
  • Egypt has virtually no tradition of self-government. The Egyptian people certainly failed to exhibit any real talent for democracy in the 18 months just past.

Egypt is in reality a fellahdom; its people, aside from the small middle class, are a fellah-people. In other words, they are an undifferentiated mass, a rabble incapable of governing or even sustaining itself. As it happens, this fellah-people occupies a strategic piece of real estate; therefore it will continue to receive enough in handouts from outsiders to keep starvation at bay. Egypt is incurably dysfunctional. Left to its own devices, it would undergo cataclysms that would probably kill millions. But as a member of the 21st century’s global society, it will limp along for many years, a charity case too important to be ignored.

The principal actors in Egypt remain the Army and the Islamists. It should be noted that on July 6 the al-Nour party imposed a veto upon the appointment of the liberal, pro-Western Mohamed ElBaradei as prime minister. Nevertheless, the Army, by drawing the secularists to its side, can guarantee continued support from the West. But if Western support should end — the result perhaps of a future crisis in the West itself — then the Islamists might again come out on top. The cry of “Islam is the answer” could resonate once more with the poor and disenfranchised. A descent into religious fanaticism would likely follow. What sort of Egypt would finally emerge is anybody’s guess.

I don’t pretend to know precisely what “solution” will be found for the present, short-term crisis. A patched-up one, no doubt, assuming civil war is avoided. But the long-term trend is clear. There is no way out for Egypt as it is presently constituted.




Share This


The Arab Spring and After

 | 

What we term virtues are often but a mass of various actions and divers interests, which fortune or our own industry manage to arrange; and it is not always from valour or from chastity that men are brave, and women chaste. —François de La Rochefoucauld

A few years back, people of Pakistan were fighting for democracy. I thought that Pervez Musharraf, their dictator, was the best they could get. But fashionable women were protesting and burning his effigy. The educated wanted democracy. They got democracy. Now, women cannot protest. And educated people have disappeared from the demonstration scene. The case with Nepal is similar. Since the end of monarchy, it has become a basketcase. How many people can remember places called East Timor and South Sudan? Not too long back the Western world was on the streets fighting for the social movements in these countries without a clue about the social or cultural contexts there.

 The Arab Spring brought a huge amount of excitement in the Gulf countries. The Western world had very romantic views about the protests in Egypt and Libya. Now it will blame the Muslim Brotherhood for what has been happening, rationalizing its initial support as good intentions. Or perhaps it will blame the military for the coup of July 3, 2013 that removed the democratically elected President, who soon after his election had catapulted into an autocrat. Is Egypt rapidly heading toward massive civil unrests and disintegration similar to that of Algeria in 1991? Only time will tell, but a few years down the road, one may well look at Egypt under the autocracy of Hosni Mubarak with nostalgia. 

India has had massive protests against social ills and corruption.

If you are not supporting the protestors you are seen to be against democracy, liberty, hope, and change. The phenomenon is being repeated in Turkey and Bulgaria, where I have just spent two months. In both these countries, protests seem — from my rather limited outsider’s perspective but verified by my Turkish friends — to have developed for wrong reasons. More than listening to what the protestors say, one must delve more deeply into what they really want, for language is often a tool for deception and self-deception.

Democracy has given credibility to the state and to those psychopaths who aspire to rule in it.

Turkey and Bulgaria have progressed significantly over the past two decades. They are very significantly freer. The military in Turkey has increasingly taken a back seat. The mafia in Bulgaria is still a big problem, but a tourist, if he is not totally gullible, can move around safe and unmolested.

But what change is sweeping the developing world? Those with wishful thinking might suggest that it is, according to a survey, libertarians who are protesting in Turkey. They are completely wrong. Alas, even in the United States most people until not too long back did not really know what “libertarian” meant. A Turk explained to me that in the survey done in the Turkish language respondents had chosen what could be translated as “freedom-loving.” The newspaper that reported it decided to translate the word to “libertarian.” And we all know that the world is almost 100% freedom-loving. The question is what the people mean by “freedom.”

The very possibility of joining the masses makes me cringe. Not only do those who protest make jackasses of themselves, but there can hardly be any specific collective aims, for people have different motivations that are often in conflict with one another. Mostly even an individual’s protest is based on sound-bites rather than a coherent philosophy. Even when such groups have a coherent aim, they are often in opposition to some other, less vociferous group. And those who have nothing to do with any of the protests must suffer, for protestors disrupt the public space, aggressing against the uninvolved. While I do understand that it might make sense to protest publicly when the issues are of grave and immediate significance — the likelihood of a nuclear war, for example — it is generally true that only voluntary interactions among people have principled value.

So, if not for liberty, what underpins these protests — in Arab countries, Turkey, Bulgaria, and now in Brazil?

They are a result of several issues, all centred on democracy.

The weed of democracy has spread and rooted itself deeply in the psyche of people almost everywhere in the world. It is no longer seen as a new-age Western religion, which is what it is. When I was a kid in India, it was common for people to discuss why democracy — aka mob-rule — does not work. You would be called too simplistic and blamed for blindly following the West if you talked in favour of democracy. They would make fun of you for trying to look westernized. The winds have changed. I have not heard anyone saying anything against “democracy” for more than a decade now.

Democracy has given credibility to the state and to those psychopaths who aspire to rule in it. These people no longer have to show their fangs. They no longer have to show that they are ruthless exploiters, trying to steal a cut from wealth producers. Democracy has given them a garb of acceptance and the look of doing good. Psychopaths can now openly work their way up to rule others.

Given that democracy is in the DNA of today’s societies, there is no resistance to increasing its size. The size of the state — its power to tax, regulate, and control — has grown everywhere. It is the one-size-fits-all democratic institution in most parts of the world. Given its lack of connection with the underlying culture in many parts of the world, it cannot accommodate changes in society, including the fact that people are now more informed and much more mobile. The state had depended on a stable populace. But by encouraging people to get involved in democracy, it has opened a can of worms.

What we have is an expanding State that is no longer in control and is increasingly brittle, exactly when people are becoming more dependent on it.

Democracy is a much worse virus than dictatorship or monarchy. In those systems of mafia organizations called the state, people see themselves in opposition; they retain the ability to see the state for what it is: a group of people who cannot take responsibly for their own lives but believe that they can, through threats of violence, tell others how to live, meanwhile skimming off a large portion of wealth generated by the people. Democracy has made the state an inherent part of the society. The chains are no longer visible ones, but the ones within people’s minds. Those are the worst chains.

My Russian friend tells me that after the breakup of the USSR, people had no interest in standing up to sing hymns at a piece of their cloth or salute it. In Canada, until the Vancouver Winter Olympics, there were hardly any displays of nationalism. Now, flags fly everywhere in Vancouver. In India, when I was a kid, people used to walk away or ignore it when the national anthem was sung. But recently movie theaters have started running the national anthem. On a recent visit, everyone — except me — stood up. I could even see their glutes tightened — muscles that their personal trainers had failed to help them isolate — while they stood in complete discipline. I couldn’t shake the feeling of how much the State has become a part of society’s DNA.

Democracy is now in the DNA of individual people, too — a cultural meme that has found no competition. Even the ultra-religious in the Middle East must now give at least lip service to democracy, for they have failed to counter the ideological challenge. Democracy is seen as a given and a universal good, as if it were a first principle.

Democracy has encouraged herd instincts and lack of self-responsibility. Democracy has given equal participation to those who have no interest in social affairs, to those who are driven mostly by a 9-to-5 materialistic lifestyle, forever waiting for the next weekend.

Democracy has been propagandized as something that provides wealth as if by a magic. Young people in the developing world have grown up to think that democracy is a cure for all their problems. Somewhere in their minds, they have come to believe — as is the case even in the West today — that democracy creates something from nothing. They are on the streets asking for their share of this something.

Their protests have absolutely nothing to do with any libertarian mindset developing in the world. People around the world have come to depend more — emotionally and materially — on the state. They are not asking for a smaller state but for a more efficient state, which to them means a bigger and more influential one. Alas, given that democracy is a one-size-fits-all, alien institution for most societies, it has made the state less malleable than it would have been had those countries continued with the system of governance they had naturally evolved.

But even in the West the state has been increasing in size exactly at the time when the state, having hijacked emergency services and the maintenance of law and order, is very brittle and its structure completely unsuitable for the changing, mobile, and informed society. As Doug Casey would say, the State is on its way out.

What we have is an expanding State that is no longer in control and is increasingly brittle, exactly when people are becoming more dependent on it. Only time will show how this conflict — of the State falling apart while the people are becoming more dependent on it — will be resolved.




Share This


Arrested Metamorphosis

 | 

Over a year ago, in two articles titled “A Living Wage?” and “The Metamorphosis” in the December 2011 and March 2012 issues of Liberty, I reported on the proposed and partially implemented economic reforms of the Castro regime in Cuba. Included was an analysis of their impact by Luis R. Luis, former director, Latin America Department, of the Institute of International Finance and chief economist at the Organization of American States (OAS). Luis and The Economist have recently provided an update, which I think only fair to pass on.

The reforms allowed more small private businesses, shifting labor from the state to the private sector, thereby freeing selected retail prices and improving management of state enterprises. They also permitted the purchase and sale of residential housing and cars among private parties. Additionally, enabling legislation was passed to encourage joint development ventures with foreign investors.

A couple of years back The Economist reported that Cuba’s internet speed was the second slowest in the world, behind the island of Mayotte, a French territory of around 200,000 people.

One notable reform passed since the original proposals purports to allow Cubans to travel abroad. In practice however, it’s an Enganche-22 for perfectly logical albeit unreasonable reasons. Since the Cuban government provides everyone with a “free” education, it claims a lien on the benefits of that education. Graduates’ expertise and earnings are subject to strict state controls. Travel abroad is regulated according to how essential the state deems one’s job to the economy. As you might guess, with the Cuban economy treading water, most jobs are considered essential. The perverse result of this policy is that those fortunate enough to be able to afford and desire foreign travel, are unlikely to benefit from the new freedoms; while those who can’t afford to travel and are unlikely to apply for a visa are the main beneficiaries. Now you know why Orlando’s Disney World’s queues haven’t been lengthened by Cuban tourists.

As of June 4, those denied actual visas will have unlimited access to virtual travel. The Christian Science Monitor reports the opening of 118 public internet providers across the island. However, the $4.50 per hour cost might prove prohibitive. The average salary in Cuba is $15 per month. Service speed is another impediment. A couple of years back The Economist reported that Cuba’s internet speed was the second slowest in the world, behind the island of Mayotte, a French territory of around 200,000 people just northwest of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Facebook is not bracing for a slew of new Cuban accounts.

Nearly all the other reforms include such self-correcting provisions. In Gauging Cuba’s Economic Reforms (May 2013), Luis R. Luis gives us an update. He uses the Transition Indicators of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to measure progress on the road to a full-blown market economy. But he demurs that his approach is inappropriate because official government policy firmly states that Cuba is not pursuing a “transition” to a market economy. As Raul Castro famously declared in 2009, “I was not elected to restore capitalism to Cuba.” Luis justifies his approach stating that, “Nonetheless, it is quite useful to make an analysis of the present state of Cuban reform as if it were on the road to establish a market economy and to provide a comparison with transition economies in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Near East as measured by the EBRD indicators.”

So how does Cuba score? The EBRD rating scale is calibrated from 1 (little to no change) to 4+ (for fully liberalized market economies). Luis gauges progress in six policy areas.

  1. Large scale privatization: Cuba scores 1.
  2. Competition policy: Cuba scores 1 — no competition legislation and institutions.
  3. Trade and foreign exchange system: Cuba scores 1.2, meaning that there are widespread import and/or export controls.
  4. Small scale privatization: Cuba scores 1.5
  5. Governance and enterprise restructuring: Cuba scores 1.7. A score of 2 is moderately tight credit and subsidy policy; weak enforcement of bankruptcy laws; and little action to strengthen competition and corporate governance (Luis warns that his grade in this area is probably generous).
  6. Price liberalization: Cuba scores 2 — some lifting of price controls, but with substantial state procurement at controlled prices. Still, more progress has been made in this area than in any other, especially on retail pricing by private farmers and the self- employed.

For a grand total of 8.4 — below any of the 34 transition countries where indicators have been calculated using the EBRD methodology. For comparison, the next lowest ranking is achieved by Turkmenistan with a 10.7, followed by Belarus at 13, and Uzbekistan at 13.7.

Comparing price liberalization with all the other items, a cynic might conclude that the only benefits of the reforms to the Cuban man-on-the-street are price hikes. Luis summarizes that, “The pity is that Cuban policy as stated appears to aim at maintaining a low score.”

In spite of Fidel Castro’s declaration that golf was a “bourgeois” hobby unsuitable for communists, the government has just given the go-ahead to a new $350 million golf resort.

And what about the proposed and existing foreign joint ventures? I’d previously reported that several foreign businessmen had been arrested for engaging in corrupt practices: paying wages and bonuses to employees above the legal limit. The Economist drolly reports some progress in the status of the jailed managers: “Now, in a move which could be a precursor to their release, they are about to go on trial.”

As to the real estate tourism developments, not many shovels have broken ground. But that’s no impediment to forging ahead with more plans. In spite of Fidel Castro’s declaration after he took power that golf was a “bourgeois” hobby unsuitable for communists, and building upon most of the island’s existing courses, the government has just given the go-ahead to a new $350 million golf resort near Varadero. It’s “the start of a whole new policy to increase the presence of golf in Cuba,” declared a spokesman. Fidel’s son Antonio, garbed in a comandante’s olive green fatigues and sporting a full beard, even posed for a photo putting on a green. Antonio Castro then went on to win a promotional golf tournament staged by Esencia, the British joint venture company developing the Carbonera Club. The resort will also include residential properties available for purchase by foreigners.

Plans to increase shipping and storage capacity at ports have inched forward. Brazil, through its Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), has provided credits of over $800 million for the expansion of the port of Mariel and related infrastructure. “This seems generous and it involves the well-connected Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht,” according to Luis. The government has also approved construction of a 1,300-berth marina near Varadero, which — if developed — would be the largest in the Caribbean. Finally,The Economist reports that the BNDES is also providing funds to upgrade the island’s airports.

We see that the Cuban government treats its people as if they were a dog in training, giving them tiny tasty tidbits accompanied by lavish verbiage. One Cuban housewife told a radio station, “something is better than nothing,” adding “the majority is not going to stop eating just to connect to the internet.”




Share This


Imperium Sinarum Delendum Est

 | 

On June 7 and 8 President Obama will meet Chinese president Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, California. The meeting is being billed as an informal, “shirtsleeves” summit with a minimum of ceremonial distractions, allowing the two leaders to focus on the issues dividing their respective nations.

Make no mistake, this meeting of the uncrowned emperors of East and West is serious business. The world’s sole superpower and its up-and-coming rival are jockeying for prestige and influence around the globe. Remarkably, it is a mystery just which side asked for the meeting; neither wants to appear to be a supplicant. Yet for the moment at least it is we who are more in need of the other side’s help. Obama’s national security advisor, Tom Donilon, was in Beijing from May 26–28, laying the groundwork for the summit by speaking to Xi and the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (roughly equivalent to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), General Fan Chanlong. Donilon and the president are seeking Chinese cooperation to —

  1. Halt the People’s Liberation Army’s repeated hacking of US computer networks, and the theft of US intellectual property and government and industrial secrets.
  2. Persuade North Korea to cease its highly provocative behavior toward South Korea, Japan, and the US.
  3. Obtain a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war and the removal of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
  4. Further tighten the sanctions regime imposed on Iran because of its nuclear program.

That the Chinese are playing us on all these fronts is patent. After temporarily halting the cyberattacks when the US government went public about them in February, the PLA’s notorious Unit 61398 resumed operations (using somewhat different techniques) in May, on the very eve of Donilon’s visit. The Chinese then agreed to hold “talks” with us about hacking! (What’s to talk about? Stop the hacking!)

On North Korea, the Chinese are supposedly putting denuclearization of the Korean peninsula above their concerns for stability there. The Chinese have described this as a “big gift” to the US. In fact, the change has been merely rhetorical. North Korea depends upon China for its economic survival. China has the power to dictate to North Korea; it refuses to do so because it fears a collapse of the North Korean regime. China’s biggest concern is that a unified, democratic Korea will bring US troops and weaponry even closer to Northeast China. Verbiage aside, it prefers to leave the North Korean thorn in America’s flesh.

China has in reality been most unhelpful to us on every big issue affecting our bilateral relations. Nor should we expect any real changes.

As for Syria and Iran, China’s role has been anything but helpful. China has important economic and military ties with Syria, and supports the continuation of the Assad regime. And although it voted for the last round of United Nations sanctions against Iran, it continues to enjoy valuable economic relations with that country (particularly in the energy field), and will never put these in jeopardy. Two months ago its foreign ministry publicly deprecated the idea of “blind” (i.e., more comprehensive) sanctions.

China has in reality been most unhelpful to us on every big issue affecting our bilateral relations. Nor should we expect any real changes as a result of this summit. China, although wary of US military power and political influence, sees itself as ascending toward its rightful place as the world’s leading state, the Middle Kingdom reborn. Its economy will eventually surpass that of the US to become the largest in the world. Its military spending has been rising dramatically, though still far below that of the US. Its self-confidence is clearly growing. A recent New York Times article (“Chinese President to Seek New Relationship With U.S. in Talks,” May 28), contained the following paragraph:

It is a given, Chinese and American analysts say, that Mr. Xi and his advisors are referring to the historical problem of what happens when an established power and a rising power confront each other. The analysts said the Chinese were well aware of the example of the Peloponnesian War, which was caused, according to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, by the fear that a powerful Athens instilled in Sparta.

Contemplate for a moment the bizarre notion of China, an authoritarian, reactionary, and (if truth be told) semi-barbarous state, comparing itself to Periclean Athens. The true historical paradigm for the current US-China relationship is the Anglo-German rivalry in the years leading up to World War I. Fortunately, our position vis-à-vis China is somewhat more favorable than the one Britain found itself in before 1914. But we are in danger of squandering the important advantages that accrue to us. We must, first and foremost, recognize the true nature of present-day China.

The Han Chinese empire is the last great colonial empire on earth. About 40% of its national territory is non-Chinese. Tibet and Xinjiang are truly captive nations, ruled from Beijing with an iron hand, exploited and colonized by Chinese carpetbaggers. But Chinese ambitions extend far beyond the current imperium. Already eastern Siberia is being quietly converted into a Chinese colony (on this, and also Tibet and Xinjiang, see Parag Khanna, The Second World, 71–84). China’s most important long-range task is not the recovery of Taiwan, but rather the conquest and colonization of sparsely populated and resource-rich Australia. This obvious objective for an overpopulated and resource-hungry China goes unmentioned in conventional diplomatic and media circles today because it remains a distant prospect, and a frightening one. But its logic is irrefutable.

We should be cutting defense for the sake of our own economic wellbeing. Victory without war is the goal, and it can be achieved.

Without question, China’s long-range goal is to dominate the area between Hawaii and Suez. Its economic penetration of Africa and Latin America continues apace. Ideally, from the Han point of view, the later 21st century will find Europe (geographically a mere peninsula extending from the Eurasian supercontinent) and North America isolated in an otherwise Chinese-dominated world. If China can achieve this, the fate of both Europe and America will, of course, be sealed.

Like those of all past would-be world dominators, China’s ambitions are fantastic and unlikely to be realized, assuming we take the steps necessary to prevent their realization. The Obama administration has made a good first move in the global chess game with its pivot to Asia. In ten years’ time most of the US Navy will be based in the Pacific. But much more needs to be done. I am not talking about war or even an arms race. War with China is the last thing we should want. Nor should we burden ourselves economically by trying to spend China into the ground, as Ronald Reagan did with the Soviet Union. Indeed, we should be cutting defense for the sake of our own economic wellbeing. Victory without war is the goal, and it can be achieved.

The following steps would constitute a rational program to contain China and, eventually, break up the Han empire:

  1. Recognize that the Middle East is of dwindling importance and that East Asia is now the focal point of world affairs.
  2. Tighten America’s military and economic bonds with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Vietnam, and India with the objective of establishing a cordon sanitaire against Chinese expansionism.
  3. Apply economic pressures (naming China a currency manipulator, tariffs against dumping, etc.) designed to throw a wrench into the Chinese economic juggernaut.
  4. Initiate an active propaganda campaign designed to foster internal dissatisfaction with the Communist Party’s monopoly of political power, highlight corruption within the Party and the PLA, foster tensions between Han Chinese and other ethnicities, and encourage Muslim and other religious opposition to the atheist regime.
  5. Cyberwarfare should be reserved as an ultima ratio should the Chinese persist in their impertinent hacking.

While it would be going much too far to describe China as a giant with feet of clay, the Chinese state has its weak points. Corruption is rife and the rule of law mainly absent. The political class is inbred and largely divorced from the population. Economically, the state capitalist model that China is following, while superior to socialism, contains serious flaws and inefficiencies that would be periodically flushed out in a freer market. Environmental and other necessary regulatory regimes are in their infancy, or yet to be established, with consequences in terms of pollution, disease, and manmade disasters that dwarf anything seen in the West. Tensions between Han Chinese and the subject peoples are real, and probably growing. Centrifugal forces lie just beneath the surface of Chinese society. We should be working to bring these forces to life.

World politics in the so-called Modern Era (16th century to the present) has been marked by a series of political-economic-military struggles between the English-speaking peoples and a succession of powers seeking world domination. Spain, France, Germany, and Soviet Russia all failed in their efforts to master the world, foiled as much by the political aptitude and coalition-building of the English speakers as by the latter’s economic and military power. Until 1917 Britain bore the main weight of these struggles. In 1917 and 1941, when Germany proved too powerful for Britain to defeat, America weighed in with what proved decisive effect. In the Cold War against the USSR, America took the lead, with Britain a junior partner. Now, in the 21st century, the last in the line of would-be world dominators is reaching for global supremacy. This does not mean war is inevitable, or even likely. But a political and economic struggle is underway from which one side or the other will emerge triumphant.

What was practiced upon the Soviet Union must be practiced upon China as well. Containment combined with economic and political steps to weaken and finally break up the Han empire should be our policy in this struggle that will decide the fate of the world, probably for centuries to come. The idea that we can allow China — a corrupt, repressive, and brutal imperium, an evil empire whether we care to recognize it as such or not — to dominate the world, is unthinkable.




Share This


Whence Comes This Evil?

 | 

On the night of December 16, 2012, a couple boarded a bus in Delhi. There were already six men on the bus. They allegedly raped the girl, using an iron rod to torture her. She died of fatal injury in her abdomen, intestines, and genitals. A minor among the six men may have been the most brutal rapist. He allegedly inserted the iron rod into her vagina and ripped out her intestines, only 5% of which were still inside her body when she was thrown on the roadside. She died a few days later in a hospital in Singapore.

The response has been massive, nonviolent protests in most Indian cities. The protestors — men and women — blamed the government for not providing enough security to women. They asked for death sentence for rapists. The incident was widely covered in media around the world. Government was forced to provide her with top medical care. She was flown to Singapore at public expense. The case was transferred to a fast-track court. Two police commissioners were suspended for their failure to prevent this gang rape. New Year celebrations around the country were cancelled.

For some, this rape was a turning point in India. For them, India is now leading the way for the world in fighting against the violence against women. The US government posthumously awarded the 2013 “International Women of Courage Award” to the raped girl. Intellectuals praised Indians for staying non-violent during their protests. Recently Indian government promulgated a law that provides the death penalty for rapists.

Has India finally awakened?

A minor event in the scheme of things?

Honestly, I am not sure what is supremely significant about this case. Violence is an inherent part of the Indian cultural fabric. Poor people get openly beaten up by the police. Even well-off people must be obsequious when dealing with those in the government — a crime against their sense of self, a poison to their humanity and integrity.

A few months back, in Bhopal, I saw a kid being very badly beaten by a bunch of policemen right in the middle of the main square. They had circled him and were slapping him so hard that he was almost flying around from one policeman to another. Other kids had been forced to stand and watch while this was happening. People continued to walk around, enjoying their ice cream without the slightest — not the very slightest of slight — strain on their faces. Some of the kids who were forced to watch were giggling. Was a criminal, insensitive, unsocial, numb future in the making? I bet it was.

The circle of violence is far, far wider and deeper and much more irrational than people would like to think.

The sad irony about India is that even animals are scared of you — children pass on the torture they receive to those less capable of defending themselves. The circle of violence is far, far wider and deeper and much more irrational than people would like to think.

Should I blame these kids if they rape when they grow up? Or should I blame the policemen who were behind the future rapists? Or should I blame the normal people who were too numb to feel any strain? But were they themselves the product of abuses in their homes while they were growing up? Should I just blame men in general, as feminists demand? Or should I blame women, who in India are mostly responsible for bringing up children and forming their character? Or should I blame the culture — which has huge medieval, superstitious aspects — a culture that through its rationalizations and justifications and discouragement of critical thinking carries the ingredients that do not allow for a break from the cycle of violence and drudgery?

Hypocrisy and apathy

In the past I reported to legal authorities about such abuses — and once in a while still do — along with evidence. Mostly nothing happened. Instead I was made an utter fool. People laughed at me. In a very rare case when the victimizer was cornered, the abused compromised for pennies in bribes or for the satisfaction of torturing the weaker. But talking about this would be too much of a digression for now.

Anyone who has been in India knows full well that you don’t have to search for crimes. You see abuses all around you, nonstop. At the Delhi airport, in full view of everyone, conmen operating out of booths provided by the airport rip off newly arrived tourists. I once went to the head of aviation about this, pointing out that it could easily lead not only to financial troubles for the tourist but also to sexual risks for female tourists (they face many, and most go unreported). He put me on a conveyor belt of such horrendous bureaucracy that I gave up. Nonstop troubles persist for tourists from the time one’s plane comes in until one finally departs. And of course, Indians face the same, self-inflected problems. Bribery and corruption are so open that you hardly need to look for news on the TV to feel horrified. But Indians need the TV to feel horrified, in the safe confines of their houses.

About 135,000 die on Indian roads each year. If you spent a day driving around in India, you would see at least a couple of dead bodies lying on the streets or highways. As the traffic speed is rather low in India — because of the chaos that exists — immediate fatalities are rare. A lot of people could be saved. But they die of slow bleeding and trauma. People just stand and watch. Ambulances never arrive. China is well known for bad driving, but in comparison to India, it has only about one-ninth as many fatalities per vehicle.

Apathy and desperation, two characteristics that are common among the lower class elsewhere, are common even among the middle class in India. I can understand that if poor people cared or had long time-preferences, fear and anxiety would dominate their moment-to-moment lives. To exist they must stay numb. But why apathy and desperation have never left the middle class in India, as any student of sociology would expect, is a mystery to me. Is it that Hinduism or some other aspect of the local culture preempts individuals and the society from self-analysis or thinking beyond material well-being? I don’t know, but at best those becoming richer seem to be moving from apathy to debauchery, at best.

If you spent a day driving around in India, you would see at least a couple of dead bodies lying on the streets or highways.

When a crime happens in India the first reaction of most people I know is to want to keep the police out of the picture. They know that the police would rape them again (figuratively, if not literally). Every Indian whom I know, knows this. But what is surprising is that as soon as they think in terms of groups, they want police control over people to increase. And really, how could police have stopped rapes unless they converted the society into an Orwellian surveillance state? To make a real, significant change in society, people should have looked at the underpinnings. In essence, the protests did not come out of a passion to stop crime but from something else.

Who were the protestors?

I was extremely curious about these people protesting so vociferously against the rape. I have hardly ever met such individuals. Were they protesting for entertainment? Or is this something they have recently copied from the West? I do find the way they light candles on the photographs of victims a bit out of place, for India has had no such custom. Or maybe protesting is their way to feign that they care? Or maybe they watch too much TV and want to adopt Western ways of showing care, or to feel that they have arrived? Or maybe they feel so isolated socially that the crowd gives them a feeling of catharsis? Or maybe this was just another of series of hysterias that Indians are prone to suffering, now made much worse by television, which make the non-thinking gyrate at the same rhythm with increasing frequency?

Protestors have accused the alleged rapists before due process and want the minor to hang as well as the others. (According to the law he could be walking free within the next three years.) Indians don’t understand that it is only the due process that can give integrity to the legal system. One of the accused rapists has already died in an alleged suicide. No one wants to know how he actually died. Another ended up in the hospital after being beaten. If people care about justice, they should care most about those in the frontline of dealing with the law. It is exactly these alleged rapists who should get a very fair trial. What if those arrested are not really the rapists? Would the courts tell the true story behind the circumstances, given the nature of public opinion? And will we ever hear the story of why the rapists became such vicious people? Of course, one must understand that what these men did was not just sex. They had a huge amount of hatred for society bubbling inside them.

Is the issue over-feminized?

Crime is crime. Trying to show rape as a crime that one subgroup commits against another leads to faulty understanding of the issues. Nevertheless, over the years, law and social pressure have increased the age at which people can marry. Feminist movements have been vociferously behind this. No thinking has gone into the fact that premarital sex is still a major taboo in India. Prostitution is illegal. Of course, not getting sex gives men no justification for rape! But does it not create conditions for it? It would have been far better if poor Indians had been allowed to marry earlier if that is what they wanted.

India’s legal structure is weak to nonexistent. But the feminist movement has encouraged women to go out and do whatever they want, without letting anyone add a word of caution that even when the pedestrian light is green it is worth taking a glance on both sides. Some Indian laws unfairly favour women, leading these laws to be hugely misused. New laws would of course be used for political purposes, and sane men would be scared of interaction with women. Would the death penalty stop rape? Only a naïf can believe that the thought of capital punishment acts as an adequate restraint on prospective rapists, their blood full of sex hormones.

In the blame game in which men as a subgroup are isolated as standalone culprits, no one dares bring up the fact that in India women have the responsibility for raising children. In today’s world, suggesting to women that they might be abusing children at home or forming a wrong character in them is no longer allowed.

Of course, rapists should get severe punishment. But if Indians are serious about meaningfully improving their society, they need to start some serious introspection.




Share This


Stealth Stars

 | 

The Stealth Star motto is, “Safety does not exist, but courage does.” While I sit in my space pod, about to land on what the Concord of Trading Star Systems has designated as Rediscovered Unknown Planet Omega 12774, I repeat that motto to myself, because I cannot afford to feel any fear right now. Fear is a nervous reaction that gives energy to the muscles at the expense of taking energy from the thinking centers in the brain — and I will need my mind to be at its sharpest when I face these potential hostiles. The planetary scan of Omega 12774 showed signs of electronic technology, but no star ships or long-range communications. It is possible that the humans of this planet might have that unpleasantness which every Stealth Star loathes: a mix of technological progress and political retrogression which is the precondition for hostile soldiers capable of taking on our star technology.

The space pod penetrates the atmosphere; I jerk back in my seat and then slam forward as I crash into the ground below. I open my pod and see a vast stretch of stagnant brown fields around me. The brown extends outward in all directions, like a sea of mud. A few faded, half-alive trees sprout in the distant horizon, their frail green branches sagging down like the skin of an old woman. I am several miles from the perimeter of what showed up as the largest collection of life-forms on the planetary scan. My hope is that it is the capital city; I also hope that the leaders of this society’s social cooperation (assuming that the natives cooperate, and have leaders) will reveal themselves as kind, benevolent, freedom-loving organizers who will welcome the opportunity to trade with other planets — there’s nothing wrong with being naïve enough to wish for good luck, is there? I set my visual scanner on long range and begin to run toward the city on my technologically enhanced legs.

Fear is a nervous reaction that gives energy to the muscles at the expense of taking it from the thinking centers in the brain — and I will need my mind to be at its sharpest when I face these potential hostiles.

I come to the top of a hill and the city is spread out before me. It is not what I had expected. The planetary scan detected sophisticated electronic technology, but this city looks like something out of a picture book of Origin Earth’s dark ages. The wooden buildings have thatched yellow straw roofs, a few squat structures are built from red stone bricks, and various open squares dot the streets. The city blocks are broken up by narrow unpaved dirt roads laid at random. Humans, hundreds of them, bustle about in the streets, and a crowd of people fills some sort of marketplace beneath rainbow-colored tents on the western side of the city — but the goods they are trading appear to be live animals, mainly chickens, pigs and goats, as well as bags of corn and wheat, and the most valuable goods up for sale are small iron tools or jewelry made of glass and crystal. The people are dressed in clothes that are little more than rags. The colors are dull shades ranging from midnight black to smoke gray. These people are emaciated, dirty and haggard-looking, their skin stretched tight across hungry bones and their eyes sunken into their faces. I see no energy, no excitement, no smiles. Nowhere do I see anything resembling electronic technology — but wait!

At the far side of the city, on the other side of a series of building-covered hills, I can see a massive stone castle. Its shadow cuts across the city like a knife. I see glittering red lights emanating from the small windows in the castle’s upper towers — bright lights, unmistakably electric lights. I run a visual scan and see that the castle is full of technology; there are laser guns mounted on turrets around the castle’s outer walls, the scan detects the electromagnetic outline of super-computers, and small nuclear generators are buried in the castle’s lower levels. So! This civilization is ruled by someone who takes the technology for himself and gives nothing to his people. I sense that a conflict between the Stealth Stars and the ruling power inside that castle is inevitable.

I use an optical mirage device to make my star armor look like peasant’s rags, and I descend into the city. The computer in my brain quickly decodes the language of these people, which is derived from the Post-English that was spoken in this part of the galaxy before the Apocalypse. I walk into a building with a sign above the door proclaiming “Bet’s Inn and Tavern.” Inside I am greeted by an attractive young woman with long blonde hair that shimmers as though it were made of gold; her healthy glow has not been dampened by the dirt in her hair or her missing teeth or the numerous stitches desperately holding together her moon-gray dress.

“Hello, good sir. A traveler, are we? Yes? Well, if you’ve got the gems to pay for it then there ain’t no better place than Bet Matil’s Inn and Tavern. A bed and a good meal will be three blue gems, yes? And you, well, have the gems? Good, good!”

“I am from distant lands,” I say to this woman, presumably Bet, “and I would like to talk to you, to educate myself. What is the name of this city, and this land? And who lives in that castle? I might like to visit there and meet the leaders of your city.”

Three men sitting at a nearby table playing some form of dice game hear me, and the men laugh heartily.

“Don’t no one gets to go into that castle, what?” one of the men says with a grin. He has a long copper-red beard and a face so round and red that it reminds me of an apple. “Nobody,” he continues. “That castle is the home of our beloved leader, Prince Regisoph. That’s the Prince’s Tower, Tower Regisoph. This city is Rej, and our lands and farms, as far as the eye can see, that’s Rej too. Where do you come from, good sir, the fairy tale lands across the ocean, not to know this? One of the fair folk, are you?”

“Rej” appears to mean “power,” and “Regisoph” “wise and powerful.”

“I’m a human being, same as you,” I reply in a friendly tone. “So, this Regisoph is a Prince? And his father is King, I presume?”

“Father?” one of the men says, and they explode in raucous, wheezing laughter. This man who just spoke smiles at me with mirth; his teeth are yellow and rotten. “Prince Regisoph has been Prince for hundreds of years. It’s been so long that nobody around here can remember the time before he ruled. Ah, legend says that those were dark times, before the Prince’s enlightened rule. Bah! Let’s not dwell on the horrors of legends. You rolled a four so you owe me four, Jerem!”

“He has ruled for centuries? Then the Prince is not human?” I ask. No known alien species inhabits this part of the galaxy. And anti-aging technology capable of extending human life beyond 150 years is virtually impossible for people at the level of technology detected by my scan of the castle.

“Oh, he’s human, all right, although no one really knows for sure since he never comes out of the Tower and the public isn’t allowed to go inside his Tower. We haven’t seen him for over a hundred years,” Bet says. “But everyone knows that he’s human.”

“The Prince remains hidden,” I muse. “And what makes him such a great man, in your opinion? What is it about his rule that is so enlightened?”

“The Prince’s greatness?” Bet replies. There is a strange intensity in her pale grass-green eyes, a look of glowing exuberance, and I suddenly realize to my horror that she is proud to be among those ruled by her Prince. “Why, he’s made everyone equal! We all get the same number of gems at the start of each month, as our allowance, regardless of how much work we did, so that the farmers up north can’t hog all the gems just because they produce so much and we artisans and shopkeepers and innkeepers of the south aren’t so lucky. We get our gems, and we trade them during the month, and then at the end of the month they go away and we get a clean slate and a new set of gems. Some of the ones up north grow mighty rich in the later weeks, but it all goes away — pow! — it all goes up in smoke at the end of the month. It isn’t fair for the north to be rich while the south lives in poverty. Why shouldn’t we take their gems away from the northerners, at least after they’ve had an entire month to play with them? They say that equality is a great thing, so why shouldn’t the north suffer along with us southerners? Why shouldn’t I share my pain with you and with everyone else? We are all given enough gems to buy the things we need to survive — and really, do we need any more than that? The Prince’s way is better than the unrestrained greed of our ancestors, or so the legends say. And if you can’t trust the Prince and his wise men’s legends then who can you trust?”

The space pod penetrates the atmosphere; I jerk back in my seat and then slam forward as I crash into the ground below.

“Um, yes, the Prince certainly seems to be wise,” I reply in a voice that hides my revulsion. So, the land of Rej is ruled by a technology-hoarding tyrant named Prince Regisoph who has enacted a scheme of socialism to keep his peasants from acquiring enough wealth and technological progress to challenge his rule. The people live in misery and poverty and filth, while the Prince (and his soldiers, I’m sure) have all the benefits of modern medicine, entertainment, and the other wonders of electronics — and the Prince’s propaganda has his people believing in the justice and virtue of being ruled. These people seem like good-natured, hearty folk, who could prosper and trade with the rest of the galaxy if they were allowed to know the miracles of capitalism and free trade. But for the people to be freed I must defeat Prince Regisoph. Can one single Stealth Star agent do it? To be a Stealth Star you really do need to have a death wish.

Bet tugs on my arm. “Come, good sir, I’ll show you to your room. And what did you say your name was, by the way?”

“Anth Benj,” I reply, translating my name into its rough equivalent in the Rejian language.

“Anth,” she says, as if to see how my name feels upon her lips. She guides me up a narrow, creaking wooden staircase and into a small room with a straw mat for a bed on one side across from an open window. A warm, soothing wind is blowing in from outside. The window has a view of a few wooden hovels across the street, but above it I can see a wide cloudless emerald-green sky with four white-gray moons visible. Then Bet motions for me to sit down on the bed, and I comply. She smiles at me with a strange, mysterious, purposeful look.

“I listen better than those men down below, and I can tell that you’re not keen on the Prince,” Bet says. “You might be dressed like a Rejian, but your face don’t look like us and your voice don’t sound like us. You are . . . different. I know you must be an ambassador or herald from the lands beyond the ocean, sent to parlay with our Prince. But before you go storming into the Tower, there’s something about the Prince that you should know.”

I am shocked that this woman so easily decoded my disguise. The Rejians are surprisingly clever. We can always use clever people in the Concord, and there are special jobs reserved for people who can think and analyze new situations quickly. In fact, when I look at Bet I can almost picture her cleaned and clothed in the crisp white uniform of a star pilot. But then I smell the odor of horse manure wafting in through the window and the daydream fades.

“What?” I ask.

“There is no need for you to hate the Prince, Anth Benj, because, you see, I am Prince Regisoph,” Bet says.

“I think I’m having a translation problem. Say that again?”

“That’s right. I am the Prince,” Bet says. “So please, don’t oppose me. I am willing to listen to you. Rej can reach an agreement with the lands beyond the ocean.”

“How is that possible?” I ask. Could I have been so lucky as to stumble upon the ruler here, so that I can duel her one-on-one right now?

The planetary scan detected sophisticated electronic technology, but this city looks like something out of a picture book of Origin Earth’s dark ages.

“I keep my identity a secret, but I am the ruler who sits in the Tower,” Bet says. “I rarely even enter the Tower now, but my desires are the law in Rej. So stay in my city for a while and see what it has to offer, and look at our good things and what works before you condemn me for my problems and my flaws. Quick to judge is quick to die, as the wise men say. Don’t be reckless in changing everything to suit the tastes of some strangers from across the sea.”

“Well…” I say. “Then I assume that you know where I really come from?”

“Yes, of course,” she says. She heads for the door, but then looks back over her shoulder and gives me a coy smile. “You come from the fairy world beyond the ocean. I serve chicken stew for dinner at the eighth chime, so be sure to come down, Anth. I look forward to seeing you!” Bet vanishes down the stairs.

This is weird! Is Bet really the Prince, or do these people have some sort of psychological complex in which they become insane and identify with their ruler? I must learn more. I search the rooms next to mine, and in another room I find one of the men who had been playing dice downstairs, the man with the apple-red face. He sits at a table, counting his winnings from dice — a set of small gemstones, some green and some blue, and one red. He holds the red gem in his hands, a look of intense pride lighting up his eyes.

“Excuse me? May I come in?” I ask.

“Ah, the stranger!” the man says when he notices me. “My fellow traveler. I am Jerem, and yes, come in, come in, more is happier! I too am a stranger in this city, you know. I am from a northern farm, here to sell our chickens, but, ah, yes, lady luck, what? Lady luck has blessed me as much as the chickens! It seems so wrong that these gems will all be gone so soon, so soon, so soon . . .”

“Yes, it is a shame,” I agree.

“Shame, yes, but it is what we want, after all,” Jerem says. “I feel greed, yes, but it wouldn’t be fair to all the other good people for me to own too many gems and for them to have none. Wouldn’t be right.”

“Yes,” I say, continuing to observe the brainwashing effect of the Prince’s propaganda. “Speaking of which, could we talk about the Prince? I have some more questions that Bet didn’t quite answer.”

Jerem’s eyes become secretive and shifty. He coughs nervously. “The Prince? Why would you want to talk about the Prince with me? It’s not like I am the Prince in reality and I pretend to be a farmer.”

“No, of course not,” I say. Then a thought occurs to me. I do a quick visual scan of Jerem with the scanner implanted in my left eye, and my fear is confirmed: a small neuro-computer is implanted in Jerem’s brain with an internet feed broadcasting to a remote signal. I adjust my scanner to scan through the walls and sweep the entire building, and everyone here, all the Rejians, have brain jacks. But they seem oblivious to the computers in their brains, just as they seem ignorant of all the technology in the Prince’s Tower. What is going on here?

"Ah, legend says that those were dark times, before the Prince’s enlightened rule. Bah! Let’s not dwell on the horrors of legends!"

“Well, what? What? You seem like an honest chap, so I have a confession to make,” Jerem says, and my scanner detects activity in Jerem’s brain computer. “I am the Prince. Yes, I am Prince Regisoph. Best not to hide it. But don’t tell my wife, she’d be furious. Anyway, this is my city and my land and my Tower, and I’m bloody well proud of it. So don’t mess it up. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

I say goodbye to Jerem and return to my room, sit on my uncomfortable bed, and think things over. Clearly this used to be a society of sophisticated electronic technology. But their ruling class, led by someone named Prince Regisoph, took away all of the technology, barricaded themselves in the Tower, and left the people to starve in poverty. In order to ensure that the public would not revolt and storm the castle the Prince installed computers in all the peasants so that he could centrally control their thoughts and preempt any dissidence. The neural interference from the Prince’s brain computers manifests itself as the peasants’ insane belief that they are really in control of the society, that they are the Prince. The rulers in that Tower are absolutely, incorrigibly evil. I cannot tolerate the thought. I must set the people free.

You don’t become a Stealth Star unless you have a love of freedom that burns like a wildfire, unflinching bravery in the face of the unknown, and a mastery of modern star technology — and also (I am afraid to admit) a tendency toward performing acts that border on suicide. Because when the Stealth Star Corps sends you out as the spy-scout on a mission to see what has become of the humans on a rediscovered planet that hasn’t been heard from since the Interstellar Apocalypse, 10,000 years ago . . . you might never return.

We Stealth Star scouts explore to see if newly rediscovered planets have evolved economic and social freedom or decayed into tyranny and dictatorship, and to evaluate whether the newly explored planets might become trading partners and join the Concord. Some of the time the humans are peaceful and happily sign up with the Concord — but most of the rediscovered planets are primitive and barbaric. I lost my best friend Charl when he was dropped onto a planet that turned out to be the home of a society of cannibalistic cyborgs. I also led the team of Stealth Star soldiers who wiped that planet out after Charl’s final broadcast warned us that the cyborgs were developing star ships and planning to become space pirates. I am primarily a scout but I do have experience as a warrior.

Stealth Stars are spies and soldiers, but we’re not an army. We are not affiliated with any government, and we are staffed entirely by volunteer recruits. We believe that everyone has the right to freedom. The interplanetary trade associations (mainly the Concord but also some of the smaller groups) donate to us happily enough, because we keep space clear of the space pirates and planetary dictators who like to blockade trade routes. But our real motive is not economic; it is political. We aim to spread the ideals of freedom to every planet so that everyone can enjoy the reality-given rights of life, liberty, and property. Our critics within the Concord call us crusaders, but we believe that every war we fight is a war of self-defense. We are like soldiers hired by oppressed peoples to free them from dictatorship, except that we work on credit and take payment once they join the Concord. No, they didn’t actually tell us that they wanted us to rescue them — but how could they while their voices were silenced by their rulers? We give to the peoples of the outer planets precisely what they want, what they would choose if they were free to make choices.

I send a long-range communication to the local Stealth Star mother ship and wait for night to fall. Soon the city of Rej is enshrouded in darkness and illuminated only by the four pale moons and a nearby constellation of stars in the night sky. I set my star armor in stealth mode and sneak up to the outer wall of the Prince’s Tower. With the protection of my stealth mode and its cloaking device the castle’s cameras cannot detect me as I scale the outer walls. I use a laser-razor to cut a hole in the stone wall and slide myself through.

The inside of the Tower is as amazing and resplendent as the city below is ugly and base. The place is a spider’s web of interconnecting rooms and hallways, and each room is filled with banks of super-computers from floor to ceiling which blink with constantly changing red and blue lights. The rooms buzz and crackle with electrical energy. Floating guard robots hover up and down the halls with laser rifles at the ready, but the guards cannot see through my stealth cloak and they float past me, oblivious. I see no humans anywhere in these rooms. I scan the area and detect the largest source of electromagnetic energy, which I assume is the central control station where the leaders will be. It is at the top of the highest tower.

For the people to be freed I must defeat Prince Regisoph. Can one single Stealth Star agent do it?

I snake my way up the various stairs and ramps that riddle this Tower, and eventually I reach a set of double doors. Their gold lettering proclaims “Prince Regisoph.” My scan reveals that the door is made of solid plastic-steel laced with synthetic diamond — difficult to make and impossible to cut. Clearly the Prince does not want to be interrupted by unexpected company. It is a shame for him that Stealth Star technology is up to this challenge and I am about to ruin his day.

I clamp an antimatter mine to the double doors and retreat around the corner of the nearest hallway. The mine goes off; the physical matter in the doors is destroyed by the antimatter and implodes into nothingness. I run down the hall, exit stealth mode and enter attack mode, and draw a laser gun in each hand. I am about to face the worst military power that the Prince has to offer. If I die, my death will be worthwhile. I switch on my attack scope and activate the cameras in the back of my head so I can see in three hundred and sixty degrees. My body armor can withstand most armor-piercing rounds and my lungs have implants to filter most poisonous gasses, but there is no telling what deviltry the Prince may have waiting. I run into the middle of the room, my heart racing and my nervous system at its peak, ready to fight and willing to die . . .

There is no one in here.

“Hello?” I ask.

“Hello,” a strange, hollow, mechanical voice answers.

I look around and see that the word “Hello” is lit up on a large computer monitor on the far side of the room. A huge bank of super-computers fills the other side of the room — the electromagnetic activity I picked up. But my scanner detects no human beings. I am alone.

“Who are you?” I ask.

“I am the Project Prince Regisoph computer interface operating system. Please state your identity, user.”

This society was able to achieve what we of the Concord, even with all our scientific marvels, could not: artificial intelligence. “So, you are Prince Regisoph!”

“Negative,” the computer replies. “User, are you an integrated user with a damaged integration device? Please state yes or no.”

“Integrated? What do you mean?”

“Invalid response. Background presentation loading. Please wait.”

This computer is not talking as if it could think. It is speaking like a mindless automaton. What in the Universe is going on here?

Suddenly the screen is lit by the image of an old man dressed in fancy green robes. “Greetings, people of the future,” the image says.

His robe is various shades of deep green, and he wears a spiked crown glittering with accents of diamonds and gold. He has a triumphant, fanatical gleam in his little brown eyes, almost like a young man recently converted to a new religion, but his face is aged with the wrinkles of years of thankless toil. “I am Grego, Prime Chancellor of Rej — or, at least, up until now I was, as soon there will no longer be any need for me. It is to be hoped that nothing has gone wrong and we have created the utopia we wished for. But to meet any problem that may arise, we are encoding this message explaining Project Regisoph, so that repairs can be made by people who understand the plan.”

“What plan?” I ask. But of course the recording of Grego cannot hear me.

“In order to create a truly democratic society we must have a system that counts the votes of the public’s desires and enacts the will of the people into law. Our politicians have become hopelessly corrupt and inefficient, so we are automating the process of politics. As an infant, each human will be fitted with a mental interface connection. The interface will examine the person’s desires and count them as one vote. The Tower computer will tabulate all votes from the integrated brains of the voters, and the robot drones will then act out and enforce whatever is the political desire of the majority. If the people want capitalism, then there will be capitalism; if they want socialism, then the Tower will provide socialism. If the people want all the technological advances that we have discovered then technology will be distributed; but if they grow weary of technology and long for a simpler, more natural era, then technology will be taken away from them.

We give to the peoples of the outer planets precisely what they want, what they would choose if they were free to make choices.

“The system has no limits and will do whatever the public wants it to do. We leave it to the people themselves to decide the substance of the ideal society. We today are merely giving them the procedural form of that ideal. For all our faults, at least we will know that the people will get what they desire; the world of tomorrow will be what everyone wants.”

This is ghastly. Bet and Jerem and all the others really are Prince Regisoph — but it now seems apparent that if everyone is the ruler then everyone is the slave. Democracy is a Concord ideal, but only a republican democracy in which the rights of individuals are held sacred and inviolate against the will of the majority. The Rejian people want their stone-age socialism, so they get it, but what they want is bad for them. I laugh for a minute, realizing the irony: the socialist dissidents within the Concord often complain that they know what’s best for the planetary citizens and that therefore the socialists should make everyone else’s economic choices for them — yet here I am thinking with absolute certainty that I know what is best for the Rejians and I should make the choice of capitalism for all of them. Still, irony aside, that is what I believe — isn’t it? I had thought that I wanted to kill Prince Regisoph. But Prince Regisoph is Bet Matil. I want to save her, not kill her. So what do I really want to do?

“Computer, deactivate. Terminate Project Regisoph.” It’s still my job as a Stealth Star to bring freedom to the planet. This is worth a shot.

“Negative. Project Regisoph can be terminated only by a majority vote of the integrated users. User, you have been identified as a threat. Activating protection procedures.”

My calm is immediately replaced by panic: the walls slide open and swarms of guard robots rocket into the room. I drop attack mode and return to stealth. The robots lose me on their scanners and can’t detect me. They sweep across the room and go right past me. I consider shooting a missile into the Regisoph super-computer control center, but I hesitate . . . there are probably backups throughout the Tower, and my sensors detect self-destruct nuclear mines hidden in the command center that, once activated, might destroy the entire city, or continent.

But what really stops me is this: if the people want to be ruled by Prince Regisoph, if that is actually what the majority of Rejians desire, then I could raze the Prince’s Tower to rubble and they would simply rise up and build another Tower in its place. Maybe you can’t force people to be free when they want to be slaves, any more than you can force a people to be ruled when they insist upon freedom and give their lives to win it. The battle for the freedom of this people will be won out there, out in the streets and in the minds and hearts of individual men and women, not here in the Prince’s Tower. Prince Regisoph will die once the Stealth Stars convince the people down in that city that capitalist freedom, ownership of property, and free trade are superior to their socialist nightmare. It’s my new job to educate the Rejians about the happiness that comes from trade and technology. To try, anyway. I had thought that when the Stealth Stars liberate a planet, we give the people precisely what they want — but now, in retrospect, I realize that the truth may be a bit more complicated.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2013 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.