Archive for August, 2008

America: vampire of the world (part 1)

August 28, 2008

Of course I’m constantly dreaming up new ways to seduce innocent, unwary young progressives into the dark nets of UR. I thought this title might be just the thing.

But I do mean it, though. Though I must note that by “America” here I mean the government of America, aka Washington, aka USG. America the continent is a wonderful slab of real estate. America the population is pretty great, mostly – including both its “red” and “blue” components. America the political structure is up to no good at all, and it needs to be stopped.

The idea of America as “vampire of the world” will hardly be unfamiliar to any American. Surely, if you saw an opus of the Chomsky school with this title, it would not surprise you. It is more or less impossible to escape from an American university without learning that one’s own country is a bloodsucking predator. So why should I bother? Hasn’t the point been made?

No, actually, it hasn’t.

The best way to understand the progressive mind is to think of it as a sort of magic trick. We live in a free country where anyone can think and say more or less what they want, and yet nonetheless – as Schopenhauer put it – “Clio, the muse of history, is as thoroughly infected with lies as a street whore with syphilis.” Supposing for a moment that this is true, how could it be true?

Think of it as magic. The art of magic is the art of tricking the human brain into constructing a false narrative of reality. Beyond this no generalization is possible. Any illusion is fair. The basic principle of magic is misdirection, but only in the crudest sense: when a magic trick is performed, the audience is typically looking right at it.

So what better way to conceal the reality that America is the vampire of the world, than for distinguished Americans – such as Professor Chomsky – to evangelize that very same proposition? The purloined letter is in plain sight. It is not, however, the letter you think it is.

Not that this is intentional – oh, no. The Chomskys and Burkes of the world are perfectly sincere. Like all the best magic, the spell is so strong that it works on the magus himself. Does this confuse you? Perhaps it should. Hopefully by the end of the post it will be clearer.

I’m afraid the title is not original. I stole it from Count Ernst zu Reventlow, whose Vampire of the Continent (1916), translated by the Irish traitor George Chatterton-Hill, then smuggled to New York by (I kid you not) U-Boat, is today available to all and sundry, courtesy of the innocent young progressives at Google Books. Read it now, before they realize their terrible mistake.

I can’t really endorse Reventlow’s Vampire. For one thing – unlike the aristocratic German nationalists I really do admire, eg, Ernst Jünger, Ernst von Salomon and Fritz Reck-Malleczwen – he succumbed to the brown poison, ie, became a Nazi. And Vampire is not about America, of course, but England. (The translation is half the length of the original – I’m sure any morsels of counter-Americanism were scrubbed for propaganda purposes.) Nor is it a terribly cogent piece of analysis. Reventlow often finds calculated malice where I see only accidental incompetence. He is, after all, writing war propaganda.

Vampire is still a fun read, however. I’ll bet you’ve never read any German World War I propaganda. Better yet, wash it down it with some Allied propaganda – such as George Herron’s Menace of Peace. Herron, who was perhaps even more Wilsonian than Wilson, was actually employed by that dear President as a peace emissary in negotiations with Emperor Charles. It is with great surprise that I report that the talks were not successful. I would quote from Menace of Peace, but I really don’t think any excerpt can do it justice.

Our goal today is to do for US foreign policy more or less what Reventlow did for its British counterpart. As we’ll see, there is quite a bit of continuity between the two. We’ll go from George to George – that is, George Washington to the Russo-Georgian war.

Let’s start with the latter. There are quite a few things that make the Russo-Georgian war fabulous, but the resemblance to the start of World War II is especially amusing. To delineate the resemblance, let’s play a little game. Who uttered the following quotes, A, B and C? Hitler or Goebbels, or Putin or Medvedev?

A:

All warfare is retaliation, all acts of war are reprisals, and everything appertaining to the enemy is a military objective. Consequently, such expressions as “reprisal raids” or “retaliatory measures” may be all right for civilians but they are not for soldiers. The “eye-for-an-eye” principle is old testament doctrine. In war’s new testament, if your enemy shoots your toe, you shoot his head.

B:

Whether the effort should be made to indoctrinate hatred toward the enemy must be considered a practical training question rather than a moral issue.

Since killing is the primary means by which the enemy is compelled to submit to one’s own discipline, one of the ends of the training must be to so indoctrinate the soldier that he is not only willing but anxious to work bodily destruction upon the foes of his country. That state of mind is not possible unless the soldier is motivated by hatred in the hour when he is at grips with his enemy.

C:

Let there be no more talk of war as if it were a sporting proposition fought under the Marquis [sic] of Queensberry rules. When a [Jew / Chechen] or [Pole / Georgian] acts sporting, it is time to smell a rat.

Since this is UR, you know the question is probably a trick. Indeed. In C, read “German” and “Japanese.” All the above quotes are from the following publication:


Unusually for UR, this is “original research.” Guide to the Use of Information Materials (1943, 30 pages) is a pamphlet I found in my grandfather’s war papers and scanned on Flickr. (Try the slideshow view. Read the whole thing – you’ll enjoy it.)

These quotes may astonish you slightly. After all, World War II is “the good war.” Obviously not every side in this war was a good one, but we’d like to think there was one good side, namely, ours. Of course we all know of the indiscriminate aerial devastation wreaked on Germany and Japan, but, but, but…

One easy way to banish this oddity from your memory is to put it down as a piece of “old Army” dogma, a relic of the cowboy era, a product of the same hirsute, violent, ultra-American militaristic subculture that massacred the Indians, invaded Cuba and massacreed the Filipinos, and is currently doing the nasty in Iraq. Well – not quite. Here are some other bits from the Guide:

The force of the arms of the United States is being directed toward putting an end to the rule of gangsterism in international affairs, and equally toward the reestablishing of order in the world society and the restoration of law as the rule of action in the intercourse of nations. We fight to preserve for our own people and for people throughout the world the chance to learn or to continue learning how to govern themselves and how to live with each other.
[…]
The men and women of the United States Army should know better than any, or instruction should inform them, that the only possible justification for war is the fashioning of a less imperfect peace; also that military victories are indeed meaningless if the peace arrangements built upon them satisfy the victor less than the arrangements that led up to the war. Such arrangements must eventuate in an organization of both local and world society which seeks to be constructive rather than destructive, for such is the definition of peace.
[…]
The United Nations are not simply a common military front formed for the duration of hostilities. They are an alliance looking toward the solutions of the problems of the peace. The Atlantic Charter – to which all have subscribed in principle – was the first testament of that purpose. A later pledge which implements it is the Joint Four-Nation Declaration given at Moscow by the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China, stating among its articles that these nations “recognize the necessity of establishing at the earliest practicable date a general international organization, based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all peace-loving states, and open to membership by all such states, large and small, for the maintenance of international peace and security.”

Don’t these phrases, which you have probably heard parroted by an army of schoolteachers, journalists and professors big enough to invade Nazi Germany all on its own, sound a little strange in the same booklet as “if your enemy shoots your toe, you shoot his head?”

Presumably someone at least read this pamphlet before distributing it. How, exactly, did they fit together their little jab about “Marquis of Queensberry rules” with “putting an end to the rule of gangsterism in international affairs?” How could anyone fail to see a small contradiction here? Today we are informed daily by the great and the good that to prevail in any military conflict, one must first dig in and fortify the “moral high ground.” No one ever seems to tell us that this essential tactic involves the “indoctrination of hatred toward the enemy.”

The Guide does not list an author, although its prose is too good to be the work of any truly bureaucratic committee. But there is one name in the flyleaf which you might recognize: George Marshall. Marshall may well be the most respected American of the last half-century. The establishment tolerated Joe McCarthy for a while, but when he attacked George Marshall, he had gone too far.

There is no organized political force in the US or the world today to which Marshall is anything but a hero. There is no organized political force which opposes the United Nations. (If you find it odd that the UN is mentioned in 1943, it is simply another word for the Allies.) There is also no organized political force which would utter, or even fail to condemn, “war’s new testament.” As we so often say on the Internet: WTF?

Moreover, the deeper we dig, the worse it gets. The Guide is almost certainly the work of the Office of War Information. Twice in the 20th century, the US press was gleischgeschaltet as a government agency: once as the CPI, once as the OWI. Significantly, this was done not by appointing some general to tell journalists what to say, Goebbels-style, but by bringing journalists themselves into government. The legacy of these coordination events is more or less what we mean when we say “mainstream media.” So imagine a world in which the New York Times tells us about “war’s new testament,” and you pretty much have the picture.

A couple of recent popular books, one by Pat Buchanan and another by Nicholson Baker, have taken a revisionist line on World War II. You can read a typical omnibus review of both here. One more cogent review of Baker’s book, which I think actually engages with what the writer was trying to accomplish, is here.

Buchanan is a paleoconservative and isolationist. He says more or less what you’d expect him to say: the war wasn’t worth it. It is Baker’s book, really, that is far more interesting, because Baker is a progressive and progressives are supposed to believe in World War II. Pretty much the same way Christians are supposed to believe in Jesus.

What happened to Baker is that, as part of his library-saving campaign, he found himself the owner of huge volumes of WWII-era OWI journalism. Being Baker, he had to read it. And reading it, he found himself face to face with the mentality of the Guide – and realized that the airbrushed morality play we learned about in school has very little to do with what actually happened. Baker’s aim in Human Smoke is to reproduce the sense of shock and confusion he felt, as a good 21st-century progressive and pacifist, on exposure to the actual Allied mind.

Here’s another example: the Holocaust. The elementary-school version of World War II runs roughly as follows: we fought the Nazis because the Nazis were bad. The Nazis were bad because they killed the Jews. All sorts of illustrations can be hung on this basic moral armature.

And yet: the word Jew does not appear in the Guide. This is not a coincidence. The Guide’s choice of atrocity, rather: the Greek famine of 1942. Doubtless you’ve heard all about it. Moreover, given the recent history of the tactic…

If we are to understand World War II in terms of its results, the Holocaust must figure prominently. It is certainly difficult to imagine the murder of the Jews without the war. However, if we are to understand the war in terms of what the people who fought it were thinking, the Holocaust cannot be too relevant to the calculation. Since no one on either side saw fit to publicize it, hardly anyone on either side was thinking of it.

In other words: if in April 1945 the Allied armies had discovered a huge Lager containing five or six million surviving Jews, the narrative of the war would have been almost exactly the same. Moreover, lacking the Aktion Reinhard, history would have another excellent candidate for the word holocaust – the destruction by aerial fire of the cities of Germany and Japan. The Jews were murdered; but this fact has no place in the case of “Der Brand,” because neither the people responsible for strategic bombing, nor most of those who were bombed, had any idea that the Holocaust existed. (It was, after all, a military secret.)

And if it had not existed, how would history have judged the strategic bombers? I suppose we’d probably think of something. If the Third Reich had won the war, how would Germans today think of the Aktion Reinhard? As a mistake, probably. A regrettable outbreak of excess enthusiasm, in the course of a fundamentally just and noble conflict. You get the picture.

This simple exercise leaves a vast moral vacuum where “the good war” ought to be. If said war was not fought to save the Jews, what was it fought for? The freedom and independence of Poland? If so, surely to be “good” a war should be successful…

Yet it is also a historical error to equate an Arthur Harris with an Adolf Eichmann. Both were personally responsible for actions which resulted in untold numbers of ghastly, horrifying deaths; both justified these actions through a sense of military duty and a philosophy that explained them as the lesser of two evils. But these philosophies were very different. To describe them both as merely murderous does not help us understand either.

And which matters more? We study history not to understand the present, but the past. The Third Reich, the Confederacy, and the Soviet Union do not exist in the real world. The first two were destroyed utterly, the third is changed beyond recognition. It may be interesting to study them. It may be educational in some abstract sense. It is not a matter of your personal safety.

Whereas the entity that defeated all three – the government of the United States, USG – is still very much alive, well, and kicking. Is it a problem? I think it’s a problem. You may disagree. But for us to disagree intelligently, we have to look at this USG, and the wars it won. The side that matters in these total wars is the victor – because the victor still exists.

So the Civil War, for example, is taught today very much as the Anti-Confederate War. One can very easily find all sorts of information on how weird, creepy, and awful the Confederacy was. Some of this is exaggerated, some is not.

But for me the important question is: what the heck were the Unionists thinking? Were they ethical, sensible, and competent? Or crafty, rabid, and inept? Because our own dear USG is the modern descendant of the grand old Union. And if it was crafty, rabid and inept in 1861, what is the probability that it has since somehow improved?

The question deserves its own post – but I note merely how much less attention is paid to the blue side of the picture. Magic.

What we’re seeing with the Guide – this moment of cognitive dissonance, this sense of not understanding – is an essential step toward recapturing the real pattern of history. To learn to see the real, start by learning to unsee the forgery. You reach an intermediate point at which you simply don’t know what you’re looking at, and this is the beginning of real observation.

As I see it, in WWII there are two main forgeries to be unseen. One is the idea that the war was an Allied crusade to rescue the Jews. No one ever tells you to believe this, because it simply isn’t true. But hardly anyone, except Nicholson Baker, will tell you not to believe it. So it floats around as a sort of half-heard, half-felt bassline in the backs of peoples’ heads.

The second fake, which is actually at least somewhat controversial, is the idea that WWII was a war of self-defense. Consider, for example, FDR’s Navy Day speech, October 27 1941. FDR, having just finished misrepresenting the Kearny incident, comes out with the following:

Hitler has often protested that his plans for conquest do not extend across the Atlantic Ocean. But his submarines and raiders prove otherwise. So does the entire design of his new world order.

For example, I have in my possession a secret map made in Germany by Hitler’s government-by the planners of the new world order. It is a map of South America and a part of Central America, as Hitler proposes to reorganize it. Today in this area there are fourteen separate countries. The geographical experts of Berlin, however, have ruthlessly obliterated all existing boundary lines; and have divided South America into five vassal states, bringing the whole continent under their domination. And they have also so arranged it that the territory of one of these new puppet states includes the Republic of Panama and our great life line-the Panama Canal.

That is his plan. It will never go into effect.

This map makes clear the Nazi design not only against South America but against the United States itself.

Your government has in its possession another document made in Germany by Hitler’s government. It is a detailed plan, which, for obvious reasons, the Nazis did not wish and do not wish to publicize just yet, but which they are ready to impose-a little later-on a dominated world-if Hitler wins. It is a plan to abolish all existing religions-Protestant, Catholic, Mohammedan, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish alike. The property of all churches will be seized by the Reich and its puppets. The cross and all other symbols of religion are to be forbidden. The clergy are to be forever silenced under penalty of the concentration camps, where even now so many fearless men are being tortured because they have placed God above Hitler.

In the place of the churches of our civilization, there is to be set up an International Nazi Church-a church which will be served by orators sent out by the Nazi Government. In the place of the Bible, the words of Mein Kampf will be imposed and enforced as Holy Writ. And in place of the cross of Christ will be put two symbols-the swastika and the naked sword.

A God of Blood and Iron will take the place of the God of Love and Mercy. Let us well ponder that statement which I have made tonight.

Baker, I believe, quotes a bit of this in Human Smoke. Now, let’s imagine you heard George W. Bush come out with this, replacing Hitler with Putin. (Suppose a US destroyer had been escorting a Georgian convoy across the Black Sea, depth-charged a Russian submarine and then been torpedoed by same.)

What would your instinct be? Your instinct would be: he’s back on the sauce. “Let us well ponder that statement which I have made tonight.”

But, of course, we know Hitler was evil. So perhaps he did indeed have a secret map of South America. And an International Nazi Church. I have seen no evidence of it, however. And if there was such evidence, a lot of people had an interest in finding it. I quote Hugh Trevor-Roper, from his Mind of Adolf Hitler – found in this edition of the Table Talk:

Compared with this great problem – the conquest of the East and the establishment thereby of a millennial German Empire with a new racial religion to confirm its rule for ever – all other problems seemed to Hitler secondary. Even the war with the West was secondary. Long ago he had formulated his attitude toward the West. The West, in spite of its victory in 1918 – achieved only through the famous “Stab in the Back” – and though still powerful at this crucial moment, was, when seen in the long perspective of this crucial moment, clearly in decline. It could be left to decline. Hitler had no interest in it. For England, indeed, he had some admiration, mixed with envy and hatred. He admired the British as a “pure Germanic people” and a conquering people. On the other hand he envied England as an upstart, self-confident world-power – what right had England to claim a history on the basis of its beggarly three hundred years compared with the thousand-year German Reich? – and he hated it, as so many German nationalists have hated it, as the great Carthage which by trade had colonised the world and sought to strangle the honest land-empire of Germany. But since England and the West were anyway destined to fall behind, Hitler was content to ignore them if they would keep out of the immediate battle, the great land-struggle now pending in the East. England would surely keep out, for what interest had England in the Ukraine? Hitler was anyway, in his benevolent moods, prepared to “guarantee” the British Empire as an element of stability in the irrelevant maritime world. France, it is true, might have to be knocked out – for France, in the days when Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, was the centre of a system of Eastern alliances. But by 1940 those alliances had gone and France was crushed. Only England was left to lick its wounds, recognize the facts, contract out of the world-struggle, and either moulder quietly away in its Atlantic corner or accept, like the rest of Europe, German patronage. Ultimately the “best” elements in Western civilization – that is, those elements which were acceptable to Hitler – would be preserved by such patronage, just as Greek culture was preserved by the Roman Empire… Unfortunately this did not happen. England, the England of Winston Churchill, continued obstinately to fight, and, fighting, to inflame the otherwise conquered and quiescent West. To Hitler this was unintelligible, irresponsible, intolerable: it involved him in a naval war which he did not understand and in Mediterranean politics which he could not control, and and it fatally interfered with his Eastern project, the be-all and end-all of his war.

With these forgeries removed, we are farther away than ever from understanding WWII. Never mind FDR – what, exactly, was Churchill’s interest in the Ukraine? Especially considering the current proprietor of that district? Obviously, the fate of Eastern Europe, which the West accepted almost without demur, rather precludes the theory that the nominal cause of the war was also its actual cause. What is left?

Imagine you are the captain of a merchant ship, and you pick up a lifeboat in the Sargasso. In the boat are two men, one living and one who has just died of thirst, and assorted small body parts of a third. The living man explains that the third was a murderous cannibal who wanted to eat the other two, who had to kill him in self-defense. They have the wounds to prove it. Since he was dead, well… but then the survivor noticed an ugly glint in his partner’s eye, and the two faced each other down with marlinspikes until one died of thirst. The question is: what actually happened in the lifeboat? Did it contain one cannibal, two, or three? And do you want the survivor to come aboard, or should you just gaff him and push the boat back out to sea?

I am more than satisfied that the Third Reich and the Soviet Union were criminal regimes. Whatever their specific plans to achieve world domination, they would not have rejected it if offered. But the criminality of these two corpses has no bearing at all on the morals of our survivor. Criminals may fight with honest men, or with other criminals. And USG must be judged for itself, not for its defeated enemies.

But to judge it, we have to understand it. So let’s do so. USG’s foreign policy fits into three basic patterns, which we’ll call A, B, and C.

Pattern A (which I personally favor) is one we can call neutralism. Neutralism is the policy of Washington and Hamilton’s Farewell Address (well worth reading in its entirety, since so much of it has gone unheeded at such great cost):

So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot. How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils? Such an attachment of a small or weak towards a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter.

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.

Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing (with powers so disposed, in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support them) conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances and mutual opinion will permit, but temporary, and liable to be from time to time abandoned or varied, as experience and circumstances shall dictate; constantly keeping in view that it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that, by such acceptance, it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more. There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.

Okay. Could this be edited? It could. But, I mean, come on, it’s George Washington. Even I have to give it up for tha Prez.

Many people are familiar with this message. For some reason, though, they often seem to think that some new military technology or other has invalidated it. I don’t see any mention of muskets or powder-horns in the above, and I think it’s obvious that North America’s military ability to “defy material injury from external annoyance,” perhaps the most debatable point in the original, has pretty much steadily increased for the last 200 years or so.

You have to understand the extraordinary circumstances under which the Farewell Address was delivered. The question was not whether the US would settle Europe’s quarrels, as in 1917, but whether it would ally itself with one side in the struggle between England and France, both of which were far more militarily powerful, and either of which probably had the power to reconquer North America by force. Moreover, most of the partisans of a French alliance – the nascent Jeffersonian party described pejoratively, but accurately, as “Democrats” or even “Jacobins” – considered Washington’s Federalist faction as hardly neutral, but pro-British, perhaps even royalist. Witness the vituperation over the Jay Treaty.

There’s an obvious reason that actual neutrality would strike a Jacobin agitator as pro-British. The view of international relations that Washington is promoting is straight out of Grotius or Vattel. He is essentially proposing that the US take its place as a normal, independent, well-behaved sovereign country in the classical Westphalian system.

As opposed to – say – perhaps – um – joining the French in their attempt to light the world on fire? I don’t think most Americans realize how many extremely lethal bullets their political system managed to dodge in its early years. And much of this luck was not luck, but simply the sheer level-headed groundedness of George Washington, and the essentially reactionary, quasi-monarchical restoration for which he was largely responsible.

It is not clear whether or not Washington (and Hamilton, who wrote much of the address) anticipate a world in which the US is big enough to boss other countries around, as opposed to being the mouse in the France-England elephant fight. But the geographic potential of North America was clear enough.

So this is foreign policy A. Neutralism. Ie: no foreign policy. If USG reverted to policy A tomorrow, a lot of people would be out of work.

We move on to foreign policy B. For B, we’ll adopt the terminology of its critics, who are numerous indeed, and call it colonialism or imperialism. It can also be described as reactionary aggression. Policy B is not very popular on our college campuses.

Policy B is best defined as a profit-oriented foreign policy. It disregards the sovereignty of other Westphalian actors, for the purpose of producing some practical advantage for some or all Americans. The best example of policy B is the Mexican War. I live in territory acquired via policy B, so there must be some good to it. Or at least some profit.

Moreover, although policy B is not in principle averse to piracy, plunder and predation, there is no reason at all that its effects need not be profitable for America and its target alike. The easiest way for America or Americans to profit from foreign countries is not to pillage them, but to do business with them. Most, if not all, violations of strict Westphalian sovereignty in the golden age of colonialism were highly beneficial to the “victim.”

A good example in the American sphere was the Open Door Policy and the international free port of Shanghai, which (in case any Chinese nationalists are reading: your real problem is policy C) presaged the modern design of “one country, two systems.” There is also the corporate domination of Latin America, eg, the relationship between United Fruit and Guatemala. Several major university departments are devoted to this exploitative horror, in which commercial stability and political stability reinforced each other. Here, for example, is an American visitor’s description of Guatemala City in 1935:

Guatemala [City] is a clean, fresh little city of a hundred and fifty thousand people. […] Traffic rules are numerous and well-observed. At each intersection a driver slows down, honks ever so gently, and waits until the policeman signals him on with a whistle as dulcet as the motor’s horn. If he leaves town, an officer takes his number, telephones it ahead; and if his spin has been a trifle too dizzy, the speeder finds himself arrested at his destination. It would be redundant to state that accidents are rare.
[…]
Aside from what the Europeanized minority needs, everything that Guatemala produces or uses comes into the great market behind the Cathedral. Need I say that it is quiet and orderly, clean and pleasant? All the Guatemalan tribes converge there, and its sights and sounds and smells together reflect a wavering and imperfect image; but still an image of the whole country. No Indian lives on too distant a mountain to make his way sooner or later to the capital, bringing the wooly blankets he wears at home; or in too trackless a jungle to turn up some day in El Mercado Central with an ocelot skin or a choice bit of alligator meat for sale. Most Indians come to town in typical dress, for every hamlet has its own: costumes so striking in color and style that they reduce the whole correct city and vapid white race to a paltry background for their display.

Present-day visitors to Guatemala City may think of many adjectives, but I’m not sure “clean,” “fresh,” “quiet” or “orderly” would be among them. I suspect standards of dress among the Indians have slipped a little, as well. And as for the “vapid white race,” most of them probably live in Miami by now. Some might describe this as progress. I do wonder what Ms. Fergusson, who is quite liberal and seems to have friends at the Carnegie Foundation, would make of it.

There is actually one country today in which a foreign corporate monopoly and a one-party state have a relationship not unlike that of Guatemala and United Fruit: Botswana (with De Beers). With perfect if typical indifference to consistency, Botswana is generally described as a story of postcolonial democratic success. Wonders, apparently, will never cease.

But enough of policy B. It is simply not terribly important in the grand scheme of things. Like all things sensible and reactionary, policy B is constantly trying to seep through the cracks in its evil twin, policy C. And like all such things, it is constantly being swatted down.

Policy C can be called idealism, or transnationalism, or supranationalism, or revolutionary aggression. I prefer transnationalism, which gives us the wonderful abbreviation tranzi. The term is of recent invention, but the concept (contra its inventor‘s opinion, which follows the usual “conservative” line, under which America existed in a perfect golden age until the writer’s approximate birthdate) is, as we’ll see, centuries old.

Incorrect, but commonly used, labels are internationalism (which should refer to policy A), and Wilsonianism (which credits the wrong inventor – “Canningism” might be better). 19th-century reactionaries often described the institutional forces behind policy C as Exeter Hall. Where policy B is associated with soldiers, merchants, and settlers, policy C is the preferred choice of missionaries, intellectuals and bureaucrats.

Essentially, policy C is the policy of promoting “American ideals” around the world. As with policy B, the results can often be benign – although not, I would say, quite as often. But under the terms of Westphalian sovereignty and classical international law, policy C is aggression, pure and simple.

There is absolutely no place in the system of Grotius and Vattel for making war on an evil regime, in pursuit of peace with the good people whom it oppresses. There is also no place for accomplishing the same objective via bribery, extortion and propaganda, aka “soft power.”

The key to policy C is its Orwellian definition of the word “independence.” Transnationalist independence is to actual independence as the Holy Roman Empire was to the Roman Empire. Given that the word “independent” is composed of the particle “in-“, meaning “not,” and the word “dependent,” meaning “dependent,” you might think people would blush a little when they tell us, for example, that “Zimbabwe became independent in 1980.” But no. Over the centuries, they have simply lost all shame.

Policy B, being a fact of nature, is eternal. But policy C has a father, and its name is George Canning. The classic expression of Canningism was the “independence” of Greece. As one 19th-century history so charmingly puts it:

Canning was, in fact, the founder of modern Greek liberty. The rule of Turkey was becoming intolerable to the Greeks. Russia favoured and fomented the national uprising of the Greeks against their Turkish oppressors. The sympathy of these countries was given almost universally to the cause of the Greek patriots. Lord Byron threw his whole soul into their cause and lost his gallant life for it, not even, as he fondly desired, dying sword in hand for Greece on a Greek battlefield, but perishing prematurely of fever among the swamps of Missolonghi. Lord Cochrane lent all the generous ardour of his energetic nature to support the Greeks in their struggle. An immense wave of popular sympathy with Greece passed over this country. Numbers of brave and brilliant young men went over from London, from all parts of Great Britain and Ireland, to help the Greeks in their struggle. Lord John Russell told the House of Commons, many years after, of the manner in which, regardless of the strict letter of international law, he and other sympathisers had openly helped to raise recruits in England for the support of the cause of Greek independence. The nation became young again in its generous sympathy with Greece.

Don’t you love that “regardless of the strict letter of international law?” Regardless of the strict letter of domestic law, someone once broke into my garage and stole my bicycle.

This, in other words, is basically what zu Reventlow is complaining about. When England wants something, it is “regardless of the strict letter of international law.” When its own ox is being gored, it’s “putting an end to the rule of gangsterism in international affairs.” All customers can be satisfied with this infinitely flexible approach.

Most people who believe in policy C simply don’t see it as aggressive in any way, shape or form. This is largely due to the Orwellian use of words such as “independence,” “freedom,” “liberty,” and the like. At least in my world, “freedom” and “liberty” are a quality-of-government issue, which has no necessary correlation with either the race, color, language or creed of the governors, or the process by which they are selected.

And “independence,” as previously described, is the opposite of “dependence.” When a Greece gains its “independence” at the hands of a Canning – or, to be more exact, a British Navy – what has actually happened is that Greece has ceased to be a Turkish possession, and become an informal British protectorate. In other words, Britain has liberated it from Turkey, very much as my bicycle was liberated.

As patriotic Americans may not know, the essence of policy C in the first century of USG – the Monroe Doctrine – was in fact an invention of none other than… George Canning. Instead of liberating Greece from Turkey, he was liberating South America from Spain. The principle, however, is the same.

In one of the wonderful old New York Times Current History volumes, I have located this excellent history (1916) of the Monroe Doctrine. 1916 is a perfect year for such a history: it ends the era in which US foreign policy was more or less confined to said Doctrine – with the small, and surely understandable, exception of Asia. Read the whole thing, as they say. It requires some reading between the lines, but I suspect you are prepared for this.

Particularly notable, and quoted by the anonymous editor, is John Quincy Adams’ restatement of policy A, in the Monroe Doctrine address itself, as regards Europe:

Our policy in regard to Europe, which was adopted at an early stage of the wars which have so long agitated that quarter of the globe, nevertheless remains the same, which is, not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers; to consider the Government de facto as the legitimate Government for us; to cultivate friendly relations with it, and to preserve those relations by a frank, firm, and manly policy; meeting, in all instances, the just claims of every power, submitting to injuries from none.

Ladies and gentlemen: foreign policy in one sentence. With a few subordinate clauses.

We also note in our editor’s discussion the fact that, in the early days of policy C, it was by no means in conflict with policy B:

England was beginning already to feel the influence of the liberalism which was pervading her domain and which resulted within a few years in the Reform bills. Moreover, by the restoration of the South American colonies to Spain her trade would undoubtedly be reduced and imperiled.

Two great tastes that go great together! The calculation on our side of the Atlantic, of course, was much the same. “Independence” – that is, protectorateship – precluded Spanish interference with the lucrative British and American carrying trades.

I am confident that Greece was better off as a British protectorate than a Turkish possession. I am not sure I can say the same about South America. Most of us know very little about the history of Latin America from 1550 to 1800, basically because there wasn’t any. People lived and worked, the laws were enforced, systematic violence was generally absent, etc, etc. When you hear of American expats in Mexico, for instance, bragging that they have a “colonial-era house” or live in the “old town,” they may not know they are making a statement about the Monroe Doctrine. But you do.

Interestingly enough, our editor denies that the Monroe Doctrine represented a full protectorate under the 19th-century definition of the term. Moreover, he has evidence to prove it:

Our Government has never maintained that the Monroe Doctrine committed us to any sort of protectorate over the independent States of this hemisphere, so that we would be in any way called upon to espouse their quarrels. We always admitted that they were responsible for their own misconduct and could be held to a strict enforcement of their obligations. In 1861 we admitted the right of France, Spain, and Great Britain to proceed by force against Mexico for the satisfaction of just claims. As evidence that we did not consider ourselves the guardians of the South American republics, John Bassett Moore, former Counselor of the State Department, cites the following instances as illustrating our refusal to interfere with the affairs of South or Central American republics: In 1842 and 1844 Great Britain blockaded a part of Nicaragua for a claim without our protest, and in 1851 she laid an embargo on the Port of Salvador; in 1862 she seized Brazilian vessels in Brazilian waters in reprisal for the plundering of a British bark on the Brazilian coast. In 1838 France blockaded Mexican ports, and in 1845 Great Britain and France blockaded the Port of Buenos Aires for the purpose of securing the independence of Uruguay.

Unfortunately, by this standard, more or less every country in the world (Russia and China notably excepted) – and certainly every country in South America – is an American protectorate today. Compare, for example, to the Suez crisis. Washington would not come close to tolerating any of the above actions today.

But really the worst thing about policy C, in my opinion, is the way it managed to relight the flames of ethnic nationalism, so antithetical to the “liberalism” which supposedly animates it. The flame of Greek nationalism which Canning lit, for example, still burns quite brightly. As a kid I lived in Cyprus for a couple of years, and let me tell you – Greek nationalism is the worst. The most vile, degenerate Southern racism has nothing on it.

Moreover, policy C introduced the world to the strange concept of “good nationalism” versus “bad nationalism.” Good nationalism (Greece, Italy, Kosovo) is subservient to the emerging transnational order, ie, the empire of Britain or America depending on your century. Bad nationalism (Germany, Japan, South Ossetia) is either (a) its own weird thing, or (b) subservient to some other order. In any case, it is bad, bad, bad, and not to be tolerated.

I mention Italy, whose case was very similar to Greece. But Italy beat Greece in that it had, rather than mere gangs of marauding bandits, some charismatic leaders. One of the most popular – in America, at least – was Giuseppe Mazzini. The best way to think of Mazzini is as a sort of 19th-century Mandela. He was the cynosure of liberal evangelists everywhere. He lived in Britain. And sure enough, when the rubber hit the road, the British Navy helped him out. Here is Jane Addams, on Mazzini:

I came into my father’s room one morning to find him sitting beside the fire with a newspaper in his hand, looking very solemn; and upon my eager inquiry what had happened, he told me that Joseph Mazzini was dead. I had never even heard Mazzini’s name, and after being told about him I was inclined to grow argumentative, asserting that my father did not know him, that he was not an American, and that I could not understand why we should be expected to feel badly about him. It is impossible to recall the conversation with the complete breakdown of my cheap arguments, but in the end I obtained that which I have ever regarded as a valuable possession, a sense of the genuine relationship which may exist between men who share large hopes and like desires, even though they differ in nationality, language, and creed; that those things count for absolutely nothing between groups of men who are trying to abolish slavery in America or to throw off Hapsburg oppression in Italy. At any rate, I was heartily ashamed of my meager notion of patriotism, and I came out of the room exhilarated with the consciousness that impersonal and international relations are actual facts and not mere phrases.

Ah, Hapsburg oppression in Italy. How one cherishes, today, that lovely line of Metternich’s: Italy is a “geographic expression.” Does Georgia even reach that level? If it fell into the Black Sea, would cartographers notice? Alas, my notion of patriotism is all too meager.

The difference between good and bad nationalism is expressed nowhere more gloriously, or at least nowhere I have found, than in a 1930s-era biography of Mazzini by then Communist Ignazio Silone. Silone has a serious problem: he needs to explain the difference between the Risorgimento (good) nationalism of Mazzini and Garibaldi, and the Fascist (bad) nationalism of Mussolini. Take it away, Ignazio:

“In Europe today,” wrote Mazzini, “the word revolution is synonymous with the word nationality. It implies a redrawing of the map of Europe; a cancellation of all treaties based on conquest, compromise, and the wills of reigning houses; a reorganization to be made in line with the temperaments and capabilities of the peoples and with their free consent; a removal of the causes of selfish hostility among the peoples; a balancing of power [note the British catchword – MM] among them, and therefore the possibility of brotherhood. The sovereignty of that goal must replace the sovereignty of force, caprice and chance.”

In line with that attitude Mazzini became the champion of all oppressed nationalities. The causes of Croatia, Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, he embraced and defended along with the cause of Italy. One must observe, however, and in most emphatic terms, that the various schools of modern nationalism based on biological or racial myths have no reason to regard Mazzini as one of their forefathers. A criterion of race can serve, at the most, for classifying horses. Neither geography nor language nor religion is alone adequate for constituting nationality. One cannot deny that the Swiss people constitutes a nation, yet it speaks four languages, is part Protestant, part Catholic, and at a number of points in Switzerland cannot be said to have clearly definable frontiers. Nationality is an historical phenomenon resulting from a given evolution of human civilization within certain limits of time and space. For Mazzini the original germ of nationalism lay in the consciousness of a common calling, or mission. “Nationality is the share that God has assigned to the given people in the progress of humanity. It is the mission which each people must fulfill, the task it must do, on earth, that the divine idea may attain its full expression; it is the work which gives a people the right to citizenship in the world. It is the sign of that people’s personality and of the rank it occupies among other peoples, its brothers.” The more tenaciously a people cherished the consciousness of its mission, even under the rule of foreign peoples, the nobler would be the message that God would entrust to it for the betterment of all.[…]

Mazzini imagines his prophet people calling a world conference, a real “Council of Humanity,” to be attended by “those who are the best in wisdom and virtue among those who believe in eternal things, in the mission of God’s creatures on earth, in the worship of progressive Truth. And these will assemble reverently to feel the soul pulse of collective humanity and to ask of those peoples who feel a stirring within them but are uncertain of themselves and of the future: ‘How much of the old faith has died in your hearts? How much of the faith of the future has begun to live within you?'”

A certain kinship of spirit and language may be noted between the messianic proclamations of Mazzini and the philosophy of Polish nationalism as preached about that time by Mickiewicz and Cieszkowski, a definitely messianic doctrine which, in view of peculiar circumstances in Poland, continues to count followers there even today. Never before that time had sentiments of nationalism been so lavishly exalted. But those patriots, it should be noted, did not think of a nation as asserting itself at the expense of humanity. In view of the fact that each nation had been created by God’s will, each nation was subordinate to a divine plan of universal utility. To violate the rights of another people was to do harm to society as a whole and therefore to oneself. The nationalisms so popular in our time are exclusivist, chauvinist, xenophobic, antisemitic, imperialist – in a word, reactionary. The nationalism of Mazzini was tolerant, conciliatory, humanitarian, cosmopolitan, progressive. There is little in common between the two systems. Modern nationalism is showing itself to be the enemy of nations.

If you say so, Iggy.

We’ll finish off next Thursday with part 2, covering the 20th century and solving the riddle of World War II. Which may already be obvious. But if it’s not, we’ll certainly beat it to death.

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De gustibus non computandum: or, economics needs a divorce

August 21, 2008

Most people believe that there is something called “economics.” But this is just not so.

When we use the word “economics,” we are conflating two completely distinct disciplines. Worse, at most one of these disciplines is right – each despises and condemns the other. It’s as if English had one word stellatry, which meant both astronomy and astrology.

Our first discipline is literary economics. Literary economics is what the word economics meant in English until the 1870s or so. It is Carlyle’s dismal science. It was also practiced in the 20th century, under the name Austrian economics, by figures such as Mises, Rothbard and Hazlitt. Our second is quantitative economics. Quantitative economics was invented in the late 19th century and early 20th century, by figures such as Walras, Marshall, Fisher, Keynes and Friedman. It is also practiced today, under the name economics.

Observe, for a moment, the suspicious evolution of this terminology. Astrology and astronomy have a similar temporal relationship – as do alchemy and chemistry. Ie: astronomy replaced astrology, and made it clear that its predecessor was nonsense. Chemistry replaced alchemy, and made it clear that its predecessor was nonsense.

But when Robert Boyle replaced alchemy with chemistry, he chose a new name to make it clear that he was separating the sheep from the goats and classifying himself among the former. Astronomy is separate from astrology for much the same reason, and in much the same way.

Whereas in economics it’s the other way around. The new name has replaced the old one in situ, forcing its predecessor to decamp to a label which, like all labels, was originally pejorative. It’s as if chemistry had decided that it was the only true alchemy, and forced the original alchemists to rebrand their field as, I don’t know, Swedish alchemy.

Of course, this doesn’t prove anything at all. But isn’t it slightly weird? You’d think that if you discover that Field A, which has been taught in all the best schools and universities since Jesus was a little boy, was so misguided in its methodology that it is useless to continue its work, and instead people should study the far superior Field B, you’d call your glorious new B a B, rather than insisting that you had discovered the one true A.

I’d say this anomaly is, if nothing else, a reason to investigate the obvious alternative that this question suggests. Which is that it’s actually the new field, Field B, which is a crock. And which has chosen to hitch a ride on the good name of Field A, devouring it in classic parasitic style. In other words, it is actually the Swedish alchemists who are the real chemists, and whose field has been invaded and annexed by a horde of canting, zodiac-wielding transmutationists. Oops.

You may or may not agree with this proposition. But it is surely prudent to consider it fairly. And the only way to do so is to hold the disputed marital property, economics, in escrow, leaving the respondents with their own separate and equal names. Ideally, the noun would be estopped from both parties, giving us not literary economics but something like econography, and not quantitative economics but something like economodeling. (Or perhaps, if you want to be nasty, econogy – practitioners, econogers.) However, some may be too conservative for these bold linguistic innovations.

Let’s briefly establish the distinction between these fields. It should be obvious that whatever their respective merits, they are different things and should not be conflated under one name. To indulge in a little Procrustean generalization:

The method of quantitative economics – including both econometrics and neoclassical macroeconomics – is to construct mathematical models of economic systems, ie, systems of independent, utility-maximizing agents. The purpose of quantitative economics is to predict the behavior of these systems, so that central planners can manage them intelligently.

The method of literary economics is to reason clearly and deductively in English about the behavior of economic agents. The purpose of literary economics is to construct and convey an intuitive understanding of causal relationships in economic systems.

Clearly, these fields have nothing in common, either in methodology or purpose. It is true that some quantitative models can be explained in literary terms. However, they cannot be justified in literary terms. And if they can, no quantitative methods are necessary. Indeed, successful quantitative methods often hold up quite poorly when judged by literary standards. Two good examples of this phenomenon are Henry Hazlitt’s Failure of the New Economics – a line-by-line response to Keynes’ General Theory – or Murray Rothbard’s abusive treatment of Irving Fisher’s equation of exchange.

And by the standards of quantitative economics, which considers itself a predictive, falsifiable, inductive science, literary economics is simply a nothing. At best, a popularization. It makes no testable predictions. Why anyone would study it in the 21st century is a mystery.

Ergo: there is no possibility of reconciliation. Papers should issue. Custody of that little brat, economics, should be delayed for further consideration. Perhaps he can be sent to Antartica and eaten by a leopard seal.

Consideration of the merits and demerits of contemporary literary, or Austrian, economics is off-topic for this brief, off-week UR. (I know I promised not to post again until the 28th. But your host is not really known for keeping his promises.) Rather, I want to use the tools of literary economics to explain why quantitative macroeconomics is, to put it quite bluntly, fraudulent. The argument that economics needs a divorce is not dependent on this point, but it certainly ought to help seal the deal.

The point is unusually accessible because of an article this week in the NYT Magazine, on the economist Nouriel Roubini. Brad Setser, Roubini’s old sidekick and now at the CFR, expands. (I used to post a lot of comments on Setser’s blog, but that was before little Sibyl showed up.)

Roubini and Setser are certainly not Austrians. Which makes their reinvention of literary economics all the more interesting. The great lie, after all, is always one cohesive monolith, whereas great truths seep in from every pore. Roubini is trained in modeling, whereas Setser is not. Personally, I prefer Setser. But Roubini is more flamboyant and more credentialed, and he gets the press. As the Times flack puts it:

Roubini’s work was distinguished not only by his conclusions but also by his approach. By making extensive use of transnational comparisons and historical analogies, he was employing a subjective, nontechnical framework, the sort embraced by popular economists like the Times Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz in order to reach a nonacademic audience. Roubini takes pains to note that he remains a rigorous scholarly economist — “When I weigh evidence,” he told me, “I’m drawing on 20 years of accumulated experience using models” — but his approach is not the contemporary scholarly ideal in which an economist builds a model in order to constrain his subjective impressions and abide by a discrete set of data.

Indeed. Setser puts it this way:

But the outcome of most such models seem determined by the assumptions used to create the model more than anything else. […] I am biased, but I think it is possible to be analytically rigorous (and to use real data to inform your conclusions) even in the absence of a formal model.

And the commenters, as usual, repeat and reinforce the point in various interesting ways. (If you want to participate in a productive discussion about international monetary economics, Setser’s blog is still the place to go.)

Moreover, even leading quantitative economists are happy to admit that in the century or so of its existence, quantitative economics has displayed little if any predictive power. For example, consider this cri de coeur from Greg Mankiw, or this European reminder that none of the DSGE models in use every day at the highest policy level includes anything like a plausible theory of what is surely the most salient issue in economic prediction – the business cycle. And Axel Leijonhufvud is brutally direct:

I conclude that dynamic stochastic general equilibrium theory has proven itself an intellectually bankrupt enterprise.

Of course, I’m sure many other economodelers disagree with this epitaph. If nothing else, few scholars display such Diogenesian honesty as to pronounce the death of their own field. Nor are Mankiw and Leijonhufvud really saying that it’s time for all the economists in the world to clean out their cubicles and consider new careers in the lawn-care industry. I’m sure they are quite confident that, with redoubled effort, the profession can redeem itself. But, considering the age of the endeavor, the rest of us should feel free to be skeptical.

One of the most interesting intellectual phenomena of today is the fact that we can read the words of professionals whose jobs it is to actually predict macroeconomic systems. Ie: fund managers. My favorites are three blogs I’ve mentioned before – Macro Man, Cassandra Does Tokyo, and CT Oysters. Frankly, these guys are just mensches, anyone who reads their blogs for five minutes can see it, and if I had any money I would find a way to give it to them.

The first thing you notice about financial professionals is that they have almost no interest in the work of academic quantitative economists. (In fact there is a species of fund manager called a quant, but quantitative financial engineering has essentially nothing to do with the quantitative economics of Marshall, Keynes, Fisher and the like.) I discovered this world through Brad Setser’s blog, and the likes of Setser and Roubini do interact with the pros – giving them considerable respect, indeed, which says a lot for Setser and Roubini.

But as we’ve seen, they are exceptions. In general, the relationship between the financial industry and the academic field of quantitative economics strikes me as quite comparable to the relationship between the software industry and the academic field of computer science. Ie: what relationship?

When you look at the methodology of the world’s Macro Men – this post is a fine example – they seem to operate mainly on the basis of their noses. Their specialty is integrating a wide variety of perspectives and arguments and judging the soup by intuitive gut feel. Nothing farther from the work of Keynes and Fisher, or even from the methodology of the 21st-century central banker (who is often looking at the same problem from the other side) could be imagined. They are not practicing strict Austrian economics, although they are often influenced by it. But their approach is certainly in the literary category. Yet another strikeout for the econogers.

What I want to explain today is why quantitative economics doesn’t work. My refutation is certainly not the only possible one – you can find a whole bushel full here. However, since only one refutation is required to refute anything, I have chosen one I find particularly ripe.

The task of econogy is actually remarkably similar to that of astrology. The astrologer maintains a model whose inputs are past measurements (star and planet positions, comets, eclipses), and whose outputs are future events (the death of a prince, the winner of a battle, the sex of a baby). Using signs, symbols and simulations, he maps the one to the other. His results are dispatched directly to the king, who uses them to set monetary policy.

Why do we know astrology doesn’t work? We know it in two ways: inductively and deductively. Inductively, we see no past track record of successful astrological prediction – just as Professor Mankiw sees no past track record of successful econogical prediction. But this tells us very little, really. It could just mean that past astrologers were bad astrologers. However, radical new theories of astrology may indeed allow us to predict the deaths of princes, etc.

The deductive argument is far more brutal. We know that astrology doesn’t work because we know that astrology cannot work. We know that astrology cannot work because we know physics, and we know that there is no plausible mechanism by which comets, planets, etc, can cause the deaths of princes. (Unless the comet actually hits the prince – a contingency which boring, zodiacless astronomers are perfectly competent to predict.)

Similarly, if you are an American, you’ve probably had the experience of watching a baseball game and hearing the commentator produce some egregious abuse of statistics, such as “Rodriguez bats .586 against Clemens on prime-numbered Tuesdays.” You know that this number is (a) not statistically significant, and even if it was it would still be (b) a product of data dredging, ie, overfitting. And you know this not just because sports commentators are nincompoops, but because you know that the numerical properties of the calendar cannot possibly affect the batting of Rodriguez.

Is there an equivalent for econogy? As it so happens, there is.

Here is a question: how much better a car is a (new) 2008 Mustang than a (new) 1988 Mustang? Is it twice as good? Three times as good? 5.7 times as good? 1.32 times as good? How much better a computer is the MacBook Pro than the Mac Plus? 75 times as good? 1082.1 times as good? And who was a better Bond, Sean Connery or Daniel Craig?

Surely the form of the question is nonsensical. There is no objective way to quantify the quality of a car, or a computer, or a Bond. We might as well ask: what temperature is love? What is the weight of March? Which is better, a cat or a dog? We can express all of these as numbers. We can even produce formulas which output these numbers. But we cannot describe them as measurements.

Actually, however, econogers (econometricians, to be precise) solve these problems on a regular basis. They do so when computing the mysterious quantity known to econogers – and to readers of fine newspapers everywhere – as inflation.

The implicit proposition assumed by the word inflation, at least in its 20th-century meaning, is that changes in the value of money over time can be measured quantitatively. The 20th-century concept of inflation is largely due to one Irving Fisher, who is surely one of the century’s most distinguished charlatans. Professor Fisher’s work is online, and certainly worth reading, if only from a forensic point of view.

Consider the phrase “value of money.” What is the “value” of money? Money, at least your modern fiat currency, has no particular direct utility, unless you need to snort a line of coke or find yourself “caught short.” We desire money because we desire the things that money can be exchanged for, such as 2008 Mustangs, plasma TVs, crude oil, etc. Thus we speak of the “purchasing power” of money.

To be more concrete, let’s look at a specific currency – the dollar. At any moment, we observe a vast set of prices, which are exchange rates between the dollar and other goods – 2008 Mustangs, euros, tickets to Bond films, and so on.

These prices are measurements – hard numbers. For any time T at which the market is open, we have a precise measurement of the dollar-to-euro ratio. We also have a precise measurement of the dollar-to-crude-oil ratio, and even a fairly precise one of the dollar-to-2008-Mustang ratio. (Though the bid-ask spread on this last is quite wide.)

If we want to speak clearly, however, we cannot speak of the “value of the dollar.” We cannot say “the dollar is strong” or “the dollar is weak” or even “the dollar rose today.” We can say all these things about the US Dollar Index. But we could construct another index which was a weighted average of the exchange rate from dollars to zinc, dollars to Malaysian ringgit, and dollars to Bond-film tickets, and this number would have just as much (and just as little) right to be described as “the dollar” as does the aforementioned index (which is usually what people mean). But our two numbers might well be quite different.

When we speak of the dollar, we have surrendered our souls to the fallacy of objective value. We have constructed a unitless number out of a set of measurements in incompatible units. The result is a mathematical solecism, like saying “my car is 60 miles fast.” There is no such thing as value, only price, and every price has both numerator and denominator units.

But saying “the dollar is strong” is a peccadillo next to the flagitious concept of inflation. The Irving Fishers of the world claim, quite seriously, to be able to measure the “value” of 2008 dollars in 1988 dollars. Let’s look a little more closely at how this feat is accomplished.

Clearly, this number is not a price. There is no exchange rate between 1988 dollars and 2008 dollars, as there is between 2008 dollars and 2008 euros. Due to our lack of reliable and effective time machines, there is no market on which 1988 dollars and 2008 dollars can be exchanged. (We can measure the 20-year interest rate in 1988, but by definition this cannot be affected by any events after 1988, unless 1988 has a time machine which can observe the future.)

Time is confusing, so we can think of the problem in another way. Suppose we build a powerful telescope by which we observe economic activity on Alpha Centauri. It so happens that the Centaurians call their currency the “dollar.” What is the exchange rate between Earth dollars and Centauri dollars? There is none, because Earth and Centauri cannot exchange any goods, monetary or otherwise.

However, we note that some goods are exactly the same on Earth and on Centauri – the laws of physics being equal. Earth zinc and Centauri zinc, for example, are both zinc. Earth water and Centauri water are both water. So if we measure the prices of these invariant goods in Earth dollars and Centauri dollars, we obtain – presto – Professor Fisher’s “commodity dollar.”

But there are two problems with this approach. One, we have no reason to expect the Earth-Centauri price ratio in zinc to be the same as the ratio in water, or methanol, or gold, or any other intergalactic commodity standard. Two, while we can average them, but we have no objective procedure with which to define the weight of each commodity in our average. By mass? By energy content? By number of protons? By total price of annual product on Earth? By total price of annual product on Centauri? Each method produces a different result.

And three, we have no reason at all to measure goods that are identical on both Earth and Centauri (“commodities”) and ignore items that vary, such as cars, movies, pizza, etc. An Earth Mustang costs E$30,000; a Centauri Mustang costs C$10,000. This suggests that 1 C$ equals 3 E$. On the other hand, Centaurians weigh 500 pounds and have eight legs, which requires a much heavier grade of suspension and a completely different style of seat…

Human anatomy in 1988 is quite similar to its descendant in 2008. Otherwise, the relationship between 1988 and 2008, at least as far as prices are concerned, is precisely identical to the relationship between Earth and Centauri: 1988 and 2008 cannot trade, and consumers in each have a completely different set of preferences and a completely different set of goods they can purchase to satisfy those preferences.

The diligent gnomes at the BLS, of course, have thought of all these things. For example, they have no problem in telling you how much better a car a 2008 Mustang is than a 1988 Mustang. Every year, for a month or two, both the new year’s model and the old’s are on sale at the same time. In the fall of 1988, you could buy either a 1988 Mustang or a 1989 Mustang. The latter was more expensive – say, 5% more expensive. Therefore, it must be 5% better, dollars to dollars. Compute this number every year, multiply it out, and we have our ratio. Here is a fine illustration of the sort of numerology involved. (Yes, “Fisher” is our dear old Irving, he of the “permanently high plateau,” the eugenics, the prohibition and the intestinal butchery.)

This gives us an objective procedure to calculate the quality improvement in Mustangs. Here is another objective procedure: subtract 1900 from the year, and divide. This tells us that the 2008 Mustang is 108/88 better than the 1988 Mustang, ie, 22% better. Which of these procedures produces a number closer to the actual ratio of the value of a 2008 Mustang to the value of a 1988 Mustang? Obviously, to evaluate them, we would have to know said ratio. Back to square one.

Do you still believe that the ratio between 1988 Mustangs and 2008 Mustangs, or the ratio between 1988 dollars and 2008 dollars, or the ratio between Earth dollars and Centauri dollars can be calculated objectively, and should be assigned to the same category as actual numerical measurements, such as the ratio between 2008 dollars and 2008 euros?

If so, I recommend a visit to John Williams’ Shadow Government Statistics. Williams combines the formulas used in the Carter era with the data sets of 2008 to compute a rather different set of numbers. A look at the graph tells all. As Williams puts it:

Inflation, as reported by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) is understated by roughly 7% per year. This is due to recent redefinitions of the series as well as to flawed methodologies, particularly adjustments to price measures for quality changes.

Needless to say, 7% is a rather huge number in the world of inflation statistics.

Is Williams right? Is he wrong? I think it goes beyond this. The problem is that Williams is operating under exactly the same assumption as those he criticizes: that there is an objectively calculable number called inflation. No doubt for perfectly justifiable reasons, he favors one (old) method of calculating this number, whereas the government’s experts (also for perfectly justifiable reasons) favor another (new) method. Presumably there are many other methods which did not find favor either with the 1978 gnomes or the 2008 gnomes.

All of these figures are stuffed to the gills with subjective fudge. Whether the gnomes evaluate the products and weight the averages using their own personal taste (don’t forget the Bond films – entertainment is a significant percentage of consumer spending), or whether their subjective taste is kept at the level of algorithmic choice, the problem is the same: different gnomes, different numbers.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with subjective estimation for purposes of illustration. If an auto reviewer says something like “the 2008 Mustang is three times the car of its 1988 ancestor,” one might find it a little odd. If the number is not three but 3.47, a troubling Aspergery feel begins to emerge. But this is the reviewer’s judgment, and judgment is why we read reviews. As a reader one may prefer adjectives to numbers, but the numbers are certainly no less expressive.

And this even holds true for “inflation.” A historian may find it useful, in explaining the economics of the Roman Empire, to postulate an exchange rate between modern dollars and the denarius of Diocletian. Wheat prices, or labor costs, or precious metals, or any commodity or basket thereof, so long as the same good is obtainable in both 308 and 2008, may serve.

Illustrations, however, are one thing. Equations are another.

Quantitative economics can be refuted simply by observing that almost all its models rely on inflation-adjusted numbers. Figures such as “real interest rates” – ie, actual or “nominal” interest rates minus “inflation” – are everywhere. Other headline statistics, such as “growth,” are calculated using the same kinds of spurious pseudo-prices. (And others, such as “unemployment,” are consequences of different subjective choices.) Needless to say, an inflation discrepancy on the order of 7% is enough to throw most of your macroeconomic models into a completely different galaxy.

The key observation is that the relationship between the identity of the gnomes who produce the “inflation” number, and the prediction of the model (such as “unemployment”), is in exactly the same class as the relationship between the position of Saturn and the batting of Rodriguez. The latter cannot possibly depend on the former.

In other words, there is no conceivable causal mechanism by which the subjective taste of the gnomes can affect the variable which the model is designed to predict. It is just as erroneous to introduce the BLS’s opinion of antilock brakes – whether produced by the judicious conclusion of grizzled auto reviewers, or by an algorithm which is simply encoding the details of Ford’s model-year transition strategy – into a model designed to predict unemployment, as it would be to introduce the phase of the moon. Neither the phase of the moon or the stopping power of antilock brakes can either cause or cure unemployment, and any formula which implies otherwise can be discarded without any empirical evidence whatsoever.

Thus we can say: de gustibus non computandum. In matters of taste there is no computing. It is not necessary for us to examine the empirical results of models which purport to predict future events from a mixture of price measurements and subjective quality assessments. We know deductively that no such model can be accurate. We cannot be surprised to learn inductively that they do not, in fact, appear to work. Deduction trumps induction, though it’s always reassuring when the two agree.

This analysis leaves two questions open.

One, we have demonstrated the worthlessness of economodeling, but we have not demonstrated the worth of econography. Perhaps both are worthless. In that case, do they need a divorce? Maybe they’re more like one of those couples which deserve each other.

Two, we have failed to explain why, if economodeling is such obvious nonsense, it became and has remained so popular.

Perhaps these questions call for a sequel. The next UR post will appear on August 28, 2008. It will probably be about something completely different.

Resartus: a social revision engine

August 14, 2008

Thanks to all UR readers who have returned for our fall term. No, it is not September yet, but the air is full of fog and brown apple moths, and little Sibyl Carlyle is at five months. I am delighted to report that she holds her own bottle. She also has a brutal, laserlike, almost creepy stare, and Mrs. Moldbug fervently denies that she in any way resembles Hitler. I suppose her hair is lighter.

And thanks again to those who contributed comments in the OL series. I still intend to edit, or at least select, the comments to construct a coherent thread of response. Or at least one as coherent as the essays themselves. I also will tie up the many loose ends left dangling. But not, as St. Augustine put it, just yet.

Many interesting things have happened over the last month. I will discuss these things, but again, not yet. The next UR post will appear not on the 21st but the 28th, and it will be called something like “US foreign policy from Hamilton to Herron to Holbrooke: two centuries of mendacious, counterproductive bungling.” But in the meantime, there’s always the War Nerd.

Today, though, we’re going to look a little more at the solution I proposed: Resartus. A couple of people have built systems roughly related to the proposal: Lex Libra at resartus.thinkernews.com, Daniel Nagy and Baldvin Kovacs at thiblo.com. Lex has also started a Google group, resartus. Please join this group if you’re interested in contributing.

I have registered resartus.org, but I have no intention of running the project. Since the golden rule of software is that who writes the code makes the rules, my suggestions are just that: suggestions. Following the old Roman design of the dual executive, I appoint Daniel and Lex the consuls of Resartus, with joint plenary power. It is their bag, man.

The consulate is permanent, or at least indefinite. Each consul is free to appoint his or her own successor at any time for any reason. I will assign the domain in accordance with the consuls’ wishes, no matter how corrupt, incompetent or tyrannical they may prove to be.

Let’s take a moment to meet these people. Dr. Nagy, of course, is a frequent commenter here at UR. His homepage is here. So is his PGP key. Daniel is that kind of guy.

As for Lex, I have no idea who he is. I have never met him. (I’ve never met Daniel, either, but at least we’ve Skyped.) Lex’s handle is only slightly less ominous than mine. And while I promised to protect his privacy, I can’t resist revealing this short biography, which may of course be entirely fraudulent:

I currently do coding and product design for a venture backed startup in Cambridge, MA. Like you, I was once a prototypical progressive. I attended high school at [not Andover – MM] and then majored in history at [not Princeton] (graduated 2006). During college I interned on Capitol Hill, volunteered on campaigns, worked in [] City Hall etc. Gradually, I observed firsthand the many pathologies of government. Midway through [not Princeton] I taught myself to code and dove into the tech startup world. It’s amazing how your perspective on politics changes when you start asking, “How can I start a business to solve this problem?” rather than “How could a government program solve this problem?” That change, along with numerous Navrozov moments, soured me on both the university and progressivism.

I think I first found your blog last February when someone submitted your post about the financial crisis to programming.reddit. I followed your links and started reading Rothbard and DeSoto, plus Hoppe, Leoni, Szabo, Sailer, Stefan Zweig, Grand Duke Alexander, etc.. It’s been a fascinating trip. So thank you!

You see the grade of young minds we’re corrupting here at UR. Quality over quantity. If Lex gives you any trouble, however, you can address him derisively as “Princeton.”

In any case, Resartus is theirs – to (a) see through, (b) screw up or (c) let die on the shelf. The idea is out there, and if they don’t do it I suspect someone else will. If you are not interested in working with Lex and Daniel, even if they are not interested in working with each other, DNS has no shortage of names. Feel free to fork. I will use this space to promote anyone who builds anything even vaguely inspired by the idea.

But I do want to use this week’s post to clarify my own “vision” of Resartus. After this, I will butt out. Since Daniel and Lex have irrevocable plenary power, they are of course free to ignore anything I say. They are also free to ignore anything you say. My impression, though, is that they are sensible people who know how to listen, and I expect they will listen to you as well as to me. Obviously, nothing like Resartus can happen without an enormous community contribution, in design and administration as well as mere content.

For simplicity, I’ll describe Resartus in the present unconditional tense, as though it actually existed and I, not Lex and Daniel, was its designer and administrator. Please remember that neither of these statements is true. The consuls may or may not use any of the ideas below. If you don’t like their decisions, please don’t complain to me.

Resartus is a social revision engine. Perhaps the easiest way to explain this is to explain what it is not. Here is an example of what Resartus is not: createdebate.com. (Thanks to Alan Gooding for pointing me to this site.)

Here is the first “debate” I saw when clicking there today. Its creators, who I suspect are young men very like Lex, and who have clearly put a lot of hard work into the venture, must be tearing their hair out over “Who is the badest Celebertiy?” and its like. But what can they do? Alea jacta est. The Onion, as so often, nails it.

A social revision engine is not a chat board. If it degenerates into a chat board, it is dead. The world has no shortage of chat boards. It may even have an excess. Resartus is designed to complement Wikipedia – a remarkably valuable and useful service, though untrustworthy in general and often malignantly deceptive on controversial issues. Think of it as Wikipedia for controversial material and (perhaps eventually) original research, and you won’t be too far off.

One of the conclusions this leads me to is that Resartus, at least as such, is not cut out to be a classic “Web 2.0” or YCombinator style startup, like the unfortunate createdebate.com. Ie: it cannot be corporate. It needs to be transparent. It could have a corporate side and a transparent side, but it needs to separate them awfully well. Imagine how many people would have contributed content to La Wik if its domain had been, say, cyberpedia.com, and their articles had been sucked into a one-way database and surrounded by ads. Google may be able to get away with this, but you can’t.

(As a veteran of more than one Silicon Valley bubble, my feeling is that the Web 2.0 era is starting to feel a little played out, anyway. One large problem is that, with “cloud” services like Google App Engine, Amazon EC2, etc, hosting an application is starting to verge on the trivial. The lower the fixed cost, the more the community model outcompetes the capitalist model – no capital, no capitalism. Another problem – especially for Resartus – is that smart people don’t click on ads, at least not unless they’re actually searching for products and services. Over time, I expect transparent social networks to outcompete corporate ones. Maybe it’s time for Web 3.0.)

This is not to say that a buck cannot be made off the thing, if it succeeds. Look at the antics of Jimbo and his friends. But success is a prerequisite, and it’s my impression that resartus.org would outcompete resartus.com, even if the latter was not owned by some spammer. If you are full of piss and vinegar, please feel free to prove me wrong.

In any case: on to the product. It may not be commercial, but it remains a product. This means it deserves what, in the biz, we jokingly call a “PRD.” I will avoid elaborating on this acronym. Trust me, you don’t want to go there. Let’s do more or less the same thing, but make it fun.

A social revision engine exists to help you, the reader, make up your mind about a controversial issue without appealing to external authority. For example, Wikipedia’s policy suggests:

Material that has been vetted by the scholarly community is regarded as reliable; this means published in peer-reviewed sources, and reviewed and judged acceptable scholarship by the academic journals.

Material from mainstream news organizations is welcomed, particularly the high-quality end of the market, such as The Washington Post, The Times in Britain, and The Associated Press.

Here at UR, we refer to these fine institutions collectively as the Cathedral. Note that La Wik does not stoop to filling us in as to why we should believe the Cathedral. It is simply infallible, like the Vatican. Om mane padme hum. “Trust the computer. The computer is your friend.”

The process by which the “scholarly community” and the “mainstream news organizations” produce their reliable material is quite different from the process by which the Vatican produces its. The claim that the former is infallible – or even nearly infallible, or even fallible but eventually convergent toward the truth – is not one to be scoffed at. The Cathedral is a grand old edifice, a fabulous achievement of Western civilization. It is full of many fine people, many of whom do excellent work. As a whole, I don’t trust it at all and I think it needs to go. But this is just my own two cents. If you do trust the Cathedral, you have much less need for Resartus.

Need? Well, need is a strong word. You don’t need anything, besides oxygen and oat mush. But you should want to use Resartus. Or at least someone should. As with any product, we need to start by considering the users. No users, no traffic, no nothing.

Users of Resartus come in three categories: readers, writers, and developers. The developers are the people who build and administer the site – such as Daniel and Lex. Developers should not be writers; this is a conflict of interest.

Initially, everyone who visits Resartus will be a writer. The elusive “pure reader” will only arrive after a considerable degree of success. Nonetheless we discuss this individual, because every plan is a plan for success.

The Resartus reader – call her Janet – wants to make up her mind on some controversial issue. This issue is relevant (important enough to be worth Janet’s time). It is binary (it can be defined as a question whose answer is “yes” or “no.”) And it is disputed (plenty of people are strongly convinced of each side of the question). For example, “who is the badest Celebertiy?” is clearly disputed, but it is neither relevant nor binary.

Janet reads Resartus because she is confident that it provides her with the best available perspectives on both sides of this controversy. Moreover, these arguments need not be excavated from a comment thread, or even from two comment threads. They are structured and organized for Janet’s benefit.

I like the word trial, or (interchangeably) case, for a dispute on Resartus. The site is certainly not designed to be used for trials in the judicial sense of the word – at least, this is not a market requirement. However, a judicial proceeding is the epitome of relevant, binary and disputed. Janet is a juror in the case. For whatever reason – perhaps she just wants to know the truth – she intends to decide it. (This is her job, not Resartus’s. We produce no verdicts.)

In my opinion the rocket should be a considerable distance from the ground before anyone tries to use it to second-guess the actual judicial system. Think of the libel issues. But there are some exceptions already: I think Resartus would be a fine tool for exploring the cases of Bruce Ivins or Floyd Landis. (Indeed, the Trust But Verify blog has taken a very Resartus-like approach to the Landis case.) And do we really know who killed the Kennedys?

Every rocket, however, must start on the ground. With no flammable materials nearby. So I think the best subjects for initial Resartus trials are scientific and technical controversies, preferably ones which have not (such as global warming) experienced democratic polarization.

Technical trials are as far from the “badest Celebertiy” as we can imagine. I am especially fond of them because in many cases, I simply have no idea who is right. For me these cases include string theory, peak oil, and polywell fusion. Each of these can be phrased as a triable proposition: string theory is not a science, global petrochemical production is likely to decrease in the near future, Bussard’s polywell may be a viable solution for energy generation. These are not issues which Joe Sixpack has much of an opinion on, but they are certainly relevant and more or less binary, and you will certainly find strong views on both sides of each.

Social networks, in general, degrade over time. I am very conscious of this because my first social network was Usenet. Usenet in, say, 1990 had some excellent things going for it: (a) the average IQ of someone with a Usenet account was about 120, and (b) almost all accounts were administratively responsible. When this changed, Usenet was no longer viable. There is really nothing like the old Usenet today.

Resartus needs mechanisms to prevent such degradation. Many mechanisms. As many mechanisms as possible. The simplest one: start at the top. If you can resolve controversies in high-energy physics, you can deal with global warming. If you can deal with global warming, you can deal with the Russo-Georgian war. But if you start with the “badest Celebertiy,” or anything close, there is no hope.

It may be hard to round up a quorum of high-energy physicists. So another fine source of early trials is our old friend, the software industry. Emacs versus vi would be a fun trial. Or Python versus Ruby. Or even Linux versus Windows. The relevance here is debatable, but fun is often a good replacement for relevance.

But I am assuming a non-obvious design decision here. There is another way Resartus, at least at first, is different from createdebate.com: it hosts one main trial at a time. Think of Resartus as a hall of justice, with one courtroom. All cases are tried, sequentially of course, in that one room. Eventually the hall may expand and have several courtrooms, but not until necessary.

Why? Our goal is to create a critical mass of high-quality discussion. To do this, we need a critical mass of high-quality writers, preferably generalists who can dive into as many different subjects as possible. Especially at first, this is a very limited group. If we divert this group off into 74 different permanent ongoing arguments, we have no critical mass in any of them. Imagine creating Usenet all over again: how would you do it? You would start with one group, misc.general, then split it and split it again as the thing became unwieldy.

(Moreover, if we only have one courtroom, we have an excuse to put deadlines on our trials, which should focus the attention wonderfully. Two weeks, for example, should be enough to solidify the major points on just about anything.)

Of course, completed trials are not deleted. They are moved to the back burner. Discussion may not even need to be closed, although it probably should at first. Ideally, in a successful Resartus, a wide variety of trials are continually maintained and updated, so that Janet can get the dirt on whatever subject she wants to understand. For example, the ultimate use of Resartus might be a complete revision of modern history, with trials on every political controversy for the last 200 years. Who was right in the War of 1812? I really don’t know. And I would like to. But the rocket has to get off the ground first, and creating a community is like making gunpowder explode: it takes compression.

For scheduled trials, you need a scheduler. Initially, at least, this must be the developers. Lex and Daniel do not just write code; they decide what Resartus is going to focus on, when. They schedule, configure and administer the trials. They do not rely on random IP addresses to submit questions like “who is the badest Celebertiy?” Crowdsourcing has its limits.

Moreover, we have yet to answer the difficult problem: how to ensure that, from a world of random IP addresses, we somehow construct the strongest possible arguments on both sides. This is a mission-critical feature for Resartus. If Janet cannot be confident that she is seeing the best case on each side, Resartus is useless to her. She has no way of knowing that she is watching the string theory C-team go up against the loop quantum gravity A-team. She may know an ass-kicking when she sees one, but this kind of ass-kicking tells her nothing.

It may be possible to solve this problem with a karma system, like Slashdot’s, in which quality is determined entirely from peer votes. I am not a believer in democracy, but Slashdot has done a pretty decent job with their moderation system. So have Reddit and Hacker News. Certainly Resartus needs something of the kind. There are many problems with nondirected moderation, but one of the main ones is that people vote for content rather than quality. It goes without saying, or should, that plaintiff’s lawyers should not be voting defense lawyers up and down. Since the general Resartus approach is to separate the sides of a case – more on this shortly – we avoid this deadly pitfall.

There is another mechanism, however: human editors. I would like to think it’s possible to construct a quality filtering system which is entirely user-generated. But the only way to test this is to compare it to the work of a human, and a good one.

In other words: it may be possible to produce a flat, purely crowdsourced trial which still satisfies Janet’s needs. It is a goal. It may be possible to reach this goal. Or not. If so, it will take a lot of tuning and community-building.

Before this point, however, scheduling a trial involves securing the time of at least one editor. Following the judicial metaphor, the editor is like the attorney. (Attorneys in a normal judicial trial do not solicit input from the spectators, but there’s a first time for everything.) Editors are appointed by the developers for each trial. They may be experienced Resartus writers, or guest experts from outside the community.

For example, a trial of string theory is one thing. A trial of string theory in which the prosecution is edited by Peter Woit and Lee Smolin, and the defense is edited by Luboš Motl, is quite another. You might get the same results without the celebrities. But you might not.

In general, at least one side of a Resartus trial will be in some way revisionist – ie, inconsistent with the wise and holy teachings of the Cathedral. The revisionist side is either attacking some canonical belief, or promoting some unconventional one. Either way, without an editor, we can expect the case to be hopelessly disorganized and mispresented. The opposite, canonical side has a much better chance of being able to get by with mere crowd moderation.

I’ve described the ingredients of a trial. Now let’s zoom in a little and take a closer look at the process itself. These details are more shaky than the broad strokes above, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Daniel and Lex just throw them all out.

Like a modern Western trial, a Resartus case is asymmetric. Again, the burden of argument falls on the revisionist, who needs to make a case that the canonical interpretation of reality is wrong. Few will bother, at least at first, using this tool to make a case for the conventional wisdom. By definition, it has no shortage of defenders.

Thus we can describe the revisionist editor (or editors) as a prosecutor (or prosecutors). If this reminds you pleasantly of Cicero and his ilk, it should. Although in the end it was abused and resulted in a few too many decapitations, the Roman idea that anyone could prosecute anyone for anything was one of great coolness. Certainly the Verreses of our day could use a Cicero or two. And in Resartus there are no verdicts, and certainly no proscriptions.

The prosecutor opens the trial by stating a brief, but explosive, conclusion. For example:

String theory is pathological science.
Floyd Landis is a clean, upstanding young man.
America would be a better place without [ethnic group].
Emacs is a more powerful editor than vi.
Lee Harvey Oswald was a stooge of the Knights Templars.

To support this claim, the prosecutor then composes a statement. The statement should be short, but no shorter than necessary. It explains all the logic and facts necessary to understand the connection between Oswald and the Templars, or other revisionist argument.

The content of the trial is an annotation tree against the prosecutor’s statement. Annotations can be added by either prosecution or opposition. They may be local to some part of the statement, in which case they are marked (as unobtrusively as possible) much as footnotes. Or they may be global, with no such connection. Janet may want to follow local annotations, or she may just want to see a list of all annotations.

There are three classes of annotation: exhibits, queries, and objections.

An exhibit is a document that expresses some fact pertaining to the case. The document is to be taken on its own merit; there are no “reliable sources.” However, links to non-Resartus sites need to be archival quality: there should be a reasonable guarantee that the target of the URL will not change, that the URL is not and will not be firewalled, etc, etc. The developers maintain a list of archival-quality link targets. To exhibit a document from a non-archival source, copy it to Resartus.

A query is a sincere request for additional information or clarification. A rhetorical question is not a query. The difference between objections and queries is a matter of taste, of course. But taste matters, which is why we have the category.

An objection is an arbitrary counter-statement. Like the original statement, it is open-ended. It should be short and to the point.

The response to a query is a clarification, which can then be annotated as if it was part of the original statement. The response to an objection is a set of counter-annotations. Thus the annotation ping-pong continues recursively on down, until both sides are satisfied that their point has been made and their opponents are simply dense. At that point, they leave it to Janet.

One of the basic principles of Resartus is that stonewalling is not an effective defense. If Verres does not show up for the event, Cicero can still create a trial that is every bit as damning.

Protection against stonewalling is provided by auto-annotation. If Verres does not query or object to Cicero’s statement of his atrocious crimes, Cicero can add his own queries and objections, and answer them himself. Autoqueries (so familiar in the FAQ form) and autoobjections should be colored, labeled or otherwise distinguished, because like any rhetorical technique they can be abused. However, there is nothing more humiliating than discovering that one’s opponent has anticipated all of one’s objections.

The problem of producing this annotation tree is essentially a collaborative editing process. But unlike most collaborative editing processes, it is the product of two groups, not one. There is no reason to expect the prosecution and the opposition to be able to collaborate, or even engage in a civil conversation. They are enemies. Their aim is to humiliate and destroy each other. Verres’ head is on the block, as is Cicero’s reputation.

Within each side, we can expect great amity and civility to prevail. Both the prosecution and the opposition are teams. All are working for the same victory. The prosecution has the advantage of an editor, and probably for early trials the opposition should have one as well. (Otherwise, the task of prioritizing, editing and (perhaps hardest) unifying annotations must be left to good old voting.)

Prosecution and opposition also need separate discussion boards. Messages on these boards are not annotations. They will not be seen by Janet. They are for internal purposes only. To participate in these discussions, or to enter annotations, a Resartus user needs to pick a team. There is no crossing over. If you decide halfway through the trial that your side is actually wrong, dropping out is your only recourse. Adversarial discipline is essential.

If Janet really exists – ie, once undecided readers actually show up – it may be desirable to have a third discussion board, for the undecided reader. Undecideds can share their questions and concerns, which will probably be scanned by both prosecution and opposition and raked into the annotation tree. Once they reach a conclusion, however, they must post it and drop out.

Why the separation? Because I have been reading Internet boards for (god help me) more than half my life, and I have never once seen a productive group discussion between two factions. At least, I have never seen such a discussion that couldn’t obviously have been improved by providing a private board for each faction, and a structured arena for them to explore the disagreement. And I also have never seen this technique applied, which means that it either (a) sucks and is stupid, or (b) is totally cool and will take over the world.

Which one is it? That’s for you to find out, if you’re interested. Hopefully someone is. In any case, I think I have laid out enough details to make it clear what I mean by “Resartus.” The actual Resartus is in the hands of Lex and Daniel. Hopefully it will be something cool.

The next UR post will appear on August 28, 2008.

The Novelist

August 7, 2008

At ten-thirty in the morning
His soundtrack is the sound of work.
Someone is digging up the street,
Someone else is putting on a roof.

Christ! He has no talent, none.

Standards

August 1, 2008

When anything becomes standardized,
A whole art is lost. Consider the screw,
Once made by hand, and nor was this
Unskilled work, like ushering or ‘food prep’ –

Picture a world all of handmade screws,
Agonizingly beautiful and expensive.
Even the minivans are teak and mahogany.
And the women: of the very finest quality.

And this world, which is yours, to live in now,
Is crushed, powdered, cut, and reproduced
To a sort of artificial crab of itself,
Ten percent gelatin and fifty-five cod,

And they say: “but it’s cheaper.” And you say –
But you don’t say. Since of course they’re right.