Saturday, December 22, 2012

Happy December 22, 2012

So, you woke up and the world is still here. Nibiru did not smash into us or fling us out of our orbit. The sun did not roast us with a mega-flare. The core did not blow up. The Rapture did not happen. And let's be honest. You kinda knew it was going to play out like this, because the Doomsday chatter really began to fizzle as 2012 drew to a close and nothing more ominous happened than the approach of the fiscal cliff. So let's draw some lessons.

The experts were right. They always are. I'm not even going to qualify it with "almost" because that will give many people the wiggle room to make an exception for their own pet crank beliefs. The historians who said the end of the Maya Long Count merely meant the count rolled over and started anew? They were right. The astronomers who said there's no Nibiru because it would have been detected already? They were right, too. Now what else are the experts right about? Evolution. Climate change. Vaccination. Fluoridation. All of it. Every single issue. They're right because they have the information and the training to understand it. You're wrong because you don't have either.

Your entire world view is wrong. You believed the world was going to end because of the Maya prophecies? The Maya did some astonishing stuff. Living a stone age existence is tough. Living it where the only stone harder than limestone is a hundred miles away is tougher still. But the idea that there are profound scientific truths encoded in ancient myths and legends is rubbish. It was rubbish when Ignatius Donnelly tried to build an ancient catastrophes saga a hundred years ago. It was rubbish when Immanuel Velikovsky did it in the 1950's. It was rubbish when Erich von Daniken claimed proof of ancient astronauts in the 1970's (and it takes some kind of cojones to write that kind of book when you're serving time in prison for fraud.) And it was rubbish in 2012.

You believed it because the government was suppressing the truth? So what did they suppress? Nothing happened. And you know what? They're not suppressing the truth about UFO's, 9/11, HAARP, miracle cancer cures, 200-mpg carburetors, the Moon landings, Pearl Harbor, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster or Obama's birth certificate, either. They were telling the truth about 2012 and they're telling the truth about all that other stuff, too.

You believed it because you worked it out from the Bible? Your understanding of the Bible is garbage. Everything you think the Bible is telling you is wrong, because you believe in a false god. Your god is something you made up out of your own head, out of all your petty resentments and unresolved adolescent authority issues. The mainstream denominations are right. The "social gospel" churches are right. In fact, they are the real "full gospel" churches.

Happy December 22, 2012. Now go out and get a life.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

How Democrats and Republicans Switched Sides

One of the more reliable denial memes in politics today is that Democrats were the party of slavery and the KKK, while Republicans were the party that abolished slavery. Very true. Also utterly irrelevant to contemporary politics.

The Republican platform of 1856 was pretty progressive to a modern eye. It called for an end to violence in Kansas and admission as a free state, called for construction of a railroad to the Pacific, endorsed the Constitutionality of Federal Government involvement in building ports and harbors, and opposed calls for the forcible annexation of Cuba.

But it's more complicated than that. The Democratic Platform of the same year condemned Federalism, asserted "That the Constitution does not confer upon the General Government the power to commence and carry on a general system of internal improvements," opposed a national bank, and opposed any Federal measures that would benefit any specific region or industry. Their recipe for access to the Pacific was for a system of post and military roads. Just imagine shipping something from China to California by sailing ship, then by wagon to the Mississippi.

Reading between the lines, the Republican platform favored urban, financial, industrial and commercial interests, while the Democratic platform appealed to rural and agrarian mistrust of banks and commercial interests. In theory it sounds populist, in reality it favored the rural aristocracy, and especially the slave owning interests of the South. Southerners opposed "internal improvements," which would improve mostly the infrastructure of the already technologically superior North. Northerners naturally opposed slavery, not just on moral grounds, but because slave-produced Southern products could undercut northern ones. So the real, built-in conflict was that the party of rural agrarian interests was also the party of slavery.

The roots of the problem go back to the clash between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton wanted America to be an industrial and economic power. Jefferson pictured America as a nation of small yeoman farmers, which he believed would result in a more virtuous society. (Despite his genius in many respects, on some things Jefferson could be a nut, and the things he wrote on this subject are just appalling (1). And Hamilton did more to make America what it is today than many of the other Founding Fathers. It's sad that so many people wanted to replace him on our currency. Fortunately, he became a hot property once his musical came out.)

So one group wanted investment in infrastructure and industry, and they represented urban trade and financial interests. The other tended to represent rural and agrarian interests. Which, in the South, represented slavery. So it's a confluence of historical accidents that the party of the elite and socially conservative also represented economic progress, and the party of the rural farmers and those opposed to economic elites also represented slavery. 

After the Civil War, America really had a four-party system. Two parties on each side formed unstable coalitions that were, in name, a single party, but really consisted of two very different groups. The Republican coalition consisted of newly freed blacks and patrician Northern whites. The Democratic coalition consisted of Northern urban immigrants and laborers, and embittered Southern whites. Mostly the Democrats attracted those groups who supported anyone but the Republicans.

In the 1884 Presidential election, which pitted Democrat James G. Blaine against Republican Grover Cleveland, we can see the patrician attitude of the Republicans emerging. The Republicans blasted the Democrats as the party of "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion." Rum represented uncouth lower-class vice, Romanism reflected disdain for Catholic immigrants and the working class, and Rebellion sent the message that Democrats disregarded the law and were of dubious loyalty. Indeed, for years after the Civil War, the Republicans labeled the Democrats with the "rebellion" tag. The last campaign platform reference to rebellion was in the 1880 Republican platform. Here we already can see the embryonic shape of the future Right.

As long as the Federal government stuck to fiscal policy and national defense, and left social policy at the local level, this hybrid system could persist. Thus, William Jennings Bryan, of Scopes Trial infamy, actually ran for President three times (1896, 1900 and 1908) as a liberal Democrat. In 1896 he supported Free Silver. It's hard to believe nowadays, but there was once a raging debate over whether a little inflation might be a good thing. Bryan's shining historic moment was his speech where he asked "shall we crucify mankind on a cross of gold?" Silver coinage and mild inflation would have benefited workers and farmers, as opposed to the gold standard favored by the robber barons who wanted their money to increase in value (deflation). In 1900 he opposed imperialism and in 1908 he endorsed trust-busting. Late in his life he supported Prohibition and opposed evolution, leading to his role in the Scopes Trial. However, he was concerned about social justice and was definitely not the sour misanthrope caricatured in Inherit the Wind, which is great drama but very poor history. When Clarence Darrow grilled Bryan on the stand (a tactic that would lead to disbarment today), even many supporters of evolution, remembering Bryan's crusading days with respect, thought Darrow had crossed the line. So in the early 20th Century, it was entirely possible for someone to be an economic progressive and a social conservative, even reactionary. To consider another example, otherwise liberal Woodrow Wilson spoke favorably of the film Birth of a Nation.

At the local level, reactionaries pretty much ruled. Censorship was widespread. The First Amendment says only that Congress shall not abridge free speech. It was not until 1925 that the Supreme Court ruled that freedom of speech applied in the States, by virtue of the 14th Amendment statement that the Constitution applied within the States. This doctrine, the Incorporation Doctrine, has been applied piecemeal as cases arose and has still not been applied to every provision in the Bill of Rights. The term "banned in Boston" reflects the active censorship the city once practiced. (The reason the Incorporation Doctrine isn't universal is that court cases can only be brought over actual issues, not hypothetical ones. So until there's an issue, the doctrine isn't applied.)

It was a great time for white males. It was possible to kill a black man or rape a black woman with near total impunity over most of the country. Discrimination against minorities and women was widespread, open, and legal. For women, career paths were mostly limited to housewife, teacher, nurse, telephone operator or secretary. As long as the Bill of Rights applied only Federally, it was perfectly possible to support segregation at the local level and vote for an economic progressive who supported trust-busting at the Federal level.

The first great shock to the unstable coalition system was the Katrina of its day: the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. The flood killed 246 people in seven states and inundated a seventh of Arkansas at its peak. Black victims were subject to severe discrimination. They were rescued last, were frequently pressed into forced labor, and conditions in black refugee camps were deplorable. One outcome was that the Great Migration of blacks to the north, then mostly stalled, resumed. Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, already had a reputation as a humanitarian. He promised to do something about the treatment of blacks, but after he was elected President, failed to push reforms (in fairness, little more than six months into his term, he had the Great Depression to cope with). In 1932 many formerly Republican blacks switched their allegiance to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats, and stayed there.

The New Deal started to erode the Democratic coalition. Southern Democrats found themselves agreeing with Republicans in rejecting deficit spending and the birth of a social safety net. New Deal reforms would inexorably extend tendrils into many areas formerly subject only to local control. After World War II, Harry Truman's desegregation of the Armed Forces and other civil rights initiatives further alienated Southern Democrats, to the point where Strom Thurmond ran as an independent candidate for President in 1948. The Supreme Court ban on school segregation in 1954 came during a Republican administration, but further mobilized social reactionaries (Both Eisenhower and Thomas E. Dewey, who lost to Truman in 1948, were progressive Republicans). The great tectonic shift came in 1964, when Barry Goldwater (who was a strong conservative but hardly a reactionary, especially by present standards) opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and carried the South, but failed to win the Presidency. Lyndon Johnson continued to push through civil rights legislation, presciently noting it would lose the South for Democrats for a generation.

The Cold War also began to mold a coalition of the Right. Communism's seizure of private property and creation of a state economy appalled economic conservatives, and their suppression of religion appalled religious conservatives. Joe McCarthy tapped into the paranoia and helped create the suspicion that progressives and social activists, if not actually Communists themselves, were dupes at best and sympathizers at worst. And the McCarthy Era strengthened the idea that, whether or not progressives were Communists, it scarcely made any difference because many of their goals were those most abhorrent to economic and social conservatives.

The day they pushed the red button and launched the nuclear arsenal was June 25, 1962. That was the day the Supreme Court ruled official prayer in school was unconstitutional (unofficial and personal prayer is not and never has been in question). To the far right, this was the day the courts "kicked God out of the schools." It was effectively a declaration of war, an unforgivable repudiation of the notion that America was essentially Christian. Any chance opponents of the ruling would align with progressives was totally demolished. (Compared to this ruling, Roe v. Wade merely "made the rubble bounce.")

It's very hard to be a social reactionary and an economic progressive. In the 19th century, when the two spheres were widely separate, it was possible, but once progressive social policy began to impinge on economic policy, tensions arose. If you support labor unions or oppose discrimination, that's very hard to square with a belief in the absolute sanctity of private property. What do you do about poverty? Do you try to eliminate it out of progressive ideals, or tolerate it on the grounds that it's the outcome of bad personal choices? Do you support women in the labor force, or keep them subservient? It's also hard to be a social progressive and an economic reactionary. How can you support eliminating poverty but not support a minimum wage or safety net? How can you favor equality of housing and hiring when there's widespread obstruction of it in the private sector?

Many observers ask today how social and economic reactionaries coalesced. The answer is that social and economic progressives coalesced, and squeezed the reactionaries out. Although there are economic reactionaries who care only about their bottom line and don't give a fig for gay rights or abortion, and there are social conservatives who despise Wall Street only just less than gays or abortion, the reality is there's a substantial overlap between the two groups.

Understanding how the two branches of the Right came together might help understanding the frustrating problem of social conservatives who side with economic conservatives. Many social conservatives would welcome universal medical care, a strong jobs plan, and curbs on Wall Street. But not at the price of helping to enact a social agenda that many of them find anathema.

So yes, the Republicans did oppose slavery and the Democrats did support the KKK. That's about as relevant to politics today as saying you won't shop IKEA because the Vikings once sacked your ancestral village. A more relevant question is this: if there were to be a serious effort to re-establish slavery for non-whites, which party would support it and which would oppose it?


1. Letter to John Jay, August 23, 1785. 
Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independant, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to it's liberty & interests by the most lasting bonds.
I consider the class of artificers as the panders of vice & the instruments by which the liberties of a country are generally overturned.
Letter to James Madison, December 20, 1787:
I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

White Hot Rage

So Obama has been re-elected. Obama haters are reacting with predictable fury and Obama supporters are, in many cases, reacting to their outrage with Schadenfreude. Meanwhile foreigners are astonished at the vitriol being hurled by the far right.They're not sure whether to be amused or appalled by the threats to move to Britain, Canada or Australia, all of whom have social policies well to the left of Obama. There hasn't been that much talk yet about moving to New Zealand, possibly because many of the worst poo-flingers haven't heard of it or don't know where it is, or are afraid of being eaten by orcs. Good thing too, since New Zealand is the most liberal of the lot and heads would be exploding like party favors if they were to move there and then find out what New Zealand was actually like.

In the 1960's, urban and campus riots were explained (often justified by apologists) as the inevitable result of frustration at an unresponsive System. While the Vietnam War was intractable, the social system had, in fact, been very responsive. Most of the worst rioting took place after the passage of major civil rights reforms. It's as if people were lashing out at the realization that fixing a lot of societal evils did not automatically make their personal lives better. I asked a lot of people how they'd react if the Right was doing the rioting and was told, "Oh, that will never happen."

Well, guess what? It's not riots yet (their HOA's forbid them) but the sense of frustration is very much like the Sixties. For fifty years the Right has been in retreat. They even held the White House and both branches of Congress for a while and still didn't get what they wanted. So they have taken a hard line and refuse to back up any more. There's no place left to go.

The prehistory of the Tea Party probably begins with FDR. Up till then, the Federal Government mostly stayed out of local business, leaving communities free to persecute gays, discriminate against blacks, ban abortion, and regulate the sexual practices even of consenting adults. It was actually possible for social conservative William Jennings Bryan, of Scopes Trial infamy, to run for President as a Democratic economic progressive. The New Deal provoked the hatred of economic conservatives, while the civil rights initiatives of Harry Truman began to alienate the South, to the point that Strom Thurmond ran as an independent candidate on a states rights platform. As more and more progressive social policies were dictated at the Federal level, social conservatives aligned more and more with economic conservatives. It's not that the conservatives coalesced, but that progressives coalesced and squeezed the conservatives out.

I believe it all really began with the banning of official prayer in school. To many on the right, this was an unforgivable repudiation of the idea that Christianity had special legal status, and tantamount to a declaration of war. What the far Right wants, first and foremost, is Christian supremacy. Tolerance of other faiths is all right, but when the rubber hits the road they want American institutions to be unabashedly and explicitly Christian. They want Christian supremacy proclaimed at public events by official prayer, and they want the power to legislate Christian doctrine, including a ban on abortion, an end to gay rights, and ultimately, in all probability, the power to legislate all private behavior.

Don't they realize how unfair this is? No. They consider Christianity to be objectively, demonstrably superior to other beliefs. If you don't accept their evidence, that's your problem, not theirs. They don't consider it unfair any more than we consider it unfair for the FDA to ban quack remedies. Their view is exactly that of James Carville: "We're right, they're wrong." They consider it unfair to have other beliefs held on a par with Christianity. It's like climate denialism in reverse; in their view, the evidence for Christianity is so overwhelming that opposition to it can only be explained by willful denial and venal motives.

Second on their list is absolute private property rights. They may band together in those ridiculous HOA's to enact communal standards on lawn care, but anyone who doesn't want to live like that is free to live elsewhere. But they absolutely detest the idea that anyone has the power to tell them whom they can rent to, whether they can drain a wetland on their property or root out an endangered plant. And since taxes are a direct threat to untrammeled ownership of property, they hate taxes wholly apart from having to pay money. Having to pay taxes and having their use of their own property restricted is adding insult to injury. In fact, the prophet Samuel in the Old Testament warned the Israelites (1 Samuel 8: 11-18) of the consequences of having a king, so not only are taxes held to be oppressive, but anti-Christian as well.

I suspect a lot of them would like to see something like Israel as described in the Book of Judges. There was no formal government, just tribal elders and occasional judges to decide weighty matters. Law and order was mostly private. There was, true, a regular parade of conquerors from the major empires, mostly passing through on the way to their real goal, and a lot of harassment from petty neighbors like the Philistines and the Amorites. On the whole, it's about as close to a libertarian society as we find in written history. In fact, the society of Judges 17:6 would probably be ideal: "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit."

Finally, they want a meritocracy. More precisely, they want an aristocracy, not in the sense of a hereditary nobility, but "rule by the best," which is the actual Greek meaning of the term. Not a meritocracy of achievement (that would force too many people to face the fact that they just can't cut it), but one of "authenticity," a term that numerous observers have used to define a subtle blend of the right values, behavior, beliefs and attitudes: the "Right Stuff" of the Right. The Right Stuff includes pride in one's property, hard work, sexual discretion, deferred gratification, and lawfulness. The Wrong Stuff includes laziness, slovenliness, promiscuity, dependency, and crime. The best part of having the Right Stuff is you get pretty free rein to transgress the moral codes (like snorting coke, having an affair, getting a cheerleader pregnant or getting an abortion) as long as you publicly profess the standards, and especially if you have the money to pay for any damage you cause). It's far more important to work to preserve the privileges of the Right Stuff against the Wrong Stuff than to observe all the standards punctiliously. Discretion is all important. The closest thing to a system that achieves these goals is plutocracy. The people with the Right Stuff believe they deserve privilege because they are the producers of wealth and the preservers of social decorum.

Since people with the Right Stuff are the best members of society, they hold that giving to those with the Wrong Stuff is wrong on many levels. First, it takes from those who deserve it and gives to those who don't. Second, it insulates the undeserving from the consequences of their behavior. It deprives those with the Right Stuff of their Right Place in the social order. People who believe in social hierarchies (with themselves in the upper echelons, of course) believe they have a right to that status, and get offended when people they perceive as lower are given equal standing. They get doubly offended when the Government intervenes on behalf of the low-status group. And when you violate the absolute sanctity of private property on behalf of the low-status group, well, you just have a perfect storm.

Moderates have nothing to offer them. No moderates are going to promise them Christian supremacy, absolute private property rights or outright class stratification, which are the things they want most. When the Democratic choice in 2008 boiled down to Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama, the far right was confronted with the prospect of losing to a candidate who seriously threatened deep erosion of the core values of the far right. They demanded a candidate who would defend those values. The situation got even worse in 2012. Now their rage is white hot. People like this can never really be beaten. They can die out, or they can be marginalized. But when they're marginalized, they're still there, and they're still angry, all the more so for being marginalized. Social pundits are sorely puzzled as to where all the racism has come from in modern American society. The answer is it was there all along. It wasn't acceptable to express it, so it was exiled to our equivalent of the Northwest Frontier Provinces. But just like the Taliban, they're not content with exile. They intend to rule.

Postscript, 2017

This piece was written in 2012. I've posted things like it may times on liberal-leaning sites, always to a chorus of "Lalalalala I can't HEAR you," or being called a "troll." Well, now we have Trump. Are we having fun yet?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Intellectual Honesty for Religious Believers

Deuteronomy 25: 13-14 (NIV) Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small.

Proverbs 20:10 Differing weights and differing measures— the LORD detests them both.

More broadly, Thou shalt not have any double standards. Go ahead, show me where in the Bible God says it's okay to hold others to strict intellectual standards but be slovenly in your own thinking. Do you suppose when St. Paul supported himself by making tents (Acts 18:3) he felt it was okay to do sloppy work because he had so many more important things to do?

If you want to cite a case where you prayed and got what you asked for as evidence for the efficacy of prayer, then every answered prayer by a Muslim or Buddhist counts as evidence for their beliefs, and every unanswered prayer counts as evidence against the efficacy of prayer. If you want to cite "problems" with evolution as evidence against evolution, then everything evolution can explain counts as evidence for it. If you want equal time for creationism in schools and museums, you have to grant equal time for evolution in your pulpits and equal shelf space for evolution in Christian bookstores. If you want to cite examples of intelligent design in nature, then every case of bad design, like having a too-small birth canal or nerves passing in front of the retina, counts against it. If you want to cite noble deeds by believers or vile deeds by atheists, be sure to mention all the cases that are the other way round.

"B-b-but I can't prove anything using those rules." Yeah, that's kinda what "faith" means, doesn't it?

Romans 13:1-2 (NIV) Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

When you take your car to the shop, you don't try to tell the mechanic what to do based on the Bible. In that situation the mechanic is the lawful authority. You don't refuse a blood transfusion based on the Bible, or at any rate, those who do, usually die. When you're sick, the doctor is the lawful authority. Now I know people will tell me the doctors gave someone six months but the person was healed by prayer or some alternative treatment. But the doctor didn't say the person must die, only that he was likely to barring some unforeseen circumstance. And - see the point above - be sure to mention the cases where people sought prayer or alternative treatments and died anyway.

What does it mean to say something in the Bible is "true?" Apologists repeatedly point to verifiable historical facts in the Bible that match other accounts. In other words, external reality is the standard. If the Bible said grass was red and sheep had six legs and pigs can fly, it would have been laughed out of existence before the ink was dry on the papyrus.

And that means, when it comes to external reality, specialists who study those fields are the lawful authority, not the Church, not priests, ministers or Popes, not the Bible. When astronomers said the earth rotated and revolved around the Sun, they, not the Church, were the lawful authority (Martin Luther said of Copernicus: "this fool wants to overturn the whole science of astronomy." For the first twenty years of its existence, Harvard University taught earth-centered astronomy. The Catholic Church quietly admitted its error when it removed the ban on Galileo's book in 1835.)

So people who study the history of the earth are the lawful authority, not Genesis. Biologists are the lawful authority on evolution, not creationists. A science degree is worth something in evaluating science; a theology degree is worth nothing.

Exodus 20:16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. (KJV)

Is there an asterisk in your Bible that leads to a footnote saying: "unless you get it in an e-mail," or "unless you see it on a Christian blog?" Or even "to the best of your knowledge?"

No. It says Thou shalt not. No ifs, ands or buts. If it's false, and you forward it without checking it thoroughly, you, personally, are lying. There is no lie so vile that Christians will not pass it along in e-mail. The Procter and Gamble symbol is Satanic? *Forward* Obama eats aborted babies on toast? *Forward*

In fact, the Procter and Gamble thing is even more sinister. In 1997 the company filed a lawsuit against people who were deliberately spreading the message, presumably to undercut consumer loyalty and sell another company's products.

And there's no asterisk here that says "to the best of my knowledge." That means that unless you thoroughly check the story, you have no business passing it on. If you don't have time to check things out, you don't have time to have an opinion. The Post Office puts out Islamic stamps? First, why is that any more offensive than Christmas or Hanukkah stamps? Second, the stamps are actually sold by a custom stamp company that charges extra and reimburses the Post Office for the postage. That took me two minutes to check on line when someone sent me an indignant e-mail.

The Nazis based their ideas on Darwin? It took me ten whole minutes to locate Mein Kampf, download it, and run a word search. Of the dozen or so uses of "evolution" (Entwicklung in the original German - I checked that, too - the word is used many more times and mostly translated as "development") not a single one refers to biological evolution. Darwin is not mentioned once. So now that you've read this, if you repeat that the Nazis based their ideas on Darwin, you are deliberately lying. If you doubt me, locate Mein Kampf and do the research yourself.

Philippians 2:3 (NIV) Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.

Go into a Christian bookstore and leaf through a few tomes about secular humanism, evolution, or other religions. Do the authors esteem the people they're writing about as "better than themselves?"

James 3:1 (NIV) Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 

Small wonder Luther labeled James "an epistle of straw." It must have seared his soul every time he read it. The average Christian reads James about as often as he reads Habakkuk. And certainly, to listen to the blather lots of Christians spout when trying to evangelize, they don't think this verse applies to them.

Next time somebody tells you that "in Biblical times, people used to...," ask him what his source is. Josephus? Tacitus? Livy? Suetonius? Better yet, don't ask him. Ask if he can name a few historians from Biblical times. Next time someone tells you that a certain word meant something in Greek or Hebrew, ask him to write out the Greek or Hebrew alphabet. I recently heard a devoutly Christian professor of New Testament Greek say that whenever he heard preachers expand on the meaning of some Greek word in the Bible, ninety per cent of the time it was wrong. Not judged doctrinally, merely by the well defined standards of Greek. The second half of this verse is sobering.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Pius XII and FDR Do The Right Thing

Alternative History

Alternative histories have an annoying tendency to say "X happened instead of Y, therefore rainbows, puppies and unicorns." A few people, like S.M. Stirling in his Drakian novels, dare to imagine much darker alternative histories. His thesis was "what if history turned out in the worst possible way?" I suspect a lot of alternative histories would have ended up a good deal less rosy than we like to imagine.

A favorite rainbows, puppies and unicorns theme is that we could have done more to avert the Holocaust. Like perhaps bombing the rail lines to the camps. Because the Nazis would have trucked hot meals to the Jews stranded in boxcars while they fixed the rails. In What If? 2, Robert Katz contributes a chapter called Pius XII Protests The Holocaust. He pictures a papal denunciation as strengthening the anti-Nazi underground and inspiring revolts among Jewish ghettos and concentration camps, and as he envisions it, "some of the uprisings succeed." He argues that up to 90 per cent of the people killed in the Holocaust would have survived. Much of this is pure pipe dream. If a ghetto or concentration camp in Nazi controlled territory had "successfully" revolted, what then? Where would they have gotten food? Where would they have gotten ammunition, anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft weapons? Where would the escaped prisoners have gone? What was to prevent the Nazis from simply bombing any center of resistance into powder, or using poison gas? An outcome like the one below is at least equally likely.

Alternate World War II

June 1942: Pius XII is alarmed at the horror stories coming from the Reich, and angry at the Nazi retaliation against the bishops of Holland. The bishops had denounced the roundup of Dutch Jews, and in retaliation for their opposition, the Nazis had ordered the arrest of Dutch Catholics of Jewish origin. After agonized weighing of the costs of speaking out versus silence, Pius XII issues a heated denunciation of Germany's treatment of the Jews. He stops short of exhorting German Catholics not to serve in the army, a call that would have been certain to fail, and also of exhorting German Catholics to oppose the regime, another measure that would certainly have failed, as well as being suicidal to anyone who heeded it.

Hitler exploded. He wanted the Vatican bombed; then, after cooler heads explained the situation, he demanded that Mussolini have the Pope arrested. Mussolini wavered and stalled, and Hitler, furious at the delay, ordered Otto Skorzeny's commando team to kidnap the Pope and bring him to Germany.

Meanwhile, a major in the Ministry of Propaganda was the only one to see potential in the situation. After hacking his way upward through several echelons of red tape, he finally presented his idea to Goebbels. Goebbels didn't believe the situation could be exploited in a decisive way, but it could be exploited, and the major had offered a good way to make the best of a bad situation. Goebbels finally sold Hitler on a propaganda campaign. He persuaded Hitler to hold off on striking at the Pope for a few months to see how the propaganda campaign succeeded.

Basically the plan was to exploit the theme that Pius had confirmed what Germany was saying all along: that the war was all about the Jews. Radio broadcasts aimed at England and occupied territories poured out the message. Broadcasts in Bavaria, Austria, and occupied Catholic countries hammered away on the theme that Catholics had been betrayed by their own Pope. Meanwhile the Nazis began cultivating contacts with anti-Semitic groups in the occupied countries. Many had already been eagerly collaborating. Some of these groups had contacts in England who began agitating there. Most people, of course, saw through the Nazi ploy, but people already disposed to anti-Semitism now had a rationale for cooperating or at least sympathizing with the Nazis. Sporadic attacks on Jewish targets became more frequent, even if the former occupants had already been deported. Local mobs "broke in" to concentration camps to attack inmates. Attacks on Jews in England became more common. Pro-German British politicians, most of them out of office since the war began, began publicly questioning why England was shedding its own blood to protect the Jews.

In the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, emboldened by the Pope's denunciation, mentioned the Jews among the victims of Nazi aggression in a radio broadcast. German sympathizers had a field day. Anti-Semitism had always been rife among the upper crust of society and soon there was quiet but pervasive talk that Roosevelt was mismanaging the war effort on behalf of Jewish interests. After all, hadn't Japan attacked Pearl Harbor? So why was Roosevelt fixated on Europe? The Ku Klux Klan, which had been in low profile because of its pre-war association with a number of pro-German groups, began to come out from under rocks in the South and Midwest, spreading the message that Americans were being sent to die for the Jews in Europe while the real menace was in non-white Asia. They also began murmuring that the Germans understood race issues better than the U.S. government. Attacks on Jews began to increase. So did attacks on Asians, with scant distinction being made between Japanese and other Asians.

Here and there, Americans began resisting the draft unless they could be promised that they would fight Japan instead of Germany (That was an empty gesture, since volunteering for the Marines all but guaranteed duty in the Pacific and anyone in any other service could easily volunteer for Pacific duty as well.) Matters came to a head in the late summer of 1942 when a mother in Georgia refused to permit her son to be drafted. A standoff ensued with the family barricaded in their home and local law enforcement outside.

As the confrontation made the newspapers, Major General George Patton from nearby Fort Benning decided to take the matter in hand. Acting without orders, he took a platoon of soldiers and went to get the reluctant draftee by force. The exact course of events remains unclear, but it appears that Patton, a sergeant-major, and three enlisted men confronted the mother on her front porch, along with the sheriff and two deputies. Patton admired the woman for standing up to authority and shared her disdain for fighting for the Jews, but considered her boy beneath contempt for not accepting his duty and hiding behind his mother's apron strings. As a heated discussion dragged on, Patton lost patience and ordered his sergeant-major to seize the woman's shotgun. The gun discharged, wounding a corporal. Patton whipped out his pistol and shot the woman between the eyes, whereupon the sheriff immediately did the same to Patton. The sergeant-major attempted to react, but was killed by a deputy. The enlisted men opened fire on the lawmen, but a fusillade from neighbors watching the spectacle cut the soldiers down. The three lawmen also died; whether from military or civilian fire has never been determined. The remaining soldiers, reluctant to fire on civilians, retreated, leaving a dozen dead and as many more wounded.

The fact that southern lawmen and civilians had been killed in an altercation with the U.S. Army caused a tidal wave of outrage across the Deep South. There were still people alive who remembered the Civil War, far more who remembered Reconstruction, and millions who remembered the exaggerated horror stories of Reconstruction. Rumors swept through the South that black soldiers had killed and raped civilians during the fight - completely false, it turned out. Patton, a southerner, of all people, had the sense to take only white soldiers along, and in any case, blacks were mostly relegated to menial military tasks at that time. Military commanders throughout the South prudently closed their post gates and restricted troops to garrison, but even so, racial violence flared at many posts. Civilian suppliers to the armed forces began finding truck tires slashed, shipments seized, roads barricaded and warehouses burned. Drivers were shot at. By September, the military had to provide armed escorts to rail and truck shipments, and frequently had to clear barricades and repair sabotaged rail lines. Protest marches occurred in more and more cities, with protesters chanting "Hell, no, we won't go." Legislatures in twenty states passed resolutions condemning Roosevelt and calling for his impeachment. Not only did Southern states lash back, but Western states accused Roosevelt of neglecting the threat of Japanese attack. In Congress, bills of impeachment were introduced against President Roosevelt. None looked likely to pass, but Roosevelt's ability to govern was deeply undermined. He was openly accused of treason in the press.

In November, 1942, Operation Torch began with landings in Morocco and Algeria. The troops, disturbed by the unrest at home, uncertain about why they were fighting, and led by confused and hesitant officers, put up a lackluster fight, even against the weak French defenses. The landings in Morocco were successful, but the Algerian landings bogged down. Hitler, seeing a golden opportunity, launched a two pronged attack. One prong was an intensive propaganda campaign in France stressing the perfidy of the British and Americans in attacking French troops in Africa. He also promised to release French prisoners of war if they agreed to fight to defend French holdings in North Africa. The more practical prong was to order Rommel to send troops west to support the French. The German "offer" of assistance was "accepted" by the Vichy regime. Rommel dug in on a defensive line to hold the British in Libya and sent a third of his forces to Algeria, where they arrived a week later. The stalled American beachhead at Algiers was encircled by German forces and the American breakout at Oran was easily contained. The Germans pushed on to the border of Morocco and dug in.

Within a week the British saw their universe crumble. With the Germans safely holding Algeria, Gibraltar became just another rock, its strategic usefulness reduced to near zero. It could still prevent hostile naval forces from entering the Mediterranean, but so could the Luftwaffe, now solidly based in Algeria. Malta became just another island, which Hitler decided could be allowed to wither. Montgomery's forces still held Egypt and the Suez canal, but they were isolated. Without Gibraltar, the Suez Canal became merely a roundabout back door. To resupply Montgomery, the British had the choice of either diverting ships from an Indian Ocean already stretched dangerously thin, or sending ships all the way around Africa. The Mediterranean was Germany's Mare Nostrum, or maybe Unser Meer. Hitler offered Britain an olive branch: an armistice. They could even keep Malta and Gibraltar. Even though Spain's Franco was a fellow Fascist, it served him right for sitting on the fence.

Although Germany was also at war with the United States, most of the action so far had been naval. Nothing had really gone beyond the point of no return. With Britain wavering, it was fairly easy to get the U.S. wavering as well, then leverage the two sides into an armistice. Hitler was also able to sell the U.S. and Britain on the possibility of devoting their full efforts to the war in the Pacific. True, it meant betraying the Japanese, but the Nazis had little love for the non-Aryan Japanese anyway. With many British blaming the U.S. for the debacle (aided subtly by the Germans), Anglo-American relations sank to their lowest ebb in a century. They were about to get a whole lot worse.

After seeing how quickly the American and British will to fight withered, the Japanese began to see possible opportunities. So far there had not been any major U.S. offensive actions. There was, of course, that messy business at Pearl Harbor to deal with, and the Japanese understood full well how and why the Americans were enraged. Japanese diplomats in neutral posts like Turkey, Switzerland, and Spain, even Russia, began gingerly probing for an honorable way to end hostilities. In this case the truth served the Japanese well; the attack was not intended as a sneak attack, but was the result of an unfortunate delay in the delivery of a declaration of war. The Japanese were prepared to apologize, pay hefty reparations to the United States and to the families of Pearl Harbor casualties, and punish those responsible for the attack, in return for a cessation of hostilities. Anyway, the Doolittle Raid and the Battle of Midway were payback. They even offered to return the Philippines to American control and agree not to threaten U.S. interests in the Pacific. In return, since American interests were guaranteed, the Japanese got a free hand in Asia. Most Americans rationalized that they had always preferred the efficient and disciplined Japanese to the backward, corrupt and moribund Chinese government anyway. The British were bitter over losing the U.S. as an ally in the Pacific, and thereby permanently losing Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaya, and U.S.-British relations turned sour for a long time to come. U.S. isolationists, however, pointed to the German-Japanese War as yet another example of the folly of becoming involved overseas. Vice President John Nance Garner, as narrow and parochial a politician as America has ever had, unseated Roosevelt at the 1944 Democratic Convention and was elected in November.


At this point we get out of the realm of first-order counterfactuals. One school of thought holds that Germany, freed of any need to defend the West, throws its full might against Russia, and wins, or at least pushes Soviet forces beyond the Urals, as in the novel Fatherland. Another holds that Russia had just too much manpower and would have eventually prevailed. With no British-American military presence on the Continent, they may well have conquered all of Europe. Either way we have a history much worse than what actually happened. And of course, in neither scenario is there anything to stop the Holocaust; indeed, there is nothing to stop the Nazis from leisurely mopping up all of the Jews.

It's often said that "truth is the first casualty of war." Context-free truth certainly is. One can only imagine how well U.S. resolve would have held up in World War II with today's media. By New Year's Day, 1942, the blogosphere would have been crawling with theories about how FDR allowed the Japanese to attack, failed to warn the military, or even staged a false-flag attack. One of the latest bits of faux outrage is that the U.S. "covered up" the Katyn massacre of Polish troops by the Russians. Keeping quiet about the massacre was one thing. Enabling pro-Nazis to argue that we should have really been fighting the Soviet Union would have been a far worse violation of the truth. Denouncing Nazi oppression of the Jews might have preserved a truth at the cost of a vastly larger lie. Simply dumping information, fully aware that it will be used deceptively, is not "telling the truth."

The Presidency of Al Gore

Alternative History

Alternative histories have an annoying tendency to say "X happened instead of Y, therefore rainbows, puppies and unicorns." A few people, like S.M. Stirling in his Drakian novels, dare to imagine much darker alternative histories. His thesis was "what if history turned out in the worst possible way?" I suspect a lot of alternative histories would have ended up a good deal less rosy than we like to imagine.

President Gore

November 7, 2000. A concerted grass-roots campaign by Democrats siphons enough votes away from Ralph Nader for Al Gore to win Florida. Gore wins Florida by barely 1,000 votes, but wins its 25 electoral votes and with them, the Presidency, 291 votes to 247. Bush supporters ask for recounts, which fail to change the outcome. Democrats eked out a two-seat majority in the Senate, Republicans a four-seat majority in the House

July, 2001. The CIA warns Gore that a major al-Qaeda event is in the works and that the chatter is not merely bravado or disinformation. Something is really about to go down. Gore directs the FBI and CIA to cooperate and orders heightened security at airports, as well as increased military readiness for an attack on American soil.

The FBI notes a number of odd enrollments by Middle Eastern males in flight schools and soon identifies 20 or more possible conspirators. When 19 of them book transcontinental flights on the same day, the FBI and CIA conclude the most likely scenario is that their targets are on the West Coast, and that al-Qaeda has probably dusted off its plot to destroy trans-Pacific airliners in flight.

Meanwhile, the heightened security measures generate buzz in the blogosphere. Ralph Nader, gracious in defeat as always, accuses Gore of trying to create tension by exaggerating the terrorist threat and accuses him of being a sellout to oil companies seeking to raise prices. Other critics dub the enhanced security at airports "security theater."

Gore comes under increasing criticism for the security measures. Republicans in Congress ask exactly what threats he expects military action to prevent on American soil. When the talk turns to possible hijackings, he is warned pointedly that attacking an airliner on American soil will unquestionably result in impeachment and criminal charges, and possibly trial for human rights violations. Republicans are adamantly opposed to turning Americans over to the World Court but in this case they might just make an exception.

Meanwhile, the conspirators, aware that they have been partially compromised, modify their plans. Six of them purchase 9-mm pistols, paying for them with credit cards and providing a wide, brightly illuminated paper trail for investigators, and then ship the weapons to San Francisco and Los Angeles. They also abandon their plan to use box cutters as weapons, shifting to thin plastic and steel blades that can be secreted in the linings of a carry-on bag. The plastic is invisible to X-rays, while the steel, viewed edge-on, looks like part of the frame of the bag. The FBI and CIA conclude the plot now includes taking six planes hostage. Since the conspirators are booked on only four flights, investigators become even more convinced the final targets will be on the West Coast.

September 11, 2001. The conspirators board their aircraft. Security personnel at the departure points search the conspirators and their bags thoroughly and find no weapons of any kind on their persons or in their bags. The conspirators are grilled about their travel plans and recite a variety of plausible reasons for traveling: job interviews, sightseeing, visiting friends, and so on. With no evidence they pose an immediate threat, and all indicators pointing to hijacks on the West Coast, the conspirators are allowed to board.

A beautiful early fall day in New York City is shattered when hijacked airliners slam into the World Trade Center. A third plane hits the Pentagon while a fourth crashes in Pennsylvania when passengers, alerted to the events on the ground, battle the hijackers. President Gore is meeting with environmentalists when he is alerted to the tragedy. He tells his aides to keep him updated but continues his meeting. Shortly afterward, convinced that a real crisis is unfolding, he leaves and is transported to a secure, undisclosed location. His critics denounce him for continuing to meet with environmentalists instead of dealing with the crisis, and for spending the day "in hiding."

Heightened military preparedness resulted in armed fighters being scrambled while the hijacks were in progress. The first fighters arrived just in time to see the second plane hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. A plane was seen headed for Washington but the prospect of scattering wreckage and burning fuel over a densely populated city was deemed as dangerous as anything the hijackers might do. By the time the Pentagon was identified as the target and warnings filtered through the chain of command, the plane had already hit. Two jets intercepted Flight 93 and ordered it to land. The hijacker in control asked whether they really were willing to shoot down one of their own airliners. Then the pursuit pilots heard the sound of a struggle on board and watched Flight 93 roll, dive and crash.

President Gore spent the rest of the day and the following day meeting with advisers, apart from a brief and perfunctory television message in which he promised to seek out and punish the perpetrators. Al-Qaeda quickly claimed credit for the attacks and promised more. The FAA grounds all flights nationwide as a precaution but no new attacks are detected. Republicans bash the grounding as a hollow gesture meant to distract attention from Gore's failure to avert the attacks. Plans are drawn up to strike al-Qaeda's strongholds in Afghanistan but it takes several weeks and the first attacks are launched on October 7. Within a few weeks Al-Qaeda is driven from formal control of Afghanistan but takes up refuge in the mountainous frontier region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. [1]

Within hours of the collapse of the World Trade Center, the Internet is teeming with comments that the collapses looked like controlled demolitions. Right wing commentators assert that Gore had the attacks staged as a pretext for shutting down air travel and eventually banning the use of fossil fuels altogether. Leftists accuse him of planning to foment a war in the Middle East to gain control of its oil. The far fringe claims he's planning to install a dictatorship using national security as a pretext [2].

By December 2001, U.S. and coalition forces are closing in on Osama bin Ladin. Bin Ladin attempts to slip out but is spotted by a British Marine patrol and killed in a firefight. Jubilation in the U.S. and much of the world is intense but short lived. President Gore comes under intense pressure to bring U.S. forces home, a step that he himself highly desires. Coalition members come under pressure from their own people to pull out now that the essential mission has been accomplished. But as U.S. forces scale back operations and coalition troops leave, al-Qaeda turns out to be a hydra-headed monster. Instead of a single group under bin Ladin, al-Qaeda splits into numerous factions. They sometimes fight, sometimes cooperate, mostly go their own way, but all are united by a hatred of Western modernization and a desire to return Afghanistan to a patriarchal feudal society. Having Afghanistan break up into many small statelets ruled by local warlords is just fine with al-Qaeda since that's traditionally how Afghanistan was organized (or disorganized). Gore realizes that they cannot be allowed to win, but with political pressure to avoid U.S. and civilian casualties, he basically restricts U.S. actions to holding key cities and bases. Al-Qaeda quickly resumes control of the countryside. Meanwhile Gore is lambasted at home for leading the U.S. into yet another quagmire. [3]

Despite the fact that Saddam Hussein had remained in power because a Republican President, acting strictly in accord with U.N. mandates, had restricted the Gulf War of 1991 to restoring the sovereignty of Kuwait rather than replacing the regime in Iraq, Gore's opponents conflate the stalemate in Afghanistan with U.S. "failure" to dislodge Saddam and charge that Iraq had aided al-Qaeda. Meanwhile critics on the left condemned Gore for continuing to support U.N. sanctions on Iraq, which they claim are causing widespread misery to the population. Saddam's political theater, in which he repeatedly ignored U.N. resolutions and stymied inspectors, led many to insist Iraq still had chemical weapons. In 2002, in an effort to resolve the question, Gore convened a special panel of military, intelligence and Congressional leaders. One of their star witnesses was Scott Ritter, most prominent American member of the U.N. inspection team. It was not a good week for Ritter. Despite asserting that Iraq lacked chemical weapons and capabilities for making them, or capability for creating biological weapons and capability of delivering them, Ritter was repeatedly confronted with his own writings that stated Iraq would very likely begin to rebuild its chemical weapon capabilities once inspections ceased. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) went through Ritter's book Endgame: Solving the Iraq Problem — Once and For All at length, noting all the instances of Iraqi duplicity detailed, plus the stated necessity of inspections and its recommendation that engagement plus incentives for inspection would eventually produce compliance [4]. Ritter was asked what reasons he had to suppose diplomatic engagement would yield results when it had failed to do so for ten years. Ritter hemmed and hawed but could offer only vague expressions of optimism. He was asked why Saddam was posturing as if he had chemical weapons if he actually had none. Ritter hypothesized that he might be trying to intimidate Iran, but when asked if Iran was a serious military threat to Iraq, conceded it was probably not.

In the 2002 mid-term elections, the Republicans battered the Democrats over the situation in Afghanistan, the unpopularity of increased security measures, and the farcical ineffectiveness of the U.N. in Iraq, to gain slim majorities in both houses of Congress.

Gore and his inner circle concluded that Ritter was probably technically correct in that Iraq had few if any chemical weapons, but that Saddam would seek to rebuild his arsenal as soon as the West's attention lapsed. Gore was also convinced that Iraq had not aided al-Qaeda, but attempting to build a strategy around that point was guaranteed to lead to accusations of a cover-up and weakness. What was undeniable was the privation in Iraq, which could be relieved in only one of two ways: lifting sanctions and allowing Saddam to have his way, or removing him from power. On February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the U.N. Security Council. He outlined the fact that sanctions had failed to gain compliance with U.N. resolutions, that Iraq had flouted sixteen U.N. resolutions, and argued that lifting sanctions would only strengthen Saddam's belief that he could win. Furthermore, lifting sanctions would inevitably result in Iraq resuming its chemical weapons program. The only alternative, he argued, was intervention to topple Saddam [5]. The Security Council failed to endorse an invasion, hardly a surprise since intervening to overthrow a corrupt, insane and inhumane regime was a direct threat to most of the members of the U.N.

Gore finally, reluctantly, came to the conclusion that Saddam had to go. U.N. resolve on keeping up the pressure was likely to weaken as humanitarian groups played up the distress of the Iraqi people, even if it was caused entirely by Saddam himself. Also, many U.N. members were eager to resume trade with Iraq. Many members of Congress hinted that oil prices could be lowered if Iraqi oil were once again on the market. Once sanctions were lifted, it was only a matter of time before Saddam engaged in some new geopolitical adventure, with his most likely targets being Syria, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia. Syria would give Iraq an outlet on the Mediterranean, Jordan would give it a mutual border with Israel, and Saudi Arabia would give it control of much of the world's oil. A resurgent Iraq would also be likely to invite an Israeli military response, further inflaming tensions (even if it might be privately welcomed by Iraq's neighbors).

In discussions with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chairman General Eric Shinseki recommended a large force capable of knocking out Iraq's military. The force would have to be large enough to score a decisive early victory as well as suppress civilian violence. It was agreed there would be a need to secure valuable civilian assets like museums and banks, as well as quickly locate and secure weapons stores to prevent their use by insurgents [6]. Gore recruits a coalition including the U.K. and Spain to participate. Despite the looming invasion, Saddam makes no effort to comply with U.N. demands, nor does he make serious military preparations or even attempt to provide for his own safety [7]. The coalition attacks in late spring, 2003, punching through Iraq's military and quickly entering Baghdad in one of the fastest military advances in history. U.S. forces quickly move to secure key points, including the National Museum. Curators had already secured most of the collection.

One of the few things Saddam had done was invite supporters to help themselves to weapons. Although coalition forces quickly located and secured weapons depots, that took time, and in many cases the Iraqis got there first. Looters intent on sacking the National Museum opened fire on American troops guarding it, stormed inside, and engaged in a major firefight with reinforcements. Gore's critics at home demanded to know why American lives were sacrificed to do a job the (nonexistent) Iraqi police should have done. With Hatch leading the charge, the Republicans branded the Iraq War a failure and started drawing invidious comparisons to LBJ and Vietnam. They specifically pointed to preparations for occupation as the precursor to another quagmire [8]. Although the large coalition force successfully suppressed direct attacks on the military, it had little effect on roadside bombs, car bomb attacks on civilians, Shiite-Sunnite violence, personal vendettas and criminal actions, in which thousands of Iraqis died.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Gore's initiatives were stalled in the Republican Congress. Attempts to enact health care reform and energy efficiency failed. Republican leaders told Gore that anything other than unlimited access to energy on Federal lands was unacceptable. In the 2004 Presidential election, Gore faced tough primary battles from John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, a rarity in Presidential politics where the incumbent usually wins in a walk. The Republicans nominated their 2000 Vice-Presidential candidate, Dick Cheney, who lashed Gore as militarily timid and ineffective, and pointed to his own experience as a CEO as evidence he could do a far better job of managing the economy than Gore. Cheney also painted Gore's health care and energy policies as dire threats to free enterprise and the health of the economy. The Democrats successfully dredged up some of Cheney's less savory moments and Gore eked out a slender win, but the Democrats lost their majority in the Senate and lost seats in the House as well.

Gore's second term was dominated mostly by military issues. Leftist supporters began accusing Gore of betrayal, saying "Gore lied, people died" [9] and Gore's international appeal plummeted. Gore's attempts to cover the costs of the Afghan and Iraq wars by raising taxes were stymied in Congress, who demanded massive cuts in discretionary spending and complete abolition of a large number of programs to raise the money. Gore was unable to advance any of his major agenda items. As the deficit ballooned, Republicans accused Gore of wrecking the economy [10].

By 2006, financial analysts were warning of the huge volume of fictitious wealth in the financial derivatives market, and the possible consequences of its eventual collapse. Gore warned Congress of the impending crisis and proposed reinstating a number of banking regulations and requiring U.S. banks to divest themselves of insecure assets. Republicans in Congress revolted in fury and turned back every one of Gore's initiatives. When the bubble popped in 2008, Gore realized that the economic dislocation from major bank failures would be crippling to the U.S. economy, so he proposed a massive bailout program. Congress refused to accept portions of the plan that restricted executive bonuses and required the largest banks to break up to reduce the risk of catastrophic individual bank failures. There were enough economically literate Republicans to pass weakened versions of Gore's reforms, but several banks refused to participate because of the bonus restrictions, and both the bonus and breakup provisions were immediately challenged in court. Facing the prospect of bank failures during the litigation process, or releasing the funds, Gore signed an executive order authorizing the release of bailout finds.

In the election of 2008, the Democrats were assured of a historic first. Hillary Clinton squared off against an unknown black senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. For the first time, a major party would have either a woman or a black as nominee. Clinton won the nomination, becoming the first female major party Presidential candidate. The Republican campaign pitted Dick Cheney against Arizona senator John McCain. McCain won the nomination. During the campaign, the Republicans blamed the Democrats for two major wars, a huge deficit because of refusal to fund them properly, an additional massive increase in the deficit because of the bailouts, and a plummeting economy. They depicted Gore's energy and health care proposals as a blueprint for an economic police state. Blacks, angry at Obama's defeat, and disgruntled progressives frustrated at Gore's ineffectiveness sat out the election, handing the Presidency to McCain and a filibuster-proof majority to the Republicans [11]


(1) Events following the hijackings, apart from Gore meeting with environmentalists instead of a school class and the futile interceptions, are identical to actual history, including reaction to the President's actions on September 11. It would be wonderful to paint the revolt on Flight 93 as successful, but this is not a rainbows, puppies and unicorns piece, and once the hijackers were aboard with knives, there is no reason to think events would have followed any different course. Nor is there any reason to think scrambling jets could have accomplished much. The attack on Afghanistan also follows actual history.

(2) You actually thought with Gore in office the 9-11 conspiracy theories wouldn't be as goofy? Hahahahaha. That's so cute.

(3) Obviously it didn't play out this way, but killing bin Ladin early on probably wouldn't have changed the situation in Afghanistan very much. With a large part of the population supporting a medieval tribal form of government, the war in Afghanistan pits a minority of modernists against a majority of medievalists. The U.S. simply cannot win guerrilla wars, given our present political apparatus and cultural mind-set. Guerrilla wars are fought by people who are willing to spend decades, not months. We want our troops home; the enemy is home.

(4) Given Hatch's stands on Internet freedom, I have no compunctions whatsoever making him a villain. I have no problems making Ritter something of a buffoon as well. Being able to assess the existence of weapons doesn't make you qualified to recommend policy. I really don't have any animosity toward Ritter, but he was hopelessly out of his depth as a policy pundit.

(5) Gore and Powell tell the gospel truth, and we still invade Iraq. Because the chorus of "Bush lied, people died" tends to obscure the myriad legitimate reasons to topple Saddam.

(6) Gore does everything right. These recommendations got Shinseki fired by Bush.

(7) I am convinced that in his head, Saddam believed he won the Gulf War. He survived after all.

(8) You thought that Republicans would support Gore because they would have (and did, in real history) done exactly the same things themselves? You really don't follow politics, do you?

(9) The perfidy of the Left is a hole with no bottom.

(10) Like the definition of 'chutzpah:" killing your parents and begging the court for mercy because you're an orphan. Blatant hypocrisy. And your point is....?

(11) Stay home on Election day. Make my vote more effective. Who needs voter fraud when people voluntarily stay home?


The President is a whole lot less powerful than people think. He can urge Congress to act, he can take a fair number of unilateral actions by executive order, and he can nominate Supreme Court justices. He can veto legislation. He can direct military operations.

He cannot introduce legislation. He cannot appoint Supreme Court justices. He cannot force Congress to do anything. He cannot force the U.N. to do anything.

In this scenario, Gore is elected and does everything right. And in 2003 there was a lot of sentiment that Saddam Hussein had to go, and that the U.N. had made a complete fool of itself. He gets it right on Iraq's chemical weapons. He conducts the war the way the military recommended. But our American mind set just will not allow us to win insurgencies. That takes patience, a long view, and a willingness to pay the cost, none of which we have.

Also, in this scenario, we have a Democratic President and a Republican Congress. Gore wants to do enlightened things, but Republicans block him. Also they get to blame Gore and the Democrats for everything that goes wrong. Sometimes it really is easier to be out of power. Do you really think the Republicans would have said "we're the ones who failed to fund two wars?" Hint: are they saying it now? It's really not hard to envision a scenario where Gore is elected and the events of 2000-2008 play out much as they did anyway.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Ponzi Schemes

Charles Ponzi probably never intended to end up in jail, much less the dictionary, when he launched a scheme to bilk investors by paying them with the money gained from new victims. But he was caught in 1920. Outright criminal Ponzi schemes depend on the perpetrators being able to escape and evade capture or find refuge in some country that will shelter them.

It's doubtful that Bernie Madoff started out with the intent of running a Ponzi scheme. 'Let's see, I'm wealthy and respected. What's missing? 'I know!' he shouts, slapping his forehead so hard he loses consciousness, 'I'll launch A Ponzi scheme. That way every day will tingle with the excitement of wondering whether my world will collapse in ruins and I'll be dragged off to prison while simultaneously being reviled by the whole world.' No, he probably really believed he was such a savvy investor he could consistently outperform the market. Like a 'system' gambler in Vegas, he believed he was brilliant when he had merely been lucky. And when the scheme did begin to go sour, he probably told himself it was just a temporary downturn and soon the old mojo would return and he'd be able to pay off all his investors. Eventually, he probably just hoped to die before it all fell apart.

Pyramid schemes vary in legality but are fundamentally the same as Ponzi schemes in that they depend on future gains to pay present rewards. Illegal pyramid schemes involve recruiting future investors, paying current investors a commission for each new victim they recruit. Generally, the people running the scheme pose as investors and pay themselves first. Legal ones typically involve selling and recruiting new sales agents. They are technically legal because the company is selling something of value, and it is possible for sales agents to earn money, but the real money is in recruiting additional players. Morally, these are indistinguishable from Ponzi schemes in that sooner or later the possibility of future growth is gone. Eventually everyone who can be recruited will be, everyone who will buy the product has bought it, and when that happens, the last tier of recruits are stuck, with no possibility of expanding their operations or recovering their investments.

And here's the ugly economic reality. All growth schemes that assume indefinite future growth are Ponzi schemes. Because nothing can grow forever in a finite world, and when growth stops, people who were hoping to make future gains are stuck.

That's indefinite growth. If you invest in something with the awareness that it will not grow indefinitely and you are prepared to deal with the end of growth non-destructively, that's not a Ponzi scheme. If you take your profits and retire on them or reinvest them, that's what capitalism is all about. On the other hand, if you're the sort of investor who sells off the company's assets and puts its employees out of work when the roller coaster ride is over, you're slime. And fundamentally you're a Ponzi schemer because you plan to hop from one profiteering venture to the next while doing nothing to make the growth sustainable.

Compound Interest

It has been known almost since compound interest was invented that it cannot grow forever. Something - war, devaluation, or inflation - will come along to offset it. Say you'd invested one cent at 1% interest per year, compounded annually, in the year 1 AD. By now it would be worth $.01 x (1.01)^2009 = $4,804,408.53. Okay, handsome return, but maybe not unreasonable. Now visit a reputable coin shop (because fake ancient coins abound) and try to buy a Roman coin that was worth about a cent in Roman times. Will it cost you $4.8 million? Not likely. $20, maybe $100 if it's in very good condition, but not $4.8 million.

Now suppose the interest rate was 2%. Now your cent would be worth $1,895,592,883,959,335.15 or something like 30 times the total GDP of the earth. Go ahead, try and collect. At $1000 per ounce, that would be 1,895,592,883,959 ounces of gold. Gold is measured in troy ounces (31.1 grams or 1.1 conventional ounces) so that's 58,952,939 tons of gold. Since the total amount of gold ever mined is around 150,000 tons, you could not be paid in gold.

But this is just silly, believers in compound interest object. Nobody ever holds an investment for 2000 years. Exactly. And when the investment is cashed in, the growth stops. The money might be consumed, it might be reinvested, and the new investment might rise or fall, but the essential point is that guaranteed indefinite growth is impossible.

The reason compound interest has been a useful tool is that for the last 500 years or so economies have grown more or less steadily. If interest rates are set to match the growth of the economy, then people who invest in the economy by buying stocks or bonds, or opening savings accounts, or buying real estate, are rewarded somewhat proportionally to the growth of the economy. And wages grow so wage earners reap some of the benefits of growth. But when growth spurts stop, some people get left holding the bag. People who bought investments hoping to see them rise get brought up short. Wage earners who counted on keeping good paying jobs all their working lives get rude shocks.

Over the last 500 years the engines of economic growth have included trade, territorial expansion, technology, population growth, generation of new needs and wants, and information. None can continue to grow indefinitely. The whole world is now claimed territorially. Space is potentially an arena for long term growth, but not at present costs. Information might seem to be an exception in that it is abstract. But information requires storage and retrieval capabilities. Libraries regularly discard books because they need shelf space; the digital equivalent is not hard to foresee.


Limits to the growth of science and technology have been predicted and failed so many times that many people have come to assume that there can be no limits. But all ideas consist of a finite number of bits of information. If you happen to know of an idea that consists of an infinite number of bits, e-mail it to me. 'The sun is a star' consists of 17 characters, counting spaces (which convey information by telling us that one word ends and another begins). In standard ASCII format, each character contains 8 bits, so that sentence contains 136 bits of information (The actual information content is hard to pin down. On the one hand, there may be more economical coding systems. On the other hand, there's 'overhead.' You have to know what the letters and words mean). The total number of combinations of 136 bits is 2^136 or 8.7 x 10^40. That's a lot of ideas, but all but a miniscule proportion, like 'pglNb gTRdf kmnhg,' which also contains 136 bits, are meaningless. The number of possible ideas may be staggeringly large, but it is finite. And the number of possible ideas will be further limited by the size of our information storage and the complexity of our brains. At some point there will be ideas so complex our brains cannot process them, and ideas that cannot even be summarized meaningfully in terms that our brains can process.

And exponential growth means that numbers get very big real fast. Every possible rate of growth has a doubling time, approximately 70 years divided by the annual percentage rate of growth. 87 per cent (7/8) of the total growth will happen in the final three doublings and 99.9 per cent (1023/1024) in the last ten.

Technology may be limited ultimately by our needs being satiated or by running out of resources. Although supersonic airliners are perfectly possible, the few ever built have been retired and there are no plans for new ones. Dubai's half mile high skyscraper was technically possible fifty years ago; in fact Frank Lloyd Wright proposed a mile high skyscraper in 1956. Nothing that big has ever been attempted because of financial objections, and even the viability of Dubai's tower is questionable. It is not at all out of the question that we will decide we do not need to return to the moon, or even have manned space flight.

The archetypical exponential growth in technology is Moore's Law, the idea that computing power doubles about every two years. Pretty much everyone in computing is mathematically literate enough to realize this sort of expansion can't continue indefinitely. The question is how to keep the growth going as long as possible. The ultimate limit is probably set by reducing bit storage to atomic levels. Estimates of when an ultimate limit will be reached range from decades to centuries. It might turn out that Moore's Law will be limited more by our perceived need to store information. And even when we do hit the limits of Moore's Law, we will have achieved amazing levels of computational power and information storage.


A piece by Paul Harris in the Guardian ( for October 4, 2009 is titled 'Will California become America's first failed state?' It details the budgetary morass facing California and includes the usual array of responses from right and left. From the left we hear that taxes need to be raised to preserve California's rich array of beneficial programs. From the right we hear that taxes are too high, the regulatory climate is negative, and social programs and salaries are excessive. All the reasons I have seen given for California's malaise, both right and left, are valid. Which one to choose depends on what you're willing to sacrifice to gain something else. None of them address the real problem. California has been a failed state for many years. Like Bernie Madoff's early investors, Californians could overlook the impending crash because the money was still coming in and nobody much cared where it would come from a decade hence.

My family moved from Maine to California - literally - in 1961 and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in the East Bay. At that time there was still some open land between towns, and you could still see a little of what California might once have been like. The population was about to overtake New York's , but at 18 million, it was only half of today's. My guesstimation is that the perfect time to have lived in California was right after World War II, when personal mobility was good, real estate prices were sane, and even Los Angeles was pretty livable (although its first serious smog episode came in 1943). The population in 1945 was about 9 million, a quarter the present size.

Over the years I lived there plus frequent returns, I watched all the old farms disappear and formerly open marginal land was filled in by housing developments. Fortunately, governments in the Bay Area established a large network of regional parks to preserve open land. More irritating by far was the simple crowding. There are a few corners of California I might choose to live in if I ever decide to go back, but none near any large cities. Even tiny and remote Alpine County, a place I had thought was as immune to urban sprawl as any, is at risk, not from California cities, but from Carson City to the north.

California, ultimately, was a gigantic Ponzi scheme, paying for today with tomorrow's income. My family moved from Maine and had very New England ideas about money, and one of the first things my father noted with disgust is how soon after payday his co-workers were borrowing money. 'A dollar down, a dollar a week, and the rest of your life to pay,' he sneered. (I originally wrote 'snorted,' but my father didn't snort. He could, however, sneer with the best of them.) And governments at all levels were in on it. They eagerly sought development, which would bring in new residents, which would increase the tax base, which would enable them to offer better services, which would attract more residents..... Developers stood to make money, local governments stood to make money, bureaucrats stood to make money since growth meant career advancement (as well as some of the more crass and less legal ways to earn money from development), politicians stood to get re-elected (and bribed) and residents favored growth because it meant more people to share the tax burden, more customers for their businesses, as well as inflated resale values for their homes. Farmers and ranchers welcomed development because they could sell land at big profits.

The first hint that it might not be sustainable came almost 100 years ago when Los Angeles, then only a small city (100,000 in 1900, or about the size of present Green Bay, Wisconsin), began running out of water. The city water commissioner, William Mulholland, realized that water was the limiting factor in the city's growth and urged the city to buy up water rights in the then (and still) sparsely populated Owens Valley. California keeps its cities supplied with a massive system of aqueducts and reservoirs, with water supply officials keeping a nervous eye on the Sierra Nevada snow pack each winter. California may have enough water to supply its cities and irrigate farm land. It doesn't have enough for frivolous uses like watering lawns.

But eventually California is limited by its physical size. Even though there are still some very empty places in California, the full places are very full indeed. Places that were 10 minutes away twenty years ago are half an hour away now. Undeveloped lands that served as unofficial playgrounds in 1970 are houses and malls now. Open ranch land that offered scenery a short drive out of town is now built over. Apologists for growth argue there is still plenty of open space, as there is. But the places where people actually live are becoming less livable. More and more people decide there are equally livable places elsewhere, in Utah, Idaho and Montana. The question is not, how many people can we cram into a county, but how many people will we cram in before moving in becomes unattractive? Bakersfield has 300,000 people, not an absurdly large city, and is surrounded by open land for expansion, but it used to offer clear views of the Sierra Nevada on most days. Now air pollution blocks the view all but a few days a year. And when people decide it's not attractive to move in any more, growth stops. Taxes rise. People and jobs move out. Taxes rise even more to provide services to those who can't afford to move. More people and jobs leave. See Detroit for details, although many California cities, like Stockton, in 2009 have statistics to match Detroit.

San Francisco, which was the second largest city in California in 1960, has seen itself overtaken first by San Diego, and then San Jose, because it has the ultimate space constraints: occupying the tip of a peninsula. So its population remains locked at about 800,000. It has survived by a Darwinian process of selecting people willing to live in crowded conditions at exorbitant rent, and politically liberal enough to pay high taxes to support those who cannot afford the insanely high cost of housing. In a state of 37 million and a nation of 300 million, I guess we ought not be surprised to find 800,000 people willing to do that, especially if the reward is to live in a place with the culture and physical setting of San Francisco. They are even willing to put up with spectacular incompetence, as Benjamin Wachs and Joe Eskenazi pointed out in "The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.: Spend more. Get less. We're the city that knows how." in on December 14, 2009. But if you think that's a general recipe that will apply everywhere (except for the incompetence part), guess again.

Evading Malthus

Thomas Malthus, dubbed the "gloomy prophet," is famous, or notorious, for his observation that the exponential growth of population inevitably outstrips the means of production. Some unknown wag wrote "Song of Malthus: A Ballad on Diminishing Returns":
To get land's fruit in quantity
Takes jolts of labour ever more,
Hence food will grow like one, two, three....
While numbers grow like one, two, four....
For nearly 200 years, economists have pointed out that Malthus did not foresee the Industrial Revolution, the rise in wages, improvements in agricultural production, and so on. In Malthus' day, an optimist would look forward to the end of starvation in Europe. To worry about eradicating hunger globally would have been viewed as Utopian to the point of hallucination. And so it is fashionable in many circles to speak as if we can evade Malthus' predictions indefinitely. There are ways we can foresee that, if not indefinite, could forestall a crisis for a very long time, long enough that it would not be irresponsible to ignore limits for a long while.

In the Star Trek universe, for example, people have apparently limitless energy, replicators, and new planets to colonize. Just maybe, we can solve our energy needs by developing fusion or building space-based solar energy collectors. Replicators are not as near on the horizon, though rapid three-dimensional printers capable of fabricating any imaginable object are improving in capabilities dramatically. With enough energy we could distill sea water and end the overuse of natural water sources.

But it makes sense to relax a bit only if the technology is available. If we have a cheap way of distilling sea water, then we could feel okay about building houses with lush lawns and swimming pools in the desert. But building them, then hoping the technology eventually becomes available, is simply stupid. It's like driving your car until it runs out of gas in the expectation that someone will open a gas station at the spot you get into trouble. Or like the story of the guy who jumped off the Empire State Building, and as he passed each floor, said "so far, so good."

As for colonizing space, in fifty years we have sent about 500 individuals into space (a few thousand if you count individual trips). Just to keep pace with existing population growth, we would have to send about 250,000 people a day into space. That's Birmingham today, Norfolk tomorrow, St. Petersburg the day after, then Louisville, Anchorage, Bakersfield.... Just to stay even. And a society that decided the Apollo Program was too expensive is going to do this?

What about the oceans? The world's fisheries are on the verge of collapse. Increasingly, consumers are buying fish that were dismissed as trash fifty years ago. When spokesmen for the fisheries industry gush about fisheries stocks doubling in some places in recent years, they mean they've grown from one per cent of what they were fifty years ago to two per cent.

The Ultimate Ponzi Scheme

The ultimate Ponzi scheme is believing that population can continue to grow indefinitely.

As an American, I find it refreshing to see we don't have a global monopoly on stupidity. Canadian Diane Francis wrote "The Real Inconvenient Truth " in the Financial Post for Tuesday, December 08, 2009 and got these replies, which pretty much make up a rogues' gallery of denial games about limits on growth.

Hakuna Matata

More people mean more markets, more taxpayers, more pension payers, more inventors. All we have to do is learn to live more modestly, not stop living or stop others from being born.
No problem, mon! We're running the world as a Ponzi scheme and we like it just fine. This writer doesn't mean he should live more modestly. That will be for future generations. After all, what have they ever done for us?

Serutan: It's Nature's Spelled Backwards

What all you pointy headed intellectuals fail to realize is that you are not in control of these things. As much as your egos would like you to believe that you can control the environment, population growth, etc. A pandemic of some sort is inevitable, and that is what has WHO wringing its hands over H1N1. There is nothing they can do. When the problems of the world become to strong, nature will take over and wipe millions and possibly even billions from the face of the earth.
I kinda sorta doubt that if he or a loved one gets caught up in one of these pandemics, that he'll be cool about letting nature take its course. Millions or billions will die in a pandemic. Whatever. Just as long as I don't have to get involved. Idea, move someplace with no health care, get sick, and let nature run its course.

Not in my Job Description

Which are you, Ms. Francis? Crazy, evil, or stupid? Pick one. Pick several. But don't feed us garbage about how the world is overpopulated and we need to stop reproducing. The fact that your beloved economic planners can't deal with six or nine billion is their own fault. Maybe if people like you would stop imposing your will on me and mine, we could all just get to producing things that are useful to mankind, unlike your ridiculous screed above.
See, my job is just to consume stuff. Your job is to keep me supplied with creature comforts and to solve problems without involving me. This guy is a middle class welfare bum. He may be earning his keep, but actual problem solving? That's somebody else's job.

Oh, Canada

I'm only 27 and I have one little boy already. There are at least 2 more to come. All will be raised CANADIAN, PROTESTANT, and PROUD. This is how we maintain OUR homeland for OUR people.
Canada has many things to be proud of. This, however, is not one of them. Isn't there a mine field in Afghanistan that needs clearing?

Let's Combine Short Sightedness And Racism

Not quite. What we need are for white western countries to significantly increase their birthrates and for muslim (sic) countries to drastically lower theirs. White people make up less than 15% of the world's population and its only going to go lower with the 1.5 babies per woman birthrates that are so typical in Europe and Canada. We need more European children or western civilization is dead!!!!
With people like this shaping public policy, Western civilization is dead anyway.
Ms. Francis, you obviously have not thought that issue through. One child police across the board for all nations give the already population -rich countries an unfair advantage.. We need more caucasians at this point.. I advocate to educate the overpopulated countries and not drain the economy with fraud and deception.

Facts? We Don' Need No Stinkin' Facts

Follow this if you can, "The world's population would drop from its current 6.5 billion to 5.5 billion by 2050, according to a study done for scientific academy Vienna Institute of Demography. -By 2075, there would be 3.43 billion humans on the planet. By this rate in 2100 the population would be 1.36 billion, and by 2125 the Earth would be De-populated. This is where its all heading with the Liberal loonies
Because by 2100 people will have forgotten how to have sex, apparently.
Ms. Francis, your pathological belief system advocates an end to human freedom for the tyranny of an all-powerful state regulating who shall live or die. The God of whom the Bible speaks loves humanity and made the earth re-sustaining for humans to flourish. Your world view resents this and demands the oppression of humans under government tyranny, concocting the manmade global warming hoax to that end. Your cause will fail as we who love liberty defy your ideology's schemes.
Hmmm... wasn't there a parable about wise and foolish virgins, where the wise ones foresaw running out of resources and the foolish ones didn't? Of course, we don't take the Bible literally when it hints at things we don't want to talk about.
Diana Francis, Please show you're serious by volunteering your own suicide. Thanks!
Show me you're serious about the need to lose weight by starving yourself to death. Because restraint and moderation always lead to extremes.