Streetwise Professor

August 31, 2019

Americans’ Realistic Response to a Fight For Freedom in Hong Kong

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:22 pm

Hong Kong has been convulsed by anti-government protests for weeks. Protestors have numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and are facing increasing violence from Chinese authorities. The atmosphere is heavy with fears of a fierce crackdown by Beijing, along the lines of Tiananmen Square, a little more than 30 years ago.

Hong Kong protestors are literally wrapping themselves in American flags (redolent of the replica of the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen). Some are even donning MAGA hats and pleading for the US to come to their aid.

But Americans’ responses to all this are decidedly muted, and many appear to be paying little attention to the truly historic events in Hong Kong. This has led many to wonder why. Tyler Cowen hypothesizes that Americans are too obsessed with their own inter-tribal political wars to pay attention:

Sadly, the most likely hypothesis is that Americans and many others around the world simply do not care so much anymore about international struggles for liberty. It is no longer the 18th or 19th century, when one democratic revolution provided the impetus for another, and such struggles were self-consciously viewed in international terms (a tradition that was also adopted by communism). The 1960s, which saw the spread of left-wing movements around the world, embodied that spirit. So did the anti-Communist movements of the 1980s, such as Solidarity, which overcame apparently insuperable odds to help liberate Poland and indeed many other parts of Eastern Europe.
In contrast, I hear no talk today about how the Hong Kong protesters might inspire broader movements for liberty.
Instead, Americans are preoccupied with fighting each other over political correctness, gun violence, Trump and the Democratic candidates for president. To be sure, those issues deserve plenty of attention. But they are soaking up far too much emotional energy, distracting attention from the all-important struggles for liberty around the world.
It’s 2019, and the land of the American Revolution, a country whose presidents gave stirring speeches about liberty and freedom in Berlin during the Cold War, remains in a complacent slumber. It really is time to Make America Great Again — if only we could remember what that means.

With all due respect to Tyler, I think the answer is far different: Americans are far more realistic than he is.

This realism is the bitter fruit of the idealism of the post-Cold War world, and in particular, attempts to advance liberty around the world.

Let’s look at the record. And a dismal record it is.

Start with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to a burst of euphoria and a belief that this would cause liberty to spread to the lands behind the Iron Curtain. The result was far more gloomy.

There were a few successes. The Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary. Not coincidentally, the successes and quasi-successes occurred in places that had been part of the Catholic and Protestant west. Outside of that, the states of the FSU and other Warsaw Pact states lapsed back into authoritarianism, usually after a spasm of chaos. (Ukraine went from authoritarianism to chaos to authoritarianism and then to a rather corrupt semi-chaos.)

In particular, the bright hopes for Russia faded rapidly, and after a decade of chaotic kleptocracy that country has settled into nearly two decades of authoritarian kleptocracy. Moreover, Americans (and westerners generally) soon wore out their welcome, in part because of their condescension in dealing with a reeling and demoralized yet proud society, in part because of their complicity in corruption (and yes, I’m looking at you, Harvard), and in part because their advice is firmly associated in Russian minds with the calamity of the 1998 economic collapse. Yes, you can quibble over whether that blame is justified, but that’s irrelevant: it is a reality.

Countries where Color Revolutions occurred (e.g., Georgia) also spurred western and American optimism and support. But hopes were soon dashed as these countries too slipped back into the mire, rather than emerging as beacons of liberty.

I could go on, but you get the point.

Let’s move forward a decade, to Afghanistan and Iraq. In both places, there was another burst of euphoria after brutal regimes were toppled. Remember purple fingers? They were a thing, once, what seems a lifetime ago.

Again, hopes that freedom would bloom were soon dashed, and both countries descended into horrific violence that vast amounts of American treasure and manpower were barely able to subdue. And again, especially in Iraq, the liberators were soon widely hated.

The lesson of Iraq is particularly instructive. The overthrown government was based on a party organization with a cell structure that was able to organize a fierce and bloody resistance against the Americans and their allies. The attitudes of the population meant far less than the determination and bloody-mindedness of a few hard, ruthless men.

Let’s move forward another decade, to the Arab Spring. The best outcome is probably Egypt, which went from an authoritarian government rooted in the military to a militant Muslim Brotherhood government and back to military authoritarianism. In other words, the best was a return to the status quo ante. The road back was not a happy one, and the country would have been better without the post-Spring detour into Islamism.

Elsewhere? Humanitarian catastrophes, like Libya and Syria, that make Game of Thrones and Mad Max look like frolics. Enough said.

Given this litany of gloomy failures, who can blame Americans for extreme reluctance to engage mentally or emotionally with what is transpiring in Hong Kong? They are only being realistic in concluding it is unlikely to end well, and that the US has little power to engineer a happy ending.

And what is the US supposed to do, exactly? The country is already employing myriad non-military instruments of national power in a strategic contest with China. Again, the “trade war” is not a war about trade: trade is a weapon in a far broader contest.

Military means are obviously out of the question. And let’s say that, by some miracle, the Chinese Communist Party collapses, and the US military, government agencies, and NGOs did indeed attempt to help secure the country. How would that work out? Badly, I’m sure.

The country is less culturally intelligible to Americans than Russia, or even the Middle East, and not just because of the language barrier, but because of vastly different worldviews. China is physically immense and has the largest population in the world. Chinese are extraordinarily nationalist, and it is not hyperbole to say that the Han in particular are racial supremacists. Years of CCP propaganda have instilled a deep hostility towards the US in particular, and many (and arguably a large majority of) Chinese blame the west and latterly the US of inflicting centuries of humiliation on China. A collapsed CCP would not disappear: it would almost certainly call on its revolutionary tradition and launch a fierce and bloody resistance. People in Hong Kong may be flying American flags now, but I guarantee that in a post-Communist China, there would be tremendous animosity towards Americans.

When you can’t do anything, the best thing to do is nothing. Some of the greatest fiascos in history have been the result of demands to do something, when nothing constructive could be done.

The American diffidence that Tyler Cowen laments reflects an intuitive grasp of that, where the intuition was formed by bitter experience.

I despise the CCP. It is, without a doubt, the greatest threat to liberty in the world today. It is murderous, and led by thugs. I completely understand the desire of those with at least some comprehension of a different kind of government, and a different way of life, to be rid of it. I am deeply touched by their admiration for American freedom–something that has become increasingly rare, and increasingly besieged, in America itself.

But there ain’t a damn thing I, or even the entire US, can do to make that happen.

Ironically, I guarantee any American involvement in a putative post-CCP China would only contribute to internecine political warfare in the US.

The situation is analogous to that in 1946, when George Kennan wrote the Long Telegram. Confronting (prudently) and containing China is the only realistic policy. After years of delusional policies that mirror imaged China, the Trump administration is finally moving in that direction, and has achieved considerable success in creating a consensus around that policy (the deranged Democratic presidential candidates and those corrupted by Chinese money excepted, both of whom are siding with China at present, because Bad Orange Man and moolah).

But even there we have to be realistic. For even after containment achieved its strategic objective, and the USSR collapsed, it did not result in a new birth of liberty east of the Niemen and the Dneiper. Nor should we expect that to happen on the Yangtze or the Yellow if containment consigns the CCP to the dustbin of history.

August 27, 2019

“HE’S FULL OF SHIT”: You Read It Here First

Filed under: Climate Change,Economics,Tesla — cpirrong @ 5:50 pm

Three guesses as to who “he” is. First two don’t count.

Vanity Fair has a long article, with a title starting with the quote in the title of this post, showing that Elon Musk’s solar roof in particular, and its solar business in general, is a fraud. The article also shows that Elon engineered Tesla’s purchase of Solar City to prevent it from going belly up, and thereby torpedoing Elon’s reputation as a genius.

Which is exactly what I said on the very day the deal was announced three years ago.

I’ve been calling BS on Elon since May, 2013. Nice to see people are finally catching up.

It Was Almost Certainly a Petrel Nuclear Powered Cruise Missile That ‘Sploded in Severodvinsk

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:40 pm

The odds that what blew up in Russia on 8 August had a nuclear reactor, rather than an isotope battery power source, are becoming increasingly strong. Specifically, four isotopes associated with nuclear fission, strontium-91, barium-139, barium-140, and lanthanum-140, have been detected.

Norwegian nuclear safety expert Nils Bøhmer says the information removes any doubts about the explosion’s nuclear nature.
“The presence of decay products like barium and strontium is coming from a nuclear chain reaction. It is proof that it was a nuclear reactor that exploded,” Bøhmer says.

He explains that such a mixture of short-lived isotopes would not have been found if it was simply an “isotope source” in a propellant engine that exploded like Russian authorities first said.

. . . .

Several public statements from Russian officials in the days after the accident, which happened on a barge offshore from Nenoksa test site, claimed the failed test involved an “isotope source of a liquid-fueled propulsion unit.” That triggered speculations it could have been a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). Such isotope sources are previously known to come from lighthouses in the remote Arctic regions and space satellites.

“Had it been an RTG none of these isotopes would have been detected,” Bøhmer says.

Some still express doubt it was a nuclear powered Petrel cruise missile, because the initial explosion allegedly involved a liquid fuel rocket, and Petrel is allegedly launched using a solid fuel rocket. But there is no definitive proof that Petrel uses solid fuel rockets, and Russia has a well known preference for liquid fuel rockets. Indeed, perhaps the reason for the test is unsatisfactory performance of the solid fuel engine.

The mooted alternatives, the Poseidon nuclear submersible drone, or a seabed launched version thereof, don’t fit the facts. Although it is speculated that Poseidon will have a nuclear power plant (a closed cycle nuclear gas turbine or a pressurized water system), it would not require liquid fueled rockets, being essentially a torpedo that operates under water.

The bottom line is that the Russians almost certainly lied about the type of weapon that exploded. (This is my shocked face. No! Really!) Moreover, the weapon is most likely the Petrel, because that puts together a rocket and a nuclear reactor, and the alternative candidates don’t.

I wonder, though not very hard, if this will give Putin and his military people second thoughts about pursuing this weapon. Given his personal investment in it, and his apparent paranoia about US missile defenses, I doubt it. In fact, he’ll probably redouble the effort.

August 21, 2019

Hillary (and Google) Deny That Google Can Influence Voter Behavior, Which Would Imply That Google Is the Greatest Fraud Ever

Filed under: Politics — cpirrong @ 6:52 pm

The latest Trump tweet-induced hysteria (other than Greenland!) was his claim that Google had thrown millions of votes to Hillary by manipulating search results to favor her. Trump invoked research performed by a Google gadfly, psychiatrist Robert Epstein. It turns out that the president exaggerated the number of votes that Epstein claims Google influenced, but even Epstein’s 10+ million (vs. Trump’s 16+ million) is hardly an immaterial number.

By having the temerity to challenge Hillary’s narrative that she wuz robbed, she claimed that the study had been “debunked” and called out her flying monkeys to attack Dr. Epstein.

(As someone replied to me on Twitter, that smile is something Hillary has seen humans use.)

The gravamen of the alleged debunking was that Epstein had relied on a small sample of experimental subjects to extrapolate how prioritizing search results could affect voter behavior. As someone well aware of the reproducibility problem, especially in experimental psychology, this is a potentially valid concern.

But that was not the entirety of Dr. Epstein’s research. He presents evidence that Google did in fact slant its search results in her favor. The question is whether such slanting would change voting behavior.

You want to know who believes it changes behavior? Google, that’s who. Its entire business model is built on it. Google’s profits, and its stratospheric stock price, are dependent on its ability to extract rents (from advertising, etc.) by prioritizing search results.

In other words, Google is the last entity you should believe if they say that prioritizing search results doesn’t affect behavior. If that is actually true, then the company is the biggest commercial and stock fraud in the history of the universe.

So here’s a dare for Google. Disclose the news algos. The ones you use now, and the ones you used in 2016. Further, disclose all of the internal research (much done under the direction of my former colleague, the brilliant Hal Varian) that studies how search results affect behavior, how Google should price prioritization, and how much money Google makes by optimizing its search results. Disclose any research relating to how prioritization of news searches affects voting outcomes. Also disclose how much money Google spends on its algorithms, including R&D. If the algos don’t matter, they wouldn’t spend anything on them.

Then we can see whether Google is a colossal fraud, or whether it actually can (and does) affect behavior–including voter behavior.

It is beyond bizarre that people obsess over a few retarded Facebook ads allegedly placed by the Russians, and ignore the Godzilla–Googzilla?–in the room. Google makes billions manipulating behavior. And if you think it is beyond manipulating behavior for political purposes, and especially if you believe Russian trolls are better than Google at manipulating behavior for political purposes, you are a fool and a knave.

Crazy Like an (Arctic) Fox?

Filed under: China,Energy,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 5:38 pm

Donald Trump recently unleashed yet another tsunami of ridicule by suggesting that the US should buy Greenland, a Danish possession. There he goes again! The idiot! The fool! What a ridiculous idea!

Trump responded by pointing out that Greenland is a strategic place. And he’s right.

And you know who thinks it’s incredibly strategic?: Vladimir Putin, and the Russian defense establishment. Under Putin, Russia has poured extensive resources into an attempt to dominate the Arctic. It has been building bases in the region at a fevered pace, and is imposing restrictions on ships using the northern sea route. It is attempting to grab as much of the Arctic seabed as possible, because of the potential energy resources it contains. Putin himself has said the Arctic “the most important region that will provide for the future of Russia.” Putin wants to turn the Arctic into a Russian lake.

Further, the strategic importance of this region is greater, the more you believe in climate change, or the stronger you believe it will be. Considerable warming would turn the Arctic into one of the dominant shipping routes in the world.

So by expressing an interest in Greenland, Trump is making a move that poses a direct, and serious, threat to Russian interests. Replacing a geopolitical pipsqueak (Denmark) that has a seat at the table in all negotiations in the Arctic, and which cannot utilize Greenland for any military purpose, with Putin’s bugbear–the US–would be a real blow to him. In Soviet lingo, it would dramatically shift the correlation of forces in the Arctic. That’s a big deal. For Putin especially.

Greenland is also a potential source of rare earths, currently a Chinese near-monopoly (and one of their most powerful “trade war” weapons), so US control would be antithetical to Chinese interests as well.

The irony is just too, too much. I guarantee that those who are ridiculing Trump most intensely also believe absolutely that he is Putin’s puppet, and are also fervent believers in the existential threat of anthropomorphic climate change. Yet they are so blinded by their prejudices and obsessions that they cannot see that the latest object of their ridicule proves how unhinged they are.

I am sure Putin does not think Trump’s gambit is the least bit amusing. But I am equally sure that he takes great solace in the fact that–yet again–he can rely upon a cavalcade of useful idiots who will act in his interest by attacking Trump all the while believing that they are actually fighting against Putin.

The US military has been raising concerns about Russian initiatives in the Arctic for some time. Trump apparently has been listening, and has come up with an out-of-the-box, color-outside-the-lines idea that of course appears ludicrous to the dreary, narrow, conventional minds that inhabit the media, political, and government establishments.

If this indicates that Trump is crazy, all I can say is that we need more crazy. And now.

August 20, 2019

The 1619 Project: An Idiotic–and Evil–Monocausal Theory of Everything

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 7:45 pm

Over the weekend, the New York Times released its “1619 Project” amidst great fanfare. The organizing theme of the essays is that America’s true founding dates to the arrival of the first African slaves to Virginia in 1619, and that everything–and I mean everything–in the United States today not only reflects the legacy of slavery, but is tainted, warped, and twisted by it. America is evil because it was founded in the original sin of slavery, and nothing that has transpired since can remove that sin.

When reading these pieces, at great risk to my mental health (what I don’t do for you!), the famous 1741 sermon by Puritan preacher Oliver Edwards came to mind:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours. 

You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince, and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else that you did not got to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell since you have sat here in the house of God provoking his pure eye by your sinful, wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell. 

In place of God, just insert “the New York Times” or The Woke, and you will understand the contempt in which they hold you. In their eyes you are forever tainted by the original sin of slavery, and predestined (except for an elect) to burn in hell for eternity. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Make America Great Again? Not only was it never great, it was–and is–irretrievably damned.

Enemy of the people? Well, I can say they are enemy of me, and probably enemy of you too.

As for the exposition in the articles themselves, I can best characterize them as farrago of fallacies, logical and historical. The unifying principle of the essays is something akin to “Six Degrees From Kevin Bacon”: Six Degrees From Slavery, if you will. Pick any aspect of American life–any single one, I dare you–and the 1619 authors tie it to slavery.

It’s actually worse than that. Rather than just pointing out (strained) parallels, they attribute causation: slavery caused everything bad in American life. And since America is pretty bad, it pretty much caused everything.

Monocausal theories are the province of cranks and idiots, and this collection of applications of the monocausal theory du jour is no exception. Take the most simplistic, tendentious class-warfare-is-everything Marxist, and he would appear to be a sophisticated and subtle thinker compared to this lot.

I’ll just take a few examples. I’ll focus on the essay by Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.” I focus on this primarily because it is allegedly about economics, but also because Dr. Desmond is whiter than chalk on Wonder Bread, so by hammering on him I immunize myself to some degree from the cheap-shot ad hominem “you’re a racist!” substitute for argument. Though I’m sure I’ll get that, nonetheless. (For the record–go ahead, IDGAF.)

Dr. Desmond gives himself away with the title, no? “Brutality of American capitalism.” Nope, no preconceptions there. He’s not writing from an extreme leftist perspective, nosiree.

And Desmond picks up speed from there, quoting Martin Shkreli as if he is some exemplar of American capitalism. (If so, Matty, why is Marty in jail?)

Desmond attempts to bolster his case by contrasting some meaningless statistics for the US and other countries. So for example, according to the OECD the US is far worse than say, Brazil or Mexico at regulating temporary work.

How many Americans are swimming to get to Brazil or Mexico, Dr. Desmond? The concept of “revealed preference” mean anything to you?

Also, Brazil had slavery–for over two decades longer than the US in fact. How come that didn’t prevent it from adopting such “progressive” labor laws?

Desmond emphasizes that the US comes out far behind Iceland in terms of unionization, which is supposedly a much more humane economy. At the risk of spoiling later surprises, is Desmond aware that the Vikings were notorious slavers? That some of the Icelandic population descends from slaves (seized from Ireland, mainly)?

So how come the Vikings weren’t forever tainted by their original sin of slavery?

Along these lines, I should note that the Danes, whom I am sure Dr. Desmond considers far superior to Americans, with a far more humane economic system (just ask Bernie Sanders), participated in the Transatlantic slave trade from 1671 to 1803, and that brutal plantation slavery existed in the Danish West Indies until the mid-19th century. Why didn’t a brutal Danish capitalism grow out of brutal Danish plantations?

Insofar as unionization is concerned, it is well-known that union representation in the US has declined inexorably since reaching a peak of around 33 percent (with relatively few in public sector unions) in the 1950s (to around 13 percent today, with public sector unions representing about half of union members in 2018). So did slavery vault over the 1940s-1950s, do a Simone Biles-esque triple double, and land in the 2000s? (Similar observations can be made about other supposed “legacies of slavery,” such as high rates of black out-of-wedlock births and low rates of marriage, which were comparable to whites’ prior to the 1960s.)

The bulk of Desmond’s screed consists of just-so stories showing that pathologies and misfortunes of modern American life trace back directly to slavery. My favorite–mortgages and financial crisis. You see, slaves were collateral in mortgages extended by greedy New York bankers. There was a credit boom in the South in the 1820s and 1830s, fueled in large part by mortgages with human collateral. The boom collapsed with the Panic of 1837.

Just like 2008!–only replacing “slaves” with “houses.” Per Desmond: “C.D.O.s were the grandchildren of mortgage-backed securities based on the inflated value of enslaved people sold in the 1820s and 1830s. Each product created massive fortunes for the few before blowing up the economy.”

As if there have not been other financial crises in other countries with totally different histories that have resulted from a collapse of credit. Indeed, this a hardy perennial of financial history.

Which can bring us back to Desmond’s beloved Iceland, which had a debt-fueled financial crisis that was arguably the worst in the word in 2008. Remember the joke from that year?: “What’s the capital of Iceland? Oh, about twenty bucks.”

Just how the hell does Iceland’s implosion have anything to do with American chattel slavery? And if it doesn’t, how can Desmond claims some sort of necessary causal link between a financial crisis during the slave era (which, by the way, was followed by many other US financial crises in the non-slave era) to a financial crisis 143 years after the 13th Amendment?

And as for mortgages, they’ve been around since Roman times (as the Spanish word for mortgage, hipoteca, indicates, that also being the Roman word for this kind of debt, which also lives on in English as “hypothecate”).

Ridiculous, I know. Oh, but there’s more!

Accounting. Seriously. Slave owners depreciated slaves in their plantation accounts:

They quantified capital costs on their land, tools and enslaved workforces, applying Affleck’s recommended interest rate. Perhaps most remarkable, they also developed ways to calculate depreciation, a
breakthrough in modern management procedures, by assessing the market value of enslaved workers over their life spans. Values generally peaked between the prime ages of 20 and 40 but were individually adjusted up or down based on sex, strength and temperament: people reduced to data points. (Emphasis added.)

Uhm, slave owners didn’t “develop ways to calculate depreciation,” they applied a long standing concept to their capital in slaves. It is horrific that humans were viewed as capital, but this did not spur the development of a universal accounting concept: the concept has been around since people figured stuff wore out. And it is ridiculous for him to say that “scientific accounting” was developed on plantations: it was developed long before, starting with the Renaissance Italians, and plantation owners found it useful. As did Boston merchants and Manchester mill operators and on and on and on.

Desmond also focuses on the meticulous monitoring of slave laborers, and sees it as the forerunner of “unremitting workplace supervision” in the modern American economy. Put aside for the moment that workplace supervision today is at its most unremitting outside of the United States (can you say “Foxconn,” Matt? How the hell does that relate to US slavery?). What the hell do you think Marx and Engels kept going on about when describing the horrors of the English factory system? Manchester mill operators would never have figured out without American plantation slavery?

I could go on. And on. And on. But you get the idea. Desmond observes X (a bad thing) in the modern American economy. He observes something sorta kinda like X in the slave economy. He asserts that sorta X developed sui generis in the slave economy, and then asserts that the slave economy sorta X caused the modern economy X.

Every part of this “reasoning” is false. The plantation economy developed little if anything in the nature of economic practice: it adapted things that long pre-dated it. It did so (and I’m reifying here to simplify the exposition) because these practices tended to increase output and efficiency. These practices were adopted and adapted in myriad other settings for the exact same reason. There is no causal arrow from plantation practices to modern corporate “capitalism.” Both reflected and reflect underlying economic forces and institutional innovations that have occurred and evolved for millennia.

Desmond’s piece–and all of the others in the 1619 Project–are the Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle, writ large. Plantations did X. Modern corporations do something like X. Therefore modern corporations are functionally identical to plantations.


So if you are considering getting economic insight from an Ivy League sociology professor who writes for the NYT, take my advice: find a crackhead instead.

Another piece in the series, Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s on sugar, presents similar just-so stories. Here the kicker is that Americans are obese because they eat too much sugar, which wouldn’t have ever happened absent slavery. Yes, Americans–and pretty much everybody in the world–has a sweet tooth, and once upon a time that appetite was fed by slavery. But the sweet tooth is a universal human attribute that has been been satisfied in ever increasing amounts long after the demise of slavery. Americans didn’t get really fat until well over a century after the demise of slavery, and then, ironically, a sugar substitute (high fructose corn syrup) made attractive by protectionist policies that raised the price of sugar and reduced sugar consumption, is far more culpable.

Again, the causal arrow between slavery and bad stuff happening today is a figment of the 1619 Project’s fervid imagination.

I also await with bated breath Mr. Muhammad’s explication of the pernicious effects of Muslim slavery. (Which continues to this day, by the way, including–I kid you not–in Iceland.)

Here’s another one. Tiya Miles tells us that “New York City’s phenomenal economic consolidation came as a result of its dominance in the Southern cotton trade, facilitated by the construction of the Erie Canal.” Ms. Miles attributes this conclusion to historian David Quigley, but without citation so I cannot check whether she characterizes him correctly, or evaluate his reasoning. All I can say is that any connection between the cotton trade and the Erie canal must have been extremely indirect, and indeed, the Erie Canal undermined the South’s power by spurring the growth of the Northwest. Southern states were generally opposed to “internal improvements” like the Canal, which they believed benefited primarily Northern states, and were funded by tariffs that the South paid disproportionately (precisely because tariffs are a tax on trade, and the cotton export trade was the largest in the US). Further, although there was a triangular trade in which cotton was exported via New York and other Northern ports, New Orleans was a major cotton exporting point and capital center . . . until the Civil War. That is what really juiced the NY cotton trade, as illustrated by the fact that the New York Cotton Exchange did not come into existence until 1870.

One last monstrosity. The piece by the series editor, Nikole Hannah-Jones, contains this gem of anti-history:

Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution . . . In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies.

She concludes that the colonies “believed that independence was required to ensure that slavery would continue.”

Bullshit from beginning to end. Where to begin?

For one thing, the anti-slavery movement in the UK was hardly a major force in the 1770s. To the extent it existed, it was limited almost exclusively to Quakers–hardly the pillars of the British establishment. The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade did not begin until 1787–the year the US Constitution was written. The Constitution contemplated the elimination of the slave trade in 1808, and the law banning the importation of slaves to the US was passed in March, 1807–the exact same month the British law banning the trade was passed. The British Anti-Slavery Society, which aimed at abolition, did not begin until 1823, and Britain did not abolish slavery until 1833.

So if the British threat to abolish slavery was so threatening to the American colonists, they sure as hell took their time getting around to it. The crown’s grave threat to American slavery is completely a figment of Ms. Hannah-Jones’ imagination.

Further, rather than being the hotheads of rebellion, the southern colonies resisted it because they feared it threatened slavery. Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence contained strong language listing slavery as one of Britain’s sins against America that justified rebellion:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.  And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

The southerners insisted that this be removed from the draft, and it was. The slaveholding elements in Philadelphia, and throughout the revolutionary period, were fearful that their northern brethren would eliminate slavery. The first fifty-odd years of United States political history revolved around Southern insistence on institutional and political protections of slavery against Northern attempts to undermine it or strangle it.

The Revolution happened not because of slavery, but in spite of it.

This would all be bad enough if it was just the province of humanities and X-studies departments at universities. But it is part of a political agenda by the most important media outlet in the United States, and arguably the world. Further, the NYT is flogging the issue of race–and deliberately stoking racial tensions–as part of a deliberate political strategy to unseat Trump, and vanquish the deplorables.

Don’t believe me? Believe the NYT’s editor, and his “news” room staff, the transcript of whose “town hall meeting” was leaked. In it, editor Dan Baquet admitted that the NYT had built its newsroom around the Russia collusion story in order to bring down Trump. When Mueller imploded, Baquet and the wokerati realized that their strategy had come a cropper, and they needed a replacement. Fast.

So what did they seize upon: race, racism, and white nationalism. The 1619 Project is just a facet of what will be a 24/7 effort by the New York Times (no doubt aided by its allies and fellow travelers) to paint the United States as a racist nation led by a racist president who must be destroyed, and his supporters banished from civic life.

This is, for lack of a better word, evil. Yes, slavery was horrible. The nation has struggled with the legacy of slavery, and race relations are strained at best. But it is for precisely that reason that inflammatory–and utterly illogical and counterfactual–campaigns like the 1619 Project are wrong, divisive, and destructive. All the more so when the true objective behind this campaign is venally political.

And that is the original sin of the 1619 Project.

The main solace I can take is that this will persuade only those who are already on the left. It will not move those in the middle towards the left, and indeed may drive many of the mushy the other way. The Project reeks of the same condescension–and hatred, actually–that made Trump, and made his win possible.

Put differently, when your counter to Make America Great Again is America and Americans Are Irredeemably Awful, don’t be surprised if a strong majority of Americans rise up and kick you right in the ass.

I Call BS on the Russian Explanation for the Severodvinsk Explosion: I’m Sure You’re Shocked

Filed under: Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 2:30 pm

Note: I wrote this Saturday, but was unable to post because of a technical problem at the site. No doubt those damned Russkies were trying to silence me 😛 I’ve only made slight edits, and added the part about Norwegian detection of iodine. Some of what is posted here anticipated discussions in the comments on Sunday and Monday.

In my original post on the Severodvinsk explosion I expressed puzzlement at the Russian explanation that they were testing an “isotope power source for a liquid-fueled rocket engine.”  I did some research to address my ignorance, and found, indeed, that radioisotope rocket engines are a thing.  The problem is that this thing is inconsistent with the closure of nearby waters due to the presence of toxic rocket fuel (allegedly from the explosion) and the mention of “liquid rocket fuel” in the explanation.

Radioisotope rocket engines work by using the energy released from the decay of radioactive isotopes to heat a solid material (the “capacitor”).*  When the capacitor is sufficiently hot, fuel is passed over it.  The capacitor heats the fuel.  The hot gas is vented out through a shaped nozzle, which accelerates it (exploiting the Venturi Effect), creating thrust.

The motor generates a greater pulse (the thrust produced with respect to the amount of propellant exhausted per unit time) than the Space Shuttle Main Engines.  But it generates far less power.  Further, it is fuel limited, and thus does require fuel which limits its utility as a source of continuous propulsion.  Thus, its main application is as rocket thrusters in space, not launching projectiles or powering aircraft or missiles in the atmosphere.  All of the applications of this source of power that I have seen relate to space in some way.

But here’s the thing: whereas conventional rocket engines operate by combustion (i.e., stored chemical energy is released as the result of the burning of the rocket fuel) radioisotope rockets do not.  The fuel is not burned, just heated. Hydrogen has advantages and disadvantages as a fuel for such rockets, but crucially there is no need for conventional rocket fuel, which is nasty stuff—toxic when it isn’t blowing up.

Which is why I call bullshit on the Russian story that specifically mentions “a liquid-fueled rocket engine.”  Conventional liquid rocket fuel combusts—big time.  Even if the Russians were to say that the liquid fuel was liquid hydrogen, that would not explain the alleged release of toxic rocket fuel in quantities sufficient to require the closure of beaches and fishing areas.  And why wouldn’t the Russians say it was a hydrogen explosion? The huge explosion also suggests highly explosive rocket fuel. 

Put simply: a radioisotope propulsion system cannot explain a release of radiation and toxic, combustible liquid rocket fuel. An explosion of a Petrel, or something like it can. The Petrel needs a rocket booster, and hence rocket fuel. The missile’s ramjet is powered by a nuclear reactor.

The Norwegians also reported they detected a release of radioactive iodine. This is consistent with the destruction of a reactor with a fissile fuel source, but not with the explosion of a radioisotope propelled vehicle.

One last thing cements my suspicions.  In their move along, nothing to see here explanation, the Russians said that NASA has developed an isotope power source (“Kilopower”).  Yes, Kilopower is a low power (1kW, with plans to go to 10kW) engine intended to generate electricity for spacecraft. (No rocket fuel, or any fuel for that matter, required!)  So it is almost impossible to imagine it, or anything remotely like it, blowing up, or even being around anything that would blow up, as happened in Severodvinsk. 

But “the Americans do it!” is an excuse right out of the old Soviet playbook. It is a convenient cover story, and one used repeatedly in the past.  Which suggests that they have something the Americans are not doing to cover up.  When this is added to the glaring inconsistency involving rocket fuel and radioisotope rocket engines, the circumstantial case that a Petrel/Skyfall accident is to blame for Severodvinsk becomes very strong indeed.

*It is sickly amusing to note that although the most commonly mentioned power source is Plutonium, Polonium (of Litvinenko infamy) has also been suggested.

August 11, 2019

Did the Petrel Blow Up Real Good?

Filed under: Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 9:02 pm

In Russia, August, not April, is the cruelest month (though July can be pretty bad too). Recent Augusts have been pretty benign, though: no ferry sinkings or rash of drownings or major fires. This year, however, August (and July) appear to be returning to form, with an explosion at a Siberian ammo dump, raging forest fires (again in Siberia), and last week, an explosion at a missile test in Severodvinsk, in far northern Arkhangelsk. This all followed the sinking of a highly secretive submarine in July.

The first announcement of the Severodvinsk event was puzzling. There was a spike of radiation that had people in the area scurrying to pharmacies to get iodine. There was an announcement of an explosion during the test of a rocket engine. But conventional rocket engines don’t release radiation when they explode, so whence the radiation? Upon reading, the only thing I could think of was that there was a mishap in the testing of Russia’s insane nuclear powered Буревестник (Burevestnik or “Petrel”) cruise missile, of which Putin is so fond.

Since the explosion, the Russians have been telling the truth slowly, and although they have not come out and said it was the Petrel (“Skyfall” in Nato nomenclature) that blowed up real good, everything they have said tends to confirm that suspicion. Oh yeah. Seven people died. Not two. And five of those seven, yeah, they worked for Rosatom–Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation. And yeah, there was an explosion in “isotope power source for a liquid-fueled rocket engine.” (Come again?) A nuclear fuel vessel was anchored nearby, and emergency personnel evacuating the injured wore hazmat suits: the ship had been present at the time of a previous test of the Petrel.

The Dvina Bay has been closed due to alleged pollution from rocket fuel, and the Russians claim that the explosion occurred during the testing of a liquid fuel rocket motor, but this does not rule out that the Petrel was involved: conventional rockets would be used to launch the weapon and give it sufficient velocity for a nuclear powered ramjet mechanism to operate. (Though it is interesting that liquid fuel is involved: even the US’s insane nuclear ramjet Project Pluto utilized safer solid fuel rockets for liftoff. Perhaps the use of liquid fuel is not surprising: Russia’s still in development RS-28 Sarmat ICBM is also liquid-fueled.)

Although in a 1 March, 2018 speech Putin touted the missile as having virtually unlimited range, your results may differ. By a lot:

Russia is preparing for a special operation to find a missile that fell into the Barents Sea. This was reported by CNBC. The American television channel refers to intelligence data. Allegedly the missile with a nuclear power plant was lost during the tests in November 2017. The missile launches themselves were conducted four times, from November 2017 to February 2018. In all four cases, it ended in failure. The longest of the tests lasted about two minutes. The rocket flew about 35 kilometers and fell, according to TASS.

There were supposedly “moderately successful” tests (meaning they didn’t blow up, apparently) in late-2018 and January of this year.

In his March, 2018 speech, and in subsequent remarks Putin has betrayed a Hitleresque fascination with wonder weapons like the Petrel and the Poseidon nuclear torpedo. Hitler’s fascination arose from his realization that American and Soviet industrial might and population advantages made the odds against Germany prevailing in man-on-man, plane-on-plane, tank-on-tank combat vanishingly small. Putin’s focus on wonder weapons likely has a similar motivation.

These projects betray an inordinate fear of US missile defenses (if only they were so effective as to negate Russia’s ICBM arsenal–apparently Reagan’s ghost still haunts them), and something approaching panic at the recognition that the gap between American and Russian military potential is widening inexorably. * Falling behind in symmetric competition, Putin and his military establishment are turning instead to competing asymmetrically. These efforts are in the nuclear sphere, because the Russians recognize that nuclear weapons are their only source of strategic power, leverage, and relevance.

Putin’s pets Petrel and Poseidon are thus signals of weakness and doubt, wrapped up in bravado. They are unlikely to change the strategic balance in any serious way, and so far Petrel has evidently been far more dangerous to its developers than its intended targets. Not that you can expect an admission of that anytime soon.

*The use of liquid fuel in the RS-28 ICBM also likely reflects Russian fears of US missile defenses. Defeating missile defenses by using heavy parallel separation warheads requires much greater thrust that is more reliably delivered with liquid-fueled rockets. Reliance on such rockets may also reflect constraints on Russian capacity to produce solid-fueled rockets, due to the lack of critical materials.

August 9, 2019

Damn That Parson Bayes and His Cursed Theorem: Red Flagging Red Flag Rules

Filed under: Guns,Politics,Regulation — cpirrong @ 3:20 pm

In the aftermath of the El Paso and Dayton shootings, “red flag” rules are all the rage. Identify people who are at high risk of committing such atrocities, and prevent them from buying weapons.

Most of the arguments in favor of this rely on statements like “many mass shooters have characteristic X (e.g., mental illness), so let’s prevent those with characteristic X from buying guns.” As appealing as these arguments sound, they founder due to a failure to understand fundamental probability concepts which imply that for extremely rare events like mass shootings, red flags are extremely unreliable.

Most of the arguments in favor of red flags rely on estimates of P(X|M), i.e., the probability that someone who committed a mass murder (“M“) had characteristic X. For example, “70 percent of mass shooters present evidence of mental illness.” Or Y percent play violent video games or post racist rants online.

But what we really need to know in order to implement red flags that do not stigmatize, and deny the rights of, people who present a low risk of committing a mass shooting is P(M|X): “what is the probability that someone with characteristic X will commit a mass shooting?” Although most people argue as if P(X|M) and P(M|X) are interchangeable, they are not, as Thomas Bayes demonstrated in the 18th century when he demonstrated something now called Bayes’ Theorem.

As Bayes showed, P(M|X)=P(X|M)P(M)/P(X) where P(M) is the unconditional probability someone is a mass shooter, and P(X) is the unconditional probability that someone has characteristic X.

The problem with attempting to determine whether someone with X poses a risk is that mass shooters are extremely rare, and hence P(M) is extremely small.

USA Today estimated there were 270 odd mass shootings between 2005 and 2017. A Michael Bloomberg-funded anti-gun group counts 110. Given a population of around 300 million, even using the higher number a rough estimate of P(M) is 9e-7: a 9 with six zeros in front of it. Therefore, even if P(X|M)=1 (i.e., all mass shooters share some characteristic X) , for any characteristic X that occurs fairly frequently in the population P(M|X) is extremely small.

Consider a characteristic where there is fairly good data on on P(X): schizophrenia. It is estimated that 1 percent of the population is schizophrenic. Plugging .01 for P(X) gives a value of P(M|X) of 9e-5, or about 1 out of 10,000. Meaning that the likelihood a random schizophrenic will commit a mass shooting is .001 percent.

This actually overstates matters, because P(X|M)<1. Indeed, since mass shootings are in fact quite heterogeneous, P(X|M) is likely to be far less than one for most characteristics.

Things get even worse if one broadens the scope of the characteristic used to define the red flag. If instead of using schizophrenia, one uses serious mental illness, by some measures P(X)=.2. Well, if you increase the denominator by a factor of 20, P(M|X) falls by a factor of 20. So instead of a probability of .001 percent, the probability is .00005 percent.

And again, that is an exaggeration because it assumes P(X|M)=1.

Meaning that putting a red flag on schizophrenics or those who have experienced some mental illness will be vastly overinclusive.

Of course, life is a matter of trade-offs. One must weigh the costs imposed on those who are wrongly stigmatized (“false positives”) with the benefit of reducing mass shootings by imposing restrictions based on an overinclusive, but at least somewhat informative signal (i.e., a signal with P(X|M)>0).

For some there is no trade-off at all. For those primarily on the left who believe that guns are an anathema and have no benefit whatsoever, even a 99.99995 percent false positive rate is not at all costly. However, a very large number of Americans do think bearing arms is beneficial, these false positives come at a high cost.

That’s where the debate should really focus: the rate of false positives and the cost of those false positives vs. the benefits of true positives (which would represent mass shootings avoided). What Bayes’ Theorem implies is that for an act that someone is extremely unlikely to commit, that false positive rate is likely to be extremely high. It also implies that debating in terms of P(X|M) provides very little insight. P(M) is small, and for any fairly common characteristic, P(X) is fairly large, so P(X|M) has relatively little impact on the rate of false positives.

Again, what Bayes’ Theorem tells us is that for a rare event like mass shooting, vastly more innocent people than true risks will be red flagged. The costs of restricting those who pose no risk must be weighed against the benefits of reducing modestly the risk of a very rare event. Further, it must be recognized that implementing red flag rules are costly, and in these costs should be included the invasions of privacy that they inevitably entail. Yet further, red flag rules are certain to be abused by those with a grudge. And yet further, many of those with characteristic X will escape detection, or will be able to evade the legal restrictions (and indeed have a high motivation to do so).

In the aftermath of mass shootings, there is a hue and cry to do something. The hard lesson taught by Parson Bayes is that there is not a lot we can do. Or put more precisely, those things that we can do will inevitably stigmatize and restrict vastly more innocent people than constrain malign ones.

August 7, 2019

If White Supremacists Did Not Exist, the Left Would Have to Invent Them–and It Largely Has For Political Advantage

Filed under: Politics — cpirrong @ 6:14 pm

Are there white supremacists in the United States? Of course there are. There always have been. By every objective measure, however, white supremacism of the type epitomized by the 1920s KKK has declined inexorably since then, and true white supremacists are on the fringes of the fringe. Most are economically and politically marginalized–extremely so. I would surmise that the stronghold of white power is prison gangs. A stark contrast to, say, 1920s Indiana (not to mention southern states) where the KKK was chock full of people in upper social echelons, and was the premier political power broker in the state.

But to follow political commentary today–not to mention Twitter–you’d think that white supremacism is regnant in America, and that everyone to the right of Bernie Sanders is an incipient terrorist, ready to don a hood, pick up a torch, and join a group of night riders. When they are not planning a mass public shooting.

These assertions are at their most lurid in the aftermath of mass shootings. Even when at least one mass shooter is an admitted leftist. And although Trump is blamed for the rise of supremacism, long before Trump the left was in the habit of jumping to the conclusion that mass shootings were the work of their political enemies: remember Brian Ross claiming that the (deranged) Aurora, CO shooter was a Tea Party member?

This is political opportunism of the rankest sort. The left exploits (selectively) human tragedy on the flimsiest of evidence (and often no evidence at all) to tie all of its political enemies to the acts of a person who is almost always deeply mentally disturbed, and to the extent that politics figures into their acts, it is something used to construct an identity that is otherwise lacking, or repellent. Never let a crisis go to waste, you know.

The selectivity is important. The left inevitably draws broad, societal conclusions from the acts of madmen who are colorably racist: the acts of those who are express leftist opinions (such as the Dayton shooter) are passed over in silence, and there is no attempt to project their beliefs on millions of other Americans, let alone insinuate that millions of other Americans are complicit in their actions.

The logic that is employed–and I use the word “logic” guardedly–would do Sir Bedevere (he of the Python witch trial) proud. The left finds a point of commonality (e.g., an expressed opposition to illegal immigration) between a white supremacist and people not on the left, no matter how tangential, and asserts that this implies that the non-leftists share all of the supremacist’s beliefs.

Someone should explain Venn diagrams to these people. Or the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions.

I jest. They are not interested in being logical. They are intent on trampling logic to tar their political opponents.

It is the most despicable kind of McCarthyism, ironically adopted by those who claim to be the heirs of McCarthy’s enemies and victims.

More importantly, it incredibly corrosive and greatly exacerbates social tension and social conflict. Those who are lumped in with the deranged, and who know that even if they are not woke they are not racial supremacists, rightly feel under assault. Particularly because the invective is coming in torrents from those who occupy the commanding heights in media and politics, and because they know the invective is completely wrong and hence is being spewed in a deliberate attempt to intimidate or harm. Perversely (from the leftist perspective) this bolsters support of the left’s bêtes noires, most notably Donald Trump, precisely because he can fight back, and actually relishes doing so.

Yet they continue. No. They continually ratchet up the attacks, oblivious to the fact that their previous attacks have been wholly counterproductive and actually fed the beast they want to slay.

The whole situation is perverse beyond words. Driven to apoplexy by Trump’s election, and since then his survival, the left drives people into his camp and intensifies the support of those already in it with their unhinged attacks and their slanderous equation of anyone who does not endorse their agenda with retrograde racist throwbacks and mass shooters.

This has massively intensified the divisions in the country, and has created what can only be described as pre-revolutionary conditions heavy with the potential for widespread violence.

Two factors are at work here. One strategic, the other more tactical. The strategic one is the left’s will to power, which is the underlying driving force and overarching strategic objective. The more tactical one is identity politics, which the left has routinely employed as a means of rallying support and preventing the loss of key groups of supporters (notably socially conservative blacks and Latinos). Both of these are inherently divisive, and stoke social conflict which is already bad enough but could easily escalate into something far uglier than the ugliness we witness today.

And it’s only 2019. I shudder to think at what the atmosphere will be like a year from now, with an election looming.

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