Book Review: Black Rednecks and White Liberals

Thomas Sowell’s 2006 book Black Rednecks and White Liberals is a collection of six long-form essays about history and the relationship between different racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. The eponymous first essay argues that contemporary black American “ghetto culture” is not genuinely black, but a continuation of “cracker culture” which American blacks picked up from Southern whites, and that many of the problems American blacks face today stem from this pernicious culture. The second essay, Are Jews Generic, examines the history of Jews and other “middle-man minorities”. The Real History of Slavery dispells the myth that slavery was primarily an American or Western phenomenon and highlights the heroic role of Western civilization in general and the British Empire in particular in ending slavery. Germans and History paints a rather flattering picture of German culture and argues that National Socialism was an aberration, rather than a logical continuation of Prussian militarism. Black Education – Achievements, Myths and Tragedies examines the success of the all-black Dunbar High School in the first half of the 20th century and argues that educational success among American blacks was largely achieved by casting off “cracker culture” and embracing the culture of Northern whites. The final essay, History versus Visions, argues that perceptions of history are too frequently distorted by trying to fit facts into a pre-existing narrative.

In this first part of the review, I will focus on the eponymous essay, which opens up with a description of negative attitudes Northern whites in the US had about Southern whites in the mid-20th century: they are lazy, they are criminals, they neglect their children, they have low moral standards, and are uncivilised. Sowell argues that the similarity between these stereotypes and the negative stereotypes about blacks are no coincidence. He sees those characteristics of American blacks and mid-century Southern whites as being part of a shared culture, which blacks picked up from their erstwhile slavemasters.

Leaning on the work of Grady McWhiney’s Cracker Culture and David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, Sowell traces this shared culture back to the Celts who lived in the border region between England and Scotland, the Scottish highlands, and Ulster County in Ireland before the 19th century. These people, variously called “Scotch-Irish,” “borderers,” “rednecks,” or “crackers,” lived dangerous and relatively uncivilised lives, which is why it made sense for them to develop a culture that emphasises aggressiveness and assertiveness, as well as a tendency to prefer short-term pleasure over long-term planning. When large numbers of “crackers” emigrated to the British-American colonies, they brought that culture with them. The crackers happened to settle in what came to be known as the American South and made up the majority of its white population.

According to Sowell, American blacks, who also mostly lived in the South, adapted this cracker culture. Thus, today’s black ghetto culture is not originally black, hence the term “black rednecks”. While Southern whites have, for the most part, cast off cracker culture, many blacks have retained it. They were “assisted” in this by white liberals who defended what they saw as a genuine expression of African-American culture, and who attacked those criticising “ghetto culture” as racists. Thus, Sowell thinks that white liberals, regardless of their intentions, share a significant part of the blame for American blacks still doing considerably worse than American whites.

What Sowell isn’t quite clear on is the process by which American blacks adopted cracker culture. After all, most major slave owners in the South were not (to use Fischer’s terminology) borderers, but rather Cavaliers, another of the four major groups of British immigrants identified in Albion’s Seed. This is a criticism also picked up in Steve Sailer’s review of the essay:

In reality, slaves tended to be owned mostly by big slaveowners in the Southern lowlands, who frequently had aristocratic pretensions. Lowland Southerners tended to be descended from Southern England’s landowning and servant classes, not from the Scotch-Irish (…) I think it would make more sense for Sowell to point to blacks inheriting lowland Southern quasi-aristocratic prejudices, such as for grandiloquent multi-syllabic words (e.g., Jesse Jackson’s style of speaking) and against manufacturing and shop keeping, as for them inheriting Scotch-Irish redneck populism, with which they had limited contact.

For example, free slaves who were sent to Liberia reproduced the Southern lowland social structure, just with themselves as the slaveowning aristocrats and the native blacks as the slaves.

While Sowell’s theory of ghetto culture being an extension of redneck culture is not fully convincing, his account of blacks succeeding when they adopt “New England values” is quite persuasive. Contrary to what cultural relativists would have us believe, not all cultures are equal. Some cultural practices are superior to others, and casting off pernicious cultural practices can greatly improve the prospects of a community. American blacks are ill-served by those who insist on preserving “authentic” black culture. Obviously there are many aspects of black culture that are beneficial or harmless, but if they want to catch up to their white countrymen, American blacks need to discard those aspects of their culture that are holding them back. Working hard in school, speaking standard English, being polite to authority figures, and bringing up children in two-parent households might be perceived as “acting white,” but so what? If it works for whites, why wouldn’t it work for blacks? And if your answer is racism, then what about Asian-Americans? They are even better at “acting white” than white Americans, and suprise, surprise, they are also economically more successful than whites.

Especially if you have never read a Thomas Sowell book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals is well worth picking up. Sowell’s clear and elegant style makes for pleasant reading as he takes you on a tour through American and world history. Whether you ultimately agree with him or not, reading Thomas Sowell is always an enlightening experience.

(Some of the links above are affiliate links. If you click on them and decide to buy a product, I receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you.)

Posted in Book Review | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Voice of Europe – Episode 160

Today, as on most Fridays, I’m co-hosting the Internet radio show The Voice of Europe, alongside Lucian Vâlsan and James Huff. Join us as we discuss gender relations and sexual politics in Europe from a pro-male and anti-feminist perspective.

Tonight’s main topic is the fallout from the BBC scandal about female talent being allegedly underpaid. In other news, we cover a German blacklist for those who refuse to bow to the feminist orthodoxy and a new law in Rotterdam makes any interaction with a woman potentially illegal.

The show starts at 8 PM CEST, which is 2 PM EST, 11 AM PST, and 2 AM AWST.

Content warning: Likely to contain the occasional swear word. May be unsuitable for children and snowflakes.

Posted in Voice of Europe | Leave a comment

In Praise of Gridlock

I see history as centrally a race and conflict between “social power”—the productive consequence of voluntary interactions among men—and state power. In those eras of history when liberty—social power—has managed to race ahead of state power and control, the country and even mankind have flourished. In those eras when state power has managed to
catch up with or surpass social power, mankind suffers and declines.

Thus writes Murray Rothbard in the preface to his four volume history of colonial America, Conceived in Liberty. Too many libertarians focus far too much of their attention on politics and on trying to get more libertarian policies passed and more libertarian candidates elected. They see a multitude of pernicious policies, and naturally enough their reaction is to demand political change to fix those problems. However, politics is rarely kind to libertarians. Although there are occasional advances for liberty in the realm of politics, such as the the rise of freedom of speech and of the press, the abolition of serfdom and slavery, and the fall of communism in Europe, the long term trends seems to be toward ever greater state control.

The reason people’s lives have improved so drastically over the last few centuries lies not in politics but in what Rothbard calls “social power”: all the great advances in science and technology, industrial production, and the gradual accumulation of capital. These developments are of course not independent of political power. If the government is too powerful and too oppressive, it can shut down the productive powers of voluntary interaction and exchange. The people of North Korea, for example, might need some radical political change to get anywhere. But as far as the Western world is concerned, none of our governments are anywhere near as oppressive.

We should not seek our salvation in politics. All we need is for the government not to screw things up too badly. What we need from politics is not change, but stability. As bad as things are in politics right now, they could be a lot worse. As long as the political situation stays tolerable, the voluntary sector will keep improving our lives.

Which is why political gridlock is great. When politicians from different parties manage to block each other and prevent new laws from passing, every liberty-minded person should be cheering. The last thing we want is politicians reaching across the isle to forge some sort of compromise. Whatever bipartisan agreement comes out of that usually tends to be both stupid and evil. I’d rather have politicians from different parties at each others throats (bonus points for major disagreements within a party).

This is why the Obama presidency wasn’t so bad, despite Obama being a pretty bad president. Because the Republicans controlled one or both houses of Congress for most of the Obama presidency and they really didn’t like Obama, they were able to block a lot of bad legislation. Had the Republicans not been such obstructionists, the United States would be in worse shape now. With Trump, we have another really bad president at the helm, and unfortunately the Republicans now control the presidency as well as both houses of Congress. However, Trump is quite controversial within his own party, very unpopular with the mainstream media, hated by the Democrats, and constantly at odds with the “deep state”. So despite disagreeing with Trump on a wide array of policy positions, I’m not too worried about him being president. Trump will not make America great again, he will not drain the swamp, and if he gets around to building his wall, the Mexicans won’t pay for it. But what he does do is make politics more divisive so that bipartisanship becomes more difficult. Another boon of the Trump presidency is to make journalists do their job again: to critically examine and to question the government, rather than just repeating the party line.

So embrace gridlock. Political stagnation is just what we need to get social and economic progress. When politicians keep each other in check, the productive members of society are free to quietly go about the myriad tasks that continue to make life better for everyone.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Is Literature

In last week’s review of The Second Apocalypse, I made the claim that these books are not just entertaining, but also great works of literature. Literature is a fuzzy term with all sort of different possible definitions, so let me explain what I meant by the term and how something as supposedly lowbrow as a series of fantasy novels falls under that lofty label.

There are two primary ways of enjoying written fiction. The first is the pleasure of experiencing a good story, of cheering on your favourite characters, trying to guess where the story will go, being surprised about plot twists, and so on. The second is the pleasure derived from thinking about a story, analysing its plot, characters, setting, and themes, considering the philosophical, political, and ideological statements made implicitly or explicitly in the text, and asking ourselves what we can learn from it. In short, how much you enjoy reading a text versus how much you enjoy having read it. I propose that literature should be regarded as those works of fiction that score high in the second category.

Literature is books that you still think about many years after you’ve first read them. Great literature is books you feel compelled to re-read several times and where you discover many new things on each re-read. Note that this definition is subjective: books that you like to think about and re-read may not be the same books that I like to think about and re-read. I think this is a feature, not a bug. Any discussion about aesthetics has to be ultimately grounded in personal preferences.

Unlike many other attempts to define literature, my definition doesn’t say anything about language. While it is true that great works of literature often distinguish themselves by their beautiful prose, I think it would be wrong to consider that a defining feature. After all, elegance of style often does not survive translation, but the great works of literature are frequently consumed in translated form. Nor do very many people care to read a book simply to enjoy aesthetically pleasing sentences. They read for the two reasons described above, and aesthetically pleasing prose is just one of many factors that make a book enjoyable to read and to having been read.

An important aspect of a literary work is the plot, the characters, and the setting being believable and consistent. This is a necessary condition for meaningful discussion and deep thought about the work. In The Scarlet Letter, it makes sense to ask why Hester Prynne does not leave New England for Virginia, Britain, or anywhere else where she isn’t known as an adulteress. The text gives us some indication for why she remains and we can come up with plausible theories to explain her behaviour. In the Harry Potter series, on the other hand, it does not make sense to ask why no one exploits the fixed exchange rates between copper, silver, and gold offered by Gringotts Wizarding Bank to become rich through arbitrage. The answer simply is that the author hadn’t considered that possibility.

The Scarlet Letter is a good example of a book that scores high on enjoyment from heaving read it. Not only does it offer us an unfamiliar but believable and consistent setting, it also explores many important themes and invites readers to think about the story long after they’ve finished the novel. Harry Potter may be more enjoyable while you’re reading it, but once you put the books down and think about the plot or the setting, things quickly fall apart. Why haven’t all wizards who lack moral scruples become fantastically wealthy by robbing unsuspecting muggles? Why do pupils from all over Britain travel to London to take a train to a school in Scotland instead of just teleporting? Why did Dumbledore, who’s supposed to be the greatest wizard alive, hire Quirrell as a teacher without realising that he’s possessed by Voldemort, even though he literally has Voldemort’s face on the back of his head? So many questions, and no sensible answers in sight.

But do not let these examples fool you into thinking that “genre fiction” cannot be literary. In the fantasy genre in particular, there are undoubtedly many works which are little more than mindless fun with little literary meat to it (not that there’s anything wrong with that – I have enjoyed a number of such books, including the Harry Potter books mentioned above). However, especially over the last two decades, many fantasy works of serious literary merit have been produced. Aside from Bakker’s The Second Apocalypse mentioned above, examples include George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law, and Jacqueline Carey’s The Sundering.

Nor should it surprise us that there are many literary works of fantasy. After all, such great classics of world literature as Homer’s Iliad, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Goethe’s Faust would be classified as fantasy, were they to appear today. And of course there is no reason at all why fantastical settings should be unsuitable to serious literature. While a realistic setting is more relatable and facilitates sociological and political observations and commentary, fantasy can more easily isolate certain factors and set up the literary equivalent of controlled experiments. Fantasy is much more suitable to asking questions like: What if Hell is real? Exploring a question like this in a realistic setting is bound to be hampered by the beliefs of non-religious readers (or more precisely, readers who do not believe in Hell), who may empathise with a character who fears eternal damnation, but will probably regard those fears as nothing but superstition.

If fantasy is suitable for literature in the sense I’m using the term here, science fiction is made for it. Most science fiction stories are about working out the possible implications of some future technology or social, economic, or political development, which naturally lends itself to considering weighty questions. And indeed, some SF works, such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five are widely considered part of the literary canon. However, these are books by “literary writers,” not by writers who saw themselves or were widely perceived as being SF writers. And while much science fiction essentially consists of an adventure story with explosions in space, set against a backdrop of sci-fi tropes, there are many SF writers who have produced what I would consider serious literature. Take for example Robert A. Heinlein, who in novels like Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress takes on a multitude of serious moral, political, social, and economic questions. Nor is this limited to Heinlein or the “Golden Age of Science Fiction“. I challenge anyone to read a novel like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion and tell me it has not literary value.

The same exercise can no doubt be performed for other “lowbrow” genres such as thrillers or romance novels, but I am not familar enough with those genres to select suitable examples. My point is that serious literature need not be about a woman looking out the window and thinking about her childhood and her difficult relationship with her father. Serious literature does not need to be obscure and complicated to the point where you need secondary literature to understand it. If your definition of serious literature excludes works with a fun and exciting plot, or works that are popular with the masses, then I would suggest that there’s something wrong with your definition. Unless, that is, you are also willing to exclude such popular writers as Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe from the literary canon.

(Some of the links above are affiliate links. If you click on them and decide to buy a product, I receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you.)

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Voice of Europe – Episode 159 – The BBC Saga

Today, as on most Fridays, I’m co-hosting the Internet radio show The Voice of Europe, alongside Lucian Vâlsan and James Huff. Join us as we discuss gender relations and sexual politics in Europe from a pro-male and anti-feminist perspective.

Tonight’s main topic is the fallout from the BBC scandal about female talent being allegedly underpaid. In other news, we cover a German blacklist for those who refuse to bow to the feminist orthodoxy and a new law in Rotterdam makes any interaction with a woman potentially illegal.

The show starts at 8 PM CEST, which is 2 PM EST, 11 AM PST, and 2 AM AWST.

Content warning: Likely to contain the occasional swear word. May be unsuitable for children and snowflakes.

Posted in Voice of Europe | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Second Apocalypse

If one doubts that passion and unreason govern the fate of nations, one need only look to meetings between the Great. Kings and emperors are unused to treating with equals, and are often excessively relieved or repelled as a result. The Nilnameshi have a saying, “When princes meet, they find either brothers or themselves,” which is to say, peace or war.

The Second Apocalypse is an epic fantasy series written by Canadian philosopher R. Scott Bakker. It consists of a trilogy named The Prince of Nothing, a tetralogy called The Aspect Emperor, and will be concluded with a final upcoming series whose title has not been revealed yet. The Second Apocalypse is a fantasy reader’s fantasy series, and the ultimate rebuke to those who see fantasy as shallow entertainment and juvenile wish fulfilment.

A philosopher by training, Bakker has filled his work to the brim with deep philosophical observations and clever aphorisms. Every chapter in each of the books is preceded by one or two short “quotations” from a fictitious book written by a character within the setting. The quotation with which I opened this review is one such example. Other gems include the following:

The world is a circle that possesses as many centres as it does men.

Kings never lie. They demand the world be mistaken.

Love is lust made meaningful. Hope is hunger made human.

Complexity begets ambiguity, which yields in all ways to prejudice and avarice. Complication does not so much defeat Men as arm them with fancy.

Nor is the philosophical content of Bakker’s work confined to clever fictitious quotations. Throughout the narrative, countless philosophical questions are explored in depth: Do we have free will? How are our beliefs and perspectives changed and influenced? To what extent do the ends justify the means? What is the nature of consciousness? And most poignantly to me, what are the implications of Hell being real?

Having never been religious, I had never taken the idea of Hell seriously. Although I understood the horror of Hell on an intellectual level, it only really hit me when I read The Great Ordeal, the sixth book in the series. In Bakker’s world of Eärwa, Hell is a metaphysical reality. Damnation is not only reserved for those who commit atrocities, but sorcerors are also doomed to spend the afterlife in eternal torment; it is the price they pay for attaining immense temporal power by changing the nature of reality and thereby defying the will of the God. As the Mandate, one of the sorcerous Schools, has it, “Though you lose your soul, you shall win the world.”

What would you do, to what lengths would you be willing to go, if you knew yourself to be irrevocably damned? The Consult, an ancient cabal of sorcerors and Inchoroi (a race of demon-like aliens), have found their answer. They believe that by raping, torturing, and murdering as many people as possible and by reducing the number of souls on Eärwa below a certain threshold, the World can be closed off from the Outside, the realm of the gods, thus preventing all remaining souls from going to Hell. Their plans come to a head two millenia before the main action of the books, during a series of wars known as the Apocalypse, in which human civilization across the entire North of Eärwa is wiped out and during which for twelve long years, every single child is stillborn.

The first book, The Darkness That Comes Before, opens in the hidden mountain fortress of Ishuäl during the Apocalypse (or the First Apocalypse, as the chapter heading ominously informs us). Some of the last remnants of human civilization in the North have fled here, but they are soon visited by a terrible plague which kills all but two of them, a boy and a bard. The bard then proceeds to rape the boy, muttering to him that “[t]here are no crimes (…) when no one is left alive.” Thus the tone for the rest of the series has been set. This is not a nice, uplifting fantasy story about heroism and triumph. Bakker’s work is about as grimdark as it gets.

Two thousand years later, Anasûrimbor Kellhus, a descendant of the boy from the prologue, is sent out from the hidden citadel of Ishuäl to find his father, Anasûrimbor Moënghus, who had left Ishuäl thirty years earlier. Kellhus and Moënghus are both part of the Dûnyain, a secretive monastic order, who, through strict training and thousands of years of selective breeding, have turned themselves into Übermenschen of sorts: They have been bred for supreme intelligence and rationality and have set aside all concerns for morality in favour of pursuing the Shortest Path to their goals. On this way to his father in far away Shimeh, he uses and manipulates the people he meets, treating them as little more than tools for his will.

One of those people is Drusas Achamian, the closest thing the series has to a protagonist. Achamian is not your typical fantasy hero: He is a portly, middle-aged scholar who is filled with regrets, weary of the world, and finds his job as a Mandate spy distasteful. He is plagued by dreams of the First Apocalypse, in which he relives the memories of Seswatha, the founder of the Mandate School, who spent a sorrow-filled life battling the Consult. It is primarily through these dreams that we as readers slowly get filled in on the events of the First Apocalypse. Behind Achamian’s bumbling exterior, it is often easy to forget that he is a Mandate sorceror of rank, who could kill hundreds with but a few sorcerous words.

Drusas Achamian is perhaps my favourite character in all of fiction. The juxtaposition between his many weaknesses and insecurities and his arcane power makes him a much more compelling character than the typical chosen-one fare prevalent in all too many fantasy stories. In the inhumane world of Bakker’s creation, Achamian’s humanity shines through all the brighter and through his many trials and tribulations, it is impossible not to root for Akka, as his few friends call him. That said, Achamian is no innocent victim. Throughout his eventful life, he has had to make many difficult decision, and he did not always do what is right or what is honourable. These moments of moral weakness and corruptibility serve to make him not just a more complex, but also a more relatable character. For who here has not at some point in their lives wronged others out of weakness or cowardice?

Final Verdict

As you may have been able to surmise, I love these books. They are among the best the fantasy genre has to offer, but they are certainly not for everyone. The Second Apocalypse is an acquired taste, and readers who are not experienced with epic fantasy are likely to get lost in the multitude of characters and locations with weird names and will likely put down the book early because they are just too confused by the exotic setting and all the jumps in time and place. In The Darkness That Comes Before, it takes fifty to a hundred pages before you start figuring out what in the World is going on. To veteran fantasy readers, this is a familiar task, but novices are likely to be frustrated. These books are also definitely not for the squeamish; if depictions of injustice, oppression, violence, torture, and rape offend you, you should give The Second Apocalypse a wide berth.

But if you love complex and challenging fantasy, you are in for a treat. Bakker’s work retains all the elements that make fantasy awesome, while mixing them up and giving them a fresh spin. His setting is not only extremely complex and detailed, but also refreshingly different from the standard Medieval-ish fantasy realm. And most of all, these are books that make you think, long after you have put them down. In my mind there is no doubt that The Second Apocalypse is not just an entertaining tale, but also a great work of literature.

Where to Buy

Probably the Shortest Path to obtaining your copies of The Second Apocalypse are the Amazon links below. (These are affiliate links. If you buy the books through them, I receive a small commission, at not additional expense to you.)

The Prince of Nothing

The Darkness That Comes Before
The Warrior Prophet
The Thousandfold Thought

The Aspect Emperor

The Judging Eye
The White-Luck Warrior
The Great Ordeal
The Unholy Consult

Posted in Book Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Voice of Europe – Episode 158 – Questioning the received wisdoms

Today, as on most Fridays, I’m co-hosting the Internet radio show The Voice of Europe, alongside Lucian Vâlsan and James Huff. Join us as we discuss gender relations and sexual politics in Europe from a pro-male and anti-feminist perspective.

Tonight’s topics include the BBC coming under attack for its gender pay gap, an abuse victim being ordered to hand over most of his compensation to his ex-wife, a sex guide for Muslim women, and a report on hundreds of young children of undisclosed sex who were abused in the 60s and 70s in two Catholic schools in Germany.

The show starts at 8 PM CEST, which is 2 PM EST, 11 AM PST, and 2 AM AWST.

Content warning: Likely to contain the occasional swear word. May be unsuitable for children and snowflakes.

Posted in Voice of Europe | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Against Sustainability

Few buzz-words are as popular today as sustainability, i.e. the idea that we should alter our social and economic activities in such a way that we can keep doing what we are doing indefinitely. This of course stands in marked contrast to how human beings live in the Industrial Age: we consume fossil fuels at a rate immeasurably faster than they are generated, we pollute the air and our rivers and oceans, and we constantly keep re-organising our societies. The way human beings live has changed more drastically over the last two hundred years than over the previous two thousand.

And thank God for that! Primitive societies may have been sustainable – they often changed very little over the course of centuries and millenia – but they were also horrible. Life in them was nasty, brutish, and short, and no one who isn’t blinded by romantic idealism wants to return to such conditions. It is precisely by excerting ever greater mastery over nature and using its ressources more effectively and extensively that we’ve been able to escape from the desperate poverty that is man’s natural state.

The more resonable among even the most ardent environmentalists acknowledge this fact and do not urge an abandonment of industrial technology, but seek to modify our economy to work towards becoming sustainable. Examples include “green” energy, recycling, and limits or taxes on pollution and carbon emission.

While some of these measures are justifiable based on the short and medium term impact of pollution, resources prices, and so on, sustainability is not a sensible goal. Why should we worry whether we can sustain what we’re currently doing for centuries to come when we have every expectation that we won’t even want to do these things in future centuries? Our way of life has changed very rapidly over the last two centuries and there is every reason to believe that this trend will continue.

To see the absurdity of planning hundreds of years into the future, just consider how well the people two hundred years ago could have planned to solve the problems of today. Back in 1817, Europe was just recovering from the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution was picking up steam in England, the Middle East was dominated by the Ottoman Empire, China was a massive empire ruled by the Qing dynasty, Japan was an isolated backwater in which virtually all progress had been halted for two hundred years, and in America, James Monroe had just become President. Most people around the world worked in agriculture, many of them as slaves or serfs.

If the smartest minds of the time had thought long and hard about the problems which might be afflicting humanity in 2017, they might perhaps be worried about population growth outstripping agricultural production, thus leading to famine. But they certainly wouldn’t be worried about the ozone layer (the what?), global warming, running out of oil (you mean that gooey black stuff found underground that reduces the value of otherwise perfectly suitable farm land?), or nuclear war (war of the core? what’s that supposed to be?). We have every reason to think that our present predictions of the future will be far off base. Any measures we take now to solve the problems of future centuries are likely to be wasteful.

The only prediction I am willing to make about life in 2217 is that it will be radically different from today in ways we cannot even yet imagine. If human civilization keeps progressing without any major collapses, we will be technologically and economically so much further advanced that any effort we make today to solve tomorrow’s problems will likely be as feeble as a toddler’s attempt to help his parents with their tax returns, even if we somehow managed to identify the correct problem.

Our current industrial civilization is not sustainable, there is no feasible way of making it sustainable, nor should we attempt to do so. We are currently engaged in a grad experiment of rapidly changing human living conditions. So far it’s been a smashing success and has yielded improvements in the standard of living of ordinary people that no one would have dared dream of in bygone eras. This experiment is not without its risks. It is entirely possible that some sort of catastrophe brought about by our technology, such as nuclear war or artificial intelligence misaligned with human goals, will lead to civilizational collapse. We are on a train heading into the unknown at three hundred kilometres an hour, and there are no breaks on this train. We might crash at some future point, but so far it’s been one hell of a ride. Let’s continue to enjoy it.

Posted in Economics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Are Men and Women Equal?

In contemporary Western society, the equality of men and women has become something of a religious doctrine, and even questioning it is seen as heretical by many. Despite the frequent repetition of the mantra that “men and women are equal,” it is never explained what this statement even means. And the meaning is far from obvious.

The word “equal” is used in two different senses. Things can be equal without any qualifiers, or they can be equal in some particular quality such as weight, volume, price, age, etc. In general usuage, two things are equal to one another in the first sense only if they are actually the same thing. For example, the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter is equal to two times the first positive root of the real cosine function. These are two descriptions of the same mathematical object, the constant known as π. Obviously, men and women are not equal in this sense.

Should the statement “men and women are equal” be understood in the second sense? The question then is in what quality they are equal. Are they equal in weight? No, men weigh more. Are they equal in height? No, men are taller. Are they equal in age? No, women are older. There may be some attributes where men and women are equal, such their number of limbs or their ability to fly by flapping their arms. But if we used such a low standard for equality we’d also be forced to conclude that humans and other apes are equal, which no one seems to believe.

What seems to me to be the least absurd definition is to look at equality of value. So are men and women equally valuable? Before we can answer that question, we first need to clarify what the value of a human being is supposed to be. In modern economics, value is seen as subjective, so it is impossible to make a general declaration as to the value of men and women. The value I assign to a particular man or woman may be completely different to the value you assign. We might then, at least in theory, look at how much a particular person values all men as a group and all women as a group. Alternatively we might look at how much someone values the average man and the average woman (whatever that means). Either way, the result we will get is that some people value men more highly and others value women more highly. Equality will remain elusive.

Another approach is to define value as market price. This approach is problematic when applied to human beings since they are nowadays rarely bought or sold directly. When and where open trade in humans existed, the prices for male and female slaves were typically different (for example in the American antebellum South, male slaves fetched higher average prices than female slaves). In the absence of a slave market, we have to content ourselves with indirect measures. One approach would be to look at a person’s lifetime earnings, in which case men would be more valuable than women. Another approach would be to look at how much people value their own lives based on what kind of risks they are willing to take for monetary gain. A paper by W. Kip Vicusi used that method to determine that women value their lives more relative to how much they value money.

We could look at yet more approaches, but the gist is that whatever reasonable definition of value you use, you either get men being more valuable than women or the reverse. The only way to get the desired result of equality between men and women is to cheat by using absurd definitions, such as simply defining all human beings as having equal worth, or by retreating to claims such as “God loves all souls equally.” (Good luck demonstrating that to someone who doesn’t already believe it.)

In the end, the claim of men and women being equal is a pious platitude which does not survive closer scrutiny. Men and women are different in many important ways. Men are superior to women in some ways and women are superior to men in others. Nor is there any good reason to believe that these strengths and weaknesses will exactly balance out for any given method of evaluating them. Instead of clinging to an illusory equality, we should accept the fact that we are all different and try to do the best with the hand we’ve been dealt.

Posted in Popular Nonsense | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Queen Angela I, Long May She Reign

People outside of Germany often have quite a distorted picture of Chancellor Angela Merkel. This is especially true for the non-mainstream right, which regards her as almost a demonic figure, a traitor to the German people and Western civilization in general who opened the floodgates to hordes of Muslim immigrants. This assessment is typically based on Merkel’s decision to continue allowing in large numbers of asylum seekers in 2015, epitomised by her famous sentence, “Wir schaffen das!” (“We can do it!”)

However, basing one’s entire assessment of Merkel on that single issue would be a serious misjudgement since her decision on the migrant issue is in fact highly atypical of Merkel’s long political career. Since she first became Chancellor in 2005, she has generally kept her cards very close to her chest, avoided taking controversial positions, and has done her level best to keep ideology out of politics. The best way to think of her is not as a political leader but as a constitutional monarch: While her ministers squabble about the petty politics of the day, Queen Angela is above such pedestrian concerns and only occasionally hands down rulings when things get out of hand. When she does act, she usually does so behind the scenes.

I suspect that Merkel’s extreme caution is a result of her experience with the 2005 election campaign. Back then she was running against incumbent Chancellor Schröder, a social democrat who had become quite unpopular. A few months out from the election, the polls showed a landslide victory for Merkel and her conservative Union. The only question seemed to be whether she would get an absolute majority (almost unheard of in German politics), or whether she would need to bring in the classical liberal FDP as a junior partner in a coalition. One of the key issues of the campaign was the budget deficit. As part of the solution, Merkel’s CDU proposed increasing the VAT by two percentage points, which proved to be quite an unpopular position. Schröder’s SPD vehemently opposed any increase in the VAT, which played a large role in allowing the SPD to catch up. On election night, the Union lost ground compared to earlier polls, while the SPD gained ground, resulting in Merkel winning only by the narrowest of margins. She did manage to become chancellor, but had to form a coalition government with the SPD as an equal partner. In the coalition negotiations, a compromise solution was reached on VAT: to increase it by three percentage points! In other words, the SPD, it seems, had been in favour of raising the VAT all along, but by hiding their unpopular plans, they gained an enormous number of votes and managed to cling on to power. The lesson Merkel presumably took from this is to scrupulously avoid taking any strong positions that might prove to be controversial.

Merkel’s bold proclamation on the migrant crisis was a marked departure from her usual style, and her only major violation of the lessons of 2005. We can only speculate as to why she did it, but my guess is that she wanted to ensure her place in the history books. Whatever her motivations, her proclamation backfired politically and cost her party dearly in some state elections in 2015 and increased support for the AfD, a right-wing Eurosceptic party critical of immigration.

When Merkel realised her mistake, she did not publicly revoke her proclamation of “Wir schaffen das!” That would have been an admission of weakness and a PR disaster. Instead, she got back to her old Merkelian form and started working in the background to limit immigration by asylum seekers, for example by cutting a deal with Turkey. These efforts have been very successful and have reduced the number of newly arrived asylum seekers from the record number of 890,000 in 2015 to the much more manageable 280,000 in 2016 (and of those, about half arrived in January and Febuary). These are the official numbers, and the real numbers, taking into account undocumented migrants, are bound to be substantially higher, but nevertheless we have seen a drastic reduction.

If the current trend continues, the numbers of asylum seekers will remain manageable and Germany will, in true Merkelian fashion, continue to muddle through. Merkelian politics are neither pretty nor inspiring, but they work reasonably well. And this, it seems to me, is about as much as you can expect from politics. Politics will not and does not need to solve our problems. As long as politicians don’t screw things up too badly, the market and civil society will continue to improve our lives.

This is why I won’t be sad when Merkel’s reign continues beyond the 2017 election, as is very likely. Based on current polls and the statements that the major parties have made on possible coalitions, a forth term for Merkel seems almost inevitable. Nor do I regard that outcome as undesireable. Although I have many disagreements with Merkel and her CDU, she is likely to screw things up less badly than the only realistic alternative, a government led by Martin Schulz and his Social Democrats. Thus I say: Long live the Queen!

 

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment