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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The intersection of virtue and power, and the justifications of policies related to race.

by John MacBeath Watkins

For much of human history, we have been ruled by faith and force. It's easy to understand why force -- the king with his troops -- can rule, but why is faith so important?

Faith is about how we should live. And one of the functions of those who are in charge of faith is to decide who is virtuous, and what actions are virtuous. That is a powerful thing: It means those who interpret virtue can say who is acting rightly, and who is not.

We like to believe we live in a just world, in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished. In a way, the arbiters of what is virtuous are there to reassure us that the world is unfolding as it should. But they are also meant to be a check on those who cheat.

It is therefore in the interest of those who succeed to influence the perception of virtue so that their gains are not regarded as ill-gotten. Kings would rather you believe they ruled by divine right -- the will of God -- than that they simply control a lot of soldiers. The rich of the Gilded Age liked to believe they were the product of social Darwinism, that their wealth was a sign that they were fitter than the poor, just as our modern-day rich like Objectivism, Ayn Rand's reboot of social Darwinism without the bogus biology.

Rand is an interesting case in the study of virtue. She did, after all, write the book on The Virtue of Selfishness. Rand admired the psychopathic killer Edward Wayne Hickman, because of his selfishness and unwillingness to be bound by social conventions such as not killing people.

Her ideas matured, of course. From the Ayn Rand website (original appearance was in an appendix to Atlas Shrugged:):
Man—every man—is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life. Thus Objectivism rejects any form of altruism—the claim that morality consists in living for others or for society.
This is a nice philosophy for making a virtue of not helping others, which is fine if you have a nice life and don't wish to be bothered about those less fortunate. This is true not just between rich and poor, but between those advantaged by their race and those disadvantaged by it.

In reality, Rand's notions about morality make no sense in terms of the way people live their lives. Most parents would sacrifice a great deal for the sake of their children, a characteristic that is hardly unique to humans.

Rand's is a philosophy compatible with narcissism and psychopathy, and has no room for idealism, patriotism, or noble self-sacrifice of any sort. It does, however, fit perfectly with the age of the corporation as it now exists.

There was a time when corporations were managed as if they were a person, with shareholders, bondholders, customers and employees all considered as stakeholders. The switch to managing for shareholder value, which started in the 1970s, has remade corporations into a different kind of organization, closer to the Ayn Rand ideal of the selfish individual. And this new version of the right actions for a corporation appear to have seeped into the rest of the culture, with some surprising groups adopting its justifications and notions of what are right actions.

The rise of a libertarian right has given us an entire political movement built around this rather strange notion of virtue. This movement is the strange bedfellow of Christian conservatives who believe Christ dying for their sins is the essence of morality and paleoconservatives who believe in patriotism and the nobility of going to war and becoming a hero.

Our political divisions are as much moral as anything else, but there are deeper and darker emotions at work. To some extent, the morality of libertarians, Christian conservatives, and paleoconservatives are a sham and a justification for things less obviously related to virtue.

When Barry Goldwater, in his 1964 run for the presidency on the Republican ticket, opposed the Civil Rights Act on libertarian grounds, he did something a large part of the country wanted, regardless of how it was justified: He took a stand against civil rights. Strom Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948 on the States Rights Democratic Party ticket, preaching segregation and taking 39 electoral college votes, became a Republican.

Richard Nixon, sometimes called "the last liberal" for his actual policies, pursued a Southern strategy for election, and continued a transition that made the Republican Party the party of the South.

Now, it's easy to see how paleoconservatives would be attracted to a party that opposed the Civil Rights Act (many northern Republicans had voted for it, but having Goldwater at the top of the ticket opposing it changed how the party was perceived.) But why would Christian Conservatives be attracted to such a party?

Well, one thing that happened after the Civil Rights Act passed was integration of public schools. And white parents who didn't want their kids in schools with blacks started sending them to a new crop of private schools, colloquially known as "white academies." And many of those were associated with white Evangelical churches. When the nonprofit status of those schools was threatened by a crackdown on those that existed entirely to segregate, those churches became interested in politics, and in limited government.

The libertarian/small government justification for fighting federal efforts to desegregate and put an end to Jim Crow was also attractive to rich people who wanted to pay lower taxes. It was easy enough to demonize government spending if such spending was thought to help Those People, and another group fastened onto the libertarian justification machine like remora on a shark.

Because this is what happens when virtue bestows power. You have to put forward a moral justification for your political movement, and "government is the problem, not the solution" sounded so much better than the 19th century justifications that were no longer acceptable.

Alexander Stephens
Consider an excerpt from the "cornerstone speech" of Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, in 1861:
 The prevailing ideas entertained by him (Thomas Jefferson) and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew." 
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind -- from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just -- but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail.
History can change suddenly, but culture changes slowly. Beliefs such as Stephens voiced did not die with him, they live on, and are part of what many people think of as "right." Those people are now aware that their language and justifications have to change, even as their attitudes remain the same.
Lee Atwater, a Republican political strategist who worked for Ronald Reagan, put it this way in 1981:You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
The conversation changes, new arguments about what is right action, but the old motivation are behind the new justifications. This is the corruption of virtue in the pursuit of power: People who cannot any longer justify the policies they want in honest terms find dishonest ones to make their intentions seem virtuous. One might call it policy laundering; a policy that can no longer be justified by its original moral logic seeks new moral logic to make it seem acceptable.

This is a mask of virtue on the face of an ancient evil, an effort to make a carnival of matters of conscience. But in the end, can they war successfully against a principle of politics? Can the notion that some people aren't worth as much as others because of some feature they cannot control, such as the color of their skin, triumph over the principle that "all men are created equal"?

"The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."-- Martin Luther King, Jr.


Friday, July 10, 2015

Grexit, the Sinking Fund Act of 1790, and the unraveling of the European project

by John MacBeath Watkins

A friend from New South Wales asks, if Europe can't resolve the debt crisis on its periphery by means of the sort of fiscal union that would have a central authority bail out banks, why can the U.S. do so?

I've been following the Grexit controversy (potential Greek exit from the Euro zone) with interest, since it has the potential to disrupt one of the great internationalist projects of the last century, the European Union. I think I have the answer to my friend's question.

First, Americans identified with each other culturally much more than Europeans do. Second, we've had real fiscal union since 1790, thanks to the genius of Alexander Hamilton.

After the Revolutionary War, the original 13 colonies had quite a lot of debt, much of it owed to foreign banks and investors (primarily in the Netherlands.) Many were in a poor position to pay back the loans, and there was talk of default.

Hamilton pushed through the Sinking Fund Act of 1790, which was somewhat misnamed for political reasons. It didn't really pay down the debt so much as fund it, so it could be turned over periodically and become the basis for a market in securities that would help provide the financing to develop industry in the new nation.

But equally important was its political role. Hamilton saw that if the federal government took over the war debts and financed them through taxes, the states would be dependent on the federal government and the federal taxing authority to pay off their debts. This cemented the nation into one political and financial unit.

Not that this happened without difficulties or entirely peacefully. George Washington led a militia to put down the Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794,) an insurrection against federal taxes on corn whiskey. This happened while George Washington was president, and he became the only sitting president to lead troops in the field while suppressing it.

Jared Bernstein writes that a German economist asked him,  “How do you think the people of Manhattan would like bailing out Texas?” And Paul Krugman points out that it did, big time, during the Savings and Loan crisis.

As it happens, I was there, as the business reporter for the Odessa American, a daily in West Texas. Bankers were getting convicted of crimes and sentenced to brief incarceration at hard summer camp in low-security prisons, the Resolution Trust Corporation was shutting down S&Ls and the federal government was guaranteeing the deposits, and we never heard a peep out of those parts of the country that contributed money to resolve the situation.

Krugman points out that the resolution of this crisis cost about $125 million "back when that was real money," and about $75 million went to Texas. It didn't go in the form of loans, it went in the form of outright transfers from areas like Manhattan that weren't having a banking crisis.

If the powers that be in Europe wanted a United States of Europe, they would act as Hamilton and Washington did to make sure the debts of the weaker states got paid off by a central authority. But they didn't, and they can't, because Europe is not about to become a United States of Europe. German voters won't stand for bailing out Greece, there is no central taxing authority and is not likely to be one, and a central European authority invading an area that rebelled against a centralized taxing authority is unthinkable.

All of which is why the Euro was a bad idea to start with. There are those in Europe who think that forcing Greece to exit the Euro will make the rest of the Euro area stronger, but actually, it demonstrates why the Euro can't work, and why the project to make a United States of Europe is a doomed enterprise.

America works as a currency area, in part, because large and ongoing transfers of wealth happen between productive states like Massachusetts and New York on the one hand, and low productivity states like Mississippi and Arkansas on the other.

Those wealth transfers go on year after year, in the form of welfare spending, federal unemployment insurance, social security, disability benefits, and other programs. Most of this is so invisible to recipients that they vote for people who want to cut the federal budget.

It's taken a long time for us to evolve our financial system, and there have been some pretty rough patches along the way. Andrew Jackson, one of our worst presidents, refused to renew the charter for the Bank of the United States, leaving the country without a central bank from 1836 to 1913. Between the end of bank's charter and the beginning of the Civil War, state banks were issuing currency, and how much it was worth depended, among other things, on how close you were to the issuing bank. Repeated financial crises between the 1870s and 1913 convinced the powers that be that we needed a central bank. We didn't get centralized deposit insurance until the bank failures of the 1930s demonstrated how badly that was needed.

But at least we had the basic ingredients for a proper currency union, even when we didn't have a workable currency system thanks to Old Hickory. And the basic principle that we were a nation was settled between 1790 and 1794, with the Sinking Fund Act and the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion.

Europe is currently demonstrating that they do not have the unity the Sinking Fund Act of 1790 represented. Any attempt to set up such a mechanism would probably produce the European equivalent of the Whiskey Rebellion, and there is zero chance that Europe would put up with the military suppression of such a reaction.

Try to imagine German troops marching into Belgium to suppress a tax revolt. It would be déjà vu, and not in a good way. I feel confident that the German people would stand with the Belgians against such an action..

Perhaps there was a gentler path to a fiscal union, one in which the burden was shared without a central authority. For example, the banks that owned most of the Greek debt were Greek, German, French, and Italian. Each country could have bailed out its own banks. Instead, the troika (the European Central Bank, European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund) chose to paper over the issue, pretending that Greece suffered not from insolvency but from a liquidity problem. Some private lenders took a bit of a haircut, then the private debt got converted into ECB and IMF debt. In the end, Greece is on the hook to pay back all the debt, rather than having defaulted, as logic said they should, and having each country bail out its own banks.

We know that Angela Merkel has been saying privately since at least 2011 that the Greek debt was unsustainable, that they would, in the end, default. And yet the policy of the German government was and still is that Greece must pay back every penny with interest. This means that the German government has been pursuing a policy that they knew wouldn't work, so there must be some sort of hidden agenda served by this hypocrisy.

That agenda could be as simple as an unwillingness to face German voters with inconvenient and unpopular truths. The longer Merkel continues to fail to tell the German people the truth, that the Greek crisis will not be resolved by making them pay back every penny, the harder it becomes for her to tell them.

Or it could be that there is some other goal. Yanis Varoufakis, who until recently was the Greek finance minister in charge of negotiating a resolution to the crisis, recently wrote an op-ed piece in The Guardian claiming that Germany wants to scare the bejesus out of France.

"Based on months of negotiation, my conviction is that the German finance minister wants Greece to be pushed out of the single currency to put the fear of God into the French and have them accept his model of a disciplinarian eurozone," he wrote.

No doubt there is more than one reason for the policy of the German and other governments on the Greek debt crisis. Whatever the reasons are, they seem impervious to evidence. Had the initial bailout worked as the troika said it would, the crisis would be over. Here's a chart from Paul Krugman's blog showing the difference between the IMF's economic projections for Greece and what actually happened:

It's pretty obvious that if the Greek economy were the size the IMF said it would be at this point, they would have far less trouble paying back the debt. But after five years of failure, the troika offers nothing but more of the same policies.

These policies have resulted in the Greek economy shrinking more quickly than the debt is paid back. More of the same can be expected to have more of the same result, which means that the Greek ability to pay back the debt is undermined to the extent that the whole exercise is futile. It also means that since the denominator in the debt/GDP ratio is sinking, a Greek government that started with a debt of 100% of GDP now has a debt of about 170% of GDP, despite paying back billions of dollars.

It's not like the Germans should be unfamiliar with how this works. Debt forgiveness and the Marshall Plan following World War II rebuilt the German economy.

This is covered in a paper by London School of Economics Professor of Economic History Albrecht Ritschl

http://www.lse.ac.uk/researchAndExpertise/researchImpact/PDFs/germany-hypocrisy-eurozone-debt-crisis.pdf
"In a telling comparison Ritschl showed that the debts racked up by the struggling Eurozone economies – Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain – were equal in size to Germany’s current gross domestic product. In other words, debt cancellation for the Eurozone would be equivalent to the debts that were cancelled by the Allies after World War II. "
In addition, the Marshall Plan injected $17 billion -- equivalent to roughly $160 billion in today's money -- to rebuild the country we had spend so much money reducing to rubble.

The debt cancellation, by the way, was supposed to be temporary -- only until Germany was unified. But Germany was unified in 1990, and Germany has still not been required to repay the debt.

Having itself relied upon the kindness of foreigners, Germany seems disinclined to pay it forward, and make no mistake, Germany is the driving force in negotiation over the Greek debt.

 I can only think that Germany is disenchanted with the European project, and has no wish for a stronger union. It seems they wish to make Greece an example, but what will Greece be an example of?

I think they will be an example of the fact that Europe, despite all the years of the European Union, does not wish to be a true union. Grexit is the beginning of a great unraveling of the dreams of the European elites.


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A 21' catboat for public sail

by John MacBeath Watkins

During the Seattle Wooden Boat Festival last weekend, I learned that the era of using sharpies to do the free public sails at the Center for Wooden Boats may be coming to an end. We may get another Bristol Bay gillnetter, or find some other solution.

I propose a solution that has more to do with the history of the Center for Wooden Boats and the Northwest lumber industry than with traditional Northwest types.

The Center for Wooden Boats started out as a sort of summer job for Dick and Coleen Wagner, operating boat livery out of their houseboat on north Lake Union. The difference from most such operations is that they didn't choose some low-maintenance rubber ducky, they chose to open a livery featuring traditional wooden boats, especially Beetle Cats.

The boats attracted a following of people who didn't just want to rent a boat, they wanted to have classes on building boats. They wanted to preserve, not just the objects, but the skills associated with wooden boats. And they loved the fact that they could sail types of boats they would normally only see in books.

Well, it followed that the boat livery became, instead, a museum where you could sail the exhibits. And one of the outreaches that recruits people to volunteer and take classes is the free public sail offered every Sunday. It is, as someone told me over the weekend, the wide end of the funnel.

For most of its history, the public sail has relied upon a New Haven sharpie, the Betsy D, and an Egret replica, the Coleen Wagner. We also had a Bristol Bay sailing gillnetter, but for the first few years almost no one would sail it. I convinced Greg Reed, then the livery manager for CWB, to find enough ballast to make the stern sit lower than the bow, and the boat was transformed. It is now quite popular among the skippers for public sail, though still not terribly maneuverable.

We've had two other boats that have been successful in public sail, our Woods Hole spritsail boats, 13 1/2-foot catboats based on the 19th century lobster boats from Woods Hole, Mass.

Now, one of the major aspects of the lumber industry in the Northwest is the plywood mills. Some were co-op mills owned by the workers, most were owned by the big lumber companies. One of the things they did was launch a campaign to promote the use of plywood in boat building, spawning the great age of home-built boats in the 1950s. The Thunderbird class was the product of a contest for a plywood boat design sponsored by the plywood industry. Too few of the boats at CWB reflect this important age of wooden boating.

I propose a plywood catboat for public sail, and I think it would be easy enough to sail for CWB to use in our sailing instruction program and even the sailboat livery.

The boat would be laid out like a Woods Hole boat, with a large cockpit surrounded by a tall coaming only inches inside the deck.

It would have a deep, narrow centerboard, more efficient than the old fashioned pie-slice shaped boards. It would have a short, steep skeg instead of the traditional long skeg so that it would be more maneuverable than most catboats.

The boat would be about 21 feet long and about ten feet wide. It would have plenty of initial stability, which should enable it to get a good rating for carrying capacity from the Coast Guard.

It would carry the traditional catboat rig, with a low center of effort. I figure it should be fine with about 300 square feet of sail and about 500 lb. of ballast so the boat doesn't get squirrely when sailed light.

The plan is to build it in stitch and glue with 3/8 inch plywood, glassed for abrasion protection. The boat will probably weigh about 1,000 lb. without the ballast, and it's designed for a displacement of 2,900 lb., so with the weight of the boat and the ballast at 1.500 lb., that leaves about 1,400 lb. for payload. That's about eight people, or one crew and seven passengers.

The panels develop very well, and all are well under 24 ft. long and less than 4 ft. wide, which fits well with the dimensions of the plywood. There's actually less stress in the panel with the catboat bow than in the bilge panel.


The chine enters the water forward at about the same distance from the centerline as it leaves the centerline aft, so weather helm, always a problem with catboats, should be under control.

The underbody will look more modern than the topsides, so the boat should surprise some people with its performance.


I believe such a boat would offer low first cost, low maintenance costs, usefulness in at least three of the Center's programs, and deliver a good experience to those who sail it.

Dimensions are:  21' 10 inches, by 10 ft., draft of the hull about 10 inches, draft of the skeg and rudder 1' 6", displacement 2,900 lb.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Design exercize: Peaches, an 11 foot catboat

by John MacBeath Watkins


The idea here is to design an easy to build catboat that will also be inexpensive. The sail is a Laser practice sail, which saves at least $300 over a similar sized sail. This means keeping the waterline narrow enough for the boat to be pushed by 7 square meters of sail. We don't want the crew to have to hike too hard, so I've given it plenty of flare above the waterline to put the skipper's weight out there without too much stress on the stomach muscles.


The boat is stitch and glue, with two panels a side, and I've managed to get the panels to develop with fairly low stress. In fact, there's less stress in the panel that forms the bottom and the catboat bow than there is in the side panels. Still, you'd best build with 4 mm okume plywood, which is light, fairly flexible, and comes from sustainable plantations. One problem is that the boat is too wide to fit into my 1997 Nissan's bed, so I'd have to cartop it. All-up weight is going to be around 100 lb., and you only have to lift one end at a time, so that shouldn't be too bad. Cost of construction with the sail should be less than $1,000.

Now, I just need free time (I work six days a week), a space to build it, and a bit of cash to make the thing...well, they say man's reach should exceed his grasp, else what's a metaphor?

Update: On the advice of Tom Price, I've raised the freeboard, and I think that makes the boat better:



Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The charity of crows

by John MacBeath Watkins

My good friend John McCartney had an elderly cat who could eat only the softest of soft cat food, and didn't finish what he was served, so John would put the rest outside to be eaten by crows.

The crows were appreciative. John would put the bowl out, light a cigarette, and contemplate the crows at their dinner, a very soothing activity.

Then, the cat died. He achieved great age for a cat, and had a good life, so it was a fond farewell. It was the crows who really suffered, because there were no longer cat food leftovers to feed them. But crows adapt and survive, and they found food.

But they never forgot John's kindness to them, and still tended to hang around when he went out for a smoke.

One day, a crow walked up to him holding a worm in its mouth, and dropped it at his feet.

Now, there are different ways to interpret this. Perhaps the crow meant, "See? Food. Remember food? Why are't you feeding us?"

But I prefer a more anthropomorphic explanation. I prefer to think the crow was, in effect, saying:

"You know, we remember how generous you were to us when you had lots of food. We realize that you've fallen on hard times and no longer have dishes of extra meat to share, and well, me and the flock, we had a bit of a whip-'round, and, well, long story short -- here's a worm."

It's a bit like the story of the ravens feeding the prophet Elijah.
1 Kings, 17:6
And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook.
But was it the flesh of worms?



Monday, May 18, 2015

A design to make sailing more popular

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've been thinking about what would be needed to make sailing more popular, and I think one problem is the perception of it being expensive. What we need is a design that can be built for less than $1,500 including the rig with a professionally made sail.

It should have good performance, or at least the feel of good performance. It should be self-draining in case of a capsize. And it should have a big, friendly cockpit for when people want to sail with friends.

My approach would be to design it around the Laser practice sail, which costs around $150, about a third of what a sail this size normally costs. The boat would be stitch and glue, so it could be built quickly with a minimum of tools and skill. The panels should require no more than one scarf, which means the boat will be around 15 ft. I'd give it a full-length cockpit with a deck sloped to encourage water to leave through the stern.

Here's what I'm got so far:



The main deck follows the line of the upper chine. At the top of the gunwales, there would be a narrow deck to make the boat more comfortable to hike on.

Here's what the lines would look like, nice and simple so the water doesn't get confused:


With semi-skilled volunteer labor and somebody's garage, it should be possible to build four or five of these for the price of a new Laser. They wouldn't be quite as fast as a Laser, but they'd be as fast as each other.

Dimensions:

LOA  15'
Beam  4'9"
waterline beam at max load 3'3"
Displacement at which stem and transom touch the waterline: 490

I've rethought the rudder since I made the first illustration, substituting a lower-aspect version with more area, so that it will really crank the stern around when put over with authority. Built in 1/4 inch plywood, the boat should be able to carry four pre-teens, three slender teens, a trim couple, or one big galoot. The idea is a boat that could be built for about 1,200 in materials, including a professionally made sail, so that a yacht club, scout troop, or non-profit, could build about four boats for the cost of one new Laser. It won't be quite as fact as the Laser, but should keep the crew drier and allow for a more social sailing experience.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Ending the culture of police impunity: A modest proposal

by John MacBeath Watkins

Police have got to lose their feeling that they can hurt people with impunity, and the way to do that is to change how they are paid.

Any time armed men think they can break the law with impunity, they are a threat to civilization. It's my belief that a small number of police are resulting in huge settlements for their employers, and police departments are remarkably inept at rooting them out.

The city of Chicago has agreed to pay out $5.5 million because a group of police allegedly routinely tortured prisoners -- mainly poor black ones -- in the 1970s and '80s. The city of Baltimore has paid out even more over the last few years for police brutality settlements. We need to give police incentives that will change their behavior.

The police unions do their best to make sure the officers involved in most cases of police brutality, even those that prove expensive for the cities that employ them, are not fired. Police officers often try to cover up the behavior of their fellow cops.

We need to change the incentives. The Chicago police department's alleged torture happened between 1972 and 1991. It could not happen for nearly two decades without the knowledge police outside of the "midnight crew" said to have done this.

Cops cover for each other. We know this. In the Tamir Rice case, two cops were in the car that responded to the call, one of them shot almost immediately, and before they found out there was video of the incident, they told a story about the incident that did not match the vid that finally surfaced.

Now a prosecutor who works closely with the police must decide whether one of the cops committed a crime in shooting Rice, and whether the other committed a crime covering for him. The prosecutor has got to feel conflicted.

On the whole, things are stacked in favor of the cops in these events, which is why the midnight crew got away with torture for nearly two decades. The ubiquity of cell phone videos has revealed much about how police behave that we would not have known in the past. What should we do about it?

Punishment is one option, and when police commit crimes, they should be subject to the law like anyone else. But until we can make real changes in police culture, we're not going to fix the problem.

I suggest an incentive system that would change the way police behave. Establish a compensation fund, and what doesn't get paid out in settlements for police brutality can be released as a stipend to police. Anyone whose behavior causes a settlement or who covers up behavior that causes a settlement loses the stipend. The amount of everyone's stipend is reduced when the fund is run down by a settlement.

I think cops know who the bad apples are. There are social pressures to cover for them, an us-against-them attitude to all non-police, in most departments. Police unions have no incentive to try to weed them out, because they have no skin in the game when it comes to settlements. Their members misbehave, someone else pays. In the future, police contracts need to give the cops and their union some skin in the game.

Once, I interviewed a Native man who had been a bonded deputy of Island County. He put up a bond, I don't recall how large, and he'd lose it if he did something that resulted in the county having to pay out because of his behavior. I don't know what happened to this custom, but it seems to me that it was a good one.

One consequence of the ubiquity of video is that more cases are going to go against the police, and cities are going to have to pay out more money. It is quite reasonable to make police pay depend, in part, on whether they break the law and on whether they behave in ways that are expensive for their employers.


Thursday, April 30, 2015

On the political movement to create inequality: How an alliance based on money, race, and religion wrecked the middle class

by John MacBeath Watkins

By now, I suppose we've all seen the graph that demonstrates the decoupling of productivity and median income growth:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle-class_squeeze

It looks even worse expressed as hourly wage growth:

http://www.epi.org/publication/ib330-productivity-vs-compensation/

And now, that pinko rag The Wall Street Journal has an article showing that by some standards, wages peaked in 1972: http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2015/04/17/by-one-measure-wages-for-most-u-s-workers-peaked-in-1972/

Several things had to happen to make things turn out this way. I think the best way to understand it is as a political movement in which the well-off waged a war of words, money, and organization to wrest control of public discourse and political power from working people. One of the first shots in this war was the Powell Memo, a document the United States Chamber of Commerce solicited in 1971 from Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer who would eventually be appointed to the Supreme Court.

Powell responded with a memo that told businesses that they were losing to the left, and needed to build institution that would push for their interests. Looking at the charts above, it would appear that they were not losing -- wages were growing no faster than productivity, allowing business to make a decent profit. But this was a time when the New Left had not yet fallen by the wayside.

The full text of the Powell memo is here.

Powell told his readers that they were under attack, and were unable to exercise power in the political arena.

He wrote:
...as every business executive knows, few elements of American society today have as little influence in government as the American businessman, the corporation, or even the millions of corporate stockholders. If one doubts this, let him undertake the role of “lobbyist” for the business point of view before Congressional committees. The same situation obtains in the legislative halls of most states and major cities. One does not exaggerate to say that, in terms of political influence with respect to the course of legislation and government action, the American business executive is truly the “forgotten man.”

Current examples of the impotency of business, and of the near-contempt with which businessmen’s views are held, are the stampedes by politicians to support almost any legislation related to “consumerism” or to the “environment.”
 Powell wrote that they could gain power through the courts, through persuasion of the public with television and radio, through rewarding a "faculty of scholars" to publish work in support of their views, and through direct political lobbying:
Business must learn the lesson, long ago learned by labor and other self-interest groups. This is the lesson that political power is necessary; that such power must be assidously (sic) cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.
 He also suggested that shareholder could use their power to sway politicians:
The question which merits the most thorough examination is how can the weight and influence of stockholders — 20 million voters — be mobilized to support (i) an educational program and (ii) a political action program.

Individual corporations are now required to make numerous reports to shareholders. Many corporations also have expensive “news” magazines which go to employees and stockholders. These opportunities to communicate can be used far more effectively as educational media.
A large part of what he proposed was propaganda. Whether because of his memo or because they were going to anyway, business interests have founded think tanks like The Heritage Foundation and helped publicize the work of people like Arthur Laffer, built funding mechanisms for political campaigns and supported model legislation by ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) for state legislators to introduce in support of business aims.

But the business aims supported here are not those of the people working in non-supervisory jobs at businesses. In fact, those are defined as the enemy pretty much explicitly in Powell's memo. That's Labor, union bosses and strikers and malcontents all.

In fact, the aims supported by this political movement are those of top-level management and owners of large blocks of stock. They are the aims of the people Christopher Lasch was referring to in his 1996 book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.

From that book:
Today it is the elites, however - those who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms of public debate - that have lost faith in the values, or what remains of them, of the West.

As Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson demonstrated in their book, Why Nations Fail, an arrogant and grasping elite can destroy the economy of a nation in order to retain their positional status. They argued that the success of a nation depends to a great degree on the inclusiveness of its economic and political institutions. Once you shut down entry into the elite, the rot sets in.

Not that this is the only thing a nation needs to succeed. They note the disparity in wealth between the Arizona side of the border and the Mexican side, and suggest one of the problems is the weak and corrupt Mexican state, which has never been an effective guarantor of life and property.

Which makes the nature of the alliances formed by the elite Powell was addressing in order to have the votes to control the country all the more alarming.

The Republican Party had long been allied with business elites, but faced with the New Deal alliance of the Democrats they were long a minority party. One of the pivotal figures of 20th century politics, Richard Nixon, attacked the problem by rebuilding the Republican coalition after his own image -- resentful, conservative, and a bit racist.

The Democrats had been strong in the South, essentially from the passage of the Posse Commitatus Act in 1878 until the Democrats re-started the work of Reconstruction with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Posse Commitatus Act ended the role of federal troops in the South in enforcing the voting rights and civil rights of the black citizens of the former Confederate states. It freed state and local authorities to deprive blacks of their voting rights and civil rights. Since congressional seats and electoral college votes are distributed by population, not number of registered voters, this gave racists a disproportionate influence in our politics.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater was the Republican nominee for president, and he opposed the Civil Rights Act. Nixon seized on Southern resentment to rebuild the party around disgruntled white voters.

George Packer wrote a brilliant account of this in The New Yorker, an article titled somewhat optimistically The Fall of Conservatism. From that article:
The Southerners were the kind of men whom Nixon whipped into a frenzy one night in the fall of 1966, at the Wade Hampton Hotel, in Columbia, South Carolina. Nixon, who was then a partner in a New York law firm, had traveled there with Buchanan on behalf of Republican congressional candidates. Buchanan recalls that the room was full of sweat, cigar smoke, and rage; the rhetoric, which was about patriotism and law and order, “burned the paint off the walls.” As they left the hotel, Nixon said, “This is the future of this Party, right here in the South.”
Law and order? The South was the home of one of the most notorious extra-legal customs in America, the lynching, and home to one of the most notorious organizations, the Klu Klux Klan. The Klan existed to terrorize blacks and whites who sympathized with them.

Ronald Reagan gave a speech on the topic of states rights during his 1980 run for the presidency at the Neshoba County Fair, a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, site of the 1964 murder of civil rights workers. I'm sure the symbolism wasn't wasted on his audience. States' rights during the run-up to the Civil War had meant the right to hold slaves, states' rights after the war ended meant the right to discriminate without federal interference.

A friend has long insisted that the Republican Party consisted of an alliance of the rich and the stupid. I would have said an alliance of the rich and the racist. Moderate Republicans of the sort who voted for the Civil Rights Act in 1964 are now called RINO -- Republican In Name Only. They've largely been ridden out of the party at this point, much to the disappointment of voters like me who have historically voted a split ticket.

Tapping into the South's deep well of resentment to support an agenda really set by the economic elite was deeply cynical. When Southern churches began setting up "white academies" -- private schools intended to preserve segregation -- they found a welcoming ally in business interests that wanted to do down the Internal Revenue Service. The result was a lot of rhetoric in support of the cultural agenda of the churches, and a lot of tax cuts and relaxed regulation on their business allies.

The churches got some of what they wanted. Evangelical churches in the 1960s had no particular stand on abortion, but when they found themselves in a coalition with norther Catholics, they changed their stance and demanded legislation to restrict abortion. Business interests didn't mind giving them that.

But for the most part, the votes were coming from segments of the population that harbored racial resentment against the policies of the Democrats, and the benefits were going to the business elites. What was said to get the votes was just the prolefeed, a term George Orwell invented in his novel, 1984, in which the Ministry of Truth manufactures a sort of literature that is designed to keep the proletariat content and not too knowledgeable.

The propaganda arm of the movement harnessed agnotology, the science of creating ignorance, which had been pioneered by the tobacco industry. If scientists say you are harming people, pay some other scientists to say you aren't. The truth doesn't matter, just the bottom line.

And if your pundit is continually wrong, as Arthur Laffer has been, that doesn't matter. Just keep quoting him as if he were a reliable source of information.

Not that all were obviously wrong. One of the great controversies of the 1970s was about the viability of Keynesian economics in general and the Phillips curve in particular. The Phillips curve describes how higher inflation tends to be related to lower unemployment, but was challenged in the 1970s by a period of high inflation and high unemployment, called stagflation.

Milton Friedman, the great monetarist, claimed that the unemployment rate could not fall below a certain level without sparking a wage-price spiral, which he called the "natural rate" of unemployment. The ModiglianiPapademos paper of 1975 introduced it as the non-inflationary rate of unemployment.

There are other contributing factors, but it's probably not entirely coincidental that real hourly wages for non-supervisory jobs have not increased since the Federal Reserve Board started using the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) as a tool in setting monetary policy.

The movement Powell was associated with paid attention to many things most people don't, like who gets appointed to the Federal Reserve Board. They backed, with cash, candidates who drank the Kool-Aid about low taxes on rich people stimulating the economy and generating more tax revenues, and the idea that regulations could be eliminated with no harm and a stimulating effect on the economy.

Robert Bork wrote a book published in 1978 titled The Antitrust Paradox, in which is said, sometimes you get lower prices with one large company than with several competing companies, so why penalize predatory pricing? With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, this became the official policy of the Justice Department, and still is. Walmart used tactics that were illegal up until then to become the largest employer on America.

(As noted in a previous post, In 1967, the Safeway grocery store chain, then the second largest in the country, signed a consent decree with the Justice Department in which they agreed to stop engaging in predatory pricing -- selling below cost in order to drive the competition out of business.  A generation later, in 1983, Safeway correctly perceived that the Reagan Justice Department would take a different view of their activities, and asked to be released from the consent decree, and was freed of its restrictions.)

One result of this is that predatory pricing, which is hard on small business and only possible for large businesses, has, as one might expect, resulted in many small businesses closing. Another is that Walmart exercises enormous power over wages of their workforce and of prices for their suppliers. This redistributes power in ways that destroys workers' and suppliers' negotiating power.

Another theory that got a lot of support at about that time was managing corporations for shareholder value. Strangely enough, given our current beliefs, this is not how corporations were usually managed prior to the 1970s. Public corporations had been managed on the theory that they were persons, and their chief purpose was to survive and thrive. Shareholders did not have the rights of property, they only had a claim on future earnings should the board decide to issue a dividend. One might compare this to 'owning' a fighter, in which you own part of the fighter's future winnings. You can't actually take the fighter apart and eat the bit you own if you get peckish.

Under this system of managing corporations, shareholders had an important stake in the company, as did bondholder, customers, and employees. The public corporation was a sort of gestalt being, made up of many other beings occupying its metaphorical body.

When Milton Friedman and others began promoting the idea that the shareholders were owners more in the sense that partners are owners, they found ready support for this view among people who could make money on it. Changes in the banking industry made it possible for corporate raiders to raise money to buy up companies. What they did then was described in a paper by Larry Summers and Andrei Schleiferwere titled Breach of Trust in Hostile Takeovers.

From that paper:

One striking fact militating in favor of. the importance of wealth transfers as opposed to pure efficiency gains is that a significant fraction  of hostile acquisitions are initiated and executed by only a few raiders. It is hard to believe that Carl Icahn has a comparative advantage in running simultaneously a railcar leasing company (ACF), an airline  (TWA) and a textile mill (Dan River). It is more plausible that his comparative advantage is tough bargaining and a willingness to transfer value away from those who expect to have it. In fact, those who describe  him (including he himself) point to this as his special skill. The industrial diversity of many raiders' holdings suggests that their particular skill is value redistribution rather than value creation.
Now, consider the reason companies exist. Ronald Coase explored this question in a highly influential 1937 paper, The Nature of the Firm. Coase noted that you could hire individuals to do everything you need done, no matter how big the job, so why have companies in which the employer has obligations to long-term employees instead?

The answer, he said, is that contracting individually for each person need to perform the tasks of the firm would require exorbitant transaction costs to negotiate and enforce the contracts. Much better to gather a group of people to work for a common goal, such as making better and cheaper widgets to make a profit in the widget business.

Summers and Schleiferwere argued that what Icahn and others were doing was appropriating money by violating those implicit contracts.

This is not one of their examples, but consider the case of the Boeing aircraft corporation. In the late 1960s, management bet the company on the first jumbo jet, the 747. Engineers worked so enthusiastically that they came to be called 'the incredibles.' Management would tell people to go home, only to have them drive around the block and come back to work when management wasn't looking.

Their devotion paid off. The company dominated the commercial airliner market to the point where Lockheed withdrew from the market and Boeing took over McDonnell Douglas and cancelled all their airliners.

However, McDonnell Douglas executives proved more adept at corporate infighting, and gained considerable influence over the company, resulting in some big changes.

In July 2014, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney created a controversy by saying he wouldn't retire at 65 because “The heart will still be beating, the employees will still be cowering, I’ll be working hard.”

This is a major change in attitude. And Boeing was not subject to a hostile takeover, it is simply that public corporations are run differently than they were in the past.


Summers and Schleiferwere noted that employees in companies that had been subject to a takeover found that the company had no loyalty to its employees. They cite a number of employee reactions, but the one that put the issue most clearly to me was, "How can you go to another company now and give 100 percent of your effort?"
Leeham Co. LLC, which describes its business as "intelligence for the aviation industry," examined the Boeing situation on their blog in a Nov. 2013 post titled Loyalty is a One-Way Street at Boeing...
The problem is, if a company is not "managed for shareholder value," it becomes a target for takeover. As a consequence, companies that invest their profits in the business instead of starving research to pay stockholders are the companies that become a target for takeovers.

Would Boeing in its current position benefit from the fierce loyalty and enthusiasm of "the incredibles" on a project launched today? It seems unlikely.

The new, more extractive model used by Boeing is the rule rather than the exception today. Once the banking business changed in ways that encouraged takeovers, the very nature of the publicly traded corporation changed. And when money is changing things, it can call out the justifications for what it is doing. In an earlier time, when the question was whether such corporations existed to serve the shareholders or if the shareholders were just one of the stakeholders in the company, the latter view had won out.

In fact, people in the business world overwhelmingly believe that corporations have a fiduciary duty to maximize shareholder value, even though the case law doesn't support this, and the case most often cited in support of this is an odd one.

The case usually cited is Dodge Brother vs. Ford. Henry Ford owned 58% of the company, the Dodge brothers owned 10%, and five other individuals owned the rest. Prior to WW I the Dodge Brothers were both a major investor in the company and a major supplier of engines, transmissions, and chassis. Ford was planning to build a factory that would make him no longer dependent on the Dodge Brothers for his manufacturing, and trying to drive down the price of the stock so he could buy the brothers out.

As chairman, president, and the majority stockholder, he was in a great position to do this. He decided to withhold a dividend that the brothers would need to complete their own plant in which they planned to start building their own line of cars.

Now, if Gordon Gekko's golden rule -- "he who has the gold makes the rules" -- were applied, Ford as majority stockholder should have been able to decide what dividend, if any, the company paid out. This was not a publicly traded company, it was a closely held corporation which Ford owned most of. The Michigan Supreme Court, which is not usually considered an authority on corporate law, ruled that Ford had an obligation to pay out a substantial dividend.

Lynn Stout, a Columbia law professor and author of The Shareholder Value Myth, argues rather credibly that Dodge v Ford is about a majority shareholder's obligation to minority shareholders, not about the obligations of publicly traded corporations. She also raises the question of why this case is cited rather than later cases from more expert courts (such as Delaware's Supreme Court, which rules in the state most large corporations choose to incorporate in.)

The answer, I"m afraid, is that intellectuals can serve more than one purpose. They can seek truth, or they can manufacture justifications for actions influential players want to take. Even when they do not view themselves as doing the latter, they may take a view that is picked up by those players and used as a justification.

In some cases, it is hard to assume altruism on the part of the intellectual involved. Arthur Laffer may once of believed that cutting taxes on the richest people would spur the economy and generate higher tax revenues, but it strains belief to think that he continues to hold this assumption for purely altruistic reasons. Saying exactly what the rich wanted to hear was the making of him. Admitting he was mistaken would be the unmaking of him.

Laffer first described the Laffer curve to Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld at a lunch meeting in 1974. The curve shows that at some point between 0% and 100% tax rates, there is a rate that maximizes revenue. It was first proposed by and Arab philosopher and historian, Ibn Khaldun. Laffer's innovation appears to have been to propose that we are always at a higher point than optimum on the curve whenever he is asked.

However, research since 1974 has shown that cutting top marginal rates does not increase gross domestic product above the rate that would have occurred without the cuts. And research on the rate at which tax revenues are maximized seem to show that it is about a 70% top marginal rate, which it was in 1974, before Laffer's theory was applied. (Economists Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez calculated in a 2011 paper that the revenue maximizing top marginal rate is 73%.)

Laffer wasn't bothered when the Reagan administration increased payroll taxes, because he was more concerned with top marginal rates.  By the end of Reagan's term in office, it was evident that Laffer was wrong, but he still reliably says what his audience wants to hear, and he has been rewarded with several directorships at large corporations.

Lowering the top rate from 70% to 28% didn't quite stick, but the top marginal rate of 35% on ordinary income and 28% on capital gains is still far below where it was when the U.S. economy was growing more rapidly. Lower taxes on high earners and higher payroll taxes represented a large shift in wealth to the high earners.

One consequence of lower tax revenues was a reduction in investment in things that benefit us all, such as roads and bridges. Federal infrastructure investment has fallen from a peak of about 1.2 percent of GDP to about .2 percent, our about 1/6th.

The result is a loss of productivity and international competitiveness. A truck waiting for a train to pass rather than driving on an overpass is a job lost for someone. Corporations have no national loyalty, and move their income around to the countries that allow them to minimize taxes. If America becomes less competitive, that's fine, they can always invest in some other country. The stateless income of international corporations does not support the well being, let alone the greatness, of countries.

These companies lobby for lower taxes, lobby for the freedom to flee to tax havens, and donate money to politicians. Public investment only interests them if it benefits them and they don't have to pay for it. The case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, ruled that prohibiting expenditures by corporations or unions violated the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, which means that although a corporation is not a voting citizen, it is sufficiently a person to finance a campaign for or against a candidate.

In his last book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, Christopher Lasch in 1995 argued that the privileged class had managed to isolate themselves from the crumbling social structure and decaying cities around them. In becoming international in their outlook, "citizens of the world," they have given up on the responsibilities of citizenship in their own countries and communities, and pursue only the interest of their class.

Lasch had no clear solution to this problem, nor do I. We seem to have developed an Ayn Rand elite, narcissistic and self-serving, who have the wealth and the connections to run things. They do not seem restrained by empathy for the less fortunate or a sense of duty to their nation or community. As inequality increases, there are reasons to think that the wealthy become less empathetic.

Studies of the effects of wealth on compassion and fairness have shown, as a report in Scientific American put it, that "as people climb the social ladder, their compassionate feelings towards other people decline."

And given the psychological effects of wealth, it is not surprising that the justifications for these attitudes are often couched in terms of freedom. Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner suggest that "The less we have to rely on others, the less we may care about their feelings. This leads us towards being more self-focused."

We are living in a world built by a political movement driven by these people -- people alienated from community and nation, from any but their own class of wealthy cohorts. They are able to remain in power because of the alliance they formed with others, who are alienated from nation and community by prejudice and resentment. Both sides of this alliance wrap themselves in the flag while displaying contempt for the very notion of the national government.

You seem confused, fella, which is it?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Bullshit as myth

by John MacBeath Watkins

Why do people believe things that are demonstrably untrue?

President Obama being sworn in using Lincoln's Bible.
I was thinking about that in terms of some apparently intelligent people I've run into who insist that President Barack Obama is a Muslim. What purpose does it serve to advertise such an absurd notion?

The answer is that like many myths, it serves to define the person who holds the belief as part of a group, and defines people who don't hold it as not part of the group. In addition, it defines President Obama as the Other, one who can never be part of the group.

An interesting aspect of myths is that they do not need to be objectively true. The information they carry is not about objective truth. It is more likely to be about values, identity, belonging, and desires.

Racism is no longer socially acceptable through most of our society, so saying you object to President Obama because he is black is not acceptable speech. Calling him a Muslim defines him as the Other without using racial rhetoric. In politics, this is known as a 'dog whistle,' a mode of speech that will be understood by its intended audience to say something the rest of society condemns, and not be understood in the same way by society at large.

But I don't think the people who profess this belief are necessarily insincere, though surely some are. Perhaps it is better to understand this in terms of what Harry G. Frankfurt was talking about in his brief book, On Bullshit. The problem he addresses is that of the person who  "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

But in a sense, this is what myth has always done. In terms of maintaining a distinct society, the question is not whether the dietary rules in Leviticus or the Ten Commandments came from God, what matters is that you get people to adopt the beliefs and behaviors that define the group. Like bullshit, the question of truth does not arise with myth.

J.R.R. Tolkien claimed that there are things only myths can teach us, things reason cannot convey. But while reason may not be able to convey a sense of belonging to the group and excluding others from it, reason can at least understand what myth is conveying.

One interesting aspect of this is that we sometimes don't recognize a myth as such. For example, those both inside the group and outside the group that claim President Obama is a Muslim claim the 'debate' is about truth, when in fact those within the group claiming he is a Muslim are not persuadable by any proof.

This leads to a discussion that is not about the real meaning of the myth. Treating a myth as if it were part of a rational debate is a bit like treating a dog whistle as music. The point is not how it sounds, the point is who can hear it.

In some ways, the truth we know alone is less powerful than the lies we believe together. Shared beliefs are a form of identity, and can motivate the desired social action without being true. Consider The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This document purported to describe a Jewish plan to take over the world by subverting the morals of gentiles, taking over the banking system in order to control the world economy, taking over the press, and bringing down civilization. You can still hear the echos of this in the paranoid rantings of the extreme right.

No matter that it had nothing to do with actual Jewish activities, it motivated people to act toward 'those people' as the authors intended. It appears to have first been published in Russia in 1902, and by 1905 it had been proved to be a hoax.

But it served its purpose. Those who appear to have manufactured the hoax were also involved in inciting the Russian pogroms of 1903-1906, which cost thousands of Jews their lives and caused many more to flee Russia.

The exposure of the hoax did not prevent it from spreading. Henry Ford paid for the publication of 500,000 copies in English in 1920. By 1921, The Times of London had exposed the hoax for readers of the English edition, but it was not until 1927 that Ford apologized for this and other anti-Semitic publications. The first translation by a Muslim Arab came in 1951, three years after the foundation of Israel.

The anti-Semitic agenda was about tribalism expressed as religion, about controlling "those people," anyone who did not belong to the dominant group. There was no rational basis for pogroms or for antisemitism at all. This was not an issue of reason, it was an issue of emotion, of paranoia about those who are not part of the ruling group.

One way to become a leader is to organize the march, then position yourself at the front of it. Those who manufactured The Protocols were not just expressing their hatred, they were also using that hatred to achieve prominence.

And the themes of The Protocols are still in use. A quick online search reveals that a wide variety of conservative yakkers are pushing the idea that President Obama is trying to destroy America, or capitalism, or Israel. If they can make people afraid, they can motivate action, and be seen as leaders.

Fear is a great emotion for overcoming the restraints of reason. One reason it has not worked terribly well against our rather quiet, cerebral president is that nothing about him seems ominous, and he's good at getting people to stop and think.

Thinking is the enemy of both myth and bullshit. So, think about it.


Monday, April 20, 2015

An Improved Meerkat!

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've been messing about preparing Meerkat for this season's sailing, but I've also been mousing about in Freeship/Delphtship working on an improved Meerkat.

The new design is inspired by the fact that I've discovered a cheap source of good new sails. Intensity Sails advertises a Laser 4.7 practice sail for $125, which is less than I paid for the awful rag of an El Toro sail I designed Meerkat around. It's about 10 square feet more sail area. To make Meerkat fast with a small sail, I designed most of the stability out of it. The Meerkat 2.0 is more stable, has a flatter run, and is a foot longer, so that it's more practical to bring a companion with you when sailing.

The mast has to be farther forward to make the rig balance with the short hull, so if the boat has a foredeck the mast will step through it. I'm thinking the boat can be built lighter by omitting the air tanks and relying on flotation bags.

Although the new Meerkat is a foot longer, it's still designed to fit in the back of my little Nissan pickup truck, so it's only 4 feet wide.

I might also switch to a daggerboard to save weight, although I must say, the combination of a barn-door rudder on a skeg and a centerboard is quite nice for working off a beach.

The boat still has a flat bottom and slack bilges, based on the same faceted midsection I used on the original, but the run is straighter and the deflection angle of the bilge panels is less, so this one could be prompted to plane with a light crew and a good wind.

I think this design would be better for the novice sailor, relying more on initial stability than on crew reactions as in the original.




Monday, April 13, 2015

Empathy vs. Identity: The clash within civilizations

by John MacBeath Watkins

Why do some people kill in the name of religion?

I believe that the answer to this question is bound up in what makes us human, the empathy that gives us our moral sense and the culture that gives us our identity.

Religion gives us a sense of how the world works and of who we are. We define our identity in part by what is included and what is excluded. And while we have an identity as individuals, we are most importantly social creatures. Our identity is bound up in the group we belong to, and is defined, in part, on the groups we exclude.

A psychologist once told me that people need three things to be happy: Someone or something to love, someone or something to hate, and something to belong to. Sometimes this manifests itself in being a fan of a football team and beating up people who are fans of the other team. And perhaps we should feel grateful for such petty concerns, because when the thing you belong to is a religion, the battles can get larger.

Religion, for most of the Evangelical Christians I know, is about their relationship with God. But consider the weird world of white supremacists, in which the Christian Identity movement added a whole mythology about race that does not exist in the Bible. They teach that whites are descended from Adam, and that Eve had sex with Satan and conceived Cain. The Bible says nothing about the race of the brothers, and it gives no indication that Eve ever had sex with Satan or conceived a child by him. All the Christians I've known have assumed that they were both fathered by Adam and were obviously of the same race.

Yet the mythology of the Christian Identity Church asserts many things that are not in the Bible, but reinforce their belief in themselves as a tribe of the pure, as being better because they are white, even if they are failures as people. Timothy McVeigh, who killed a lot of people when he bombed the Oklahoma City Federal building, was heavily influenced by the Christian Identity movement. It allowed him to think of his victims as somehow less than human, not worthy of his empathy. Their pain and their deaths meant nothing to him.

But we could not be social creatures if we did not have a strong instinctive aversion to killing each other.
Human beings have certain safeguards built into them. It's really rather difficult for most people to kill someone, for example. People drive around in powerful wheeled missiles every day, yet most of them manage to get through their day without killing anyone, despite how easy it would be, showing just how kind, considerate and careful people really are.

Our moral sense is based on empathy, our ability to know how others are feeling. We can understand the importance of the Golden Rule, to treat others as we wish to be treated, because we have the ability to feel the pain we ourselves inflict. This is why psychopaths are so disturbing -- they don't feel the pain they inflict. For most of us, conditioning a person to kill involves a major psychological shift. We have to stop thinking of the person we are killing as human. The means to do this are well established in many cultures. You give the enemy a name -- the Hun, the Commie, the Fuzzy-Wuzzy -- that defines them as different from your group, not quite human. You portray your own side as being on the side of the angels, and pray to God for victory.

Because this is about tribalism, it need not include religion. Portrayals of Germans as "the Hun" in Great War propaganda are as relevant to tribalism as are the Islamic State and Al Qaeda calling American troops "crusaders."

Islamic State's propaganda magazine, Dabiq, put it this way: There is “no third camp present: The camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy — the camp of the Muslims and the mujahideen everywhere, and the camp of the jews, the crusaders, their allies, and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America and Russia.”

I suppose some in the Arab world are still fighting the Crusades just as some in the American South are still fighting the Civil War. For them, it didn't end with the defeat of the crusaders' Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1291, there was pretty much continuous warfare between Arab and Christian empires for hundreds more years. When the Turks lost the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, their opponents didn't call themselves crusaders, but they did call themselves the Holy League. When the expansion of the Ottoman Empire was stopped at the Battle of Vienna, it was the culmination of a 300-year struggle between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Turks. While the Reformation resulted in the rise of secular states in the West, the Ottoman Empire continued to dominate the Arab world until it was dissolved in 1922, and the impetus for its dissolution came from the West.

This makes it easier to understand why George Washington's administration negotiated a treaty with the Bey of Algiers that stated that America is not a Christian nation and has no argument with Muslims. (The language, found in Article 11 of the treaty negotiated under Washington and approved unanimously by the senate and signed by President John Adams was as follows: "As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.")

It may have seemed quaint at the time that the Bey was still worried about whether America was a Christian nation, and a potential source of crusaders, but we now have people both in Muslim countries and in America making exactly the claim that George Washington, John Adams, and the entire U.S. Senate near the founding of our country rejected -- that America is a Christian nation.

Osama bin Laden's second fatwa, in 1998, referred to its four signors as the "World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders," and concerned itself mainly with American activities in the Middle East, including its support for Israel. Osama bin Laden clearly thought America was a Christian nation, and opposed its presence in Saudi Arabia for that reason.

For bin Laden, all Christians were Crusaders, and although secular states allow people to follow their own religious conscience, only states that do not do this -- states that dictate only Islam is the true religion -- are legitimate. He was worried about the Muslim world being seduced by Western ways. For him, religion was not just a personal relationship with God, it defined who were true people, and who were false people. Religion for him was a tribal marker, not personal salvation.

The problem was how to convince people in his own world of this. He hoped to accomplish this by coordinating a horrendous act -- attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the (failed) attack on the nation's capital -- in hopes of provoking a response that would put American troops in Arab nations, and start a war between those nations and America.

This is not too different from Timothy McVeigh's notion that blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people and injuring another 880, he could start the sort of race war depicted in The Turner Diaries, a novel written by a former leader of the National Alliance, a white nationalist organization. The book, which McVeigh sold at gun shows and sometimes gave away, depicted the overthrow of the U.S. government and ultimately the extermination of Jews, homosexuals, non-whites, and others the author deemed impure.

The objectification of government workers as the enemy enabled McVeigh to suspend any empathy he may have possessed and kill them in large numbers. For bin Laden, the issue was not even that some of the people working in the World Trade Center were Muslim, their association with a global system of commerce dominated by the "crusaders" of the western nations made them less then human, things that could be sacrificed to the goal of a conflict between the groups as he defined them.

The lesson I take from this is to make sure we do not suspend our empathy, or make objects of those we must deal with. In World War II, military planners were distressed to find that only about 20% of our troops were actually engaged in shooting at the enemy during battles. By Viet Nam, pretty much all the troops involved were shooting at the enemy, in part because of changes we made in training.

But consider this. After the battle of Gettysburg, 85% if the rifles found were loaded, and 30,000 muskets -- that's 40% -- contained multiple loads. Given the usual cycle of firing a musket, very little of the time would one be loaded, and very seldom would someone put more than one load in by mistake. But if you were in a line of infantry with muzzle loaders, everyone could tell if you were loading, but when the guns went off, who could tell if you were firing? Furthermore, who could tell if you were firing high? And when you compare the number of people killed in battles between lines of infantry to the results of lines of infantry firing against non-human targets, it becomes evident that many must have deliberately aimed not to hit their targets.

One would think that such desertions in place would make an army ineffective. But German WW I veterans advised the next generation fighting in WW II to "do your duty and surrender to the first American you see," as Kevin Grossman noted in his fine book, On Killing. And U.S. Grant's troops may have hesitated to kill their opponents, but he took more prisoners than any other general in the war. Part of this is because he preferred to cut off the enemy rather than annihilate them, but part of this is because the prospective prisoners were more likely to surrender to an army that thought of them as human.

We should also not allow ourselves to be defined by our enemies. Those in my country who wish to define us as a "Christian nation" may not realize it, but they are dupes acting just as the radical Islamists want them to. We do not win by adopting this tribal view of religion as identity, because those are not the values on which this country was founded, and they are not the difference we have from past civilizations. The difference is that we allow freedom, so that people can worship as they wish without the law dictating their faith to them. We win when we recognize other human beings as human beings.