This entry of John's blog is pretty short, and pretty pithy, so I'm just going to copy the whole thing here.
John Derbyshire, unlike John Reilly, is rather a pessimist; John Reilly described himself as an inveterate optimist, and the mission of his blog was to view everything in the best possible light. Twelve years on, it is pretty clear the Reilly was more right about this little snippet than Derbyshire, Israel just keeps getting stronger. Lots of people hate the Jews, but the Jews seem pretty good at looking out for their own interests, and their immediate enemies seem feckless.
The rather more interesting part of this entry is the purported weakness of capitalist democracies. In his book review of A Republic not an Empire, John pointed out that a likely consequence of a German victory in WWI would have been to discredit the idea of capitalist democracies like Great Britain and the United States. In fact, that is not what happened, although we have no good reason to think it inevitable. Post-Cold War, it looks like Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama were on to something. All of the other theories of how to organize a state have been tried and found wanting. I think this is true even though China is currently surging in wealth and power. [you can blame John for my pessimism on China too.]
Democracies, when it really comes down to it, can be truly terrible opponents. Athens destoyed Melos for refusing to submit to their suzerainty. My own county is the only country to have ever used a nuclear weapon in anger. And then we used another one, to make sure both designs worked. And we firebombed the civilian populations of our enemies long before we had nuclear weapons, resulting in far more deaths. Jerry Pournelle calls this WARRE, "war to the knife, war to victory, fire bombs, nuclear weapons, death and destruction." Democracies, when threatened, respond the same way a mother does when you threaten her children: all rules are forgotten, and only victory matters. Kill them all and let God sort them out.
Finally, John touches on how South Africa avoided the fate of Rhodesia. Nelson Mandela certainly helped, although maybe not in the way you think. The collapse of the USSR was a bigger factor, as this allowed the Afrikaners to negotiate their way out instead of being lynched. Instead, we now have a slow-motion ethnic cleansing, as more and more Afrikaners are leaving South Africa, as they feel increasingly insecure and unwelcome. Neill Blomkamp keeps trying to make this point, but nobody is interested in listening.
John Derbyshire's column of January 31 in National Review Online [NB. I changed the link to point to Derbyshire's site, since the original link is broken], Israel's Future has this depressing assessment:"I had better step out front and center here and admit that I am a pessimist…I think Israel will go down. The reason I think this is that I am British, and have been watching all my life, occasionally at very close quarters, the long struggle between the two constitutional nations of the British Isles and the terrorists of Sin Fein/IRA…The IRA now has offices in the House of Commons!"
The IRA, says John Derbyshire, graduated from terrorist to lobbyist through a combination of relentlessness, ruthlessness, and the fact that they do have a plausible case. Their argument for Irish unity may not be ultimately persuasive, but the mere existence of an argument can have a lethally debilitating effect on a democratic political system.
There is something to this. It seems to me that we are often inhibited from using decisive force against terrorists because of a category mistake about the principle, "violence never solves anything." It is true that violence does not answer questions of fact or logic; you cannot determine whether pi is greater than 3 by fighting a duel. On the other hand, violence can indeed determine whether people achieve their desires or not. Sophisticated terrorists purport to be interested in answering questions, but actually they are simply asserting themselves.
That said, though, I take exception to Derbyshire's premise. It is not true that capitalist democracies are particularly gullible, much less fragile.
Ever since such societies began to appear, their critics and enemies (groups that do not always overlap) have characterized democracies as weak and decadent. Democracies are supposed to be incapable of fighting wars. Supposedly they cannot maintain ordinary domestic peace, much less combat foreign subversion. Furthermore, they create the seeds of their own destruction. Every crisis is potentially lethal; it is only a matter of time before a crisis is actually fatal.
As General Norman Schwartzkopf said in that famous news conference at the conclusion of the Gulf War of 1991, "Ha!" The fact is that capitalist democracies are the most resilient societies that exist; maybe the most resilient that can exist. They have destroyed or eroded to dust all the great totalitarian monoliths that sought to supplant them. Sometimes democracies did this by direct assault, sometimes by patience. They can endure through economic hardships that shatter the most fearsome dictatorships. Democracies are mortal, of course, and they are not self-legitimizing: simply establishing a democracy does not mean that it will strike root. Nonetheless, even troubled democracies have an excellent record of fighting off deadly threats, terrorists included.
So why is a lobbyist from the IRA buttonholing MPs? The short answer is that the game of terrorism was no longer worth the candle. Elements of the IRA used to have all kinds of Khmer Rouge ambitions for the Ireland they hoped to create. By the 1990s, however, it was clear that all that remained to fight about was which province of the European Union that Ulster would belong to. Borders just don't mean that much in Europe anymore, including the one between the North and the Republic of Ireland. The IRA still has crank notions, but they see little point in blowing up perfectly good pubs to achieve them.
Possibly the greatest example of peace-through-irrelevance was the end of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Since the 1950s, it was obvious that the shrinking white minority could not continue to rule the country indefinitely. Nonetheless, the government did everything it could to exacerbate the situation. Meanwhile, the radicals of the world licked their lips when they contemplated The Day, when the revolution would arrive in Johannesburg and the mass executions could begin. In the event, though, reason broke out in both the government and the African National Conference at the end of the 1980s, and they negotiated a frictionless transition.
Western human-rights activists like to take credit for the South African government's change of heart, much to the annoyance of activists in South Africa, militant and otherwise. The fact is, though, that Apartheid was able to die because the Cold War ended. The government understood that the Soviet Union would not subsidize the creation of a new communist state, like the one it helped create in Ethiopia. The ANC understood that, if their new regime hoped to get any support at all, it would have to come from the West. The stakes became manageably small.
There are occasions in history when disputes are settled by what Toynbee called a "knockout blow." Sometimes a state or class so completely annihilates another that later archeologists have to search very carefully to find any trace of the defeated. At least as common, however, are cases where the issues and even the desires that engaged the protagonists just don't mean much anymore. With the decline of national sovereignty, this kind of resolution becomes easier and easier. It is hard to see how this could happen in the Middle East, but don't write the possibility off.
Phil Dick was a friend of Tim Powers. Thus this book review is really favorite authors squared. John Reilly reviewed a seminal novel by a man who influenced one of my favorite fiction writers. I think I first read this review before Powers became one of my favorite writers, but I remembered it when that time came.
Tim Powers writes secret histories, which are a little different than alternative histories. Yet I think you can see Dick's influence in Three Days to Never. Powers often muses on the way things might have been. This is a theme that has often occupied John Reilly as well. They both take seriously the idea that our choices have consequences, even though the world around us seems to move in discernable patterns. We are neither wholly free nor wholly constrained, but seem to fall somewhere inbetween.
The Man in the High Castle
By Philip K. Dick
Quality Paperback Book Club 2001
Originally Published 1962
See Amazon link below
for ISBN and possible prices.
Was Philip Dick (1928-1982) a prophet who was tortured to death by searing insights into the posthuman condition, or was he just an amphetamine-addled hack who died of paranoia as his prose was about to decay into 100% psychotic drivel? Dick was actually a fairly successful science-fiction writer, but most of us know him from films loosely based on his work. He received enormous, though posthumous, critical attention, probably too much for his reputation's long-term good. This novel is where his extraordinary reputation starts.
There are alternative-history stories much older than "The Man in the High Castle," even one or two novels, but this book established alternative history as a genre. The premise, which has since been done to death, is that the Axis won the Second World War. It is not at all clear how this happened. We know that Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated in his first term as president of the United States, which had some effect on American preparedness. The US entered the war after a completely successful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. During the war, which lasted until 1947, New York and San Francisco were badly damaged. In the aftermath, the United States east of the Rockies became a German satellite, while the Pacific states constituted a federation that was part of the Japanese Co-Prosperity sphere. Only the strip of Rocky Mountain states was left independent, no doubt as a buffer zone.
The book has two chief plot lines. One involves an attempt by German dissidents to contact the Japanese military. This serves to demonstrate the ni.htmlare state of the world, in which the worse villains prove to be the less dangerous. The other leads to a trip to see the author of a best-selling alternative-history novel, "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy," which describes a world in which the Axis lost the Second World War. (That author is, of course, "the man in the high castle," though by the time we meet him he is living in a sensible stucco ranch house.) That plot line shows the way out of the ni.htmlare.
Ingenious devices link these threads. There is a shop of Americana items: all are supposedly of historical interest, but many are of doubtful authenticity. There are vivid characters and many original ideas. There are also flashes of anomalous mentation, such as this:
"She said, speaking slowly and painstakingly, 'Hair creates bear who removes spots in nakedness.'"
Restrictions on the possession of some drugs are sound public policy
- 8 minutes
- 1000m run
- 165# max deadlifts
- 10 minutes
- 1200m run
- 115# max power cleans
- 12 minutes
- 1200m run
- 65# max OHS
Times and Reps 5:27/10, 7:27/9, 7:18/12
More alternative history from John. Often, the main thrust of his thinking was that the world could have been very much worse than it was, even though it was frequently awful. Hitler may have been a bad leader, but Himmler would have probably been worse....
On July 20, 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler by placing a bomb in the conference room at the East Prussia command center where Hitler was holding a meeting. The bomb went off and von Stauffenberg telephoned to his confederates in Berlin that Hitler had been killed. The conspirators had planned to stage a coup, using elements of the skeletal Home Army in Germany, perhaps supported by some of the generals on the Western Front. However, the would-be putschists in Berlin dithered for several hours, trying to get confirmation that Hitler was really dead. They did not seize the government ministries, or the telephone exchanges, or even the radio stations. When Goebbels was able to confirm that Hitler was alive and convince the army units in Berlin of this fact, the coup collapsed in short order. Apparently, all that saved Hitler's life was the absent-minded placement by his adjutant of the bomb from one side of a wooden table support to the other. Suppose the bomb had not been moved, and Hitler had been killed?
The conspirators had some foggy notion that they might be able to surrender to the Allies in the west, or at least negotiate a withdrawal to Germany's western border, while continuing to fight defensive battles in the east. Certainly they had gone much further in sounding out the western commanders about their attitude to a coup, though in some ways the most forceful member of the anti-Hitler network involved in the assassination attempt was Major General Henning von Tresckow of Army Group Center on the Eastern Front. (They had also attempted covert negotiations with both the Anglo-Americans and the Russians. They managed to talk to unofficial representatives of both sides, but without results.)
Objectively speaking, something like this might have been possible. The military position of Germany in July 1944 was grim. At the beginning of the month, the Russians had crossed the pre-war eastern border of Poland. Hitler was having that conference in East Prussia because the Russians were only about 60 klicks from the province. In the west, the Anglo-Americans were breaking out of Normandy, and Paris would fall in August. Still, the Germans were far from beaten. Armaments production, for instance, peaked in July. In the months before Germany finally surrendered, they would stabilize the situation more than once, and even conduct some notable offensives. In other words, they still had something to bargain with, and both sides knew it.
Bryan Caplan is a popular blogger and economist at George Mason University. Caplan was recently interviewed on EconTalk about the value of a college education. Short version: a college education doesn't have much intrinsic value. I'm simplifying a bit, but only a bit. Caplan argues that higher education is more important for sorting out the smart and hard-working from the rest than in teaching anything specific. Of course, I might very well say that. I skipped out on grad school and went into the workforce precisely because I was convinced that more school wouldn't make me any smarter, or teach me anything useful. Of course, I also hated academia.
The signaling theory of education is nothing new to me. I've certainly pooh-poohed American higher education on multiple occasions here. However, it is easy to go too far. Caplan is too careful to say one learns nothing in college. What he is saying is that overall, and for the most part, specific skills are less important than intelligence, the capacity to work hard, and a willingness to play by the rules. These are the things college selects for. These are also correlates of success in America and similar societies.
On the other hand, I can certainly point you to plenty of disgruntled college graduates who cannot readily find work because they have the wrong degree. So there is a sense in which college functions in this signalling fashion that Caplan posits, but there is another sense in which employers, particularly in the much-vaunted STEM fields, really do expect college graduates to know things, very specific things. Personal experience suggests to me that this tendency is perhaps somewhat stronger than necessary to ensure competence, but one needs to understand the difference between ability and skill, or potentia and actualia. Since Caplan is an economist, perhaps he can look at the opportunity cost of hiring an able but unskilled graduate.
[Caplan] The human capital story says that you go to school; they actually teach you a bunch of useful jobs skills; you then finish and the labor market rewards you because you are now able to do more stuff. The signaling model says, no, no, no, no; that's not what's going on. What's going on is that people go to school; they don't actually learn a lot of useful stuff; however, the whole educational process filters out the people who wouldn't have been very good workers. So people who are lower intelligence, lower in work ethic, lower in conformity--those people tend to not do very well in school. They drop out. They get bad grades. And that's why the labor market cares. It's not that the school actually transforms you to a good worker from a bad worker. It's that the schooling, the school puts a little sticker on your head--you know, Grade A student, Grade B student, Grade C student.
[Interviewer] I have a natural skepticism about it. And I think a lot of labor economists do as well. And the reason is that it's an extremely expensive signal. So, you are saying, for 4 years, I give up the chance to work; I pay this tuition, whether it's $5000 or $10,000, or $30,000, or $40,000--at a private university. And for that enormous amount of money, I prove that I am a good worker and I get a sticker on my head. Wouldn't there be an easier, cheaper way to get the sticker? If all it's doing is measuring ability, this 4-year slog that's extremely expensive? That's the best way that people have come up with to get the sticker?
[Caplan] Yes, it's an arms race. And the fact, if it is a fact, the private return is high is really a very bad argument for pouring more money on. Now, the other point, as we were saying, the return that you should be looking at in terms of this argument of not being able to borrow against your future earnings--what you are looking at is return for the marginal people who are just on the edge of going or not going. And as we've seen, the return for those people is actually not, is actually quite mediocre. And then finally if you adjust for ability and everything else, really I would say that once you appreciate signaling you realize that, so we have subsidized education way past the point of [?] returns. So by my calculations, actually, the social return to education is now quite negative. And it would be a much better policy to drastically scale it back, so rather than encouraging more people to go, I think it's better to discourage them from going or at least to encourage them less. So in fact--so, the biggest policy implication that's going to come out of my book is we just have way too much education. I call this the white elephant in the room. There are way too many people going to school, maybe not from their own selfish point of view, but certainly from a social point of view to go and pour more money on this really is just throwing gasoline on the fire. And we need to do less of it.