The Long View 2007-11-13: Holy Demographics; The Markets & The Surge; The Return of the Emperor of the Last Days; Federal Cases
That Jerry Pournelle and John J. Reilly were both of the opinion in 2007 that prison sentences were too harsh is a remarkable lost opportunity.
Holy Demographics; The Markets & The Surge; The Return of the Emperor of the Last Days; Federal Cases
Iran is spoiling for a fight with the US, according to Spengler at Asia Times, and his many fans are already familiar with his explanation for why:
Iran's demographic catastrophe in the making, I have long argued, impels Tehran to stake its claim for regional empire quickly, while it still has the manpower to do so...[What] about the sources of Iran's extremely low birth rate, [which are] much lower, in fact, than that of most of Western Europe. Iran's extremely low birth rate resembles the Ukraine or Belarus more than it does Denmark. One explanation is demoralization and degradation, including prostitution on an alarming scale...The question is: why is the human race reproducing at below-replacement levels in the first place? Along with Phillip Longman and others, I contend that the decline of religious faith lies at the root of the problem. Without the hope of eternal life, humankind cannot abide its earthly existence, and ceases to propagate. Iran's demographic implosion implies the erosion of the faith of traditional society.
Spengler's thesis is that Europe is curling up and dying from the enervating effects of secularism. Granted that the foundations of traditional society have been shaken in Iran, that country is still ruled by card-carrying theocrats, with some popular support. Much of the opposition consists of dissident clerics. Spengler's model would seem to predict that the population should be breeding like rabbits, at least compared to Europeans.
As I have elsewhere suggested, there seems to be more than one kind of political millenarianism: the revolutionary kind that is familiar to us from medieval and early-modern history in the West, and the nihilistic kind that, perhaps, afflicted China toward the end of the Latter Han and the Qing Dynasties. Something like the second kind of millenarianism may be affecting the twilight stage of what the real Spengler called Magian Culture.
Perhaps this is too much metahistorical dynamics for some tastes, but the matter does require an explanation.
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In an attempt to cause public panic, National Public Radio has been running dubiously reliable stories about the economic impact of climate change. I am not quite sure that Food First is the fear-mongering group I heard on NPR recently, but I do know that NPR broadcast commentary to this effect, which I take from Food First's website:
Advocating for local food requires reexamining the deeply held economic theory of competitive advantage, which holds that each region should specialize in producing only what it can produce most cheaply, then trade with other regions for everything else. However, traditional economic calculations do not account for the true environmental cost of trade. For example, the potentially cataclysmic impacts of climate change mean that the environmental costs of transporting goods long distances are much higher than previously thought.
I would have to be shown the math before I could believe this statement. If it's cheaper to import bananas to a temperate-zone city than to grow them locally, that should be another way of saying that less fuel is needed to ship the bananas than would be needed to heat the greenhouse in which the bananas would otherwise be grown.
Prices are information. Please pay attention.
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Speaking of millenarianism with political potential, I note with interest the development of the eschatological role of the prophet Elijah by Britt Gillette, an eschatologist who has already incorporated the Singularity and nanotechnology into the evangelical End Time scenario:
First and foremost, this passage [Malachi 4:1-6 (NLT) ] describes the great Day of Judgment of the Lord Almighty...This event, "the great and dreadful day of Lord," is the one which will be preceded by the coming of the prophet Elijah.
The interesting point is that this writer has essentially recapitulated the motif of the Emperor of the Last Days, who figured so large in medieval eschatological scenarios. This figure, normally conceived of as a Holy Roman Emperor, was supposed to put the world to rights, through ordinary politics, before the supernaturally driven End Time began. The Emperor of the Last Days opened a conceptual space in which a period of social and religious reform seemed not just possible but mandated.
A strange discovery: I tried using several search engines to find links to a site that explains the Emperor, but I cannot find a good reference. This is peculiar because the subject is not at all obscure in medieval studies.
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But if prices are information, what are we to say of this assessment in the New York Times: In the Bond Market, a Bleak Prognosis for Iraq?
Comparing the yields on Iraqi bonds from the start of the surge in February to late August, [Michael Greenstone, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] calculated that the bondholders implicitly raised the chances of an Iraqi bond default by 40 percent. Over that period, Iraqi bond prices fell about 14 percent -- as much as the Confederate cotton bonds fell after the battle of Gettysburg...[He] knows that the late-summer turmoil in global bond markets because of the subprime housing problems and the ensuing credit crisis could complicate his analysis..[but notes that] while the bond-market turmoil affected all kinds of debt, the plunge in the value of Iraqi bonds has been much worse.
Well, one thing we might say is that the assessment in question was written by one Austan Goolsbee, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business who is advising the campaign of Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. If this is the worst news about Iraq that Senator Obama's handlers can find, then the situation in that country cannot be desperate.
Here's a recent interview with Michael Greenstone, by the way. He does not say what the bond prices are now, when the Surge is generally conceded to have succeeded. He also tells us that he got the bond prices from a "financial data vendor."
Actually, I found this item because I was trying to find out what effect the rise in oil prices is having on Iraqi politics. There is still no agreement in Baghdad on the distribution of the rising oil revenues. However, the thought occurred to me that one reason the country is so much quieter could be that the thoughts of the major players are turning from jihad and feud to the consolations of petrolism. Maybe.
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Finally, Jerry Pournelle is fed up with arbitrarily high federal prison sentences:
It used to be that a federal crime was a serious matter. There was a sort of apologetic air about having to use tax evasion as the only way to bust Al Capone, as if that weren't quite fair, but after all, he was a notorious criminal, Illinois wasn't going to do anything, and this was all the feds could get him on....I don't believe in federal crimes for anything less than treason and terrorism. Perhaps really grand corruption, but even then it's more a state matter...Now it's 20 years for 63 grams (2.2 ounces of crack).
I take his point that federal criminal law is far too harsh, though we should recall that the criminal penalties imposed by the states have also expanded beyond all reason. I take exception, though, to the notion that the difference between state and federal criminal law has ever been that federal law treats matters more serious than those treated by state law. Federal criminal law has always been supposed to be about activities that, by their nature, are national or at least interstate. These may actually involve questions that, by any reasonable measure, are less serious than those handled by state law. Murder with an ax is a violation of state law; dumping the body into the Ohio River violates federal laws against dumping animal products into a national waterway. (Well, if it doesn't, it should.)
There has to be some overlap between state and federal jurisdiction. It makes sense, for instance, that an assault on a federal official should be a federal crime, even if it can also be prosecuted under state law. I agree, though, that most of the drug and firearms-possession cases do not belong in federal court. Last year, at about this time, I was a juror in federal district court in Newark. The case dealt with gun possession pure and simple: no shooting, no drugs, no anthrax, no espionage. It was a mystery why the federal attorney chose to prosecute it. I was able to remark to the judge afterward that I was surprised that the matter was not before the county Superior Court. He said he was surprised, too.
Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly
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