The Many versus the Few: Who Do We Trust as Guardians of Liberty

Preliminary thoughts:

In Chapter V of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, he asks the above question: is it better to have the aristocracy or the commoners act as guardians of liberty? His answer: a good case can be made for either. Reason gives one answer – the commoners – while experience seems to favor the aristocracy. His examples for having the aristocracy guard liberty are Sparta and Venice, while the common people guarded it in Rome. Since the liberty of both Sparta and Venice lasted longer than the liberty of Rome, experience favors that approach. But if you want a more active government, one not merely concerned with protecting the liberty of a single city-state but of a larger republic and, eventually, an empire, then the people are the better guardians.

So says Machiavelli. The reader will wonder, I suppose, in what sense liberty under Sparta, Venice, and Rome are the same thing. I certainly do, and note that, if forced to choose, I’d take my liberty under Rome or, maybe, Venice, way before I would take whatever is considered liberty under Sparta.

What liberty means here is a huge question I don’t intend to consider at moment. Instead, let’s look at Machiavelli’s reasons:

As touching reasons, it may be pleaded for the Roman method, that they are most fit to have charge of a thing, who least desire to pervert it to their own ends. And, doubtless, if we examine the aims which the nobles and the commons respectively set before them, we shall find in the former a great desire to dominate, in the latter merely a desire not to be dominated over, and hence a greater attachment to freedom, since they have less to gain than the others by destroying it. Wherefore, when the commons are put forward as the defenders of liberty, they may be expected to take better care of it, and, as they have no desire to tamper with it themselves, to be less apt to suffer others to do so.

So, Machiavelli asserts that we commons have “merely a desire not to be dominated over” and thus won’t be tempted to use our guardianship of liberty to lord it over others. Hmmm.

When I look in the mirror, I do see a guy who mostly wants the government to leave him alone. I don’t want any power over others, and I wish no one, as much as reasonably possible, to have power over me. I fully recognize the necessity and even goodness of laws, and the need, therefore, of those with the power to execute them. But, after Thomas and Aristotle, I want those laws to be few, known by all, and an expression of our best understanding of the will of God (or the natural aspirations of the good man, in Aristotle’s case).

All this had me contemplating our own government at its founding. Jefferson had a copy of the Discourses in his library, and it seems he and the drafters of the Constitution did, in fact, intend to make the commoners the guardians of liberty after the fashion of the Romans. At first, the Roman Senate, backed into a corner, granted merely the veto to the plebs. Eventually, an inch at a time, most offices and honors were open to the little people. But this opening up to the commoners of the opportunity to have for themselves the same roles as the aristocracy seems more a safety valve than a safeguard of liberty: it’s an early version of Jefferson’s natural aristocracy, the recognition that ambitious men of achievement can arise anywhere. By allowing ambitious and talented commoners to satisfy their desire for honor and achievement, the Romans – and us, I suppose – channel ambition in a constructive, or at least, a less destructive, course.

But for the rest of us, who desire nothing more from our role in government than to be left in peace, what we want, or should want, is merely the veto, as it were, merely the ability to say ‘no’ to the ambitions of the aristocracy, whether it is natural or inherited.

I think that’s how we should view the House, and that’s why Senators, Electors, and Presidents were not to be elected by popular vote. It’s accepting the humility of ambitions that should go along with the humility of goals: if all we really want is to be left in peace, then we shouldn’t be voting on the basis of foreign policy or military strategy or any other complex issue we can’t possibly be expected to have any understanding of, given that we vote every two years at the most, and hardly discuss these matters in between elections, and don’t even get election day off from work!

If we merely said: I want one of us there, to keep an eye on these ambitious jokers, and so I’ll focus my duty on just picking some person for the local House seat who will yell veto when the time comes. I don’t even want to get involved in the big issues I have no time, talent, or inclination to study enough to begin to understand them.

Because these two goals are incompatible: to be responsible for the election of executives and aristocrats based on issues we have no hope or interest in understanding, and wanting to be left in peace.

We meddle, they meddle. Mostly, they meddle by incessant demagoguery. We can hardly complain that they aren’t leaving us alone.

Political Stupidity

One often hears or thinks, when being afflicted by the latest ‘news’: just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse… Implied here is some floor, some level of stupid or bad beyond which any more stupidity or badness is simply unthinkable. Well, I’m here to break the bad news: We’re not close yet. Things can get just a whole lot more stupid and evil.

To illustrate – and, I’m doing this from memory and am not going to look it up, because I’m just going for the general outline here – let’s look at the events leading up to Alaric’s sacking of Rome, as told by R. A. Lafferty in his book The Fall of Rome (reviewed here).

First, start with some very shrewd politics – what one might expect from the Roman empire: the practice of hostage exchanges. You, the Roman Emperor, would arrange to send ‘exchange students’ as it were, to the courts of the leaders of your allies who supply your ‘auxiliary’ troops; they send you some as well, to live at your court. These hostages were the roughly teenage sons of the leading families.

Golden coin depicting man with diadem facing right
Honorius. Manages to look like a goof
on his own coin.

Thus, the Romans had natural spies – a 15 year old Roman nobleman had most likely already been sent on diplomatic missions by his patrician father, and in any event had been raised from the cradle to be a Roman, with all the discipline and focus that ideal entails. Meanwhile, the barbarian noble boys were sent to Rome (or Constantinople) to be overawed by Roman greatness and to be made into Romans as much as possible.

The Romans would get back detailed reports on their ‘allies’ while sending back young men who, it was hoped, had learned to fear, admire, and yearn for Rome.

It even kind of worked.

Now, around 390, Theodosius has at his court a group of Goth and Vandal boys to train up – and makes, according to Lafferty, the extraordinary decision to train them up to be true leaders, going so far as to tell them that any one of them could end up Master General or even emperor, and thus needed to be prepared to lead and rule.

Stilicho, Theodosius’s Master General and one of history’s most impressive characters, had some part in this. He was a one-man advertisement for the greatness and goodness of the Empire: a Vandal lord, yet more Roman than Caesar and more Catholic than the Pope. He was the kind of man who could step into a room full of hardened soldiers and silence them with a glance. His will was iron, and his bravery and prowess the stuff of legend. He and the emperor shared the belief that the Empire was the chosen tool of God to preserve and propagate the Faith, and knew they had to bring the barbarians into the process for it to succeed.

Awesome, and not stupid or evil. It’s what happens next that establishes my personal ‘how bad can it get?’ floor:

Theodosius had two sons, and the Empire was split between them upon his death in 394. Honorius got the Western half, and got Stilicho as his guardian and major general. As one might imagine, the Vandal lord kept a lid on things and held the Empire together for as long as he could. One problem: Honorius had also inherited an advisor named Olympius, who makes Heath Leger’s Joker look like a well adjusted man.

Olympius was evidently very shrewd and good at his job, after a fashion. He was evidently also a sociopath, and the father of intrigues that, according to Lafferty, were so convoluted and involved we moderns couldn’t begin to follow them. Olympius’s goals seemed to be destroying his enemies and seeing how far he could take it. He doesn’t seem to have had or even cared about an end game.

Thus, when he go the chance, he destroyed Stilicho. He had the manifestly incompetent emperor call the master general to court in Ravenna to answer some charges. Stilicho’s friends, seeing an obvious plot, implored him to simply declare himself emperor – he had the army behind him, was clearly being set up, and the emperor was clearly incompetent and being manipulated. Better to save himself and the Empire!

Instead, Stilicho obeyed the emperor’s command, as he had done his whole life. Olympius had him and his family murdered, thus removing the one man who had the will and power to preserve the Empire.

But – and here’s where the evil/stupid becomes incomprehensible: the Visigoths, who, under Alaric and his relatives, made up a critical piece of Rome’s army, had, under the influence of the training they had received as hostages, become, in their own minds, Romans. They spoke Latin, and many of the commanders and soldiers had settled their families in Italy.

Olympius first murders the one man the Visigoths, an armed force in his own land, feared and respected. Then murders his family. Then allowed, and most likely encouraged, the murder of all the Visigoth families living in Italy. Rome for the Romans! the murders cried, not admitting that Rome was still Roman at least in part because the Visigoths had fought to preserve it!

So now you have 30,000 battle-hardened troops in your own country who you’ve incited to very understandable murderous rage while at the same time having murdered the one man with any chance of defeating them – because? Ravenna itself was both impossibly well defended – not that Alaric didn’t try, but the land all about the city was a swampy mess- and well-supplied by ship with grain from Africa.

How did Olympius think this was going to play out? He’s now stuck in Ravenna, everybody with the possible exception of the emperor hating his guts for having gotten them into this situation, with an enraged army at his gates. Did he expect the murder of the Visigoth women and children to blow over, somehow? It’s incomprehensible.

So Alaric, enraged but still a shrewd general, decides he needs to go to Africa, defeat the general there in charge of sending food to Ravenna, and then return to besiege the city to starve Olympius out.

But he needed cash to get the ships.

The Eternal City had cash, and was hardly on the Visigoths’ good side at this point.

Thus Alaric, who had earlier come to think of himself as a Roman and a defender of Rome, who had risked death and lead armies in the defense of the Empire, found himself leading an army to destroy Rome.

The Visigoths did sack Rome, and then headed toward the southern coast to get their ships – and then Alaric died. Honorius also soon died, and his successors promptly had Olympius clubbed to death. The Visigoths, their blood-lust slaked somewhat with the sacking of Rome and death of Olympius, were essentially bough off with Spain, where they settled and became farmers.

Olympius is my floor for stupid/evil politics.

We’re not there yet. I wish I were confident we’re not headed in that direction.

Anybody got a lower floor? I’m afraid to hear it…

Contact Payment

In finance, the concept is that you may want to give people zero payments for, say, the initial 6 months, as an enticement to take on more debt, or over the winter if it’s equipment that requires decent weather to be useful. But if what you’re financing is portable, you don’t want to find out in month 7 that it has wandered off never to be seen again. So, it’s common for the financing of trucks, construction equipment, and other high value and mobile assets to structure the financing with almost zero payments. That $100 payment check is a ‘contact payments’ to let the finance company know the people with the equipment are still there.

Consider this a contact payment. I’m still here!

A. You may heard we’re having a little wildfire trouble out here in California.

Why yes, yes we are.

Confluence of forces: Very hot, dry weather for 2 out of the last 3 weeks; Fairly wet year 2 years ago produced tons of brush; comparatively dry year last year dried it all out; decades of bad forest management have left many areas choked with dead and dying trees; an utterly freak and huge lightening storm ran through the state 3 weeks ago, starting thousands of fires; wind have been strong off and on, fanning the flames.

Over 2M acres burned. Now add winds similar in nature to the famous Santa Anna winds: air heats up in higher elevations, then ‘overflows’ down into lower elevations. Compressed by higher pressure at lower elevations as it flows downhill, it gets even warmer.

Then it hits the fires. Bad news. One outcome of this: a huge fire in the foothills of the Sierra east of here had its ash – lots of fuel in the foothill, the usual brush plus millions of dead trees – pushed east to west against prevailing winds by the winds coming down out of the mountains. To us, in other words.

So a long and an flukish set of circumstances resulted in this:

9 in the morning, can’t find the disc of the Sun in the sky. Orange sky, everything coated with ash
Can’t see much in this picture – that’s the point. The blinds are mostly closed because the sun is typically very bright in this room. Had to turn on lights to see what we’re doing in the middle of the day.

B. Have been wearing my ‘Make Orwell Fiction Again’ long black mask whenever I feel compelled to diaper up for the sake of not getting more or less innocent shop owners and parishes in trouble. I really do have a debilitating medical condition that contraindicates masks: a sever, early onset case of scientific literacy. My blood pressure rises, adrenaline starts flowing in nonconstructive ways, and I’m overall courting a heart attack (or arrest for assault) whenever I have to wear the ratzen-fratzen mask. Everywhere else (do see the morons wearing masks inside their own cars – because?) my face, such as it is, is off leash and running free! Wheeee! Until they arrest me.

It’s all about asking the wrong questions, or would be, if logic and evidence played any part in this. I’ve been mulling over whether knowing the right questions to ask is more art, science, or the inspiration of a muse. And it’s not just science that requires careful, exact statements of questions and answers – any inquire, to be rationally convincing, needs it.

For example: upon careful reflection, the primary question to answer for mask wearing is not ‘does it reduce transmission of the virus’? but rather, ‘does it meaningfully or even measurably reduce overall risk?’

The first question, taken at face value and without any other limitations, is a road to insanity – it’s the road we’re on. For putting everyone into deep sea diving suits would very likely reduce transmission even more! Or hazmat suits with all seams duct taped. Or simply saran-wrap everybody and stash them in the basement for the duration. Because, if the question is ‘does it reduce transmission?’ these, and even more drastic, answers are far better than stupid paper masks.

But, it might be replied, these additional steps are too impractical! Thus, the mask argument shoehorns an additional requirement: steps to reduce transmission can’t be too crazy. But, the pedantically logical person may now notice that those are not compatible or coherent standards. Either you want to take steps to reduce transmission no matter what, OR the real rule is something like ‘take reasonable steps’. And now we get to (if this were allowed) to argue about reasonableness.

Forget transmission for a moment, and consider risk. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that masks, even my pirate Orwell mask, reduce the risk of serious illness from COVID by 50%. Sounds impressive. But for healthy people under 50, that reduction would be from something like a 0.002% risk to a 0.001% risk. Noise, in other words – you could get a similar reduction in overall health risks by losing a few pounds and getting a little exercise. This is not something any sane person would think about, let along mandate.

But what about grandma? Don’t I care for those poor old people? Older people fall roughly into two groups: those with one foot in the grave already, and those who, any day now, will have one foot in the grave. This is common knowledge, and went by the very descriptive name of ‘getting old’. Forget transmission, again, and focus on risk. Per the CDC, if you are 85 or older, you run an all-causes risk of dying of 13.6% of dying this year, a percentage that rises with the passage of time, until it’s about 99% by the time you hit 100. It’s 100% by 120.

When considering the elderly, the risks of COVID must be viewed against what might be called a high risk environment – old people are at high risk of dying soon. Shocking, I know.

As mentioned, the elderly can be roughly divided between the more or less healthy and those with the end clearly in sight – in the West, this division roughly translates to: can live more or less independently and those who need fairly constant care. Those in and those out of nursing homes.

Those in nursing homes can be further divided: those needing mostly physical care, and those suffering from dementia. The first group dies very soon upon admission, typically well within a year. (Dementia and Alzheimer patients last 5-10 years, typically. Their brains are shutting down faster than their bodies.) So, one might reasonably guess the annual fatality rate for non-dementia nursing home patients to be something like 90%. Might be lower, but it’s going to be very high.

So, against that backdrop, does COVID increase the overall risk of illness and death in the elderly? I think the answer, from the data, is: Short term, very much so – people in nursing homes who catch COVID face a very real risk of dying very soon. On a longer term view? No. Those same people stood a very high chance of dying – and dying miserably! Don’t kid yourselves that death by COVID is somehow worse than how old people usually die! – within the year, COVID or not.

So, as I’ve said from the beginning, prudent steps should be taken to minimize nursing home residents’ and other sick people’s exposure to COVID, just as, I presume, reasonable steps are taken every year to minimize exposure to colds, flues, and other communicable diseases that can push old, sick people over the edge. Other than that? End the lockup. Burn the masks. Destroy the political careers of those who pushed this nonsense. (Not that they’ll let that happen – or do you think mail-in ballots will ever be allowed to vote any of these clowns out?)

The rest of the population falls somewhere in between, but the pattern holds: COVID adds a tiny amount to my already existing risks. Masks, even if they work, reduce this already tiny risk by an additional tiny amount.

Then comes the next question: does wearing a mask for hours on end in itself increase our health risks? For that, I can only add that, as far as I can see, the case to be made that masks increase our health risks in and of themselves is at least as good as the case that masks meaningfully reduce our risk from COVID.

The Big Flex

There was a story a couple years ago about a naive student in Chicago, who discovered that all you had to do to get your name on the ballot for alderman was collect a bunch of signatures and submit them to city hall. So it did it, collecting several times the required number of signatures.

First, city hall challenged the sinatures, claiming that they needed to be reviewed for validity. Then people were sent to those who had signed, and many were convinced to sign an affidavit saying they retracted their signatures. The student’s name was not allowed onto the ballot, even though he did everything right. His only appeal would have been to the state attorney general, who happened to be the sitting alderman’s sister.

The student got a lawyer, who stated that he was surprised at the alderman’s heavy handed tactics, that he had expected a much more straightforward and traditional rigged election, after the long-established customs of Chicago. I think he missed the other long-standing Chicago tradition of the flex. Since at least the election preceding the Hay Market Riots, when the ballot boxes from the districts supporting opposition candidates could be seen by those supporters floating down the rivers after the polls closed, the powers that be in the the City That Works work by letting the little people know who is in charge.

Now, after that same Chicago Outfit, brought en masse to Washington, had 8 straight years at the levers of national power, only to have some outsider get his name on the ballot and win, we are in the middle of the biggest flex in American history. We little people are being told in no uncertain terms who is in charge, and that our efforts to put our betters in their place will result in us being put into ours with professional-level force. As Orwell described in 1984, that the individual pieces of what we’re being made to do make no sense in themselves and are inconsistent with each other is the point: it’s no good if people do what you tell them to do because they think it’s the right thing to do – we must be made to do what they tell us to do solely because they told us to do it.

Closed; Opened; Closed. Wear masks; don’t; do. Flatten the curve; wait for cases to fall; wait for a cure; wait for a vaccine. Above all, panic as long as we tell you to panic. The police will enforce compliance with every rule. You get away with backyard parties and shamelessly showing your face in public at our pleasure, which we can forcefully revoke at any time. Our chosen ones can burn you houses and businesses down and even kill you with our blessings.

And there is nothing you can do about it.

Yet the powerful don’t need public displays of their power unless it is threatened.

Illustration of Haymarket square bombing and riot

From Benson’s ‘Lord of the World’

Papa Angelicus:

It was Papa Angelicus whom he was about to see; that amazing old man who had been appointed Secretary of State just fifty years ago, at the age of thirty, and Pope nine years previously.  It was he who had carried out the extraordinary policy of yielding the churches throughout the whole of Italy to the Government, in exchange for the temporal lordship of Rome, and who had since set himself to make it a city of saints. He had cared, it appeared, nothing whatever for the world’s opinion; his policy, so far as it could be called one, consisted in a very simple thing: he had declared in Epistle after Epistle that the object of the Church was to do glory to God by producing supernatural virtues in man, and that nothing at all was of any significance or importance except so far as it effected this object…

…he had said that on the whole the latter-day discoveries of man tended to distract immortal souls from a contemplation of eternal verities—not that these discoveries could be anything but good in themselves, since after all they gave insight into the wonderful laws of God—but that at present they were too exciting to the imagination.

Fr. Percy:

Persecution, he said, was coming. … But persecution was not to be feared. It would no doubt cause apostasies, as it had always done, but these were deplorable only on account of the individual apostates. On the other hand, it would reassure the faithful; and purge out the half-hearted. Once, in the early ages, Satan’s attack had been made on the bodily side, with whips and fire and beasts; in the sixteenth century it had been on the intellectual side; in the twentieth century on the springs of moral and spiritual life. Now it seemed as if the assault was on all three planes at once. 

But what was chiefly to be feared was the positive influence of Humanitarianism: it was coming, like the kingdom of God, with power; it was crushing the imaginative and the romantic, it was assuming rather than asserting its own truth; it was smothering with bolsters instead of wounding and stimulating with steel or controversy. It seemed to be forcing its way, almost objectively, into the inner world. Persons who had scarcely heard its name were professing its tenets; priests absorbed it, as they absorbed God in Communion—he mentioned the names of the recent apostates—children drank it in like Christianity itself. The soul “naturally Christian” seemed to be becoming “the soul naturally infidel.” 

Persecution, cried the priest, was to be welcomed like salvation, prayed for, and grasped; but he feared that the authorities were too shrewd, and knew the antidote and the poison apart. There might be individual martyrdoms—in fact there would be, and very many—but they would be in spite of secular government, not because of it. Finally, he expected, Humanitarianism would presently put on the dress of liturgy and sacrifice, and when that was done, the Church’s cause, unless God intervened, would be over.

Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson

Written before WWI. Benson feared what would happen if the ‘humanitarian’ aspects of modernism – socialism – worked, what might happen if secular powers were able, by intelligent management, to eliminate the physical causes of human suffering, and, by making suicide a sacred, state-supported right, cause spiritual suffering to be something avoidable and individually chosen.

Looked at from Benson’s perspective, we have been spared, I suppose, the curse of successful socialism. He was writing before the horrors of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent horrors under Soviet, Chinese, Cambodian and so on, Communist regimes. His worries that secular management of everything would WORK proved baseless. Instead, we have the curse of those committed to the idea that a paradies is around the corner despite it never having resulted from previous efforts, that it will work if we just keep trying, in the face of mountains of evidence – and mountains of bodies – proving it won’t.

Hurray! I guess?

Question: In that last paragraph, did Benson overrate the shrewdness of secular government? Is he right about the adoption of the trappings of liturgy and sacrifice?

Would China Destroy its Economy if the Pandemic Wasn’t Real? YES.

This morning, we’re hearing about how there’s a new outbreak of COVID 19 in Beijing, and that flights are being canceled. The already tottering Chinese economy will take another massive hit; what, if anything, is left of Chinese credibility will be completely gone.

Is this not proof the pandemic is real? Note: the question is not: is COVID 19 a real disease? Of course it is. The question, put more pointedly, is: does this not prove that lockdowns, masks, social distancing and the ongoing panic is justified?

No, it does not. Let me explain. Way back in the 90s, my thesis adviser, a Chinese (probably Taiwanese, I didn’t ask) economics professor and I used to shoot the breeze talking about how little Americans really understood the Chinese Communist government. At the time, America was well into a China policy of economic engagement, under the express theory espoused especially by the Bush clan that if China were to move into a Western style economic model, they would necessarily also move toward a Western style liberal democracy. (That the Bush clan is alleged to have made many millions from facilitating Chinese trade deals was not part of the public discussion at the time.) That was under Bush the Elder; Shrub tried the same theory in the Islamic world a decade later, this time with guns.

I specifically remember discussing two scenarios with my thesis advisor: if the Chinese Communist would kill 100,000,000 of their own subjects if that’s what it took to retain power – answer: without a moment’s hesitation – and whether, if it had to choose between power and the vast wealth created by their snow-job, parasitic faux capitalist economy, if they would destroy that economy – answer: yes, although they might hesitate for a moment. Hey, wealth is fun.

This was 30 years ago. A few things to note:

A. 1958-1962: Mao, on what looks in retrospect almost like a whim, launched the Great Leap Forward, resulting it the deaths of an estimated 65 million of his own people. He did succeed in destroying to a large extent traditional social structures and village life, and instilled a fear that anybody could turn you in at the drop of a hat. The killing was generally carried out by young, ignorant thugs (Solzenitzen describes a similar use of the young and stupid under Stalin). There’s not the slightest evidence Mao or his fellow dons felt the least hesitation or regret. Just business, Communist style.

B. 1989: At Tiananmen Square, about 10,000 unarmed student protesters were ground into gore by Communist tanks; bulldozers were used to scrap up the mess. About a thousand who escaped getting crushed were offered safe passage if they would leave; they were machine-gunned on their way out. Again, business as usual.

C. Under Bush the Elder, we chose to make these people, the leaders of Communist China, preferred trading partners. At first, the cost in stolen IP and out and out espionage seemed minor, especially since it was generally private companies paying it. And the elites weren’t losing their jobs to Chinese slave- and near-slave labor, only those hicks in flyover country. And oh, those cheap goods! Wow!

Eventually, the IP theft, espionage losses and currency manipulation to ensure Chinese goods remained insanely cheap got more serious. By then, an interesting dynamic was in place: Nobody in the world market wants Chinese currency – no one outside of China does, and even there, they wouldn’t if there were an option. Trade banks demand Chinese deals be secured with $US, because they’re not idiots. Therefore, in order to do all those billions of dollars in trade, China needed to hold billions of dollars in US dollar-denominated securities: US Treasuries. The US government needed to issue treasuries to fund various bailout – and look! The Chinese Communists needed to buy those treasuries in order to secure trade financing (which all international trade requires).

So a huge chunk of the US dollars going to China to buy Chinese goods (and support all the theft, espionage, slavery and tyranny that involves) ended up coming back to the US, which issued treasuries to the Chinese so that they could keep doing what they were doing.

Trump, to his credit, knows this. He has a long history of denouncing US reliance on trade with China.

D. Hong Kong, with their British-founded banking system and history as a trading hub, is a pinch-point for all this trade: trading banks around the world have histories with Hong Kong banks – banking does come down to trust in the end – and so, while NOT trusting the Communist Chinese, they could and did do business through the Hong Kong banks, who provided a buffer. It was the Hong Kong banks that told the Chinese Communists what they would need to do and how they would need to behave in order to get this trade gravy train rolling.

And so, the Chinese Communists kept their hands more or less off Hong Kong for several decades. That has come to an end. Funny how COVID 19 drove the Hong Kong protest right off the news. Anybody know if protesters are getting machine gunned down or driven over with tanks? Yet, I mean?

The Bush clan was right, to some extent. At least in Hong Kong, a taste of freedom lit a bit of a fire. People there, all of whom have relatives and connections in mainland China, don’t want to be absorbed into the hive. The Chinese Communists must have figured they had established enough of a relationship with the trading banks to keep this train running without the mediation of the Hong Kong banks. I doubt it – the reality would be something like: Trade bank makes tons of money off Chinese trade mediated through Hong Kong banks; Hong Kong banks are crushed/brought to heel by the Party; having seen this movie before, trade banks look at how they can extricate themselves with as little damage as possible. Takes time. I bet it’s well under way.

E. Put this all together: The Chinese economy was going down ALREADY. (I didn’t even mention the costs of the one-child policy in terms of shrinking cheap labor force & social unrest. That’s a real economic crisis in itself!) Under Trump, America was clamping down on IP theft, currency manipulation, and espionage. Trump was piushing for onshoring of all critical pipeline items, and repatriation of manufacturing jobs. As the recovery boomed, the end of an endless supply of US treasuries loomed. The world’s trading and banking professionals are all over this: while the Bush clan was wrong about free trade pushing the Chinese toward democracy internally, the rest of the world has had enough.

The Chinese Communists hate Trump as much as any other deranged leftists. While, objectively, the gravy train’s days were numbered anyway, it’s not clear the Chinese Communist leadership acknowledged it, and Trump’s trade crackdown and a booming US economy certainly didn’t help. Would they pitch in, as it were, jump-starting Son of the Panic by overeating to a few COVID 19 cases in Beijing? Note: the reports are – ready? – 86 cases have turned up, 7 of them asymptomatic. So they lock down hard and cancel a thousand flights.

Beijing has a population of over 21 million.

I say, and I think history bears this out: yes. The Chinese Communists have their backs against the wall. Having read Sun Tzu, they know to try to appear strong when they are weak. But they are in much worse shape than the outside world is being lead to believe.

We may have already had our one unexpected miracle: the largely peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union. Should not count on getting another one. This time, we have a wounded animal cornered. No telling what they will do, but it’s prudent to remember that nothing, and I mean nothing, is off the table.

Three Things, and a Thought

h/t to Don at Zoopraxiscope for links to these two essays:

Richard Grenier, “The Gandhi Nobody Knows

Michael Crichton, “Aliens Cause Global Warming” (PDF)

I had read years ago about what a creep and weirdo Gandhi was, so this first article just reinforced a vague opinion. The second, though – wow. Regular readers here have possibly noticed my occassional reference to the Gell-Man Amnesia Affect:

“Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.” 

– Michael Crichton (1942-2008)

So, before this essay, I knew Crichton as a really smart guy who wrote some fun novels and coined a very useful concept – and had the sense of humor to ask Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann (who is the sort of person Crichton would have lunch with) if he couldn’t attribute it to him, since it sounded better that way.

But this essay is now my second-favorite Caltech address, after the epic Feynman one I often quote, the ‘Cargo Cult Science‘ address. Crichton is also a very good writer (surprise), so where a large part of Feinman’s appeal is in his folksy bluntness, Crichton is a pleasure to read just for the nice English – and the hammer he throws down. Dude ain’t buying it:

To an outsider, the most significant innovation in the global warming controversy is the overt reliance that is being placed on models. Back in the days of nuclear winter, computer models were invoked to add weight to a conclusion: “These results are derived with the help of a computer model.” But now large-scale computer models are seen as generating data in themselves. No longer are models judged by how well they reproduce data from the real world increasingly, models provide the data. As if they were themselves a reality. And indeed they are, when we are projecting forward. There can be no observational data about the year 2100. There are only model runs.

This fascination with computer models is something I understand very well. Richard Feynmann called it a disease. I fear he is right. Because only if you spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen can you arrive at the complex point where the global warming debate now stands.

I’d love to quote pretty much the whole thing. He starts with a withering – and familiar to readers here – criticism of Drake equation. Oh, heck, here it is:

What is the Drake Equation? - Universe Today
looks scientifilicious….

This serious-looking equation gave SETI an serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses -just so we’re clear-are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be “informed guesses.” If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It’s simply prejudice.

As a result, the Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science.

Next, he makes a possibly topical observation:

Stepping back, I have to say the arrogance of the modelmakers is breathtaking. There have been, in every century, scientists who say they know it all. Since climate may be a chaotic system-no one is sure-these predictions are inherently doubtful, to be polite. But more to the point, even if the models get the science spot-on, they can never get the sociology. To predict anything about the world a hundred years from now is simply absurd.

And:

Just as we have established a tradition of double-blinded research to determine drug efficacy, we must institute double-blinded research in other policy areas as well. Certainly the increased use of computer models, such as GCMs, cries out for the separation of those who make the models from those who verify them. The fact is that the present structure of science is entrepreneurial, with individual investigative teams vying for funding from organizations which all too often have a clear stake in the outcome of the research-or appear to, which may be just as bad. This is not healthy for science.

“…cries out for the separation of those who make the models from those who verify them.” That’s it exactly. Ferguson never had his programming and numbers checked by a disinterested party. Instead, a known panic-monger with a history of hysterical – and hysterically wrong – predictions of doom, was allowed to be be judge, jury, and executioner of his own scheme. INSANE.

The appropriate disinterested parties would be numbers guys. Data analysts. Model builders. Scientifically literate experts in the scientific method. Expressly not other epidemiologists, even less politicians and journalists.

Finally, also years ago, I read somewhere that the origin of the English word ‘slave’ was Slav, that so many Slavs were enslaved that it became a brand name, as it were. Well, check this out:

The oldest written history of the Slavs can be shortly summarised–myriads of slave hunts and the enthralment of entire peoples. The Slav was the most prized of human goods. With increased strength outside his marshy land of origin, hardened to the utmost against all privation, industrious, content with little, good-humoured, and cheerful, he filled the slave markets of Europe, Asia, and Africa. It must be remembered that for every Slavonic slave who reached his destination, at least ten succumbed to inhuman treatment during transport and to the heat of the climate. Indeed Ibrāhīm (tenth century), himself in all probability a slave dealer, says: “And the Slavs cannot travel to Lombardy on account of the heat which is fatal to them.” Hence their high price.

The Arabian geographer of the ninth century tells us how the Magyars in the Pontus steppe dominated all the Slavs dwelling near them. The Magyars made raids upon the Slavs and took their prisoners along the coast to Kerkh where the Byzantines came to meet them and gave Greek brocades and such wares in exchange for the prisoners.

“The Cambridge Medieval History,” Vol. II, 1913, via https://www.etymonline.com/word/slave

That would be 1/2 of my ancestory. Note that Slavs were sold to – Africans. If this reperations nonsense comes to pass, I’m getting in line.

Current Unpleasantness Comes Close to Home

Paris. 1832. No much like here and now.

While out here in the working class part of Contra Costa County, Antifa isn’t a huge or obvious presence, we are close by Berkeley and Oakland, where the revenge fantasies of those with daddy issues more often find a traditional Stalinist outlet.

But burning Oakland and Berkeley *again* is starting to lack that thrill of adventure. Why not, thinks the Antifa leadership, go to the other side of the Berkeley hills, where some rich people live, and where all the good high-end shopping is, and make our oppressed voices heard via smashing windows and looting stores and burning stuff down? Thus, ‘protests’ took place in Danville and Walnut Creek yesterday. Other nearby upscale cities – Pleasant Hill (borderline – mostly people who bought homes years ago, and saw the old California joke realized: I always wanted to own a million dollar home, but I thought I’d have to move.), Lafayette (similar, but with a dose of McMansions thrown in) – also got worried and Took Steps. We’ve got curfews and stern warnings in place in most nearby cities (not ours – yet).

Last evening, younger daughter drove to Danville, where she has a part-time job at a Costco, only to find the store shut down and all workers sent home. On her way back, the freeway was shut down – ‘protesters’ had stationed themselves in the northbound lanes. Gratifyingly, the Walnut Creek police warned them, gassed them, and hauled them off. But not before our daughter was forced onto surface streets – not entirely a happy situation. But she quickly found her way home like the Wise Men – by another route. Major relief.

This is all maybe 8 or 10 miles from here. We live in a working class neighborhood, little houses built in the 40s and 50s, nothing much worth looting, I should think. So, not really concerned – yet.

One irony: Danville and Walnut Creek are the homes to many current and retired athletes from the various Bay Area teams. It’s a very nice area, where a couple million can still get you a pretty nice house. Many if not most of these athletes are black. Most also get along very well with their neighbors – at least, in all my years living here, I’ve never heard of any issues.

(Personal stories: many years ago, I played on a city league basketball team. Several of the teams had players who were former Oakland A’s. Let’s just say they were a *little* more athletically gifted than your typical 35-ish city league players. I got dunked on my head a few times. Also, Steph Curry lives in Walnut Creek. A couple years ago, out local Safeway was all abuzz, as he’d dropped by to pick up a few things on his way home one day. He’s a demigod, at least, in these parts.)

There’s also a lot of retired military out here, and a few gun clubs. I could, in theory, walk a half-mile to a sporting goods store and get myself just about any legal firearm I might want. So, I wonder if the goon leadership has taken this into account. I, personally, am not armed (for now), but I can’t imagine if a riot happened on my street, some armed resistance would not readily appear…

UPDATE: Our county government, always one for overreaction and grandstanding, has issued a county-wide curfew starting at 8:00 tonight. Sigh.

A Political Observation & Some More Charts

The top 6 countries by COVID 19 deaths are shown below. These 6 countries barely represent 10% of the world’s population yet account for 56% of all cases and 72% of all deaths:

Woldometers

A political observation, something all these countries share:

USA – election of a ‘right wing’ administration revealed the vulnerability of the culturally and politically dominant Left, which, predictably, completely lost its mind. Now, under the COVID noise, indictments are coming down against the 3rd tier of Leftist operatives.

UK – contrary to the wishes of the politically dominant Left, the nation voted not only to reject globalism and leave the EU, but then enabled the despised non-Leftist Boris Johnson to become Prime Minister and form a government.

Italy – The anti-globalist 5 Star Party came to power in 2018.

France – Macron, a lifetime Socialist Party member, has been under siege by the Yellow Vests for over a year. The Yellow Vests are a mixed bag, politically – hey, it’s France – but include ‘populist’ anti-government factions. While Macron is often portrayed as pro-business, a cursory look at what he’s up to shows he’s pro giant global business, and pursues pretty much textbook Gramsciite social destruction policies.

Spain – a history of conflict, often violent, between Communists (under whatever name) and more conservative elements. ‘Right wing’parties have been making gains in recent years.

Brazil – Jair Bolsonaro’s election in 2019 put in power pretty much the Left’s nightmare candidate. As Wikipedia sums up: “He is a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage and homosexuality, abortion, affirmative action, drug liberalization and secularism. In foreign policy, he has advocated closer relations to the United States and Israel. During the 2018 presidential campaign, he started to advocate for economic liberal and pro-market policies.”

Each of these nations has a Left that’s having its power threatened. Somehow, that correlates remarkably to more COVID 19 deaths…

Now for some charts. Have COVID 19 daily deaths counts fallen off a cliff? Why, yes, yes they have: (All charts from Worldometers)

Italy:

This is probably as low as Italy will fall, as far as daily death counts go, as they count COVID 19 deaths very liberally, and, with an older population, they will not lack from nursing home patients with the sniffles checking out. But, on a populations 60M+, we’ve reached the statistical noise level of deaths.

Spain:

Ditto. Also note that the declines started in early April – with the arrival of spring, which is what any sane person would have predicted.

France:

French data is extremely noisy – again, hey, they’re French – but the overall decline is still there. Those spikes are all related to reporting lumpiness. Tiny numbers.

Brazil:

So here’s the one country, of the six ‘leading’ country, where the decline is not evident from the graph. Brazil has over 200M people; 750 deaths are, as always, personal tragedies, but, statistically? Barely registers.

I’ll keep more of an eye on Brazil.

UK:

Even the birth palce of COVID Panic Porn is clearly on the way out. This data shows an odd weekly cyclicality: down, down, down, off a cliff, down, way up, repeat. Reporting quirk? I’d assume so.

As noted previously here, England has implemented a policy of listing COVID 19 on the mandatory reporting list, along with the Plague, Mad Cow Disease, anthrax – because a flu-like infection fatal well under 1% of the time is just like those things. The net result: as the infection inevitably spreads, more and more people who test positive will show up in the counts regardless of COVID 19 actually contributing to their deaths, or, indeed, despite showing no symptoms at all.

So, realistically, we’ve reached bottom unless the UK changes its reporting rules. It may even go up.

Finally, the US:

Same pattern, same issues as with the UK data. Given the political investment in keeping the lockdown and fear going by political conmen like the reptilian Newsom, I’d guess this is about as low as the daily counts will be allowed to go.

I think I just insulted reptiles.

Statistics, Voodoo, and Medical Misadventures

Dr. Kildare, washing his d*mn hands!

People don’t become doctors because they are good at or even interested in science. They become doctors because they want to help people. Some may be good at science and math, but that’s almost a coincidence, when it happens. It’s possible for a motivated but untalented person to cram enough biology and chemistry to get by without every really understanding any of it.* This disjunction between medicine and science is evident in the history of medicine. See, for example, the story of what it took, and how long it took, for doctors to accept that they needed to wash their hands.

That said, I for one am very grateful to doctors – like many if not most people, I have had a couple occasions in my life where, without expert medical intervention, I would have ended up crippled or possibly dead. So, thanks, doctor-persons!

But we would do well to remember that doctors, as doctors, are not, in fact, scientists. In fact, a brief look at the vast panorama of quackery at large today reveals doctors are behind a depressing amount of it – fad diets and treatments that make bloodletting and bell-ringing sound pretty reasonable by comparison. (Look up Dr. Kellogg sometimes.) The drive and ambition that gets one through medical school has very little to do with a love for science and logic.

There’s this thing let’s call mathematical or perhaps scientific intuition. It is the ability to look at something represented with numbers, and understand what it is trying to tell you and, more important, what it can and can’t tell you.

Like just about any talent, mathematical intuition seems to have both nature and nurture components. I’ve got it to some minor degree, but I’ve also nurtured it for decades now, so I seem to be pretty good at, I think. Note that this has little to do with mathematical skills: The hardest math I can do is the Black – Scholes calculations, which, at the level I can do them, would entail *very* light derivative calculus and super-easy multiple regression analysis – stuff you can do in Excel. I’ve been too lazy to get very good at math. But I made a career out of well-honed mathematical intuition.

In the finance world, it’s a huge, as in HUGE, advantage to be able to look at some numbers and quickly figure out what they’re telling you. In this field, it’s a common, but by no means ubiquitous, talent. Suffice it to say that a lot of finance numbers don’t quite mean what they seem, and that, without an understanding of what goes into them, they can easily lead you very far astray.

But doctors are very unlikely to have any mathematical intuition, and less likely to hone it over time – it’s just not what they do. Except when they do, such as in developing or applying protocols based on statistical analysis.

Having doctors develop and apply protocols based on their understanding of what statistics mean is not a formula from which we should expect happy results. Two example, and these are from memory and a decade or more out of date, current situation may be better, etc., but since they are illustrative, I going to be lazy and not look them up:

Blood pressure: we’ve all heard 120/80 as the Holy Grail, and those are good numbers. However, turns out that 120/80 is not measurably more healthy than 135/85 – the actual statistics don’t show the dreaded uptick in problems associated with high blood pressure until you get above those numbers. Also, there is an alarming assumption of homogeneity: that everybody within a group, usually and age or weight group, with the same blood pressure is equally likely to have the same reaction. Are they? It would be surprising if, in fact, blood pressure had the same meaning across all people – maybe it does, could be, but when I looked into this, I didn’t see anything but wide bands assembled for analysis. People were just grouped – male, 50-55, with a BMI of something, etc.

The science guy in me – my mathematical intuition – really wants to know about other details for these people thus grouped: Any body-builder or distance runners in there? How about couch potatoes, or people with other health problems? Are we really assuming everyone in this group is effectively ‘the same’? Really?

Now doctors are going to follow protocols based on their understanding of what all this means: the protocol is (or, at least was as of a few years ago) that adult males under a certain age must have a 120/80 reading, or drugs will be prescribed as needed to get them there.** Now, there is a certain amount of wisdom in shooting for numbers that are a) very common in healthy people, and b) providing a little buffer beneath the danger zone, but there should also be some wiggle room in there, it seems to me. Knowing what constitutes acceptable wiggle room would require not just understanding the medical issues, but some *mathematical intution* about what the numbers are telling you.

Also, if you follow the protocols, it makes it harder for you to get sued. So, what might have started as guidelines end up as laws carved in stone.

Second example: salt intake. Take a thousand people with high blood pressure, say, an average of 140/90. Have them all cut their salt intake. It is very likely that the average will drop, maybe to 135/85. Conclusion: salt intake causes blood pressure to go up; reducing salt intake causes blood pressure to go down. Therefore, the protocol is developed to tell people with high blood pressure to cut salt intake.

Anybody see the obvious problem in here? Beuler?

Turns out that salt intake really does affect blood pressure – for around 30% of people with high blood pressure. For the other 70%, no amount of salt that any person with functioning taste buds would ever put on their food in real life has any effect at all. But, if you just see the results – we had a thousand people cut salt, and their average blood pressure dropped – and had no mathematical intuition, the conclusion as expressed in a protocol is obvious: people with high blood pressure should cut their salt intake.

Thus, doctors waste their social capital by telling people to make a very difficult change – cutting salt for somebody with a lifetime of eating habits can be very difficult and miserable – on recommendations that only help a minority of people. (There’s also a deficit in some doctors’ understanding how their orders affect the people getting them, that people generally trust and even love their doctors, and when they fail, as they generally do, in making the changes the doctor tells them to make, they feel bad about it, want to stay away from the doctor, don’t even try to follow his next recommendation, and in general do more harm than good.)

This general and demonstrable lack of mathematical intuition in the medical world is another contributing factor in my insistence on looking at the COVID 19 models and numbers myself: they have been processed by doctors, and therefore, almost certainly fundamentally misunderstood.

And, yes, they have been.

One final tragedy here, the one that will haunt and curse us for years to come: If you lack mathematical intuition, reality will almost always seem to back you up! 120/80 really is a good blood pressure! Few people with it die from heart trouble! On average, reducing salt really does lower blood pressure!

And the spread of infections really does drop when you do a bunch of reasonable-sounding things all at the same time across entire populations. That 95% of those things don’t do anything for 95% of the people will be masked by looking at the big numbers only, and refusing to consider the heterogeneity of the underlying situations. Add emotions flamed white-hot by incessant panic-mongering, and – well, here we are.

The transition to voodoo is all but invisible, and has already taken place: the medicine man must perform the ritual before dawn, or the sun will not rise! Ignore those heretics with their telescopes and astrolabes! We can’t take the risk! Pay up the offering! Or else!

We will be told, over and over and over again, how we were only spared DOOOOOM by doing what our betters told us to do: wearing masks, social distancing, shuttering millions of businesses, and discarding the constitutionally-guaranteed right to free assembly; and that, if we don’t want DOOOOM this fall, we’ll have to – HAVE TO!!!! – do it all over again. Any who say anything against this are heretics, and want people to die.

*For what it’s worth (hint: not much) read somewhere, years ago, that doctors have an average IQ of about 105 – very slightly above the general average. So, just a little smarter than the average bear. But: doctors have very large ambition and drive. So, you tend to end up with people who are justifiably proud of their achievement – medical school is hard – but really not all that smart. They then have to tell people what to do in emotionally intense situations. And they don’t understand science. So, if you push back (as I have, on occasion,very politely) it’s hard for them to process. Not all, by any means, and to greatly varying degrees – but I’d be surprised to meet very many people who have not run across a doctor or two with delusions of godhead.

** I learned all this because, of course, I developed high blood pressure some years ago, and was prescribed a bunch of drugs, some of which really messed with my sleep and general well-being. Getting the doctor to cut the meds made him uncomfortable, although he’s a great guy and all that, because there’s a *protocol* for how much and in what order different drugs are prescribed. When I told him I’d be happy to accept the (non-existent) risk of shooting for a 135/85 reading, he wasn’t too enthusiastic.