Saturday, January 30, 2016

Taxi Troubles

A headline on today's Drudge Report reads "UBER Drivers Protest Over Lowered Fares In NYC..." But the linked article doesn't claim that: instead it reports that primarily Yellow Cab drivers were protesting Uber's lowered fares. And for good reason--the move potentially puts them out of business.

Uber announced that it is lowering it's fares for UberX and UberXL by 15%. Of course given the decrease in gas prices that makes some sense (though that's unmentioned in the article).

But it's driving the medallioned Yellow Cabs crazy. "Beleaguered yellow cabbies say they can’t compete with the lower fare since their rates are determined by the Taxi and Limousine Commission." Hoist on their own petard, I'd say, since until now the cabbies have been hiding behind the medallion to protect their monopoly. But now they've woken up on the wrong side of the issue.

A few Uber drivers joined the protest, claiming that the reduced fares would hurt their income. Not true, claims the company. "Uber is guaranteeing drivers who work the minimum will make more, and if they don’t, Uber will pay the difference. Spokesman Josh Mohrer adds that the ultimate goal is to reduce the use of personal cars."

Put another way, the lower fares will reduce the profit per trip, but the difference will be made up on increased volume. But only full-time drivers will generate the volume necessary to increase revenue. So Uber calculates that it will a) generate more total revenue for the firm, much of which will be shared with the drivers, and b) professionalize its workforce by discouraging part-time and casual drivers.

It sounds like a win on all counts. But it will put the Yellows out of business, and maybe sooner than anybody thinks.

For recently the Yellow Cab companies in San Francisco and Chicago have both declared bankruptcy. In both cases it's because they lost liability lawsuits because of accidents. The Chicago firm (my employer for about a year in the 1970s) is on the hook for about $26 million. The much smaller San Francisco company owes $8 million.

Two points can be made. First, these sound like one-off events. But liability is something all cab companies have to deal with. The sums involved are relatively paltry--a company with a strong balance sheet or good insurance should be able to survive this.

Second, it illustrates an Achilles heel for the medallion companies--they can't keep their workforce. Good, professional drivers will make more money with Uber, and that's where they're going. The Yellows, meanwhile, are left with the dregs--part-timers with spotty driving records. Indeed, the photo below can hardly inspire confidence in cab safety.

Chicago Yellow Cab, pictured with victims
Chicago Yellow cab and victims
(Clifford Law Offices via Chicago Tribune)

It completely negates the long-standing taxi argument that the medallion somehow equates with safety.

Bill Onasch, over at Socialist Action, points me to an article at LaborNotes.org, a useful site reporting on labor news. There Sonia Singh authors a piece about an attempt to unionize Uber drivers in Seattle.

The drivers, who are mostly Somali and Eritrean immigrants, have gone to the city council and gotten a resolution allowing them to unionize. Uber has taken the issue to court, where it will likely languish for several years.

Nevertheless, Teamsters Local 117, which already organizes cab drivers, has set up the App-Based Drivers Association. During my stint at Chicago's Yellow Cab I was a member of the International Seafarers' Union, a mob-run outfit if there ever was one. It's doubtful the Teamsters will be more honest, for if they're successful they will generate a permanent revenue stream from Uber drivers. The temptation to skim off the top will be hard to resist.

Ms. Singh asks "will drivers sign up? Ajema is confident this will be the easiest part, even though he expects Uber will try to dissuade them." Count me skeptical. I think this whole effort is a non-starter.

So the taxi industry is changing faster than anybody predicted. I think that medallion cabs will be out of business across the country within the next five years.

Further Reading:

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Good Trump, Bad Trump

The biggest problem with Donald Trump is that nobody knows just what he will really do after he becomes president. The man speaks with heart, but not with precision. Indeed, rhetoric notwithstanding, his statements are remarkably ambiguous.

Take the most famous one first:
Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on.
The implication (since clarified) is that the ban is temporary, but he's never specified for how long. It could be for 30 minutes or 30 years. Either way it sounds cataclysmic, though the reality may be much less so.

So what the hell does this guy have in mind?

The Bad Trump is an unreconstructed nativist who really hates Muslims. Any serious effort to ban their entry into the US will wreak havoc with our foreign policy, as Jeb! made clear during last night's debate. If consistently enforced it would damage our friends more than our enemies.

For the Good Trump, on the other hand, the plea is just a ruse. The total ban (if enforced at all) will operate only for a few weeks and then be relaxed after we've figured it out. What we'll end up with is something very much like what all the other candidates agreed to, namely a moratorium on war refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Trump's bombast merely serves to open the Overton window for this rather reasonable outcome.

Though I have no clue what he really intends.

His initial comments about Mexican immigrants was even more over the top:
When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Of course that's a slander. I don't think there's any evidence that Mexican immigrants (illegal or otherwise) are more prone to criminality than anybody else. And they're not sent by the government. On the other hand, he may have a stronger case about immigrants from Central America, especially El Salvador.

Asked by Univision's Jorge Ramos how he would deport 11 million people, Trump said,
We’re going to do it in a very humane fashion. Believe me. I have a bigger heart than you do. We’re going to do it in a very humane fashion. 
You know what it’s called? Management … I’m a great manager. I know how to manage things. I hire unbelievable people. What we’re doing here will work great. 
Once I win, you’re gonna see things happen.
The Bad Trump really believes this. Of course it's impossible--there is no way one could "humanely" deport millions at a low cost.

But the Good Trump isn't so sure. In the same exchange with Mr. Ramos he backs down a bit. Acknowledging that many Mexicans were "good people", he adds "and they're hopefully gonna come back in very soon."

The end result may be sensible immigration reform of the sort Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio have long advocated. This combines greater enforcement at the border with a big, beautiful gate for legal immigrants. As before, by expanding the Overton window he makes a practical solution possible. Though again I have absolutely no clue what his real intentions are.

Finally, this is what Mr. Trump has to say about tariffs on Chinese imports: "I would do a tax. And the tax, let me tell you what the tax should be … the tax should be 45%," But during last night's debate he claims he was misquoted about the 45% figure. But,
"They can't believe how stupid the American leadership is," Trump said of China. "I'm totally open to a tariff. If they don't treat us fairly — hey, their whole trade thing is tariff. You can't deal with China without tariff. They do it to us. We don't do it. It's not fair trade."
The Bad Trump is a devout protectionist--something that will destroy the American economy. The whole "fair trade" wheeze is just an argument for crony capitalism.

But the Good Trump...

Here I am unable to find the Good Trump. I have no quotes where he substantially backs down from this position. So I am afraid that on trade Mr. Trump means exactly what he says. Perhaps this isn't surprising--that a billionaire favors crony capitalism doesn't shock. But it does disappoint, and to my mind nearly disqualifies Mr. Trump from the presidency.

Nearly is the key word. Of course I much prefer either Christie or Rubio as candidates. Even Bush, Carson, or Kasich are better choices (though I'd hold my nose).

But compared to Ted Cruz? Sorry, but in that case I'll vote for Trump. Mr. Trump is a deal-maker. He can negotiate with people. It seems to me his instincts (except on trade) are mostly in the right place. So I can trust him--I think, at least sort of.

Donald Trump reminds me most of FDR. Like Roosevelt, he's not a man of principal. But he has an ability to communicate with the American public that can actually accomplish something. Like FDR, Trump cares not a whit about the Constitution or any other high-minded principal. For him it's all about the Deal. So it will depend on Congress and the courts to keep him in check.

A Trump/Roosevelt presidency is a very big risk. But perhaps we're in a place where such a risk is justified.

Further Reading:

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Political Report: 2016

Here is a rundown of Conventional Wisdom (CW):
  1. Donald Trump can't win the nomination.
  2. Ted Cruz can't win the general election.
  3. Hillary will win the Democratic nomination.
  4. Marco Rubio is most likely our next president.
  5. Jeb Bush is finished.
  6. There is a split in the Republican Party.
  7. CW is always wrong.
Oh alright--that last item is a joke. Indeed, quite the contrary: when CW is right it's a dog bites man story.

I used to agree with #1, but now I'm not so sure. Donald is not running on an economic or political platform. He doesn't give a rat's patoot about tax policy or ISIS or trade agreements. He is campaigning to defend civilization.
  • He's against political correctness, which is a direct attack on the American way of life.
  • He is against immigration, especially of uncivilized people. He doesn't understand the economics of the issue at all, but he's got the 'civilization' thing down. Especially after the Rape Fest in Germany the point has come into sharp relief.
  • He's against free trade because he wants Americans to have jobs. Here he's just wrong. Restricting trade neither preserves jobs nor does it defend civilization.
  • Donald understands the importance of the military and the police.
  • He calls other politicians stupid. Obviously he's wrong in the IQ sense (nobody's smarter than Rand Paul), but in a cultural sense he's absolutely right. Our politicos have forgotten what civilization is.
So I'm not a Trump supporter--he is not Libertarian enough for me. But I no longer think he's a f***ist. I have accordingly revised my estimate of his chances. I think he could win the nomination, and more, I think he could be our next president. Let's call it 20%.

I can't stand Ted Cruz. He's a smarmy, slimy, unlikable bastard. I prefer any other Republican over him. I am pleased to say that I am not alone in my opinion. While I do think it's possible (unlikely) for him to win the nomination, I don't see how he takes it home in November. He's a niche candidate for angry evangelicals. 5%

If she doesn't get arrested then Hillary will win the nomination. But her chances in November are much worse, for three reasons: 1) she's a crook; 2) It's a Republican year, especially if we enter a recession (increasingly likely) or there's another dramatic terrorist attack; 3) Ted Cruz is not the Republican nominee. 30%

Everybody says Marco is such a talented politician. Maybe. But he's running a terrible campaign. Or maybe it's an excellent campaign in the wrong year. Whatever, I find it increasingly improbable that he can carry the nomination. He's gonna lose in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. So he's toast. 10%

The alternative "establishment" candidate is Chris Christie. His chances will improve if the economy goes south or there's another attack. Also, Black Lives Matter and campus unrest plays into his corner. He has to surprise in New Hampshire, but if he does then I think he goes all the way. 25%

Jeb Bush is a loser. 3%

There is no split in the Republican Party. Donald Trump is a Democrat thinly disguised as a Republican, so if anything there's a split in the Democratic Party. He and Bernie Sanders are going after disaffected White voters with approximately the same program (differing only on immigration). Bernie's chances: 5%

Martin O'Malley: 0.001% (I include that just to be mean.) All other candidates put together: 2%

That adds up to 100%.

A word about my Trotskyist friends:

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) always runs candidates, and they will do so this year. The candidates will be announced in July at the Oberlin conference. They will be on the ballot in 10 states. Unusually, I predict that one member of the ticket will be a white male, to win solidarity from Trump supporters. The other half of the ticket will be "disadvantaged minority," likely Hispanic. 0.000001%

Most other grouplets will support the Green Party candidate. This is especially true of Solidarity, whose banner has long since faded from Red to Green. Louis Proyect will also support the Greens and for similar reasons. All of the grouplets will vigorously oppose the Democratic nominee, whoever he/she is.

Interesting will be the response of Socialist Action (SA), which is also moving in the Green direction, though not yet as far along as Solidarity. In the past SA has always offered "critical support" to the SWP ticket, but the latter is increasingly skeptical of environmentalism. That, along with the SWP's newfound support for Israel, will render them class enemies in the eyes of SA. But the latter can't support the Green Party either, long since condemned as a petty-bourgeois excrescence. So I think they'll just abstain--a typically Trotskyist thing to do.

Bottom line: I think Chris Christie will be our next president. That may be wishful thinking on my part (since I will happily vote for him), but it is my prediction.

Further Reading:

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Economic Predictions for the Coming Period

Our economic future will be determined by the Double-Ds: Deflation and Debt.

Or, put another way, Main Street is doing just fine, but Wall Street has some serious problems. Unfortunately the two are interlinked.

We are experiencing deflation (not disinflation) and have been for some years now. I base this opinion on these facts:
  • Commodity prices (especially gold and energy) have fallen dramatically. 
  • Our major trading partners (China, Brazil, and probably Canada) are exporting deflation.
  • The cost of labor is going down. Yes, there has been some increase in individual wages, but there is a decline in labor force participation, meaning that total wages are likely declining. And, as Thomas Piketty famously claimed, the fraction of GDP going to labor is getting smaller.
  • Technology is making stuff cheaper.
  • My anecdotal opinion is that the prices of things I buy are declining, or failing that the quality of what I get is increasing.
  • Nominal interest rates have remained very low for a very long time. This is not because of Fed manipulation
I understand that government statistics indicate merely disinflation, but I think they're wrong. First, I doubt they can properly correct for quality issues. Dinner at a decent restaurant still costs $17, but you get a much better meal today than you did a few years ago. Health care, admittedly more expensive, is also much improved over the past. (Higher education, on the other hand, is increasingly just a dead-weight loss.)

And second, deflation is bad for governments, and especially for the Fed. The latter is trying to raise inflation by changing expectations, that is, trying to convince the public that it's just around the corner. But I think that's propaganda. There is no inflation on the horizon.

Many pundits, along with my friends over at ZeroHedge, argue that there was massive monetary stimulus during the Great Recession bailouts, along with the subsequent quantitative easing (QE). But George Selgin argues convincingly (here and here) that this isn't true. The base money supply has remained mostly constant over the last decade. For example, QE was accompanied by paying interest on reserves. The former added liquidity, while the latter took it away again. The net money supply remained unchanged. Mr. Selgin describes the entire decade as a process of removing liquidity from solvent enterprises and transferring it to insolvent enterprises.

Not good. But also not something that will lead to inflation.

So is deflation good or bad? To answer that question we need to invoke Scott Sumner's dictum: Never reason from a price change. For deflation can have two causes: demand side or supply side.

Demand-side deflation happens when consumers get poorer and can no longer buy as much. This occurred during the Great Depression, and also what might be happening in China today. Because there is less demand prices must fall. Demand-side deflation is unambiguously bad, and to the extent we have that the Fed is absolutely right to resist it.

Supply-side deflation happens when producers get better, either through new technology or because of cheaper inputs. Widgets used to cost $10 to make, but because of new technology now they only cost $2. Thus the cost of widgets goes down dramatically. This kind of deflation, while often disruptive, is a very good thing. Our standard of living goes up, not because of higher wages, but rather because of cheaper prices.

I argue that our current deflation is mostly supply-side. The big new technology is fracking, which has reduced the cost of energy by 50% or more. Computer-aided improvements in logistics (see, e.g., Amazon) have reduced the costs of retailing--not even Walmart can make money anymore. And then other countries are exporting deflation, which from a US standpoint simply means lower costs for similar or better products--i.e., supply-side deflation.

Of course there are some demand-side issues as well, slowing population growth being key among them. But the fact is that at least in the US deflation is mostly supply-side. That means American consumers are getting richer because they're paying lower prices for the things they want to buy. I argued as much in a post a couple of years ago, here.

So if the goal of an economy is to make consumers (i.e., everybody) richer, then we are undoubtedly succeeding. Or speaking metaphorically, Main Street is on a roll.

Financially, however, things are not so rosy.

The other big D is debt. "Debt is cheap," or so they say, what with interest rates at "historic" lows. And people sure have piled it on: student loan debt is over a trillion dollars, and auto loan debt is not far behind. Many cognoscenti (e.g., Paul Krugman) argue that we should massively invest in infrastructure--finance has never cost less.

Even on the Right pundits agree: the Fed, so they maintain, has arbitrarily kept interest rates low making it cheap to borrow, with the collateral damage of screwing grandma out of her savings.

But I think both the cognoscenti and the pundits are wrong. Real interest rates are precisely not cheap--indeed, they're quite high. Suppose, optimistically, that we have 2% deflation, which mean Americans are getting richer at 2% annually even without a pay raise. Then the 10-year Treasury, nominally at 2.2%, is actually paying a real rate of 4.2%. That's not cheap! Grandma is doing just fine.

So who is hurt by deflation? Anybody in debt. If you owe money on a student loan (nominally at 4.29%) you are paying real interest at 6.29%. There is no way that's a good deal, and only the very top students will make enough to earn that back. A car loan these days (if you have good credit) costs 2.6%. In real terms that's 4.6%, again hardly a bargain. Fortunately for homeowners, a lot of the housing debt was liquidated during the last recession.

So who is the biggest debtor today? Governments, both in the US and abroad. China, for example, has borrowed billions to build useless infrastructure, including whole ghost cities. Japan has splurged on bridges to nowhere in a futile attempt to "jumpstart" its economy. Puerto Rico is in default. Illinois stiffed its lottery winners (giving the IOUs, since redeemed), and is bankrupt in everything except name. National and sub-national entities around the globe are hopelessly in debt.

The State of New York, for example, owes an amount equal to 23.6% of state gross product, or approximately $370 Billion. Of this, $140 Billion is owed by the state, while $230 Billion are owed by local governments. It comes out to $18,600 in debt per person, even for every newborn baby. Remember that upstate New York (where a lot of these local governments are located) is losing population and has a declining economy.

This won't end well, and it will end suddenly.

One of these days creditors will refuse to lend money to New York to roll over its bonds. This may be because of something that happens in New York, or more likely it may be because of a credit crisis in China or Japan or Portugal or wherever. However it happens, it means that New York will default--suddenly, dramatically, catastrophically. There will be no warning. One day life is normal. The next day retired state employees won't receive their pensions.

Deflation brings the day of reckoning closer. States, especially Blue states like New York, are losing their tax base, both by population loss and by declining prices. I don't know if New York is one recession away from default, or if it will take two or three. But I certainly wouldn't want to be part of the public employee retirement system right now. (I'm not, thank God, despite my status as a state college professor.)

So we have too much debt. Private debt has been (slightly) paid down since the last recession, but government debt has grown. The most dangerous sort is owed by municipalities and school districts. Many of them are doomed.

The Great Liquidation is still in front of us. It will happen eventually. I don't know when, but deflation brings it closer. It will wipe a huge amount of wealth off the table.

So here's my advice to you young-uns out there: Worry less about your salary and more about your savings. Stay out of debt. Don't buy real estate in New York.

Further Reading:

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Thundering Proclamations!

A supposed advantage of a political party is that it allows groups to speak with one voice. Presumably what they say has more authority than simply coming from the mouths of individuals. The phenomena exists across the spectrum: the New York Times has an editorial board, that issues editorials, supposedly fact-checked and sanitized, presumed to represent the intelligent opinion of the establishment. Not even Paul Krugman or Tom Friedman can pontificate with the authority of the Editors.

Political campaigns use the same trick. Candidates speak about "our campaign," and "our strategy." Often they'll invite voters to "please join us." It's the modern version of the royal We.

Donald Trump, too egotistical to refer to "we" or "us," nevertheless magnifies authority by talking about himself in the third person.
Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on.
Trotskyist organizations are masters at this manner of speaking. They have a raft of authoritative-sounding groups. On my Beat is an otherwise unread journal entitled International Viewpoint. "International Viewpoint is published under the responsibility of the Bureau of the Fourth International."  Who knows what the Bureau of the Fourth International is, but it certainly does sound weighty.

Traditionally, Trotskyist grouplets have used the language of Lenin's Comintern: titles like secratariat and political committee. Jack Barnes goes by the title National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. "Secretary" has such an anodyne ring to it--hardly befitting a long tradition of mass murderers.

Coincidentally or otherwise, this sort of language is used by the United Nations. And perhaps, if you squint, you'll find it spoken at the European Union.

On my Beat, however, the champion of thundering proclamations is Solidarity. As of today the top three articles on their website are written by the editors of Against the Current, the Solidarity Steering Committee, and an International Statement on Iraq and Syria. The latter is signed by a list of about 30 individuals and organizations from around the world, some of which may have more than a dozen members. (For whatever reason they weren't able to win the concurrence of the Bureau of the Fourth International.)

The International Statement reads like it was written by a committee. It is completely incoherent. As is typical, this proclamation concludes with a list of exhortations. The first one reads "Oppose draconian policies; defend the democratic rights of everyone." Well, that just clarifies everything, doesn't it?

The confusion starts at the top. The opening paragraph reads
We fight dictatorships, imperialist aggression, and Daesh. We reject the politics of “national security,” racism, and austerity. It’s time to mobilise!
The dictatorship is the Assad regime. "Imperialist aggression" is sponsored by Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, not to mention Russia, the USA, and European countries. Daesh is, of course, ISIS. In other words, they are against everybody!

Their solution? "Solidarity with democratic and progressive anti-imperialist forces throughout the Arab region." They never specify who those forces are, though presumably they don't include the Free Syrian Army or al-Nusra. One supposes there might be three or four people in Syria who will qualify for such "solidarity." Personally, I'd advise them to get together and form a central committee.

The editors of Against the Current also opine on Syria in a piece entitled Global Lessons of a Catastrophe. There is only one global lesson: it's all our fault. We Americans have disproportionately contributed to global warming, spent too much money on the military, have enabled ISIS, the Assad regime, Turkey, etc., and we invaded Iraq. The people of Syria are absolutely innocent of everything, like children, and bear no responsibility at all for all the death and destruction.

If only we just ceased to exist the world would be a much better place. One way to eliminate us is to let hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in to the USA (at taxpayers expense). "No Border No Nation, Freedom of Movement for All" reads a banner in an accompanying photograph. One could add "No Civilization" to that list.

The third piece, by the Solidarity Steering Committee is headlined Facing the Enemy Within. It's about Donald Trump, of course.
An enemy ideology is tunneling within U.S. society, intending to take over and establish its state and social supremacy. Most of the time it moves mainly undercover, but will seize any opportune moment to leap from the shadows and proclaim its aims openly. It is deeply hostile to democratic values, religious (and irreligious) freedom, women’s rights, and racial equality. It’s not something new in our country, but it’s capable of shifting forms and appearances as circumstances permit.

The enemy is bigotry and white supremacy.
I am no great fan of Donald Trump, but I do not believe for a minute that he represents a white supremacist movement. He does defend a way of life, and that way of life deserves to be defended. My disagreement with him is less in his goals but more in the way he proposes to accomplish them. But the Steering Committee is completely off the rails; their proposal is that "white people" should just commit suicide.

We live in a Constitutional Republic. It depends for its success on shared assumptions about what government is supposed to do, and on what the rights and obligations of citizens are. It is based on the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th Centuries, which in turn derives from a Judeo-Christian-Classical world view. Our Republic depends also on the English language as the universal language of government and public life.

As such, the American way is not a universal solution for all of humankind. While we can easily accommodate modest numbers of Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists, etc., those who come to live in this country have to learn to be Americans. That is, they have to learn English and learn the basics of civic life in these United States.

The American civilization is worth preserving. It cannot survive if there are no borders. The thundering proclamations from the likes of Solidarity need to be rejected.

Further Reading:

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Politics & Evolution

In which I claim that Dr. Ben Carson and Mr. Louis Proyect hold similar beliefs.

My Trotskyist friends claim to accept the theory of evolution while also denying it. In this they are typical of the Left. And also of the Right.

Louis Proyect is a good example. I reviewed his extensive criticism of Napoleon Chagnon in a post entitled Marxism & Evopsych, which includes a critique of the Marxist view on evolution. I won't repeat that here except to say that contrary to their claim, Marxists deny the theory of evolution, at least as it applies to human beings.

Since writing that review I have read and reviewed two books on the subject: one by Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind), and the other by Nicholas Wade (A Troublesome Inheritance). These render my Marxism & Evopsych remarks somewhat incomplete, and I confess probably lend some credence to Mr. Proyect's complaints against modern Darwinism.

The latter book is particularly troublesome, as the name implies. It argues that ethnic differences are indeed more than skin deep, and also include variations in personality. In particular, the circle of trust appears to be under significant genetic control. People who have lived in urban areas for many generations, for example, will tend to be more trusting of strangers than folks who've spent the last millennium out in the bush. 

Other people (not Mr. Wade) argue that things like IQ is significantly heritable, and that ethnic groups differ in average IQ, often by a significant margin. Indeed, a recent book by Garett Jones (The Hive Mind) argues that the wealth of nations depends crucially on the average IQ of its population. (He speculates that it may depend more strongly on the IQ of the top 5%, though that's unproven.)

Such ideas have a long and disreputable heritage, as Mr. Proyect will be quick to point out. This chart is easily found by searching for "iq by nation". 


It's been reposted by such worthies as Stormfront (I won't honor them with a link) and FreeRepublic. Nevertheless, the data in this chart seem mostly reproducible and correct, as Mr. Jones discusses in detail. (The causes of the phenomenon are a matter of considerable controversy.)

So actually I don't blame Mr. Proyect for denying evolution's application to human beings. It paints a grim picture of our species. Our prognosis is not good. Mr. Proyect aspires to a better world, and in doing so he is forced to deny science.

Another politico who sides with Mr. Proyect is the presidential candidate, Dr. Ben Carson. Dr. Carson is a retired neurosurgeon, serving as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins for nearly 30 years. As such he must know something about evolution, and it is unlikely that he rejects it altogether. Even though he says "I don't believe in evolution... I simply don't have enough faith to believe that something as complex as our ability to rationalize, think, and plan, and have a moral sense of what's right and wrong, just appeared." [All Carson quotes from Wikipedia.]

Further,
In October 2015, Carson stated that he does accept the idea of natural selection, but there is only evidence for microevolution (changes in allele frequencies that occur over time within a species), which he believes was the result of "a wise creator who gave his creatures the ability to adapt to their environment so that he wouldn't have to start over every 50 years", whereas "there's never been one species that's turned into another species, that can be proved." 
But then, with respect to using fetal tissue for research, he said "to not use the tissue that is in a tissue bank, regardless of where it comes from, would be foolish. Why would anybody not do that?"

So like Mr. Proyect, Dr. Carson is inconsistent on evolution. When it comes to his professional life he has at least implicitly accepted it. But in his religious and political world he adamantly rejects it. In this he is like most people--they reject evolution on Sunday when they go to church, but rely on it on Monday when they visit the doctor. Surely this ability to compartmentalize is an evolved, human trait.

It's very difficult to be consistent on evolution. Maybe some devoutly religious people qualify--like those Christian Scientists who reject any and all medical care, or perhaps some of the faculty at Bob Jones University. But such folks are few and far between.

Then there are people who raise evolution to the status of religion: I'd put Stormfront or FreeRepublic in that category. They consider the above IQ chart to be divinely inspired. Leave aside, for the moment, that they don't know what they're talking about.

Also consistent on evolution is Boko Haram. I don't mean in an intellectual sense--I doubt the Bokos know anything about science. But in the way they live their lives they obey evolution's core principles:
  1. The ultimate measure of evolutionary success can be measured by the fertility rate of one's children and grandchildren.
  2. Evolution cares not a whit for the happiness of the individual organism.
So consider the 250+ schoolgirls from Chibok kidnapped by Boko, and then sold off as wives and concubines.
  1. The lifetime fertility of these girls is likely to be very high--at least for those who survive. Four or five children apiece, subsequently yielding 20+ grandchildren is a reasonable guess. Further, the reproductive success of the kidnappers is virtually assured--how many of the girls are already pregnant?
  2. Yet prospects for happiness for the girls is dire. Or, as an evolutionist might put it, who cares.
Compare the Bokos' fertility with that of aging ex-Trotskyists. I don't believe Mr. Proyect has any offspring (or at least none mentioned on his blog). I have two, but not yet any grandchildren. How many unrelated ex-Trotskyists would you have to put in a room before they could cumulatively match the reproductive success of one Boko platoon leader?

There is no doubt, at least compared to Trotskyists, that the Bokos have a better understanding of evolution.

And yet any member of civilized society--among whom I'd count myself and both Dr. Carson and Mr. Proyect--will object. While we might state it differently, our creed maintains We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Of course evolution denies all of this: the Truths are not only not self-evident, they're not even true. We weren't endowed by any creator, and we don't have any unalienable rights. And for Happiness? Just ask the organisms from Chibok about that!

So I sympathize with Misters Proyect & Carson. Their selective denial of evolution is a mark of civilization, not scientific ignorance (though in the case of Mr. Proyect it is that, too). Despite my own passionate defense of the science of evolution, I have no use for those who raise it to moral principle. Accordingly I would never vote for any ultra-rationalist candidate--not Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett or Christopher Hitchens. Nor would I vote for Barack Obama.

Still, I think Dr. Carson gets the better of any debate. He has three children, and one presumes also some grandchildren. Religious people are more able to successfully reproduce, despite denying evolution, than us more secular sorts. This is civilized religion's great advantage: it potentially answers the question of our age: how can we successfully reproduce in an environment that contains birth control and still remain civilized?

I would never vote for Dr. Carson for biology teacher of the year. For other reasons I probably won't vote for him as president. But on the issue of evolution he's probably closest to getting it right.

Evolution is a science. That's all it is. It tells you something about the human species, but it cannot be the moral lodestar or a religious foundation. As Katherine Hepburn famously said, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

Further Reading:

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Book Review: 'Trotsky'

Paul Le Blanc's Trotsky is primarily an account of Leon Trotsky's last dozen years in exile.

Mr. Le Blanc describes Trotsky's passion in religious terms.
With a grand philosophical sweep that comprehends reality as an evolving and dynamic interplay of matter and energy, Marxism projects reality as a vibrant totality in which amazing qualitites of humanity (creative labor, community, the quest for freedom) have generated technological advances, economic surpluses and consequent inequalities that - in turn - generate struggles against oppression.
Trotsky engaged in those struggles beginning as a teenager and never wavered from the faith. Socialism was, for him, the preordained solution to all of humanity's problems, rather like the Second Coming.

So the fulfillment of Trotsky's socialist dream came in October, 1917, when at the last minute he allied himself with Lenin's Bolshevik party. A famed orator, he delivered his initial speech to his new comrades, rousing them to paroxysms of revolutionary fervor and closing with this peroration:
Let this vote of yours be your vow - with all your strength and at any sacrifice to support the Soviet that has taken on itself the glorious burden of bringing to a conclusion the victory of the revolution and of giving land, bread and peace!
Of course it was a complete lie. The peasants never got any land. Instead they were wiped out. As for bread, the Russian living standard declined from Day One of the revolution and never, ever caught up to that of the capitalist West.

And peace? Trotsky himself became the Secretary of War leading the Red Army to eventual victory, but at enormous cost. Gone was the heroic language. Instead he used threats typical of a psychopath.
I give warning that if any unit retreats without orders, the first to be shot down will be the commissar [Communist political director] of the unit, and next the [military] commander.
Perhaps because he lacked political support Trotsky pursued the war with utmost brutality, as Mr. Le Blanc describes.
In the name of defending the Revolution, a terrible violence was justified, which included the brutal repression of the peasants who were simply defending their crops from confiscation, and of the angry sailors and workers who revolted at the Kronstadt naval base outside Petrograd, traditionally a centre of pro-Bolshevik strength.
 Lenin, no fan of political violence, was taken aback.
...Trotsky particularly, as the supreme commander of the Red Army, developed a style that even Lenin - quite capable of pitiless authoritarian rhetoric - concluded was excessively 'administrative'.
"Administrative" is an odd euphemism for mass murder. But Trotsky ran with it. Subsequently his primary accusation against the Stalinist regime was that they were "bureaucratic", as if the slaughter of 40 million people could be justified if only there'd been less paperwork involved.

However unintentionally, Mr. Le Blanc depicts his subject as a womanizing psychopath. (You'll have to read between the lines to deduce the womanizing, but I'll stand by the claim.) Only when he was cast into exile, beginning in 1928, did he adopt the persona of the cuddly pig from George Orwell's Animal Farm.

While in exile Trotsky worked on three major projects. The first was his magisterial trilogy, The History of the Russian Revolution, which will be read for many generations to come. (I read the one-volume edition back when I was in college, 40 years ago.) The man was a literary genius.

The second project was an analysis of the Stalinist "degeneration" of the Soviet Union. Loathe to call the 1917 Revolution a failure, Trotsky insisted to the end that something fundamental had changed. However deformed and "bureaucratized", in the USSR workers owned the means of production, representing a major leap forward for humanity. I believe the Socialist Workers Party still subscribes to this theory, even today.

The reasons Trotsky gives for the degeneration of the USSR make no sense, and it's hard to take them seriously. Mr. Le Blanc describes them succinctly.
'When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line,' Trotsky explained. This led to the next link. 'When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order.' This simple example, he argued, 'is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It "knows" who is to get something and who has to wait.'
Unlike in backward Russia, Trotsky maintained, in Germany, England, and America there are no shortages and therefore no policeman is necessary. That's why "bureaucracy" uniquely took hold in Russia.

But this makes not even simple-minded economic sense. There is no country on earth--not even the United States--where there are no shortages. There aren't enough Mercedes Benz to go around. Even the most casual acquaintance with Adam Smith reveals how market prices clear when supply meets demand. The "bureaucracy" arises because central planners stick themselves between suppliers and consumers, destroying the market and creating huge inefficiencies and distortions. It has nothing to do with the relative poverty of Russia.

Trotsky obviously knew nothing about economics. There is no evidence that he had even heard of his great contemporary, John Maynard Keynes. He completely misunderstood the Great Depression and the causes of World War II, leading (as Mr. Le Blanc points out) to totally wrong predictions about the postwar era.

Trotsky's third project was the establishment of the Fourth International. The First International was founded by Marx & Engels; the Second International, known for social democracy, was led by the great German socialist, Karl Kautsky. Lenin established the revolutionary Third International. The Trotskyist, Fourth International arose in response to Stalin.

The project has been an abysmal failure. At no time and in no place has Trotskyism succeeded as a viable political movement. In consequence the International has splintered. Indeed, we could number the various iterations like they do software versions: International numbers, 4.1, 4.2, 4.2.1, 4.2.1a, etc. It's a farce.

So Trotsky kept the dream alive, surrounded by his groupies (disproportionately female) in his hideout in Mexico. But it takes a psychopath to know one, and Stalin couldn't sleep at night knowing that his charismatic, intelligent, ruthless rival was still alive. Live by the sword; die by the ice-pick.

I think Leon Trotsky failed at his life's ambition. He only got to spend a few years as a mass murderer--his true calling. His efforts to denigrate his rival come across as self-serving and incredible. The Fourth International is a joke. Only his History will survive as an enduring legacy.

But even that will pale. Trotsky thought that the Russian Revolution was the turning point in World history, rather like the birth of Christ. And for a few years it seemed that way. But now, a quarter Century after the demise of the USSR, the event looks more like a bad dream. Russia has been ruined by 1917: its culture, literature, population, and economy irreparably destroyed. If people recall 1917 today it will be as what not to do.

Goodbye Trotsky.

Mr. Le Blanc's book is well-written, nicely edited, and appropriately priced. The designers of the Kindle edition deserve especial praise (even though a few of the pictures are missing). If despite my advice you're still interested in Leon Trotsky, then this book is highly recommended.

Further Reading: