Sunday, May 24, 2020

Malik Miah on the Virus

Malik Miah knows more about race and racism than I do.

He--a former comrade of mine in the Socialist Workers Party--is African-American and has spent his career thinking, reading and writing about race. I, meanwhile, am a white, upper-middle-class, retired academic who thinks about race occasionally, in between the 53 other political topics that sometimes get my attention.

I have nothing to teach Mr. Miah about race--he'd be insulted if I even tried. My opinions are mostly Republican boilerplate. Mr. Miah has surely heard all of that before.

Still--for the benefit of other readers--let me very briefly state my position. Human beings are loyal first to their own kin, and second to others who look and talk like themselves. Therefore racism is a part of human nature, and there is no human society where it doesn't exist. It isn't caused by capitalism, imperialism, socialism, or any other -ism. It just is. It's not a problem for which there is any solution, merely mitigation--such as with affirmative action programs.

That's enough about me. Let's talk about Malik Miah, and specifically his article in Against the Current entitled Virus is Color Blind, Not Humans. The post concerns the large racial discrepancy in Covid victims. Mr. Miah's data:

Statistics (from a selection of states) show this life gap. 
As of this writing (April 12): 
Illinois: Blacks are 15% of the state’s population, whites 77%. Deaths: 42% Black, 36% white. 
Michigan: Blacks are 14% of state’s population and 40% of deaths (heavily concentrated in the metro area of Detroit. The three counties of metro Detroit make up 83% of the state’s deaths).
Mississippi: Blacks are 38% of state’s population, 72% of deaths. 
Louisiana: Blacks are 33% of the population, 70.5% of deaths.
South Caro­lina: Blacks are 27% of the population, 46% of the deaths.
New York City (the epicenter of the virus): Blacks and Hispanics die at twice the rate of whites, who are 46% of the population. The racially diverse Elmhurst section of Queens is being devastated. 
Official figures are underestimated, as New York City has not counted deaths of many people who died at home and were never taken to hospitals. There were not enough tests to check.
A couple of quibbles: Mr. Malik reports death rates, which are likely more accurately reported than other data. But we don't know from this whether Blacks are more likely to get Covid, or simply more likely to die from it. That will make a big difference in any conclusions. Second, I tend to think deaths attributed to Covid are overstated. Mr. Malik's point is correct, but on the other hand anybody who tests positive for the virus is assumed to have died from it, when in many cases (esp. in nursing homes) they died from something else.

So to complement Mr. Malik's death stats, I looked for data on Covid infections by race. The CDC website reports (as of May 24, 2020) that 26.6% of all cases were among Black people, or roughly double their percent in population (13%). That this qualitatively corresponds to Mr. Malik's data is reassuring.

The conclusion then is that Blacks are twice as likely to contact Covid than whites. Mr. Miah attributes that to racism.

He might be partly right, but his reasoning is mistaken. Certainly his opening paragraph is wrong.
The coronavirus is color blind. It strikes whites, Blacks, Latinos, indigenous people, Asians, rich and poor. So why the higher number of cases and deaths for African Americans?
Susceptibility to any disease is significantly heritable, which means it varies by ethnicity. Dramatic examples include Tay-Sachs disease, which afflicts almost exclusively Ashkenazi Jews. West Africans suffer disproportionately from sickle cell anemia--a side effect from their relative resistance to malaria. Charles Mann points out that Black slaves in colonial Virginia had longer life expectancies than their white masters precisely because of that. I just survived a bout of bladder cancer, during which I learned that white men are twice as likely to have the disease than Black men--undoubtedly a genetic effect.

All diseases depend to one degree or another on the genetics of the host. That Covid is twice as prevalent among Blacks than whites strongly suggests genetics as at least a partial explanation. There will likely someday be a polygenic score that predicts susceptibility to this virus.

But genetic susceptibility cannot be the whole story. In Mr. Miah's telling, racism is the cause of Black poverty, and poverty leads to virus infections. That second premise is undoubtedly correct--poor people are more likely to get sick regardless of susceptibility. As a good Republican, I tend to attribute Black poverty more to the social dysfunction described by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1964. To which Mr. Miah will likely respond that that dysfunction is itself a product of racism.

To which I have no very good answer, except to note that racism is a very amorphous, ill-defined concept. As said, I freely acknowledge that it exists, and further I'd support some government policies to mitigate its effects (such as a narrowly-tailored affirmative action program). But if Mr. Miah wants to blame the Covid discrepancy on racism, he's gonna have to define racism much more precisely than he has, and then connect many more dots to show how it results in the Covid statistics. I don't think he can do that.

Looking toward the future, this is how Mr. Miah describes the path forward.
The United States is the only developed country in the world where there is no universal health care. The racial gap, however, has prevented united action — even though most people now support a single payer type system. Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans have never received fair and equal treatment. Many African Americans don’t have a primary care physician.
The ideology of white supremacy is so engrained that solidarity between whites and others has been difficult to forge. Racial inequality is exacerbated under a system that puts business and profits first. Yet the need for health solidarity is changing that.
I doubt Mr. Miah and I will find too much common ground here. I think a single-payer system is a lousy idea that will never work. I don't think racial inequality is exacerbated by capitalism--quite the opposite.

Still, there is a problem when many African Americans don't have a primary care physician. And while I'm skeptical we'll ever make much progress, I surely support the notion of health solidarity. I do think that people like Mr. Miah and people like me can reach common ground on at least some issues. And we should try to do that.

To that end, we need to tone down the partisan bickering. Solving the primary care physician problem does not mean we have to solve all problems of everything first. On my side of the aisle we need to avoid epithets like "race-baiter" or "race-hustler." Those are not helpful. And Mr. Miah really needs to stop using language like "white supremacy."

Advice to everybody: if you want to win friends and influence people, throwing around casual insults is not helpful.

Further Reading:

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Trotskyists on Reopening

Reopening?

Generally they're against it.

The case is succinctly made by Socialist Action in a piece by Steve Johnson entitled Reopening schools: A dangerous threat to children and teachers. The lede paragraph:
Plans to reopen schools are being questioned by the international working class as the novel coronavirus COVID-19 continues to spread across the world. These plans are part of the mad rush of capitalist nations to re-open their economies, disregarding the health of the children and the working class of their respective societies.
Absent perfect safety and the once-and-for-all defeat of the virus, nothing should be allowed to reopen. Anything less than that "demonstrates the lack of scientific planning these nations possess in tackling the pandemic."

Despite claiming to represent the "international working class," not even the teachers' union (AFT) agrees with Mr. Johnson.
AFT president Randi Weingarten announced the union’s “Plan to Safely Reopen America’s Schools and Communities” wherein the AFT linked the re-opening of the economy to the re-opening of schools. The AFT’s proposal repeated the false notion that “To gradually reopen, we need to maintain physical distancing until the number of new cases declines for at least 14 consecutive days.” ...
The AFT’s criteria, essentially matched by the Trump administration’s and major U.S. corporations, for “gradually re-opening” public schools and businesses more generally, would undoubtedly place teachers, other school workers, and students in unimaginable danger.
I think the AFT understands that closed schools mean unemployed teachers, and most teachers are willing to take some risk to go back to work. (It's not like by staying home they're necessarily at lower risk.)

Socialist Resurgence (SR) holds a similar position. Author Andy Barns comes down hard on Elon Musk for opening the Tesla plant in Fremont, CA. In the process he defends such august, bourgeois institutions as the Alameda County health department--presumably because they're "scientists." But Mr. Musk opened up anyway, daring the petty fascists to come and arrest him. Needless to say they backed down.

To which Mr. Barns responds:
Supervisor Haggerty seems confused. That Musk is actively endangering 10,000 people during a pandemic should present cooler heads with the obligation to arrest Mr. Musk! And this should be easy since he is literally breaking the law!
Mr. Musk didn't endanger anybody--no Tesla employee was forced to return to work, and some undoubtedly stayed home. But like teachers, most autoworkers need jobs and want to go to work. It's bizarre that a supposed tribune of the working class is so keen on enforcing bourgeois law against them.

SR's Adam Ritscher is the only comrade on my Beat who's done some actual reporting. In a post entitled COVID-19: Farmers slaughter hogs as pork-processing plants close down he tells us how the meatpacking supply chain actually works. I learned something--the article is well worth reading. He points out that meatpacking facilities have gotten much bigger as the process has been relentlessly optimized. Obviously that benefits consumers in normal times.

But these times are not normal. If one link breaks then lots of other things go haywire as well. "And many processing plants are so huge that they alone process a couple of percentage points of the nation’s pork. So when just one of these plants closes down, it has a huge impact." For all its efficiency, the supply chain has become increasingly brittle.

And he does have a point. But his closing paragraph makes no sense.
Today’s industry was designed around the sole goal of maximizing profits. What we need is an industry that is designed for human needs, and that takes the environment into account. Let’s use this horrible crisis to redouble our efforts to help make such a more just and rational society a reality!
Wrong! The industry's goal of "maximizing profits" also includes getting as much meat into consumer's mouths as quickly and as cheaply as possible. That's meeting human needs! "Redoubling our efforts" to solve hopelessly vague, hypothetical, and very expensive problems will simply keep people hungry.

Better is the solution at the Smithfield Pork plant (also reported by Mr. Ritscher), which offered $500 bonuses to employees willing and able to come to work.

Shifting gears a bit, Socialist Viewpoint reproduces an article by James Dennis Hoff, entitled Get Militant or Die: Labor unions in the age of crisis. The piece originally appeared in something called Left Voice, published by a collective of New York City college professors virtue-signalling their revolutionary socialism.

While Mr. Hoff's article was published on April 3rd--too soon to pass judgement on any reopening--he was staunchly in favor of the shutdown.
However, it is most important, in the short term at least, that unions fight to protect the immediate health of working people by demanding that all non-essential production be halted and that productive resources be repurposed in order to face the crisis, ...
So much for the lower-middle class--waitresses, retail employees, beauticians, hotel maids and flight attendants should all be thrown out of work because they're "non-essential." But no fear--they can all be "repurposed," just like recycled garbage.

Meanwhile, college professors--e.g., Mr. Hoff--who have never been laid off because they're apparently "essential", should now urge their unions to be more militant. No more playing footsie with Mr. Cuomo--the professoriate should demand "adequate funding for public services," even to the point of going on strike.

"Adequate funding," in Mr. Hoff's view, requires taxing the rich.
Meanwhile the Governor has made it clear that he has zero intention of raising taxes and has repeatedly argued that any new taxes on the wealthy or on Wall Street would lead to capital flight, a claim that doesn’t seem to be supported by any actual evidence, but which nonetheless shows where the governor’s priorities are and just how much political power capital wields in Albany when compared to working people.
There is plenty of evidence of capital flight. New York state lost more than 180,000 people to net domestic migration in 2019. Those weren't poor people--those were middle and upper middle class folks who don't want to pay New York taxes.

Because of the virus, the billionaires have already fled Manhattan for their second and third homes in Florida. Will they ever return as New York residents? Maybe not--there's no income tax in Florida. If the billionaires leave, then the millionaires leave, too. Indeed, many of them are already working from home in New Jersey. Will they return to Manhattan so they can pay more taxes? Probably not. And when the millionaires leave, so do the restaurateurs and the Uber drivers--people who need to work near their customers.

The only people left in Manhattan will be college professors, the welfare crowd and homeless people. All fine people, to be sure, but none of them pay taxes. Piss poor future that will be. But go for it, Mr. Hoff. Have fun on your strike--just don't count on having a job when it's over.

I'll close with an official statement from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) entitled Fight for gov’t-funded public works program to create jobs. They have two demands: one (apropos nothing in particular) is for full amnesty for undocumented workers. The second (relevant to jobs) is
A massive government-funded public works program to put millions to work at union-scale wages to build the hospitals, schools, affordable housing and all the other things we sorely need. We need to get workers back to work to strengthen our class consciousness and fighting capacity.
We have more than enough hospitals--they weren't even full during the height of the pandemic. We surely don't need any more schools--birthrates continue to decline, along with school enrollments. There's plenty of affordable housing--just not in places like Manhattan or San Francisco. The solution is to move more jobs and people to the suburbs. (For an interesting take see this article by John Sanphilippo.)

I'm all for getting workers back to work! But why can't they do useful things instead of stupid, make-work projects? What's wrong with restaurants, hotels, airlines, churches, beauty salons, meatpacking plants--hell, even college campuses? Why is it that Democrats and Socialists alike are so much against people being allowed to earn an honest living?

Down With Poverty!

Further Reading:






Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Book Review: The Decadent Society

The author is Ross Douthat and the complete title is The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Own Success. I very much enjoyed reading this book, and I might even agree with its conclusion--but in the end I think the argument fails.

Decadence, in Mr. Douthat's usage, does not imply a moral or bacchanal degeneration. Instead it means stagnation, complacency, lack of vigor. Unlike crisis, decadence doesn't auger imminent doom, but is rather a kind of purgatory--a changeless state that can last indefinitely. Decadence ends either because renewed vigor that moves society up and away, or because catastrophe brings stasis to a close.

Among the indicators of decadence is the slow-growth economy. The global economy began to slow down in the mid-1970s, and specifically productivity took a dive. That means technology wasn't advancing as fast as it had in the past. Apart from a decade-long productivity-growth-spurt beginning in 1995 (likely due to the PC), global productivity growth remains tepid.

Drawing on Robert Gordon's superb book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth (my review here), Mr. Douthat doubts any resurgence in productivity. Gordon's book describes the miracle century, from 1870 to 1970. Beginning with the electric light, inventions included the telephone, the internal combustion engine, automobiles, municipal water and sewer systems, and much more besides. While everybody acknowledges that the Internet, Google, streaming, mobile phones, GPS, and Wikipedia are wonderful, they've done little to improve productivity statistics. The low-hanging fruit has already been harvested. No comparably important technology will be forthcoming.

So it is odd that Mr. Douthat never mentions fracking--arguably the most important new technology of our current century. Perhaps it won't dramatically change consumers' lives, but it definitely alters geopolitics--the US is now an energy exporter. See Peter Zeihan's book The Absent Superpower for more on that. Much of what Mr. Douthat describes as the end of neoliberalism is, in fact, because of fracking. In terms of geopolitics, fracking changes everything.

Another symptom of decadence is sterility. Apart from Africa and South Asia, birthrates around the world have been in steady decline. In the developed world fertility rates are now below replacement, i.e., fewer than 2.1 children per woman. Fertility in Japan, for example, is only 1.43. The US is at 1.84.

Mr. Douthat is right to be concerned. A country without children is a country without economic growth, without cultural or technical innovation, and ultimately a country without a future. For some countries (perhaps Japan) the disease might be terminal. But I doubt it generally is. I'm old enough to recall the 1970s when expert opinion was predicting a population explosion--we were doomed to Malthusian disaster.

The experts were wrong. That problem corrected itself. And I'll suggest the experts will be wrong again. The current trend is self-limiting--people will start having babies again. Linear extrapolation rarely works.

In a chapter entitled Sclerosis, Mr. Douthat remarks that governance decays
...as popular programs become part of an informal social contract that makes them impossible to reform; as the administrative state gets barnacled by interest groups that can buy off and bludgeon would be reformers;...
Why are the "barnacles" today so much stickier than they were fifty years ago? I'll hazard a guess: social media. The book that Mr. Douthat really needs to read is by Martin Gurri, entitled The Revolt of the Public. Social media allows interest groups to proliferate. Back in the 70s people celebrated Earth Day. From that a population hived off to Save the Whales. Today there is undoubtedly a Facebook page about saving specifically blue whales. The moral is that mass movements get fragmented. Social media allows people with very specific interests to find each other and form a "public" for a cause. It's not that the barnacles are stickier. It's just that there are a whole lot more barnacles than there used to be.

If there is one silver lining in this whole COVID-19 fiasco, it's that it might crash higher education. A more sclerotic, decadent institution cannot be imagined. Perhaps the pandemic crisis can break up the higher ed cartel. Here's hoping.

Among reasons to think our decadence might endure is because we're comfortable. Most Americans live in suburban homes--a chicken in every pot and two cars in the driveway. We vacation in Cancun or Disneyworld, and get 500 channels on the telly. Plus we're getting older.

What more do you want? Not much, apparently--decadence works just fine.

Similarly, we're addicted. Mr. Douthat cites porn as an example. Many thought that porn would inspire harassment or rape or worse. It turns out it does the opposite--men addicted to porn are perfectly happy to sit in their mothers' basements and take care of themselves. Instead of incentivizing sex, porn deadens the urge.

Similarly, Grand Theft Auto does not teach adolescent boys how to steal cars--it makes them less likely to steal real cars.

Then government encourages decadence. The myth of cradle-to-grave security saps ambition--why bother? Today's argument concerns the extent government will insure all citizens from the effects of the virus. The pro-decadent party (Democrats) support major bailouts, while the (slightly) anti-decadent party desires instead to reopen the economy as quickly as possible.

Most irritating to me is that Mr. Douthat grossly misunderstands President Trump. He dismisses him as an incompetent, accidental figure who was never anything more than a Reality TV host. I think this is unfair.

So Mr. Trump a) won the Republican nomination; b) won the 2016 election; c) nominated and had confirmed 193 judges to the federal judiciary; d) changed public opinion by 180 degrees about our relationship with China; e) stopped the caravans from coming across the border; f) defeated the Russia, Russia, Russia hoax; g) survived impeachment.

Now you may or may not like his successes, but it surely isn't fair to call him "incompetent" or "accidental." That doesn't fit at all.

Likewise, on a planet where the majority get their news from social media, isn't Mr. Trump's background as a reality TV host just the perfect talent? Love him or hate him, you gotta admit he's using the skill set to the max.

Finally, Mr. Douthat suggests that Trump's MAGA promises are just hot air. For example, he faults
A conservatism with no vision of how to revitalize itself and, therefore, no defense except a wall, the moat, the rampart.
This is not a fair description of Trumpism. The wall by itself will not revitalize America--but surely it's an essential first step. A country without borders isn't a country. Add to the border: a repatriation of manufacturing to the US; an emphasis on personal responsibility for economic outcomes; the strengthening of the military; an effort to diminish the role of the federal government in people's lives; admitting immigrants "who love us" and who can provide for themselves, rather than just those who scramble over the fence; a resurgence of patriotism.

This is not an empty list. Indeed, it's a very ambitious agenda--not at all clear that Trump can achieve it. But lack of success and lack of vision are two different things. Mr. Douthat is wrong when he claims Trump has no vision.

The Decadent Society is a beautiful, entertaining book. Perhaps we are decadent, but nowhere near as much a Mr. Douthat claims.

Further Reading:









Thursday, May 7, 2020

Trotskyist Ephemera

Today's topic is Trotskyist ephemera--nothing substantial here.

Let's begin with Socialist Action (SA). Because of the virus they are posting a pdf version of their paper online. While the articles are mostly reproduced from the web, some other bits are not. Notably, the print version has a list of locations and phone numbers. In my day we would have called them branches (which typically had 15+ members), but that seems too generous a term. SA has about 60 members spread out among 14 locals implies an average of six comrades per local.

My interest in geography inspires me to copy the list here:

Brunswick, ME; Buffalo, NY; Central New Jersey; Chicago, IL; Detroit, MI; Kansas City, MO; Lexington, KY; Louisville, KY; Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN; New York City, NY; Oregon; Norfolk, VA; Bay Area, CA; North Bay Area, CA

Brunswick and Lexington are unambiguously college towns. Central NJ might mean Rutgers or Princeton. Buffalo and Minneapolis have lots of campuses.  So one concludes that SA is still oriented towards campus.

Is that good news or bad news? If they're attracting students, then it is unambiguously good news--it means the organization is getting younger. But somehow I doubt that. I suspect their membership is mostly among the faculty and staff. Or less optimistically, among the retired faculty and staff. That their leader--Jeff Mackler, a retired teachers' union hack who will turn 80 this year--likely represents the demographic.

Norfolk is weird--I've never seen a Trotskyist branch there. It's mostly a military town, but there are colleges in the area. The other places, e.g., Chicago, Detroit, and New York, are places where any grouplet will want to have a branch.

More generally, membership skews heavily toward the Northeast and Midwest, with the Bay Area, Oregon, and Norfolk being outliers. Most locations are wealthy cities. The Deep South and Texas are not represented. Neither is Los Angeles--a much more proletarian city than San Francisco.

There are some changes in the Socialist Action webpage/newspaper. Distressingly, there is no link to archives--or at least none I could find. You can still search for old articles, but for that you need a specific title. There is no way to look up what was in the paper in, say, May, 2019, or for any time prior to January 30th, 2020. Perhaps this is just a technical oversight to be corrected in a few days. But I fear instead it is an attempt to airbrush Socialist Resurgence out of history. (Recall that SR split from SA in October, 2019, taking about half the membership with them.) This makes it seem like they have something to be ashamed of.

The other novelty is SA is now posting more videos. This sounds like a good idea, and perhaps they'll get the hang of it some day. But right now there are lots of problems.

They've posted a long video entitled Why I Am Running to be President of the USA. It's in interview format with host Kurt Young, who along with Vancouver comrade Yvonne Hanson, asks Mr. Mackler a bunch of very softball, scripted questions.

The good news is that Mr. Mackler has at least changed his shirt. He's wearing a clean and pressed dress shirt with a tie--big improvement there. He's sitting in his Bay Area living room, in front of a fireplace and well-stocked bookshelf. It looks to be a very nice private house--one wonders what money that would fetch on today's market? He confesses to be nearly 80 years old and has likely lived in that house for decades--surely it's paid for by now. The conclusion: Mr. Mackler is probably a millionaire several times over. He's richer than I am!

But that's not the worst of the video. The main flaw is it's an hour and 20 minutes long! Even I, a devout follower of irrelevant grouplets, don't have the stomach for that. I have only sampled it. Then the production quality, while adequate, is not professional. Mr. Mackler--whom I've dubbed Boring Jeff--lives up to the nickname, answering obvious questions in a monotone voice at great length.

Leonid Brezhnev would be proud! Though I gotta say, Mr. Mackler is a lot more articulate than Joe Biden, so there is hope.

Socialist Resurgence (SR) posts a pdf version of Volume 1 Issue 1 of their eponymous quarterly. (Note that the link goes to votesocialistaction.files.wordpress.com. Some divorces are more amicable than others.)

The paper does contain color photographs, some quite dramatic. For some reason there are two multi-column wide pics of Bernie Sanders--even though they're as much against the guy as Mr. Mackler. But photos notwithstanding, the overwhelming impression is a Wall of Text. Three or four columns wide, covering the entire page in small type, is nothing but fine print. It's very uninviting. The front page has exactly one article, continued on page six. Compare that with The Militant, which front page contains five headlines and two photos--it's a much more lively and engaging layout. Of course The Militant has been in business since 1928--and they certainly don't hide their archives.

SR doesn't offer much geographical information, but there is this. Their national office address is a mailbox at a UPS store in--you'd better sit down for this--Stamford, CT! What's going on--are they running a hedge fund on the side? While Stamford itself is not super-wealthy--it's only the 38th richest town in the state, out of 178--it is the largest business and financial center in New York metro second only to Wall Street. The neighboring communities, e.g., Greenwich and New Canaan, are among the wealthiest places in the world.

What a place to headquarter a supposed Vanguard Party! Sheesh!

Apparently SA and SR are engaged in a competition to see who can attract the smallest audience with new videos. Among SR's contributions is a post by Keith Leslie entitled China, from workers state to imperialist power. It's a presentation of his excellent monograph on the same topic. But honestly, Mr. Leslie should stick to his knitting--while he's a superb writer, he sucks as a lecturer. Even Boring Jeff does better.

The video is nearly two hours long. Mr. Leslie looks like a grad student--slovenly dressed and in dire need of a haircut. Grad students (and here I speak from experience) are very low-status individuals, with only a tenuous purchase on the academic ladder (much more tenuous today than in my time). Typically they are people who have nothing better to do with their time, and who are willing to work for what is likely less than minimum wage. When making a video, the last thing you want to do is look like a grad student!

I don't know if Mr. Leslie really is a grad student--I'm just saying he looks like one. SR does have a number of articles bemoaning their plight, so perhaps Mr. Leslie is playing to type. He needs a better stage persona.

My advice to him is stick to writing. He's good at that.

Further Reading:




Monday, April 27, 2020

The Militant & Louis Proyect Argue About the Virus

Louis Proyect (h/t commenter John B) suggests a (perhaps literally) fatal flaw in Socialist Workers Party (SWP) strategy and tactics. Consider the picture below, published in an article by Maggie Trowe in the April 6th edition of The Militant.

Audience at March 15th memorial meeting celebrating the life of Larry Quinn (Source: The Militant/Roy Landerson)
Mr. Proyect notes in his lede:
In this photograph, dated March 15, 2020, you will see a group of mostly senior citizens defying the call for social distancing. Who could they be? Rightwing Christian evangelists? Libertarians standing up for liberty? 
Nope. Instead, you are looking at members of the Socialist Workers Party at a memorial meeting for one of their members who died last month. The Militant newspaper reported that more than sixty people were in attendance. That’s probably about half the membership, ...
The meeting was held in Albany, NY on March 15th. In our comrades' defense, New York's Stay-At-Home order was not issued until March 22nd--a week later. Broadway theaters were closed on March 12th. It's hard for me to go back in time and recover how transgressive such a gathering was perceived back then, but Mr. Proyect obviously conflates attitudes on April 10th (when his article was published) with those on March 15th (when the meeting took place). Likewise, the door-to-door canvassing depicted in this article probably did not violate Indiana's stay-at-home order (not sure).

Mr. Proyect exaggerates the kookiness of the SWP--there is no way this meeting can be interpreted as libertarian civil disobedience. Though in retrospect it was foolish--especially for the senior citizen crowd. I'm glad I didn't attend. (Apparently the Party's top leadership--Jack Barnes, Mary-Alice Waters, or Steve Clark--also didn't attend. Make of that what you will.) [Update: Ms. Waters did attend the meeting and is sitting in the second row.]

Weirder is The Militant's vigorous defense of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. In the April 13th issue Roger Calero writes
Essential needs like 12-step program meetings — the regular, face-to-face peer gatherings key to recovery for alcoholics and addicts, as well as their spouses and families — have been forced to close by shelter-in-place and lockdown edicts, and bans on even small gatherings, here and elsewhere.
This was almost certainly written after lockdown orders went into effect, so the context is very different from Larry Quinn's memorial.

Mr. Proyect's take is this:
If you want to see an explicit call, however, you can turn to a bizarre Militant article titled “Morality of capitalist rulers reflected in shutdown of AA.” It defended the right of alcoholics to attend weekly meetings even if it cost their lives from COVID-19 rather than cirrhosis of the liver.
Mr. Proyect himself can't decide whether Covid or alcoholism is the greater threat, and his uncertainty somehow renders the SWP "bizarre." But surely it's a fair question--the lockdown inevitably produces some trade-offs. Is it unreasonable to let individuals decide for themselves which risk is greater? Apparently not according to Mr. Proyect--he thinks that Mr. Cuomo should make such decisions for everybody, unilaterally.

To me, the "weird" part is The Militant's uncharacteristic support for a religious movement. In AA's 12 steps, "God" or "higher power" is explicitly mentioned in six of them. Belief in God is core to AA's success. That a supposedly Trotskyist organization is touting such virtues is astonishing.

In our politically polarized society, it's not surprising that people gravitate toward extreme positions. Our Marxist and pseudo-Marxist friends, such as Misters Proyect and Cuomo, take literally Marx's dictum  "from each according to his ability, and to each according to his needs."

Supporters of capitalism--especially Libertarians--will rephrase this.
From each an opportunity to apply his ability toward maximum economic benefit, both for himself and society, and to each according to his wants.
Only the free market allocates and organizes abilities efficiently. No other system works nearly as well--not state capitalism (aka fascism) such as practiced in China, and certainly not socialism, e.g., Cuba or Venezuela.

More important for the discussion here is the second clause--the contrast between needs and wants. Marxists (pseudo and otherwise) claim to know the difference. This leads to the distinction between essential workers and non-essential workers. Mr. Cuomo--acting now very much like a Marxist--believes that essential workers tend to people's needs, while the non-essential sort are only about wants. Misters Proyect and Cuomo claim to be smart enough to tell them apart.

Of course the governor is self-dealing. People who deliver groceries to the upper-middle class (e.g., Cuomo's political base, Mr. Proyect, and me) are deemed essential, while the waitress at the working-class diner is somehow a non-essential luxury. Supposedly waitresses spread disease, but grocery deliverers somehow don't.

To supporters of a free market the distinction is completely nonsensical. The other night on Fox News, Shannon Bream interviewed two small business owners from Atlanta--now legally allowed to reopen. One lady owned a beauty parlor--hair styling, facials, manicures, etc.--the owner herself did eyebrows. For her own safety she chose not to reopen, despite running up a big debt on her credit card.

The other lady owned a cross-fit gym, and armed with blue tape to mark out socially-distanced workstations, along with liberal quantities of sanitizer, she is back in business.

The only thing these two businesses have in common is that some stupid governor deemed them non-essential (as if nobody ever needed a haircut). But they're obviously completely different from each other, and the one-size-fits-all, essential category is silly.

People, including the president, criticized Georgia's Governor Kemp for reopening too soon. That would be a proper criticism if he'd required businesses to reopen. But as the Fox clip shows, both these ladies are very smart and know their businesses. They choose different strategies. The moral is Let Capitalism Reign. Businesses, their employees, and their customers will work out optimal solutions.

The Militant gives a good example of how this happens.
On March 26 an assistant manager at a sizable Walmart in the northern New Jersey area told Tetri Boodhoo that she had to take off the mask she had decided to wear, saying it was against company policy. The boss said she and any other workers not happy with this could take leave without any penalty — and without any pay. 
... After rejecting their demands, the boss consulted with higher-ups and backed down. Many workers — and customers too — considered this a victory. “You see, when we speak out together we can win,”
... Walmart bosses nationally have now reversed their position. They told the press March 31 that they intend to make available “high-quality masks” for any employee who wishes to wear them.
While this is more confrontational than seems necessary, it didn't take long for a meeting of minds between bosses, employees and customers--to the benefit of all concerned. Yet Mr. Proyect puts all his hopes in the supposedly unfailing wisdom of Mr. Cuomo, who thinks the only good business is a closed business.

Just to rant a little bit:

Aren't non-essential workers some vaguely sub-human folks who can't serve people's needs instead of merely their wants? That's what Mr. Cuomo implied when he told "protesters" to get "essential" jobs. So the lady, whose life savings and entire career are invested in the beauty business, should now go and deliver groceries to Mr. Proyect's house?

Or--aren't non-essential workers approximately the same as the deplorables? Admittedly the correspondence isn't exact, but surely close enough. Do people like Mr. Proyect really have it in for the lower middle class?

Perhaps Mr. Proyect is correct? Maybe the SWP isn't Marxist anymore? But at least they know who their customers are. The Militant's masthead proclaims "published in the interests of working people."

Seems right to me.

Further Reading:

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Book Review: Disunited Nations

I have a love/hate relationship with Peter Zeihan's new book, Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in a Disunited World.

Let's start with the bad news first.

Apart from editorial asides by the author, the book has no footnotes. The bibliography only includes five titles. There is no reference to historical models of geopolitics. Facts are offered without citations. Now I'm not a great fan of scholarship--academic monographs are not just boring, but useless. Reading through a forest of footnotes is tedious.

But without any context I have no way to know how trustworthy Mr. Zeihan's sources are. Is he just cherry-picking factoids to fit his story? Is he really such a genius that he can develop a whole geopolitical theory de novo out of thin air?

Is the man a serious thinker?--or merely a huckster trolling for consulting dollars? Yes, and yes.

I loved this book!

For clarity and concision it is unmatched. He tells a simple (too simple by half) story of the globe's future for the next generation. Story is the operative word--the book reads like a well-plotted novel. That makes me suspicious (is life really that straightforward?), but it's very readable. I think he's wrong in big ways, as I'll explain below. But the basic story seems true enough.

It goes like this:

After WWII, the Soviet Union, despite its intrinsic weaknesses, represented an existential threat to the United States. Our ingenious counter was to mobilize the world to our side. This was not done by brute force, nor by appeal to humanitarian principles. For the most part we bribed other countries to be our allies. The bribe consisted of three parts:
  1. The US will guarantee your current borders. You do not need to defend yourself against your neighbors.
  2. The US will guarantee your trade routes. Our navy will patrol the world and keep the seas free of pirates and military foes. Not merely was transit through the Panama and Suez canals open to all, but also through the Malacca, Hormuz, and even the Bosporus Straits.
  3. The US market was open to your produce nearly without restriction. Whether German cars, Japanese electronics, Bengali textiles, or Chinese toys--anybody could sell anything in the USA tariff-free.
It worked like a charm. Apart from the US and the Soviet Union, military spending decreased around the globe. The NATO allies, for example, couldn't rouse themselves to even spend 2% of their GDP on defense. Piracy and privateering on the high seas, along with toll-collecting at choke points disappeared. Countries as diverse as Germany, South Korea and China got rich selling into US market.

The world got rich, including the United States. Mr. Zeihan refers to this era--from 1945 to nearly the present day--as the post-war Order. But now the Order is breaking down, again for three reasons.
  1. The Soviet Union is no more. The empire collapsed in 1991, and the successor state, Russia, is itself in terminal, demographic decline (so claims Zeihan).
  2. Fracking changes everything. North America is now energy independent, and indeed, we're a net energy exporter. The result is we have little cause to police the Middle East anymore, and certainly not the Persian Gulf or the Straits of Hormuz.
  3. While in 1950 the US produced about 50% of global gdp, today the number is only 25%. That's certainly not because the US is poorer, but rather because the Order hugely increased wealth globally. Thus we can no longer serve as a market of last resort, nor can we cover the world's defense costs.
As said, it's too simple by half. While the Soviets inspired NATO, it seems unlikely that they were the only reason for the Order. Surely American business understood the virtue of global markets, even in 1945. There were strong economic reasons for the Order. Accordingly, the collapse of the Soviets did not presage the imminent demise of the Order--it's hung on for nigh 30 years--again for its economic benefits.

Mr. Zeihan's tale leaves out some important trends. New technology spread around the world--the rise in global wealth is as much due to that as the American policeman. The Order’s decline may be due to a sharp drop in global productivity beginning in the mid '70s as much as anything else. Indeed, Mr. Zeihan’s story depends too heavily on geography and demographics--important topics to be sure, but not necessarily more important than technology, history, culture, or even genetics.

Still, I think he's mostly right, and the Order's inevitable demise may lead to the consequences he foretells. I think he's right about China. I think he's wrong about Germany.

China has five existential problems, and while it might survive one or two of them, solving all five of them simultaneously is impossible. The Chinese economy will crash, and Zeihan predicts the country will not survive as a unitary state. The five issues are:

  1. While Americans do farming, the Chinese do gardening. This is because they had a surplus of agricultural labor, and gardening is more productive per acre than farming. By shipping labor off to the cities, China was forced into mechanized farming, which hasn't worked too well. Despite the huge capital investment, agricultural productivity has not grown proportionately. Mr. Zeihan predicts famine in China's near future.
  2. China has over-invested in housing. Housing is the primary investment tool for middle-class Chinese, including many second- and vacation- homes, similar to what the stock market is in the US. By building too many houses, there will inevitably be a crash in prices, wiping out the wealth of much of the population.
  3. Chinese demography is terrible. Unlike the US (with our large Millennial Generation), Chinese baby boomers were limited to one child each. Thus China is older than the United States, and it's labor force is actually shrinking. It's very difficult to grow an economy when your labor force is shrinking and the bulk of your population is retiring.
  4. China has insufficient natural resources. It produces very little of its own energy, importing most from the Persian Gulf (to which, absent the US Navy, access is not guaranteed). It can't produce enough food to feed itself, and also must import the fertilizers and other inputs for its agriculture. Given the shortage of labor, the reversion to labor-intensive gardening looks unlikely. 
  5. China is too big to be an export power. Economic success depends on a sharp increase in domestic consumption. But consumers are in the ages 30-50 demographic, i.e., the generation that doesn't exist in sufficient numbers in China. And they're not having any children, either. The result is Chinese consumption is purchased only by government debt, i.e., the government buying all kinds of products that citizens can no longer consume. Every financial institution in the country is insolvent. It will end badly.
Moral: Don't invest money in China!

Now for Germany: Mr. Zeihan takes the Marxist saw too literally: history repeats itself, first as tragedy, and then as farce. The "Germans" invaded Russia first in 1914, and then again in 1940. Contrary to Marx, Mr. Zeihan thinks they'll do it a third time. I believe he's ignoring history.

There were three "German" empires (Reich). The First Reich was under Charlemagne, founded in the Eighth Century, and that really was a German empire (without scare quotes). The capital was in Aachen, in the Rhineland. The Second Reich was founded by Bismarck in 1871, with it's capital in Berlin. But it wasn't really a German Empire, but rather a Prussian one.

The Prussians are originally a Baltic people--Old Prussian, spoken until the 18th Century, is related to Lithuanian. Ancestral Prussians lived in what became known as East Prussia, today parts of Lithuania and northeast Poland. They were first conquered by one of Charlemagne's heirs, and took to German language and culture with some enthusiasm. But they are not ethnic Germans--neither then nor now. They're Prussian. Mr. Zeihan seems to think they're just another species of "German."

Bismarck was very aware of this--his goal was a Prussian empire, not a German one. Indeed, he wanted the Kaiser to be dubbed the Emperor of the Germans rather than the German Emperor (it is only by accident that he didn't get his wish). He treated Germany proper (the Rhineland, Baden-Wurttemburg, Bavaria and Austria, along with Alsace and Lorraine--i.e., Catholic or Roman Germany) as colonies to be exploited. (This was especially true in Alsace and Lorraine.)

And even though Hitler was an ethnic German, the Third Reich was also a Prussian empire, not a German one. It's the Prussians who had an issue with Russia. The Drang nach Osten was never a German emotion, but solely a Prussian one.

In the meantime, Prussia has been completely destroyed. They've been ethnically cleansed from their native homeland. Today they live mostly in the former East Germany--a geography that has long been a Prussian satrapy. Berlin is the capital of Prussia, not Germany.

The Germans, properly understood, have no cause to pick a fight with Russia. And I doubt the Prussians have the resources to even think about it. More likely is Germany will re-divide into two states along the former iron curtain: proper Germany to the West, and a rump Prussia in the East.

I don't think Mr. Zeihan's story about Germany makes much sense, for this and other reasons. But his book is a lot of fun and well worth reading.

Further Reading:

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Book Review: Human Diversity

The full title of Charles Murray's recent book is Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race and Class. It's a dense, tightly-reasoned, data-packed, expertly-written tome that will change the world. Or rather, the subject it discusses will change the world.

The major purpose of the book is to bring the educated layman up to date on the science of human genetics. Thanks to spectacular advances since 1980, and especially since the complete mapping of the genome in 2005, it is now possible to shed some serious light on the old nature vs. nurture question. While these results have until now stayed mostly within the specialist, scientific community, it is Mr. Murray's view that before the end of this decade, the consequences of this new knowledge will impact every aspect of our lives.

A short, oversimplified summary of the story goes like this: Back in the old days (before 1980) it was supposed that most human traits were the result of a gene or two, or perhaps maybe half a dozen. In this context we are using the word gene to refer to a bit of DNA that actually codes for a protein. In those days people supposed there were 100,000 or more genes.

This had numerous consequences. First, there was fear of genetically modified babies. If we could just change a specific gene, then we could make children much more intelligent. This possibility was never remotely realistic.

Then people assumed that evolution happened very slowly. Most mutations in actual genes are deleterious--resulting in birth defects or death. Only a very few are beneficial, and even those will need about 2000 generations (40,000 years) to spread from one individual to the entire human population.

Even then, it was understood that the bulk of our DNA was not part of a gene, i.e., didn't code for anything. Folks didn't know what that excess DNA did--it was often called junk DNA. Today we know different. It appears there are only about 20,000 actual genes in the entire genome. By far most DNA is in the non-coding portion. It appears that non-coding DNA regulates gene expression in some complex way.

While mutations in the genes are still usually deleterious, mutations in the non-coding parts of the genome tend to not have much effect. Therefore mutations accumulate there. Many of them spread across the human species: certain mutations that occur in more than 1% of individuals are called single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs (pronounced snips). Wikipedia claims that more than 335 million SNPs have been found in our species, while any given individual will have between four and six million SNPs.

While an individual SNP has little effect, cumulatively the SNPs make a big difference. For example, it is now known that millions of SNPs help determine how tall you will be. With enough data and a big enough computer, one can isolate those SNPs that correlate with height.

So today we understand there isn't a "gene" for height, nor for personality/behavioral traits like intelligence, empathy, honesty, conscientiousness, etc. Yet we know that all these traits are significantly heritable--that is depend on our DNA. But instead of counting genes by the handful, we count SNPs by the thousands. Thus almost all traits (both physical and behavioral) are polygenic, in some cases nearly omnigenic (involving contributions from nearly all your DNA).

It's the SNPs that drive human evolution, and sufficiently fast that evolution can (and does) happen in historical time.

It is possible to count SNPs that enhance a certain trait, such as height or tendency toward schizophrenia. This leads to the polygenic score for that particular trait. Since your SNPs are fixed at birth, one can readily calculate your odds of being schizophrenic later in life. (It will never be 100%--environmental effects alter the odds significantly).

Likewise, there is a polygenic score for IQ. It cannot predict your IQ as an adult--for which the environment contributes about 40% of the variance--but it definitely narrows the field. If your child is born with a high polygenic score for IQ, then it might be worth saving money to send her to Harvard.

There are polygenic scores for things like criminality. The optimist will say that by judicious interventions we can prevent that outcome from occurring. The pessimist will fear that we'll be punishing people in advance of any crime--simply on the basis of their polygenic scores. I think they're both probably right--it is a brave new world coming on.

A second theme in Murray's book is an argument against the socialization theory. This theory--standard groupthink at American colleges--maintains that all differences between genders, races, and classes are merely social constructs, and have no underlying basis in biology. I'll mention that prior to 1980 this was a plausible idea, but since then, and especially since the rise of modern genomics, it becomes completely untenable.

Mr. Murray discusses at length the differences between men and women, who differ by an entire chromosome. There are genetic, physiological and psychometric differences between the sexes, compared to which "socialization" pales into insignificance. That said, it is not a simple switch--there is a continuum between male and female in nearly all traits. Few men have exclusively "male" traits, while few women are exclusively "female."

Murray uses facial features as an example. Consider the kinds of metrics facial recognition software might use: relative length of nose, relative distance between the ears, etc. Suppose there are twenty such metrics. It may be that women have slightly shorter noses (relatively) than men. But the effect is not very large--many women have noses longer than the average man, but most women don't.

So it is with all the other metrics. Women congregate slightly on one side of the spectrum, while men predominate mostly on the other, with a large overlap in the middle. Very few men are "masculine" on all twenty measures, and neither are many women "feminine" on all measures.

And yet it is easy to distinguish male faces from female faces. Even though each effect is small, the accumulated effects are big enough to see the difference. Only in a few cases is it truly ambiguous--I think of Rachel Maddow, for example. Two corollaries: facial recognition software can distinguish between male and female faces most of the time; it takes a skilled artist to draw an obviously female face, since most of the differences are so subtle.

Similarly, racial and ethnic differences show up in polygenic scores. That's how sites like 23&Me work their magic. Those very same polygenic scores imply ethnic differences in disease susceptibilities, physical attributes, and personality traits. Race is not just "skin deep" as the pre-1980 school would have it.

Class differences also depend on polygenic scores.

I'll close with some comments on how I think Murray's book will be received, especially by my former colleagues at Local State College.

First, most of the people who fancy themselves as experts on Race, Class and Gender are committed to the social construct theory and won't change their minds. But science progresses one retirement at a time, and these folks--tenured baby boomers--are not that long for the academic world. I don't think they're being replaced.

Second, those same self-proclaimed experts are typically in English and education departments. They know nothing about statistics. (Yes, I know--education faculty should know some stats, but I don't think they generally do.) One doesn't need a lot of statistics to read Murray's book, but a college-level introduction to the discipline strikes me as a prerequisite. (Sociologists have no excuse here.)

Finally, "Charles Murray" is a dirty word in those quarters. He should have written the book under a pseudonym. As the book has just come out, I can't blame them yet for not having read it, but they won't have read it five years from now, either.

So yes, while it will pass the academy by, I predict there will be a revolution in our understanding of human behavior. I'm not sure it will all be good. Lots of people (e.g., inhabitants of red states) will be classed as vaguely subhuman because of their average polygenic scores, as will many other groups of people.

There are some things this book should never change, concepts of morality, justice, and human worth among them. No polygenic score is an excuse to deny anybody their human rights. As Mr. Murray recently opined, religion becomes more important. Absent some kind of revival, the temptation to equate polygenic scores with human worth becomes irresistible.

You should definitely read Charles Murray's book. But whether you do or not, for better or worse it will definitely change your life.

Further Reading: