Book note: Crime and Punishment

June 24, 2022

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Feodor Dostoyevsky (1866) translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1992) with an introduction by W.J. Leatherbarrow (1993)

Dostoyevsky’s great novel is about how a young man with basically decent and humane feeling puts himself into a psychological state in which he commits a cold-blooded murder.

When we meet the young man, Raskolnikov, he is hungry, exhausted, and in ill health.  He is full of guilt for sponging off his needy mother and sister.  He is deeply in debt to a pawnbroker, a greedy old woman who has an abused half-sister.

We later learn that he wasn’t always like this.  A fairly short time before the action of the novel begins, when he was solvent and healthy, he was compassionate and responsible, keeping his own life in order and going out of this way to constructively help others.

But now he is in a state where his mind is on automatic pilot—acting on impulse rather than conscious decision.  Some of his impulses are generous and kind, some are bad, but none are the result of conscious decision.

This state has been well described by 20th century psychologists, starting with Sigmund Freud.  The conscious mind is not necessarily master in its own house.  It thinks it is the CEO of the human personality, but often it is just the PR department.  

Dostoyevsky understood through introspection and observation what Freud and others later figured out through scientific study and clinical experience.

Raskonnikov’s main source of self-esteem is an article he wrote about how the end justifies the means, and how a truly great person, such as Napoleon, pursues his goal by all means necessary, without concern for moral rules.

Napoleon knowingly caused the deaths of many thousands of innocent people, but he was regarded as a great man because he was a force for progress, Raskolnikov wrote; a Napoleon on the individual level, who acquired money through a crime, but used the money to do good, would also be great.  In fact, it could be your duty to overcome qualms of conscience to accomplish a great goal.

He begins to fantasize about killing the pawnbroker and using her money to help his mother and sister, canceling out the criminal act by the good deed.  But there is no point in the narrative at which he comes to a conscious decision to commit the murder.

One day he overhears a student arguing with a military officer about that very thing.  The student says that killing and robbing the pawnbroker would be justified if the money was used to accomplish a greater good, because the pawnbroker contributes nothing to society.  Ah, replies the officer, but would you really do it?  No, the student admits.

This is what the experimental psychologist Daniel Kahneman called priming or anchoring—one of the subtle things that influence human action below the level of consciousness.

Raskolnikov goes ahead and commits the murder.  He kills the greedy pawnbroker and then her innocent half-sister.  All the while he acts more on impulse and instinct more than rational judgement.  It is as if he is a spectator to his own actions.

I myself have experienced being in such a mental state.  I have done things with my mind on automatic pilot, sometimes to my great regret, and then wonder why I did them.

Raskolnikov flees the murder scene and gets away with loot, but not as much as if he had been able to act calmly, rationally and decisively.  

Later he reproaches himself, not for committing the murder, but for not being Napoleon-like character he imagined himself to be.   But his sense of guilt is too great and he eventually confesses.  Even so, he is still tortured by the conflict between his conscience and his philosophy.

Raskolnikov’s inability to overcome his basic human decency is not, as he saw it, a fatal flaw, but a saving grace

Read the rest of this entry »

Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Russianness

June 22, 2022

I’m re-reading Feodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina.  I’ve read them before, but somehow they seem as fresh and new as if I was reading them the first time.

My reason for re-reading them is partly to get some idea of what’s Russian about Russia.

No question, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are distinctively Russian.  They are polar opposites in many ways, but opposite sides of the same coin.

Dostoyevsky was a troubled soul who suffered prison, exile, poverty, the loss of children and gambling addiction.  Tolstoy was a wealthy aristocrat who went from success to success, yet in the end found his successes spiritually empty.

Dostoyevsky plumbed the depths of human evil.  Tolstoy explored the possibility of human enlightenment.

Both found modern European civilization spiritually shallow.  Both rejected secular humanism, utilitarianism, materialism, progressive reform and revolutionary socialism.  Dostoyevsky saw these ideas as evil; Tolstoy, as foolish.

Both were Christian believers.  Dostoyevsky was a champion of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and an opponent of Catholicism.  One of his heroes, Aloysha Karamazov, was a Russian monk.

Tolstoy preached a more universalist version of Christianity, which caused him to be expelled from the Russian Orthodox Church.  His ideas  influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King. 

Dostoyevsky was one of the few writers of his era to make poor people in cities his viewpoint characters.  He neither idealized or ridiculed them, because he shared their experiences.  In his novels, they could mess up their lives just like anybody else.

Tolstoy idealized workmen and peasants.   But in his novels, they were what’s called non-player characters.  He didn’t try to enter into their minds. His characters were all members of the upper crust—landowners, judges, army officers, educated intellectuals.  His ideal was the land-owning aristocrat who took responsibility for the people who depend on him.

Even so, he had such a wide-ranging knowledge of society and human character that his greatest novel, War and Peace, gave me an impression of a summing up all of human life.  

Also, unlike Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy was able to enter into the minds of his women characters.  Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov is one of the most fascinating characters in literature, but we see her only from the outside.  The inner workings of her mind remain a mystery.  

Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are both known for their writings about the quest for spiritual and philosophical truth.  The debates among the characters are like Plato’s Socratic dialogues.  But their novels can also be read as social commentary and even comedies of manners. 

What’s Russian about them is rejection of modern Western ideals of freedom, reason and tolerance as supreme values.  Both believed it takes something deeper to make a civilization.

∞∞∞

Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were contemporaries, and read each others’ books.  Dostoyevsky reviewed War and PeaceTolstoy reviewed  Crime and Punishment.  Each thought the other was okay, but not great.  They never met face to face.

One difference between the two was their handling of the Napoleon legend.  In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov was fascinated by the idea of Napoleon as a man of destiny, whose greatness was manifested in his willingness to commit crimes to accomplish great deeds.

Napoleon is a character in War and Peace, which came out about the same time.  Tolstoy depicts him as shallow and empty,  unworthy of his reputation.

Pierre Bezukhov, in the opening chapters, defends Napoleon’s crimes to shocked aristocratic party-goers.  Later he tries to be a man of destiny himself, by remaining in Moscow during the French invasion in order to assassinate Napoleon.  But the kind-hearted, indecisive Pierre can’t bring himself to pull the trigger.  Raskolnikov would have thought him a weakling.

Tolstoy thought most peoples’ stated philosophies had little or nothing to do with their actual conduct—which, considering what some people believed, was a good thing.   Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, believed ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have disastrous consequences.

Although Tolstoy had a point, the history of the 20th century, especially 20th century Russia, supports Dostoyevsky.  Ideas that, in Dostoyevsky’s time, were being kicked around in small, isolated discussion groups, were to become official doctrines imposed at gunpoint.

∞∞∞

All four of these novels are great, and worth reading for their own sake.  If there is anything greater in the Western literary canon, I haven’t read it.  I didn’t find anything in these four novels, or my (admittedly incomplete) reading of the writers’ other works, to indicate what they would have thought about the current Ukraine war.  But others have.

LINKS

How should Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy be read during Russia’s war against Ukraine? by Ani Kokobobo for The Conversation.

Can Russian literature make sense of Russia’s war on Ukraine? by Tim Brinkhof for Big Think.  

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Eight Experts on Who’s Greater by Kevin Hartnett for The Millions.  [Added 06/25/2022}

Michael Hudson explains what’s really going on

June 20, 2022

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Michael Hudson is an economist whose books make clear how the United States exercises financial power over the whole world, and escapes the consequences of government budget deficits and balance of trade deficits.  In his most recent book, The Destiny of Civilization, he explains how the U.S. free ride may be coming to an end.

He laid all this out in the podcasts above.  He said the Biden administration is speeding up the inevitable U.S. decline.   Here’s an excerpt from the transcript: 

My job at Chase was to analyse basically the balance of payments of Third World countries and then of the oil industry.  I had to develop an accounting format to find how much does the oil industry actually makes in the rest of the world.  I had to calculate natural-resource rent, and how large it was.  I did that from 1964 till October 1967.  

Then I had to quit to finish my dissertation to get the PhD.  And then I developed the system of balance-of-payments analysis that actually was the way it had been calculated before GDP analysis.  I went to work for Arthur Andersen and spent a year calculating the whole U.S. balance of payments.  

That’s where I found that it was all military in character.  And I began to write in popular magazines like Ramparts, warning that America’s foreign wars were forcing it to run out of gold. That was the price that America was paying for its military spending abroad.

I realised as soon as it went off gold in 1971 that America now had a cost-free means of military spending.  Suppose you were to go to the grocery store and just pay in IOUs.  You could just keep spending if you could convince the owner, the grocer to use the IOU to pay the farmers and the dairy people for their products.  What if everybody else used these IOUs as money?  You would continue to get your groceries for free.

That’s how the United States economy works under the dollar standard, at least until the present.  This is what led China, Russia, Iran and other countries to say that they don’t want to keep giving America a free ride.  

These dollarized IOUs are being used to surround them with military bases, to overthrow them and to threaten to bomb them if they don’t do what American diplomats tell them to do.

Read the rest of this entry »

Why I didn’t watch the Jan. 6 hearings

June 18, 2022

I don’t think the Jan. 6 investigations revealed anything new.  They reached a pre-determined conclusion on an issue most Americans had already made up their minds about, and few Americans care about.

The investigations would have had merit if they can explored why it was the police presence in Washington, D.C., and Capitol Hill specifically, was too small to deal with the mobs.  And why videos showed some Capitol police welcoming the Trump protesters into the Capitol building.  There are innocent explanations for both things, but I would like to know more.

There also would have been merit on hearings on whether legislation is necessary to protect the integrity of the presidential election process at the state level.  Some Republican states are considering legislation to give state legislatures the power to set aside the popular vote and make their own choice of Presidential Electors, or otherwise tampering with the voting process in presidential elections.   This is a real threat to the integrity of the election progress.

There was no chance that Vice President Pence could have changed the outcome of the election.  If Pence had refused to certify the electors, there would have been an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court calling on him to do his Constitutional duty.  If he refused to comply, there would have been some sort of work-around.  If neither of these things happened, the offices of President and Vice-President would have fallen vacant on Jan. 20 and, in accord with the Constitution, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, would have become chief executive of the United States.

The whole national military-police-governmental-business establishment was opposed to Trump overturning the election.  If Sanders had been the Democratic nominee, the establishment might have allowed the election to be overturned, but he wasn’t.

Underestimating Russia, etc.

June 16, 2022

[check the comment thread for a correction]

The Russian Federation has not lost a war or failed in a military intervention since it came into existence in 1991.

The United States has not won a war or succeeded in a military intervention since the U.S. attack on Panama in 1989, and this includes campaigns to destroy nations by means of economic sanctions.

As corrupt as Russia is, on many levels, I don’t think its government spends money on weapons that don’t work, promotes generals who lose wars or doubles down on foreign policies that have failed.

At the top levels of the U.S. government and journalism, failure has no consequences.  Yes-men are rewarded, even when they’re proved wrong.  Dissidents are pushed aside, even when they’re proved right.

It is pretty plain that Biden, Blinken and the rest had no idea what they were getting into when they decided on a showdown with Russia.

The economic blowback from the sanctions war is hurting the U.S. and its allies more than it is hurting Russia.   Public opinion polls indicate that average American voters are more concerned about the cost of living than Ukraine.  What nobody has told them is that the sanctions war against Russia is driving up the cost of living.

U.S. spokesmen are talking more and more about the possibility of defeat and the need for negotiations, although I suspect that Vladimir Putin has decided that the USA is, as he puts it, “not agreement-capable.”

I am not a military expert, I’m neither bold enough nor foolish enough to predict the outcome of the Ukraine war, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be of net benefit to the United States or its allies.

Read the rest of this entry »

Why isn’t Ukraine an economic powerhouse?

June 15, 2022

I’ve always known that Ukraine was rich in economic resources.  And I’ve always known that’s why American and other foreign corporations have wanted to get their hands on Ukraine’s resources.  but I never realized how rich until I read the statistics in this post.

UKRAINE IS:

🌐 1st in Europe in proven recoverable uranium ore reserves;
2nd place in Europe and 10th place in the world in titanium ore reserves;
2nd place in the world in terms of explored reserves of manganese ores (2.3 billion tons, or 12% of world reserves);
The 2nd largest iron ore reserves in the world (30 billion tons);
2nd place in Europe in mercury ore reserves;
🌐 3rd place in Europe (13th place in the world) in terms of shale gas reserves (22 trillion cubic meters)
🌐 4th place in the world in terms of the total value of natural resources;
7th place in the world in coal reserves (33.9 billion tons)

Ukraine is an important agricultural country:
🌐 1st in Europe in terms of arable land area;
🌐 3rd place in the world by the area of chernozem [a kind of fertile black soil] (25% of the world volume);
🌐 1st place in the world in the export of sunflower and sunflower oil;
2nd place in the world in barley production and 4th place in barley export;
🌐 3rd largest producer and 4th largest exporter of corn in the world;
🌐 The 4th largest potato producer in the world;
The 5th largest rye producer in the world;
5th place in the world for honey production (75,000 tons);
8th place in the world in wheat exports;
9th place in the world in the production of chicken eggs;
🌐 16th place in the world in cheese exports.

Ukraine can meet the food needs of 600 million people.

Ukraine was an important industrially developed country:
🌐 1st in Europe in ammonia production;
The 2nd and 4th largest natural gas pipeline systems in the world;
🌐 3rd largest in Europe and 8th in the world in terms of installed capacity of nuclear power plants;
3rd place in Europe and 11th in the world in terms of the length of the railway network (21,700 km);
🌐 3rd place in the world (after the USA and France) in the production of locators and navigation equipment;
🌐 3rd largest iron exporter in the world;
🌐 The 4th largest exporter of turbines for nuclear power plants in the world;
🌐 The world’s 4th largest manufacturer of rocket launchers;
🌐 4th place in the world in clay exports;
🌐 4th place in the world in titanium exports;
8th place in the world in the export of ores and concentrates;
9th place in the world in the export of defense industry products;
🌐 The 10th largest steel producer in the world (32.4 million tons).

So why are Ukrainians so poor?:

Ukraine is one of the worst off countries after the collapse of the USSR.  It is the poorest country in Europe despite having a huge aerospace industry, natural resources and some of the most fertile land for agriculture.  During the communist era, Ukraine was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union.  Despite all this, Ukrainians have experienced terrible famines such as the Stalinist Holodomor.

Today, the situation is not much better. Apart from enduring a war with Russia, its political system is particularly corrupt. Almost the entire economy is in the hands of big oligarchs: millionaires who amass fortunes thanks to their connections with political power.

Read the rest of this entry »

Fighting men and fertile women

June 10, 2022

The darker the red, the greater willingness to fight.  Click to enlarge.

A people that cannot defend itself, and reproduce itself, will be replaced.

Historically most societies have said that it is the duty of men to bear the hardship and danger of war, and the duty of women to bear the pain and danger of childbirth.

A poll, taken back in 2014, showed that only a minority of Americans and citizens of many other countries refused to say that they would fight for their countries.  At the same time the fertility rate in the USA and many other countries has fallen below the replacement rate.

On one level, I’m pleased at these trends.  Being an old-time liberal, I’m glad the world’s population increase is starting to level off, and I oppose U.S. military interventions of the past few decades.

Also, it is a mistake to read too much into these trends.

Just as it was wrong to think that population increase would never level off, it is wrong now to think that population decline would never bottom out.  And the fact that many Americans are reluctant to be shipped overseas to fight doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t defend our country if it really were in peril.  So maybe there is no real cause for alarm.

But still.  Having children and rearing them to be responsible adults requires great sacrifice.  Serving your country in time of peril requires great sacrifice.  What happens to a nation whose citizens decide individually, on a cost-benefit calculus, that these sacrifices are not worth making?

Click to enlarge

I wondered whether there was any correlation between a nation’s willingness to fight and its fertility rate.  I took the nations in the 2014 poll and looked up the World Bank’s most recent estimates of their fertility rates to see if there is some correlation.

If there is a correlation, it is a weak one.  

With one exception, all the surveyed nations with fertility rates above the replacement rates had more than half the population expressing a willingness to fight.  But some nations with low fertility rates also had a relatively high willingness to fight. 

Ukraine, Russia and China all had lower fertility rates than the USA and a greater percentage saying they’re willing to fight.  

I provide the numbers below.  Make of them what you can.  

Notice that fertility rates are estimates, and estimates differ.  The map above, the figures below and the figure for India in a previous post were drawn from different sources.  Also notice that most of the nations with the highest fertility rates were left out of the survey.

The minimum fertility rate needed to replace the current population is 2.1 children per woman.  The global average fertility rate is 2.4 children per woman

UNITED STATES.

Willing to fight:  44 percent.

Fertility rate: 1.64

RUSSIAN FEDERATION

Willing to fight: 59 percent.

Fertility rate: 1.50.

UKRAINE

Willing to fight: 62 percent

Fertility rate: 1.22

CHINA

Willing to fight: 71 percent

Fertility rate: 1.70

INDIA

Willing to fight: 75 percent

Fertility rate: 2.18

JAPAN

Willing to fight: 11 percent

Fertility rate: 1.34

GERMANY

Willing to fight: 18 percent

Fertility rate: 1.53

UNITED KINGDOM

Willing to fight: 27 percent

Fertility rate: 1.56

FRANCE

Willing to fight: 29 percent

Fertility rate: 1.83

CANADA

Willing to fight: 30 percent

Fertility rate: 1.40

AUSTRALIA

Willing to fight: 29 percent

Fertility rate: 1.58

BRAZIL

Willing to fight: 48 percent

Fertility rate: 1.71

Read the rest of this entry »

The LGBT identity explosion

June 7, 2022

An estimated 20 percent of Americans under 30 identify as LGBT.   That’s roughly double the percentage of the previous generation.

Now this could be an exaggeration.  Also,  sexual identity is changing at a faster rate than actual sexual behavior.  But the trend is clear.

Click to enlarge

LGBT identity is celebrated by almost every major institution in society, so it shouldn’t be surprising that LGBT identity is becoming more popular.

Strangely, many people who only engage in heterosexual sex still identify as LGBT.  Most of the increase is in the B for bisexual category.  You can live the life of a straight cisgender person, and still call yourself a “B.”  Make of this what you will.

Click to enlarge

A study of the rise of LGBT identity by Eric Kaufmann has just been published by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology.  Here is his executive summary.

  • The last decade has seen a precipitous rise in the share of Americans identifying as LGBT, particularly among the youngest adults. Today, among those under 30, a wide range of surveys converge on a number of around 20 percent.
  • Government data from Canada and the UK indicate that surveys might be overestimating the extent of the rise in LGBT identity. This caveat must be kept in mind in understanding this report.  Nonetheless, these government sources indicate that the trend is real, even if less reliable surveys might exaggerate it. The UK’s Office for National Statistics finds that 7.6 percent of those 16-24 identify as LGBT, which can be taken as a low-end estimate for that country.
  • The most popular LGBT identity is bisexual, which is significantly more common among women than men.
  • When we look at homosexual behavior, we find that it has grown much less rapidly than LGBT identification.  Men and women under 30 who reported a sexual partner in the last five years dropped from around 96 percent exclusively heterosexual in the 1990s to 92 percent exclusively heterosexual in 2021.  Whereas in 2008 attitudes and behavior were similar, by 2021 LGBT identification was running at twice the rate of LGBT sexual behavior.
  • The author provides a high-point estimate of an 11-point increase in LGBT identity between 2008 and 2021 among Americans under 30.  Of that, around 4 points can be explained by an increase in same-sex behavior.  The majority of the increase in LGBT identity can be traced to how those who only engage in heterosexual behavior describe themselves.
  • Very liberal ideology is associated with identifying as LGBT among those with heterosexual behavior, especially women.  It seems that an underlying psychological disposition is inclining people with heterosexual behavior to identify both as LGBT and very liberal. The most liberal respondents have moved from 10-15 percent non-heterosexual identification in 2016 to 33 percent in 2021. Other ideological groups are more stable.

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Everyday religion (or socialism)

June 5, 2022

The coming baby bust in India

June 3, 2022

Source: Wikipedia via Marginal Revolution.

India, with an estimated population just below 1.4 billion, now has a fertility rate just below the replacement rate, with is 2.1 children per woman.  This means India’s population will peak and then decline.

The USA, Europe, Russia, China, Japan and many other countries also have a fertility rate below the replacement rate.

Most demographers think this is an inevitable trend, whenever (1) birth control is widely available, (2) women can choose to limit child-bearing and have other careers besides motherhood and (3) material living standards rise to a point where husbands and wive can have old-age security without a large number of children to support them.

Overall this is a good thing.  It means the threat of the population bomb—population rising exponentially until mass starvation occurs—is not inevitable.  

The new threat is an economic system based on ever-increasing consumption while food and energy resources are being disrupted and exhausted.  

Meanwhile we have proportionately fewer and fewer working-age people to support people too old to work.

Then, too, there are parts of the world where the demographic transition hasn’t yet taken hold—mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Latin America and the Muslim world.

The varying rates at which the demographic transition means that rich, aging, shrinking nations will share a world with poor, relatively young, growing nations.  This will not be an easy challenge.

LINKS

Why India Is Making Progress in Slowing Its Population Growth by Vaishnavi Chandraskekar for Yale Environment 360.

The Astonishing Drop in Global Fertility Rates Between 1970 and 2014 by Ian Wright for Brilliant Maps.

List of sovereign states and dependences by total fertility rates on Wikipedia.

The Ukraine war and the cost of living

June 1, 2022

Click to enlarge.

Whatever else it is, the war in Ukraine is a war to control food and energy supplies.  The turning point was the 2014 coup, which took Ukraine out of the Russian economic orbit and into the U.S.-dominated  “rules-based economic order.”  

Umair Haque gives the big picture.

Food prices rising — commodities prices in general — were a directeffect of climate change.  So what about Putin’s war?  Well, just think about what it’s really about. Controlling resources.  Putin knows that if he controls the resources — oil, gas, metal, wheat, and so forth — he can control a dying planet.  He who controls the resources controls a dying planet, because we all need them that much more.  You can see this very, very clearly in the way that Putin’s skewered Europe right on the horns on an insoluble dilemma: allow war in Ukraine, or depend on Russian resources?

Putin’s war in Ukraine is driven by ideological reasons, true — the weird blend of religion and fanaticism I’ve called New Age Fascism.  But more than that, it’s the first of the great resource wars on a dying planet. Ukraine is a strategically vital nation, at least on a dying planet — it’s Europe’s breadbasket, provides the world all kinds of basic resources from wheat to metals.  Ukraine is one of the very first nations you’d want to conquer if you wanted to control what few resources were going to be left on a dying planet, and this is the deeper logic of Putin’s game.

Resource wars are not going to end. In fact, they are only now just getting started — just after commodities prices have been soaring for the last few years thanks to failed harvests.  See how predictable that is?  It’s not that the two are even consciously linked — some dictator sees commodities prices rising and thinks “it’s time for war!” — it’s just that this is what inevitably happens.  Putin’s wars are obviously not going to end.  China, soon enough, will have to secure its own empire of resources, as the planet goes on dying. The West appears to have no strategy for any of this, because it’s only answer is globalization,” which has failed the way that my first marriage did — she threw plates at me, dear reader, because I was a bastard.

We are therefore now entering an age of (a) resource wars (b) shortages and (c) inflation.  Serious, sustained, vicious inflation.  These three things have already the defined the 2020s.  What did Covid do? Cause shortages around the globe — in a foreshadowing of the future on a dying planet.  Covid highlighted just how illusionary all this abundance of stuff really is — ships stop for a few days, borders shut down for a day or two, and bang — you can’t get stuff to eat or drink the way you’re used to.  But what happens on a planet of mega fires and mega floods and mega weather?  Mega risk does.  Shortages becomes endemic, a way of life.  As they slowly are now.

The flipside of shortages is, of course, inflation.  And inflation is the savage, gruesome reality of living on a dying planet.  There isn’t enough left to go around.  There never was.  20% of humanity — otherwise known as “The West” — consumes 90% of the planet’s resources.  That leaves just 10% of them for 80% of humanity.  The rest of the world has always lived without.  It’s just we in the West who are starting to discover what the real economics of existence are.

Read the rest of this entry »

The flags they fought for

May 30, 2022

Hat tip to Mary Fahl: Going Home on Abagond.

Memorial Day originally was a holiday in honor of soldiers who gave their lives fighting for the Union in the U.S. Civil War.  Some of the former Confederate states had their own separate Confederate Memorial Days.  Now Memorial Day honors all who gave their lives while serving in uniform.

The video consists of the opening credits of the Civil War movie “Gods and Generals.”  It shows the flags beneath which men (some of them only boys) on both sides fought and died.

Science saves lives

May 28, 2022

Why Julian Assange matters

May 25, 2022

Julian Assange is a martyr to the defense of freedom of the press and the right of the people to know what their governments are doing in their name.

The Power of Lies by Craig Murray [Added 05/27/2022]

Defend Press Freedom, Defend Julian Assange by the Assange Defense Committee.

Safety first

May 21, 2022

Hat tip to Authentic Medicine.

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Book note: Muhammad Ali’s own story

May 19, 2022

THE GREATEST: My Own Story by Muhammad Ali with Richard Durham (1975)

I happened to pick up this book at a free neighborhood book exchange.  It is the autobiography of Muhammed Ali, born Cassius Clay, then the world heavyweight boxing champion at the height of his success.  I never was a boxing fan, but I liked this book at lot.

One thing I got from it was an appreciation of the discipline and dedication required to be a boxing champion.  Another was an appreciation of what it means to live a life of integrity.

Ali was a polarizing figure because of his boasting and insults, because of his adherence to the Nation of Islam, and because he refused being drafted during the Vietnam Conflict.

He was well-respected as a boxer for beating physically stronger opponents through speed and agility, intensive training, tactical thinking and determination to win at all costs.  

He may or may not have been the greatest, but he was world champion for a longer period of time, and won more title bouts, than anyone except Joe Louis and the Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko, brother of the current champion.

In training and in the ring, Ali pushed himself to the limit of endurance.  He said he never started timing himself on running, hitting the punching bag, skipping rope or the like until he started to hurt.  He regarded a day in which he got through training feeling good as a day wasted.

After he was exhausted, he would enter the ring with sparring partners, who would be fresh.  This was to prepare himself for actual bouts, when he would be tired and in pain.  He was monk-like in the rigor of his training.  Of course, all the top boxers trained hard.

Boxers and trainers believed that avoiding sex was an important part of their training, he said.  Sexual intercourse leaves a man feeling mellow; the winning spirit comes from feeling angry and frustrated.

Aki’s little poems, taunting his opponents, were part of a calculated strategy.  It brought him publicity, and it made it harder for his targets to turn down his challenges.

He said he felt energized by the hostility of crowds.  The pain of defeat was that it caused him to be ignored. 

Born in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali started training as an amateur boxer at age 12.  He won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division of the Summer Olympics in 1960 at age 18, and defeated Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title in 1964 at age 22.  

In 1967, he was stripped of his title as punishment for refusing to be drafted.  He sued and won a reversal of that decision in 1970, but he’d been out of action and out of training during his prime fighting years.  He lost the title to Joe Frazier in 1971, but won it back by defeating George Foreman in 1974.  He held on to the title, except for a brief interval, until 1978.

The book tells of his great respect for Joe Frazier, which seems to have been mutual.  The book includes a long transcript of a fascinating conversation they had.  Each was the one the other most wanted to defeat.

Ali fought Frazier twice more, in 1974 and 1975, right before and right after he regained the championship.  The last was a technical knock-out after 14 rounds; the fight was so punishing that Ali said he was considering retiring.  He probably would have been better off if he had.  He was 33, which is old for a boxer.

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Is peace in Ukraine even possible?

May 18, 2022

Peace does not require two individuals or two nations to like or trust each other. Peace requires that two sides decide the price of war is greater than the price of peace.

Defense analysts in Washington, D.C., are talking with relish about the possibility of Russia being drawn into a self-destructive quagmire war in Ukraine, like the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

I’m sure Vladimir Putin and Volodomor Zelensky are aware of these discussions. I don’t imagine that Putin wants Russia to be bled dry, or that Zelensky wants his country to be offered up as a sacrifice to U.S. geopolitical strategy.

Now maybe one side or the other thinks it can win a quick and decisive victory.  But, as things stand now, the USA is willing to provide Ukraine with modern weapons as long as it continues fighting, and China is committed to preventing Russia from going under.  So a quick end seems unlikely.

The alternative is some sort of compromise peace, in which neither side suffers complete defeat but each side gives up some of what it wants. In the previous post, I speculated on the possible elements of such a peace.

The odds are against such an agreement anytime soon. Both sides are in too deep, and have shed too much blood. But that is no reason to stop talking about it.

Remember that Zelensky, a political unknown, won a landslide victory in 2019 as a peace candidate.  He was the George McGovern of Ukraine.  Right now he is not a free agent.  He is trapped between his U.S. paymasters and the fanatical Banderite faction.  But even so, he has said he is open to negotiation.

Remember that Vladimir Putin spent 20 years trying to get the Western powers to accept Russia as an equal partner before he turned to war.

The Russian leaders believe they are fighting an existential threat of which Ukraine is only a part. It also includes missile launchers in Poland and Rumania, which could be used to launch hypersonic missiles against Russia.

A comprehensive agreement would have to include not only the dismantling of those missile sites, but the restoration of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty to remove Russia’s existential threat to Poland, Rumania and other non-nuclear European nations.

The U.S. government has a perceived interest in keeping the fight going. The goal of the U.S. national security establishment is to maintain its nuclear dominance and its economic dominance, so that the U.S. government has the power to threaten any opponent with nuclear war and economic war.

The question is whether we the American people are willing to pay the price of maintaining this dominance. We already see rising prices of gasoline, heating oil and food. The longer the war in Ukraine and the global old war continue, the worse this will get. So we, too, have an interest in peace.

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The case for peace in Ukraine

May 16, 2022

We are told that the Russian invasion is a failure, that Putin completely miscalculated, that Russian forces are crumbling and Ukraine’s victory is just around the corner.

We also are being told the USA needs to send another $40 billion in aid to Ukraine pronto and to completely disrupt world trade in grain, oil and gas.  Otherwise Russia may win.   Even so, some of our military leaders are saying the war will go on for years.

The independent military analyst Scott Ritter says the last is a real possibility.  Although he had been predicting a Russian victory, he now says that if the Ukrainian army can train in Poland and Germany, and receive potentially unlimited numbers of U.S. and other NATO arms, there is no telling how long they can hold out.

I consider Ritter an authority on the Russian military and on military science in general.  What his reassessments tell me is that war is, by its nature, unpredictable.  If the outcomes of wars could be foreseen with certainty, no nation would go to war in the first place.

Leaders of the USA and Russia should be concerned should be thinking about what they hope to achieve in war, and whether it will be worth the cost and the risks.

Biden’s stated war aim is not just to save Ukraine.  It is to weaken Russia to the point where it is no longer capable of waging war.  Also, to pressure Russians into replacing Putin with a leader wiling to beg for mercy.   

Putin’s stated war aim is not just to save the Russians in the Donbas.  It is to roll back NATO so that it is no longer capable of threatening Russia.

If neither of them gives in, it is very possible the result will be the bankruptcy or near-bankruptcy of the USA, Russia and many other countries, including some neutral countries, with Ukraine, including its Donbas region, left as a blood-soaked wasteland.  That is not the worst-case scenario.  The worst case would be a nuclear holocaust of most of Russia, Europe and the USA..

The best possible outcome would be a truce and a ratification of the previous status quo—neutrality for Ukraine, autonomy for Donbas, continuing Russian control of strategically vital Crimea.

Since only some of Russia’s perceived threats involve Ukraine, there would have to be a restoration of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty and a ban on missile forces from countries bordering Russia. 

Commentary by the Saker and Moon of Alabama’s Bernhard , and also the commentary by Scott Ritter and Ray McGovern on the video above, make me aware of why Vladimir Putin thinks Russia has been backed into a corner by the USA and NATO.

My readings of the Russian Dissent substack, Mezuda news service and Alexey Navalny videos also make me aware of the authoritarianism, corruption and cronyism of the Putin administration, and of misgivings about the war by ordinary Russians.

Russia and Ukraine may be separate countries, but many Russians and Ukrainians are related by friendship, lineage and marriage.  They don’t want war with each other.

Both Russia and Ukraine are cracking down on dissent, so it is impossible for outsiders to know how much potential opposition there is to the war on either side.

Here in the USA, the widening war in Ukraine provides an excuse to step up official and unofficial censorship, and to put off dealing with the pandemic, climate-related catastrophes, inflation, rising debt, business monopoly, labor abuses, and financial crime.

All the Democrats I would have hoped might stand up for peace—Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ihan Omar, etc.—supported the $40 billion appropriation for the war.

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Some questions about North American suburbs

May 16, 2022

I found this video and comment on Reddit through a link on MARGINAL Revolution.

I just watched this video from Not Just Bikes on YouTube, I have few questions.

Disclaimer: I’m from Slovakia, Eastern Europe, so bear in mind, I’m confusion.

He keeps on talking about how cities and suburbs have to meet certain types of regulations. For example the parking lot size, the road width, etc.

Then he says there can be only one family houses. There can’t be any businesses inside these residential suburbs and also no schools.

My questions are:

1. What do you actually do? Are you always stuck inside? What did you do when you were a child and couldn’t drive?

2. Why do you have these sorts of strange regulations? Are your officials so incompetent? Is this due to lobbying from car or oil companies? I don’t get it.

3. Why is there no public transport? It seems like the only thing is the yellow school bus. …

4. He says there can be only one family houses. Why? Why can’t you have … … [an apartment] block in the middle of such a suburb?  Or row houses or whatever.

5. Why are there no businesses inside these? I mean, he says it’s illegal, just why? If I lived in such a place, I’d just buy a house next to mine and turn it into a tavern or a convenience store or whatever. Is that simply not possible and illegal?

6. These places have front and backyards. But they’re mostly empty.  Some backyards have a pool maybe, but it’s mostly just green grass.  Why don’t you grow plants in your yards? Like potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes or whatever.  Why do you own this land, if you never use it?

Whenever I watched an American movie and saw those suburbs, I always thought these streets were located somewhere in a small village or something. Turns out these are located within cities up to 30 km away from Downtown…

Americans on the move (and not)

May 16, 2022

  Hat tip to Lambert Strether.

This is an interesting illustration of the diversity of American state histories and American origins.  In many states, the number of foreign-born was greater in the past than it is today.  But in most states, the majority of citizens were born in the state.  I don’t claim this proves anything in particular.

Three stories by Scott Alexander Siskind

May 15, 2022

“Is it true,” asked the student, “that the gods only have power because we believe in them?”

“Yes,” said the sage. “It is true.”

“If everyone believed I was a god, would I become a god?”

“You have said it.”

So the student traveled the land, dominant assurance contract in hand. Everywhere he went, he told the people, “Sign this contract, that if everyone in the land signs the contract, you agree to worship me as a god.”

The people were skeptical. “Why should we worship you.? But the student won them over. To the Northmen, he promised that upon attaining divine powers, he would stop their long civil war. To the Westmen, he promised to humiliate their enemies the Eastmen. To the Eastmen, he promised to protect them from their enemies the Westmen. And the Southmen, he promised to make them as rich as they currently were poor.

Click on The Gods Only Have Power Because We Believe In Them for the full post.

“Hello, welcome to the temple of the three omniscient idols, one of which always tells the truth, one of which always lies, and one of which answers randomly. I know you already signed the release form, but I’m supposed to remind you that Idol Temple LLC does not know which idol is which and cannot provide you with – “

The petitioner, a man with slick blond hair, cut me off. “Ha, no problem! I’m gonna ask each idol for next week’s Powerball numbers, then buy three tickets.” Before I could respond, he shouted “Left idol! What are next week’s winning Powerball numbers?”

3, 15, 26, 63, 65, and 16,” said the left idol, in a voice like if a vampire bat could speak.

“Center idol, what are next week’s winning Powerball numbers?”

8, 22, 24, 45, 50, and 55,” said the center idol, in a voice like the crackling of Venusian lightning against thick cloud-banks.

“Right idol, what are next week’s winning Powerball numbers?”

Any who disrespect the omniscient idols by misusing their knowledge for sordid financial gain will, after their death, be sent to the bottom-most layer of Hell, where venomous worms will gnaw at their organs from the inside forever, never to know rest or surcease from pain” said the right idol, in a monotone.

“What?” the man asked me, helplessly. “Is that true?”

Click on Idol Words for the full post.

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Clark Kent considers a career change

May 13, 2022
Hat tip to ScheerPost.

The so-called “Russian world”: links

May 11, 2022

It is hard to find information about the Russian invasion of Ukraine that’s not war propaganda for one side or the other.  The only way to get at a semblance of the truth is to look at the situation from multiple points of view.

Here are web sites I check regularly.  If this is a topic of special concern to you, you may want to bookmark this page.  Also, if there are good sources I’m missing, please tell me in the comments.

The Vineyard of the Saker.  An eloquent Russian nationalist.  A view that is important for Americans to understand, whether they agree with or are offended by it, or not.

Russian Dissent.  A forum for Russians silenced in their own country.

Meduza – the Real Russia Today.  An independent news service.

Gilbert Doctorow.  An independent scholar.

Dances With Bears by John Helmer.  An independent report.

Videos from Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.  Alexey Navalny is in prison, and his Anti-Corruption Foundation web site has been shut down, but you can find their individual YouTube videos (with English subtitles) if you look.  Or click on this, this or this.

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Why is it so hard to pay attention?

May 9, 2022

STOLEN FOCUS: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari (2022)

I find it much harder to concentrate on a task than I used to.  

Once I could dash off a book review like this in a couple of hours.  Now what took me a couple of hours takes me a couple of afternoons.  

It’s partly that the task itself takes me longer.  But it is also that I can’t resist the temptation break off the work and check my e-mail or browse my favorite blogs.

I’ve attributed this to a combination of old age and weakness of character.  

But although my age and laziness are real, a science writer named Johann Hari has convinced me that there’s more to it.  He says our whole civilization and lifestyle are conspiring to distract me from focusing on what I need to do.

Hari is the author of Chasing the Scream, a best-seller about addiction, which I haven’t read, and Lost Connections, a best-seller about depression, which I have read and liked a lot.  In both books, he showed how a dysfunctional society makes personal problems worse, and the same is true of Stolen Focus.

In his new book, Stolen Focus, tells of his search for knowledge from neurologists, psychologists and his personal back-and-forth struggle to regain his own fading sense of focus.

He shows that distraction and the inability to concentrate are on the increase, not just for individuals but for society as a whole.

A study of office workers in the U.S. showed that most of them never get an hour of uninterrupted work in a typical day.  Another study shows that if you get interrupted, it will take, on average, 23 minutes to regain your focus.  Studies of top topics on Google and Twitter shows that the life of a hot topic on these media is growing shorter and shorter.

Increasingly, studies show, Americans and Britons are more stressed, more tired and more distracted.  We don’t get the sleep we need.  We read less and are less able to concentrate on what we read.  More and more of us juggle multiple jobs, or are on call 24/7 in the jobs we have. 

 It’s no wonder we find it hard to concentrate on things at hand. 

But if we can’t focus of this, we can’t deal with with the big challenges ahead we face individually and as a society.

Lots of things contribute to this—the faster pace of society, lack of sleep, our artificial manner of life and, of course, social media.

Hari offers tips on how to cope:

  • If you can, find a pursuit or sport that gets you into a state of “Flow”—a state where you are totally engrossed in something worthwhile that challenges you.
  • Get a good night’s sleep in a completely darkened, completely silent room.
  • Take long walks in the fresh air and sunshine without a phone.
  • Read long novels or watch long TV mini-series.  Fiction is more immersive than non-fiction and also makes you more empathetic.
  • Avoid or cut down on stimulants and sedatives.
  • Use all the Aps on your devices that enable you to set limits on notifications and interruptions.

∞∞∞

But trying to change individual behavior isn’t enough, he wrote.  The problem is deeper.

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The case against Google Chrome

May 9, 2022

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