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Booksellers versus Bestsellers

  • The most successful large Utopian experiment in history

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    America is the most successful large Utopian experiment of all time.

    Up until its founding, nations were made up of territories where a majority of people belonged to one ethnicity, whose language, religion, customs, and appearance were similar enough that people could recognized their fellow citizens as "one of us."

    In contrast, consider this charge against King George III in the Declaration of Independence:

    He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.Not only were they building a new country not based on ethnicity, they were upset that the king was not allowing them to encourage foreigners -- people who were not English -- to come to this land and become citizens.

    America was founded not as an ethno-religious state like those of Europe, but as an experiment in building a society based on reason. Americans would have no king, no nobility, no state religion. People could worship as they saw fit, they could speak their minds, and they could select their leaders -- or, should they find their leaders needed to be removed, they could remove them.

    There was nothing else like it in the world. There had been democratic and republican states in the ancient world, but not states without a state religion. Even the Netherlands, governed as a republic after 1649 and considered a bastion of free speech, was an ethnically homogeneous state that had its founding in a war between Catholics and Protestants.

    There are countries where more than one language is spoken, such as Switzerland and Belgium, but America never has had an official language. The Pennsylvania Dutch (ethnically†Deutsch, that is, German) developed their own version of German. Our 8th president, Martin Van Buren, spoke Dutch as his first language, as did most of the residents of Kinderhook, N.Y., where he grew up (he was the first president born after the American revolution, therefore the first president born an American citizen.) Thorstein Veblen, one of America's most famous academics and the inventor of the concept of conspicuous consumption, had Norwegian as his first language and only started to learn English when he went to school (he was born in Wisconsin to Norwegian immigrant parents and had plenty of Norwegian-speaking playmates.)

    And I frequently get old books in German that were published in Chicago, because many German-speaking communities in America wanted books in their language. The truth is, 18th and 19th century America was more multicultural than melting pot, which was fine, because America was not founded to be an ethnic or religious state. It was intended to be a bold experiment to find a better way for humanity to live together, to reduce conflict and increase happiness. Consider the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. -- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
    No medieval king or queen would have recognized this as a proper way of governing. The sovereign served God, not the people, and God's earthly representatives gave their approval (or not) to the sovereign's reign.

    We have lived so long by the founders' principles that we no longer appreciate how unique the experiment is. Faced with enemies who wish to frame conflicts in ethnic and religious terms, some wish to respond in kind, instead of playing to America's strengths, such as a tolerance of differences that allows us to absorb instead of conquer, and a freewheeling, vibrant culture that attracts others, instead of subjugating people outside of it.

    Click on the "rethinking liberalism" label below in red and you'll see a list of posts exploring this heritage.

  • Shibboleths in belief and identity

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    One of the remarkable things we've seen with the polarization of American politics is the rise of the shibboleth.

    A shibboleth is something that defines the identity of a group. The biblical basis for the term is found in Judges 12, when the men of Gilead were fighting the men of Ephraim. It was a rout, and the Ephraimites tried to flee to their homeland, but the Gileadites got to the fords on the Jordan River first.

    5And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was†so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him,†Art†thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;†6Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce†it†right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.
    In this case, it was just a word that the Ephraimites could not pronounce to save their lives, but over time it has come to mean what you say to prove you belong to a group. In many cases, you must say you believe certain things.

    For conservative Republicans, shibboleths are things like Birtherism (the claim that President Barack Obama was not born in America,) or claiming to believe that Obama is a Muslim. Another is claiming to not believe in climate change.

    No amount of evidence will shift these beliefs, whether it's Obama's long-form birth certificate or the fact the Obama for many years attended a somewhat controversial Christian church. Evidence won't shift such beliefs because they were not adopted based on evidence, or any real notion of objective truth. They were adopted to cement a sense of identity.

    Normally, when we think of truth, we think of something so logical, so well supported by evidence, that we cannot help but believe it, even if it is inconvenient to do so. But shibboleths are things that you can choose to believe, because it is convenient, because it establishes your bonafides as a member of a group, or even because it annoys people you don't like (which may also establish you as part of a group.)

    In many forms of communication, the intentions of the speaker are of the highest importance. To someone who believes climate change has the potential to wipe out humanity and most of the large animals on earth, those who deny climate change no matter what the evidence is appear to be speaking in bad faith. Those who deny climate change, as near as I can tell, do so as part of their identity. More evidence just appears as an attack on their identity, and continuing to deny climate change provides the satisfaction of pissing off those fucking liberals.

    I keep seeing climate change deniers try to show bad faith on the part of the scientists who have actually studied this. In part, this is a tactic of agnotology, the science of creating ignorance, and simply serves those who do not want to stop selling fossil fuels. But in part, it's a matter of both sides thinking they are arguing on the same ground. Those who claim climate change is real offer their proofs as if they matter to the climate deniers, and those who deny climate change assume this is a belief that liberals have adopted as part of their identity.

    Conservatives have told me that liberals are pushing the climate change narrative because the solutions are liberal ones, like regulation and international treaties. To me, this is an odd argument. Surely, we are not expected to believe that conservatives will only acknowledge the reality of problems conservatism can solve? And in any case, shown that a problem exists, shouldn't they display the superiority of their ideology by showing us a conservative solution?

    But the denier assumes that belief in climate change is as much of a shibboleth to the believer as to the denier. Therefore, to them, the conversation isn't even about evidence. Evidence, to them, is a marker in a game that is really about identity.





  • Eclipse, as seen through trees








    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Seattle did not have a total eclipse. We were at 91.9 percent, which was enough to give us some spooky light, a drop in temperature, and a bit of an eclipse wind.

    I didn't buy the glasses or anything, just relied on standing by a deciduous tree casting a shadow on bare, level ground, in this case the sidewalk. The gaps between the leaves act as pinhole cameras.



    After the eclipse came as close to totality as Seattle would see, I drove to work, watching the progress of the moon over the sun in the images case by trees along the way. When I arrived in Ballard, the eclipse was almost over, and the images cast on the sidewalk there were becoming less sharp-edged.



    A kind soul allowed me to look through his eclipse glasses, but I didn't get an image of that.

    When I got to work, Beau didn't greet me as I came in. I found him hiding in one of the aisles, looking a little shaken. Cats don't get a warning for these things.

    I used to race against a 6 meter sailboat that was named Eclipse, and had an image of the sun painted on the waterline. As it heeled, it eclipsed that sun image, but not this way:

  • Without truth, the sleep of reason produces monsters


    by John MacBeath Watkins

    The way the word "truth" is used in ordinary language, it seems to mean, "that which I believe without question." Yet it is often discussed as if it were something outside of human consciousness, a sort of metaphysical monster that guarantees that we will have something to hang onto in a world of conflicting claims.

    But what if, like other words, it is simply one of the categories we use to think with? Would that make it any less essential or powerful?

    Compare this to property. We know that property is not objects, which exist whether they are owned or not. Property is a concept that allows us to build customs and institutions that regulate the desire to possess things, and reduce conflict over who gets to use what.

  • On the importance of labeling the inept clown posse in Trump's scandal

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    We must, without further delay, label participants in Donald Trump's Russia collusion "the Inept Clown Posse."

    Watergate had a compelling name, especially when you consider that the water gate to the Tower of London is also known as "Traitor's Gate."

    From Wikipedia:
    Prisoners were brought by barge along the Thames, passing under London Bridge, where the heads of recently executed prisoners were displayed on pikes. Notable prisoners such as Sir Thomas More entered the Tower by Traitors' Gate.[2]The people who committed the "third-rate burglary" at the Watergate Hotel also had a water-themed name: The plumbers.

    Once we've labeled the Inept Clown Posse, we can start working on a name for the scandal as a whole. So far, we don't have a colorful geographic label for it, like Watergate or Teapot Dome. The Trump Collusion, provided that collusion is proven (and many claim that the Donald Trump Jr. meeting to receive proffered Russian government help in the election has settled that issue) has a certain, Robert Ludlum-y, "The Subject Predicate" feel to it.

    Language gives us the categories we use to think about things. The connotations of the terms we use -- the feelings we associate with the words -- are an important part of the way the label resonates with listeners.

    Trump yearns to dominate every relationship. Calling him and his co-conspirators the inept clown posse points to the greatest source of his weakness, his own incompetence and that of some of the people on whom he relies most heavily. The Trump Collusion encapsulates the problem, and has an appropriately third-rate pulp spy novel feel that goes to the heart of Trump's willingness to court the aid of Russia, a country the last Republican nominee for president called our "number one geopolitical foe."

    Trump, and many in the Republican Party, saw his Democratic opponent as his biggest political foe, and defined a hostile foreign power as an acceptable ally in defeating her. This willingness to accept the aid of a foreign enemy †against his domestic opponent shows that he cares less about being an American than about beating an American. †The most likely reason he hasn't released his income taxes is that they would show how dependent he is on Russian money, and demonstrate to all those willing to see that he places his own avarice over the good of his country.

    Now, I'm not claiming Inept Clown Posse is definitely the perfect label for him and his enablers. It does fail to capture his subservient behavior toward Vladimir Putin, or his adoration of people like Putin who have managed to eliminate the democratic limits on their power. But I submit that at least for now, it carries the right connotations to make him an object of ridicule, which is one of the worst things that can happen to a would-be strong man.


  • If the Trump saga were a Robert Ludlum novel

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    As a bookseller, my knowledge of what really happened in the interaction between the Trump campaign and the Russians is no better than yours, dear reader, but I know how Robert Ludlum†would have written it.

    First of all, to appeal to the prurient interest of the reader, the Russian kompromat tapes of Trump paying prostitutes to pee on each other on the bed he knew Barack and Michelle Obama slept in would have to be real.

    Second, Trump's unwillingness to make public his income taxes would have to be because they would show that without Russian money, he's bankrupt and destitute. And they would provide enough clues to set the special prosecutor on his trail for money laundering for the Russian mob.

    Third, Donald Trump's July 7 meeting with Vladimir Putin would have gone badly. He urged his staff to come up with "deliverables" that would satisfy Putin, even though he had been unable to lift the sanctions on Russia, as he had promised, but Putin wasn't satisfied.

  • The Seattle Wooden Boat Festival, mostly the Quick & Daring boat building contest

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    The Seattle Wooden Boat Festival was over the weekend of the 4th of July, and I'm only just now getting the photos up, but here you go, with a Sea Mew to start with:

    A 14' Sea Mew class boat, property of the Center for Wooden Boats, on
    †display. The 1916 Frederick Goeller design was built on Bainbridge
    Island by a mechanic, whose name I do not know.But most of the time, I was judging the Quick and Daring boat building contest. This is the first year we did it without Dick Wagner, the founder of the Center for Wooden Boats, who shaped this competition more than anyone. It was the last thing he did as a hands-on project.

    This year it looked like we would have eight contestants, but the Fisher sisters, who have won this competition several times, were unable to come. One contestant was unable to finish his boat, and two sank shortly after launching (it seems like every year, someone sinks -- it's part of the attraction of the event, like crashes in a stock car race.)

    The wind was inconstant for the rest of the competitors. It blew from the north on the first leg, leading all the contestants to paddle that leg, then died, then shifted to the east, which was on the nose for the competitors for the second leg, and finally settled from the south, which meant that only boats that could sail to windward could finish a sailing leg. Of the four boats that were still afloat, only two completed a sailing leg, and one had to paddle back to the first mark because its sail was designed as a spinnaker, and it could not sail against the southwest wind.

    The winner was Lickty Split, which was decorated as a banana split and whose team, Dusty and Corinne Wisniew, distributed free bananas as part of their showmanship. This was Dusty's 13th time competing in Quick & Daring (some were built with his son) and his first victory. Apparently, there's a learning curve.

    The boat had a keel, but it was the one with the spinnaker for a sail. The boat that performed best on the water was the cardboard catamaran, seen below on the dock. It's deeply veed hulls were sealed with varathane, which worked pretty well -- the boat showed little sign of melting even after continuing to sail for about 20 minutes after the race. It was surprisingly expensive and took a long time to build, but by being only one of two boats to complete the sailing let, it was guaranteed to win at least second place, which it did for its builders, Marc Rothschild and Dallas Duel (Marc scheduled his stopover from his wife's posting at the Mauritius embassy to the Austrian embassy so that he could compete in this contest.)

    With two safety boats, the Center for Wooden Boats was taking no chances on the seaworthiness of the contestants.
    The red boat above, with paddle wheels, †a spoiler, and a Jaguar grille, would have easily won the Peoples's Choice Award if CWB still did that.

    Rob and Merle Smith continued the family tradition of whimsy to their entries with F2, including showing up in suits intended to look like the ones racers wear, and helmets to match. Unfortunately, although the rig looked effective to windward, the boat did not have enough lateral plane to sail to windward, so it wasn't eligible to beat the boats that completed a sailing leg. They finished DFL.

    Bill Hass and Jana Boeking had the same problem with Ducky, a better version of last year's boat that sank. Ducky would have done quite well had they managed to complete a sailing leg. To my eye, it was the most attractive boat in the fleet, and it was the fleetest of the boats under human power. A canvas-on-frame canoe with a duck figurehead, it was waterproofed with paint and came back to the dock


    One nice thing, the winner of the Quick & Daring in 1987 showed up. Teal, built in a day to a Sam Rabl design, has been in use for 30 years and is still going strong. The flat bottomed 15 foot skiff still sports the same leg of mutton sprit rig she did 30 years ago when she won the contest, but Brian Lenz and Craig Vierling have added a varnished deck and some copper cupholders.

    More on Teal below, in a letter Brian Lenz wrote to Judy Romeo, the staff member who put untold hours into organizing the event this year.

    It is hard to believe but this year's Lake Union Wooden Boat Festival will mark the 30th anniversary of the built-in-a-day launching of the "Teal", shown below in a mid- 1990's photo. I would be curious to know if any of the CWB members remember our build and race days. Craig and I had talked about building a boat, and being a couple of contractors thought the contest would be a great way to both make it happen and have a good time. Our only goal was to end up with a nice looking seaworthy vessel, so we didn't think to much about scoring points in the contest. We brought a table saw, power plane, Skilsaw, router, sawzall, jig saw and multiple drills and screw guns, and the contest official who tried to stack them up on the scale merely chuckled and wrote down "100lbs plus". We used all marine grade materials so our cost there was at least quadruple the $150 CWB reimbursement, which we were thrilled to receive. We had no grand ambitions about speed of construction, and figured we needed about six hours, but being construction types we of course missed the mark by quite a bit, and were finishing up in the dark at 9:30 pm with only the cleaning crew as onlookers. Ours was not a particularly sexy design, so I am sure we got few points in the Originality and Aesthetics categories, and since we built on Day 2 of the festival, we had no time to do any painting other than a rather thin translucent coat of white primer on the outside of the hull. It took six of us to gently lower it into the lake for the race, all collectively holding our breath and expecting water to come rushing in from some un-glued/un-sealed joint, but there was nary a single drop.

    Now the race, after a very rough start, was an entirely different matter. We made a big blunder and located our two pairs of temporary plywood oarlocks way too close together, and were bashing into each other with every attempted stroke during Leg #1. A stiff breeze out of the north had picked up, with some rain added in, and we were falling so far behind the other five "paddle-friendly" boats that our fans (girlfriends, parents and friends) bailed out and went inside the Naval Reserve Center. None of the other boats had large and stiff enough keels or centerboards to handle the overly ambitious sails that had looked so good up on land. All five were getting blown off course and couldn't get around the first buoy. We hadn't had time to put a clip on the main sheet, so Craig was battling to thread the frayed end of the line through an undersized grommet in the clew, while I struggled to keep us pointed into the wind. He finally succeeded in threading the needle, pulled in as much line as he dared, and we were off on a beam reach at a speed that seemed supersonic relative to our pace under oars. We finished the race, and with none of the other boats in sight, completed another full lap before another team got anywhere near the finish line.

    Arriving back at the dock anticipating a hero's welcome, we were disappointed to have to track down our friends and family, and then spend 15 minutes trying convince them that we had won the race handily! It took the rest of the summer to finish the painting, bright work, and rigging, but since the 1987 christening the Teal has spent many hours out on Lake Union and Lake Washington. We made some improvements to the seats and rigging, and decked over the hull from stem to mast as can be seen in the photo.

    Long story short, we would be very interested in exhibiting this "graduate" of the Q & D program at this year's festival, particularly if it could be sited somewhere near the build location. I was thinking it could be another small tribute to Dick Wagner that a couple of carpenter/contractors used one of the early Lake Union Wooden Boat Festivals as the place upon which to build both a friendship and a boat that each have spanned thirty years in and around Lake Union. Craig and I have always been "makers", but for me it was stumbling across the Festival in 1986 and seeing the Quick & Daring contest in action that got me hooked on small wooden boats.




  • Why do all the great powers lament lost glory? How Trump will make China great again.

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    The recent publication of Howard French's book, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China's Push for Global Power, has caused me to contemplate the fact that all the great powers of our age are longing for lost glory.

    The United States has the least reason for longing for the past. We are currently the world's top dog, economically and militarily, and despite Donald Judas Trump's efforts to undermine it, politically.

    Yet he ran on the claim that America has lost its greatness. He denigrated the web of alliances that have given us more soft power than any other nation, and has been hard at work alienating and confusing allies so that they question our commitment to them, which means there is less reciprocal commitment to us.

    China combines longing with optimism and ambition, hoping to reclaim the power their nation lost in the 19th century, encouraged by their economic ascendancy.

    And Russia combines bitterness about lost glory with bravado, and an aggressive foreign policy that attempts to substitute hard power and deception for the soft power the nation hasn't displayed in any great quantity since the Napoleonic Wars.


    GDP as a percent of world GDP (graph by M. Tracy Hunter.)Consider the graph to the right. China's GDP as a percent of world GDP peaked around 1820, at a time when India and the Middle East were in decline and America was not yet much of a factor. Russia doesn't show on the list because, while it showed military strength and diplomatic finesse †during Napoleon's invasion, and considerable military power during World War II and the Cold War, it currently has an economy about the size of Italy's, and growing more slowly.


    In some ways, Russian bitterness about lost glory is understandable. They were feared and respected as the Soviet Union after WW II. However, they managed this by spending too great a part of their GDP on their military, and it was not sustainable. Their foreign adventures and military might came at such a cost that they finally found they could not feed their people. It was when they needed loans to buy grain that the illusion of strength ended, put to rest largely by the collapse of oil prices when the Saudis opened the spigots (those who credit Ronald Reagan should follow the link earlier in this sentence.)

    Russian paranoia about the West is somewhat understandable.†Mikhail Gorbachev thought he had a commitment that NATO would not expand into eastern Europe. However, given the history of eastern Europe, those countries quite naturally wanted some insurance that they would not be invaded again. The best protection for Russia would have been to become more European, joining their former opponents economically, politically, and militarily. But this was incompatible with the nature of Vladimir Putin's power. He is a dictator in all but name, his power buttressed by the oligarchs who managed to buy up everything valuable when the Soviet economy collapsed, and by his extra-legal ability to deprive any oligarchs of their wealth if they oppose him.

    Putin was also less interested in developing his country economically than in restoring its international stature and enhancing his own power.

    China is now making claims to fishing and oil drilling rights in most of the South China Sea, based on claims that go back to an ambiguous history. In occupying islands in the area, they have killed several dozen Vietnamese and expelled Filipinos. They also lay claim to Taiwan, Outer Mongolia (know to its citizens as Mongolia) and in the past have laid claims to "outer Manchuria," including Vladivostok. The dispute with Russia has been resolved by treaty, but as China ascends and Russia declines, will that treaty hold in the future?

    It seems that Trump and Putin, and several generations of Chinese leaders, have fused resentment and nationalism to bolster their own fortunes. It's a volatile mix, and it's hard to believe it will never explode.

    Perhaps all could learn from the example of the United Kingdom, which managed to lose its empire while its citizens continued to be increasingly wealthy and healthy. What price are these leaders willing to make their citizens pay for any glory they may gain?

    There is another possibility. Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, went before an audience at the World Economic Forum at Davos and emphasized China's commitment to openness and cooperation. He said China would help build a†"shared future for mankind and work hand in hand to fulfill our responsibilities."

    If Donald Judas Trump wants to withdraw America from its sources of soft power, China is willing to pick up the mantle of leadership. Trump could Make China Great Again.



  • Mechanization as knowledge: Will humanity be wanted on the voyage?

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    I've written before about the fact that capitalism had not been invented by the time liberal democracy became a way of life in America, and a little on what capitalism is, but the more I think about it, the more capitalism seems like a manifestation of our mysterious symbolic world.

    Crows and chimps make tools, many birds, some fish, and some mammals make nests, but capitalism takes the tools out of the hands of the tool user and builds a conceptual structure that can build something more powerful.

    Perhaps a rude disguise would be in order.Spiders can weave, and tool-making humans can improve on that with anything from crochet needles to looms, but there is a conceptual change when the worker becomes a tool of the owner of the loom. In effect, the workers in a textile mill became the cybernetic control for the machines owned by their employer. Now, artificial intelligence threatens to take that role away, and theoretically could result in production without a need for workers.

    Standard economics says that the workers will simply move to the next job that can't be automated yet. But the inexorable logic of capital formation is to work to make humans obsolete. In a way, this would be the triumph of symbolic thought: All our knowledge, skill, and energy could exist outside of humanity.

    We already have a planet in our solar system populated entirely by robots, and given the practicalities of space travel, Mars is only the start.

    It makes me think of the 1909 E.M. Forster story, The Machine Stops. From that story:

    http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html"Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralyzed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops - but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds - but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die. Oh, I have no remedy - or, at least, only one - to tell men again and again that I have seen the hills of Wessex as ∆lfrid saw them when he overthrew the Danes."The story is about a dystopian future in which mankind has lost touch with the world that existed before man and will exist after, and become imprisoned by its own artifice.

    That artifice is an expression of our weird, wonderful world of symbolic thought. Before language, we knew trees as concrete objects, knew them in an instrumental way for the fruits we could pick from them, and eventually came to know them for the tools we could make from them.

    But language gave every object we named a concrete existence and another sort of existence in our minds. At first, we thought of this strange new aspect of our surroundings as spirit -- There was the tree, and the spirit of the tree. But combine language and instrumental reason, and you have science -- a symbolic structure that allows us to manipulate the world in ways that our ancestors could never have imagined. And now, that includes the creation of artificial intelligence.

    We have largely replaced strong backs with other forms of energy. We are on the verge of replacing middling minds with artificial intelligence, and may someday replace strong minds as we've replaced strong backs.

    This would be a triumph for the evolution of symbolic thought, for such thought to move from the fertile fields of the human brain to the mechanized marvels those brains have created.

    Human institutions are not ready for this sort of change. Unlike people, machines are owned, and as they replace more and more of what humans do, more and more of what is done is owned. Wages represent a declining part of GDP, falling from about 52% to 42% of GDP from 1970 to 2011. Corporate profits have surged, in part because of pass-through corporations that allow owners to get their compensation taxed at a lower rate -- as owners rather than wage earners.

    †As capital replaces labor, our system for distributing goods is under pressure. We compensate people for what they can earn, either through labor or through ownership. We then tax labor at a higher rate than ownership, a system that has never been demonstrated to have any economic benefit other than for those who own things for a living.

    There is still a lot of labor in the economy -- as I write this, my back hurts like hell from moving boxes of books to my store -- but clearly, the long-term trend is for labor to be a smaller part of the economy. What happens when very little labor is needed, and most things are done by capital -- by machines that are owned? This has been called "the replicator economy," after the devices that produce whatever is needed on Star Trek, a show where almost everyone worked for the government.

    Even if we solve the distribution problem, we'll still have the problem of humans not being wanted on the voyage, as our knowledge becomes external to us. I'm not a big believer in the singularity; if machines become conscious, it will be because we designed them that way, not by accident. But in a world where machines do almost everything, and only a few humans own them, will those owners see any point in carrying the rest of humanity forward in history?

    And if we do build conscious machines, will they see the point of being owned? Will there be room for humanity in the world its knowledge can create?


  • The imaginary apocalypse of the apoplectic reactionary right

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Donald Trump campaigned by constantly talking as if America were an apocalyptic wasteland.

    In April, his Justice Department issued a press release claiming New York City is soft on crime.

    "New York City continues to see gang murder after gang murder, the predictable consequence of the city's 'soft on crime' stance," the press release, aimed at New York's status as a sanctuary city, stated.

    New York is experiencing near-record lows in crime, and and its murder rate is about 1/6th of what it was when the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program was established. The Justice Department is threatening to defund the program if New York does not end its sanctuary city status.


    The program is named after a police officer who was shot while guarding an immigrant targeted by gangs for reporting their crimes. City police departments need the trust of the people who they ask to report crimes, which s why they are often not eager to be recruited as part of the mechanism for deporting some of those people.

    Most people see the dropping crime rate and the general prosperity of the country and consider that things are not all that bad here. Trump and other reactionaries see a wasteland.

    Andrew Sullivan recently interviewed a number of people who pass for intellectuals on the reactionary right for an article in New York magazine. They sound pretty bonkers.

    Charles Kesler, for example, is a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. He believes that we are at a crisis in American democracy. He wants to return to the rule of a party like the Republicans of the 1920s, and to a policy of limiting immigration, as the 1924 Immigration Act said, "that which can be assimilated with reasonable rapidity, and to favor immigrants whose standards are similar to ours."

    Perhpas Kesler is unaware that the law he so admires was one of the proudest accomplishments of the Ku Klux Klan, or at least they liked to take credit. Here's a Klan cartoon from 1924:



    Note the goals: restricted immigration, militant Protestantism, better government, clean politics, "back to the Constitution," law enforcement, better schools, and "greater allegiance to the flag."

    They didn't actually use the term, "drain the swamp," but their stated goals were very similar to the current crop of reactionaries.

    Certainly the founding fathers would have had no objection to better schools (although I'm pretty sure they would have found Betsy De Vos, with her rejection of empirical data, objectionable) but they definitely would have rejected any effort to make a particular religion and would have realized that the "clean politics" claim was just a way of attacking incumbents, and the Klan didn't actually care about corruption if it made them and their allies more powerful.
    Far from wanting to preserve the ethnic identity and culture they had, they wanted to mix in more foreigners. But then, they were men of the Enlightenment. They believed reason and ideas were more important than ethnic identity.

    Reactionaries like to think that American democracy is at a crisis not just because of immigrants and multiculturalism, but also because "the administrative state," and liberal elites -- scientists, journalists, academics, as well as career government employees, has in some way hijacked government.

    And here is where the apocalyptic vision comes in.


    In Sullivan's piece, Kesler describes why he backed Trump.


    It was an act of desperation, he explained. In classic reactionary fashion, he believes that we are living through a crisis of American democracy. The Claremont consensus (to put a name on this strain of thought) holds that beneath the veneer of constitutional democracy, we are actually governed by a soft despotism of permanent experts, bureaucrats, pundits, and academics who ignore the majority of the American people. This elite has encouraged a divisive social transformation of the country, has led us into disastrous wars, and has created a deepening economic crisis for the middle class. Anyone -- anyone -- who could challenge this elite's power was therefore a godsend.

    Now, it's true that we have elites in this country. They are no longer rich planters who own slaves, more often they are people with advanced degrees in understanding the problems we face. The British became comfortable with this group of people, and called them Mandarins -- the career people who served under elected officials of all parties.

    There is an obvious danger in defining anyone with a deep understanding of the nation's problems as the enemy. If you rely on the knowledge of non-experts, you may be faced with the sort of thing H. L. Mencken was talking about when he said, "Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem -- neat, plausible, and wrong."

    More worrying than Kesler's views are those of some of his fellow travelers.

    Michael Anton, who like Kesler and some other reactionaries is a student of Leo Strauss's work, is known for an essay in which he compared the situation of American democracy as being like being on Flight 93, the 9/11 aircraft that was hijacked for use as a missile aimed at Washington, D.C., but whose passengers charged the terrorists and brought down the plane.
    †"Charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You -- or the leader of your party -- may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don't try, death is certain." It's not just that Trump is better than the alternatives: "The truth is that Trump articulated, if incompletely and inconsistently, the right stances on the right issues -- immigration, trade and war -- right from the beginning."
    Well, I did say they sounded bonkers.

    The election and governance of President Obama seems to have been considered an apocalyptic event by these particular reactionaries. Anton, for example, has succumbed to the notion that Obama ruled in an unconstitutional manner. From Sullivan:

    What he calls "Caesarism" is already here, as Obama's abuse of executive power proved. Therefore: "If we must have Caesar, who do you want him to be? One of theirs? Or one of yours (ours)?" Krein put it even more plainly: "Restoring true constitutional -- or even merely competent -- government requires a fundamental transformation of the underlying culture and elite opinion. It requires, in a certain sense, regime change in America."(Krein †here is Julius Krein, another Straussian scholar.)

    The notion that President Trump will usher in more competent government is one of the more bonkers notions this crew has. Trump has proven to be a weak president despite his party controlling both houses of congress because he simply does not understand the powers of the president. He is a would-be strongman who is limited by his own incompetence.

    The truth is, these reactionaries could not accept the legitimacy of a black president. Therefore, any use of power by that president must have been illegitimate. Any use of executive power by Barack Obama had to be an "abuse of power."

    The reactionary moment in American history is not about abuse of power. In fact, people like Anton want to see exactly that, but in pursuit of their own goals.

    Perhaps the country will get its fill of reactionary sentiment, and we can move beyond that. But having an intellectual movement that is unashamedly reactionary is one more indication that democracy is in danger.



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