Against the Grain

A Deep History of the Earliest States

[Amazon Link]

James C. Scott, a Yale PoliSci prof, writes here (I take it) a contrarian view of how the earliest "states" came into being. He brings a (basically) anarchist perspective to his analysis, which means that he's not buying the standard narrative that increasing numbers of people living under state control automatically implies "progress" toward "civilization".

In the following, you have to remember that I'm not even a worthy dilettante in this field. I may be offbase on a number of issues.

Apparently the mainstream view is that states were automatically brought about by the advent of sedentary agriculture of grain crops. Scott argues that such agriculture preceded the earliest states by centuries, if not millennia. So there must have been some other mechanism in play.

Scott is critical of early states, describing how they were dependent on coerced labor, taxation, and theft (but I repeat myself). They had a number of other non-obvious downsides: peoples' diets were less diverse, probably leading to suboptimal nutrition. Gathering lots of people into a relatively small area gave rise to all sorts of nasty disease; obviously, the sanitation systems appropriate for nomadic hunter/gatherers didn't scale well at higher population densities. And, tyrannies that they were, the earliest states were "planned" economies, where the planning all happened in the rulers' heads. Scientific socialism, without very much science, in other words. Shortages, gluts, thievery, and slacking-off must have been endemic.

So you would expect the early states to have been extremely fragile, apt to break down in response to shifts in climate, marauding bands of nomadic raiders, or simple emigration. Scott points out a couple times that the walls erected by early states may have been to keep people in, not just enemies out.

Also interesting: the early states invented writing, for how else are you going to keep track of taxes, inventories, and the like? OK, that does sound pretty civilized, even in service to oppression.

One thing that troubles me about Scott's argument: although he's pretty convincing that early states were founded on (and depended on) coercive violence, he doesn't seem to compare that to the levels of violence outside the state. Since I've read Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature, I thought such violence was pretty intense too. Scott doesn't seem to be a believer in the idyllic "noble savage", but it would have been nice to see an engagement with the view that the state improved things, violence-wise.

I requested this book from UNH Interlibrary Loan, but before it showed up, a review was published in the WSJ: I’m From Pharaoh and Here to Help. The reviewer, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, has a number of serious criticisms of Scott's work. So take it with a grain (heh) of salt. [I have Professor Fernández-Armesto's recent book on order from UNH, we'll see how that goes…]

The Hand of Oberon

[Amazon Link]

Number four in Roger Zelazny's Amber series. I repeat my usual warning: Avoid reading further if you haven't read one through three.

Where we left off: Protagonist Corwin, with buddy Ganelon and brother Random, just made a remarkable discovery about the nature of Amber. It's not quite what they thought it was, and that may well make the long term survival of that unhappy world less likely. Or, now that they know about it, more likely. Who knows? Yes, it's one of those fantasy series that seems unsatisfied with the fantasy-rules laid out in the first book, and seeks to alter them.

Why, it's almost as if Zelazny was making this stuff up as he went along.

Anyway: it's the usual mix of intra-family betrayal and lies, hallucinogenic trips to alternate universes, a quick visit to "our" earth, violent clashes with both fantastic beasts and humans. It ends up with a thrilling battle between good and evil. And, oh yeah, a shocking twist ending. No spoilers here, although you might see it coming if you look at the title of the book.

URLs du Jour


Proverbs 19:7 is another verse from Jimmy Cox's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out".

7 The poor are shunned by all their relatives—
    how much more do their friends avoid them!
  Though the poor pursue them with pleading,
    they are nowhere to be found.

Bottom line on the Proverbial advice: don't be poor.

Power Line reports: And Now for Some Real “Fake News”. The perpetrator of "ugly incidents of vandalism targeting blacks" at Eastern Michigan University was not an underground chapter of the KKK, but a black former student. Good advice here:

Here’s an idea: Instead of going to DefCon1 every time someone splashes some racist graffiti on a college campus, how about ignoring it? How about not getting all “shaken” every time someone does something stupid? One reason leftist provocateurs keep doing this is that it gets the desired reaction. Keep in mind that a key demand of race-mongering campus radicals these days is that courses on race, class, and gender be required for all students, and required to be offered in every department—even physics. That the demand their outlook be made compulsory subject matter shows how weak it is. And few things supposedly reinforce the “need” for such instruction that some kind of racist “incident” on campus.

An example of DefCon1 from the University Near Here last spring: the [Boston] Tab reporting that UNH was "a college in racial meltdown" due (in part) to campus scrawlings of swastikas and the n-word.

So far the perps are unidentified. But …

■ At NRO, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry reports an uncomfortable truth: Half of All Health Spending Is Wasted.

There is a strange combination of two facts. First, it is the consensus of the relevant studies and health-policy experts that about half of all health-care spending in the U.S. is wasted. That is, if we spent half as much as we spend, we wouldn’t be worse off at all, so long as we spent the remaining money on what’s truly needed. In fact, we might be better off, and not just because an enormous dead weight would be lifted off the economy.

Second, not only has this fact not registered at all on the American public consciousness, but the vast majority of health-policy experts are in denial about it — not in the sense that they straightforwardly reject the non-controversial finding, but in the sense that they seem very reluctant to admit it or talk about it and certainly seem to behave as if it were not the case.

A primary cause: funding that, as much as possible, hides costs from health care consumers.

And there's a corollary: there are a lot of people making very nice livings off that waste. Their vested interest is in the status quo.

■ We have a lot of recent Google-Alerted LFOD news too. For example, the Concord Monitor reports on a quixotic legislative quest from a local pol: N.H. rep proposes statewide single-payer health care.

A proposal to create a single-payer health care system in New Hampshire drew mixed reactions in the House on Monday, with some denouncing it as a wayward fantasy and others heralding an opportunity for a conversation on broader reform.

The legislative service request, sponsored by Rep. Peter Schmidt, D-Dover, is titled “establishing a New Hampshire single payor (sic) health care system.”

To quote Google: "Did you mean: "single payer". When the Concord Monitor is making fun of your spelling, you're in trouble, Pete.

But let's get to the LFOD bit:

Committee member William Marsh, R-Wolfeboro [declined to directly comment on Schmidt’s proposal without seeing the drafted bill first]. But speaking on the idea generally, Marsh argued the idea would never work.

To start, he said, the volume of health care services the state of New Hampshire currently outsources to Boston is too vast for the state to pay for or substitute itself. And while Marsh conceded that teaming up with other New England states might be more workable overall, he said the costs would still be prohibitive for the Live Free or Die State.

Marsh is wrong. "Teaming up" with other states would not be "more workable": it would invariably result in NH taxpayers subsidizing consumers in those other states.

But he's also (sort of) wrong in saying "the idea would never work." Because he probably thinks "the idea" is to improve the health of the citizenry. How old-fashioned! Instead, "the idea" is to make the citizenry utterly dependent on the state for health care. That's what single-payer proponents want. And, given proper degrees of coercion, that would probably "work" just fine, by that standard.

■ At the Salem [NH] Patch, Jilletta Jarvis asks the musical question: What Does 'Live Free or Die' Mean to Me?

So, what does it mean to “Live Free or Die” to me specifically? It means that the people in my state should be allowed to make choices for themselves and their families. To have that freedom to decide where my money goes and who I support (businesses, charities, political figures, sports teams, celebrities, etc.). It means making the choices that affect my family without the government telling me what those choices must be. It means being able to walk down the street and say hello to random people I’ve never met before and having them say hello back to me because neither of us fear each other.

It means driving down the highway with my seatbelt on because I made the personal choice to do so, not because a government told me I had to. It means having a government that is run by the people, not by the upper 1 percent who don’t care what the average person wants. It means doing whatever I can to make sure that others have these same freedoms. It’s supporting my neighbors’ right to disagree with me, their right to shoot off fireworks on a Friday night.

Ms Jarvis is running for governor under the Libertarian Party banner. I am looking forward to voting for her if she appears on the ballot.

■ At a site called Ozy, writer Nick Fouriezos wonders: Can Made-to-Order Organs Revive This Former Mill Town? The town is Manchester, NH; one of the people behind the manufacturing of "regenerative organs and tissues" is Dean Kamen. So, as Glenn Reynolds likes to say: faster, please.

It would be a surprising turn of events for Manchester and the “Live Free or Die” state, which was identified as an epicenter for the opioid epidemic during last year’s presidential election. “Manchester is an urban city in a sea of rural communities,” says Mike Skelton, president of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, and thus carries some crime-and-drugs stigma, he admits. “It’s not to say we don’t have those challenges — we do — but we might unfairly be labeled as a place that’s struggling,” Skelton adds. “We have some work to do to get that message out and rebrand Manchester.” That criticism doesn’t just come from outsiders. “Culturally, the Northeast, we have a healthy amount of skepticism,” Skelton says. “If there is one challenge we are battling internally … it’s the perception of what we are, and what we can be.”

I am pretty sure Manchester can manage to be both a vibrant technology center and a drug-ridden hellhole. We multitask up here.

■ And a tourist guide to Fall Foliage: Where to Catch the Last Colours of the Season in New England. Yes, "colours", because this advice is provided by the UK's Independent. Among their suggestions:

Mount Washington, New Hampshire

The state of New Hampshire – whose motto is ‘Live free or die’ – has the highest peaks in the north-east of the US. The highest of these is Mount Washington at 1,917m (6,288ft), and experienced walkers can hike through the foliage of the White Mountain National Forest. Although the Mount Washington Auto Road runs all the way to the summit, it closed in mid-October, meaning that adventurous hikers can enjoy the foliage here in near-privacy (

This has to be one of the more gratuitous uses of LFOD in recent memory. What was going through the writer's mind? "I need seven more words to reach my assigned word count for this article. What to do? Oh, I know!"

And to all our UK readers: as I type, Mount Washington is considered "past peak" as far as foliage goes. It's still nice to visit for other reasons.

■ And news you can use from NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day": Where Your Elements Came From. Check it out, and here's their explanation, links included:

The hydrogen in your body, present in every molecule of water, came from the Big Bang. There are no other appreciable sources of hydrogen in the universe. The carbon in your body was made by nuclear fusion in the interior of stars, as was the oxygen. Much of the iron in your body was made during supernovas of stars that occurred long ago and far away. The gold in your jewelry was likely made from neutron stars during collisions that may have been visible as short-duration gamma-ray bursts or gravitational wave events. Elements like phosphorus and copper are present in our bodies in only small amounts but are essential to the functioning of all known life. The featured periodic table is color coded to indicate humanity's best guess as to the nuclear origin of all known elements. The sites of nuclear creation of some elements, such as copper, are not really well known and are continuing topics of observational and computational research.

As Joni Mitchell and Carl Sagan said: we are stardust. [Not meant to imply that I endorse their other views.]