URLs du Jour


  • We're feckless. Totally without feck. Niall Ferguson does not mince words about the guy in charge of our foreign policy: Biden betrayed the Afghans to the Taliban. Now, he's thrown Ukraine to the wolves.

    Last year, Biden abandoned the people of Afghanistan to the Taliban. This year it is the turn of the people of Ukraine to be thrown to the wolves.

    There was never the remotest chance that the threat of sanctions would deter Putin from invading.

    It didn’t help when Biden seemed to suggest he wouldn’t necessarily penalise a ‘minor’ incursion.

    The only thing that would have made Putin think twice was the presence in Ukraine of significant military hardware, but the Biden administration slowed deliveries of arms to Kyiv.

    Last year, it removed sanctions on companies building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, designed by Russia and Germany to bypass Ukraine. What’s more, Biden discovered that China and Russia are hand in glove after he tried to get President Xi Jinping to dissuade Putin from invading Ukraine.

    The naivety would beggar belief if Biden was not manifestly in his second childhood.

    Well, at least we here in New Hampshire won't have to buy any Russian vodka. For a while.

  • Especially the Road to Serfdom. Christian Britschgi wonders (in print Reason): Who Will Pay for the Roads? Apparently not the people who use them.

    The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in November, shifts federal highway policy further away from the free market model of "user pays, user benefits" by requiring taxpayers to cough up more money for socialized roads.

    The infrastructure law, supported by legislators of both major parties, allocates about $54 billion a year to federally subsidized highways, which account for a quarter of all public roads in the U.S. That's an increase from the roughly $45 billion included in the last highway bill. All told, the law authorizes $110 billion in new spending on roads and bridges.

    Where will all that money come from? Not from road users, at least not directly.

    Britschgi notes that for an administration allegedly concerned with "equity", shoving costs onto general taxpayers for a specialized service is … well, inequitable.

  • She's not good, but what did you expeect? Kevin D. WIlliamson says why he's Against Judge Jackson. We have to skip down a bit (in an NRPlus article, sigh), but here it is:

    Judge Jackson is well qualified for the position, judged by her résumé and by the fact that she has spent eight years on the federal bench (though less than a year in her current position on the Court of Appeals) without exhibiting any obvious misbehavior — except in one thing: She does not believe in the rule of law.

    And that should be — should be — disqualifying.

    Judge Jackson isn’t any worse than the justice she is replacing and very likely would be better than whoever is next on Joe Biden’s list, but, as a matter of principle, she should be opposed.

    Justice [Clarnce] Thomas is often — and dishonestly — described as a conservative justice or a right-wing justice. But what Justice Thomas actually is, is a textualist justice, which is a fancy way of saying that he is someone who believes that we write our laws down for a reason and that judges — including the highest judges in the land — are obliged to follow what the law actually says, rather than what they wish it said, what they think it should say, or their own idiosyncratic sense of fairness or morality. We call them “justices,” but they are not in the justice business — they are in the law business. And if achieving justice requires a change in the law, then the people must elect new lawmakers to make that change.

    Court-packing is a lousy idea, but if it could be packed with Clarence Thomas clones…

  • Number one on the hit parade… Geek Press features Mathematical Objects which reproduces this Metafilter post.

    That "in order by popularity" list is kind of a hoot. I bet you can guess number one without looking. But I was surprised at the strong showing of Euler's constant.

The Great Leveler

Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

I put this on my to-be-read list awhile back, and (as usual) I can't remember exactly why. I should keep notes about that. It does have a couple of favorable back-cover blurbs from Steven Pinker and Tyler Cowen, so I may have been influenced that way.

Reader beware: this is a weighty book of serious historical scholarship, and the discussion is highly technical and detailed in spots. I went into "look at every page" mode in a more than a few spots.

The author, Walter Scheidel, has done a diligent job of tracking down the economic history of inequality (both income and wealth varieties). Specifically, his purpose here is to examine the methods by which inequality decreases. And his primary lesson here is that such methods are easily summarized and all unpleasant; he calls them the Four Horsemen.

The first is modern mass-mobilization warfare. It kills a lot of people, inherent to its bloody nature. And destroys property. It needs to be funded, too, and the participating governments need to divert piles of wealth and resources to building war machinery.

The second is violent revolution, which often targets the wealthy. If they're lucky, by mere expropriation; if they're unlucky, by getting killed (and then expropriation). The prime examples are the Communist varieties, of course.

The third horseman: "state failure", where a government simply falls over its own feet. A modern example is Somalia, but Scheidel describes some older examples too: the Roman Empire, ancient Egypt, and "the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia".

And finally, the fourth horseman is pandemic. (The book predates Covid, but our recent experience certainly provides context to the discussion.) Pandemics kill a lot of people (duh). But (as a result) labor goes into short supply, and laborers (hence) are able to demand increased wages. (Usually to the consternation of their elite employers; Scheidel provides a number of examples of early, largely ineffective, efforts at wage control by decree.)

Now, past performance is no guarantee of future results. But for those folks who think economic inequality is a Major Problem That Must Be Solved, Scheidel paints a very gloomy picture; effective measures are often violent, increase general immiseration, and there are no examples of them working in the long term.

Scheidel seems sympathetic to the goal of reducing inequality; I'm convinced it's not that worthy. He mentions the work of Thomas Piketty a lot, and seems uncritical. (As a philosophical matter, I'm convinced by Harry Frankfurt's analysis in On Inequarlity.)

So I wish Scheidel had gone more deeply into the mechanisms of increasing inequality just as much as he looked at its decrease. One cause is obvious: the evolution of states out of ancient protection rackets. That's alluded to, but it's pretty superficial. In the modern US, there's plenty of that good old "crony capitalism", but a lot of wealth/income accumulation is due to (horrors) people doing a good job at providing goods and services that a lot of other people want to buy. Today's Sanders/Warren populists want to stir up resentment against that, but I'm OK with it.

On a related note, I'd like very much to have seen reference to Deirdre McCloskey's work on the "Great Enrichment". (I'd also like to see McCloskey's reaction to this book, but if she had one, I can't find it.)

Last Modified 2022-03-01 11:06 AM EDT