Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Think Tank Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago was the term used by Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solshenitzyn to describe the secretive network of precincts, star-chambers and labor camps by which the Soviet government terrorized its own citizens. (Reminder: things like the "Secret Service" and the "Department of the Interior" mean very different things outside the US). I've borrowed the term for the network of think tanks, magazines, and political consulting firms that became much more noticeable with the 2016 Republican primary and general election. Z-Man calls them The Rackets. (Again, no copy-pasta, so you'll just have to click through). I was unaware of most of them until Trump started threatening to put the supposedly conservative GOP into actual power. Then all these people I never heard of came out of the woodwork to tell us Trump would grab your wives' cootches and put everybody in the camps and Russian troops would be sleeping on cots in the very White House.

When people squawk that hard, usually the real concern is not so much policy as loss of money or status. Jeb Bush lavished millions on people who couldn't tell him that the fly-overs don't want to be made strangers in their own country and don't care whether Jeff Bezos gets a few more million in tax savings to tack on to his multi-billion dollar net worth. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio ran expensive, hard-fought campaigns premised on the subtleties of Constitutional law and how awful it would be if we socialized medicine for anybody who's not employed by federal, state or local government, military or ex-military, and anybody who's not old or poor. (That leaves the rest of you to pick up the tab, schmucks).

I recall hearing the name Rick Wilson a lot in 2016, and wondering who in the world that was.

Apparently there's this whole industry of people who make a very good living off political consulting. I hadn't really thought about them at all until they started crawling out from under rocks in 2016. Political campaigns are scrupulously managed by an army of paid consultants. Then a blowhard like Trump comes along and tweets off his cellphone and rents arenas and gets the locals to volunteer the entertainment and spends an hour extemporaneously telling people what they want to hear. You don't need to pay anybody several million dollars to figure that out.

The related pundit and journalist classes have the same problem: their product is not particularly unique or arcane, and people are wondering why they ever paid for it. You can fork over your credit card information and wade through all the ads and pop-ups to sniff through George Will's precious droppings, or you can just type in Or click on Sailer, or Z-Man, or anybody else in the blogroll, or thousands of others.

Trump and Trumpism threaten livelihoods and status of a large class of feeders, and this motivates the animus toward him as much as any actual policy. The Think Tank Archipelago subsists off favorable treatment under 501(c)(3) and tax-sheltered gifts from wealthy individuals. Naturally, therefore, the Archipelago broadcasts the sort of policies that keep the wealthy wealthy. It's also no coincidence that many of these entities are clustered in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic, near Washington D.C. Trump calls them The Swamp--a whole political-economic sector whose members rotate among government employment, government contracting, government lobbying, campaign consulting, and lecturing the rest of us via legacy media.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


From Investopedia:
What is 'Bitcoin Mining'
Bitcoin mining is the process by which transactions are verified and added to the public ledger, known as the block chain, and also the means through which new bitcoin are released. Anyone with access to the internet and suitable hardware can participate in mining. The mining process involves compiling recent transactions into blocks and trying to solve a computationally difficult puzzle. The participant who first solves the puzzle gets to place the next block on the block chain and claim the rewards. The rewards, which incentivize mining, are both the transaction fees associated with the transactions compiled in the block as well as newly released bitcoin. (Related: How Does Bitcoin Mining Work?)

BREAKING DOWN 'Bitcoin Mining'
The amount of new bitcoin released with each mined block is called the block reward. The block reward is halved every 210,000 blocks, or roughly every 4 years. The block reward started at 50 in 2009, is now 25 in 2014, and will continue to decrease. This diminishing block reward will result in a total release of bitcoin that approaches 21 million.

How hard are the puzzles involved in mining? Well, that depends on how much effort is being put into mining across the network. The difficulty of the mining can be adjusted, and is adjusted by the protocol every 2016 blocks, or roughly every 2 weeks. The difficulty adjusts itself with the aim of keeping the rate of block discovery constant. Thus if more computational power is employed in mining, then the difficulty will adjust upwards to make mining harder. And if computational power is taken off of the network, the opposite happens. The difficulty adjusts downward to make mining easier.

In the earliest days of Bitcoin, mining was done with CPUs from normal desktop computers. Graphics cards, or graphics processing units (GPUs), are more effective at mining than CPUs and as Bitcoin gained popularity, GPUs became dominant. Eventually, hardware known as an ASIC, which stands for Application-Specific Integrated Circuit, was designed specifically for mining bitcoin. The first ones were released in 2013 and have been improved upon since, with more efficient designs coming to market. Mining is competitive and today can only be done profitably with the latest ASICs. When using CPUs, GPUs, or even the older ASICs, the cost of energy consumption is greater than the revenue generated.

I want to know if anybody has bought a car for 1 Bitcoin–maybe this is happening. Like Tyler Cowen says, the valuation seems to be a Mobius strip: Bitcoin is valuable because a lot of people think it's valuable.

What makes money valuable? The Austrians say its anticipated purchasing power, from which they conclude that only commodities originally valued for their own sake can function sustainably as money. This doesn’t seem right, since fiat money seems to function just fine for the foreseeable future, or maybe that’s just normalcy bias. I’ve also read the explanation that fiat money is backed by all the goods and services available for exchange, which strikes me as a way of saying it’s backed by the ability of market actors to compel its use as tender. Does Bitcoin have this ability and to what extent? The technology is way over my head, but my dim understanding is the relative scarcity is ironclad and the units are portable and divisible. Is it durable? Where do the bitcoins “exist” and can they be taken out with a well-placed EM pulse or hack? Or maybe they’re too diffuse for this to happen. If I print the code out on a piece of paper can I take my sheaf of papers to Publix and trade them for groceries?

Fundamentally, if all you end up with is a square of Python code derived from an increasingly difficult and eventually insoluble set of equations, then Bitcoin seems to be just a competing fiat currency. And if that’s the case, is Bitcoin a bet that the dollar will crash spectacularly–i.e., that the ability of the USG to compel the dollar’s acceptance as market tender will be severely curtailed? What are the odds on that bet? Pretty long from what I can see. I guess we’ll find out when we find out.

Anyway, the number of question marks probably indicates that at my level I have no business buying Bitcoin. So I’ll just resume standing by the side of the road here with my cardboard sign: “Will work for food.”

Monday, December 4, 2017

Bert gets his own post

Not this Bert:

This Bert:

Bert is a longtime fan. I can't tell much about him from his terse, grumpy comments but I appreciate his reading and participation in my tiny corner of the Internet. Reminder: if you comment, even if to grouse that I should post more and what about the Flynn indictment and what's this Orthodoxy crap, expect it to be published when I get around to reviewing it. I went to moderated comments--much against my grain--to handle a few people (perhaps the same one) posting fatuous, half-baked comments that warp the discussion as everybody chases down all the strawmen and question-begging. Not. Productive. Ideas matter but people matter more, and the Enlightenment is over so try to keep up.

Any way, to repeat my comment from the previous post, there seem to be four fundamental spheres in which people, including me, construct their worldview:

1. Spirituality/being (ontology, morality, purpose)
2. Nationhood/community (group identity and society)
3. Economics (hierarchy of needs)
4. Inter-personal relations (love, family, community, group dynamics)

I think that runs the gamut of human existence, and there's lots of overlap so the material is finite and the other limitation is my personal creativity and time. I'm more deductive than inductive so I don't post unless a particular event strikes a chord with me. If I did this for a living, you'd get more posts. Also, as commenter patrick kelly observes, truth is a broken record (for those of us who remember "records").

I am flattered and grateful to hear that my rants switch on some light bulbs. We are indeed in interesting times. Vox Popoli and Stefan Molyneux are big, concrete examples of the paradigm shift if you review their posts from way back to the present. Steve Sailer seems to be getting angrier as well. All the intellectual ferment is with the Alt-Right. You won't see it from public figures with mainstream gigs because they are paid not to offend.

I've gotten some interesting e-mails over the years so I'll set that up again. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Ghost dancing

The Ghost Dance (Caddo: Nanissáanah, also called the Ghost Dance of 1890) was a new religious movement incorporated into numerous American Indian belief systems. According to the teachings of the Northern Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka (renamed Jack Wilson), proper practice of the dance would reunite the living with spirits of the dead, bring the spirits of the dead to fight on their behalf, make the white colonists leave, and bring peace, prosperity, and unity to Indian peoples throughout the region.

The basis for the Ghost Dance, the circle dance, is a traditional form that has been used by many Indian peoples since prehistoric times, but this new ceremony was first practiced among the Nevada Paiute in 1889. The practice swept throughout much of the Western United States, quickly reaching areas of California and Oklahoma. As the Ghost Dance spread from its original source, Indian tribes synthesized selective aspects of the ritual with their own beliefs.

The Ghost Dance was associated with Wilson's (Wovoka's) prophecy of an end to white expansion while preaching goals of clean living, an honest life, and cross-cultural cooperation by Indians. Practice of the Ghost Dance movement was believed to have contributed to Lakota resistance to assimilation under the Dawes Act. In the Wounded Knee Massacre in December 1890, United States Army forces killed at least 153 Miniconjou and Hunkpapa from the Lakota people. The Lakota variation on the Ghost Dance tended towards millenarianism, an innovation that distinguished the Lakota interpretation from Jack Wilson's original teachings.
There is a lot of ghost-dancing going on these days.

Conservatives chant the old mantras of limited government, low taxes, and THE CONSTITUTION (their ghost-shirt) to resurrect Ronald Reagan and drive the godless heathens into the sea. Liberals screech about “Nazism” and “fascism” (neither of which survived World War 2) and pine for a newer, darker Franklin Roosevelt to confiscate all the guns and turn us into a Scandinavian social democracy. Both are hilariously backward-looking and inapt. A government with over 300 million people to tax is not going to be limited, and I don't care what you write into its charter. Low taxes mean nothing when the government just prints all the money it needs. Social democracy only works, assuming it ever works, so long as you have more net producers than net consumers and everyone puts their shoulder to the wheel. We no longer have the demographics, the mean IQ, or the cultural consensus for either ideal.

The world has changed but the hunter-gatherers don’t have a lot of attractive options when the farmers show up. So in the face of irrevocable change the conventional thinkers double down on their invocations and dance frantically to exorcise the demons polluting the land. The fly-over people, God bless them, saw that things had changed and voted for a coarse 70-year old billionaire who's never held public office.

Conservatives are an easier target for this critique since "conservatism" is, one might say, backward-looking by definition. But above all else one must be a realist; to be realist is to embrace truth. The Old Calendarists are an example of extreme conservatism, dutifully following a calendar which no longer reflects the actual movements of the God-created celestial bodies. Or Orthodox following an ecclesiology based on the administrative structure of an extinct Empire. But I digress.

It is noteworthy too how in the current political debates the liberals rely less on their traditional Year Zero rhetoric and more on a rehash of 1965, or 1933, or 1860, or even 1789, retconning Alexander Hamilton as America's First Black President. Of all things, it is now the nominal conservatives arguing for Year Zero, in the firm conviction that history has ended.

This is a titanic shift, and only myself and a few others are remarking on it. Here's the always excellent Z-man's contribution. (You'll have to click through, because he's disabled copy-pasta.)

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Our strangely demotic elite

A comment on Marginal Revolution got me thinking about this. The OP talks about nurturing entrepeneurship, and the linked comment chimes in on government funding:
Of course, government funding–such as NSF grants– as a source of innovation are not popular to the more libertarian minded who focus on the “gov’ment “rgulation” as the impediment.

But, if we continue to cut back on government funded research and develop, and then later get surprised that innovation and entrepreneurial activity using this work declines, well, we get what we didn’t pay for and what we deserve.
I have a lot of issues with this. Public funding is like the quantum observer: its very existence distorts the market. Would cancer research end if the public funds dried up? I suppose quantum physics would take a hit, but is it socially just to tax people so a few geniuses can pursue such arcane areas? Silicon Valley and Wall Street have enormous amounts of wealth piled up by brilliant people. Let the quantum physicists make their pitch to them. And governments, like oligopolistic corporations, have their own agendas. The public sector is not going to fund research that reveals there's very little that government can do about a certain problem, just like a corporation is not going to fund research that shows its product is literally killing people.

On the other hand, there’s an odd demotic trend among modern merchant class-elites (who are THE elites at this point) that undercuts my thesis. Formerly, aristocrats derived prestige from subsidizing intellectuals and high culture. The current elites don’t seem to think along those lines. Museums and orchestras are perennially broke, even as the people you would think care about such things are accruing enormous wealth. But they can't even get the more broad-based, populist things right either. Facebook is devoting lots of money to getting Africans more access to Facebook, which would increase the company’s eyeball-count and its founders’ already obscene wealth, but doesn’t address more basic (and life-changing) advances, like potable water and functioning sewers.

There really is a lot of low-hanging fruit still to pick in development economics. But things like municipal water systems and sewage treatment don't seem to attract nearly the enthusiasm as making sure the Third World can post on social media and learn how to emigrate from the Third World. I've written before about the billions of dollars and thousands of NGO employees lavished on Haitians, who still can't seem to get a functioning sewage treatment plant.

There are a lot of "think tanks" out there funded by wealthy people, but their resident scholars seem content drafting papers to wave around at Congressional hearings and penning an essay in their flagship publication that nobody reads. The conservative think tanks don't seem to do much other than occasionally send a scholar to go trigger protests at lefty campuses and agitate for democracy in low-trust countries. They are unmotivated and appallingly ineffective on the cultural and demographic fronts back home.

The wealthy don't seem to know what to do with their already obscene levels of wealth other than use it to generate more wealth, like lobbying for Open Borders and "free trade" and buying their own media outlets to get the word out. Per my title, the modern elite seem to have a strangely pedestrian vision.

My semi-serious suggestion is that once you notch a billion dollars we just give you a region of the country for life, and after your death to your heirs for life. Then you and yours have to figure out how to nurture the Louis Pasteurs and Michelangelos and Leonardo Da Vincis instead of bribing State actors and rigging the democratic process.

Friday, November 3, 2017

An episcopal Church

The spirit of Vatican II marches on, with +Francis now calling for a re-examination of priestly celibacy. The doctrine is not of itself the real controversy. After all, the Orthodox allow priests to marry with some important qualifications: a priest cannot marry after ordination, and bishops must be celibate. A good illustration of the twin dignity of both sacraments is the person of Antiochian bishop +John.

A priest married for 33 years, he was elevated to bishop after the repose of his wife. He now carries the Church in his person and cannot remarry.

The problem is, again, not the new doctrine being explored but the fact of the exploration. This has come up before, on the issue of lay divorce and remarriage, and was previously commented upon by Catholic writer John Zmirak:
It's essential to understand the stakes:
No Marriage, No Infallibility, No Papacy, No Catholic Church
- If no subject is "taboo", the authority of Bishops is not taboo either

No, don't expect any insane theory, or a "heretical pope" argument, to salvage this. If the Pope endorses polygamy, including in its spread-out format as any kind of legitimacy of the "remarriage" of "divorced" individuals, with the redefinition of the dogmatic theology of one of the seven Sacraments, then Trent, Vatican I, and the entire edifice of Catholic claims of authority fall with it. Catholic claims on the absolutely indissoluble Sacrament of Matrimony (1), from which spring forth the children who are Baptized (2), Confirmed (3), Ordained (4), hear confessions (5), celebrate Mass (6), confer Extreme Unction (7), and marry new couples (1 once again) are dogmatically strong and at the same time systematically fragile. They fall down, and the Papacy as it has always been understood falls with it. [From Rorate Caeli.]
So, if the Catholic understanding concerning the sacraments of priesthood and marriage becomes malleable once enough bishops disagree with it, then Synods aren't discerning eternal Truth guided by the Holy Spirit. They're just secular policy-making bodies with no more theological and thus ecclesial authority than a parish book club. Or, in another context, no more authority than the Parish Life Conference recently attended by several Orthodox Patriarchs. Or than me.

In other words, the Catholic Church is becoming not so much hierarchical as episcopal, which means it will become Episcopal. The geography is important as well: Rome is becoming a Global South Church. Catholics like Ross Douthat banking on the Global South to save the institution are going to be disappointed. And as with The Episcopal Church, the crack-up (which I should add I consider probable, and not certain) will be bitter indeed. Our good friend Porter is even less optimistic.

Prayers for all of Christ's Church.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The end of conservatism as we know it

I've staked my ground on the thesis that ideology is no longer the primary driver of US politics, and here's somebody who agrees with me:
Is ‘Classical Liberalism’ Conservative?

Trump didn’t divide the right. Centuries-old philosophical divisions have re-emerged.
American conservatism is having something of an identity crisis. Most conservatives supported Donald Trump last November. But many prominent conservative intellectuals—journalists, academics and think-tank personalities—have entrenched themselves in bitter opposition. Some have left the Republican Party, while others are waging guerrilla warfare against a Republican administration. Longtime friendships have been ended and resignations tendered. Talk of establishing a new political party alternates with declarations that Mr. Trump will be denied the GOP nomination in 2020.

Those in the “Never Trump” camp say the cause of the split is the president—that he’s mentally unstable, morally unspeakable, a leftist populist, a rightist authoritarian, a danger to the republic. One prominent Republican told me he is praying for Mr. Trump to have a brain aneurysm so the nightmare can end.

But the conservative unity that Never Trumpers seek won’t be coming back, even if the president leaves office prematurely. An apparently unbridgeable ideological chasm is opening between two camps that were once closely allied. Mr. Trump’s rise is the effect, not the cause, of this rift.
As I put it, conservatism now finds itself polarized between the End-Of-History camp and the Clash-Of-Civilizations camp. Yoram Hazony distinguishes between the Enlightenment-era classical liberalism that came to suffuse so much of modern conservative thought, and WASP-American pragmatism.
In his “Second Treatise on Government” (1689), Locke asserts that universal reason teaches the same political truths to all human beings; that all individuals are by nature “perfectly free” and “perfectly equal”; and that obligation to political institutions arises only from the consent of the individual. From these assumptions, Locke deduces a political doctrine that he supposes must hold good in all times and places.

The term “classical liberal” came into use in 20th-century America to distinguish the supporters of old-school laissez-faire from the welfare-state liberalism of figures such as Franklin D. Roosevelt. Modern classical liberals, inheriting the rationalism of Hobbes and Locke, believe they can speak authoritatively to the political needs of every human society, everywhere. In his seminal work, “Liberalism” (1927), the great classical-liberal economist Ludwig von Mises thus advocates a “world super-state really deserving of the name,” which will arise if we “succeed in creating throughout the world . . . nothing less than unqualified, unconditional acceptance of liberalism. Liberal thinking must permeate all nations, liberal principles must pervade all political institutions.”

Friedrich Hayek, the leading classical-liberal theorist of the 20th century, likewise argued, in a 1939 essay, for replacing independent nations with a world-wide federation: “The abrogation of national sovereignties and the creation of an effective international order of law is a necessary complement and the logical consummation of the liberal program.”
Classical liberalism thus offers ground for imposing a single doctrine on all nations for their own good. It provides an ideological basis for an American universal dominion.

By contrast, Anglo-American conservatism historically has had little interest in putatively self-evident political axioms. Conservatives want to learn from experience what actually holds societies together, benefits them and destroys them. That empiricism has persuaded most Anglo-American conservative thinkers of the importance of traditional Protestant institutions such as the independent national state, biblical religion and the family.

As an English Protestant, Locke could have endorsed these institutions as well. But his rationalist theory provides little basis for understanding their role in political life. Even today liberals are plagued by this failing: The rigidly Lockean assumptions of classical-liberal writers such as Hayek, Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick and Ayn Rand place the nation, the family and religion outside the scope of what is essential to know about politics and government. Students who grow up reading these brilliant writers develop an excellent grasp of how an economy works. But they are often marvelously ignorant about much else, having no clue why a flourishing state requires a cohesive nation, or how such bonds are established through family and religious ties.

Hazony points out that modern conservative unity was, in retrospect, a product of the times, specifically the great and defining Cold War. Then the Cold War ended (we won) and a certain class of thinker waited expectantly for the rest of the world to join us at the Eschaton. Thus imagine the shock, the anger when, as it turned out, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Muslims remained stubbornly parochial. For the true-believing classical liberal, it was the equivalent of continued heresy in the face of the physically incarnate Christ. This same aggrieved shock and anger manifests in the reactions to Trump, who casually tore up the ideological rule book and beat a whole bench of well-funded political pros at their own game.

As I've mentioned before, it's useless to talk about fiscal prudence in a country where half the people are net tax-consumers and the government prints all the money it wants. It's dishonest to lecture people about the free market when the central bank will backstop Goldman Sachs' and AIG's bad investments. And if Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, India, Greek Cyprus, the Vatican, and lots of other places can have border fences well, why can't we? Principled Conservatism doesn't really have a response. The Left, of course, is completely honest about its aims: white people are systemically, irredeemably racist, sexist, and just all-around awful and their social and economic clout must be reduced via immigration. Whites outside coastal socio-economic bubbles quite naturally voted for the billionaire who tells them he won't let that happen. Why wouldn't they?