Posts tagged ‘WWII’

If The US Won't Defend Market Capitalism, No One Will

Yesterday at an event called One Day University, I saw a talk by William Burke-White of Penn and formerly of the Obama state department (I think he was one of many consultants, but I can never figure out seniority from people's biographies - his is here).

Mr. Burke-White was discussing the liberal world order created by the US after WWII and recent decline / threats to this world order and American power.  He discussed five trends or forces driving changes, and you probably can predicts many of them.  He discussed the rise of new world powers (e.g. China), the rise of powerful NGO's (e.g. ISIS) and the expansion of the Internet (which can destabilize traditional powers).  All fine, I have no particular comment on that stuff.  He also discussed climate change, with a picture of Manhattan underwater, and though I am tempted, I won't even respond to that.

What caught my attention was his fifth point -- about income inequality.  He showed a slide with the meme that 8 people (Warren Buffet et al) had more wealth than something like half the world's population put together.   His conclusion was that the liberal world order had failed because so much wealth had been concentrated in a few hands.

Well, if American power and influence is declining in the world and Mr. Burke-White is an example of the thinking of the Obama administration over the last 8 years, I now have a better understanding of why.   Sure there are really rich people.   There were probably 8 really rich guys in 1400 (though they would have all been Kings and Emperors rather than private business people).  The really different, world-changing event over the last 50 years has been the emergence from poverty of over a billion people, as facilitated by market capitalism.  Never before in all of the history of the planet have so many people been pulled out of poverty in such a short time.  Never before has such a large percentage of the globe moved beyond pure subsistence farming.  If the leaders of this country find it impossible to communicate this simple good news, then of course the post-WWII liberal world order is going to struggle.

Look, I understand that baby boomers (a group of which I am barely a member) have a hard time figuring out how to cope with this country's many past missteps.  Yes, we have been ham-handed (and that is generous) in exercising our power and we have often failed to live up to our stated values.  But helping to unleash a wave of market capitalism on the world is among our true successes.   And this is the US's one true source of power, this wave of prosperity we have helped to birth.  Other supposed sources of our power -- a big military and atomic bombs -- are horrifying.  Market capitalism is our one source of strength that is genuinely positive.  If we are staffing the state department with people who don't get this, then no wonder we are losing influence in the world.

We Still Haven't Figured Out How to Measure Prosperity

The previous chart on beer availability reminds me of an issue I have been thinking about for a while -- that we do no know how to measure prosperity.

GDP growth and unemployment reduction are terrible measures.  Just to give one example, these measures looked fabulous in WWII.  But the average person living in the US had access to almost nothing -- they couldn't buy anything under rationing, they couldn't travel for leisure, etc.   GDP looked great because we were building stuff and then blowing it up, the economic equivilent of digging a hole and filling it in (but worse, because people were dying).  And unemployment looked great because we had drafted everyone and sent them off to get shot.

But median income and net worth numbers fail to measure prosperity as well.  The reason was described in this post here way back in 2007.

The home on the left was owned by Mark Hopkins, railroad millionaire and one of the most powerful men of his age in California.  Hopkins had a mansion with zillions of rooms and servants to cook and clean for him, but he never saw a movie, never listened to music except when it was live, never crossed the country in less than a week.  And while he could afford numerous servants around the house, Hopkins (like his business associates) tended to work 6 and 7 day weeks of 70 hours or more, in part due to the total lack of business productivity tools (telephone, computer, air travel, etc.) we take for granted.  Hopkins likely never read after dark by any light other than a flame.

If Mark Hopkins or any of his family contracted cancer, TB, polio, heart disease, or even appendicitis, they would probably die.  All the rage today is to moan about people's access to health care, but Hopkins had less access to health care than the poorest resident of East St. Louis.  Hopkins died at 64, an old man in an era where the average life span was in the early forties.  He saw at least one of his children die young, as most others of his age did.  In fact, Stanford University owes its founding to the early death (at 15) of the son of Leland Stanford, Hopkin's business partner and neighbor.  The richest men of his age had more than a ten times greater chance of seeing at least one of their kids die young than the poorest person in the US does today.

How do we take into account that even if a person has the same income as someone in 1952, they are effectively wealthier in many ways due to access to medical procedures, travel, entertainment, electronic devices, etc?

Somehow we need to measure consumer capability -- not just how much raw money one has but what can one do with the money?  What is the horizon of possibilities?  Deirdre McCloskey tends to eschew the term capitalism in favor of "market-tested innovation."  I think that is a pretty powerful description of our system.  But if it is, we really are only measuring the impact of productivity and cost-reduction innovations.  How do we measure the wealth impact of consumer-empowerment innovations like iPhones?  Essentially, we don't.  Which, by the way, may be one reason our current crappy metrics say we have growing income inequality.  With our current metrics, Steve Jobs' increase in wealth is noted in the metrics, but the metrics don't show the rest of us getting any wealthier by the fact that we can now have iPhones (or the myriad of competitors the iPhone spawned).  The consumer surplus from iPhones undoubtedly dwarfs the money Jobs made, but it doesn't show up in any wealth calculations.

A few years ago I told a youth group that there were still many things left to discover in the mundane world -- by this I meant the everyday world we encounter and not just at the limits of the universe or at the scale of quarks.  The example I gave at the time is that there is a lot of room for better techniques to tease out causality in complex systems -- e.g. how much did the stimulus really affect the economy or how much does CO2 really affect temperatures.  I would add this question of measuring prosperity as a second item in this category.


I strive to treat people I disagree with as intelligent persons of goodwill.  I don't always succeed.  It helps that many, even the majority, of my friends and family disagree with me politically.

A reader sent me Evil Greedy Stupid Sheep: 4 Modern Ways to Win An Argument.  The only quibble I have is the word "modern".  I am pretty sure that if we had better historical sources we would find people accusing Ramses or Sargon of being evil and in the pay of grain merchants.

I would add a fifth category to this I would call "out-group".    I don't have to listen to you because you are from group X.  There is a famous quote from WWII from a man I believe was in the British Foreign Office, who, when asked about stories of Nazi atrocities, said that they needn't take seriously a bunch of "wailing Jews."

As I grew up, I thought we might actually be getting beyond this.  You know - the sixties and tolerance and racial understanding and all that.  But it turns out that tolerance does not mean the end of out-groups, it simply means that the out groups are changing.  "Check you privilege" is the common campus shorthand nowadays for "shut up white male."  Males, whites, the religious, the well off -- these are the new out-groups whose origins are used to automatically invalidate anything they say.

Economic Drivers I Had Not Considered Before

Geographic mobility costs are a drag on the economy, because they slow and/or truncate relocation of labor to shifting areas of demand (a good example is the fact that North Dakota currently can't get enough workers because people can't/won't move there to take advantage of the opportunities.

Apparently, there are economists who make the argument that one reason for the post-WWII boom is that the war increased mobility for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the forced extrication of young men from their homes via the draft.  Apparently Hurricane Katrina may have had the same effect, blasting people out of the moribund New Orleans economy and forcing them to move to more dynamic areas.

This is probably true, but also one of those areas where economic analysis falls short of total well-being analysis (for lack of a better term).  I know folks from New Orleans and they often seem to be deeply tied to the New Orleans culture and miss it when they have moved away.   Many move back.  So just because someone is better off economically with a job in Houston does not necessarily mean they consider themselves better off.

Halbig & Obamacare: Applying Modern Standards and Ex-Post-Facto Knowledge to Historical Analysis

One of the great dangers of historical analysis is applying our modern standards and ex post facto knowledge to analysis of historical decisions.  For example, I see modern students all the time assume that the Protestant Reformation was about secularization, because that is how we think about religious reform and the tide of trends that were to follow a century or two later.  But tell John Calvin's Geneva it was about secularization and they would have looked at you like you were nuts (If they didn't burn you).  Ditto we bring our horror for nuclear arms developed in the Cold War and apply it to decision-makers in WWII dropping the bomb on Hiroshima.  I don't think there is anything harder in historical analysis than shedding our knowledge and attitudes and putting ourselves in the relevant time.

Believe it or not, it does not take 300 or even 50 years for these problems to manifest themselves.  They can occur in just four.  Take the recent Halbig case, one of a series of split decisions on the PPACA and whether IRS rules to allow government subsidies of health care policies in Federal exchanges are consistent with that law.

The case, Halbig v. Burwell, involved the availability of subsidies on federally operated insurance marketplaces. The language of the Affordable Care Act plainly says that subsidies are only available on exchanges established by states. The plaintiff argued this meant that, well, subsidies could only be available on exchanges established by states. Since he lives in a state with a federally operated exchange, his exchange was illegally handing out subsidies.

The government argued that this was ridiculous; when you consider the law in its totality, it said, the federal government obviously never meant to exclude federally operated exchanges from the subsidy pool, because that would gut the whole law. The appeals court disagreed with the government, 2-1. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 million people may lose their subsidies as a result.

This result isn’t entirely shocking. As Jonathan Adler, one of the architects of the legal strategy behind Halbig, noted today on a conference call, the government was unable to come up with any contemporaneous congressional statements that supported its view of congressional intent, and the statutory language is pretty clear. Members of Congress have subsequently stated that this wasn’t their intent, but my understanding is that courts are specifically barred from considering post-facto statements about intent.

We look at what we know NOW, which is that Federal health care exchanges operate in 37 states, and that the Federal exchange serves more customers than all the other state exchanges combined.  So, with this knowledge, we declare that Congress could not possibly meant to have denied subsidies to more than half the system.

But this is an ex-post-facto, fallacious argument.  The key is "what did Congress expect in 2010 when the law was passed", and it was pretty clear that Congress expected all the states to form exchanges.  In fact, the provision of subsidies only in state exchanges was the carrot Congress built in to encourage states to form exchanges. (Since Congress could not actually mandate states form exchanges, it has to use such financial carrots and stick.  Congress does this all the time, all the way back to seat belt and 55MPH speed limit mandates that were forced on states at the threat of losing state highway funds.  The Medicaid program has worked this way with states for years -- and the Obamacare Medicare changes follow exactly this template of Feds asking states to do something and providing incentives for them to do so in the form of Federal subsidies).  Don't think of the issue as "not providing subsidies in federal exchanges."  That is not how Congress would have stated it at the time.  Think of it as "subsidies are not provided if the state does not build an exchange".  This was not a bug, it was a feature.  Drafters intended this as an incentive for creating exchanges.  That they never imagined so many would not create exchanges does  not change this fact.

It was not really until 2012 that anyone even took seriously the idea that states might not set up exchanges.  Even as late as December 2012, the list was only 17 states, not 37.  And note from the linked article the dissenting states' logic -- they were refusing to form an exchange because it was thought that the Feds could not set one up in time.  Why?  Because the Congress and the Feds had not planned on the Federal exchanges serving very many people.  It had never been the expectation or intent.

If, in 2010, on the day after Obamacare had passed, one had run around and said "subsidies don't apply in states that do not form exchanges" the likely reaction would not have been "WHAT?!"  but "Duh."  No one at the time would have thought that would "gut the whole law."

Postscript:  By the way, note how dangerous both the arguments are that opponents of Halbig are using

  1. The implementation of these IRS regulations are so big and so far along that it would be disruptive to make them illegal.  This means that the Administration is claiming to have the power to do anything it wants as long as it does it faster than the courts can work and makes sure the program in question affects lots of people
  2. The courts should give almost unlimited deference to Administration interpretations of law.  This means, in effect, that the Administration rather than the Courts are the preferred and default interpreter of law.  Does this make a lick of sense?  Why have a judiciary at all?

D-Day More Important in Containing the Soviets than Defeating the Nazis

Over time, my understanding of the importance of the D-Day invasions has shifted.  Growing up, I considered these events to be the single key event in defeating the Nazis.  Listening to the radio this morning, this still seems to be the common understanding.

Over time, I have had to face the fact that the US (or at least the US Army) was not primarily responsible for defeating Germany -- the Russians defeated Germany, and what's more, would have defeated them whether the Allies had landed in France or not.  Check out the casualties by front, from Wikipedia:

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The Russians defeated Germany.  Period.   And I don't think the western allies would ever have had the stomach to inflict the kind of casualties on Germany that were ultimately necessary to defeat her without Russian help.  To me, this is the great irony of WWII, that it was not ultimately a victory for democracy.  Only totalitarian Russia could defeat totalitarian Germany.  This thought often bothers me a lot.  It doesn't fit with how we want to view the war.

However, D-Day did have an important effect -- it kept Western Europe out of Soviet hands.  We did not know it at the time, but I would argue in retrospect that from mid-1944 on we were competing with Russia to see how Europe would get divided up after the war.  D-Day allowed the western allies to overrun most of Western Europe and keep it out of Soviet hands, perhaps an even more important outcome than just speeding the defeat of the Germans.  Sure, FDR gets grief for giving the farm away to Russia at Yalta, but what could he do?  The Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe at that point was a fait accompli.  What would have been FDR & Churchill's negotiation position at Yalta if their armies were not even on the continent (excepting Italy, where we might still be fighting in 2014 and getting nowhere)?

The Map Every Intelligence Analyst Should Have on His Wall, For Humility

I have been playing around with this DVD, which is a collection of high resolution situation maps from the European theater of war after D-Day in WWII.  The maps are really interesting, though the interface is awful.  Like something from the AOL era.  I would play with this much more but it is just too kludgy.

This is probably my favorite map (click to enlarge)

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Of course, on the very next day, the last great German attack on the Western Front came right out of that empty red circle.

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In the software, one can zoom very deep into these maps, deeper than these images allow.  So it's a shame that the interface is so bad.

PS - The Bulge is deservedly a part of American military mythology but we should remember that in many ways it was a small battle compared to any number in the East.  This is one of those facts that always perplexes this libertarian, because there is no way the Western Democracies could have ever defeated Germany IMO.  Only Stalin's willingness to soak up astounding losses really defeated Germany.  German army casualties on the Eastern Front were nearly three times their combined casualties in Africa, Italy, France, and Benelux.

The flip side of this is that no one else other than the US could have defeated the Japanese, though again the Soviets would have given them real troubles in Manchuria.  That war was more about projecting power across great distances than pure numbers.  We did bravely soak up absurd casualties in short bursts.  But again, the Russians were soaking up Bettio-level casualties every few hours, and sustained it day in and day out for years.

Differing Perspectives

I have been taking a course in World War I, something I know little about relative to the rest of the 20th century.

We often think of WWI as a horrible, wasteful, pointless war that solved nothing and WWII as an expensive yet "good" war that achieved positive aims.  But as we approach the 75th anniversary of the Munich conference, it is interesting to note that if you ask someone in Eastern Europe, you are likely to get the opposite answer.  Most Eastern European countries can date their modern statehood from the end of WWI, while WWII led to 50+ years of Soviet subjugation.  WWI was their good war.

For the Left, Do Asians "Count"?

I was filling out my EEO-1 forms the other day (that is a distasteful exercise where the government is leading us towards a post-racial society via mandatory reporting on the race of each of my employees).  For each employee there are five non-white categories:  Black, native American, native Hawaiian, Hispanic, and Asian.  I started to think how interesting it is that the Left supports numerous government interventions in support of the first four, but never mentions Asians.

This can't be solely due to lack of past discrimination.   Watch a movie from the 1930's or 1940's and you will see Asians shamelessly stereotyped** as badly as any other race.  And generations who lived and fought WWII had many members, even a majority, that harbored absolute hatred against one Asian people, the Japanese.  We only sent one group to concentration camps in the 20th century, and it was not blacks or Hispanics.  Of course "Asians" is an awfully broad categorization.  It includes Chinese, with whom we have had a complicated relationship, and Indians, for whom most Americans until recently probably have had little opinion at all one way or another.

One problem for many on the Left is the fact that Asians are considered a serious threat (both as immigrants and as exporters) to the Left's traditional blue collar union base.  Another is that they are an emerging threat to their little darlings trying to get into Harvard.  I have heard the squeakiest-clean, most politically correct liberals utter to me the most outrageous things about Asian kids.  Which is why I was not really surprised that white parents in California who claim to support merit-based college admissions immediately change their tune when they find out that this will mean that far more Asia kids will get in.

I have been working with some data on state voting and voter registration patterns by race in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision vis a vis the Voting Rights Act.  The Left went nuts, saying that blacks and Hispanics would again be discriminated against in the South, and the Obama Administration vowed to get on the case, saying that it would begin with Texas.

By the way, Texas may make perfect sense politically for Obama but is an odd choice based on the data.  Minority voter registration and voting rates as compared to the white population are usually used as an indicator of their election participation and access.  In the last election, according to the Census Bureau in table 4B, blacks in Texas both registered and voted at a higher rate than whites.  In Massachusetts, by contrast, in that same election blacks registered at a rate 10 percentage points lower than whites and voted at a rate about 7 points lower.

But if you really want something interesting in the data, look at the data and tell me what group, if we accept that low participation rates equate to some sort of covert discrimination, deserves the most attention (from the same table linked above):

US Voter Registration Rates (Citizens Only)

White:    71.9%

Black:    73.1%

Hispanic:     58.7%

Asian:     56.3%

US Voting Rates (Citizens Only, last Presidential election)

White:    62.2%

Black:    66.2%

Hispanic:    48.0%

Asian:    47.3%


** Postscript:  I am not an expert on discrimination, but I watch a lot of old movies and read a lot of history.  To my eye, stereotyping of Asians has been more similar to anti-Semitic portrayal of Jews than to stereotyping of blacks or Hispanics.  Blacks and Hispanics have most often been stereotyped as lazy and unintelligent.  Asians and Jews are more frequently stereotyped as scheming, plotting, and intelligent-but-evil.  Frank Capra, who directed a lot of good movies also directed a series of heavy-handed propaganda movies for the government during the war.  The one on Japan is interesting -- your gardener's quiet mien is actually masking a nefarious scheme.  Even in the 1940's Japan was portrayed as economically frightening to us.

Update:  Over the last couple of elections, Asians have shifted to voting fairly heavily Democratic.  So a cynical person would suggest that they might suddenly "discover" this group.  We shall see.

War and Stimulus

I had an argument about the (economic) stimulative effect of war the other night.  As usual, I was not entirely happy with how I argued my point in real time (which is why I blog).  Here is an attempt at an improved, brief answer:

One of the reasons that people often believe that war "improves" the economy is that they are looking at the wrong metrics.  They look at unemployment and observe that it falls.  They look at capacity utilization and observe that it rises.  They look at GDP and see that it rises.

But these are the wrong metrics.  What we care about is if people are better off: Can they buy the things they want?  Are they wealthier?

These outcomes are hard to measure, so we use unemployment and GDP and capacity utilization as proxies for people's economic well-being.  And in most times, these metrics are reasonably correlated with well-being.  That is because in a free economy individuals and their choices guide the flow of resources, which are dedicated to improving what people consider to be their own well-being.  More resources, more well-being.

But in war time, all this gets changed.  Government intervenes with a very heavy hand to shift a vast amount of the resources from satisfying people's well-being to blowing other people up.  Now, I need to take an aside on well-being in this context.  Certainly it is possible that I am better off poor in a world with no Nazis than rich in one dominated by Nazis.  But I am going to leave war aims out of the concept of well-being.  This is appropriate, because when people argue that war stimulates the economy, they are talking purely about economic activity and benefits, and so will I.

What we find is that in war time, unemployment is down, but in part because young people have been drafted (a form of servitude) to fight and die.  Are they better off so employed?  Those who are left find themselves with jobs in factories with admittedly high capacity utilization, but building things that make no one better off (and many people worse off).  GDP skyrockets as government goes deeply in debt to pay for bombs and rockets and tanks.  This debt builds nothing for the future -- future generations are left with debt and no wealth to show for it, like taking out a mortgage to buy a house and then having the house burn down uninsured.  This is no more economically useful than borrowing money and then burning it.  In fact, burning it would have been better, economically, as each dollar we borrowed in WWII had a "multiplier" effect in that it destroyed another dollar of European or Asian civilian infrastructure.

Sure, during WWII, everyone in the US had a job, but with war-time restrictions and rationing, these employed people couldn't buy anything.  Forget the metrics - in their daily lives Americans lived poorer, giving up driving and even basic staples.  This was the same condition Soviet citizens found themselves facing in the 1970s -- they all had jobs, but they could not find anything to buy.  Do we consider them to have been well off?

There is one way to prosper from war, but it is a terrible zero-sum game -- making money from other people's wars.  The US prospered in 1915 and later 1941 as Britain and France sunk into bankruptcy and despair, sending us the last of their wealth in exchange for material that might help them hang on to their existence.  Ditto in 1946, when having bombed Japanese and German infrastructure into the stone age. we provided many of the goods to help rebuild them.  But is this really the way we want to prosper?  And is this sort of vulture-like prosperity even possible with our inter-woven global supply chains?  For example, I can't see a China-Japan war being particularly stimulative for anybody nowadays.

Lernaean Hydra

I continue to be dumbfounded by the Obama Administration's escalating drone war in Pakistan and other nations.  On the one hand, we have a President who argued persuasively that our war on terror, by its ham-handedness, was actually creating more terrorists than it eliminated by giving people more reasons to hate America.  On the other hand, we have the exact same administration  escalating Bush's drone war by a factor of six.  The same children of the sixties that likely marched against the bombings in Cambodia are now bringing random, robotic death from the sky to countries we have not actually declared war on.  

Washington Postinvestigative report published last week raises questions about whether bureaucratic "mission creep" has cut the program loose from its original justification. "Obama has institutionalized the highly classified practice of targeted killing," the Post's Greg Miller writes, "transforming ad-hoc elements into a counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a seemingly permanent war." He reports "broad consensus" among Obama terror-warriors that "such operations are likely to be extended at least another decade."

I could be convinced to use drones to knock off a few top managers with irreplaceable impact on the war, sort of like taking out Patton or Rommel in WWII.  But now we are taking out corporals, or the terrorist equivalent.    And ever time we kill one (with a few innocents thrown in the mix, which Obama has relabeled as combatants by definition)  we are probably creating two new terrorists.

This targetted killing is an expansive and scary new power.  The Administration owes us a reckoning, a justification which demonstrates that these drone strikes are really having some sort of positive effect.  Right now, it is hard to see, with Libya, Mali, Egypt, Syria blowing up and Afghanistan no closer to peace than it was four years ago.  What are we getting in exchange for president taking on this dangerous new authority?

PS-  the report linked notes that the death toll from drone attacks is approaching 3,000.  What happened to the press, which was so diligent about reporting all these grim milestones under Bush.  It is just amazing how far the press and the Left have gone in the tank, against their stated ideals, for Obama.

Update:  Killing of 16-year-old American in drone strike blamed on his ... having a bad father.  It was his fault!

ADAMSON: You said it is important for the president to do what needs to be done in terms of members of al Qaeda and people who pose a threat. Do you think that the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki’s son who is an American citizen is justifiable?

GIBBS: I’m not going to get into Anwar al-Awlaki’s son. I know that Anwar al-Awlaki renounced his citizenship…

ADAMSON:…His son was still an American citizen…

GIBBS:…Did great harm to people in this country and was a regional al Qaeda commander hoping to inflict harm and destruction on people that share his religion and others in this country. And…

ADAMSON:…It’s an American citizen that is being targeted without due process, without trial. And, he’s underage. He’s a minor.

GIBBS: I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children. I don’t think becoming an al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business. [emphasis added]

And this practically qualifies as Nixonian:

ROBERT GIBBS, Obama advisor: This president has taken the fight to Al Qaeda.

LUKE RUDKOWSKI, We Are Change: Does that justify a kill list?

GIBBS: When there are people who are trying to harm us and have pledged to bring terror to our shores, we have taken that fight to them.

RUDKOWSKI: Without due process of law?

GIBBS: We have taken that fight to them.

Update 2:  here is an interesting quote

Counterterrorism experts said the reliance on targeted killing is self-perpetuating, yielding undeniable short-term results that may obscure long-term costs. 'The problem with the drone is it’s like your lawn mower,' said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and Obama counterterrorism adviser. 'You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.'"


Mixed Feelings About These Photos

I had never seen Ansel Adams series of photos from a US internment camp for Japanese-Americans during WWII.  I had mixed feelings about them.  Adams said that he wanted to portray the resiliency of those imprisoned, showing how they made the best of a bad situation.  And certainly I have great respect for that, and the cultural strengths we see at work are a prelude to how Japan itself was rebuilt after the devastation of WWII.

But at another level I find these photos incredibly creepy.  They look too much like the fake photos staged by Germans and Russians of various eras to airbrush the horrors of their concentration camps.   I am willing to believe we Americans were better jailers, but none-the-less I was disturbed that these looked a lot like propaganda photos.

Shock of the New

Jackalope Pursuivant takes off from my post yesterday about Pearl Harbor.  If I were to give it a theme, I would call it "shock of the new."  From time to time folks, for example in the military, may say that they understand a new technology, but the fact that a few smart staff officers "get it" does not mean that the military has really adjusted itself to it.  Like any large organization, it has a culture and set of expectations and people who have been successful based on the old model of things.   They may say they understand that naval aviation has changed things, but they don't really adjust themselves until Pearl Harbor and Clark Field and Guam and Singapore are full of smoking ruins of planes and ships.

Dan's observation about how quickly the US dusted itself off and recognized that the world had changed is a good one.  One could argue that no one did this in WWI.  The Europeans had every chance to see what the machine gun could do even before the war in a few African wars.  Heck, the final year of the American Civil War around Petersberg was a preview of WWI, as was the ill-fated charge of the light brigade.  But armies were still dominated by cavalries and plumed hats and bayonet charges and elan vital. Even in 1916 and 1917, when they should have learned their lesson, commanders were still obsessed with making full frontal charges.  The Americans had the chance to watch the war for four years before they entered, and then promptly began committing the exact same mistakes based on the exact same faulty assumptions as in 1914.  (Neal Stephenson has a great take on American flexibility to craft radically new combat doctrine based on new facts in WWII in Cryptonomicon, absolutely one of my favorite books).

As for Pearl Harbor, I am reminded of a quote that was attributed to Frank Borman (at least in the From the Earth to the Moon documentary) when he was testifying about the Apollo 1 fire.  He called it "a failure of imagination" -- no one was even thinking about danger on the ground, all the focus was on space.  At the end of the day, the ultimate answer for Pearl Harbor's negligence in readiness was a failure of imagination.   They may have had war games and studies discussing Pearl Harbor attacks, and they may have addressed the possibility intellectually, but no one in command really believed that a couple of hundred aircraft would suddenly appear over peacetime Honolulu dropping bombs and torpedoes.

Post Hoc Prioritization

For a while, there has been a contrarian school of thought in historical study of WWII that FDR, wishing to have the US enter the way against a strong isolationist streak in the general population, purposefully ignored evidence of an impending Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in order to create a casus belli.  A few historians have used some intelligence warmings combined with the insane un-preparedness of Pearl Harbor as their evidence.   Instapundit links to a new declassified memo that warns of Japanese interest in Hawaii just three days before the attack.

This is a fun but generally foolish game.  The same game was played after 9/11, pointing to a few scraps of intelligence that were "ignored."  But the problem in intelligence isn't always lack of information, but too much information.  In late 1941, the US government was getting warnings from everywhere about just about everything.   It is easy as a historian to pick out four or five warnings and say they were stupidly (or purposely) ignored, but this fails to address the real point -- that those warnings were accompanied by a thousand false or misleading ones at the same time.  The entire Pacific theater had already had a whole series of alerts in the months leading up to Dec 7, one false alarm after another.  It is Monday morning quarterbacking that strips the intelligence problem of its context.  To prove that something unusual happened, one would have to show that these warnings were processed or prioritized in a manner that was unusual for the time.

And sure, the readiness issue at Pearl Harbor is inexcusable.  But while historians can always find a few people at the time who argued that Pearl Harbor was the most logical attack target, this ignores the thousands in and outside the military who thought the very idea of so audacious an attack that far from Japan was absurd.   Historians are failing in their job when they strip these decisions of context (if you really, really want to get on someone about preparedness, how about McArthur, who allowed most of his air force to be shot up on the ground despite having prior notification of the Pearl Harbor attack hours before).


Holly Fretwell of PERC discusses the huge leap in agricultural yields since WWII

Not only does this mean that we have have billions of people on Earth and not starve, but it also has freed up labor for more productive and value-enhancing activities.

As an aside, remember this chart when global warming alarmists argue the the warming trend of the last 50 years is reducing crop yields.  (If the linked article seems simply bizarre given the chart above, realize the NYT is saying that crop yields are down from what they might have been.  This is the same kind of faulty logic that was used by Obama to credit his stimulus with job gains when in fact the economy was losing jobs.  They posit some unproveable hypothetical, and then say reality diverged from that hypothetical because of whatever factor they are trying to push, whether it be CO2 or stimulus).

The problem with food prices is not production, its the fact that we take such a huge percentage of our food grains and, by government dictat, convert them to automotive fuel.

Silly Economic Plans

Via Kevin Drum, from Dylan Matthews

Second, the president should do more to help the American worker. He should establish a jobs program. Do the simple math: We are spending more than $110 billion annually in Afghanistan. Stop it. Or scale it back to the sort of covert operations and drone war that is warranted. Savings? Perhaps about $100 billion—per year. Use that money to create up to 5 million jobs at $20,000 each....Just as FDR did during the Great Depression, put these Americans to work in states, counties, schools, parks.

Even Drum considers this unrealistic, though for the wrong reasons (i.e. the evil Republicans in the House would never let us do it).  I have a series of thoughts on this

  1. FDR had low paying jobs programs in part because this was the only form of relief -- there was not welfare or food stamps or medicaid or unemployment or EITC or social security.  A $20,000 dig-a-hole-and-then-fill-it-in government make-work job would likely just displace about the same amount of other government transfer payments.  I can't see this doing squat.
  2. We are really going to kick-start the consumer market with $20,000 jobs?
  3. The Left needs to get its story straight on the stimulative effects of wars.  Democrats blame Bush for the current economy in large part because of his wars, and the author here implies that moving spending out of wars would be a net plus.  But Keynesians believe WWII ended the Great Depression and Krugman wrote just the other day that what we really need is a war with space aliens (I kid you not) to end the Great Recession.  So which is it?

By the way, I think wars are a total economic waste and drag on the nation.  Dedicating scarce resources to blowing stuff up is the worst possible use of capital.  However, diverting this into politically correct, politician-selected make-work projects is not really a lot better.

Worst Chart of the Day: Political Rather Than Mathematical Calculation of Trend Lines

Update:  Make sure to see bottom of post, I have run the numbers from the source and the chart below is proven to be totally BS.

In an effort to paint the current budget deficit as a tax shortfall (ie we don't take enough of others people's money) rather than a spending problem, Kevin Drum offers this chart:

OK, I was going to talk about how they cherry-picked the start date (which is the peak of spending at that time since WWII) and the end date (the left off the ugly 2011).  But I just can't bring myself to talk about anything else except those trendlines.  Not sure what algorithm Drum uses to create the trendlines -- they seem suspicious but surely someone in the science-based, reality-based community would not just draw them on by eye!

It is just incredibly disingenuous (and ballsy) to try to portray 2009 and 2010, which represented the highest numbers since WWII, as a declining trend line falling faster than revenues.

Postscript: Here is the longer view, from here, with projections which I presume come from the Obama budget.  I think if I took 1950 as a start point I would get pretty different trend lines.

Update: Here is the data right from the Federal web site with Excel adding a linear trend.  Sure looks like Drum is wildly exaggerating.  Just as in Drum's chart, red is outlays as a percentage of GDP, blue is collections.

So lets look at the longer trend.  WWII was obviously an anomaly, so we will jump to 1950 to make sure we are well past it.  And we will go through 2012, because those projections are probably pretty good (though optimistic on the spending side).

Here is Drum's chart, with the longer trend and actual mathematically rather than politically calculated trend lines.


Hmmmm.  Revenue or spending problem.  You make the call.

Greece: Where Default is, err, the Default State

One might think a line like about Greek finances was printed just this week

What followed could only be described as a comic progression of populist pandering [and] the spread to the national economy of a series of parasitic labor unions and cabals

But in fact it is describing Greek conditions circa 1944.

A while back I observed that the difference between Greek and US finances is that the US needs to return to a spending level circa 2007, while Greece has no similar default state of relative fiscal sanity it can return to.  This article in Finem Respice reinforces this premise by discussing the absolute insanity of Greek fiscal management before and after and even during WWII, which was characterized by all the exact same problems that have driven the current crisis.  Good background reading.

Greece, then as now, was dominated by an expensive public sector funded insufficiently by a tax system that did not work.  As may happen soon, Greece was not able to borrow, so all they could do was print money and inflation soared.  Only one man was able to stop the inflation, and I won't spoil the ending by the humorous way he did so.

Scenes From My Son Studying For His AP Exams

Scene 1, History AP:  My son asked me how WWII ended the Depression.  I said that the draft soaked up a lot of excess workers, which reduced unemployment, and British buying for the war helped our economy but that the war generally destroyed rather than created wealth.  He said, "Dad, you can't tell it to me that way.  The guy grading the AP is going to be a Keynesian."  So we talked multipliers and aggregate demand.

Scene 2, Spanish AP:  My son hands me a list of Spanish words he is trying to learn.  They are the Spanish words for things like "social justice,"  "poverty", "exploitation", etc.  I told him it was an odd selection of words.  He said that nearly every Spanish essay in every Spanish textbook he had ever had were about revolution and stopping the rich from exploiting the poor and fighting global warming.  So he wanted to be prepared for a similar topic on the AP.    After the test, I remembered this conversation and asked him what the essay was.  He said the topic was "show why the government of poor countries should give free bicycles to the poor to fight global warming."

Post Office: Mail Delivery or Welfare?

The management of the Post Office is a joke, and it is hardly worth the electrons to write more about it.   But I did find this factoid in Tad DeHaven's commentary on the Post Office's hopeless efforts at cost reduction interesting.

Traditional post offices, which number about 27,000, cannot be closed “for solely operating at a deficit” and the closure process is burdensome.

Wow, that is a bad law (though no worse than 10,000 others like it).  This sounds similar to the military base problem, where every facility that needs closure has a Congressperson desperately trying to keep it open against all economic reality, merely as a jobs/welfare program once its true utility is over.   Apparently, the Post Office has an overcapacity problem that rivals the US Military's after the Cold War (and really to be honest after WWII)

Full post offices are more costly to operate than other means of serving customers. The average post office transaction cost 23 cents per dollar of revenue in 2009 while the average transaction at a contract postal unit cost just 13 cents. Post offices used to generate almost all postal retail revenue, but 29 percent is now generated online through and other alternative channels.

In 2009 post offices recorded 117 million fewer transactions than in 2008. Four out of five post offices are operating at a loss. However, the postal network’s overcapacity has drawn little corrective action from Congress. In fact, legislation introduced in the House with 102 cosponsors would apply the burdensome procedures for closing post offices to other postal outlets as well. Congress is actively working against the modernization of the U.S. postal system.

The amazing thing is that they have tons of extra capacity and still provide poor service.  Just compare the process of mailing a package UPS vs. USPS.  I have a UPS account, I can print my own labels, I get billed automatically, I get package tracking, and I can send the package from the drop box downstairs in my building.

It is almost impossible to do this with the USPS.  To mail anything larger than 13 ounces, to buy postage without an expensive meter, to get a greatly inferior sort of tracking -- all require a grim trek to the post office.

My guess is that just like Pemex is not longer really about producing oil, the USPS mission is no longer primarily about delivering mail, its a welfare program.

PS - my USPS delivery guy is great.  Nicest guy in the world.  The mistake for years in criticizing the USPS has always been about criticizing the people.  Not only is that wrong, but it distracts from the problem.  By implying the problem is bad, surly people, it implies the problem is fixable with new people.  But in fact, the problem, as with all government, is information and incentives .... and in this case Congressional meddling in their mission.

Kevin Drum Is Still Repeating This Absurd Claim About Social Security

From Kevin Drum

Bob Somerby is following the latest Social Security chatter and hopes that Paul Krugman can explain how the trust fund works in an understandable way:

The trust fund is just an accounting fiction "” a pile of worthless IOUs! Generations of voters have been misled by such skillfully-wrought presentations.

....Krugman is our most valuable player by far "” our only player at the top of the press corps. Can he disentangle the trust fund scam in a way average people will understand? We don't know, and it isn't his job; no player should be expected to carry the ball on every play from scrimmage. Tomorrow, we'll offer our own ideas at how the "there-is-no-trust-fund nonsense" might best be approached, in a way average people can follow.

Well, hell, I'll take a crack at it. Here's the simple version.

In 1983, when we last reformed Social Security, we made an implicit deal between two groups of American taxpayers. Call them Groups A and B. For about 30 years, Group A would pay higher taxes than necessary, thus allowing Group B to reduce their tax rates. Then, for about 30 years after that, Group A would pay lower taxes than necessary and Group B would make up for this with higher tax rates.

This might have been a squirrelly deal to make. But it doesn't matter. It's the deal we made. And it's obviously unfair to change it halfway through.

This is an incredible fantasy.  Absolutely no one thirty years ago (Drum dates the "deal" to 1983) explicitly or even secretly crafted any such deal.  Seriously, is Drum really positing that a Democrat-dominated Congress led by for-god-sakes Tip O'Neil really said "lets have poor people pay some of rich people's taxes for thirty years?"  Just last night I was reading a quote from Hitler late in WWII that asserted he actually let the British escape from Dunkirk on purpose because he wanted the British to know he had no real quarrel with them.  While it certainly is true Hitler never really wanted a war with Britain, this is just a self-serving rewrite of history.  Drum is doing the same thing.  Its amazing to me that an obviously intelligent person can convince himself of this.

Here is the real, simple explanation of the Social Security trust fund:  Social Security was spinning off huge piles of money and no Congress person of either the Coke or the Pepsi party could resist grabbing it and spending it in a way that would support their reelection.  They ended up spending it all.  Every bit of it, all gone.  The Social Security trust fund is the Enron 401K plan stuffed with Enron stock.

Drum gets to his bizarre theory because he believes the fiscal discipline problem over the last 30 years was all due to tax cuts rather than spending, and that all these tax cuts were for rich people.   Of course, throughout the last 30 years, the share of taxes paid for by the rich have steadily risen, so the claim is absurd on its face, but the false assumptions it is built on are ones that every progressive accept as holy writ.

This paragraph is particularly a howler:

The physical embodiment of this deal is the Social Security trust fund. Group A overpaid and built up a pile of bonds in the trust fund. Those bonds are a promise by Group B to repay the money. That promise is going to start coming due in a few years, and it's hardly surprising that Group B isn't as excited about the deal now as it was in 1983. It's never as much fun paying off a loan as it is to spend the money in the first place.

It would be some exercise to try to define groups A and B in a non-overlapping manner.  The fact is everyone is in group A, as almost everyone overpays into Social Security on a return on capital basis -- the retirement income most people get represents generally a negative net ROI on the "premiums" paid.  And it is amazing to me that I have never heard that we now have government bonds that must be paid back only by a specific sub-section of the population.  It may very well have been a progressive assumption that only rich people would be on the hook for every dollar of government debt run up over the last 30 years, but that fact will likely be a surprise to just about everyone else in the country.  Here is his conclusion:

But pay it off they must. The rich have been getting a loan from the middle class for decades...


The Ever-Predictable Sheriff Joe

Via Valley Fever, Sheriff Joe is expanding his outdoor jail whose conditions are substantially worse than those at the nearby WWII POW camp where German prisoners were held.

In the words of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, 17 years ago today, "on a swelteringly hot day in 1993, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio opened the doors to the nation's largest canvas incarceration compound. Tent City, as it became known, would prove to be one of Sheriff Arpaio's best known and potentially most controversial programs."

Today, Arpaio's celebrating the anniversary by unveiling a new section of the compound: "Section 1070," specifically designated for those arrested under Arizona's controversial, new immigration law.

The new section can hold an additional 100 inmates but Arpaio says he expects that number to grow.

"Citizens here sincerely hope that SB 1070 will result in large numbers of illegal aliens being captured and arrested by local law enforcement officers," Arpaio says. "I'm not so certain that will actually happen. But on the assumption it does, then as the Sheriff of this county, I am ready. Tent City is ready. There will never be the excuse that this jail hasn't enough room for violators of SB 1070."

Post-War Devastation

We associate photos like this one with the devastation of post-war Europe.


In fact, this is a post-war photo, but it is of Charleston, South Carolina after the Civil War.   We seldom think of such scenes as being relevent to the US, but the South was at least as destroyed after the Civil War as Germany was after WWII.   Sherman's march to the sea in Georgia was famous for its devastation, but in their letters, many of Sherman's soldiers say they were particularly ferocious in South Carolina, the state that they most associated with the war and its start  (though much of the devastation in Charleston was self-inflicted, as a fire to burn the remaining cotton and keep it out of Yankee hands spread to the rest of the city).

Full sized image at Shorpy

Still Missing the Point

Discussions about Guantanamo still seem to focus on moving the prisoners to another facility.  This is exactly the danger I warned about several years ago -- that focusing too much on Gitmo itself as a facility was missing the whole point.  The problem was indefinite detentions without due process, not the facility per se.  But since so much of the press latched onto Gitmo itself as the problem, it as allowed the administration to say that it is solving the problem by eliminating Gitmo and moving the prisoners  (either to Illinois or Afghanistan, the plan keeps changing) while still clinging to the position that it should still have the power to detain people at the President's pleasure.

Dhalia Lithwick has a good article on just what a mess we have created at Gitmo.  Are there potential, even past, terrorists there?  Probably.  But I could probably say that there are current or past criminals in any random 1000 people I might sweep off the street.  That doesn't justify locking them up  -- as a country, we have always said that it is better to free the innocent at the cost of potentially missing some of the guilty.

And please don't hammer me again in the comments with "there is a war on and these are just POW's."  Sorry, they are nothing like traditional POW's.  They were not caught on the battlefield, were not in uniform, in many cases were just turned in by other people for a bounty.  I think I would accept that maybe slightly different rules apply to these folks than to a person arrested on 5th Avenue in New York, but on the other hand supporters of their detention need to admit that some extra scrutiny needs to exist vs. traditional POW rules, as in this case their very combatant status is unclear, something that was not the case in, say, with most POW's in WWII.

My Problem with the KSM Trial

I have been saying for years that some sort of due process needs to be applied to Gitmo detainees.  I am not knowledgeable enough to know if this should be a civilian trial or military tribunal or what, but just the fact that they are non-citizens does not give us the right to detain them indefinitely without due process.  Yeah, I get the POW/battlefield analogy, but one also has to reasonably admit the nature of this process today is different than in, say, the defined battlefields with combatants in uniforms in WWII.    The very question of who is a combatant is unclear, so it merits more due diligence to make sure these assertions are made correctly.

Anyway, I suppose I am happy KSM is getting some sort of due process.  But I must say I absolutely hate the precedent being set here -- no, not the one the Conservatives are worried about, bringing a terrorist to trial in a civilian court.  I don't like the precedent of a trial where the government promises that there is already a pre-determined outcome.  US Attorney General Holder seems to be saying there is no possibility of acquittal, but a trial without a possibility of acquittal is not a trial.