Thursday, January 31, 2008 83 Comments

How I stopped believing in democracy

The other day I had lunch with an old friend, Erik, whom I hadn't seen in a few years. Erik is five or ten years older than me, has a philosophy degree from Berkeley, writes Internet standards for a living, and is generally a very stable, responsible and successful guy, unlike of course yours truly. He lives in Germany and is married to a German, and his politics are quite solidly progressive.

I was confident that I had informed Erik of this blog. But I think it got lost in a long email. So I had the rare opportunity of really solidly failing to explain the point of UR.

"It's a neo-f -," I said. "Um, no, it's not really a neofascist hate blog. I just call it that sometimes to shock people. It's a, what it is, is an anti-democracy blog."

"An anti-democracy blog. Well, that's certainly..."

"You've got to admit, it's an under-served market," I said.

"Well, I'd certainly agree with that."

"Yeah," I said. "It was actually about a year and a half ago, I decided I didn't believe in democracy anymore. It was great. Just like deciding not to believe in God."

"More like deciding not to believe in God about 250 years ago," Erik said. He actually said this. I don't believe I've cut a single line from this exchange.

In fact, I had actually never thought of quite it this way. But yes - disbelieving in democracy in 2008 is a lot like disbelieving in God in 1758.

For one thing, you disagree with basically everyone in your society. For another, your thoughts undermine the theory of legitimacy on which your government is founded. For a third, acknowledging your beliefs, let alone evangelizing them, is not exactly an effective way to make friends or influence people. And for a fourth, your original reason for believing in it was that when you were very small, grownups told you that it existed and was good.

Of course, the same could be said for disbelieving in, say, Australia. I am pretty confident that "Australia" is more or less what everyone thinks it is. I am not at all confident that the same can be said for "democracy." If you share similar suspicions, please feel free to read on.

I had a very peculiar upbringing. I (a) had a father who taught philosophy, then joined the US Foreign Service; and (b) skipped three grades before high school. I was never acculturated in any discernible way into any tradition I could even start to define. My father's parents were Great Neck communists and my mother's were Tarrytown Republicans, but both these worlds had been soundly rejected. There was a bit of Whole Foods avant la lettre, but small other trace of general hippieness. It was an almost Socratic upbringing. We didn't even do Christmas trees. We believed in nothing.

And we never, ever had a TV. That was absolutely unthinkable. But I did read a lot of science fiction - Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Harry Harrison, and of course Heinlein. My favorite, though, was the great Hal Clement, who wrote what I still think may be the best SF novel ever. In the pure literary department, there was always a lot of basically negative and unconstructive material sitting around, including Mark Twain, Hunter S. Thompson, Jaroslav Hašek, and that great satirical novel of the '70s, The Serial.

I hasten to assert, however, that none of this included any kind of anti-democracy agitation. And certainly nothing in any sense right-wing. My parents may not have been hippies, but they weren't monarchists, either. They were civil servants. When we were in the US, we listened to NPR. When we were outside the US, we listened to the BBC. The thought of tuning to VOA in the latter, or any commercial radio station in the former, was impossibly gauche.

(In retrospect I'm sure VOA was easily as left-wing as the BBC, if not more. But it didn't matter. The name was enough. And I'll bet the BBC was probably better, anway.)

As you can see, there is a certain amount of contempt in this perspective. This makes sense, because it's more or less the perspective of the global ruling class. For example, the only real sport I learned as a kid was squash. When my father was consul in Oporto, we would go to Le Meridien and play squash. At the time this struck me as completely normal. I'm not sure where my father learned squash, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't in Great Neck. Perhaps they teach it in the Foreign Service orientation class.

I was introduced to America, the real America, in the following manner: I went from being an 11-year-old third-former in an ersatz British public school in Nicosia, to a 12-year-old sophomore in a genuine American public school in Columbia, Maryland. I am still picking little bits of Maryland out of my skull. (Of course, Columbia is not really Maryland proper - hence the name. It ain't Frederick. But it's not Silver Spring, either.)

For example, the first thing I remember from my first year in Maryland was something called a "pep rally." For those of you who did not attend an American public high school, a "pep rally" is basically a straight ripoff of what Albert Speer did at Nuremberg, except that (a) it is indoors, (b) there is not quite as much fire, and (c) there is less saluting, more screaming, and about the same amount of chanting.

If you are an American raising kids abroad and you want to reintroduce them to your country, I highly recommend this sort of shock-and-awe approach. Having to deal with an American high school was not pleasant, but it gave me a certain respect for America: it exists. Once you go to college, you are no longer in the real America. You are in a fortified outpost of future America, which has been planted in the real America to enlighten and assimilate it. Respect is not on the menu.

Perhaps for some distance I should deploy my usual euphemism, "Plainland." Do you have any idea how weird a country Plainland is? History still exists there. Nowhere else in the world is there any significant political division whose heritage predates 1940. Both Republicans and Democrats worship FDR, but Democrats worship him a little more. My mother's mother now swears she voted for Kennedy in 1960. I know for a fact that she voted for Nixon. I'm pretty sure they were FDR-haters. Not that the Old Right wasn't smashed, not that its particles weren't broken into tinier particles, not that even a trace of it reached me in my formative years. But some atoms survived, and you can tell.

In Europe, forget it. Europe was conquered in 1945, but it was not conquered by Plainland. It was conquered by Georgetown. As I wrote here, the ideas now popular in Europe are obvious descendants of what the most influential people at State believed in 1945. The various so-called "parties" in Europe are mildly-flavored versions of this belief system, which becomes completely homogeneous in the upper elite. Brussels has no politics at all. It doesn't need it. The situation is under control.

What Europeans call "anti-Americanism" is actually a belief, generally quite sincere, that America is not living up to her own ideals of 1945. "Anti-Americanism" might be better described as "ultra-Americanism," or perhaps "Georgetownism." And it certainly has nothing to do with the any pre-1940 negative perceptions of America. There is minimal cultural continuity between Europe before the war and Europe today. All the institutions were purged, all the individuals have finally kicked it. The Dutch who let you smoke weed in their cafes and the Dutch who ruled Indonesia might as well be on different planets. The former are thoroughly ashamed that they are even descended from the latter. And the latter are dead, which is probably a blessing.

So: my first political opinions were, of course, Georgetownist. I remember going to school in Nicosia the day after Reagan was elected in 1984. I was terribly embarrassed. I felt that my country had more or less taken a crap in its pants. To the Georgetownist, America exists so that it can lead the world to democracy and peace. Obviously Reagan did not stand for either of these things. He stood for Plainland and "pep rallies." Of course I knew little of either, but I had a sense that they were out there, waiting.

Here's how George Kennan, grand doge of the Georgetownists, expressed this conflict in a 1984 lecture, American Diplomacy and the Military (reprinted in American Diplomacy):
No wonder, in the face of all this confusion, that our greatest mistakes in national policy seem to occur where the military factor is most prominently involved.

But I wonder whether this confusion is not compounded by certain deeply ingrained features of our political system. I am thinking first of all about what I call the domestic political selfconsciousness of the American statesman. By this I mean his tendency, when speaking or acting on matters of foreign policy, to be more concerned for the domestic political effects of what he is saying or doing than about their actual effects on our relations with other countries. In the light of this tendency, a given statement or action will be rated as a triumph in Washington if it is applauded at home in those particular domestic circles at which it is aimed, even if it is quite ineffective or even self-defeating in its external effects. When this is carried to extremes, American diplomacy tends to degenerate into a series of postures struck before the American political audience, with only secondary consideration being given to the impacts of these postures on our relations with other countries.

This situation is not new. We have only to recall Tocqueville's words, written 150 years ago, to the effect "that it is in the nature of democracies to have, for the most part, the most confused or erroneous ideas on external affairs, and to decide foreign policy on purely domestic considerations." Nor is this, in essence, unnatural. Every statesman everywhere has to give some heed to domestic opinion in the conduct of his diplomacy. But the tendency seems to be carried to greater extremes here than elsewhere. This may be partly explained by the nature of the constituency to which the American statesman appeals. In the European parliamentary systems, the constituency is normally the parliament - because the ministry can fall from office if it loses parliamentary support. In our country, unhappily, the constituencies are more likely to consist of particularly aggressive and vociferous minorities or lobbies. These, for some curious reason, seem more often than not to be on the militaristic and chauvinistic side, either because there is some particular nation or ethnic group abroad which they want our government to support, or because they like to wrap themselves in the national emblem and beat the jingoist bell as a means of furthering their partisan purposes. American administrations seem to be particularly vulnerable [...] to just this sort of intimidation, presumably because they do not want to be placed on the defensive by being charged with lack of patriotism. And the effects of this are ones we have had occasion to note, both in connection with our policies in third world areas, such as Vietnam or Lebanon, and in connection with the problems of arms control and the relations among the great military powers.

If there is any substance to what I have just been saying, then this is simply further evidence for the fact, to which many wise observers besides Tocqueville have drawn attention, that our political system is in many ways poorly designed for the conduct of the foreign policies of a great power aspiring to world leadership. I, in any case, believe this to be true, and I consider that the trend of events in these recent years has revealed deficiencies in this system which even Tocqueville could not foresee.

What are we going to do about it? It would be naive of us to expect, or even to hope, that these features of our governmental system are going to be corrected within our time. To try to correct them abruptly might well do more harm than good. In many respects, they represent the reverse side of the great coin of the liberties we so dearly cherish. And in this sense I see no reason why we should be ashamed of them. If this - our political system with all its faults - is the only way that a great mass of people such as our own, stretching from Florida to Alaska and from Maine to Hawaii and embracing individuals of the most diverse ethnic and cultural origins - if this is the only way such a mass of people can be governed without the sacrifice of their liberties - then so be it; and let us be thankful that such a possibility exists at all, even if it is not a perfect one.

But the one thing we can do, in the face of this situation, is to take a realistic account of this unsuitability of our political system for the conduct of an ambitious and far-reaching foreign policy, and to bear these limitations in mind when we decided which involvements and responsibilities it is wise for us to accept and which would be better rejected. Obviously, a number of the responsibilities we have already accepted, including some of the very greatest ones - NATO and our obligations to Japan, for example - represent solemn commitments of which we cannot divest ourselves at any early date. There is nothing for us to do but to meet these commitments as best we can, recognizing that the peace and safety not just of our country but of much of the rest of the world as well depends on the way we meet them, and trying to place them, wherever we can, above the partisan political interests that every American administration is bound to have. But when it comes to the acceptance of new responsibilities, let us, at long last, try to bear in mind the limits of our national capabilities and the price we are obliged to pay for our liberties. Let us recognize that there are problems in this world that we will not be able to solve, depths into which it will not be useful or effective for us to plunge, dilemmas in other regions of the globe that will have to find their solution without our involvement.

This is not a plea for total isolationism, such as our grandfathers and great-grandfathers cultivated. It is only a request, if I may put it that way, for a greater humility in our national outlook, for a more realistic recognition of our limitations as a body politic, and for a greater restraint than we have shown in recent decades in involving ourselves in complex situations far from our shores. And it is a plea that we bear in mind that the interaction of peoples, just as in the interactions of individuals, the power of example is far greater than the power of precept, and that the example offered to the world at this moment by the United States of America is far from being what it could be and ought to be. Let us present to the world outside our borders the face of a country that has learned to cope with crime and poverty and corruption, with drugs and pornography. Let us prove ourselves capable of taking the great revolution in electronic communication in which we are all today embraced and turning it to the intellectual and spiritual elevation of our people in place of the enervation and debilitation and abuse of the intellect that the TV set now so often inflicts upon them. Let us do these things, and others like them, and we will not need 27,000 nuclear warheads and a military budget of over $250 billion to make the influence of America felt in the world beyond our borders.
I can't imagine a better presentation of the Georgetownist worldview. Kennan was of course a titan, and he delivered this text as a lecture to students of diplomacy who are no doubt applying it today. It strikes me as completely sincere and thoroughly well-intentioned. It contains many points of actual wisdom with which I even agree. It even criticizes democracy - sort of.

And yet it is a product of 1984. And the last 25 years have left some holes in it which, if you look closely, do not wear well at all. To put yourself in the right mood for picking apart these holes, let's take a look at this picture.

Notice the light shining through the curtains on the left and the right? What we see here is a badly staged photo-op. Hollywood routinely shoots indoor night scenes during the day, but they generally would put some black Mylar on the windows. For some reason this was not done, and so the comedy is inadvertent.

Think about how many people had to screw up in order for this photo to make it to Time. Maybe only three or four. But it is an invaluable "blooper," because it shows you something you weren't supposed to see. The mechanism is visible. The film set appears. Crop an inch off the left and right sides, and you see men meeting by candle-light - perhaps discussing some critical decision, in a time of stress and hardship. Restore the curtain, and you have something much more interesting.

What does this have to do with George Kennan? The people who brought you that photo have the same worldview as Kennan. They are Georgetownists to a T, every one. I guarantee it. So it seems quite reasonable to at least suspect that if they are trying to pull the Mylar over your eyes, so is Kennan. Of course, "Salem Mohammed" is no George Kennan, but even here at UR, we have to crawl before we can run.

Here is the sun behind Kennan's curtain:
In our country, unhappily, the constituencies are more likely to consist of particularly aggressive and vociferous minorities or lobbies. These, for some curious reason, seem more often than not to be on the militaristic and chauvinistic side, either because there is some particular nation or ethnic group abroad which they want our government to support, or because they like to wrap themselves in the national emblem and beat the jingoist bell as a means of furthering their partisan purposes.
Suppose you heard this, not in 1984, but today. Would it strike you as an accurate description of reality?

The "aggressive and vociferous minorities or lobbies" certainly exist. They march in Dolores Park on a regular basis. What "particular nation or ethnic group" do they support? Um, the Palestinians? Duh. By "national emblem," Kennan of course means the kaffiyeh. Problem solved.

Not. Actually, if anything, he is thinking of the infamous "Israel lobby." I think I once saw a pro-Israeli crowd in New York. It was maybe ten or twenty people. Of course, it wasn't in 1984, either. On the other hand, when I think of "aggressive and vociferous" in 1984, what I think of is the anti-apartheid divestment movement. Was there ever an anti-Palestinian divestment movement? Promising not to invest in companies that do business with Arab states that support Palestinian terrorism? Maybe I just missed it.

Of course, the "particular nations" that Kennan expects his audience to think of - the candles - are the Cuban emigres, the Taiwanese, the South Vietnamese, etc. The "particular nations" he does not expect us to think of - the sun behind the curtains - are the Palestinians, the Cuban socialists, the Maoists, the North Vietnamese, etc. All of which have enjoyed the support of remarkably large and influential "aggressive and vociferous minorities or lobbies."

Moreover, the second list is much longer. It includes essentially the whole Third World. And the two lists could never be confused with each other. Sending the New York Philharmonic to Pyongyang, in 2008, constitutes engagement. Sending the New York Philharmonic to Pretoria in 1984 would have been something else entirely.

Kennan's lecture made sense in 1984 because in 1984, Plainlander anticommunism was still a viable political force. If barely. Today, to argue the same case, you would have to come up with some kind of nonsense about anti-terrorist "aggressive and vociferous minorities." Who are so aggressive and vociferous that they put yellow ribbons on their cars. Have you ever seen or heard any trace of an anti-terrorist, let alone anti-Islamist or anti-jihadist, march, parade, meeting or demonstration? Are our colleges full of anti-Islamofascist Cheneyite activists? The suggestion is laughable, and Kennan would be too smart to make it.

What hindsight shows us is that Kennan was projecting. He and his audience genuinely perceived themselves as beset by a mob of pitchfork-wielding Plainlander peasants. When Dean Acheson, Kennan's boss and a truly devious and arrogant man, wrote his autobiography, he called his chapter on the Hiss affair "Attack of the Primitives." I don't think Kennan would ever be so crude, but the attitude is certainly the same.

But when we step back and take a broader view, we see easily that these "militaristic and chauvinistic minorities" were stronger - in terms of their influence over decisions in Washington - in 1924 than 1934, stronger in 1934 than 1954, stronger in 1954 than in 1964, stronger in 1964 than in 1974, and so on right down to now. With a brief exception, for obvious reasons, in 1944. On the other hand, we could easily take the series back to 1844. North America is not exactly new to militarism and chauvinism.

And where the heck is the John Birch Society today? If the "Primitives" are indeed "attacking," they are doing an awfully bad job of it. Because they seem to be going in reverse. On the other hand, this state of affairs is not at all inconsistent with the hypothesis that their actions (often quite hostile) are actually best classified not as aggression, but more properly as resistance. "Cet animal est très méchant: quand on l'attaque, il se défend."

This is how Kennan can sacralize democracy while castigating politics. He has seen, personally, a wide range of problems caused by clumsy attempts to execute a foreign policy which is somehow both Primitive and Georgetownist. He knows perfectly well that, in almost every post-1945 military conflict, Primitives have lined up on one side of the ball and Georgetownists on the other. In fact, he knows that there is a huge nest of Primitives right on the other side of the Potomac. (Perhaps, for balance, we could call them Arlingtonists.)

Kennan's words are deftly chosen, but he means exactly what he says. He has seen innumerable screwups and disasters, wars and tragedies, caused by this organizational schizophrenia. In fact, in a substantial percentage of postwar conflicts, Georgetownists have been rooting for one side and Arlingtonists rooting for the other. Sometimes rooting isn't all they do, since the Arlingtonist specialty is, after all, war. So quite a few of these little events could be described, by a malicious and negative person, as civil wars by proxy. Which is - let's face it - nasty.

It is entirely understandable that Kennan, being more or less the Georgetownist to end all Georgetownists, would believe that, if Washington had followed a purely Georgetownist foreign policy without Arlingtonist meddling, none of these awful things would have happened. As a counterfactual, the point is irrefutable. And also unverifiable. And there's certainly no shortage of Arlingtonists who believe precisely the opposite.

And, as a wise elder statesman, here is his solution: learn to live with the Primitives now, and do your best to evangelize them out of existence. Win your battle domestically, "elevate" your subjects "spiritually and intellectually," and you will be able to pursue your Georgetownist visions of global democracy and world peace without a bunch of Birchers carping about homosexual communist "rock music."

The reason Kennan likes Europe is not just that parliamentary systems are more apolitical - it is that Europe has no organized Primitives. Thanks to its postwar can of whoop-ass, Europe is way ahead of us in its Georgetownist Gleischaltung. Nothing like the Republican Party of 2008 would be tolerated in Europe today, let alone the Republican Party of 1984. (And if you want a real trip, find some of Governor Reagan's speeches from the '60s.)

What happened in Europe was that its entire intellectual operating system was reinstalled. There were Arlingtonists in Europe, and not all of them were Nazis. And it wasn't just Germany that got reprogrammed. Europe has spent the last fifty years abolishing a set of perspectives that constituted the entire mainstream political spectrum in 1900. It is only Plainland that was not completely conquered by the Georgetownists. And it is far more conquered now than it was in 1984.

So we have completely reframed the story that Kennan is trying to tell. Instead of the struggle of a decent public servant against chauvinist demagoguery, we have the struggle of a Machiavellian bureaucrat to govern the world and abolish his enemies. Which of these stories is truer? Neither. Both are completely consistent with the facts. History is always the Necker cube. (It would help, though, if we knew whether Kennan ever owned a long-haired cat.)

And notice one thing that we have not learned about the struggle between the Arlingtonists and the Georgetownists, the Primitives and the Brahmins. We have learned who won and is still winning. We have learned that at least one side is willing to tell a lie or two, or at least shade the truth - hardly shocking in the twentieth century. What we haven't learned is who was right and who was wrong. In fact, maybe they're both wrong.

And this is how I stopped believing in democracy. Let's go back to the God analogy.

What's amazing about the whole God thing is that people actually used to believe in God. Almost no one believes in God today. The most they are willing to give Him is that he "exists." Perhaps there is a Heaven and maybe even a Hell. But before you find people who actually believe that God actually uses His alien black-magic superpowers to actually affect events on Earth, you have to scrape pretty deep in the barrel. We are all deists now.

Before this change, there was an entire branch of philosophy called theodicy, whose goal was to figure out how God and evil could coexist. Doesn't it strike you as completely and utterly obvious that the answer is "they don't"? Why didn't all these incredibly smart people - Aquinas and Leibniz and Pascal and so forth - just consider the null hypothesis?

I think the answer is that when you really believe in God, the belief that God is good and makes good things happen is completely woven into your cerebral cortex. If you were to stop believing in God, you would instantly solve the problem of explaining all the evil things that have happened in the world. You would also instantly create the problem of explaining all the good things that have happened. For which your present explanation is that they happened because they were good, and therefore God wanted them to happen.

Similarly, as a kid raised on the IHT and the Economist and other Georgetownist goodness, I had a simple, pretty explanation of the world. There were two kinds of governments: democratic ones and undemocratic ones. The first kind were good and the second kind were bad. History was the story of humanity's progress from bad, undemocratic governments to good, democratic ones. The rest was all details.

One can certainly arrange the facts in this way. But, first, history is not a list of facts. And second, when we do arrange the facts in this way, we find that we have a number of facts left over, which require additional explanations. Of course these explanations can be assembled. Pretty much any theory of history can explain pretty much any fact. However, the more patches of this sort you have to apply, the more you miss your simple, pretty story.

And there is an even more upsetting observation, which is that the process of explaining why democracy isn't perfect is remarkably similar to good old theodicy. Perhaps we could call it demodicy - the problem of explaining how democracy can coexist with evil.

Perhaps you've noticed that democracy has not exactly worked out perfectly in Iraq. Oh, there were elections. Elections, sure. But after the elections, did Iraq turn into Belgium? Um, no. How can we explain this? Almost any way we want:
  • Democracy cannot be imposed by occupying troops.
  • American troops have committed human rights violations, which makes Iraqis hate us.
  • America supports Israel, which makes Iraqis hate us.
  • Iraqis must overcome their tribal conflicts, which make them hate each other.
  • Iraqis marry their cousins and have low IQs. They are too stupid for democracy.
  • The "oil curse" makes Iraqis want to fight for cheap oil money.
  • Iraq was brutalized by colonialism, from which it is still recovering.
And on and on and on. For each of these we can construct examples, counterexamples, refutations, rebuttals, and in short an entire tangle of scholastic philosophy. Classic demodicy.

Or let's look at another example: democracy in South Africa. Of course by "democracy" I mean multiracial democracy. It is not okay to have an election in which only white people can vote. It's actually worse than having no elections at all. It's a sort of blasphemy, like appointing your horse to the Senate, electing a crack whore as Pope, or giving Pol Pot the Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course this was absolutely huge when I was in college. It was by far the most important thing in the world. I think if God had told the average male student at my college that, if he agreed to remain a virgin for life, democracy would come to South Africa, he would have instantly agreed. And in 1994, a miracle! No virginity required. Even the evil white people voted for it.

Recently, something interesting happened in South Africa. The power went out. Apparently this is not a temporary or accidental development. South Africa will have rolling blackouts for the next few years. Not a small issue in a place where ordinary life as you or I know it depends on extreme security systems and armed response teams. Here is a thread in which people like you and me debate whether or not to flee the country. Here is a sample:
I myself am deciding to leave, but I have other commitments at the moment that don't allow me to. But in time, I will. I have been involved in crime as well, and almost everyone I know has been touched by crime in some way. It used to be a case when we read articles in the newspapers about crime, now it's a case of hearing it happening to someone close to you. I myself, have been mugged twice, stabbed 3 times, once in the lung, and hit on the head...while I was a student who just started writing my final exams. Thereafter another incident and I was beaten up repeated and landed in hospital. A close friend of mine was killed while outside a fast food store, waiting for his order. When does it stop? I agree, we are so used to hearing about crime, that it has become the norm. Our country is full of it! There's no place left in our daily papers to add in all the stories. Killings and rapes are now moved to page 3 or 4. Front page is now set aside for the most gruesome or horrific stories. Shock sells, and it's getting harder to shock our nation because violent crime is now also the norm. Yet, in countries abroad, where violent crime is not witnessed on a daily basis, a story of a missing dog could easily be placed on the front page. Is there hope for SA? I honestly don't know. But we are in big trouble. I also was optimistic - but now I realise no one will help us - the government doesn't give a damn. The corruption and power crises is another story on it's own. If everyone that could afford to leave - left, what then? Some of my friends, and I have been saving for the past year, not to buy a new car (which will be hijacked and taken away), but to leave. Like the government said...leave if we want...If they won't help us - we should help ourselves.
I do not witness violent crime on a daily basis. I have never seen a story of a missing dog on the front page. In fact, I have never been stabbed anywhere at all, not even in the lung.

However, I was in a bookstore the other day and found a pile of Napa Journals from May 1940. This was a broadsheet rag put out in Napa, CA. On one, the top headline was that the Nazis had invaded France. There were some other stories of a similar nature. And down near the bottom, but definitely on the front page, the Journal saw fit to inform its readers that the police had arrested a man who was wanted for passing a bad check in Fresno. Hm.

In any case, while poking around for news on the subject I stumbled on a little blog called "SA Rocks." From its about page:
After reading the incredibly upsetting anti-SA blogs from expats around the world I decided to make a stand. This blog is that stand. I am standing up for all the good in SA. For all the great things that SA citizens do and for all the people who love this country. I love this country and I believe in it and the success that is soon to come.

SA Rocks is not a website dedicated to blindly praising South Africa. I understand that every country has flaws and I do not deny the flaws of South Africa. I do feel that there are enough people who berate our country and it’s time for people to start acting and thinking positively about South Africa.
Indeed. My attention was immediately drawn to this post, which has to be seen in context. This one is good, too. Demodicy in its purest and most desperate form.

I shouldn't make fun of these people. They really, really don't deserve what is happening to them. No one deserves to be stabbed, especially not in the lung. But the question remains: did someone make a mistake? Did they do X, when in retrospect they should have done Y? And was believing in democracy part of their motivation for doing X? What does it even mean to believe in democracy, anyway?

Hopefully we have now passed the point of mere skepticism. We are ready to reason in a structured and sensible way. At this point I recommend that you take a break from the essay, and have a beer or two, or other beverage of choice. Have to keep those neurons loose.

There are two pertinent questions. One: what does it mean to believe in democracy? Two: if you don't believe in democracy, what do you believe in?

As I see it, there are two ways you can believe in democracy. One, you can believe in democracy as an end - that is, as a goal which is good in and of itself. Two, you can believe in democracy as a mechanism by which some other goal can be achieved.

If you believe in democracy as an end in itself, I really cannot help you. You might as well believe in, say, water polo, as an end in itself. It is impossible to reason about ethical axioms.

I think most sensible people who believe in democracy see it as a mechanism. Or more precisely, as a remedy.

Looking at history, they note that there are two kinds of governments: good ones and bad ones. Misgovernment is an extremely dangerous condition, and when we look at democracies we see that they are not, in general, misgoverned. Ergo, democracy, ie the process of holding elections which are basically free and fair in a multiparty state with a free press and all the rest, is a remedy for misgovernment, much as salvarsan is a remedy for syphilis.

Our problem here is that we are thinking empirically, which is to say pseudoscientifically. History is not an experiment, because we cannot control it. If we were testing a remedy for syphilis, we would assemble two groups of syphilis patients who were the same in every possible way, except that one got the remedy and the other didn't. We cannot do this for democracy. There are no control governments.

Uncontrolled or "natural" experiments produce misleading results. If the way we test our syphilis remedy is just to sell it, then see if the people who buy it do better than the people who don't, we are simply finding ways to confuse ourselves. Perhaps patients who have mild syphilis are more likely to try the pill those with tertiary paresis. Perhaps it's not that elections create good governments, but that good governments are more likely to hold elections. By compiling the facts of history and expecting some objective algorithm to magically arrange them in the most plausible narrative, we think we are being scientific. In fact we have only rediscovered artificial stupidity.

Moreover, any such narrative will probably be replete with exceptions, which leads us back into demodicy. Iraq is a democracy and it's a hellhole. Dubai, right next door, is a monarchy, and it's about as pleasant as anywhere in the Persian Gulf could get. Why? Again, we can supply as many explanations as may be required.

And worst, we are not really thinking from scratch. We are starting with our conventional proposition, that democracy is a mechanism which produces good government, and trying to disprove it. Imagine if we applied the same algorithm to God.

Instead, let's start with what we actually do know and try to work forward.

We know that personal influence over the actions of a government, or power, is greatly sought after by members of our species. We know that in a democracy, power is shared equally among the democracy's citizens, each of whom has one vote. Therefore, since each citizen will favor a government that serves his or her interests, no one has more power than anyone else, and the government they all elect will serve, on average, the interests of all.

This is certainly one theory of democracy. Call it Theory A. Let me share another, theory B:
In all society or government are right to be enjoyed, burdens to be borne, and trusts to be discharged.

Among the rights are the right of property; the right of locomotion; the right to appropriate and dispose of the proceeds of our own labor; the right to worship according to conscience; and the right to protection from from society in the enjoyment of all these rights, and the right to have all the legal processes and remedies provided to make this protection effectual. These are called civil rights, and when we speak of civil equality we mean that these rights belong alike and equally to all citizens, to all classes, to all colors, to all sexes, to all ages, and to all grades of intellect, society, and worth. [...]

Among the burdens of society and governments I may mention: working the public highways; providing public buildings; paying the public taxes; defending the public safety, etc, etc. These burdens ought to be borne by all according to fitness and capacity, for these burdens constitute the consideration we pay for the protection we get. Women and children, lunatics and idiots do not work the highways or defend the society with arms, because their positions or capacity forbid; but they are all citizens - or members of the society - and pay taxes. These are called burdens because they are borne, not for ourselves only, but for others - for the public.

Lastly, in every society or government there are trusts to be discharged. Offices are to be filled; laws are to be made, executed and administered, else there could be no rules or process for protection; and agents are to be selected for all these purposes. The whole business of selecting agents to discharge duties, as well as the discharge of the duties themselves, comes under the head of trusts. They are called trusts because they are powers exercised not for one's own good but for the good of others - for the public. The authority to vote is, therefore, a trust reposed, and the exercise of the authority is the exercise of a trust - the trust of selecting agents to provide and execute the laws by which rights are to be protected. All men are born to rights - which are personal - affecting each person only; but no man is born to a trust - to a power which affects all other members of society. You had as well say a man is born to an office as to say he is born to a vote for that office. So, again, all trusts imply capacity and integrity. No man has a right to be intrusted to discharge a duty affecting others who does not understand that duty, or has not integrity to be trusted with its faithful exercise.

How can the rights of the members of society be safe if the protection for those rights is to be provided or applied by ignorant or vicious agents? And how can ignorant and vicious agents be avoided if ignorant and vicious persons are born to the right to select them?

Rights are personal - born with persons - belong to the person, and affect the person; but trusts are relative - and born with society - belong to society - and are for the good and under control of society. How is any man born with a right to take my rights, or to select another to take my rights?

Suffrage, then, is not a right - it is not a privilege - it is a trust, and a most solemn and sacred trust. It is the trust of preserving society, of securing rights, of protecting persons.

Would you select an ignorant, or vicious, or untrustworthy man as your trustee, or the trustee for your wife or your child in the smallest concerns of life? How, then, would you make a trustee of an ignorant or vicious man to discharge these great duties, on the wise and faithful discharge of which all rights, and all protection, and all things depend?
Obviously, this wasn't written yesterday. But don't you find it compelling?

There are two possibilities. Either we can define good government, or we cannot.

If we cannot define good government, how exactly we can agree that democracy promotes good government is entirely beyond me. In practice, what theory A tells us is that good government constitutes whatever democracy produces. Everyone's interest is weighed, and if its weight does not prevail it's just too bad. You have brown hair, so the blondes have decided that you will be ground up and put on the rosebushes. We have returned to the theory of democracy as end. And this end is definitely a dead one.

Theory B is much more interesting. It asserts that we actually can agree on what good government is. Good government is government that protects its citizens' civil rights, minimizes the burdens it imposes on them, and faithfully executes its trusts. Any system for constituting a government that achieves this goal is a good one. Any system that does not is not. As Deng Xiaoping put it, "if the cat catches mice, who cares if it's black or white?"

Well, I'm afraid that's just the problem. The author of the above text was Sen. Benjamin H. Hill, of Georgia, in his Notes on the Situation. Senator Hill was many things, but one of them was a Redeemer. And the point of the above passage, which I have carefully elided, was that Negroes shouldn't be allowed to vote.

So we have a slight problem. If we follow Hill's argument that suffrage is a trust, we are pointed in a distinctly undemocratic direction. And we can follow that direction farther than Hill himself would be willing to go. Why should all white men be allowed to vote? Surely a pair of testicles and a pallid skin is hardly proof positive that the bearer of this anatomy is a responsible trustee, not "ignorant and vicious"? Surely we can devise a more effective test?

And, if our goal is really just the faithful execution of a trust, why assume that electoral suffrage of any sort is the most effective way to constitute it? Surely the shareholders of Google have entrusted its management with a tremendous trust - $170 billion worth, last time I checked. Surely this is worth as much as Georgia, or at least Georgia in the 1870s. How does Google just skate along without any suffrage at all, whereas Georgia needs elections? And which trust would you guess is more effectively exercised?

On the other hand, if we recoil in horror from Senator Hill and his sheet-wearing buddies, we are left with his arguments. If we can define good government, we can take an engineering approach to designing a system that ensures it. Moreover, we can evaluate the expected results of this system by criteria that are, if not quantitative, at least factual and absolute, rather than ethical and subjective.

Our goal is an animal that catches mice. We can add other requirements as well. Our mouse-catcher must be able to use a catbox. It should be able to purr and sit on a lap. It must not eat the baby. And so on. If what you want is good government, design for good government. If what you want is something else, why? Perhaps you're part of the problem - there is, after all, a problem, and somebody's got to be part of it.

And is there any reason to think that democracy - Hill's kind, or our kind, or Odinga's kind, or anyone else's kind - is the output of this sort of engineering process? If not, what possible reason can we have for believing that it is the most effective mechanism for this purpose? Surely the existence of other mechanisms which are less effective is irrelevant. (Also, it is really asking too much to inflict long S's on people, but I can't resist a link to Dean Tucker.)

All this is interesting. But does it really get us all the way toward not believing in democracy? I don't think so.

Daniel Dennett's new neo-atheist book is called Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Obviously as an atheist myself I find this kind of material too boring for words, and in fact I bogged down pretty hard in Dennett. But I do like the title, and I think the analogy remains useful.

It expresses an interesting way of persuading people to become atheists. Most people are theists not because they were "reasoned into" believing in God, but because they applied Occam's razor at too early an age. Their simplest explanation for the reason that their parents, not to mention everyone else in the world, believed in God, was that God actually existed. The same could be said for, say, Australia.

Dennett's approach, which of course is probably ineffective in almost all cases, is to explain why, if God doesn't exist, everyone knows who He is. How did this whole God thing happen? Why is it not weird that people believed in Him for 2000 years, but actually they were wrong?

Perhaps the same approach will work in spreading this edgier mental virus^H^H^H^H^H vaccine of ademotism. If democracy isn't tha shizzle, why does everyone believe in it? How did it get to be so big? Because we have to admit that one very, very simple explanation of how it got to be so big is that it is, indeed, tha shizzle.

Ergo, our goal is to understand democracy as a historical phenomenon. This is getting long, so perhaps we'll take a good whack at it next week.

In case you wonder why you should care, however, let me drop in the punch line.

There's something else about not believing in God in 1758. Which is that pretty much the only 18th-century writers that anyone cares to read in 2008 were, if not downright atheists, at least freethinkers of some variety. An enormous volume of writing was published during that century, and almost all of it was devotional or otherwise conventional nonsense. Only specialists read it. Perhaps this is unfortunate, but it's how it is.

What would you get if you tried to compose a canon of 20th-century writers, whose only criterion for inclusion would be that its members had to express or demonstrate some kind of doubt or skepticism on the value of democracy? Your writers - of fiction, poetry, essays, journalism, whatever - would certainly be in a decided minority. On the other hand, the same could be said for the 18th-century atheists. And if you compared this canon to the stuff that they make freshmen at Stanford read these days, would it be more readable, or less?

Thursday, January 24, 2008 47 Comments

How to actually restore the gold standard (or not)

I know I promised to give UR readers a break this week, but the ongoing degringolade of our financial system is just too exciting to ignore.

This post is about the mechanics of returning to what people used to call hard money. This is a very difficult problem for which there is no good solution. However, as we'll see, some solutions are worse than others. If you need a celebrity endorsement, or quasi-endorsement, Brad Setser says: "if nothing else, your plan is creative." Indeed.

I will not be discussing the question of why the gold standard should be restored. I assume you either believe this is a good idea, or you don't. If you don't, perhaps you don't care. (Perhaps you haven't looked at the news lately?) Please feel free to come back next week.

First, let's face it: the dollar is about as far from being "as good as gold" as Hillary Clinton is from being "a major-league hottie." She needs a lot of work, and I mean a lot. Restoring the gold standard is about as easy as restoring a '57 Chevy that has been in the same barn since '68. Assuming of course that the world has been taken over by zombies, and your only tools are a chainsaw, a hammer, and a case of cheap brandy.

On the other hand, just pushing the Chevy down the road into zombie land isn't going to work too well, either. So why not at least think about trying it? And that, I promise, is the last I will say on the subject. At least for now.

First: there is a simple plan for successfully restoring the gold standard, which any sovereign can apply at any time for any reason, and which will always succeed.

Let's call it "Plan X." To restore the gold standard via Plan X, you need exactly two facts: the face value of valid fiat currency you have outstanding, and the grams of gold in your treasury. (If you do not have this information, you are beyond the reach of accounting. Your country is probably about to be overrun by savage tribes. You should be looking for a seaworthy vessel, not trying to fix your monetary system.)

Let's call the first quantity F and the second quantity G. The new gold price, Pnew, the price of a gram of gold, in cowries or strips of leather or wood chips or whatever your people are putting out these days, is F/G. At least, it is at least F/G. At your discretion, Sublime Pasha, it may be greater. I don't think I have to point out the advantages of this option.

What makes a Plan X restoration slightly tricky is that whatever Pnew is, there is also a Pold - the present price of a gram of gold. Since Pnew has to exceed Pold or no one can possibly care, and since it offends the Pasha's dignity for the Armenians to front-run his ass down in the bazaar, Plan X depends on the element of surprise. While it shares this with all monetary policy, the amount of loot a leak can extract in a Plan X gold restoration is effectively infinite and untraceable. Problem.

Thus it is very difficult for an inefficient bureaucratic state, which is indiscreet by definition, to even consider Plan X as a viable policy option. Since an efficiently managed state would never have left the gold standard in the first place, this problem is unsolvable. Moreover, the same problem holds for all feasible restoration plans. The option of just letting Pnew equal Pold is not physically tractable without some serious alien technology. There is not enough gold on Planet Three. You would need to go in for asteroid mining, or something.

Since this problem is not solvable, we will ignore it. Often people are faced with multiple contradictory problems. I'll bet a lot of them are working 100-hour weeks right now. To even start to deal with a situation like the present financial crisis, you have to at least know why all your impossible courses of action are just as impossible as they seem.

But there is a second problem with Plan X, which is that it is not politically feasible. Ie, if you just apply Plan X, it will leave a very large number of people hatin' life, and hating you as well. This is not conducive to a successful career in public service. And this is why, I think, people shrink so instinctively from the very thought of restoring the gold standard. They associate it with Plan X, which is too hateful even to mention. In fact, while moral judgments are not my specialty, I don't think it's going too far to describe Plan X as outright unethical.

Here is the problem with Plan X.

The monetary base of the United States today - the number of dollars outstanding in the strict legal sense of the word dollar - is about $800 billion. The monetary base is physical currency, plus the balances of member banks at the Fed. (In case you are unfamiliar with the actual structure of the Fed, think of it as a secret uber-bank at which only banks have bank accounts.)

US gold reserves are about 8000 metric tons. Ergo, F/G is about $100 million per metric ton, or $100K per kilogram, or $100 per gram. Since gold today is around $30 a gram, this represents a Pnew/Pold ratio of about 3. (Obviously, all these values are constantly changing.)

So Plan X, if applied to the dollar, would triple the gold price overnight. This seems rather extreme. It suggests that Pnew is way too high. Perhaps, but it's also way too low. Did I say this would be easy? If restoring the gold standard was easy, someone would have done it already.

The problem is that the monetary base (M0, or F above) is not a particularly important or useful number. It is not in fact a good representation of "the number of dollars in the world." This is well-known. And there are a variety of other monetary indicators, with snappy little numbers attached, like M1, M2, etc. In Britain they even have M4, which I was sure was a motorway. In any case, none of these numbers is of much interest either. They are all the result of subjective decisions, littered with constants pulled out of thin air, etc, etc. This again is quite well known. No one has done anything about it, because no one can do anything about it.

(The idea that monetary policy can be managed by mathematical models is, in fact, madness. The experiment is neither deductively understood nor scientifically controlled. Fitting models to the past is no substitute: it will always produce a "data mining" effect. If one of these models somehow turned out to be correct, you would have no way of knowing which one it was.)

Why is it impossible to measure the quantity of dollars in the world? Especially in a modern country which is not about to be overrun by savage tribes, and really does keep a handle on its monetary base? A fascinating question, folks.

We can start to see the answer by looking, within the monetary base, at the difference between electronic dollars at the Fed and actual physical bills. These objects could not be more different - one is a magnetic mark on a hard disk, the other is a piece of paper. Why do we lump them together and treat them as the same thing?

They are equivalent because either form is convertible to the other. Any bank can take a bundle of bills to the Fed and exchange it for electronic credits. Any bank can also draw down its electronic balance in the form of print jobs. Both these rights are protected by law, and there is no conceivable scenario on which the Fed runs out of either disk space or paper.

You'll sometimes hear dollars in the monetary base called "high-powered," an incredibly weird and confusing locution. Let's just call them formal dollars. Since these dollars are all valid at present, they are formal current dollars.

The reason it's impossible to measure the quantity of dollars in the world is that a formal current dollar is only one point in a vector space. Formality and maturity are both variables. Worse, the latter is quantifiable but the former is not. So we are trying to describe an unquantifiable two-dimensional vector as a precise scalar (our F). If this isn't mathematical malpractice, I don't know what is.

How do we solve this problem? As usual, by trying to understand it.

Let's deal with maturity first. Imagine that every dollar bill had a "not valid before" date on it, like a postdated check. Maturity is simply the difference between now and that time. For example, a zero-coupon Treasury bond which matures in 10 years could be defined as a dollar bill which is not valid until 2018. We can call these dollars not current but latent.

Formality is the extent to which an instrument is guaranteed, in practice, by the Fed. A Federal Reserve Note ("dollar bill") is perfectly formal. A piece of paper which says "Mencius Moldbug promises to pay the bearer one (1) dollar" is perfectly informal. Between these lies a wide range, which cannot be measured or quantified, but is no less important for that.

A Treasury bond is almost perfectly formal - but not quite, since the Fed and Treasury are at least in different buildings. In practice, the financial markets treat Treasury obligations as perfectly formal or "risk-free." It is probably best to describe them as negligibly informal.

"Agency" bonds - those written not by Treasury, but nominally private companies (GSEs) such as the infamous Fannie and Freddie - are mildly, but not negligibly, informal. The bond market puts a small premium on agency bonds over T-bonds (typically a quarter point or so), showing that they have a small chance of defaulting. This is essentially a political calculation, and financial markets do not hesitate before making political guesses - which is not to say that they are always right. (Note that we cannot use the GSE spreads as quantifications of formality, because there is another variable in the equation - the actual default risk.)

But the most famous kind of informal dollars are the negligibly-informal current dollars we call "checking deposits." While checking accounts are not as financially important as they once were, most people have one and most everyone understands them.

A checking deposit is actually a loan from you to your bank. This loan has a zero maturity and is continuously rolled over. If you find this hard to grasp, imagine the loan term was one minute. Every minute, the bank automatically returns your money to you, and you automatically lend it back to the bank. If you show up at the ATM and want to withdraw it, you have to wait until the minute is over. Replace a minute with zero, and you have the "demand deposit."

It would sort of defeat the purpose, but imagine that your checking-account dollars were not electronic entries, but physical bills. They look just like regular dollar bills, except that they are blue, not green, and they have your bank's name instead of the Fed's - eg, "Wells Fargo Note."

A dollar in a checking account is informal because it is a debt, and the debtor is not the mighty Fed but a sordid, corporate bank. The Fed will not just take a blue dollar and convert it to a green dollar. Your bank has to do that, and your bank has to have its own green dollar to exchange for your blue dollar. If it's out, the Fed will not just give it more.

However, like the Treasury bonds, blue dollars are negligibly informal. Your bank is "insured" by something called the FDIC. This so-called "deposit insurance" is in fact a sham, because the risk of a bank run is not in any way, shape or form an insurable risk. Nor does the FDIC have anywhere near enough green dollars to exchange for all the blue ones. However, although the Fed is not legally obligated to back up the FDIC - just as it is not legally obligated to back up the Treasury - it is a political certainty that it will do so.

We can think of informal instruments, like agency bonds or blue dollars, as an inseparable combination of two instruments: a private debt (eg, your bank's debt to you, as represented by the blue dollar), and an option written by the Fed. The option pays off if the debt does not - unless, of course, the Fed's informal loan guarantee turns out to be not just informal, but actually nonexistent.

We are now in a position to understand the horrendous destruction that Plan X would unleash upon society. Since Plan X does not recognize the existence of informal dollars, applying it is equivalent to destroying them, or more precisely destroying their informal Fed option halves. The debt from the bank to you still exists. But will it be paid? Um...

Plan X is easier if we think of it in two phases. In the first phase, we destroy the informal options and set F to the monetary base M0. In the second phase, we exchange every formal current dollar for F/G grams of gold, courtesy of Fort Knox. (There are no formal latent dollars - the Fed issues no such thing.) After we perform the first phase, we can perform the second at any time, so we can analyze them separately.

All the destruction in Plan X comes from the first phase. Call it Plan X(1). Another way to think of Plan X(1) is that (after printing the entire monetary base), we destroy the Fed's printing press. No new dollars can be created, ever. If this reminds you of the breaking of the assignat plates, you're not alone:
This system in finance was accompanied by a system in politics no less startling, and each system tended to aggravate the other. The wild radicals, having sent to the guillotine first all the Royalists and next all the leading Republicans they could entrap, the various factions began sending each other to the same destination: Hébertists, Dantonists, with various other factions and groups, and, finally, the Robespierrists, followed each other in rapid succession. After these declaimers and phrase-mongers had thus disappeared there came to power, in October, 1795, a new government, - mainly a survival of the more scoundrelly, - the Directory. It found the country utterly impoverished and its only resource at first was to print more paper and to issue even while wet from the press. These new issues were made at last by the two great committees, with or without warrant of law, and in greater sums than ever. Complaints were made that the army of engravers and printers at the mint could not meet the demand for assignats - that they could produce only from sixty to seventy millions per day and that the government was spending daily from eighty to ninety millions. Four thousand millions of francs were issued during one month, a little later three thousand millions, a little later four thousand millions, until there had been put forth over thirty-five thousand millions. The purchasing power of this paper having now become almost nothing, it was decreed, on the 22nd of December, 1795, that the whole amount issued should be limited to forty thousand millions, including all that had previously been put forth and that when this had been done the copper plates should be broken. Even in spite of this, additional issues were made amounting to about ten thousand millions. But on the 18th of February, 1796, at nine o'clock in the morning, in the presence of a great crowd, the machinery, plates and paper for printing assignats were brought to the Place Vendome and there, on the spot where the Napoleon Column now stands, these were solemnly broken and burned.
Well, it certainly sounds like the right move at the right time. And who can't resist the idea of sending a few phrase-mongers, not to mention Republicans, to the guillotine?

But the good news is that we are not in a state of revolutionary hyperinflation. At least, not yet. The bad news is that the result of Plan X(1) would be an episode of economic destruction that would make the Great Depression look like a panty raid.

The informal loan guarantees we destroyed may have been informal. But they existed. And people relied on them - just as if they were formal.

For example, by breaking the plates, we eliminated the Fed's informal guarantee of Treasury debt. Surprise! Over the next 30 years, Treasury is now obligated to fork over ten times as much gold as now exists in the United States - since the Treasury's debt is about ten times the monetary base.

What do you think is the chance that this will actually happen? Fairly small, I would say. I suspect long-term interest rates, at least as measured by Treasury bonds (which is how they're measured now) would go from about 5% to more like 50%. If not 500%. The good news is that you could actually buy that house you've been saving for.

The bad news is that your savings probably won't be there. Because they are probably in blue dollars, or something like them. Those debts from various financial entities to you still exist. But the various financial entities don't. They will instantly face the mother of all bank runs as people with blue dollars rush to exchange them for green.

The Fed's loan guarantees, it turns out, have been serving an essential structural purpose in our economy. They have been making term transformation stable. The interaction between term transformation and fiat loan guarantees deserves its own Nitropian analogy, but what we do know is that term transformation is not stable without them. Ergo, since it is not stable, it will collapse. The good news is that you might be able to buy a hamburger for ten cents again. The bad news is that you might not have ten cents.

So our definition of F as the monetary base has a great flaw, which is that it does not account for the informal loan guarantees, which are legally meaningless but economically important. As a result, we are simply destroying a large quantity of money - the monetary equivalent of filling your gas tank with molasses. Woops.

There is only one way fix this. Our new plan, Plan Y, has to include informally guaranteed instruments as well. Furthermore, because it includes informal instruments, it has to deal not just with current dollars but with latent dollars (such as Treasury bonds).

How does Plan Y deal with informal dollars? Very simply. It creates formal dollars, and exchanges them for the informal dollars. So, for example, the Fed can buy all the checking deposits that it has guaranteed. Your checking account becomes a green-dollar account at the Fed. The debt from your bank to you is now a debt from your bank to the Fed.

Alternatively, the Fed could just buy your bank at the present market value - ie, nationalize it. This is less financially elegant, but it may be simpler in practice. It also has another advantage, which is that it wraps up the maturity mismatch on the bank's books. Your bank is almost certainly backing its short-term obligations with long-term receivables. If the Fed refuses to renew the rolling loans that used to be everyone's checking deposits, the banks will fail. If it lets them roll on for ever, it might as well cancel them. Either way the result is ugly.

There are two ways for Plan Y to deal with latent informal dollars. One is to exchange them for latent formal dollars. The other is to exchange them for current formal dollars.

Perhaps the former could be made to work, but the latter is probably superior. The trouble is that in a world with protected term transformation, we really have no idea what the maturity preferences of investors are. If we assume that they correspond to their current holdings, we run the risk of considerable economic disruption.

The people who have been buying 30-year T-bonds are not, in general, people who are genuinely willing to exchange current dollars for dollars which are not valid before 2038. In fact, considering that we have a system in which maturity transformation is ubiquitous, there are probably a lot of financial players who own dollars which are not valid before 2038, but have contracted to deliver valid dollars in, say, March.

We do not actually know where supply and demand would set the 30-year interest rate. It could be anything. If we assume that it has any relation to the present rate, we will, again, create disruption. If we wanted disruption, Plan X would do just fine.

What we see is that Plan Y is essentially a bailout of the entire dollar financial system. The informal guarantees have spread very far and wide. Our goal, in the first (formalization) phase of the plan, is to find them all and use formal dollars to buy them all out at the present market price. One of the largest sets of informal guarantees is the set of promises the US government has made to itself in the form of Medicare and Social Security, which may give you some idea of the kind of numbers we're looking at. (Fortunately, entitlement payments are not securitized and thus are not on the balance sheets of term transformers, which means they can be exchanged for latent dollars.)

When Plan Y(1) is complete, everyone's monthly portfolio statement should show more or less the same number that it did before, and the Fed will enjoy managing many fascinating new assets. F, the final monetary base, will be a precise measure of the number of dollars in the world. And we are free to go through with Plan Y(2), which is precisely the same as Plan X(2): redeeming all dollars for gold.

However, we are no longer increasing the gold price by a factor of 3. The factor is now more like 300. This does not require any more or less secrecy or surprise than increasing it by 3 - in both cases, discipline must be absolute. But it does make us think a little.

Not all the gold in the world is in Fort Knox. If you increase the gold price by two orders of magnitude, you are making anyone who now owns gold extremely wealthy. This happens - people make money, and they make money by being right when everyone else is wrong. Predicting that paper money was unsustainable and the gold standard would live again was not exactly a conformist investment. If you restore the gold standard, you have validated it.

Also, you can tax the hell out of these people. Any restoration of the gold standard should be associated with a high direct tax on gold ownership. If the tax is too high, it will pass the Laffer peak and favor the really crazy antigovernment types who keep their Krugerrands in their flowerpots. 80 or 90%, for example, is probably too high. But 60% probably isn't.

The new gold zillionaires will certainly compete in some markets and drive up some prices, but it is hard to see how they will much inflate the price of, say, crude oil, or wheat. It's also worth noting that a lot of the world's gold, especially the gold that hasn't been mined yet, is in places like India and Africa, which could sure use a little money. And while no increase in the gold price will produce a giant flood of newly mined gold - people have been trying very hard for a very long time to get gold out of the Earth's crust - two orders of magnitude will certainly create a lot of jobs, not all of which are menial. Perhaps some of our financial engineers could go back to school and study geology.

On the other hand: once we have executed Plan Y(1), do we really need Plan Y(2)?

After all, our goal in restoring the gold standard is hard money: a completely neutral monetary system, which is not subject to manias and panics, and does not bollix economic prediction by exerting a chaotic, exogeneous, politically charged effect on price levels or business activity. In other words, our goal is to never have to deal with this kind of BS again. Condy Raguet put it well when he said:
Such being the theory of this branch of my subject, I have the satisfaction to state in regard of the practice under it, upon the testimony of a respectable American merchant, who resided and carried on extensive operations for near twenty years at Gibraltar, where there has never been any but a metallic currency, that he never knew during that whole period, such a thing as a general pressure for money. He has known individuals to fail from incautious speculation, or indiscreet advances, or expensive living; but he never saw a time that money was not readily available, at the ordinary rate of interest, by any merchant in good credit. He assured me, that no such thing as a general rise or fall in the prices of commodities, or property was known there; and that so satisfied were the inhabitants of the advantages they enjoyed from a metallic currency, although attended by the inconvenience of keeping in iron chests, and of counting large sums in Spanish dollars and doubloons, that several attempts to establish a bank there were put down by almost common consent.
This is not the only historical example of the delights of monetary predictability. And there is nothing more predictable than a constant. Suppose that, after formalizing the dollar base, we just leave it at that? Why do we need the gold standard? Can't we just fix the number of dollars in the world, and call it a day?

We can. But we may not want to.

Gold makes a good currency for several reasons. First, because it has some intrinsic uses, it is self-bootstrapping in the classic Mengerian sense. But the dollar is already a currency, so bootstrapping is not a concern. From an economic perspective, fiat currencies work fine. Second, after a few millennia of mining, new gold is extremely hard to come by, so the supply is quite inelastic. (The present gold supply dilutes at well under 2% per year.) Inelastic is almost constant. But constant is even more constant.

So a fixed, formalized dollar supply would create a currency that was actually harder than gold - at least, in a strictly economic sense. The dollar would not be "as good as gold." It would be better. (If only we could do the same for Hillary.)

This course of action would also have the effect, surely delicious in some peoples' minds, of sending the gold price back down into double digits. People who hold gold (such as myself) are, in general, holding it as money. If you fix the fiat currency system permanently, you destroy the entire monetary premium on gold. If this course is taken, perhaps its architects could have some pity on us poor economic royalists, and print a little extra to buy back our Krugerrands.

The only problem with a fixed-supply fiat currency is that it has been tried before. It's one thing to limit the number of dollars in the world. It is quite another to enforce that limit. Congress can pass a law prohibiting the Fed from printing new money. But will it? And next time there is a war, a flood, an indoor rainforest in Iowa, or some other budgetary emergency, won't it just unpass it? Our F might quite easily become like the Federal debt limit, which is routinely increased. A better idea might be to put it in a Constitutional amendment. But even these can be repealed, or still worse judicially ignored.

As Alan Greenspan once explained, gold as a monetary standard succeeds because it is self-enforcing. The Fed cannot print gold. Congress cannot pass a law which creates it. If the gold standard is really brutally abused, as it was in the 1920s and '30s, it will turn on its abusers with a vengeance. This is not a bug, but a feature. Gold works because it keeps the government honest. And surely anyone of any political persuasion can agree that honest government beats the converse.

Of course, the main problem with Plan Y, gold or no gold, is that it can't possibly happen. It is impossible to imagine Washington executing any plan anywhere near this unusual and aggressive. Moreover, the first step is always to admit that you have a problem. Picture that press conference! I can't, which is why I can't see this happening.

Sunday, January 20, 2008 62 Comments

How to defeat the US government: summary

I thought it'd be fun to write a quick summary of the last three posts.

We start with the perception that USG, or Washcorp, is a problem. Its problem is that the interests Washcorp serves seem quite a good match for its own. They do not seem to match the interests of the residents of the territory Washcorp owns, central North America or Plainland. (Using these neutral names helps us separate ourselves from symbolic emotional attachments, which also serve Washcorp's interest.)

The predictable result of this divergence in incentives is that Washcorp has become quite large, inefficient and intrusive. And it continues to grow. This bothers some of us. If it bothers you, please read on.

The traditional remedy is to persuade Plainlanders to use their collective democratic powers to elect a politician, such as Ron Paul, who promises to restructure Washcorp so that the result does in fact serve their interests. The typical promise is to replace the existing organization, which is the product of informal political evolution, with the formal design specified by the literal text of the Constitution.

There is no reason to think this remedy is effective. There are many reasons to think it is not. Thinking deductively: even if Dr. Paul is elected, the White House's influence on the executive branch is small, its influence on the judicial branch is only effective after decades of continuous control, and its influence on the legislative branch is nil. (Elections can also replace the Congress, but incumbency rates indicate that this is extremely difficult, and partisan transitions seem to have minimal effect - perhaps due to the iron triangle effect.) Thinking inductively: all previous democratic attacks against the civil service, press and universities have failed, often with high backlash. Of course, if the remedy is ineffective, any energy invested in it serves the interests of Washcorp.

I propose a different strategy: persuading Plainlanders that Washcorp is totaled. It neither serves their interests, nor is realistically reformable. Their only practical option is to liquidate it. The only practical way to liquidate Washcorp is to spin off its 50 local subdivisions, or "states," by restoring their sovereignty. If the new nations agree to honor Washcorp's financial obligations, the transition can be relatively seamless. The obvious historical analogy is the liquidation of the Soviet Union, which I think most people would agree was a good thing.

For better or worse, Washcorp remains a democracy. If enough of its voters decide that it is totaled, they certainly have the power to liquidate it. In fact, because Washcorp is far more responsive to direct and instantaneous polls than indirect, periodic elections, sufficient public support for liquidation will probably cause it to liquidate itself. The liquidation of the Soviet Union did not follow elections. It preceded them.

Liquidation has one obvious advantage, which is that if it succeeds it is very hard to reverse. Given the historical evolution of Washcorp as it is today from what it was in 1789, I find this advantage quite compelling. Restoring the Old Republic has a nice sound to it, but the Old Republic developed - not without collateral damage - into what we have now.

It also has an obvious disadvantage. The proposition that Washcorp is totaled strikes most Plainlanders today as even more implausible than the proposition that they need to vote for Ron Paul. It seems impractical to persuade more than a small minority of Plainlanders to vote for Ron Paul. Persuading them to liquidate Washcorp must be even harder.

But is it? If you, dear reader, agree that Washcorp is totaled, you must agree that persuading anyone to agree with this proposition means persuading them to agree with the truth. Furthermore, you must agree that persuading Plainlanders to vote for Ron Paul means persuading them to agree with a fiction. Therefore, we must choose between propagating an unlikely fiction, and an even more unlikely truth.

Both problems are hard. But I suspect the latter is easier.

The fact that Washcorp is totaled is not only difficult to grasp, but extremely large. Clearly, it cannot be explained in a TV ad, or any other superficial means of communication. To succeed, this strategy requires a very high percentage of Plainlanders to accept factual propositions that they cannot verify personally, value judgments that contradict their traditional assumptions, and philosophical arguments that they have neither the capacity nor the training to follow.

But the same can be said of their present belief system. To believe that Washcorp is not totaled, a Plainlander must accept numerous unverified facts, judgments and arguments. This process is called trust. It is perfectly normal and healthy.

At present, most Plainlanders feel that Washcorp is a productive institution which serves their interests, and whose occasional errors are correctable. They believe this not because they have thought the question through themselves, but because they have (quite sensibly) delegated it to credible information sources, whom they trust.

Their error is that these organs - press, universities, etc - are not in fact independent of Washcorp. Indeed, they are arguably the most influential power structures within it. At least if we define influence as control over policy, and we define "within" according to reality rather than symbolism.

If this analysis is accurate, Washcorp can be defeated by the following steps:

One: construct an information source more accurate than Washcorp's official organs.

Two: there is no two. If the argument above is correct, the rest will happen on its own.

First, if we are correct that Washcorp is pernicious and irreparable, and our information source is accurate, it must produce the same conclusion.

Granted, the proposition that Washcorp is totaled is not an "objective" result. It is neither a pure matter of fact, like the half-life of carbon-14, nor a product of irrefutable argument, like Darwinian evolution. Like any other meaningful conclusion about human society, it depends on facts, arguments, and subjective judgments. It is not a proof, but a perspective.

However, the same can be said of the proposition that Washcorp is not totaled. Since this proposition is false, it is likely to depend on incorrect facts or invalid arguments, and indeed it does. Refuting these will leave the surprised reader unusually open to new judgments.

There is no reason that a new, more accurate source of facts and arguments cannot also supply this demand. The mainstream organs which Plainlanders trust today produce a vast quantity of perspective, which seems objective only because it is conventional. If our new source can break this trust, it can remove the mainstream's camouflage and compete on a level field.

Therefore, after step one (actually building the new authority), our only problem is to persuade most Plainlanders to accept it as accurate - or, at least, much more accurate than the authorities they presently trust.

Assuming a generally uncensored Internet, this problem solves itself. While most people are not capable of sustained analysis, they are quite capable of assigning personal credibility. If the new authority is genuinely more accurate than the official organs, it will attract the support of the smartest and most credible people in society. As this 1337 attracts followers, the normal forces of intellectual fashion will do the rest.

We are left with step one: creating an accurate information source.

Why do the press and universities produce inaccurate information? The problem is not that their employees are not extremely intelligent, knowledgeable, and even well-intentioned. The problem is that they are also ambitious. Their first deception is always of themselves.

Within the mainstream organs, employees who propagate "progressive" perspectives, which lead Plainlanders to perceive Washcorp as a benign institution whose errors can be corrected, tend to outcompete employees who propagate "reactionary" perspectives, which represent Washcorp as pernicious and incurable. Washcorp creates this Darwinian pressure by subsidizing the universities, supplying the press with informal confidential information (leaks), and forming its policy around the preferences of both (influence). Subsidies, leaks and influence will naturally favor the friends of Washcorp, creating a selective bias. This bias is subtle, but not new. Over time it has produced some quite remarkable perspectives.

Of course, our new authority must be absolutely independent from this system. This means it must ascribe zero trust - neither positive nor negative - to the products of the mainstream. This contradicts Wikipedia's policies. Thus the new authority - which I've called Revipedia - can be expected to contradict Wikipedia. It also has a much harder problem to solve than Wikipedia, because it must examine every question on its merits without trusting authority.

If this problem is solvable, I suspect it can only be solved by deploying the full intellectual capacity of the Internet, and applying it in a structure which is not consensual but adversarial. Revipedia maximizes accuracy and credibility by presenting the strongest arguments, on every controversial subject, from every point of view. Moreover, it presents them separately but comparably, eschewing Wikipedia's unreadable and easily-gamed "he said, she said" style.

Strong arguments can only be produced by editing. A strong system of adversarial arguments demands editors who not only disagree with each other, but do so in a structured and predictable way. An unedited argument, or one edited by unsympathetic editors, is not an argument but a strawman. It adds no credit to its competition. And the difference can only be discerned if the sympathies of the editors are known.

Thus, strong adversarial arguments can only be constructed by a system of formal factions. Nothing of the sort exists at present, either within the mainstream organs or outside them. While this does not demonstrate that this design can create a public information authority of unprecedented accuracy and credibility, it certainly does not refute the proposition.

Furthermore, if there is an error in the argument above (which is certainly quite complex, and largely deductive rather than empirical), it may follow that Washcorp is actually benign, or that it is pernicious but a strong information authority is insufficient to defeat it. However, this does not imply that such an authority is undesirable. It's hard to see how it could be.

Since neither Revipedia nor anything like it exists, I conclude that someone ought to build it. I'm afraid my plate is full. But is yours? Imagine being the Jimbo Wales of the next century. It won't be me. It could be you.

Saturday, January 19, 2008 28 Comments

Revipedia: how to defeat the US government, reprise

As usual there are many excellent comments, some quite critical, on the last post. (I am particularly impressed with Lugo's criticisms, although it's a little unfair because Lugo is whacking me on a subject I punted on - but the observations on the US military are dead right. And TGGP, we love you, but I'm afraid that may have been a typo for "post-sucking moron." I'm still not quite sure what this means, but draw your own conclusions.)

Reading the comments, however, I don't think I was clear enough in describing the information warfare project I proposed. People described it as a "think tank." This is nowhere near what I meant. So let me break the every-Thursday schedule, and put up next week's post today.

Think tanks (such as Cato or LvMI) are all very well. Perhaps we can see them as replacements for the sclerotic university system. It is an unfortunate consequence of the post-1945 Bushian Gleischaltung of the American university that think tanks cannot actually train students, and this is by no means their only defect. However, the thinkiverse does supply a small, but quite useful, dose of intellectual variety to today's Wal-Mart of ideas.

However, a think tank is not actually a project. A think tank sponsors thinkers. It hires them because it thinks they are smart and knowledgeable, and their interests and perspectives coincide with their goals. What it does not do, in general, is tell them what to do. Its work is not designed to produce anything like a product. Or if it is, the product is simply the set of all the papers produced by all the thinkers. This may be useful, but it cannot be coherent.

The administrators of a think tank are not in any sense project managers. They are support staff. All they do is give the thinkers a place to think. (And, presumably, write said thoughts down.) And a think tank does not have an objective. It has a mission - quite a different thing.

Take LvMI, for instance. I'm sure most of the folks at LvMI would be quite delighted to see the last of old Washcorp. However, is defeating the US government the objective of LvMI? Not at all. It has no objective. Rather, its mission is to sponsor Austrian economists and libertarian philosophers, who get a chilly reception in the normal groves, either because they are cranks and whiners, or because they are in possession of inconvenient truths. (Mises and Rothbard spent most of their careers in the academic equivalent of broom closets.)

Perhaps, like me, you are a software engineer. I have never worked at Microsoft, but I have a pretty good idea of how Microsoft works. If I were to be hired at Microsoft, I would be hired in one of two very different departments. One is product development, which gives us glorious gazillion-line cathedrals of code such as Windows and Word. The other is MS Research, which is basically the CS equivalent of a think tank. Ie, it hires PhDs who don't want to teach or can't get a good teaching job, and sponsors their research.

MS Research employs a lot of smart people and I'm sure it's produced something useful, although I can't think of any examples offhand. (Okay, I know one - ClearType - though subpixel rendering is hardly Edison's lightbulb.) If the lack of a PhD did not clinch it, I'm sure that after reading this MS Research would not touch me with a ten-foot pole. Since I would not touch MS product development with a ten-foot pole, I don't think there is a fit. But I digress.

In any case, what I'm imagining is squarely on the product side. It demands not just sagely thought, but actual management. We are not used to thinking of sages as people who can work as part of a team. I'm afraid most sages are not used to thinking this way, either. But I have seen it done and I know it can be done. And if you don't trust me, trust the Manhattan Project.

Let's call the product Revipedia. The purpose of Revipedia is to be like Wikipedia, except that it serves as a reliable source on all topics, no matter how technical or controversial, and no matter how detached from reality the centrist mainstream may be.

If Revipedia can be built, there are two possibilities. Either (a) it will confirm that the centrist mainstream is significantly detached from reality, or (b) it will confirm that it is not. Washcorp, by actively supporting that mainstream, not to mention deprecating and ridiculing its competition, has staked its legitimacy on (b). So (a), if accepted by a sufficient subset of Washcorp's subjects, is sufficient to defeat it.

In other words, (a) by definition convicts USG of the crime of Lysenkoism: propagating a fallacious interpretation of reality as a mechanism of political control.

This is a capital offense. There is no way for a government, or any institution for that matter, to excuse or apologize for Lysenkoism. Like cancer, it must be excised completely. When in doubt, throw it out. There is no good reason for an official monopoly whose modus operandi includes the propagation of misperceptions to continue to exist. If the institution performs other functions which are indeed useful or even essential, it is still probably easiest to liquidate it, and build a replacement from scratch.

Replacing organizations is simple. Purging individuals or subunits from existing ones is impossibly time-consuming, tendentious and pointless. If you wanted to convert Tony Soprano's mob into an actual, legitimate waste management company, what would you do, start by replacing Paulie Walnuts with some guy from McKinsey? When in doubt, throw it out.

Note the difference between institutional mendacity and its far more benign political cousin. Ebola and the common cold are both viruses. There the analogy ends.

Politics is modular by definition. If LBJ or Nixon or Bush or any other democratic politician lies to the American people and gets caught, the latter have a straightforward mechanism by which to replace him with some other lying jackass. This is not a perfect cure for political mendacity, but at least keeps the problem under control. When we combine this with the fact that the entire system greatly exaggerates the power of politicians to affect actual policy, we can see that political lies are little more than a cosmetic defect.

But if the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, every other serious newspaper, every TV station, every public school and every major university, and of course every department of Washcorp proper, choose to present their subjects with bogus information, we have a much more serious problem. Because there is no way you can go to your little voting booth and register your disapproval of these fine institutions. D'oh!

Moreover, if this is the case, we should not expect these institutions to correct themselves. Since any detection of Lysenkoism is delegitimizing, since it is grounds for not merely "reforming" but in fact liquidating the institutions responsible, no one has any conceivable incentive to own up. The optimal strategy is stonewalling - simply because no one can gain anything by defecting, and joining the cranks, whiners and malcontents.

If you believe that this can't happen, or that if it does happen any appearance of the truth will quickly outcompete any conceivable fiction, you believe in (b). That is, you believe that the centrist mainstream is basically providing you with an accurate perspective of reality. Is this the case? Vamos a ver.

Let me share my own small piece of experience in the matter. I know exactly when I lost my faith in the mainstream. It was in August 2004, during the Swift Boat affair. I was perhaps something of a neocon at that time, and so I was plugged in to the vast right-wing conspiracy. At least, I was a regular reader of Power Line, as I still to some extent am.

Reader, there are two links in the above paragraph. I guarantee that if you follow both of them, you will end up in different realities. One of them is real. The other is the Truman Show. Do you have an opinion as to which is which? I do. (If your faith in La Wik remains strong, scroll to the end of this section, then read this. And remember who still refuses to release his military records.)

But this is all after the fact. Because I was plugged into the vast right-wing conspiracy, I was reading about the whole affair, in exceedingly gory detail, well before the counterspin started. I have been reading unauthorized information on the Internet for well over half my life, and I think I am pretty good at distinguishing between reality and crap. And the simple explanation - that Kerry is a blowhard who told tall tales about his sailor days - struck me as compelling.

So I wondered: how will they handle this? What happens when, three months before a presidential election, it comes out that one of the two candidates has publicly prevaricated about his military record? Obviously he will have to drop out of the race. But who else will the Democrats select? And how will they select him? Will they hold an emergency convention? Or will it just be Edwards? I supposed it would probably just be Edwards.

Althouse, whom I don't think I was reading at the time (and still don't - she is a fine writer and has much to say, but she twitters), knew better:
So it seems that Kerry's idea for how to deal with this huge Swift Boat Veterans problem is to churn up a swirly mass of impressions and imputations and then hope that he is the one who looks clean in the end. The Kerry people seem to be hoping that people are too dim to understand that a group of Bush supporters could operate independently or conspiracy-minded enough to think they all coordinate behind the scenes in plain violation of the law. There is a separate point Kerry has made that Bush should openly denounce the ads and that his failure to do so signifies a willingness to reap the advantages they bring him. That's the clean point, but it has been made, and it apparently hasn't done well enough, because we now see the campaign boat steering over the border into right-wing-conspiracy land.
And there it has remained. I never dreamed that the Kerry campaign would be crazy enough to just plain stonewall. I certainly could not have imagined that it would work.

At least, for some values of the word "work." Kerry lost, of course, in a close race. Perhaps the SBVT affair made the difference. But perhaps it actually helped Kerry. Who knows?

But what I mean by "work" is that the Kerry strategy, just as Althouse describes, has entered public memory as the truth. At least, among most thoughtful, reasonable Americans. (Most thoughtful, reasonable Americans voted for Kerry.) And certainly among most professional historians. (Almost all professional historians voted for Kerry.) It has not just entered La Wik and the history books. Via "swiftboating," it has actually entered the English language.

Mindboggling! And this is a tiny, tiny detail in history. Almost nothing turns on it. (Except, of course, the small question of whether you can trust the Computer.) But how confident does this make you - say - that what you know about Joseph McCarthy is accurate?

Click that link, too. It's interesting. I have read the Evans book. I can't really recommend it, mainly because it is a work of polemic, not of history. Evans did a lot of archival work and his notes, I'm sure, will be of use to any real historian who wants to study the period. But his subtitle rather gives the game away. I trust his results as far as they go, but I don't trust Evans to include any bit of evidence he might find that would suggest to the reader that McCarthy was, in fact, a major-league asswipe.

Since I strongly suspect that, whatever the truth of his "fight against America's enemies," McCarthy was a major-league asswipe, I remain unsatisfied. Evans' book does convince me quite effectively that McCarthy's enemies were at least as unscrupulous as anything you've ever heard about McCarthy himself - eg, from La Wik. From what I know of Washcorp, this is hardly a surprise. (And if the subject interests you, you may enjoy this reviewer exchange.)

The McCarthy drama is a far bigger, far more complex story than anything involving John Kerry. And, as we see, it remains quite debatable. How about, say, the Civil War? Lately I've enjoyed some of the writings of Charles Francis Adams, James Randall, Claude Bowers, William Dunning, and Benjamin Hill on the period. I believe I've previously recommended Edgar Lee Masters, Albert Beveridge, and of course John Burgess. Suffice it to say that the mid-to-late 19th century as described by these gentlemen has little or nothing in common with the reality purveyed by La Wik or other reputable contemporary sources. And yet they were there - or at least knew people who were. Talk about the Old Reckoning...

And this is just history. We have not even started on economics. Or the art of government. Or human biology. Or climatology. Heresies abound! Are they right? Are they wrong? Who the hell can tell? Quit trusting authority, and you are alone on a black sea in a black night. The truth is out there. But you have not a thousandth of the time, money, or mind you would need to find it on your own.

And every one of these fields, and many more, affect the profit and power of Washcorp. Because you vote, your judgment of them matters. And as we have seen over and over and over again, Washcorp has motive, propensity and opportunity to manage that judgment in directions favorable to itself. Nor does such management require any central planning or "conspiracy." All it would take is a thumb on the scale in the marketplace of ideas. Which does not, of course, prove that any such thumb exists.

The other day I was bowled over by a simply stupendous book: Chronicles of Wasted Time, the autobiography of Malcolm Muggeridge. (Only the first volume, The Green Stick, is essential.) Please allow me to quote at length from this book. It is not famous. It should be. Page 19:
'I desire to set before my fellows the likeness of a man in all truth of nature, and that man myself,' Rousseau begins his Confessions, and then proceeds to construct a vast, serpentine edifice of lies and fantasies. The hazards in the way of telling the truth are, indeed, very great. Seeking it, one can so easily become enmeshed in lies; 'A truth that's told with bad intent / Beats all the lies you can invent,' Blake wrote. Every man the centre of his own universe; insensibly, we sub-edit as we go along, to produce headlines, cross-heads, a story line most favourable to our egos. How indestructible, alas, is that ego! Thinking to have struck it down once and for all, I find its hissing cobra-head lifted again, deathless.

Yet even so, truth is very beautiful; more so, as I consider, than justice - to-day's pursuit - which easily puts on a false face. In the nearly seven decades I have lived through, the world has overflowed with bloodshed and explosions whose dust has never had time to settle before others have erupted; all in purportedly just causes. The quest for justice continues, and the weapons and the hatred pile up; but truth was an early casualty. The lies on behalf of which our wars have been fought and our peace treaties concluded! The lies of revolution and of counter-revolution! The lies of advertising, of news, of salesmanship, of politics! The lies of the priest in his pulpit, the professor at his podium, the journalist at his typewriter! The lie stuck like a fish-bone in the throat of the microphone, the hand-held lies of the prowling cameraman! Ignazio Silone told me once how, when he was a member of the old Comintern, some stratagem was under discussion, and a delegate, a newcomer who had never attended before, made the extraordinary observation that if such and such a statement were to be put out, it wouldn't be true. There was a moment of dazed silence, and then everyone began to laugh. They laughed and laughed until tears ran down their cheeks and the Kremlin walls seemed to shake. The same laughter echoes in every council chamber and cabinet room, wherever two or more are gathered together to exercise authority. It is truth that has died, not God.

I often wonder how, in such circumstances, it will ever be possible to know anything at all about the people and the happenings of our times. Such masses and masses of documentation! Statistics without end, data of every kind, eye-witness accounts, miles and miles of film, video abounding. Surely out of all this, posterity, if so desiring, will be able to reconstruct us and our lives. But will they? I think of Sidney and Beatrice Webb [Muggeridge married Beatrice's niece] down at Passfield, patiently collecting and collating every scrap of information they could lay hands on about the Soviet regime. Travelling about the USSR to the same end. As experienced investigators, so rigorous and careful. And the result? - a monumental folly, a volume of fantasy compared with which Casanova's Memoirs, Frank Harris's even, are sober and realistic. Or I think of the messages of Our Own Correspondents, here, there and everywhere, and of all the different factors which shape them and slant them and confection them. I remember the yellow ticker-tape piling up in my office at the Washington National Press Building, and delving into it to pull out a nugget to whisk off on my own account to New York and London. Will this be much help to posterity? I doubt it. Comment is free, but news is sacred, was C.P. Scott's great dictum for The Guardian. Yes, but whose news?
This Life's dim Windows of the Soul
Distorts the Heavens from Pole to Pole
And leads you to Believe a Lie
When you see with, not thro', the Eye.
There never have been such adepts at seeing with, rather than through, the eye, as the purveyors of Scott's sacred news; inducing their readers, all too willingly, to believe a multitude of lies.

Or, again, I think of a camera crew on the job. Sound recordist and cameraman umbilically linked as they back away from their commentator, sedately walking and communing; their producer anxiously hovering behind to prevent them from stumbling and falling. Moving with a kind of pas-de-deux step, rather like a matador approaching his bull. Are they holding a mirror up to nature? Cinema vérité or falsité? Where's the plastic grass? Or, as I once saw written on a can of film - surely the perfect celluloid epitaph: 'Dawn for dusk.' The eye is the window of the soul; film an iron-shutter, says Kafka. On the day that Harold Wilson became Prime Minister for the first time, I happened to be in Chicago, and stood in Michigan Avenue with a camera crew and a microphone asking passers-by what they thought about him and our change of government. To my great satisfaction, I was unable to find anyone, old or young, black or white, smart or stupid, who had heard of the event or cared anything about it. Behind where I was questioning them, up above the Tribune Building, there was one of those devices whereby news flashes by in fiery letters. Every minute or so it repeated: DOUGLAS-HOME RESIGNS... HAROLD WILSON NEW BRITISH PREMIER... A fine background to cut to! In Moscow when the great purges were on, some moon-faced Intourist, trying in good liberal style to be fair to both sides, asked one of the British newspaper correspondents there - A.T. Cholerton of the Daily Telegraph - whethe the accusations against the Old Bolsheviks were true. Yes, Cholerton told him, everything was true, except the facts. It fits, not just the purges and Moscow, but the whole mid-twentieth-century scene. Perhaps some astronaut, watching from afar the final incineration of our earth, may care to write it across the stratosphere: Everything true except the facts.

Yet again, supposing a wish on the part of posterity to know what some of our great ones were really like. John F. Kennedy, say. In the archive, trainloads of material. Photographs and profiles without end; abundance of tape, both video and sound. We can show you him smiling, walking, talking. On stage and off, as it were; relaxing with his family, addressing the nation, eating, dozing, praying. We have his jokes, we know the books he read; you can see and hear him delivering his great speeches, or fooling with his kids. You can pretty well see him being assassinated; you can see his assassin being assassinated. What more do you want? Isn't that the man, the whole man, and nothing but the man? Well, not quite. It's like a nightmare I once had. I was calling on someone I loved dearly; the door open, the kettle boiling, a chair drawn up to the fire, spectacles laid beside it. But no one there. Maybe upstairs. With growing anxiety I climb the stairs. Not in the bedroom, though clothes are scattered about; not in the bathroom, though it's still moist and misty from a bath recently taken. Downstairs again; really terrified now. Maybe gone to post a letter. To exercise the dog. Listening for every footstep, starting at every sound, the tension becomes unbearable, and I wake up. In the same sort of way, the methods of representation include every detail, leaving out only the person to be represented. In a sense, they're too perfect. Simulation becomes what it simulates; the image becomes the man. In Kennedy's case, even his signature was done for him by a machine which so exactly reproduced the hand signing his name that experts cannot distinguish between the real signature and the mechanical ones. In the excitement and distress of the Dallas tragedy, no one remembered to turn the machine off. So the President went on signing genial, 'personalized' letters after he was dead.

In this Sargasso Sea of fantasy and fraud, how can I or anyone else hope to swim unencumbered? How see with, not through, the eye? How take off my own motley, wash away the make-up, raise the iron shutter, put out the studio lights, silence the sound effects and put the cameras to sleep? Watch the sun rise on Sunset Boulevard, and set over Forest Lawn? Find furniture among the studio props, silence in a discotheque, love in a strip-tease? Read truth off an autocue, catch it on a screen, chase it on the wings of Muzak? View it in living color with the news, hear it in living sound along the motorways? Not in the wind that rent the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks; not in the earthquake that followed, nor in the fire that followed the earthquake. In a still small voice. Not in the screeching of tyres, either, or in the grinding of brakes; not in the roar of the jets or the whistle of sirens; not in the howl of trombones, the rattle of drums or the chanting of demo voices. Again, that still small voice - if only one could catch it.
Typically when I start to write this way it means I've had a glass of wine, or three. But I still think it's pretty good. Trust me - the book has actual content, as well.

Revipedia is not, of course, a magic oracle. It is a tool to help you, the curious and intelligent person, find that still small voice. Here's how it works. It's really quite simple.

Revipedia - or at least my idea of what Revipedia should be - is best seen as a cross between Wikipedia, Climate Audit, and Uberfact.

According to most scientists, 98% of the facts in Wikipedia are true. Studies have shown that 90% of the rest are accidental errors, vandalism, or other mistakes of the sort that La Wik is designed to correct. Thus precisely 0.2% of Wikipedia pages are contaminated with Lysenkoism, ie, politically constructed distortions derived from "sacred news." Sadly, this is more than enough.

Of course, since Wikipedia is not at all immune to Conquest's second law (every organization not explicitly reactionary tends to become progressive), and since all serious and effective Lysenkoism in the modern era is progressive, this percentage will tend to increase. Now that La Wik is much more than a toy, she wields real power. And power attracts reptiles.

Wikipedia is not a toy, but it succeeded because it started as a toy. It established a pool of amateur, dilettante administrators who, by and large, were foolish enough to care only for the truth. This is very nice, and I personally have found it quite useful. But it is not sustainable.

Banal as these old chiralisms are, the fundamental difference between the modern left and the modern right is that the left is the party of victory, and the right is the party of defeat. In the history of the last two centuries, it is almost impossible to find any issue on which the right has stood and won. Even the exceptions, such as the revival of capitalism in the last few decades, have served the greater interests of the left. Without Thatcher, there could be no Blair. There was no future in the Winter of Discontent.

"Conservatism," so called, is a bargain that trades personal success for substantive destruction. It produces jobs for quacks, each with some patent remedy against the wind of change. No such remedy has ever worked, but the Laetrile market is eternal. And perhaps conservatives have helped here and there in holding us back from Niagara, or at least shored up the barrel staves. In exchange, however, they have deceived us about the true nature of power in our society. Your mileage may vary, but I find this bargain dubious at best. The unfortunate truth, in my extremely dodgy opinion, is that the only way our civilization can survive leftism is to abolish it completely - along with the political structures that inevitably spawn it. This is not a conservative attitude but a reactionary one, and I see no choice but to accept the label.

So, to a reactionary, Wikipedia is a dangerous ally indeed. However, given the 98% of it that is true, and the vast quantity of human labor that went into constructing that 98%, Revipedia needs to bootstrap as a Wikipedia mirror. When you use Revipedia, every page that has no Revipedia revision just redirects to La Wik. Of course it appears marked as such, to indicate its generally low trust level.

(Note the difference between a mirror and a fork. A mirror remains live and propagates updates, ideally instantaneously. Sadly, not only does La Wik lack any proper data API, provide no diffs but only dumps, and only on a ridiculous every-two-months schedule, she actually goes out of her way to block live mirrors. Perhaps there are some good reasons for this. I can also think of plenty of bad ones. Her image dump is also broken, which is simply unacceptable. Probably the easiest way to fix this would be to fix La Wik herself, if she cares to be fixed. Hey, I said this would take real money.)

Furthermore, when it creates its revised pages, Revipedia tries wherever possible to use the Wikipedia namespace. For example, imagine what the GNXP crowd would do to the scientific racism page, or Climate Audit to the temperature record of the last 1000 years, or LvMI to fractional-reserve banking. Of course, if needed Revipedia can create de novo, but La Wik would have to be very tricky to sustain Lysenkoism based only on devious categorization. Sharing the namespace also helps limit fork conflicts, which are always a problem.

But anyone can edit Wikipedia, right? So why don't they do what they want to do now? Who needs this Revipedia thing?

Yes, anyone can edit Wikipedia. (Annoyed by a particularly horrendous Gouldian fiction, I myself slipped a reference to Gray & Thompson 2004 into the "scientific racism" page, where it looks rather odd but seems to have lasted - knock on wood.) In practice, however, most serious editing in Wikipedia is done by Wikipedians, who by definition are people with the patience to withstand and win edit wars. Most of us are not Wikipedians and will never be Wikipedians. It appears to be quite the time sink.

And once more, as that last link points out: Wikipedia is founded on the principle that an open system can produce quality, neutral encyclopedic content. This "principle" may well be true, and it has certainly proved more or less true up till now.

However, it is fatally dependent on the policy of no original research. Which is a perfectly good policy, except that it in turn is fatally dependent on the policy of reliable sources. Which leads us straight to the arms of the foe:
In general, the most reliable sources are peer-reviewed journals and books published in university presses; university-level textbooks; magazines, journals, and books published by respected publishing houses; and mainstream newspapers. As a rule of thumb, the more people engaged in checking facts, analyzing legal issues, and scrutinizing the writing, the more reliable the publication.
This second sentence is especially fascinating. It is perhaps the principal erroneous belief of modern democracy. If you believe that the more people believe X, the more likely X is to be true, you are a demotist by definition. Demotists distrust anything individual, but especially individual decisions, which they hate like the Devil hates garlic. The universal organizational panacea of 20th-century society is the committee. No wonder its buildings were so ugly.

Against this great tide of consensus, I have only two words: one is groupthink, and two is this word. And if you think Citizendium is an even better idea, follow these two links. Paging Dr. Lysenko! Trofim Lysenko to the white courtesy phone? I Risch my case.

So the goal of Revipedia is clear: produce a coherent picture of reality by selective, external revision of Wikipedia. Revipedia does not edit - it audits. It digs as deeply into the facts as is needed to demonstrate the truth. It supplies whatever subjective perspective is necessary to convey the whole truth of the matter. It takes nothing for granted, and it has no mercy.

By its very nature, auditing is not an open and unstructured process. If nothing else, to survive Conquest's second law, Revipedia must be explicitly reactionary. Since the masses fear and loathe reaction and reactionaries, the masses are not welcome.

However, there is a small problem: to defeat Washcorp, we must capture the support of the masses. Obviously, Revipedia is no private club - anyone can read it. But can anyone write it?

Yes. But in Revipedia, the distinction between editorial staff and mere users is clear. Nothing that presents itself as a truth machine can possibly succeed without some sort of crowdsourcing. But inviting the masses is one thing. Surrendering to them is another.

At first, the only people who will care about Revipedia are other reactionaries, who will simply be happy to have a place to go where everyone agrees with them. As long as they are edited by reactionary administrators, to prevent any progressive slippage, these readers will be just as valuable as Wikipedia's, and the community will grow in the same way - although it will, of course, be much smaller. Reaction is not for everyone. At least, not at first.

So Revipedia is still much like Wikipedia. But its source policy is very different.

First, no source which does not provide open, online access is meaningful. A "link" to an ISBN number is garbage. You might as well say "I read it somewhere." If the source is not freely available, it cannot be publicly scrutinized and it cannot contribute to an audit. Not only is this policy essential to any fair pursuit of truth, it benefits from the avalanche of pre-1922 content that Google has blessed us with. This lends a wonderful reactionary bias to the whole effort. 1922 is actually quite progressive by the standards of 1822, but it will do.

Second, no source is trusted on the basis of authority, either personal or institutional. It can only be judged on its own merits. So what if people come to you with crackpot physics? I can't recognize crackpot physics, but any decent physicist can. There is no substitute for administrators.

Third, all sources need to be mirrored, so that links don't break. Disk space is cheap. Truth is expensive. As I said: real money.

And finally, as Revipedia becomes influential, it will develop enemies. This is good. Adversaries are both a sign of success and a necessity for eventual victory. Revipedia greets them with flowers, and invites them to contribute.

But not, of course, without identifying themselves as such. Contributors to Revipedia come into two broad, voluntary alignments: friends and opponents. Within these parties, an uberfactious design can create an arbitrarily deep and complex hierarchy of cults and clans.

The presence of adversaries is essential to the production of truth. It demonstrates that all claims are tested. When you look at a Revipedia page, you can click a tab and see any or all hostile responses. Adversaries can and should develop editorial and administrative structure to make their responses as effective and convincing as possible. A situation in which edited content competes with illiterate drive-by peanut-gallery taunts is not a fair fight.

Ideally, in a healthy and successful ecology, the original Revipedia admins become just one faction among many. Like any other faction, they may splinter. Progressives, Scientologists, creationists, Moonies and other nutjobs all come with their own revisions of reality. As long as an authentic reactionary perspective is available, it needs no special distinction. The truth has a still small voice of its own. If you can only hear it, you'll find yourself listening.

As usual, I've registered the domain and will give it to anyone who is seriously interested.