Every One of Your Actions Sets a Precedent

I wonder whether scientists like Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer had any inkling in their youth that their work in physics would one day be used to produce nuclear weapons.

Yet by cooperating with the government that produced these weapons, these men (even Einstein, more indirectly) created the forces that could destroy all life on earth. And they made it easier for more scientists to come to cooperate in the refinement of nuclear weapons and other terrible tools.

Most of us may not live (as they did) to see the long-range results of our actions turn into something quite as bad as atomic weapons. But I’m convinced of the idea that every action we take sets a precedent for how other humans behave. And every action we take brings us closer to or takes us further from our worst nightmares.

If we do a bad job in our work, other people will tend to a bad job in theirs. It doesn’t take long until our world is full of shoddy work.

If we lie, other people will find it easier to lie (and harder to tell the truth). It won’t be long before no one’s word can be trusted in our world.

If we cooperate with tyranny, other people will find it easier to cooperate with tyranny. We shouldn’t be surprised if tyranny takes over.

These changes are slow, but they spread pretty inexorably among people who aren’t awake to the significance of their actions.

The macro problems of 50 or 100 years from now – the breakdown of families, climate change, erosion of individual freedom, what have you – will spring out of behavioral precedents we set now. So in case we needed another reminder to “do unto others” as we would have them do unto us, this is it.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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The Roots of Inertia

Why don’t low-skilled workers try harder to better their condition?  While this might seem a neoliberal question, it weighs on Barbara Ehrenreich’s mind:

I was baffled, initially, by what seemed like a certain lack of get-up-and-go on the part of my fellow workers. Why didn’t they just leave for a better-paying job, as I did when I moved from the Hearthside to Jerry’s?

She starts with some textbook economic answers.  There’s transaction costs:

Part of the answer is that actual humans experience a little more “friction” than marbles do, and the poorer they are, the more constrained their mobility usually is. Low-wage people who don’t have cars are often dependent on a relative who is willing to drop them off and pick them up again each day, sometimes on a route that includes the babysitter’s house or the child care center… I have mentioned, too, the general reluctance to exchange the devil you know for one that you don’t know, even when the latter is tempting you with a better wage-benefit package. At each new job, you have to start all over, clueless and friendless.

And information costs:

There is another way that low-income workers differ from “economic man.” For the laws of economics to work, the “players” need to be well informed about their options…

But there are no Palm Pilots, cable channels, or Web sites to advise the low-wage job seeker. She has only the help-wanted signs and the want ads to go on, and most of these coyly refrain from mentioning numbers. So information about who earns what and where has to travel by word of mouth, and for inexplicable cultural reasons, this is a very slow and unreliable route…

Soon, however, she appeals to industrial psychology.  Employers win workers hearts and minds – what Ehrenreich calls, “the co-optative power of management, illustrated by such euphemisms as associate and team member.”  And don’t forget learned helplessness:

Drug testing is another routine indignity. Civil libertarians see it as a violation of our Fourth Amendment freedom from “unreasonable search”; most jobholders and applicants find it simply embarrassing…

There are other, more direct ways of keeping low-wage employees in their place. Rules against “gossip,” or even “talking,” make it hard to air your grievances to peers or-should you be so daring-to enlist other workers in a group effort to bring about change, through a union organizing drive, for example. Those who do step out of line often face little unexplained punishments, such as having their schedules or their work assignments unilaterally changed. Or you may be fired…

The big picture, though, is that the capitalist system breaks workers’ spirits:

So if low-wage workers do not always behave in an economically rational way, that is, as free agents within a capitalist democracy, it is because they dwell in a place that is neither free nor in any way democratic. When you enter the low-wage workplace-and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well- you check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift. The consequences of this routine surrender go beyond the issues of wages and poverty. We can hardly pride ourselves on being the world’s preeminent democracy, after all, if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to a dictatorship.

The obvious response to all of these stories, however, is: “Why don’t the same factors prevent high-skill workers from trying to better their condition?”  Let’s consider each in turn.

Transaction costs.  While high-skilled workers have fewer problems with transportation and child-care, they also have much more specific skills.  This seriously impedes job search.  To find a new job, most nuclear engineers – and many professors – would have to not just sell their homes, but move to a new city.  The high-skilled are also more likely to be in two-earner families, which makes relocation doubly disruptive.

Information costs.  Firms often publicly advertise low-skilled wages.  This is much less true for high-skilled jobs.

Hearts and minds.  High-skilled workers seem much more likely to identify with their employer – and to define themselves in terms of their work.

Learned helplessness.  Again, the indignities required for starting a high-skilled job probably exceed those for low-skilled employment, especially if you’re a government contractor.  Once hired, however, the petty indignities high-skill workers endure are admittedly lower.  (Here’s why).

The capitalist system. Almost no employer cares for kvetching, but high-skill workers probably feel freer to speak up on the job.  Off the job, however, they are probably more worried about offending bosses, co-workers, or clients.  Who cares what a waiter posts on Facebook?  In any case, why should lack of voice reduce enthusiasm for exit?

So why then don’t low-skill workers try harder to better their condition?  All of Ehrenreich’s answers prove too much.  The better story is simply that there is a distribution of desire to better your condition.  In short, human beings have heterogeneous ambition. Some burn to rise; others take life as it comes; most lie somewhere in the middle.  And though mere desire hardly ensures success, ambition usually works in the long-run.  The more you want to better your condition, the better your condition eventually tends to become.

Like Ehrenreich’s story, my story explains why low-skill workers seem “stuck.”  Unlike her, however, I can also explains why high-skill workers seem mobile.  In short, what my “heterogeneous ambition” story lacks in Social Desirability Bias, it makes up for by explaining mobility and inertia, rather than inertia alone.

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The Great Successor: Inside North Korea

I highly recommend Anna Fifield’s The Great Successor.  It’s full of information about not only the life of Kim Jong Un, but what’s happened inside North Korea since his ascent to the Red Throne.  Most readers will be shocked by her description of the North Korean hell-state, but that’s all old hat to me.  Here’s what surprised me in Fifield’s book:

1. Kim Jong Un didn’t just attend a fancy English-language school in Switzerland.  After his expat guardians – his maternal aunt and her husband – defected, Kim was actually switched over to a German-language Swiss public school.  Weird.

2. Kim’s top interest as a boy was basketball.  His eagerness to befriend American basketball stars really is the fulfillment of a childish dream.

3. “Kim Jong Il spoke in public only once, and then only a single phrase, during his entire seventeen years in power.  ‘Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean People’s Army!’ he said during a military parade in 1992.”  Kim Jong Un started giving lengthy public speeches almost immediately.

4. Kim Jong Un has deliberately fostered a revolution of rising expectations:

North Koreans “will never have to tighten their belts again,” the Great Successor declared when he delivered his first public speech, marking the occasion of his grandfather’s one hundredth birthday.  Kim Jong Un told the bedraggled populace that they would be able to “enjoy the wealth and prosperity of socialism as much as they like.”

5. Kim’s execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek was part of a much larger purge.  “Dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of Jang’s associates disappeared around the same time.  Some of them were not just purged from the system but more likely executed.  Those outside North Korea at the time fled.”  Note: This probably means that the runners’ families were sent to slave labor camps or executed.

6. Just as Stalin stole Trotsky’s economic plan after purging him, Kim went on to implement Jang’s vision of watered-down Deng-style economic reforms.  The Communist elite now openly enjoys a much higher standard of living.  Some of this gain is trickling down to the commoners.

7. Kim Jong Un is eager to win over the millennial elite with capitalist luxuries and entertainment.  “It was fun to be a rich kid in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea.  The richest kid of all was making sure of it.”

8. Kim rushed to get a credible nuclear deterrent, then declared himself satisfied.  And his behavior seems consistent with his intentions.

Just a week before his summit meeting with South Korea’s President Moon, Kim Jong Un delivered a speech to a Workers’ Party meeting in Pyongyang in which he declared the “byungjin” or “simultaneous advance” policy to be over.  He no longer needed to pursue nuclear weapons – he had achieved them.  He declared an immediate end to nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missiles launches…

From now on, Kim Jong Un said, he would be focusing on a “new strategic line.”  He would be concentrating on the economy.  And for that, he would need an “international environment favorable for the socialist economic construction…

In 2013, he had boldly elevated the economy to level pegging with the nuclear program after decades of “military first” policy.  Five years later, almost to the day, he was unequivocally making economic development his top priority.

Before reading this book, I was already 85% confident that Kim Jong Un would rule North Korea for life.  Now I’d go up to 90%.  Despite his youth, he’s a skilled tyrant.  However, I’m not quite as pessimistic about the fate of the North Korean people.  Kim has dramatically relaxed the regime’s war on consumerism, and it is very hard to confine this rising abundance to the inner circle.  People who think Kim will give up his nuclear arsenal are dreaming (or lying); while he lives, the best nuclear outcome we can hope for is “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”  Kim may die young due to poor health; he might even be assassinated, though I doubt it.  When he dies, North Korea – and the world – will get to throw the dice one more time.  Until his death, however, Kim will stay the course.

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Trump and Netanyahu: “Mutual Defense” or Just Mutual Political Back-Scratching?

On September 14, US president Donald Trump tweeted (of course) the suggestion of a US-Israel “Mutual Defense Treaty,” citing a call with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Hopefully there’s less going on here than meets the eye: The tweet may just be another mutual publicity back-scratch of the type Trump and Netanyahu frequently exchange when they find themselves in political pickles. And Netanyahu is likely in the biggest such pickle of his career.

After failing to put together a ruling coalition in the wake of April’s general election, Netanyahu called another election for September 17.

Netanyahu also faces imminent indictment on three corruption charges, with a court hearing on the charges scheduled for early October. In June, his wife Sara took a plea deal and paid a fine for misusing state funds.

Netanyahu’s personal future may well depend on him having a political future. He’s pulling out all stops to change the April results, from approving new Israeli squats (“settlements”) in, and even promising to annex parts of, the occupied West Bank, to conducting military attacks in Syria and Iraq and along the Lebanese border.

Talk of a “Mutual Defense Treaty” with the US may well drive some badly needed votes his way, especially to the extent that such a treaty might be thought available only to Netanyahu and his Likud Party but not to Benny Gantz’s Blue and White alliance (the platform of which, by the way, bars indicted politicians from serving in the Knesset, Israel’s legislature).

So maybe Trump’s tweet is just politics. But if it’s for real, it’s a bad idea for the US, a bad idea for Israel, and a bad idea for world peace.

The US doesn’t need Israel’s assistance to defend itself. It already spends far more than any other state in the world on its military,  that amount is many multiples of any amount reasonably related to actual defense, and it faces no existential military threats other than attack with nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, which Israel couldn’t plausibly reduce.

Israel hasn’t faced a military threat to its existence since 1973, and given the web of US-influenced and US-financed relations it’s created with Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, isn’t likely to face any such threat not of its own making for the foreseeable future .

As for peace in general, Trump proposes a “Mutual Defense” pact with a rogue nuclear garrison ethno-state in a tinderbox region. What could possibly go wrong?

A “Mutual Defense Treaty” with the US would only encourage further bad behavior and saber-rattling on the part of the Israelis toward e.g. Iran and Syria. That’s the kind of behavior bound to eventually CREATE a real military threat, resulting in the Israelis demanding US support pursuant to the treaty, on a claim of “Mom, he hit me back FIRST.”

It’s time for the US to start furling its post-World War Two “security umbrella” instead of inviting suspect new partners to join it beneath that umbrella. America’s future, if it is to have one, requires a non-interventionist foreign policy.

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War in All But Name as US State Department Offers Bribes to Pirates

If at first you don’t succeed, spread some money around. The Financial Times reports that the US State Department is offering cash bribes to captains of Iranian ships if they sail those ships into ports where the US government can seize them.

The offers are funded from a “Rewards for Justice” program authorizing payouts of up to $15 million for “counter-terrorism” purposes. It’s  not about counter-terrorism, though. It’s about doubling down on US President Donald Trump’s decision to violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, usually called the “Iran Nuclear Deal.”

The other parties to the deal —  especially France, the UK, and Germany — don’t want to let the deal go, but also don’t want to enrage Trump by violating the unilateral sanctions he’s imposed on Iran. The Iranians, on the other hand, have made it clear that unless those other countries find ways to deliver meaningful sanctions relief, they’re abandoning the deal too. They’ve started taking concrete steps in that direction.

On July 4 — Independence Day in the United States — members of the United Kingdom’s Royal Marines boarded an Iranian oil tanker, the Grace 1, off the coast of Gibraltar. They seized ship, crew, and cargo in an act of open piracy.

The pretext for the seizure was that selling oil to Syria violates European Union sanctions. But neither Iran nor Syria are EU member states, and the tanker was taken in international “transit passage” waters. That’s like giving a speeding ticket to a driver in Hungary for violating  Kazakhstan’s speed limits.

Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell, plausibly asserted that the seizure was requested by the US government. The ship was released after Iran agreed that the oil would not go to Syria (its whereabouts and destination remain unknown as of this writing).

In the meantime, a US court had issued a seizure warrant — for an Iranian vessel, carrying Iranian oil, to a non-US destination, clearly outside any reasonable definition of US jurisdiction. And the Iranians had hijacked a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz in reprisal for the taking of Grace 1.

So now the US State Department is reduced to simple bribery in its attempts to clean up after Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to get the US out of the “nuclear deal.”

Under the deal, the Iranians went beyond their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to “end” a nuclear weapons program which the US intelligence community didn’t even believe existed. All they got out of it was some relief from sanctions that should never have been imposed, and the return of some money stolen by the US government decades ago. All the US got out of it was an empty propaganda victory.

But electoral politics required Trump to throw even that tiny trophy away. He had to either promise foreign policy belligerence SOMEWHERE or risk establishment mockery as a peacenik. Enter the Israeli lobby and Sheldon Adelson’s millions. Iran drew the short straw.

So did we. This is war in all but name and only likely to escalate as Election 2020 draws nigh.

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Asymmetrical Warfare and 4GW: How Militia Groups are America’s Domestic Viet Cong

It is interesting to hear certain kinds of people insist that the citizen cannot fight the government. This would have been news to the men of Lexington and Concord, as well as the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. The citizen most certainly can fight the government, and usually wins when he tries. Organized national armies are useful primarily for fighting against other organized national armies. When they try to fight against the people, they find themselves at a very serious disadvantage. If you will just look around at the state of the world today, you will see that the guerrillero has the upper hand. Irregulars usually defeat regulars, providing they have the will. Such fighting is horrible to contemplate, but will continue to dominate brute strength.

Col. Jeff Cooper

When one discusses the real reason for the Second Amendment – the right of citizens to defend themselves against a potentially tyrannical government – inevitably someone points out the stark difference in firepower between a guerrilla uprising in the United States and the United States government itself.

This is not a trivial observation. The U.S. government spends more on the military than the governments of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, United Kingdom, and Japan combined. Plus, the potential of a tyrannical government is arguably upon us – with the federal government spying on its own citizensmilitarizing local police departments with equipment and tactics from the War on Terror, and repeatedly searching Americans, which desensitizes them to this invasive process.

There is much historical precedent, however, for guerrilla uprisings defeating more powerful enemies. For instance, the Cold War saw both superpowers brought to their knees by rural farmers – for the Soviets, their adventure in Afghanistan against the Mujahideen, and for the United States, the Vietnam War against the Viet Cong.

In both cases, nuclear weapons could have been used against the guerrilla uprising, but were not. Even assuming the use of nuclear weapons from the position of total desperation, it’s hard to imagine they would have made much of a difference in the final outcome of either conflict. Unlike the invading armies, the local resistance enjoyed both broad-based support as well as knowledge of the local terrain.

Now imagine such a scenario in the United States. You wouldn’t be the first person to do so. From Red Dawn to James Wesley, Rawles’ Patriots series, there is a relatively long-standing tradition of American survival literature about the hoi polloi resisting the tyranny of big government, either before or after a collapse.

For the purposes of this article, consider what a domestic American terrorist or freedom fighter (after all, the label is in the eye of the beholder) organization based on the militia movement would look like in open revolt against the United States government. In the spirit of levity, we’ll call them the “Hillbilly Viet Cong.” They would most likely find their largest numbers in Appalachia, but don’t discount their power in the American Redoubt, or the more sparsely populated areas of the American Southwest, including rural Texas.

Here we have tens of thousands of Americans armed to the teeth with combat experience, deep family ties to both the police and the military, extensive knowledge of the local geography, and, in many cases, survivalist training. Even where they are not trained, militant and active, they enjoy broad support among those who own a lot of guns and grow a lot of food.

On the other side, you have the unwieldy Baby Huey of the rump U.S. government’s military, with some snarky BuzzFeed editorials serving as propaganda.

Could the Hillbilly Viet Cong take down the USG? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s difficult to imagine that the USG could take them down.

Indeed, even with a number of nasty little toys on the side of the federal government, we live in an age of a technologically levelled playing field. This is true even when it comes to instruments of warfare. While the USG has nuclear weapons, it’s worth remembering that a pound of C4 strapped to a cheap and readily available commercial-grade drone is going to break a lot of dishes.

This sort of guerrilla insurgency has a name: It’s called fourth-generational warfare (4GW), and you might be surprised to learn that you already live in this world.

Continue reading Asymmetrical Warfare and 4GW: How Militia Groups are America’s Domestic Viet Cong at Ammo.com.

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