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  • A Compendium of Useful Reminders to be Consulted in Moments of Confusion

    Posted by Jay Manifold on June 1st, 2014 (All posts by )

    Judging by what I see communicated by many of my longtime friends, there are a whole lot of confused people out there these days. Here is a helpful list for them:

    1. Only a small minority of projects, even in relatively successful organizations in highly competitive industries, deliver their promised scope, on time, within budget. A large majority are drastically scaled back, incur huge cost overruns, deliver years later than intended, or are canceled outright. Anything nefarious either fails or is publicized by whistle-blowers or investigators. There are no secret, vast criminal enterprises pulling the wool over the eyes of the populace, and the best-known entities in society, both public and private, can be astonishingly inept.
    2. Large publicly-funded initiatives, other than those intimately connected to the physical survival of the societies in which they are undertaken, are quite likely to be mainly for show, irrespective of their supposedly spectacular significance. The current American example is the ACA, which has not resulted (and almost certainly will not result) in either greater insurance coverage or lower costs, is notoriously not a fully government-operated, “single-payer” system, and has no pathway to lead to one. None of this matters; indeed, many of its provisions, if they ever go into effect, will do so only after the current Administration has departed from the scene. All that matters is that its perpetrators get to claim to have passed “historic” legislation ostensibly providing “universal” health care. For an example from an earlier generation, see the Space Shuttle, which was supposed to fly 50-60 times per year at $5.5 million per launch. The actual flight rate hovered around a tenth of what was promised, and each launch cost nearly a hundred times the original projection. Hilariously, President Obama is now being criticized for ending this, even though it was collapsing from its own weight and consisted mainly of workfare jobs in Republican congressional districts.
    3. Notwithstanding phenomena like the above, the United States is probably the most successful large-population country in the world due to its sheer realism, in particular the relative openness and process orientation of English common law, which (to quote myself) “rather than construct elegant theories and then shoehorn (or bludgeon) societies into an unchanging mold,” exhibits “a willingness to work with the world and human nature as it is.”
    4. Even ignoring the fantastic technological advances, quality of life in the US has improved immensely in the past two decades. Social pathologies have plummeted. The rates of some categories of crime are down 90%, to all-time recorded lows. There are now fewer abortions per capita than at the time of Roe v Wade. Probably three-quarters of Americans live in neighborhoods where violent crime is effectively nonexistent. And the worst labor market in 80 years has done nothing to reverse these trends.
    5. Large-scale, institutionalized technologies range from the very safe (electric-power generation [including nuclear] and transmission) to the so-safe-there-is-no-instance-of-recorded-harm (agricultural genetic engineering). The problem is that in much of the real (that is, Third) world, they are insufficiently available to provide the thoughtless, comfortable existence that pervades most of the West. Living “off the grid” / following a soi–disant “natural” lifestyle is a plaything of rich people who can slink away into town whenever they get tired of hewing wood and drawing water. Especially water with enterotoxigenic E. coli in it.
    6. Pharmaceutical companies are not trying to kill you, nor to provoke health crises to sell new drugs. They may in some instances be trying to convince you that your life depends on continuing to purchase their products, whether it actually does or not. Then again, so is the “health food” store down the street, and in all likelihood, what it’s pushing is far more dangerous.
    7. All religions are not equal. The general heuristic is to judge them by their effects, or at least by their efforts. Those prescribing global expansion through conquest and coercive displacement, and those (especially if they don’t refer to themselves as religions) prescribing the extermination of followers of other religions, are particularly problematic.
    8. Any conspiracy theory that mentions the Mossad, Rothschilds, etc, is every bit as viciously anti-Semitic as Mein Kampf and should be treated as such. Anyone expressing admiration for Marxist notions and personages is no better. Conspiracy theories involving the CIA quaintly ignore the NSA (which is ~6x larger) and, in any case, descend from Stalinist and Maoist propaganda during the early Cold War and the Korean War. Facile anger about the NSA, however, ignores its well-publicized activities with the analog wireline telecommunications of 30-40 years ago, as amply documented in Bamford’s The Puzzle Palace. The phenomena of Wikileaks and Snowden’s massive data theft are an existence proof that such activities can neither be kept secret nor have much influence on real-world events; as someone who read through the supposedly devastating Wikileaks cables remarked, “[American diplomats] sound like Canadians with better access.”
    9. No amount of “smart diplomacy” or supposed avoidance of provocation will protect a country from attack. Only a convincing ability to make an attack more trouble than it could possibly be worth can do that, and even such an ability may be insufficient to deter non-state actors and small groups. In combination with steadily declining costs of dual-use technologies, a more-or-less freelance WMD attack somewhere in the world seems inevitable. When it occurs, the greatest hazards to the immediate survivors will be 1) official overreaction, as by ordering the evacuation of a far larger area than was actually affected and 2) popular derangement, which in the worst-case scenario may create a conspiracy theory popular enough to put an extremist political movement in power, even in a large, democratic nation.

    Commenters are encouraged to provide additional examples and corollaries.


    17 Responses to “A Compendium of Useful Reminders to be Consulted in Moments of Confusion”

    1. dearieme Says:

      The American animus against Socialism is well-founded (so when Americans do Socialism they call it something else).

      Few monopolies or cartels can long survive without government complicity.

      Americans have too little animus against Trade Unions, which are monopolies designed to enrich their members – and in particular their officers – by impoverishing non-members.

      To outsiders, the American legal system often seems barbaric and corrupt in spite of its huge advantage in using Common Law. Nothing can be done about it: the lawyers’ trade unions are just too powerful.

      The survival of the American State depends on whether Society can overwhelm Government. Place your bets.

      The American Social Security system can survive as long as it benefits from a few minor reforms; many American public sector pension schemes, by contrast, are doomed.

      According race privilege in the name of correcting race privilege is just as foolish as it sounds.

      And several questions: “Social pathologies have plummeted”. Why? How was it done? Was it done or did it just happen? Are there lessons for other countries? Why did those pathologies run so high in the first place? Or is it just that new pathologies have replaced the old? Put briefly, “tell me more”.

    2. Whitehall Says:

      Two WMD scenarios depend upon popular misconceptions.

      First, EMP effects are not as nearly destructive to the grid as advertised. While a nation-wide grid collapse MIGHT be theoretically possible, it would be greatly mitigated by details. For an example of mid-continent high altitude nuke strike, the Pacific Intertie along the West Coast has significant protection since it runs north-south, perpendicular to line-of-sight. The bigger worry would be from long lines that run in a radial direction. Our experience with solar flares resulted in an increased degree of protective circuitry. Don’t know about your smart phone though.

      Second, radiological attacks from dirty bombs would have few casualties. Its effectiveness would depend on ignorance and panic. Local cleanup could be affected with modest costs IF the public understood quantitative radiation dose effects. Without that, people will panic. The areas around Chernobyl and Fukushima were exposed to only trivial health effects.

    3. Jonathan Says:


      I don’t doubt anything that you write. The problem is, as Jay delicately puts it, “official overreaction”. We can expect heavy handed and inept govt reaction, especially from the feds, to the next major surprise attack on US soil. No Cabinet secretary will want to chance receiving the treatment Bush’s FEMA head received after Katrina. Individuals need to make their own plans with these considerations in mind.

    4. Kirk Parker Says:

      Individuals need to make their own plans with these considerations in mind.

      Interlocking fields of fire?

    5. Kirk Parker Says:

      Ranks of claymores lining the driveway and front walk???

      Help me out here…

    6. Jonathan Says:

      I had in mind not living in one of our larger, more dysfunctional urban areas, if possible. Also, having plans for dealing with electronic communications and other service outages.

    7. MikeK Says:

      ““Social pathologies have plummeted”. Why? How was it done?”

      A lot of it was a matter of demographics. We are an aging society and they are less violent. Europe will provide evidence that importing a violent subculture is not a good idea. Our Mexican immigrants are largely benign except for youth gangs. The immigrants are most harmful to low information and skills citizens Those are proving their low information status by voting for the political party importing the competing work force.

      “Ranks of claymores lining the driveway and front walk???”

      Good rule of thumb: If you aren’t sure which way the Claymores are pointing, they are pointing at you.

      “when Americans do Socialism they call it something else”

      Socialism means ownership of the means of production. Owning the consumption department is not Socialism. The American government, contrary to the belief of one major political party, does not produce anything.

    8. dearieme Says:

      “Socialism means ownership of the means of production.” On which definition Sweden has never been remotely socialist, contrary to the shouting of many of your countrymen. It’s also a major reason why Sweden is so prosperous.

    9. MikeK Says:

      Glad you agree with me again, Dearie. Sweden is “prosperous” for several reasons. One is collaborating with the Nazis in WWII while the rest of Europe was under siege.

      A couple of facts from Wiki: Approximately 90% of all resources and companies are privately owned, with a minority of 5% owned by the state and another 5% operating as either consumer or producer cooperatives.[15]

      Because Sweden as a neutral country did not actively participate in World War II, it did not have to rebuild its economic base, banking system, and country as a whole, as did many other European countries.

      It has a large welfare state and that is what has been criticized. So far it has done well but Muslim immigration is imposing strains. Welfare states draw losers like feces draws flies.

    10. East Anglian Says:

      Our Mexican immigrants are largely benign except for youth gangs.

      Far more Americans have been killed in the last 20 years by Mexicans and other immigrants/invaders than by Muslims.

      The immigrants are most harmful to low information and skills citizens Those are proving their low information status by voting for the political party importing the competing work force.

      Republican politicians like George W Bush, John McCain, and Eric Cantor are as left wing on the existential issue of immigration as Democrats.

      It has a large welfare state and that is what has been criticized. So far it has done well but Muslim immigration is imposing strains.

      Middle Eastern Christians and black Africans too.

    11. Whitehall Says:

      A big part of Sweden’s prosperity came from their vast hydroelectric resources, developed and put to good use by an educated and cohesive society. They were early adopters and gained an advantage in productivity and trade because of it.

      Socialism on a small scale can work. I’m thinking municipal electric utilities. However, they work so long as the voters are diligent in oversight since, like all government agencies, they can be captured by special interests.

    12. MikeK Says:

      “Republican politicians like George W Bush, John McCain, and Eric Cantor are as left wing on the existential issue of immigration as Democrats.”

      I disagree. They are representing the business interests of the traditional Republican Party, as contrasted with the Tea Party. Corporations like cheap labor and crony capitalism. The future Republican Party, once the Tea Party takes over, will be a party of small business and libertarians. The Country Class of Codevilla.

      Whether it will be able to muster a majority is another question. Personally, I think someone will have to pick up the pieces .

      Destroy the market’s ability to price assets, risk and credit, and you take away the essential information participants need to make rational, informed decisions. By crushing the market’s ability to generate accurate pricing information to save the Status Quo from necessary repricing and reforms, the Fed and the Federal government have generated enormously destructive unintended consequences that will not respond to additional politically expedient fixes.

      It may not matter too much which party then.

    13. David Foster Says:

      Whitehall…”Socialism on a small scale can work. I’m thinking municipal electric utilities. However, they work so long as the voters are diligent in oversight…”

      And voters can only be diligent in oversight if (a) the number of things they have to have oversight over is reasonably small, and (b) the results of the socialized industry are something they can see personally and directly.

      If instead of a muni power plant we were talking about a municipal steel fabrication works, supplying all necessary materials to local contractors on a monopolistic basis, it wouldn’t work very well. Even for a consumer business like a grocery store, things would not work well because of product and taste diversity…my desire to always have just-ripe bananas available conflicts with somebody else’s desire to have a broader organic vegetable selection and both conflict with everybody’s desire to keep inventory down so that prices will be lower.

    14. MikeK Says:

      “I’m thinking municipal electric utilities. However, they work so long as the voters are diligent in oversight…”

      I hardly think the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power would be an example. For example.

      The Department of Water and Power, now or at any time during the last 100 years.

      This is a saga of how ratepayers’ money is squandered, why rates keep soaring, why service stinks, how insiders get rich, why the DWP union gets lucrative sweetheart contracts and virtually runs the show and how Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has put the wolves in charge of the henhouse.

      There was actually a movie about this called Chinatown .

      Even the LA Times, a see-no-evil outfit has objected to the smell .

      Will 2014 be the year we finally find out what two mysterious nonprofits, jointly operated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Local 18 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, did with $40 million of ratepayer money?

      More on those debacles in a moment.

      If here is anything the Times loves, it is Socialism. Sometimes, even that can be too corrupt.

    15. PenGun Says:

      “There are no secret, vast criminal enterprises pulling the wool over the eyes of the populace”

      True, we know about them now. There are most certainly very large corporate interests, pulling the wool over the eyes, of a very large part of the populace. I mean you don’t even actually have news anymore as far as I can see, just spin.

    16. Whitehall Says:

      LADWP is one example of why I caveated my endorsement. Sacramento Municipal Utility District is another – both are in California so that says something about California voters and the press. Both are also very large enterprises. Nebraska and Washington state seem to have well-run municipals.

      I worked on a Canadian nuclear power plant once, owned by the province. People complained about the electric rates. My take was that the unions had captured any productive advantage given their large voting block. The profits were diverted to the workers in exchange for their votes.

    17. Carl from Chicago Says:

      Are we talking utilities now? I’m waking up in the back of the comments stream.

      In general some of the public utilities were well run, back in the day, but nowadays they are mostly just living off past investments and are in a sense dying as a productive force. The days of taming hydro and building nuclear plants are long gone. Now they just try to keep their old assets running and watch it crumble a bit more each year. They can’t do anything else; there is no “upside” to building something new and having the greens go crazy on them (since they are government employees and get paid the same either way, why take a risk) and I don’t blame them from that perspective.

      Our dying embers of public utilities like the TVA and LADWP are strange birds and they won’t be re-created. They used to do things and now they are just winding down.

      The biggest risk to all utilities is the lack of innovation – this is going to come from the private sector, and it will be far different. That is grist for another post.

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