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    Shakespeare in American Politics

    Posted by T. Greer on 1st October 2015 (All posts by )

    This post was originally published at The Scholar’s Stage on 30 September 2015. It has been reposted here without alteration.

    I was delighted to receive Marjorie Garber‘s Shakespeare After All in the mail this morning. Garber’s book is a thousand page review of everything Shakespeare ever wrote, with each play claiming its own chapter length analysis. The introduction of Shakespeare After All is a fascinating tour of Shakespeare’s reputation though the centuries, describing how Shakespeare’s poetry has been perceived in the days since his plays were originally performed, which of his works were most popular during various eras, and how their presentation on the page and performance on the stage has change with time. In Shakespeare’s lifetime Pericles was the most popular of his works; in the 19th century, lines from King John and Henry VIII, much neglected today, were the most likely to appear in the quote books and progymnasmata collections so popular then. Emerson bitterly lamented that Harvard, his alma mater, had no lecturer in Shakespearean rhetoric. His lament went unheeded; neither Harvard nor Yale included Shakespeare among their course readings until the 1870s. Yet for 19th century men like Emerson this really was no great loss. The American people of this era were so engrossed with Shakespeare that no one living in America could escape him: evidence of his place in America’s “pop culture in the nineteenth century [can be found in everything from] traveling troupes, Shakespeare speeches as part of vaudeville bills, huge crowds and riots at productions, [to accounts of] audiences shouting lines back at the actors. [1] I am reminded of Tocqueville‘s observation that every settler’s hut in America, no matter how squalid or remote, had a copy of a newspaper, a Bible, and some work of Shakespeare inside it. [2] Tocqueville used this as evidence to buttress his claim that the Americans were more educated and cultivated than any other people on the Earth. He may have been on to something. One cannot read the diaries, letters, and editorials of 19th century America without wondering at their eloquence and erudition. What caused this, if not the many hours they spent as children on their mother’s knee learning to read from the Jacobean English of the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare?   


    Garber also discusses the role Shakespearean rhetoric has played in American political culture since the founding. Quotes from Shakespeare have always been ubiquitous in American politics. They were used in the earliest days of the American republic. They are used with equal frequency today. However, the manner in which they are used has shifted  with time. This diversity may seem a small thing, but the different ways Shakespeare’s rhymes have been used through time reveal a great deal about broader and more important shifts in American political culture. This will become apparent as I describe these changes.

    A good place to start is with the Webster-Hayne debate of 1830. Of all American oratory, only the Lincoln-Douglass debates can claim greater fame than the debate Daniel Webster and Robert Hayne held on the antebellum Senate floor. At that time there was a resolution before the Senate calling for all new federal land surveys to be postponed until all of the existing land already surveyed had been sold. This struck the ire of the westerners, who pushed for federal land to be given to new settlers without charge or delay.

     In those days American politics was a sectional affair. Political outcomes often turned on forging an alliance between one region of the country and another to push through policies that might benefit both at the cost of the rest. Hayne, a South Carolina man, saw in this debate a chance to place a wedge between New England, whose delegates opposed free homesteading, and the frontier states of the West. A “coalition” (as he would call it) between Westerners and New Englanders had delivered the presidency to John Quincy Adams just a few years before. That coalition was formed in unusual circumstances, and thus was condemned in Southern circles as a “corrupt bargain” that threatened American liberties. Adam’s side denied these charges with greatest vigor, but all of the vigor in the world could not slow the democratic tide sweeping over American society. Andrew Jackson would ride this tide into the white house. Jackson, champion of mass democracy, reconfigured the landscape of American politics. His new coalition–which united men of the West, South, and the urban centers of the North–would dominate American politics for the next two decades. But Hayne and Webster had their debate only two years into this new era. It wasn’t clear that the revolution had been won; no one knew if Jackson’s coalition would prove transient or permanent. Any chance to drive New England further into the backwaters of national politics must be seized, and Hayne was eager to do the seizing.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, Culture, Poetry | 9 Comments »

    The Extraordinary Thing About WWII Is What Happened After

    Posted by T. Greer on 22nd June 2015 (All posts by )



    This video is a bit less than 20 minutes long. It has been making the rounds on Facebook and other social network sites, so it is possible you have seen it already. If you have not, you should. It is incredible.

    Numbers surrounding the Second World War are always ripe for debate, of course, and if you view the comment thread on Vimeo you will see that the debates have already  started. The only revision I would make to the video does not concern the Second World War at all, but the An-Lushan Rebellion (755-753) fought a thousand years before it. This rebellion is often included in lists of the world’s deadliest wars and it shows up when Mr. Halloran compares the Second World War’s death toll to that of earlier conflicts of equal consequence.  

    While it was surely a destructive event, I do not think there is proper evidence to prove that it was that destructive. The 36 million casualties number comes from Tang Dynasty censuses that showed the population of China just before and just after the rebellion, with 36 million being the difference. Many of those 36 million people surely died in the rebellion, but many more fled and moved to safer, more remote locales. The number should be properly understood not as the number of civilians killed, but as a measure for how badly the Tang government’s ability to monitor and control the Chinese population it governed had been damaged. It was a war from which the Tang would never recover. 

    In this sense, it was a very different kind of conflict than the Second World War, a war whose legacy is now seen mostly in the realm of memory. The An-Lushan Rebellion was (from a Chinese perspective) a war that ravaged the known world and involved almost all of the important military powers of its day. While bright emperors like Xianzong (r. 805-820) would try to pull the Tang back together in the decades after the rebellion, the dynasty’s decline was terminal. The forces unleashed by the war eventually led to the complete disintegration of Tang power. This kind of collapse was not seen after the Second World War. The power that suffered the most was to emerge from the conflict as the world’s second strongest. But it was not just the Soviet Union that showed remarkable resilience–humanity as a whole weathered the destruction of two continents and the death of 70 million people barely worse for wear. This is a truly remarkable feat–perhaps one only possible in today’s Exponential Age. The Tang never recovered from the An-Lushan rebellion; Central Asia never blossomed like it did before the Mongol conquests; no new Roman empire rose from the ashes of the old. But the Second World War was not a precursor to a new dark age. Under the old rules of static civilization–where wealth was not created, but taken–catastrophes of this scale required centuries of recovery before old heights could be reclaimed. The history of the post-war world dramatically illustrates that this is no longer the case.



    This post was originally published at The Scholar’s Stage on 6 June 2015.

    Posted in Economics & Finance, History, War and Peace | 12 Comments »

    The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program (II)

    Posted by T. Greer on 4th June 2015 (All posts by )

    This post is the second in a series. It was originally published at The Scholar’s Stage on the 26th of May, 2015. I strongly recommended readers start with the first post in this series, which introduces the purpose and methods of this essay. That post focused on what is published in English on Chinese strategic thought. This post focuses on what has been written about Chinese strategic practice–that is, the military, diplomatic, and political history of China’s past.

     

    A map depicting the most famous military campaign in East Asian history, decided at the Battle of Red Cliffs (208 AD) in modern-day Hubei.
    Source: Wikimedia

    STRATEGIC PRACTICE 

    In the West, the study of traditional China has been the domain of the Sinologists. For reasons that are entirely natural but also too complex and lengthy to explain here, this has meant that historians studying traditional China have focused their efforts on the history of Chinese philosophy, aesthetics, literature, and religion, as well as the closely related fields of archeology, linguistics, and philology. The much lamented decline of political, diplomatic, and military history across the American educational system had little perceivable effect here, for there was not much political, diplomatic, or military history to begin with. [1]

    It should not be a surprise that many of the most important books on Chinese military and diplomatic relations have not been written by historians, but by political scientists. The interest political scientists might have in these topics is obvious, for theirs is a field devoted to the scientific and theoretical exploration of politics and international relations. The real mystery is why it took so long for political scientists to start writing about traditional East Asian international relations in the first place (most of the important books are less than a decade old). The answer to that question is not too hard to find if one looks at the books being written. The new crop of scholars writing these books hail from the international relations (IR) side of the science, and are part of a growing critique of the grand IR theories the discipline traditionally used to make sense of international affairs. [2] These theories were for the most part developed and tested in reference to traditional European great power politics.  One of the central barbs of these critiques is that we cannot know if the grand theories of generations past describe truly universal laws  or simply describe patterns unique to European history if these theories have not been tested on case studies outside of the last few hundred years of European politics. In response, scholars have searched for case studies outside of Europe with which they can test these theories or find the data needed to develop new ones entirely. East Asia, a region filled with bureaucratic states thousands of years before their development in the West, was a natural place to start.

    The problem these researchers repeatedly ran into was that their fellow political scientists were not familiar enough with East Asian history to follow their arguments and there were no good primers on the topic to refer them to. So theses scholars ended up writing the historical narratives others would need to read before they could assess their theoretical arguments. Thus Victoria Tinbor Hui‘s chapter on the Warring States (453-221 BC) in War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe is one of the best narrative accounts of Warring States great power politics; Wang Yuan-kang‘s Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics contains one of the only accounts of Song Dynasty (old style: Sung, 960-1279 AD) foreign relations and one of the most fluid narratives of the Ming Dynasty‘s (1368-1644) adventures abroad; and David Kang‘s East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute has the most coherent discussion of the Chinese “tributary system” written in the last five decades. Historians have lauded these books for the amount of historical research that was poured into them [3], and I second their appraisal. As a field IR should take Asia more seriously and it should engage with historical sources more thoroughly than is common practice. However, I cannot help but lament the circumstances that pushed IR scholars to adopt these methods. Hopefully historians feel some shame over the sorry state of the field and how difficult it is for outsiders to approach their research.

    One example will suffice to prove the point. I mentioned that Wang Yuan-kai’s War and Harmony has one of the few complete accounts of the Song Dynasty’s international relations. As far as scholarship goes, the amount of material devoted to this topic is middle-of-the-road: there are some periods where scholarship is more plentiful–say, the Late Ming, or the Qing (Ch’ing, 1644-1912), and there are some other periods where the scholarship is much more scarce–say, anything about the Tang (T’ang, 610-907 AD) or Han (206 BC-220 AD) dynasties. It is an interesting period to work with, for it is one of the few times in Chinese history when China was faced with external enemies whose military power was undeniably stronger than her own. It was the time of some of the most famous military figures and most horrible military disasters in Chinese history.  It also saw some of the most historically influential debates about how to manage civil-military relations and the relationship between economic prosperity and military power. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, China, History, War and Peace | 4 Comments »

    The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program (I)

    Posted by T. Greer on 2nd June 2015 (All posts by )

    Mao Zedong writing On Protracted Warfare (Yan’an, 1938)
    Source: Wikimedia.

    This essay was originally published at The Scholar’s Stage on 26 May, 2015. Because of its length it has been divided into two posts, both lengthy in their own right. This–the first of these two posts–is republished here at Chicago Boyz with little alteration. The second half of the essay shall be posted here later this week.

    INTRODUCTION


    Last fall I wrote a popular series of posts outlining the history of the eight decade war waged between the Chinese Han Dynasty and the Xiongnu (old style: Hsiung-nu) nomadic empire. My posts were a response to a prominent American strategic theorist who misunderstood the history of the Han-Xiongnu relations in his search for enduring patterns in China’s military and diplomatic history relevant to China’s foreign relations today. Unfortunately, this experience was not a singular event. It seems that every month some new book or article is published pushing a misleading version of Chinese history or a strained interpretation of classical Chinese political thought to shore up a new theory of what makes China tick. I could devote this blog solely to refuting these poorly sourced theories and never run out of things to write about.

    Despite these errors, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who pen them. They face a nearly insurmountable problem: many of the thinkers, strategists, and conflicts most important to the Chinese strategic tradition have next to nothing in English written about them. Critical works have yet to be translated, translated works have yet to be analyzed, histories of important wars and figures have yet to be written, and what has been written is often scattered in obscure books and journals accessible only to experienced Sinologists. English speakers simply do not have access to the information they need to study the Chinese strategic tradition.

    This needs to change. It needs to change both for the sake of strategic theory as a discipline, which has essentially ignored the insights and observations gleaned from 3,000 years of study and experience, and for understanding the intentions of our rivals and allies in East Asia, who draw upon this tradition to decide their own political and strategic priorities. But in order to make these necessary changes we need a clear picture of where we are now. This essay attempts to provide this picture. It is not a bibliographic essay per say, for I will freely admit that I have not read all of the books and research articles I will mention below. Some titles I have only read in part; others I have not read at all. However, the goal of this post is not to review the results and conclusions of all these works, but to outline where research has been done and where more research is needed. For this purpose awareness suffices when more intimate knowledge is lacking.

    Mastering 3,000 years of intellectual and military history is a gargantuan task. But in order to find the answers to some of the questions inherent in the study the Chinese strategic tradition, it must be done. I make no such claim of mastery. My expertise is uneven; I am most familiar with both the strategic thought and the actual events of the China’s classical period (Warring States through the Three Kingdoms era, c. 475 BC-280 AD), and am probably weakest when discussing the first two decades of the 20th century, a time critical to the development of the tradition but difficult to master because of the number of political actors involved, the complexity of their relations, and the great intellectual variety of the era. Despite these weaknesses I know enough to chart out the broad outlines of current scholarship, a charge most specialists in strategic theory cannot attempt and most Sinologists would not desire. These biases and proclivities have kept the two disciplines far apart; there is an urgent need for these two scholarly bodies to draw together. If this essay–which is addressed primarily to the first group but should be accessible to second–helps in some small way to bring this to pass I shall consider it a grand success.

    This essay shall have three parts divided over two posts. The final section is a list of recommendations on how to establish and develop the study of the Chinese strategic tradition as an academic sub-field, as well as some thoughts on where individual Anglophone scholars might focus their research. The two earlier sections will review what has been published in English about the Chinese strategic tradition already. The term “the Chinese strategic tradition” is usually used in reference to the thinkers and the theorists of Chinese history, not the commanders and ministers who actually implemented policy. In the West this is almost always how the topic is discussed. Texts like Sun-tzu’s Art of War (hereafter, the Sunzi) are dissected with little reference to the way its thought was consciously implemented by those who studied it most carefully. This is a mistake. Most of the pressing questions in this field can only be answered by looking at how Chinese soldiers and statesmen actually behaved, and most of the errors common to Western punditry can be sourced to this tendency to ignore actual events in favor of theory. [1] In the case of ancient histories–whose account of events were highly stylized and moralizing–this distinction blurs. However, for the sake of organization I shall maintain the distinction between strategic thought (a subset of intellectual history) and strategic practice (a subset of diplomatic, political, and military history), covering each in turn.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in China, History, Military Affairs, National Security, Political Philosophy, War and Peace | 7 Comments »

    Introducing: Asabiyah

    Posted by T. Greer on 2nd May 2015 (All posts by )

    This post was originally published at The Scholar’s Stage on 2 May 2015. It has been re-posted here without alteration.

    If mankind is, as has been claimed since ancient days, a species driven by the narrow passions of self interest, what holds human society together as one cohesive whole? How can a community of egoists, each devoted to nothing but his or her own ambition, thrive? Or for that matter, long exist?


    Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury thought he knew the answer.

    John Michael Wright, Thomas Hobbes (17th c).

    Image Source

    Hobbes is famous for his dismal view of human nature. But contrary to the way he is often portrayed, Hobbes did not think man was an inherently evil being, defiled by sin or defined by vileness ingrained in his nature. He preferred instead to dispense with all ideas of good and evil altogether, claiming “these words of good, evil, and contemptible, are ever used with relation to the person that useth them, there being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves; but from the person of the man.” [1] Only a superior power,  “an arbitrator of judge, whom men disagreeing shall by consent set up” might have the coercive force to make one meaning of right the meaning used by all. Absent such a “common power”, the world is left in a condition that Hobbes famously described as “war of every man against every man” where they can be no right, no law, no justice, and “no propriety, no dominion, no ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ distinct, but only that to be every man’s that he can get, and for so long as he can keep it.” [2]

    This description of the wretched State of Nature is familiar to most who have studied in the human sciences at any length. Also well known is Hobbes’s  solution to the challenge posed by anarchy:

    [Those in this state will] appoint one man, or assembly of men, to bear their person; and every one to own and acknowledge himself to be author of whatsoever he that so beareth their person shall act, or cause to be acted, in those things which concern the common peace and safety; and therein to submit their wills, every one to his will, and their judgements to his judgement. This is more than consent, or concord; it is a real unity of them all in one and the same person, made by covenant of every man with every man, in such manner as if every man should say to every man: I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a COMMONWEALTH; in Latin, CIVITAS. [3]

    What is most striking in Hobbes’ vision of this State of Nature and the path by which humanity escapes it is his complete dismissal of any form of cooperation before sovereign authority is established. Neither love nor religious zeal holds sway in the world Hobbes describes, and he has no more use for ties of blood or oaths of brotherhood than he does for the words right and wrong. He does concede that if faced with large enough of an outside threat fear may drive many “small families” to band together in one body for defense. However, the solidarity created by an attack or invasion is ephemeral–once the threat fades away so will the peace. “When there is no common enemy, they make war upon each other for their particular interests” just as before. [4] Hobbes allows for either a society dominated by a sovereign state or for a loose collection of isolated individuals pursuing private aims.
     
    Hobbes’ dichotomy is not presented merely as a thought experiment, but as a description of how human society actually works. Herein lies Hobbes’ greatest fault. Today we know a great deal about the inner workings of non-state societies, and they are not as Hobbes described them. The man without a state is not a man without a place; he is almost always part of a village, a tribe, a band, or a large extended family. He has friends, compatriots, and fellows that he trusts and is willing to sacrifice for. His behavior is constrained by the customs and mores of his community; he shares with this community ideas of right and wrong and is often bound quite strictly by the oaths he makes. He does cooperate with others. When he and his fellows have been mobilized in great enough numbers their strength has often shattered the more civilized societies arrayed before them.

    The social contract of Hobbes’ imagination was premised on a flawed State of Nature. The truth is that there never has been a time when men and women lived without ties of kin and community to guide their deeds and restrain their excess, and thus there never  could be a time when atomized individuals gathered together to surrender their liberty to a sovereign power. Hobbes mistake is understandable; both he and the social contract theorists that followed in his footsteps (as well as the Chinese philosophers who proposed something close to a state of nature several thousand years earlier) lived in an age where Leviathan was not only ascendent but long established. They were centuries removed from societies that thrived and conquered without a state. [5]

    To answer the riddle of how individuals “continually in competition for honour and dignity” could form cohesive communities without a “a visible power to keep them in awe, and tie them by fear of punishment to the performance of their covenants,” [6] or why such communities might eventually create a “common power” nonetheless, we must turn to those observers of mankind more familiar with lives spent outside the confines of the state.  Many worthies have attempted to address this question since Hobbes’ say, but there is only one observer of human affairs who can claim to have solved the matter before Hobbes ever put pen to paper. Centuries before Hobbes’s birth he scribbled away, explaining to all who would hear that there was one aspect of humanity that explained not only how barbarians could live proudly without commonwealth and the origin of the kingly authority that ruled civilized climes, but also the rise and fall of peoples, kingdoms, and entire civilizations across the entirety of human history. He would call this asabiyah. 
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Deep Thoughts, History, Human Behavior, Middle East, Political Philosophy, War and Peace | 12 Comments »

    A Civilization is at Stake Here

    Posted by T. Greer on 3rd March 2015 (All posts by )

    This essay was originally posted at The Scholar’s Stage on 27 February 2015. It has been re-posted here without alteration.

    Perhaps the most predictable fall-out of Graeme Wood’s influential cover article for The Atlantic, What the Islamic State Really Wants,” is another round of debate over whether or not the atrocities committed by ISIS and other armed fundamentalist terrorist outfits are sanctioned by the Qur’an, Hadith, and other Islamic texts, and if not, whether these groups and the evils they inflict upon the world should be called “Islamic” at all.  Michael Lotus, co-author of the excellent America 3.0 and a generally sharp political observer all around, suggests that American policy makers shouldn’t bother themselves with the question:

    Fortunately for non-Muslims, who have neither the time nor the inclination nor the scholarly competence to get into intra-Muslim theological disputes, we do not need to figure out whether ISIS or [their theological opponents] more properly interpret these passages. We just need to know that ISIS reads the texts the way it does, believe them to be divine commands, and acts accordingly. Knowing this, we are better able to plan whatever military response is necessary to defeat them, and hopefully destroy them entirely. This is both theoretically and practically an easier task than debating them.[1]

    There are two separate issues at play here that need to be clearly distinguished from each other before the United States crafts any strategy to defeat ISIS. The first is what, if anything, the United States should do over the short term to stop and then reverse ISIS’s advance. The second is how the United States should approach the long term threat posed by Salafi-Jihadist terrorism and the ideology that inspires it. Inasmuch as the goal of American policy is grounding ISIS into the dust, then Michael is entirely correct. Conquerors the world over have shown that one does not need a nuanced understanding of an enemy’s belief system in order to obliterate him. But ISIS is only one head of the hydra. If the goal of American policy is to permanently defeat “global extremism” or “global terror” or whatever the folks in Washington have decided to call Salafi-Jihadist barbarism this month, then this view is insufficient.

    I should be clear here. I am not advocating a perpetual, open-ended war declared against some nebulous concept like “poverty,” or “drugs,” or “terror.”  James Madison once declared that war is the “most dreadful” of “all public enemies to liberty, and I take his warning seriously.[2] We cannot continue on an indefinite war footing without permanently damaging the integrity of the America’s republican institutions.

    But there is more to this conflict than America’s internal politics. It is worth it to step back and remind ourselves of exactly what is at stake in the global contest against Jihadist extremism.


     


    At the turn of the twentieth century, China, Japan, and Korea saw vast changes in the shape of their society because the old Neo-Confucian world view that had upheld the old order had been discredited. In Europe both communism and fascism rose to horrific heights because the old ideology of classical liberalism that had hitherto held sway was discredited. As a global revolutionary force communism itself withered away because the events that closed the 20th century left it discredited. If Americans do not worry about communist revolutionaries anymore it is because communism was so thoroughly discredited that there is no one left in the world who is willing to pick up arms in its name. [3]


    We cannot “win” this fight, in the long term, unless we can discredit the ideology that gives this fight teeth.

    Luckily for us, this does not require discrediting a fourteen hundred year old religion held by one fifth of the world’s population. It is worth reminding ourselves that the ideology we seek to discredit is a comparatively new one. It was born in the sands of Najd shortly before Arabia became “Saudi,” crystallized in its present form only in the 1960s, and was not exported abroad until the late 1980s. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict excepted, almost all “Islamist” terrorist attacks can be linked directly to this new Salafi-Jihadist ideology and the madrassas and proselytizing media used to spread it. It is an ideology that directly threatens the sovereign rulers of every country in the Near East, and one whose interpretations are not only opposed by the majority of Islamic theologians, but have little relation to the way Islam was practiced in most places a mere 30 years ago.

    That an ideology is new or rebels against established world views does not make it less dangerous. Novelty also says little about a movement’s future success–once upon a time Protestantism was a novel ideology. I encourage people to use this analogy. Think of these Salafi reformers as you do the first wave of Protestant reformers back in the 16th century. The comparison is apt not only because the goal of the Salafi-Jihadists is, like the original Protestants, to bring religious practice back to a pure and original form, or because the savagery displayed by many of the Protestant reformers was quite comparable to ISIS at its worst, but because this comparison gives you a sense of the stakes that are at play. This is a game where the shape of entire civilizations are on the table. The Salafi-Jihadists want to change the way billions of people worship, think, and live out their daily lives. ISIS’s success in the Near East gives us a clear picture of exactly what kind of society the Salafi-Jihadists envision for the Ummah.

    I will not mince words:  humankind faces few catastrophes more terrible than allowing Salafi-Jihadist reformers to hijack Islamic civilization. Theirs is an ideology utterly hostile to human progress and prosperity, and their victory, if attained, will come at great human cost. The Protestants secured their Reformation with one of the most destructive wars of European history; there is little reason to think Salafi-Jihadist victories will be any less disastrous. Not every ‘great game’ of international power politics is played for civilization-level stakes. But that is exactly what is at stake here. We must plan accordingly. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in History, Iran, Iraq, Islam, Middle East, Military Affairs, Terrorism | 48 Comments »

    Can China Liberalize in Time? Keep Your Eyes on Shandong

    Posted by T. Greer on 30th December 2014 (All posts by )

    This post was originally posted at The Scholars Stage on the 27th December, 2014. It has been re-posted here without alteration.

    Shandong is the red one. 


    Map by Uwe Dedering. Wikimedia.

    Things are looking up for President Xi Jinping. Arthur Groeber sums things up well in a challenge he recently gave China File readers: “Name one world leader with a better record.” [1] Mr. Groeber has a point. All those who predicted that the Hong Kong umbrella movement would prove an impossible crisis for President Xi have been proven wrong. The protestors are gone, but Xi is still around, signing energy deals with Russia, launching new international development banks, and even shaking Shinzo Abe’s hand. He has restructured the Chinese Communist Party’s most important policy bodies, and if the recently concluded 4th Plenum Communique is anything to judge by, more reforms are coming.  One domestic rival and crooked official after another has fallen to his anti-corruption campaign, which having felled 200,000 “tigers and flies” is now tearing into the once unassailable PLA. To top things off, sometime this summer Xi Jinping’s countrymen began calling him “Big Daddy Xi.”[2] The term is a compliment: President Xi is now the most popular leader on the planet.

    Aesop’s portrait of Xi Jinping

    “The Frogs Who Desired a King”
    Illustration by Milo Winter (1919). Wikimedia.

    For all of these reasons and more Xi Jinping is considered to be the most powerful leader China has seen since the days of Deng Xiaoping. Yet the real test of Xi Jinping’s power isn’t found on the foreign arena or in struggles to cleanse the party of graft.  Grand standing on the international stage and stoking up nationalist feeling is not hard for any leader–especially in China. The attempt to centralize the Communist  Party of China and purge the corrupt from its ranks is a much more impressive display, but in many ways this entire campaign is more a means than it is an end. What end? An obvious answer is that the good President pursues power for power’s sake, as leaders the world over are wont to do. But there is more to it than this. This man did not attain his high position through will-power alone. He was selected to accomplish a job that needs doing. And while the frogs may regret crowning the stork to be their king, it is worth our while to ask why the frogs desired a king in the first place. [3] In China’s case the answer is fairly simple: If Beijing does not want to see its own Japan-style “lost decade” then economic reform is needed, and it is needed urgently. Xi Jinping has been trusted with the power to reshape the Party because that is the kind of power that is needed to defeat the vested interests that stand in the way of economic liberalization.

    I won’t get into a full discussion of why reform is so urgent here–if you are curious I strongly recommend Michael Pettis‘ September essay, “What Does a ‘Good’ Chinese Adjustment Look Like?” which lays out the essential points in detail. More important for our discussion is the pace and scale that these reforms take. The 2013 Third Plenum was devoted to this question;  financial analysts have been abuzz ever since discussing how well the Plenum’s directives are being implemented. Of particular concern are the financial happenings at the county, city, and provincial levels. It was infrastructure spending by these governments that rode China through the recession, and that effort has left many of these governments over leveraged and left others liable for a host of non-performing loans. Reforming this system is necessary. It is also difficult, for it means slaughtering the favorite cash cows of powerful men and forcing China’s wealthy and connected to face the risk inherit in their poor investments instead of shifting losses to the state.


    Two views of China’s local debt, by province.

    Taken from Gabriel Wildau, “Half of Chinese Provinces deserve junk ratings, S&P warns,”
     Financial Times (20 November 2014)


     Any attempt to liberalize markets and end China’s financial repression must start here. By extension, any attempt to assess the power Xi Jinping has over the Party must also start here. We will know that Xi Jinping has the level of control over his country that everyone says he does when local government finances see substantive reforms. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in China, Economics & Finance | 8 Comments »

    Macro-History: A Few Books

    Posted by T. Greer on 21st December 2014 (All posts by )

    This post was originally published at the Scholar’s Stage on 14 December 2014. Re-posted here without alteration.

    The last two months were far busier than I expected them to be. I apologize to the Stage’s readers for the lull in posting–more than once I started post or essay during these weeks only to discover that I did not have the spare time to finish it. Now that the Yuletide is upon us my workload is much lighter and I expect to polish up and publish a few of the things that have been sitting in the queue since October.

    Before I get into any of that, however, I would like to make a few book recommendations. Earlier this month Anton Howes—the proprietor of the excellent economic-history blog Capitalism’s Cradle and a PhD aspirant over at King’s College political economy program–asked his twitter followers for book recommendations on global economic history or other related macrohistorical topics.  In the thread that followed something close to 70 titles were recommended.  Participants tried to avoid the obvious choices (Braudel, Pomerantz, Acemoglu, etc.) for other important books that are easily overlooked or forgotten. If memory serves correct I recommended six or seven titles; at least half came from our mutual blog-friend Pseudoerasmus.

    For those interested in seeing the full list without trawling through twitter’s archives Mr. Howe created an Amazon wishlist that contains all the books recommended to him. The list is pretty neat. However, as I reviewed it earlier this week I realized that there are a few titles I forgot to suggest earlier that deserve a place on it. These are my suggested additions and a few comments on why I think they are worth your time:

    Robert Kelly’s Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers: The Foraging Spectrum.

    (If you are to read one book on hunter-gather lifestyles, living standards, or decision-making models, this should be it. Unlike many cultural anthropologists, Kelly is a committed social scientist not afraid to model human decisions or present falsifiable theories. Also, the book teems with data). 

    Vaclav Smil’s Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems and Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken From Nature.

    (It is hard to dig into one of Vaclav Smil’s encyclopedic tomes and see the world through quite the same lens ever again. Smil has a deep appreciation for the physical stuff that civilization is made up of. He bridges the natural and social sciences with descriptions of human society and economic exchange as flows of energy and material. These books should be in your library as reference works, if nothing else).

    Mark Elvin’s The Pattern of the Chinese Past

    (This book is almost forty years old. It should be outdated, but I have not been able to find a better one-volume introduction to China’s institutional history or the Song dynasty’s “Medieval Economic Revolution”). 

    Fransesca Bray’s The Rice Economies: Technology and Development in Asian Societies.  

    (Both the opening and closing chapters of this book, which discuss the domestication of rice and the “Asian development model,” have been outmoded by newer research. The meat of the book–including a nuts-and-bolts description of rice agriculture in its many forms and a survey of the different agricultural models used to grow rice across East and Southeast Asia over the last two thousand years–is still very useful. Particular strengths are Song China, Tokugawa Japan, and early modern Malaysia).

    William McNiell’s The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since AD 1000

    (I am reading this right now. As is always the case with McNiell’s work, this book is a panoramic presentation of the human past–a bird’s eye view of human civilization, so to speak.  It is both a history of armed conflict and a history of market exchange; his thesis is that neither one of these can be separated from the other. It will make you think).

    Chester G. Starr’s The Roman Empire, 27 BC-467 AD: A Study in Survival. 

    (I reread this book once every few years. It is a slim work and the best introduction to the structure of Roman society and Roman imperial institutions I know of. Read it before you jump into anything on the Roman economy).

    Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why.

     (This book is not about economics or history. However, I think it is important for people working on comparative history, economics, sociology, etc. to be familiar with the research Nisbett summarizes here. For the last three decades social physiologists have performed dozens of experiments to find out if people from different parts of the world think the same way. Turns out they do not. Travelers have always known this, of course, but now there is a large body of replicable evidence to prove the point. Some of these differences are fascinating. Whether or not these differences are related to economic or technological development in these particular regions is still an open question–but people participating in the debate should be aware of these differences. Often they are not

    This field of study has really exploded over the last decade; hopefully Nisbett will publish a second edition that incorporates this newer research. Readers might also be interested in the longer review of The Geography of Thought I wrote for the Stage last year).


    That is it! This is the time of year people start posting book lists as Christmas gift recommendations. I suppose this list is good as any I might come up with, especially if comparative macro-history is your thing (and lets face it, if you are reading the Stage it probably is. Macro-history is what we do here). 

    On the odd chance that macro-history is not your kind of thing, I also invite you to review the books listed in “Quantum Libraries”  and the bolded items in “Every Book I Read in 2013” for some excellent books or novels on history, strategy, contemporary affairs, and other topics discussed here. 

    Are there are any books you recommend for the holidays?

    Posted in Book Notes | 5 Comments »

    Bargaining with the Dragon: Some Straight Talk on Hong Kong

    Posted by T. Greer on 6th October 2014 (All posts by )

    Originally posted at The Scholar’s Stage on 6 October 2014.

    Note by the author: I cannot take credit for most of the ideas and observations I present below. The protests in Hong Kong are now in their eighth day. Since they began last week a great amount has been written about why these protests are happening and what their eventual outcome may be. It has been disappointing to see astute voices and analysis  drowned out by fairly insipid primers and listicles. This post aims to remedy the situation by blending the best insights from the best China hands into one essay. If you would like to explore the material that inspired this post (or follow this story more closely in the future), I invite you to consult the “Further Reading” section at the bottom.

    At the time of this writing Hong Kong has returned to a semblance of normalcy. The protests may flare up again before the week is over, but we can take advantage of the present lull to assess what has been accomplished thus far and what hope the movement has of compelling the government to meet its demands in the future. The last eight days have been an emotional affair. Most of the discussions I have had about the protests have also been emotional affairs—especially when someone from the mainland or from Hong Kong is participating. This post is different. I am not interested in arguing about which side is right or wrong but in assessing the probability of either side forcing the other to cede to its demands.

    Lets start with the protestors.

    What are the protestor’s demands?

    1. When the protests began the protestors rallied around two demands:
      Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying (hereafter CY Leung) will step down.
    2. .

    3. Hong Kong will institute a democratic system where candidates for popular election are  chosen by voters, not a committee selected by the Communist Party of China.


    The original body of protestors who demanded these things were organized by two groups, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (香港專上學生聯會, abbrv. 香港學聯, or just 學聯), composed of Hong Kong university students, and Scholarism (學民思潮), headed by 17 year old Joshua Wong and mostly composed of youth about his age. The famous photos of umbrella clad youth being pepper sprayed as they charged government lines were of these folks.

    They were joined by a third group, known as Occupy Central with Peace and Love, or Occupy Central for short (讓愛與和平佔領中環, abr.佔中), on the second day of the protest. Occupy is a different sort of beast than the other two organizations; it is run by seasoned political activists and university professors who have been planning a civil disobedience campaign to protest the 2017 election reforms since early 2013. They had planned to start the protest on October 1st (the PRC’s National Day, the closest equivalent China has to the 4th of July), but when the clashes between students and police escalated on Friday (Sept 26th) they decided to abandon their original plan and join the protestors. Had they been in charge of the show from the beginning I am not sure they would have made the same demands—at least in the beginning—that the students did. But they came late to the party and have to deal with what the students’ demands hath wrought.

    There are two important things about these groups we must remember when assessing the protestors’ strategy and the government’s response to it: Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in China, Elections | 8 Comments »

    The First Great ‘Barbarian’ War of Chinese History

    Posted by T. Greer on 7th September 2014 (All posts by )

    A modern depiction of Huo Qubing’s cavalry charging a surprised Xiongnu  force.

    Image Source.




    The 3,000 years of recorded Chinese history are full of bloodshed and war. In times of strength and union the Chinese warred with ‘barbarian’ peoples on the frontier; in days of disunion they fought bitter wars against each other. Very little of this history is known by Western readers, and to be frank, there are not many books English speakers can pick up to fill this gap in their education. Narrative accounts of most of China’s famous conflicts simply do not exist–not in English anyway. Getting a handle on any of these wars usually requires reading numerous works on narrower topics that mention Chinese military campaigns and grand strategy in passing. There is a pressing need for treatments of these wars (to say nothing of the broader history of Chinese strategic thought) that can be understood by Westerners not versed in Sinological conventions.

    A few months ago Edward Luttwak published an essay on one the most significant wars of Chinese antiquity, the eighty year conflict between the Han Dynasty and the Xiongnu steppe confederation (133-53 BC). This was the first war in Chinese history between a nomadic empire of central Asia and a centralized Chinese dynasty. The scale of this conflict had no precedents in world history and was one of the most extraordinary events of the ancient world. The Han dynasty’s victory required the mobilization of 12 million men, campaigns in theaters 3,000 miles apart, and eight decades of fighting on the steppe.

    Mr.Luttwak’s essay, which contends that this experience left an enduring impact on the Chinese psyche that can be seen in China’s foreign policy today, presents a deeply flawed account of the war. In response I have written a more accurate account of Han-Xiongnu relations and the first great barbarian war of Chinese history. ChicagoBoyz readers interested in military history, the ancient world, or contemporary Chinese strategy will find it of interest.

    The first part, which summarizes Luttwak’s essay and sketches the Han’s antebellum strategy for dealing with the nomads, can be read here.

    The second part, which narrates the course of the war itself and analyzes the tactics the Han used to defeat the Xiongnu, can be read here.

    I welcome comments from ChicagoBoyz readers on the contents of either post.

    Posted in China, History, Military Affairs, War and Peace | 7 Comments »

    The Next 40 years in Twelve Hundred Words

    Posted by T. Greer on 19th July 2014 (All posts by )

    This post was originally published at The Scholar’s Stage on 19 July 2014 and has been reposted here without alteration.

    Info-graphic taken from Peter Turchin, “The Double-Helix of Inequality and Well-Being,” Social Evolution Forum (8 February 2013).

    .

    Recently in a discussion at a different venue I wrote the following:

    I am extremely pessimistic about the near term (2015-2035) future of both of the countries I care most about and follow most closely, but very optimistic about the long term (2040+) of both.

    I was asked to give a condensed explanation of why I felt this way. The twelve thousand words or so I wrote in response proved interesting enough that participants in the discussion urged me to re-post my speculations here so that they might receive wider circulation and discussion.

    Below is a slightly edited version of my response:

    The demons that afflict the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China are legion, and every pundit that turns their eye to either country seems to have their own favorite. Some of these difficulties are more alarming than others.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, China, Politics, Predictions, Society, USA | 43 Comments »

    Notes From All Over (22/06/14): Rise of the West, Island Disputes, & Too Much Stuff About China

    Posted by T. Greer on 22nd June 2014 (All posts by )

    This collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit was originally posted on The Scholar’s Stage and is reposted here upon request.

    TOP BILLING

    “The Little Divergence
    ‘Pseuderoerasmus,’ Pseudoarasmus (12 June 2014)

    In this blogpost I will argue the following :

    • While very few economic historians now dispute that East Asia had lower living standards than Europe well before 1800,
    • …there is no agreement on whether European economies prior to 1800 were “modern” or “Malthusian” ;
    • … if they were Malthusian, then the “little divergence” is rather trivial and unremarkable.
    • Furthermore, the income “data” for years prior to 1200 are mostly fictitious.
    • While real data exist after 1200 for Western Europe and China, output estimates are still calculated using assumptions that, were they better understood, would shatter confidence in the enterprise of economic history !

    Addendum to The Little Divergence
    ‘Pseudoerasmus,’ Pseudoarasmus (12 June 2014)

    Two of the most popular posts on the Stage are “The Rise of the West: Asking the Right Questions,” and “Another Look at the Rise of the West, But With better Numbers,” which take as their subject global energy consumption and wealth production on a millennial time scale.  Pseudoerasmus–who chimes in regularly in the comments section here–has written a series of posts that put most of this analysis in question, arguing that the Madison and Broadberry data sets these posts use cannot be relied on.

    Both posts are admirable examples of how to write about technical social science debates found deep in the literature and present them in an engaging fashion without dumbing the content down. Strongly recommended. 


    China’s Information Management in the Sino-Vietnamese Confrontation: Caution and Sophistication in the Internet Era
    Andrew Chubb, South Sea Conversations (9 June 2014).

    China’s expanding Spratly outposts: artificial, but not so new
    Andrew Chubb, South Sea Conversations (19 June 2014).


    Andrew Chubb’s South Sea Conversations (讨论南海) is the first website I check whenever things get hot in the South China Sea. Both of these pieces – the first published formally in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief, the second a blog post of the more standard type – are examples of the site’s general excellence. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Blogging | 8 Comments »

    The Limits of Expertise

    Posted by T. Greer on 19th June 2014 (All posts by )

    I originally published this essay on the 18th of January, 2014 at The Scholar’s Stage. David Foster’s recent post on “credentialed experts” has prompted me to resurrect it here. I have not otherwise changed it from the original.

    —-

    Last month Tom Nichols, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College  and a well regarded authority on Russian foreign policy and American nuclear strategy, published a thought-provoking essay on his blog titled “The Death of Expertise:”

    …I wonder if we are witnessing the “death of expertise:” a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between students and teachers, knowers and wonderers, or even between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.

    By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields.

    Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live. A fair number of Americans now seem to reject the notion that one person is more likely to be right about something, due to education, experience, or other attributes of achievement, than any other.

    Indeed, to a certain segment of the American public, the idea that one person knows more than another person is an appalling thought, and perhaps even a not-too-subtle attempt to put down one’s fellow citizen. It’s certainly thought to be rude: to judge from social media and op-eds, the claim of expertise — and especially any claim that expertise should guide the outcome of a disagreement — is now considered by many people to be worse than a direct personal insult.

    This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us. But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is just plain silly.
    (emphasis added) [1]

    I encourage visitors to the Stage to read Dr. Nichol’s entire piece. It was prompted by what has become a common experience every time he (or fellow UNWC professor and former NSA employee John Schindler) decides to publish a new essay or speak publicly about a pressing issue of the day. Soon after his work is published a flood of acrimonious tweets and e-mails follow, declaring that he does not really understand how American intelligence agencies, the Kremlin, or the Obama administration actually work

    Most of these responses are misinformed. Many are simply rude and mean. They are not an impressive example of what laymen commentators can add to America’s political discourse. Dr. Nichols suggests four rules of thumb for engaged citizens that he believes would improve matters:

    1.The expert isn’t always right.

    2. But an expert is far more likely to be right than you are.

    3. Your political opinions have value in terms of what you want to see happen, how you view justice and right. Your political analysis as a layman has far less value, and probably isn’t — indeed, almost certainly isn’t — as good as you think it is.

    4. On a question of factual interpretation or evaluation, the expert’s view is likely to be better-informed than yours. At that point, you’re best served by listening, not carping and arguing. [2]

     ·


    The trouble with this advice is that there are plenty of perfectly rational reasons to distrust those with political expertise. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Management, Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Predictions, Science, Statistics | 21 Comments »

    On Survivalism

    Posted by T. Greer on 6th May 2014 (All posts by )

    NOTE: This blog post was originally published at The Scholar’s Stage on 2 January 2011. Its contents are relevant to the discussion started by Jay Manifold’s recent posts on national catastrophes and societal resilience. Now seems like a good time to resurrect the original post in its entirety.

    .

    .
    I recently read a book by survivalist blogger James Wesley Rawles called How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It. This reading has prompted a few thoughts on the aims and validity of the survivalist movement that may be of interest to readers of the Stage.

    The raison d’etre of survivalism is a subject much discussed on this blog: the proper balance between between resilience and efficiency. Robustness and facility are two virtues fundamentally at odds, and all complex systems, be they organisms, economies, or militaries, are subject to the trade off between them. While the relation between specialization and efficiency was noted by both Xenophon and Ibn Khaldun centuries earlier, widespread acceptance of the “drag” redundancy places on a system’s productivity did not come until publication of Adam Smith‘s The Wealth of Nations. Mr. Smith uses the example of a pin factory to teach the general principle:

    …the trade of the pin-maker; a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade), nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations….. The division of labour, however, so far as it can be introduced, occasions, in every art, a proportionable increase of the productive powers of labour.

    Book I, Chapter 1, “Of the Division of Labour” 

    Mr. Smith does not present the primary drawback of this arrangement. With efficiency comes fragility. Ten men working by their lonesome produce a paltry number of pins, but the faults of one man do not destroy the efforts of another.  In contrast, if something happens to one of the ten factory men and; his equipment, no pins get made and the factory must shut down. One bad cog puts a stop to the entire machine.

    For the survivalist this is a problem pervading not only the pin factories, but all of modern society. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Civil Society, Human Behavior, Society, Terrorism, Urban Issues | 40 Comments »

    Meditations on Maoism — Ye Fu’s “Hard Road Home”

    Posted by T. Greer on 30th April 2014 (All posts by )

    This post was originally published at The Scholar’s Stage, 30 April 2013.


    A great divide separates the worldviews of the average Chinese and American. The most profound description of this divide I have ever heard came from the mouth of a friend who has never been to America and who was neither a historian nor accustomed to deep political reflection or debate. She concluded that Americans lived in a different world than the one she and her countrymen knew on the strength of a single observation: “In America all of your most exciting movies are about the future. In China, our blockbusters are all about the past.

    Her mundane observation points neatly to a paradox of modern Chinese culture. The people of China are steeped in history. Places, figures, and sayings from most ancient times fill their cinemas and televisions, inspire their literature and music, and find their way into both their daily conversation and clever turns of phrase. One cannot study the Chinese language or befriend the people who speak it without realizing how proudly the Chinese people trace their identity some three thousand years into the past. It defines who they are and what they want their country to be. When China’s heavy laden allow themselves a hopeful glimpse into the future they see first the glories of the past.

    Thus the dreadful irony: despite the high esteem which they hold for history and the strong affinity they feel with the triumphs and humiliations of their civilization, few Chinese feel any connection to–and in many cases, have no real knowledge of–their country’s more immediate past. As a society they honor the stories and glories of tradition, but have abandoned headlong the social order from which these stories sprang. This was not all intentional. Seven decades of war, famine, and revolution ripped Chinese civilization apart at its seams. The old order of family and clan, official and elite, emperor and loyal subject, is gone. The patterns which held Chinese civilization together for a millennium are acknowledged, but honored mostly as the creation of some mythical past whose connection to the present is more a matter of style than of substance. In between this golden past and frantic present lies a gaping hole. A swirl of confused details, loathsome slogans, and obscured calamities lies in this abyss, little talked about and, in the minds of many, best forgotten. The grim episodes of those days are but a dim image in a mirror, only tethered to the present with fading memories of tumult and terror.

    I did not fully appreciate how deep a gash and great a gulf this separation from the past has torn in the Chinese mental landscape until I read a newly translated set of essays and meditations published under the name Hard Road Home. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, China, History, Morality and Philosphy | 11 Comments »

    “The Russian Strategy of Empire”

    Posted by T. Greer on 20th March 2014 (All posts by )

    Originally posted at The Scholar’s Stage on 20 March 2013.

    The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9  [1]


    Over the last few weeks the sections of the blogosphere which I frequent have been filled with predictions, advice, summaries of, and idle chatter about the situation in Ukraine and Crimea.  I have refrained from commenting on these events for a fairly simple reason: I am no expert in Russian or Eastern European affairs. Any expertise that my personal experiences or formal studies allows me to claim is on the opposite side of Eurasia. Thus I am generally content to let those who, in John Schindler’s words, “actually know something” take the lead in picking apart statements from the Kiev or the Kremlin. [2] My knowledge of the peoples and regions involved is limited to broad historical strokes.

    But sometimes broad historical strokes breed their own special sort of insights.

    I have before suggested that one of the benefits of studying history is that it allows a unique opportunity to understand reality from the “Long View.” From this perspective the daily headlines do not simply record the decisions of a day, the instant reactions of one statesmen to crises caused by another, but the outcome of hundreds of choices accumulated over centuries. It allows you to rip your gaze away from the eddies swirling on the top of the water to focus on the seismic changes happening deep below.

    To keep the Long View in mind, I often stop and ask myself a simple question as I read the news:  “What will a historian say about this event in 60 years? How will it fit into the narrative that the historians of the future will share?”

    With these questions are considered contemporary events take on an entirely new significance.

    Expansion of Russia, 1533-1894.
    Credit: Wikimedia.

    As I have watched affairs in Crimea from afar, my thoughts turn to one such ‘Long View’ narrative written by historian S.C.M. Paine. In Dr. Paine’s peerless The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949 she spares a few paragraphs to explain the broad historical context in which Soviet statesmen made their decisions. She calls this traditional course of Russian statecraft the Russian “strategy for empire”:

    The Communists not only held together all of the tsarist empire but greatly expanded it in World War II. They did so in part by relying on Russia’s traditional and highly successful strategy for empire, which sought security through creeping buffer zones combined with astutely coordinated diplomacy and military operations against weak neighbors to ingest their territory at opportune moments. Russia surrounded itself with buffer zones and failing states. During the tsarist period, the former were called governor-generalships, jurisdictions under military authority for a period of initial colonization and stabilization. Such areas generally contained non-Russian populations and bordered on foreign lands.

    Russia repeatedly applied the Polish model to its neighbors. Under Catherine the Great, Russia had partitioned Poland three times in the late eighteenth century, crating a country ever less capable of administering its affairs as Russia in combination with Prussia and Austria gradually ate it alive. Great and even middling power on the borders were dangerous. So they must be divided, a fate shared by Poland, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, China, and post World War II, Germany and Korea. It is no coincidence that so many divided states border on Russia. Nor is it coincidence that so many unstable states sit on its periphery” (emphasis added). [3]


    It is difficult to read this description and not see parallels with what is happening in Ukraine now (or what happened in Georgia in 2008). Dr. Paine’s description of Russian foreign policy stretches from the 18th century to the middle of the 20th. Perhaps historians writing 60 years hence will use this same narrative–but extend it well into the 21st.

    ————————————————————


    [1] Authorized Version.
    [2] John Schindler. “Nobody Knows Anything.” XX Committee. 16 March 2014. 
    [3] S.C.M. Paine. The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 83-84.

    Posted in Book Notes, Europe, History, International Affairs, Russia | 2 Comments »

    Another Look at ‘The Rise of the West’ – But With Better Numbers

    Posted by T. Greer on 24th November 2013 (All posts by )


    Originally published at The Scholar’s Stage on 20 November 2013.

    Why the West? I do not think there is any other historical controversy that has so enthralled the public intellectuals of our age.  The popularity of the question can probably be traced to Western unease with a rising China and the ease with which the issue can be used as proxy war for the much larger contest between Western liberals who embrace multiculturalism and conservatives who champion the West’s ‘unique’ heritage.

    A few months ago I suggested that many of these debates that surround the “Great Divergence” are  based on a flawed premise–or rather, a flawed question. As I wrote: 

    Rather than focus on why Europe diverged from the rest in 1800 we should be asking why the North Sea diverged from the rest in 1000.” [1]

    I made this judgement based off of data from Angus Maddison‘s Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD and the subsequent updates to Mr. Maddison’s data set by the scholars who contribute to the Maddison Project.

    As far as 1,000 year economic projections go this data was pretty good. But it was not perfect. In many cases–especially with the Chinese data–it was simply based on estimates and extrapolations from other eras. A more accurate view of the past would require further research.

    That research has now been done. The economic historian Stephen Broadberry explains:

    As it turns out, medieval and early modern European and Asian nations were much more literate and numerate than is often thought. They left behind a wealth of data in documents such as government accounts, customs accounts, poll tax returns, Parish registers, city records, trading company records, hospital and educational establishment records, manorial accounts, probate inventories, farm accounts, tithe files. With a national accounting framework and careful cross-checking, it is possible to reconstruct population and GDP back to the medieval period. The picture that emerges is of reversals of fortune within both Europe and Asia, as well as between the two continents. [2]

    Drawing on a multiple specialized studies, Mr. Broadberry is able to create a table that is more accurate than the one I used earlier:

    Taken from Stephen Broadberry. “Accounting for the Great Divergence.” voxEU.org. 16 November 2013.

    There are a few things here worth commenting on.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Economics & Finance, History | 10 Comments »

    Radical Islamic Terrorism in Context, pt II

    Posted by T. Greer on 1st November 2013 (All posts by )

    How to make sense of radical Islamic terrorism? This violence is barbaric – but it is not senseless. When you understand the society from which savagery has sprung, the cold logic behind these attacks becomes all too apparent. Part II of a series originally posted at the Scholar’s Stage; Part I is here.   


    How do you save a civilization from implosion?

    Modernization has never been pretty. It destroyed Christendom before the growth revolution picked up steam and left the European subcontinent in disorder for two centuries more. The collapse of the Chinese imperial order and the traditional family that supported it was a cataclysmic string of tragedies that left tens of millions dead. Now it is the Ummah‘s turn to walk through the threshing ground of modernity.

    Traditional Islamic civilization does not need to fear spectacular cultural or political collapse. These are the after shocks of a more mundane type of destruction. Explains social anthropologist extraordinaire Emmanuel Todd:

    SPIEGEL: Monsieur Todd, in the middle of the Cold War, in the days of Leonid Brezhnev, you predicted the collapse of the Soviet system. In 2002, you described the economic and imperial erosion of the United States, a global superpower. And, four years ago, you and your colleague Youssef Courbage predicted the unavoidable revolution in the Arab world. Are you clairvoyant?

    Todd: The academic as fortune-teller — a tempting idea. But Courbage and I merely analyzed the reasons for a possible — or let’s say likely — revolution in the Arab world, an inexorable change, which could also have unfolded as a gradual evolution. Our work was like that of geologists who compile the signs of an imminent earthquake or volcanic eruption. But when exactly the eruption takes place, and its form and severity — these things cannot be predicted in an exact way.

    SPIEGEL: On what indicators do you base your probability calculation?

    Source: “Rising Literacy and a Shrinking Birth Rate:
    A Look at the Root Causes of the Arab Revolution
    .”

    Der Spiegel English. 20 May 2011.

    Todd: Mainly on three factors: the rapid increase in literacy, particularly among women, a falling birthrate and a significant decline in the widespread custom of endogamy, or marriage between first cousins. This shows that the Arab societies were on a path toward cultural and mental modernization, in the course of which the individual becomes much more important as an autonomous entity.

    SPIEGEL: And what is the consequence?

    Todd: That this development ends with the transformation of the political system, a spreading wave of democratization and the conversion of subjects into citizens. Although this follows a global trend, it can take some time. (emphasis added). [11]

     Monsieur Todd explains the fall of the old order from the heights of the ivory tower. He can collect data dispassionately and pronounce revolutions from afar. Those closer to the upheaval are not granted such liberties. For them the death of civilization is an intensely personal affair. To understand their view–and how it can lead to radical terrorism–we must see the disintegration of their society as they do. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in War and Peace | 4 Comments »

    Radical Islamic Terrorism in Context, pt. 1

    Posted by T. Greer on 28th October 2013 (All posts by )

    How to make sense of radical Islamic terrorism? This violence is barbaric – but it is not senseless. When you understand the society from which savagery has sprung, the cold logic behind these attacks becomes all too apparent.

    Image: Smoke rises from the Westgate Mall


    Brendon O’Niell says it is time to recognize the sheer barbarity of 21st century Islamic terror attacks:

    In Western news-making and opinion-forming circles, there’s a palpable reluctance to talk about the most noteworthy thing about modern Islamist violence: its barbarism, its graphic lack of moral restraint. This goes beyond the BBC’s yellow reluctance to deploy the T-word – terrorism – in relation to the bloody assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya at the weekend. Across the commentating board, people are sheepish about pointing out the historically unique lunacy of Islamist violence and its utter detachment from any recognisable moral universe or human values. We have to talk about this barbarism; we have to appreciate how new and unusual it is, how different it is even from the terrorism of the 1970s or of the early twentieth century. We owe it to the victims of these assaults, and to the principle of honest and frank political debate, to face up to the unhinged, morally unanchored nature of Islamist violence in the 21st century.” [1]

    I applaud Mr. O’Niell’s frankness. Islamic terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab are savage, barbaric, and evil. Period. They should be seen by all and denounced by all as the monstrous brutes that they have become. Civilization has a pale; this lies beyond it.

    But stating this is not enough. We cannot simply name a man a monster — we must try to understand why so many men want to be monsters in the first place. O’Niell is less helpful here:

    Time and again, one reads about Islamist attacks that seem to defy not only the most basic of humanity’s moral strictures but also political and even guerrilla logic…. consider the attack on Westgate in Kenya, where both the old and the young, black and white, male and female were targeted. With no clear stated aims from the people who carried the attack out, and no logic to their strange and brutal behaviour, Westgate had more in common with those mass mall and school shootings that are occasionally carried out by disturbed people in the West than it did with the political violence of yesteryear.[2]

    There are problems with this line of thought. In his zeal to denounce Islamic terrorism O’Niell makes two errors: 1) He assumes that indiscriminate slaughter of ‘the young and old, black and white, male and female’ is a ‘new and unusual’ development in human history and 2) that the sheer barbarity of these acts ‘defy logic.’

    Perhaps the Khwarazmians also thought the slaughter they witnessed was something new under the sun:

    The Mongols now entered the town and drove all the inhabitants, nobles and commoners, out on to the plain. For four days and nights the people continued to come out of the town; the Mongols detained them all, separating the women fiom the men. Alas! How many peri-like ones did they drag from the bosom: of their husbands! How many sisters did they separate from their brothers! How many parents were distraught at the ravishment of their virgin daughters!

    The Mongols ordered that, apart from four hundred artisans whom they specified and selected from amongst the men and some children, girls and boys, whom they bore into captivity, the whole population, including the women and children, should be killed, and no one, whether woman or man, be spared. The people of Merv were then distributed among the soldiers and levies, and, in short, to each man was allotted the execution of three or four hundred persons.[3]

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in History, War and Peace | 15 Comments »

    Independence and Rights

    Posted by T. Greer on 16th September 2013 (All posts by )

    Originally posted at the Scholar’s Stage, 15 September 2013.

     “The Freedman”
    John Quincy Adam Ward. 1863. Displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


    The phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is a truism long accepted. I do not question the general truth this phrase attempts to convey, but I sometimes find it obscures more than it reveals. Men on opposing lines of battle may both fight in the name of freedom yet be fighting for very different things. “Freedom” comes in all shapes and sizes; when a Pashtun elder uses a word like freedom he may not be thinking anything close to the thoughts expressed at the average American Independence Day parade.

    The freedom fighters of the American revolution fought in the name of liberty. The liberty they battled for came in two distinct flavors, each reflecting an esteemed political tradition inherited from their brothers across the sea. The first is the classical liberal tradition; the second the classical republican. In many ways the political history of the republic they founded was an attempt to reconcile these two traditions. [1] Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Politics | 8 Comments »

    On Credibility

    Posted by T. Greer on 3rd September 2013 (All posts by )

     Image Source.

    On year ago President Obama declared “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Chemical weapons have been used. Some suggest that America will lose “credibility” if she does not honor the president’s promise and respond with military force.

    One wonders what kind of ‘credibility’ they are thinking of. 

    You know,” he says,  “I think Americans are liars.”

    She replied with a chortle. “How many have you met? I think I am honest enough.”

    “You know I did not mean you. I was actually thinking about your government.”

    If it makes you feel any better, I think most important people in the U.S. government are liars too. It comes with the job description. But if you don’t mind me asking, what brought you to the same conclusion?”

    His was a hollow laugh. “That is just it. You all think your politicians are liars but then America turns around and lectures the rest of the world on how great America’s government is and how we should all be like you. I am no fan of my government, but at least I acknowledge what kind of government my people have.”

    You are thinking about it the wrong way. If the American people want liars in charge, then liars there will be. The beauty of democracy is that if those liars don’t do what the people want then they get kicked out and new liars are put in.”

    “Liars either way.”

    Oh I don’t care what a politician says. I care about what a politician does. All politicians will say this thing or that thing to justify their actions. What matters is if those actions are for his people or against them. This is why I love the U.S. Constitution. By design it keeps power out of one man’s hands. It forces politicians to take normal citizens seriously. It makes it very hard for one clique or class to impose its rule on the rest.”

    “That is it. That is the lie. This idea that the United States government is “of the people” and “by the people” – that is the lie every American repeats. I am tired of it.” Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Politics, War and Peace | 37 Comments »

    Do The Great Books Have a Place in the 21st Century?

    Posted by T. Greer on 24th August 2013 (All posts by )

    Originally posted at The Scholar’s Stage on the 27th of May, 2013.

    A selection of the 60 volume Great Books of the Western World.
    Image source.


    A “proper education” changes with its times.

    In the days of America’s founding a true education was a classical education. An educated man was not simply expected to be familiar with the great works of Greek and Roman civilization; the study of these works was the foundation of education itself. Thomas Jefferson’s advice to an aspiring nephew captures the attitudes of his era:

    It is time for you now to begin to be choice in your reading; to begin to pursue a regular course in it; and not to suffer yourself to be turned to the right or left by reading any thing out of that course. I have long ago digested a plan for you, suited to the circumstances in which you will be placed. This I will detail to you, from time to time, as you advance. For the present, I advise you to begin a course of antient history, reading every thing in the original and not in translations. First read Goldsmith’s history of Greece. This will give you a digested view of that field. Then take up antient history in the detail, reading the following books, in the following order: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophontis Hellenica, Xenophontis Anabasis, Arrian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, Justin. This shall form the first stage of your historical reading, and is all I need mention to you now. The next, will be of Roman history (*). From that, we will come down to modern history. In Greek and Latin poetry, you have read or will read at school, Virgil, Terence, Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles. Read also Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakspeare, Ossian, Pope’s and Swift’s works, in order to form your style in your own language. In morality, read Epictetus, Xenophontis Memorabilia, Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Cicero’s philosophies, Antoninus, and Seneca…. 

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, History | 11 Comments »

    Emmanuel Todd’s Theory of Modernity

    Posted by T. Greer on 14th July 2013 (All posts by )

    In my review of Michael Lotus and James Bennett’s America 3.0 I stated that French anthropologist Emmanuel Todd (whose work is cited extensively in said work) “is the most under-rated “big idea” thinker in the field of world history.”


    Craig Willy’s most recent blog post explains why:

    Emmanuel Todd’s L’invention de l’Europe: A critical summary
    Craig Willy. craigjwilly.info 7 July 2013.

    Mr. Willy’s post is not something one skims through. It is 9,000 words long and chock full of all sorts of data, tables, and maps. Because L’invention de l’Europe has not been translated into English I am grateful for this level of detail.

    What is this book about?

    I came, last, to his L’invention de l’Europe, which is in principle not a polemic, but rather a dispassionate book of historical anthropology and demography which is Todd’s academic magnum opus.

    I say “in principle” because one is tempted to ask: What the hell is this book anyway? Over 650 pages of text, statistics, graphs, maps and bibliography on the history of Western Europe? A comprehensive look at the correlations between family structures, modernization and ideology in Western Europe? An “Introductory Illustrated Atlas of Western European Socio-Political History”? I’ve already lost you. Who cares? 

    No, L’invention de l’Europe is actually about what is almost undoubtedly the most important historical development of all time: the rise of modernity since 1500, also known as the “Great Divergence” or the “European miracle.” It was European civilization, and its various extra-European and notably North American offshoots, which invented “modernity,” which sparked that fire of science and “rationality” which now dominates virtually the entire globe. Europe, as Todd notes on the first page, was “the midwife simultaneously of modernity and death.” (p.13) 
    We have modernity: science, mass production, mass destruction, mass consumption, mass literacy, mass and instant telecommunication, long-life (sanitation, health, contraception), godlessness, ideology (including “totalitarianism,” “democracy,” “rule of law,” and “freedom of thought”…), and so on.


    So how does Todd approach this bug-bear that haunts all aspiring world historians, the rise of the West? Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, History | 13 Comments »

    Adams and Jefferson Are Gone

    Posted by T. Greer on 4th July 2013 (All posts by )

    ADAMS and JEFFERSON, I have said, are no more. As human beings, indeed, they are no more. They are no more, as in 1776, bold and fearless advocates of independence; no more, as at subsequent periods, the head of the government; nor more, as we have recently seen them, aged and venerable objects of admiration and regard. They are no more. They are dead. But how little is there of the great and good which can die! To their country they yet live, and live for ever. They live in all that perpetuates the remembrance of men on earth; in the recorded proofs of their own great actions, in the offspring of their intellect, in the deep-engraved lines of public gratitude, and in the respect and homage of mankind. They live in their example; and they live, emphatically, and will live, in the influence which their lives and efforts, their principles and opinions, now exercise, and will continue to exercise, on the affairs of men, not only in their own country but throughout the civilized world. 

    A superior and commanding human intellect, a truly great man, when Heaven vouchsafes so rare a gift, is not a temporary flame, burning brightly for a while, and then giving place to returning darkness. It is rather a spark of fervent heat, as well as radiant light, with power to enkindle the common mass of human kind; so that when it glimmers in its own decay, and finally goes out in death, no night follows, but it leaves the world all light, all on fire from the potent contact of its own spirit. Bacon died; but the human understanding, roused by the touch of his miraculous wand to a perception of the true philosophy and the just mode of inquiring after truth, has kept on its course successfully and gloriously. Newton died; yet the courses of the spheres are still known, and they yet move on by the laws which he discovered, and in the orbits which he saw, and described for them, in the infinity of space.

    No two men now live, fellow-citizen, perhaps it may be doubted whether any two men have ever lived in one age, who, more than those we now commemorate, have impressed on mankind their own opinions more deeply into the opinions of others, or given a more lasting direction to the current of human thought. Their work doth not perish with them. The tree which they assisted to plant will flourish, although they water it and protect it no longer; for it has struck its roots deep, it has sent them to the very centre; no storm, not of force to burst the orb, can overturn it; its branches spread wide; they stretch their protecting arms braoder and broader, and its top is destined to reach the heavens.

    We are not deceived. There is no delusion here. No age will come in which the American Revolution will appear less than it is, one of the greatest events in human history. No age will come in which it shall cease to be seen and felt, on either continent, that a mighty step, a great advance, not only in American affairs, but in human affairs, was made on the 4th of July, 1776. And no age will come, we trust, so ignorant or so unjust as not to see and acknowledge the efficient agency of those we now honor in producing that momentous event.”



    Daniel Webster, “Adams and Jefferson,” delivered on 2nd of August, 1826 at Faneuil Hall, in Boston, Massachusetts, the event being a commemoration of the lives of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who had died earlier that year within five hours of each other. Their last day in mortality was July 4th.  




    Statue of John Adams in front of the Quincy city hall.
    Image source. 
                Statue of Thomas Jefferson in the national Jefferson Memorial.
    Image source.  



    Cross Posted at The Scholar’s Stage.

    Posted in History, USA | 3 Comments »

    Institutions, Instruments, and the Innovator’s Dilemma

    Posted by T. Greer on 16th June 2013 (All posts by )

    I have written several posts that use Carroll Quigley’s “institutional imperative” as a lens for understanding contemporary events. [1] Mr. Quigley suggests that all human organizations fit into one of two types: instruments and institutions. Instruments are those organizations whose role is limited to the function they were designed to perform. (Think NASA in the 1960s, defined by its mission to put a man on the moon, or the NAACP during the same timeframe, instrumental to the civil rights movement.) Institutions, in contrast, are organizations that exist for their own state; their prime function is their own survival.

    Most institutions start out as instruments, but as with NASA after the end of the Cold War or the NAACP after the victories of the civil rights movement, their instrumental uses are eventually eclipsed. They are then left adrift, in search of a mission that will give new direction to their efforts, or as happens more often, these organizations begin to shift their purpose away from what they do and towards what they are. Organizations often betray their nature when called to defend themselves from outside scrutiny: ‘instruments’ tend to emphasize what their employees or volunteers aim to accomplish; ‘institutions’ tend to emphasize the importance of the heritage they embody or even the number of employees they have.

    Mr. Quigley’s institutional imperative has profound implications for any democratic society – especially a society host to so many publicly funded organizations as ours. Jonathan Rauch’s essay, “Demosclerosis” is the best introduction to the unsettling consequences that come when public organizations transform from instruments into institutions. [2] While Mr. Rauch does not use the terminology of the Institutional Imperative, his conclusions mesh neatly with it. Describing the history and growth of America’s bureaucratic class, Mr. Rauch suggests its greatest failing: a bureaucracy, once created, is hard to get rid of. To accomplish whatever mission it was originally tasked with a bureaucracy must hire people. It must have friends in high places. The number of people who have a professional or economic stake in the organization’s survival grows. No matter what else it may do, it inevitably becomes a publicly sponsored interest group. Any attempt to reduce its influence, power, or budget will be fought against with ferocity by the multitude of interests who now depend on it. Even when it becomes clear that this institution is no longer an instrument, the political capital needed to dismantle it is just too high to make the attempt worth a politician’s time or effort. So the size and scope of bureaucracies grow, encumbering the country with an increasing number of regulations it cannot change, employees it does not need, and organizations that it cannot get rid of.

    I used to think that the naked self-interest described by Mr. Rauch was the driving force behind the Institutional Imperative. It undoubtedly plays a large role (particularly when public funds are involved), but there are other factors at play. One of the most important of these is what business strategists call Marginal Thinking.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Markets and Trading, Politics, Systems Analysis | 16 Comments »