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    Paying Higher Taxes Can be Very Profitable

    Posted by David Foster on 15th April 2019 (All posts by )

    (originally posted in 2010–now an April perennial)

    Chevy Chase, MD, is an affluent suburb of Washington DC. Median household income is over $200K, and a significant percentage of households have incomes that are much, much higher. Stores located in Chevy Chase include Tiffany & Co, Ralph Lauren, Christian Dior, Versace, Jimmy Choo, Nieman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Saks-Jandel.

    PowerLine observed that during the 2008 election season, yards in Chevy Chase were thick with Obama signs–and wondered how these people were now feeling (in October 2009) about the prospect of sharp tax increases for people in their income brackets.

    The PowerLine guys are very astute, but I think they were missing a key point on this one. There are substantial groups of people who stood to benefit financially from the policies of the Obama/Pelosi/Reid triumvirate (really, the Democratic Party in general), and these benefits can greatly outweigh the costs of any additional taxes that these policies require them to pay. Many of the residents of Chevy Chase–a very high percentage of whom get their income directly or indirectly from government activities–fall into this category.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Miscellaneous | 3 Comments »

    Boredom

    Posted by David Foster on 14th April 2019 (All posts by )

    Ammo Grrrll writes about her husband, a man who is never bored…”the most self-amusing human I have ever known, mostly due to an overabundance of enthusiasms and boundless curiosity about every dang thing in the world.”  She contrasts this attitude with the attitudes of those people who really can’t think of anything to do unless they need to go to work.

    Valerie Jarrett famously said of Obama:  “He’s been bored to death his whole life.”  We can’t be sure, of course, that Jarrett is here actually reflecting Obama’s true characteristics;  but we can be sure that she feels that the characteristic of being bored one’s whole life is something admirable, a sign of intellectual and maybe moral superiority.

    (I think it’s correct to say that the affectation of boredom has traditionally been associated with members of aristocracies)

    Years ago, when I visited the American Museum of the American Indian, one of the exhibits was a collection of jewelry made by former senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Cheyenne)…really fine stuff, not that I’m any judge.  I remember wondering at the time:  how many other politicians have a serious hobby or avocation such as this?  I thought then and I think now that it’s probably pretty exceptional; most of them seem to have few interests other than the pursuit of power and activities directly related to that pursuit.

    In his important memoir of growing up in Germany between the wars, Sebastian Haffner discusses a period (during the Stresemann chancellorship) when the political and economic climate in that country stabilized significantly.  Most people were a lot happier:

    The last ten years were forgotten like a bad dream. The Day of Judgment was remote again, and there was no demand for saviors or revolutionaries…There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal-mindedness, good wages, good food and a little political boredom. everyone was cordially invited to concentrate on their personal lives, to arrange their affairs according to their own taste and to find their own paths to happiness.

    But…and I think this is a particuarly important point…a return to private life was not to everyone’s taste:

    A generation of young Germans had become accustomed to having the entire content of their lives delivered gratis, so to speak, by the public sphere, all the raw material for their deeper emotions…Now that these deliveries suddently ceased, people were left helpless, impoverished, robbed, and disappointed. They had never learned how to live from within themselves, how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful and worth while, how to enjoy it and make it interesting. So they regarded the end of political tension and the return of private liberty not as a gift, but as a deprivation. They were bored, their minds strayed to silly thoughts, and they began to sulk.

    and

    To be precise (the occasion demands precision, because in my opinion it provides the key to the contemporary period of history): it was not the entire generation of young Germans. Not every single individual reacted in this fashion. There were some who learned during this period, belatedly and a little clumsily, as it were, how to live. they began to enjoy their own lives, weaned themselves from the cheap intoxication of the sports of war and revolution, and started to develop their own personalities. It was at this time that, invisibly and unnoticed, the Germans divided into those who later became Nazis and those who would remain non-Nazis.

    I believe that in America today, there are a lot of people–largely, but not exclusively on the Left–whose political activity is motivated in large part by their inability to make their own lives great, beautiful and worth while.

    Discuss, if so inclined.

    Posted in Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Germany, Human Behavior, USA | 17 Comments »

    A Truly Courageous Business Decision

    Posted by David Foster on 7th April 2019 (All posts by )

    Today marks the 55th anniversary of IBM’s announcement of the System/360 line…which made obsolete virtually all of its then-existing products.  The 360 line established a common architecture for machines of widely-differing price and performance characteristics, with the individual product implementations of this architecture differing considerably.  The goal was compatibility, so that customers could upgrade without extensive rewriting of programs.  Consolidating IBM’s diverse computer systems into this single system architecture was a bold decision; truly, a bet-the-company decision: in the end, it paid off, with devastating consequences for the ‘Seven Dwarfs’ who were IBM’s competitors at the time…but the implementation was frighteningly stressful.  A good article on the project recently appeared in IEEE Spectrum.

    Tom Watson Jr, who ran IBM during this time period, discusses the 360 project extensively in his superb memoir, Father, Son, and Co.  I reviewed it here–highly recommended.

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Management, Tech | 21 Comments »

    Movie Review: “O”

    Posted by David Foster on 5th April 2019 (All posts by )

    (This is a rerun of a post from 2010–I was reminded of this movie by Paula Marantz Cohen’s WSJ article about teaching ‘Othello’)

    Odin James–“O”–is a high-school basketball star. His friend Hugo also plays for the team, though not on O’s level. When O singles out another player–Michael–for special recognition, Hugo’s already-high jealously level reaches a fever pitch.

    Roger, a wealthy but awkward and widely-disliked student, is hopelessly in love with O’s girlfriend, Desi. Hugo enlists him in a plot which he sells to Roger as a way of luring Desi away from O…but his real intent is to destroy both O and Michael, with Desi as collateral damage.

    Does the plot sound a little bit familiar?

    This is, of course, “Othello,” set in an American prep school instead of in Venice, and with the title character as an athlete rather than a military commander.

    O is Othello (Mekhi Phifer)
    Desi is Desdemona (Julia Stiles)
    Hugo is Iago (Josh Hartnett)
    Roger is Rodrigo (Elden Henson)
    Michael is Michael Casio (Andrew Keegan)
    Emily is Emilia (Rain Phoenix)
    The basketball coach, nicknamed “Duke,” is the Duke (Martin Sheen)

    No attempt is made to use Shakespearean language, which was probably a wise decision. While this adaptation may sound contrived from the above description, I think it actually works very well. (The film was released in 2001.)

    There are a few interesting differences between the film and the original play, as well as some interesting angles for transforming Renaissance Venice into a modern high school:

    (1)In the movie, Hugo/Iago is the coach’s son, which plays an important role in his jealousy of O/Othello. There is no such relationship or motivation in the play.

    (2)In the play, Iago’s hate of Othello and of Michael Casio is driven largely by Othello’s decision to choose Casio, rather than Iago, as his principal lieutenant. The recognition/elevation of Michael is also an important factor in the movie–however, in the play, Othello’s promotion decision is based largely on factors which Iago, with some justice, sees as extraneous: book-learning and family/social connections rather than combat experience. Hugo/Iago suffers from no such social-class disadvantage in the movie.

    (3)In the play, Iago convinces Othello that he, Iago, understands more about the true nature of Venetian women than Othello the Moor–an outsider to Venice–possibly can, and that hence, Othello had better listen to Iago’s advice. In the movie, this turns into an assertion by Hugo that O…the only African-American in the school…needs to pay attention to Hugo’s greater experience with white women (“They are all horny snakes,” he warns O.)

    (4)In the play, Michael Casio is portrayed in a very positive way. In the film, he comes across as more than a bit of a jerk.

    (5)Like the play, the movie ends with the murder of Desi and Emily/Emilia and the suicide of O/Othello…but whereas in the play, Michael survives and is designated as Governor at the end, in the movie he is shot and it is left ambiguous whether or not he survives. I think Shakespeare perhaps intended the elevation of Michael Casio at the end to symbolize the continuity of society and of proper authority: there is no such symbolism in the film. The ending of the film is at least as dark as that of the play, and that’s pretty dark.

    An interesting sound track, ranging from hip-hop to opera.

    Certainly not a substitute for the original, but very well worth seeing, in my opinion.

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Education, Film | 3 Comments »

    A Convergence of Media Empires and Telecommunications Empires

    Posted by David Foster on 31st March 2019 (All posts by )

    CNN and MSNBC have come in for much criticism for irresponsible reporting and political bias–merited criticism, IMO–especially in the wake of the Mueller report.  It has been too rarely, noted, though, that these networks are not independent entities.  CNN is owned by AT&T, and MSNBC is owned by Comcast.

    Not to be left behind, Verizon appears to me to also be playing the political-bias game through its Yahoo service. I have a Yahoo Mail account (Yahoo owned by VZ since 2017), and every day I get a “news” email from them.  A high percentage of these are anti-Trump in tone, and I doubt that an objective observer could look at a month or more of these communications and conclude that any attempt at balance was being made.

    From a business standpoint, I question whether there is any real synergy between a telecommunications business and an entertainment and “news” business.  After combining Yahoo and AOL into its ridiculously-named ‘Oath” division, Verizon has already written down $4.8 billion in asset value (and also changed the name.)  I doubt that AT&T management is really going to add any value to its vast Time-Warner acquisition.  But, not being a shareholder or bondholder in any of these companies, I really don’t care all that much.  What I do care about are the societal and public-policy implications of these amalgamations.

    Why is AT&T adopting, through its CNN subsidiary, a strident anti-Trump position?  Does this reflect AT&T’s corporate policy, or are they merely adopting a decentralized management style and letting subsidiary-level management make their own decisions? Does the anti-Trump drum-beating that I perceive in Yahoo reflect Verizon corporate policy?  Do they even know it is going on, or is it just a lower-level decision in a department that is now probably perceived as being not all that important or strategic?  Does it make sense for VZ to offend a lot of people–somewhere around 50% of the US population–current or potential customers for a wide range of their services–in the name of a strident opinion stream that doesn’t even have any direct revenue generation associated with it?

    TV news viewership isn’t what it once was, but is still nontrivial.  The assets and income streams of these telecommunications companies are so vast that they can easily afford to subsidize marginal or outright unprofitable news operations on behalf of corporate political opinions or those of individual executives. At some point, they may hit ‘negative synergy’, as the political slant of the news operations drives away customers for other services, but they don’t seem very concerned about that and relatively few people, so far, even seem to realize the connection between the TV channel or the online systems and the telecommunications company that owns it.

    When people talk about ‘the media’, they need to recognize who/what the media actually is.

    Posted in Media, Tech | 27 Comments »

    Important Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 23rd March 2019 (All posts by )

    Sarah Hoyt:  The Totalitarian Train in Rolling Down the Tracks

    If I could communicate just one thing, across the increasing divide of language and thought to the left it would be this: that warm and fuzzy feeling you get when you’re running someone down is not righteousness.  It’s just the feeling apes get when they run off another ape.

    If you’re part of a band and all of you were piling on an outsider — or an insider who was just declared an outsider and run off — you’ll also feel very connected to your band, and a feeling of being loved and belonging.  It’s not real. It’s the result of a “reward” rush of endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine that flood your body after stress and a perceived “victory.”  Oxytocin, particularly, promotes a feeling of bonding with those around you.

    Just remember, as you’re high fiving each other and believing that something that feels so good has to be good and morally “just” you could be the victim tomorrow.  Because the feelings don’t last, and that rush of “righteousness and victory” is addictive. Those who are your comrades today will be looking for someone to kick in the face tomorrow. And it really could be you.

    I’m reminded again of a passage in Goethe’s Faust. After finding that she is pregnant–which meant big trouble for a single woman in that time and place–Gretchen is talking with her awful friend Lieschen, who (still unaware of Gretchen’s situation) is licking her chops about the prospect of humiliating another girl (Barbara) who has also become pregnant outside of marriage. Here’s Gretchen, reflecting on her own past complicity in such viciousness:

    How readily I used to blame
    Some poor young soul that came to shame!
    Never found sharp enough words like pins
    To stick into other people’s sins
    Black as it seemed, I tarred it to boot
    And never black enough to suit
    Would cross myself, exclaim and preen–
    Now I myself am bared to sin!
    Yet all of it that drove me here
    God! ws so innocent, was so dear!

    Doesn’t this describe a lot of today’s SJW behavior and other political behavior?  “Never found sharp enough words like pins To stick in other people’s sins…Would cross myself, exclaim, and preen”

    Lots of exclaiming and preening going on these days..quite likely, even, in certain churches, some crossing of themselves by activists as part of the denunciation of the “others.”   The extent of the pleasure gained by many from group cruelty toward approved targets is pretty clear and is a major factor in today’s social and political toxicity.

    Posted in Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Human Behavior, Leftism, USA | 13 Comments »

    Book Review: The Year of the French (rerun)

    Posted by David Foster on 17th March 2019 (All posts by )

    The Year of the French, by Thomas Flanagan

    (This being St Patrick’s day, I’m again taking advantage of the hook to re-post this review, in the hope of inspiring a few more people to read this incredibly fine historical novel)

    Ralph Peters calls this book “the finest historical novel written in English, at least in the twentieth century,” going on to say “except for ‘The Leopard,’ I know of no historical novel that so richly and convincingly captures the ambience of a bygone world.”

    In August of 1798, the French revolutionary government landed 1000 troops in County Mayo to support indigenous Irish rebels, with the objective of overthrowing British rule in Ireland.  The Year of the French tells the (fictionalized but fact-based) story of these events from the viewpoint of several characters, representing different groups in the complex and strife-ridden Irish social structure of the time.

    Owen MacCarthy is a schoolmaster and poet who writes in the Gaelic tradition.  He is pressed by illiterate locals to write a threatening letter to a landlord who has evicted tenants while switching land from farming to cattle-raising.  With his dark vision of how an attempt at rebellion must end–“In Castlebar.  They will load you in carts with your wrists tied behind you and take you down to Castlebar and try you there and hang you there”–MacCarthy is reluctant to get involved, but he writes the letter.

    Sam Cooper, the recipient of the letter, is a small-scale landlord, and captain of the local militia.  Indigenously Irish, his family converted to Protestantism several generations ago to avoid the crippling social and economic disabilities imposed on Catholics. Cooper’s wife, Kate, herself still Catholic, is a beautiful and utterly ruthless woman…she advises Cooper to respond to the letter by rounding up “a few of the likeliest rogues,”  jailing and flogging them, without any concern for actual guilt or innocence. “My God, what a creature you are for a woman,”  Cooper responds. “It is a man you should have been born.”  “A strange creature that would make me in your bed,” Kate fires back, “It is a woman I am, and fine cause you have to know it…What matters now is who has the land and who will keep it.”

    Ferdy O’Donnell  is a young hillside farmer on Cooper’s land.  Far back in the past, the land was owned by the O’Donnell family…Ferdy had once shown Cooper  “a valueless curiosity, a parchment that recorded the fact in faded ink the colour of old, dried blood.”

    Arthur Vincent Broome is a Protestant clergyman who is not thrilled by the “wild and dismal region” to which he has been assigned, but who performs his duties as best he can. Broome is resolved to eschew religious bigotry, but…”I affirm most sincerely that distinctions which rest upon creed mean little to me, and yet I confess that my compassion for their misery is mingled with an abhorrence of their alien ways…they live and thrive in mud and squalour…their music, for all that antiquarians and fanatics can find to say in its flavor, is wild and savage…they combine a grave and gentle courtesy with a murderous violence that erupts without warning…”‘

    Malcolm Elliott is a Protestant landlord and solicitor, and a member of the Society of United Irishmen.  This was a revolutionary group with Enlightenment ideals, dedicated to bringing Catholics and Protestants together in the cause of overthrowing British rule and establishing an Irish Republic.  His wife, Judith, is an Englishwoman with romantic ideas about Ireland.

    John Moore, also a United Irishman, is a member of one of the few Catholic families that have managed to hold on to their land.  He is in love with Ellen Treacy, daughter of another prominent Catholic family: she returns his love, but believes that he is caught in a web of words that can only lead to disaster.  “One of these days you will say a loose word to some fellow and he will get on his horse and ride off to Westport to lay an information with Dennis Browne, and that will be the last seen of you”

    Dennis Browne is High Sheriff of Mayo…smooth, manipulative, and devoted to the interests of the very largest landowners in the county, such as his brother Lord Altamont and the mysterious Lord Glenthorne, the “Big Lord” who owns vast landholdings and an immense house which he has never visited.

    Randall MacDonnell is a Catholic landowner with a decrepit farm and house, devoted primarily to his horses.  His motivations for joining the rebellion are quite different from those of the idealistic United Irishmen…”For a hundred years of more, those Protestant bastards have been the cocks of the walk, strutting around on acres that belong by rights to the Irish…there are men still living who remember when a son could grab his father’s land by turning Protestant.”

    Jean Joseph Humbert is the commander of the French forces.  A former dealer in animal skins, he owes his position in life to the revolution.  He is a talented commander, but  the battle he is most concerned about is the battle for status and supremacy between himself and  Napoleon Bonaparte.

    Charles Cornwallis, the general who surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown, is now in charge of defeating the French and the rebels and pacifying the rebellious areas of Ireland.   Seen through the eyes of  a young aide who admires him greatly, Cornwallis is portrayed as a basically kindly man who can be hard when he thinks it necessary, but takes no pleasure in it.  “The color of war had long since bleached from his thoughts, and it remained for him only a duty to be scrupulously performed.”

    This book is largely about the way in which the past lives on in the present, both in the world of physical objects and the world of social relationships.  Two characters who make a brief appearance are Richard Manning, proprietor of a decrepit and debt-laden castle, and his companion Ellen Kirwan:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, France, History, Ireland | 2 Comments »

    The College Admissions Scam and the State of American Higher Education

    Posted by David Foster on 16th March 2019 (All posts by )

    The admissions scandal reveals a lot about the characters of the parents, college officials, and others that were involved; more importantly, it points up some unpleasant truths about the state of American higher education today.

    Heather MacDonald:

    None of this could have happened if higher education had not itself become a corrupt institution, featuring low classroom demands, no core knowledge acquisition, low grading standards, fashionable (but society-destroying) left-wing activism, luxury-hotel amenities, endless partying, and huge expense. Students often learn virtually nothing during their college years…

    Peggy Noonan, writing in the WSJ about the pressure on kids to become Success Robots:

    I go to schools a lot, have taught at universities and seen a ton of great kids and professors who’ve really sacrificed themselves to teach. A few years ago I worked for a few months at an Ivy League school. I expected a lot of questions about politics, history and literature. But that is not what the students were really interested in. What they were interested in—it was almost my first question, and it never abated—was networking. They wanted to know how you network. At first I was surprised: “I don’t know, that wasn’t on my mind, I think it all comes down to the work.” Then I’d ask: “Why don’t you just make friends instead?” By the end I was saying, “It’s a mistake to see people as commodities, as things you can use! Concentrate on the work!” They’d get impatient. They knew there was a secret to getting ahead, that it was networking, and that I was cruelly withholding successful strategies.

    In time I concluded they’d been trained to be shallow, encouraged to see others as commodities. They didn’t think great work would be rewarded, they thought great connections were. And it was what they’d implicitly been promised by the school: Get in here and you can network with the cream of the crop, you’ll rise to the top with them.’

    Indeed, much of the promotion of Higher Ed in the US has been based not on the idea that you will acquire knowledge, which is in itself a worthwhile thing, nor on the idea that you will acquire specific conceptual skills needed for your career, but rather, on the point that you will acquire a Degree, a Credential, a piece of paper.  And where ‘elite’ colleges are concerned, a big part of the perceived value of that credential is its scarcity value, quite similar to the scarcity value of a limited-edition print, the plates of which are destroyed after the initial run in order to keep the prices up.

    Fifty years ago, Peter Drucker asserted that one of the major advantages America has over Europe is the absence of a narrow educational funnel, in the form of a few ‘elite’ institutions, through which future high-level leaders must pass:

    One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…

    We as a country are a lot closer to accepting Grande Ecole status for Harvard Law School and similar institutions than we were when Drucker wrote the above.

    He continues:

    It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers. It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the engineer with a degree from North Idaho A. and M. is an engineer and not a draftsman.

    Parents who participated in the admissions scam seem to have had a view of American society similar to that which Drucker attributed to European society of 50 years ago.  And indeed, as I noted above, for some fields, this has even become somewhat true.

    To a considerable extent, the real social function of the ‘elite’ college degree in America today is the erection and perpetuation of class barriers:  the limitation of social mobility.  See this piece by Glenn Reynolds.

    If the colleges in question had truly rigorous programs, and one had to do well in these programs in order to get the coveted degree, then scams like the current one wouldn’t work very well. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that bribing your way into MIT would do you much good if you couldn’t do the work.  And bribing your way into a flight training program wouldn’t do you any good unless you developed the knowledge to pass the relevant written exam and the skills to convince an FAA Designated Examiner that you knew what you were doing.  Unfortunately, too many of America’s colleges seem to be more interested in establishing their admission processes as gateways to success than in demonstrating enough respect for what they profess to be teaching to ensure that their graduates have actually learned something about it when they get that magical certificate.

    Drucker also wrote:

    The central moral problem of the knowledge society will be the responsibility of the learned, the men of knowledge. Historically, the men of knowledge have not held power, at least not in the West. They were ornaments…But now knowledge has power. It controls access to opportunity and advancement. Scientists and scholars are no longer merely “on tap,” they are “on top.”…

    But power and wealth impose responsibility. The learned may have more knowledge than the rest of us, but learning rarely confers wisdom. It is, therefore, not surprising that the men of knowledge do not realize that they have to acquire responsibility fast. They are no different from any other group that ever before entered into power..They too believe that anyone who questions their motives must be either fool or villain, either “anti-intellectual” or “McCarthyite.” But the men of knowledge, too, will find out that power can be justified only through responsibility…

    It is highly probable that the next great wave of popular criticism, indignation, and revolt in the United States will be provoked by the arrogance of the learned.

    I’m not sure university administrators, for the most part, should really count as “the learned”, although they do play that role on TV.

    Posted in Academia, Education, Europe, USA | 22 Comments »

    Robot of the Week

    Posted by David Foster on 9th March 2019 (All posts by )

    Fedex local delivery robot.

    I can think of some conditions that might be problematic for these things to deal with.

    Posted in Customer Service, Tech, Transportation | 3 Comments »

    Freezing in the Dark

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd March 2019 (All posts by )

    There has been much concern about possible hacking of the power grid by Russia, China, and others.  Here we have a segment from Rachel Maddow, inspired by a threat analysis from the US Intelligence Community.  From the analysis:

    China has the ability to launch cyber attacks that cause localized, temporary disruptive effects on critical infrastructure–such as disruption of a natural gas pipeline for days to weeks–in the United States. Russia has the ability to execute cyber attacks in the United States that generate localized, temporary disruptive effects on critical infrastructure.

    Maddow:  It’s like negative 50 degrees in the Dakotas right now. What would happen if Russia killed the power today?  What would happen if all the natural gas lines that service Sioux Falls just poof on the coldest day in recent memories?

    What would happen?  Nothing good.  These are serious threats, and I doubt that Russia and China are or will continue to be the only entities able to conduct such cyberattacks.  And there is also plenty of risk for non-cyber attacks…physical-world sabotage…which could have similarly malign impact on energy infrastructure.

    But we don’t need to wait for a foreign adversary or domestic terrorist organization to cripple our energy infrastructure.  We can quite effectively do it to ourselves.

    In late January, it was very cold in Minnesota.  And there wasn’t a lot of wind.  Natural gas, also, was in short supply, as a result of pipeline capacity constraints.  Xcel Energy urged its gas customers to turn down thermostats and water heaters, and to use electric heaters as necessary.  The electricity was coming from primarily coal plants (40 GW) and natural gas plants (about 23 GW)–the gas plants, of course, are also dependent on pipeline capacity.

    Also in Minnesota, here’s a large solar farm covered with snow.  Wonder if it’s melted or been swept off yet?  And here’s a cautionary story from Germany, where long, still, and dim winters do not mix well with wind and solar power generation.

    Solar and wind in most parts of the US are now small enough in proportion to overall grid capacity that shortfalls can be made up by the other sources.  What happens if they come to represent the majority of the grid’s power capacity–not to mention the exclusive source of capacity, as demanded by some?

    It may be feasible to store a few hours of electricity without driving costs out of sight…but what about the situation in which wind and solar are underperforming for several days in a row?  Interconnection of sources and demands over a wide area (geographical diversity) can help, but is by no means a comprehensive solution. So far, the gas, coal, and hydro plants have been there to kick in where necessary.

    Almost every day, there are assertions that new solar is cheaper than its fossil-fuel equivalents.  This may be true in some areas if you ignore the need to match supply and demand on an instantaneous basis.  But if the fossil-fuel plants are there to handle only those periods when wind, solar, and limited battery storage aren’t sufficient to meet demand, then the total energy production against which their capital cost is charged will be much lower, and hence, the cost per unit will go up. (See the California Duck Must Die for a nice visual portrayal of how widespread solar adoption has changed the load curve for the other sources.)  In some states with net metering, a home or business owner can sell excess power to the grid when loads are low and buy it back at the same unit price when loads are at their maximum. This becomes especially problematic when “renewables” become a major part of the mix.  Unless incentives are intelligently crafted–unlikely, given politics–“renewable” sources will effectively be subsidized by conventional sources and potentially make the construction and maintenance of those conventional sources impossible.  See If Solar and Wind Are So Cheap, Why Do They Make Electricity So Expensive?

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Business, Crony Capitalism, Current Events, Energy & Power Generation, Environment, Europe, Germany, Russia, Tech | 41 Comments »

    A Robot of the Week, Revisited

    Posted by David Foster on 20th February 2019 (All posts by )

    In a robots of the week post a while back, I mentioned two companies that are attempting to automate the apparel-production process. Recently, one of these companies, Softwear Automation, announced that its Sewbot product is now also available on a rental basis under the banner Sewbot as a Service.  (SaaS, playing off the acronym for the currently-hot field of Software as a Service.)  From the SaaS announcement:

    From 1994 to 2005, the United States lost more than 900,000 textile and apparel jobs to offshoring.

    Fast-forward to 2018. The pendulum is swinging back and textiles are returning as lean, highly automated, environmentally conscious production facilities. Within the last six years, there have been significant announcements by foreign-owned textile companies investing in the United States, with site selection choices clustered in the Southeast including the first Chinese owned Cut Make Trim factory in Arkansas.

    Despite this industry reversal, the seamstresses are not returning. While the knowledge can be shared to upskill workers, people don’t have the  desire to work in a traditional textile factory.

    To solve this and accelerate the growth of US based textile manufacturing, Softwear Automation is announcing SEWBOTS-as-a-Service, a rental lease service to allow manufacturers, brands, and retailers to source and manufacture here in the US at a lower cost than outsourcing and with greater predictability and quality. While we understand the benefits of “Made in America”, the focus of this program is to offer US textile manufacturing more control, greater margin, faster turn times and less inventory.

    The rental rate for Sewbot is quoted as starting at $5000/month, which comes to $55/shift for a three-shift operation.Softwear is also now offering production-rate estimates for various kinds of textile products. For microfiber towels, a single operator supervising 6 robots can make 2880 towels in an 8-hour shift, compared with 223 towels for a single operator performing traditional manual activities.   Other product types which the company sees as suitable for Sewbot automation include mattress covers, pillows, automotive floormats, t-shirts, and shoes (uppers).

    Most aspects of the apparel supply chain have long been highly automated: indeed, the mechanization of spinning and weaving was the hallmark of the Industrial Revolution.  The sewing process, however, has remained stubbornly labor-intensive, largely because the flexible nature of fabric makes it hard to handle mechanically.  Softwear Automation’s solution involves the use of machine vision for precise fabric positioning.  This article at IEEE Spectrum explains a little bit about how it works.

    Depending on how well these systems turn out to work in practice, and how the technology evolves, they may turn out to be not only the robots of the week, but the robots of the year or even the decade.  Apparel-making is a vast industry, concentrated in nations which are not-so-well-off economically, and employs a large number of people. A high level of automation would likely result in much of this production being relocated closer to the markets, thus saving transportation costs and shortening supply cycles.  The consequences for countries like China, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka could be pretty unpleasant.  For the US, the onshoring of the work would seem clearly to be beneficial.

    I don’t know enough about the industry to analyze the economics of Sewbot vs low-wage-country production in any depth, but back-of-the envelope for one product type (the towels) suggests that on a pure direct labor cost per unit basis, a US-based Sewbot can still be undercut by human labor rates below about $4/hour.  (Calculated using the rental rate:  for many companies, purchase may offer better economics.)  But production isn’t the only factor in the product cost equation, of course, and in many situations proximity to end markets will be of considerable value: especially simpler inventory control and faster response to style changes. And a Made in the USA label is surely worth at least something.  Also, the economics may be different for some of the other product types…for the t-shirts, the company is citing a unit cost of $.33 for US-based production using  Sewbot…this compares with something around $.22 for a country such as Bangladesh, and is probably cheaper than China at the current wage rates.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, China, India, International Affairs, Tech, USA, Vietnam | 6 Comments »

    Well, This is a Cheerful Thought

    Posted by David Foster on 13th February 2019 (All posts by )

    …not.

    Twitter’s Takeover of Politics is Just Getting Started.

    Summary at Tyler Cowen’s blog:

    But what does this new, more intense celebrity culture mean for actual outcomes? The more power and influence that individual communicators wield over public opinion, the harder it will be for a sitting president to get things done. (The best option, see above, will be to make your case and engage your adversaries on social media.) The harder it will be for an aspirant party to put forward a coherent, predictable and actionable political program.

    Finally, the issues that are easier to express on social media will become the more important ones. Technocratic dreams will fade, and fiery rhetoric and identity politics will rule the day. And if you think this is the political world we’re already living in, rest assured: It’s just barely gotten started.

    See also my post freedom, the village, and social media.

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Culture, Deep Thoughts, Politics, Tech | 20 Comments »

    Even Smart People Get It Wrong Sometimes

    Posted by David Foster on 7th February 2019 (All posts by )

    Economist Art Laffer:

    “China is a huge plus to the U.S. because without China there is no Walmart, and without Walmart there is no middle class or lower class prosperity in America.”

    Actually, the US was known for broad-based prosperity long before either Walmart or China was a significant factor.  It was really only in the 1980s that Walmart’s expansion really took off…and it was then by no means as China-dependent as it has more recently become.  Indeed, starting in 1984 and extending at least through the early 1990s, Walmart was a strong supporter of the Crafted with Pride in the USA campaign, which was launched by textile entrepreneur Roger Milliken, among others.

    China’s presence in the global marketplace was greatly expanded by the Permanent Normal Trade Relations bill, which was signed by President Clinton in October 2000, as well as by China’s own economic-liberalization policies.  (Some data on the growth of Chinese exports over time, here)

    Real mean US household income, which is effectively a measure of price levels as well as wages/salaries, grew from $71773 in 1985 to $93887 in 2000.  Fifteen years later, in 2015, it had risen to only $95887.  (2017 dollars)

    Real median household income  grew from $51455 in 1985 to $59938 in fifteen years later, in 2000. In 2015, this indicator had actually declined to $58476.  (It grew to $61372 by 2017)

    There are a lot of factors that affect an economy, of course, and it would be unfair to conclude that the slowdown in American household income growth was caused by the vast expansion of trade with China.  Maybe it would have been even worse without Chinese imports and exports?

    National Review writer Robet VerBruggen cites “research” suggesting that “consumers save hundreds of billions of dollars per year thanks to expanded trade with China, and six-figure sums for every manufacturing job lost.  (Tucker) Carlson may be right that cheap junk from China doesn’t make us happy in any fundamental way, but it would put serious strains on family budgets if all that junk got expensive again.”

    Maybe. But I doubt if the strains would really be all that serious over time. If manufacturers did not have vast reservoirs of low-wage labor available for production of a particular product, then the incentives to improve productivity when making that product with high-wage labor would be greatly increased. Capital investment that makes no sense when you are paying workers $1.50/hour may make great sense when you have to pay $15/hour.  Furthermore, product designs themselves can often be changed in minor ways to make them more manufacturable; again, this would help reduce the cost impact of domestic or other high-wage-country manufacturing.

    I doubt if the strains on family budgets resulting from such changes in production-labor costs would have anywhere near the impact that has resulted from dysfunctional public schools (resulting in a need to pay for private schooling or move to a pricier neighborhood), unreasonable constraints on home-building, and out-of-control administrative and facilities spending by universities, coupled with irresponsible marketing of degree programs and student loans by same.

    One thing that has definitely been beneficial about China’s export trade is the drastic reduction in poverty in that country; this reduction is indeed something that we should all celebrate.  I suspect, however, that given economic liberalization, China could probably be doing just as well or almost as well with an economic approach that is not so extreme in its trade orientation but more focused on satisfying domestic demand…and this would probably be much more sustainable for them in the long run.

    Also, here are some additional links on US wage trends for anyone who’s interested:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, China, Economics & Finance, Tech, USA | 29 Comments »

    Financial Markets Commentary

    Posted by David Foster on 30th January 2019 (All posts by )

    John Hussman on valuations

    The saga of Broker Joe, from 2007

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Markets and Trading | 7 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 27th January 2019 (All posts by )

    Why do journalists love twitter and hate blogging?

    The legacy of China’s Confucian bureaucracy.  Related:  my previous post on the costs of formalism and credentialism.

    Stroking egos does nothing for students — raising expectation does.

    Magic and Politics.

    Related to the above:  Witches: the new woke heroines.

    Legos, marketing, and gender.  “In 1981,” says a woman who as a child was pictured in a Legos ad back then, “LEGOs were ‘Universal Building Sets’ and that’s exactly what they were…for boys and girls. Toys are supposed to foster creativity. But nowadays, it seems that a lot more toys already have messages built into them before a child even opens the pink or blue package.”

    What will be the economic impact of China’s increasing emphasis on economic control and preferential treatment for state-run enterprises?

    What is the fastest the US economy can grow?

    Midnight at the Gemba. Kevin Meyer visits the night shift at the medical-device molding plant he was running.

    Posted in Blogging, Business, Capitalism, China, Culture, Economics & Finance, Management, Media, Religion | 12 Comments »

    Do You Have Lamarr in Your Car?

    Posted by David Foster on 20th January 2019 (All posts by )

    It has been suggested that the short-range wireless protocol known as Bluetooth should instead have been called Lamarr, in honor of the actress/inventor Hedy Lamar.

    Hedy (maiden name Kiesler) was born in Vienna in 1914. From her early childhood she was fascinated by acting–and she was also very interested in how things worked, an interest which was encouraged by her bank-director father.  She began acting professionally in the late 1920s, and gained fame and notoriety when she appeared–briefly nude–in the film Ecstasy.  It was followed by the more respectable Sissy, in which she played the Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

    In 1933, Hedy married the arms manufacturer Friedrich Mandl, finding him charming and fascinating and also probably influenced by his vast wealth.  She was soon turned off by his Fascist connections and his extremely controlling nature–rather ridiculously, he even tried to buy up all copies and negatives of Ecstasy.  He did not allow her to pursue her acting career, but did require her to participate, mainly as eye-candy, in high level meetings with German and Italian political leaders and with people involved in military technology.  What she heard at these sessions both interested and alarmed her.

    Finding her marriage intolerable and the political situation in her country disturbing, Hedy left and first came to London. There she met MGM head Louis B Mayer, who offered her an acting job at $125/week.  She turned down the offer, but booked herself onto the same transatlantic liner as Mayer, bound for the USA.  On shipboard, she impressed him enough to receive a $500/week contract.  He told her that a name change would be desirable, and she settled on “Lamarr”…the sea.

    With the outbreak of war in Europe, Hedy followed the news closely.  For reasons that are not totally clear, she began thinking about the problems of torpedo guidance:  the ability to correct the weapon’s course on its way to the target would clearly improve the odds of a hit.  She had heard the possibility of a wire-guided torpedo discussed over dinner at Mandl’s…but this approach had limitations.  Radio was an obvious alternative, but how to prevent jamming?

    As an anti-jamming technique, she hit on the idea of having the transmitter and the receiver change frequencies simultaneously and continuously…she may have been inspired partly by the remote-control radio receiver which was available at the time, possibly either she owned one or had seen one at somebody else’s home.  With synchronized frequency changes at both ends of the radio link, jamming would be impossible unless an enemy knew and could emulate the exact pattern of the changes.  But how to synchronize the transmitter and the receiver?

    Enter Hedy’s friend George Antheil, who called himself “the bad boy of American music.”  Antheil was fascinated by player pianos and had created and performed compositions which depended on simultaneous operation of several of these players.  Maybe the punched paper strips used by player pianos could provide a solution to the frequency-hopping problem?

    US Patent 2282387, issued to Hedy Kiesler Markey (the name reflecting a brief unsuccessful marriage) and George Antheil, implemented this approach.  The feeding of the paper strip on the launching ship and that inside the torpedo would be started simultaneously, and the holes in the strips would select the frequencies to be used at any given time…88 rows are mentioned, offering 88 frequency choices, but obviously this number could be smaller or larger.  Commands to the rudder of the torpedo would be sent via modulation of a carrier wave on the always-changing frequency selected.  (The two inventors had retained an electrical engineer to assist with specification of some of the details.)

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Biography, Book Notes, Culture, Film, Media, Tech, War and Peace | 18 Comments »

    2018 Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 14th January 2019 (All posts by )

    Some books that I read and liked over the last year…

    The Future is History, Masha Gessen.  Russia during the last days of Communism, during the transitional age, and under Putinism, viewed through the personal stories of numerous individuals.

    On Tangled Paths, Theodor Fontane.  The author has been called “The Jane Austen of Germany.”  In this novel,  it is the *male* protagonist who is under pressure to marry into money to save his family from financial disaster.  Good character development and a vivid portrayal of Berlin in the 1870s

    The Bounty:  The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, Caroline Alexander.  The famous mutiny, the events leading up to it, and its aftermath.  A much more favorable interpretation of Captain Bligh’s character than the usual view.

    Red Star Under the Baltic, Victor Korzh.  Memoirs of a Soviet submarine commander who served in a little-known theater of WWII.  The author writes largely from an engineering perspective, and in addition to combat episodes he describes the remarkable efforts that were necessary to keep the submarine in operating condition–including such things as repurposing the bow thruster drives, while at sea, to replace the failed stern thruster drive system.

    A Pocketful of Stars and other books in the Applied Topology series by Margaret Ball, which I reviewed here.  Don’t let the Applied Topology tag scare you off; no math is required to read and enjoy.

    Born Fighting:  How the Scotts-Irish shaped America, James Webb.  Some interesting history and perspectives.  It’s worthwhile to read this book in conjunction with Thomas Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals.

    A Vagabond Journey Around the World, Harry Franck.  In 1904, this recent college graduate decided to travel around the world starting with no money at all.  (He modified this plan to carry enough cash to pay for photographic supples.)  Very interesting, though long.  Franck made and wrote about numerous other trips, including a 1930s visit to the Soviet Union which he documented in A Vagabond in Sovietland.

    A World on Edge:  The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age, Daniel Schoenpflug.  The author paints the environment in the immediate aftermath of the War by telling the stories of individuals ranging from Harry Truman, Ferdinand Foch, Crown Prince Willhelm of Prussia, Arnold Schönberg, Kathe Kollwitz, Walter Gropius, and Ho Chi Min to many lesser-known individuals such as a former sailor of the German Navy and a Cossack woman named Marina Yurlova.

    Tragedy & Challenge:  An Inside View of UK Engineering’s Decline, Tom Brown.  The problems and fate of British manufacturing companies, as seen by an individual with extensive experience as an executive and board member.  There’s a review here.

    The Tyrant’s Daughter, J C Carleson.  Fifteen-year-old Laila lived a privileged life in her unnamed Middle Eastern country, where her father was absolute ruler.  Then he was killed in a coup, and she escapes with her mother and brother to a suburb of Washington DC…where she faces both the problems of fitting in at her new school and the haunting question of whether her father was indeed the monster that he is portrayed by the American news media.  This is positioned as a YA (teenager)  book, but is IMO also good reading for adults.  The author is a former CIA agent.

    The Theme is Freedom, John Dos Passos.  A collection of essays by this “Lost Generation” writer.  I quoted his observations about some of his Leftist comrades of the 1920s, here.

    Several more, which I may review individually and/or in a future batch.

    I’m currently reading a novel of the American Revolution called Celia Garth, which I learned about from a discussion at Bookworm.  It was highly recommended by Sgt Mom, among others.  I’m really liking it so far.

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, Business, Civil Liberties, Europe, History, Management, Russia, War and Peace | 29 Comments »

    Sneaky Robots and Robotic Bureaucrats

    Posted by David Foster on 10th January 2019 (All posts by )

    An artificial intelligence program was assigned the task of turning satellite images into street maps.  It was graded by comparing reconstructed images (reconstructed from the map) and comparing them with the original; also, by the clarity of the street map.  The grades were used by the program to continually improved its performance.

    But what the program sneakily learned to do was to encode details of the original image into the street map, in a manner invisible to humans, thereby optimizing its grade on the reconstructed image…independently of how well the street map…which was the actual desired product…actually reflected the original image.

    Humans, also, often respond to incentives in ways very different from those expected by the designers of those incentives…as many creators of sales commission plans and manufacturing bonus plans have discovered.  Bureaucracies, especially, tend to respond to the measurements placed on them in ways that are not consistent with the interests of the larger organization or society that they are supposed to be serving.  See Stupidity, Communist-Style and Capitalist-Style and The Reductio ad Absurdum of Bureaucratic Liberalism.

    Posted in Big Government, Business, Deep Thoughts, Management, Russia, Tech | 1 Comment »

    Conservative Populism: Tucker Carlson vs David French

    Posted by David Foster on 7th January 2019 (All posts by )

    Links at Ricochet, where the is an extensive (and pretty contentious) discussion.

    Posted in Conservatism, Media, Political Philosophy, Trump, USA | 23 Comments »

    Aunt Sally versus Huck Finn

    Posted by David Foster on 4th January 2019 (All posts by )

    A thoughtful article at The Wall Street Journal.

    Posted in Book Notes, Civil Liberties, Deep Thoughts, USA | 18 Comments »

    Why So Much Anger and Resentment?

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd January 2019 (All posts by )

    2018–The Year of Living Hatefully is the title of a recent post by Roger Simon:

    Practically no one was happy. Or if they were, they didn’t show it. All they wanted to do was vilify the opposition or even their neighbors.  Democrats hating Republicans (see the new movie “Vice”) and vice versa were just the tip of a rancid iceberg. Never Trumpers hate Trumpers and the reverse, Sanders supporters hate Beto supporters, Antifa hate the bourgeoisie, the Proud Boys hate Antifa, FOX hates CNN and MSNBC hates FOX…It goes on and on. Families and friends split from each other. People shut up at work for fear they’ll be fired. Thanksgiving is a festival of hostility, Christmas (when we’re allowed to speak its name) is only slightly better.

    Roger attributes the toxic atmosphere in large part to the decline in religiousness.  I’m not convinced by that explanation; there are plenty of examples of religion as a cause of mutual hostility as well as cases where it has served as part of a cure.

    One factor in the development of the toxic atmosphere, IMO, has been the cult of “self-esteem development” carried to an excess…this seems to have resulted in a large number of people who simply cannot stand challenge or disagreement.

    Still, there are plenty are angry and hostile people who are old enough to have missed the era of self-esteem indoctrination.

    Another factor is social media,which seems to lend itself to the formation of on-line lynch mobs, as I discussed in my post freedom, the village, and social media.

    Economic fear and uncertainty surely also plays a role.  Although Roger remarks that “all this (craziness and anger) is happening in a country awash in affluence, also as almost never before, with close to full employment for all ethnic and racial groups,” it remains true that many people are highly disappointed in their failure to advance more economically, and many who feel that their children will be less-well-off than themselves.  Economic factors aside, there are also many who have been severely disappointed in their relationships and blame this disappointment in large part on society.

    A friend of mine once remarked that “if someone is bitter, then he is publicly announcing that in his own eyes he is a failure.”  I thought this was a profound comment, and by that measure, there are a lot of people in America today who consider themselves to be failures.

    But still, there are a lot of people who are doing very well economically, who seem to have excellent relationships/family lives, but who also have a lot of anger at a large number of their fellow Americans.

    Also,  I remember something Ralph Peters wrote many years ago:

    Man loves, men hate. While individual men and women can sustain feelings of love over a lifetime toward a parent or through decades toward a spouse, no significant group in human history has sustained an emotion that could honestly be characerized as love. Groups hate. And they hate well…Love is an introspective emotion, while hate is easily extroverted…We refuse to believe that the “civilized peoples of the Balkans could slaughter each other over an event that occurred over six hundred years ago. But they do. Hatred does not need a reason, only an excuse.

    This also is, I think, a profound remark.  And today’s intense focus on group identities has surely led to much more viewing of people as avatars of a group, rather than individuals–making it that much easier to despise and attack them.

    And a significant part of American academia is endlessly busy manufacturing new and revised group identities, and stirring up resentments based thereon.

    Do you agree with Roger that 2018 was the most Hateful year in recent history?  If so, what do you see as the primary causes and the potential remedies, if any?

     

    Posted in Current Events, Deep Thoughts, Society, USA | 4 Comments »

    New Year’s Eve

    Posted by David Foster on 31st December 2018 (All posts by )

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Holidays | 19 Comments »

    Christmas 2018

    Posted by David Foster on 24th December 2018 (All posts by )

    Newgrange is an ancient structure in Ireland so constructed that the sun, at the exact time of the winter solstice, shines directly down a long corridor and illuminates the inner chamber. More about Newgrange here and here.

    Grim has an Arthurian passage about the Solstice.

    Don Sensing has thoughts astronomical, historical, and theological about the Star of Bethlehem.

    Vienna Boys Choir, from Maggie’s Farm

    Lappland in pictures…link came from the great and much-mourned Neptunus Lex

    Snowflakes and snow crystals, from Cal Tech. Lots of great photos

    In the bleak midwinter, from King’s College Cambridge

    Rick Darby has some thoughts on the season. More here.

    The first radio broadcast of voice and music took place on Christmas Eve, 1906. (although there is debate about the historical veracity of this story)

    An air traffic control version of  The Night Before Christmas.

    O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, sung by Enya

    Posted in Christianity, Holidays, Poetry | 6 Comments »

    Dating While Being a Trump Supporter, in Manhattan

    Posted by David Foster on 20th December 2018 (All posts by )

    Pamela Garber write about her experiences.

    What motivates the people who are expressing such rage about the President and his supporters?  While surely some of them have thought through the issues and come to their opinions through their own reasoning processes, I think that for many of them, the explanation can be found in a comment at this post, which is about the “progressive” anger at Israel:

    Leftist political dynamics are, in my opinion, as clear an example of emergence (i.e, an apparently complex property of a collective possessed by none of the individuals, but caused by simple interactions between the parts) as exists. Like the schooling of fish, or the beautiful murmurations of starlings, Progressives can intellectually turn on a dime in the most amazing and – if you’re viewing from a distance – beautiful ways. While scuba diving, I loved poking my finger in a school of brilliantly colored reef fishes and watching the entire school turn in perfect simultaneity like the members of a North Korean dance troupe or dancers in a Busby Berkeley film. To achieve this level of perfection, each individual in the collective needs to know nothing about about the larger picture, only what the immediate neighbors are doing. From a distance, Democratic “talking points of the day” murmurations require no intellect, no opinions to “re-examine”, but are more akin to crystal formation on a window in wintertime.

    Garber, who is a therapist, offers her own thoughts about the psychological dynamics at work in the anger.

    Posted in Civil Society, Culture, Human Behavior, USA | 36 Comments »

    The Costs of Formalism and Credentialism

    Posted by David Foster on 16th December 2018 (All posts by )

    Via Grim, an interesting post at the Federalist:  Our Culture War Is Between People Who Get Results And Empty Suits With Pristine Credentials.

    Subtitle:  Donald Trump declines the authority of the cultural sectors that most assertively claim it. That’s the real conflict going on.

    I’m reminded of an interchange that took place between Picasso and Monet as the German Army advanced through France in 1940.  Monet was shocked to learn that the enemy had already reached Reims.  “But what about our generals?” asked Monet. “What are they doing.”

    Picasso’s response: “Well, there you have it, my friend. It’s the Ecole des Beaux-Arts”

    …ie, formalists who had learned one set of rules and were not interested in considering deviations from same.

    It was an astute remark, and it fits very well with the observations of Andre Beaufre, who before the invasion had been a young captain on the French General Staff. Although he had initially been thrilled to be placed among this elevated circle…

    I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.

    The consequences of that approach became clear in May 1940.

    In addition to the formalism that Picasso hypothesized (and Beaufre observed) on the French General Staff, the civilian side of the French government was highly credential-oriented.  From the linked article:

    In the first days of July, 1940, the American diplomat Robert Murphy took up his duties as the chargé d’affaires at the new U.S. embassy in Vichy, France. Coming from his recent post in Paris, he was as impressed as he expected to be by the quality of the Vichy mandarinate, a highly credentialed class of sophisticated officials who were “products of the most rigorous education and curricula in any public administration in the world.”

    As the historian Robert Paxton would write, French officials were “the elite of the elite, selected through a daunting series of relentless examinations for which one prepared at expensive private schools.” In July 1940, the elite of the elite governed the remains of their broken nation, a few days after Adolf Hitler toured Paris as its conqueror. Credentials were the key to holding public office, but not the key to success at the country’s business.

    It certainly appears that the current protests and riots in France are at least in part due to long-simmering resentment at that country’s credentialed class, whose performance has not matched their pretensions.  An interesting anecdote about Macron, in the Sunday Express:

    This is a man who chastised a teenager at an official event for calling him “Manu” (the friendly diminutive of Emmanuel), saying that he should not express a view until he has acquired a degree and a job.

    and

    Macron is a graduate of the Ecole Normale d’administration (ENA), an elite Grande Ecole created by General De Gaulle in 1945 to break the upper class control of top Civil Service positions. 

    In reality, only nine percent of ENA the graduates that fill the corridors of power in industry and government have a working class background.  The top 12 or 15 students will move to L’Inspection générale des finances (IGF), and then into a career in politics, or finance, Macron’s chosen route since he became a partner with Rothschild and Cie bank.

    Americans should not feel smug about our relatively-lesser obsession with credentials.  I’ve previously quoted  something Peter Drucker wrote in 1969:

    One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…

    and

    It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers. It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the engineer with a degree from North Idaho A. and M. is an engineer and not a draftsman.

    We as a country are a lot closer to accepting Grande Ecole status for Harvard Law School and similar institutions than we were when Drucker wrote the above.  We haven’t gone as far as France and other European nations, but the trend has clearly been in the wrong direction.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, China, Deep Thoughts, Education, Europe, France, History, Society, Trump, USA | 15 Comments »