Taxes and the Total State

Biden has proposed a rather draconian tax initiative: you can read some of the details and an analysis here.  It will be justified, of course, by claims about “asking the rich to pay their fair share”, and “equity”…and I’ve already seen arguments that no one should be concerned about this unless they are very high income or soon expect to be, and that there aren’t many people in that category.

Some responses are obvious: Taxes originally targeted at high income levels have a way of migrating downward through the income levels–the income tax itself is an example.  The capital gains rates are in reality much higher than they look, because of the effect of inflation on asset prices.  Corporate income tax increases can affect everybody, regardless of income levels, in their roles as workers, consumers, and/or investors. And there is the matter of fairness–true fairness, not faux fairness:  it is not truly fair, democratic, or even civilized to assume that because there is only a small number of people in a given group, the rest of the society is entitled to do anything to them that they feel like doing.

But there is also, I think, an even more important point to be made.  A tax structure like this Biden plan–with its likely extensions and increases over time–acts to prevent the establishment and sustainment of individuals and families wealthy enough to act as a countervailing force to the government–media–academic complex.  I think the kind of people who inhabit the Biden administration, and who dominate today’s Democratic Party, do not like to see power & influence centers outside of this complex.  They really, really don’t like it, for example, that someone like Elon Musk can bypass their censorship efforts by buying and running a social media company.

Woodrow Wilson disliked the whole idea of separation of powers within government, which seemed to him to violate some kind of organic principle.  Totalitarians of all kinds have striven to eliminate alternative centers of loyalty and influence within their overall societies.  As Benito Mussolini put it:  “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”

Whatever your current and expected income and wealth levels–if you value the continuation of America as a free society, then you have a dog in this fight.

Ukraine, and the World Outside US Borders

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse and more simplistic ‘debate’ than the arguments taking place in the US over aid to Ukraine. There are big quality problems with the level of argumentation…on both sides.

On the anti-funding-Ukraine side: Many commentators say we shouldn’t be funding Ukraine’s efforts to protect their own border because we are failing in protecting our own border.

But can anyone really think that the problems with the US border are primarily a matter of resources?  It should be obvious that these problems are a matter of will: the border is largely open because the Biden administration has wanted it open.  If the Biden administration had been provided with $X billion more available for border enforcement, where X is any number, the situation would have been exactly what it has been.

On the pro-funding-Ukraine side: Many commentators seem unable to imaging why anyone would object to US participation in the war (even if only in the form of aid and weapons) other than being a Putin advocate and/or being paid off by Putin–there are a lot of ad hominem arguments accusing people of being in the pay of Putin, or simply of caring about Russia more than they care about their own country.  But there are wars and injustices all over the world, and the US must carefully choose which ones it gets involved in.  Resources are finite, and almost every military intervention carries at least some risk of undesired escalation. US experience with wars in recent decades has not been terribly encouraging.

On the anti-funding-Ukraine side: Sometimes, the argument goes beyond the US border and the assertion is made that the US should not be doing things like the Ukraine involvement until our own country is fixed.  But will there ever be, has there ever been, a time when everything about the US is ‘fixed’?  I note that the US maintained a higher level of military funding (as a % of GDP) during the Cold War than we do today, and yet public infrastructure–from roads to parks to subway systems to school–generally worked better than the corresponding entities do today.

Also on the anti side, it is observed that there is a lot of corruption in Ukraine, and that it is also far from a perfect democracy. These points seem to be true.  But sometimes one needs to support certain countries despite serious differences in values…as we did in supporting the Soviet Union in WWII and in supporting certain unpleasant regimes during the Cold War. The specific situation needs to be considered and analyzed. (And, Indeed, some of the things now going on in Canada and in Western Europe–not to mention in America itself–seem quite contrary to American ideals.)

Those opposed to funding Ukraine often assert that the aid is being provided in order to support American arms manufacturers–Raytheon, especially, tends to be mentioned for some reason–really, this is reminiscent of the 1920s and 1930s denunciations of arms manufacturers as ‘merchants of death.’  But if the political goal was to keep arms manufacturers happy, there are plenty of other projects available, such as the badly-needed building of more ships for the Navy.  And when people denounce arms manufacturers, I always wonder: Are they absolute pacifists? Do they favor having all arms manufacturing done by government agencies?  What would be their plan for ensuring that our forces have what they need to win conflicts and minimize their own casualties?

On the pro-funding-Ukraine side:  It is argued that if Putin isn’t stopped in Ukraine, he will likely invade other European countries. I think this is a very legitimate fear. But it needs to be traded off against the threats from the larger and much more economically dynamic nation of China.  I note that many of the people who harp on the threat from Russia never (or very rarely) have anything to say about China. Does investing resources in Ukraine reduce the threat of, say, a Chinese invasion or blockade of Taiwan? If it points in the direction of reducing the threat for US credibility reasons, how does this trade off against the consumption of US munitions?

Someone said at Twitter that he doesn’t see how anyone who knows the history of the 1930s and 1940s can oppose supporting Ukraine.  But it’s not always 1939, sometimes it’s 1914.  Also, history didn’t stop at the end of the 1940s, and many people have observed the poor outcomes of US military interventions in our century, not to mention the Vietnam War.

The pro-Ukraine people, especially politicians, have been arguing that the money spent mostly goes to US arms manufacturers…this is kind of the flip side of the “it’s all to benefit Raytheon” argument.  If the only objective is to “create jobs” and “put money in circulation”, then that could be achieved equally well by paying people to dig ditches and then fill them up again. There has to be some other benefit.

On the anti-funding Ukraine side, there actually are some people who glorify Russia…not the majority of the anti-Ukraine people, certainly not enough to support a generalized ad hominem argument against the antis–but there are indeed some in that category. The argument that Russia under its current regime is the defender of civilization is not to my mind a very convincing one, unless one’s definition of ‘civilization’ is a pretty strange one. The main effect of these people has been to further poison the entire debate.

Above and beyond the particular issue of Ukraine: there is a world beyond US borders. We don’t get to call ‘time’ just because we have serious internal issues.  When France and Britain decided not to intervene at the time of the German Rhineland incursion in 1936, one of the arguments made by some French politicians was that it would be unwise to interfere with the economic recovery. How did that work out for them?

My own view: We do need to be supporting Ukraine, and we should be doing so a lot more effectively than the Biden administration has chosen to do.  Biden’s initial reaction to the invasion–suggesting that it might be OK if Putin didn’t take too big a bite, and then offering Zelinsky a ticket out–didn’t exactly sound a Churchillian note of defiance. Arms supply has been too little, too late, and not nearly enough has been done to increase US defense-industrial output potential, especially of consumables such as artillery shells and missiles, and to provide better supply-chain resilience against components and materials cutoffs by other countries.  My sense is that the Biden strategy is not to achieve a Ukraine victory, or to force a negotiated settlement on favorable terms, but to drag the war out with the goal of bleeding Russia while minimizing domestic political risk…a cynical and cruel strategy, in my opinion.

The main purpose of this post, though, is not to argue for or against any particular policy, but rather to express concern and disappointment…even dismay…over the extremely poor quality of the arguments being made on both sides of the issue and the generally toxic tone of the debate.

What, Precisely, is the Issue with ‘Elites’? (updated)

Conservatives and libertarians often speak about “elites” in pejorative terms. Why is this? I doubt that many among us would argue in favor of mediocrity (like the senator who famously argued that mediocre people also deserve representation on the Supreme Court) and/or of extreme egalitarianism and social leveling. Indeed, quite a few outspoken conservatives and libertarians could themselves be considered to have elite status in view of their professional, economic, and/or scholarly accomplishments. And people using the E-word rarely make an attempt to clearly defined what category of people they are talking about. (With one major exception that I’ll discuss later in this post)   So what is the critique of elitism all about?

Several factors seem to me to be at work…

1)There is a perception that the multiple ladders of success which have existed in American society are increasingly being collapsed into a single ladder, with access tightly controlled via educational credentials

2)It is increasingly observed that these credentials actually have fairly low predictive power concerning an individual’s actual ability to perform important tasks and make wise judgments about institutional or national issues. The assumption that school-based knowledge generally trumps practical experience seems increasingly questionable as the sphere of activity for which this assertion is made has expanded, and is indeed increasingly viewed with suspicion or with outright disdain.

3)It is observed that people working in certain fields arrogate to themselves an assumed elite status despite the fact that their jobs actually require relatively little in terms of skill and judgment. Ace of Spades cited a history writer on class distinctions in Victorian England:

She noted, for example, that a Bank of England clerk would be a member of the middle/professional class, despite the fact that what he did all day was hand-write numbers into ledgers and do simple arithmetic and some filing work and the like, whereas, say, a carpenter actually did real thinking, real planning, at his job, with elements of real creativity. And yet it was the Bank of England clerk who was considered a “mind” worker and the carpenter merely a hand-laborer.

Ace suggests that “that distinction has obviously persisted, even in America, with the ingrained sort of idea that a low-level associate producer making crap money and rote choices on an MSNBC daytime talk show was somehow “above” someone making real command decisions in his occupation, like a plumber. And this sort of idea is very important to that low-level producer at MSNBC, because by thinking this way, he puts himself in the league of doctors and engineers.”

(The same prejudice can be seen in terminology currently used in discussions of community colleges and technical schools: that these institutions are needed to train people for “mid-skill” jobs, with the implied assumption being that people with 4-year degrees automatically have higher-skilled jobs than people with fewer years of seat time. Really? An undergraduate sociology major performing some rote job at a “non-profit” is doing something requiring higher skills than a toolmaker or an air traffic controller?)

4) Marriage, and even serious dating, seem increasingly to follow class boundaries, with “class” being defined very largely by educational credentials. Part of this is due to expanded educational and career opportunities for women—the doctor who once would have married his receptionist may now marry a female doctor—but a good part of it is, I think, due to the very high valuation placed on educational credentials. This phenomenon, of course, tends to lead to the solidification and perpetuation of class barriers.

5) People who have achieved success in one field too often assume a faux expertise in unrelated fields, as with the actor or singer who is credited with having something worthwhile to say about foreign policy or economics irrespective of lack of study/experience in those fields.

6) People who have achieved success via the manipulation of words and images have increasingly tended to discount all other forms of intelligence…for those who attacked George W Bush as “stupid”, for example, the fact that he learned to fly a supersonic fighter (the F-102, not the most pilot-friendly airplane ever designed) was a totally irrelevant piece of data.

(An interesting 1954 pulp novel, Year of Consent, posited a future America that was in reality run by those manipulators of words and image..a fact that many people in high level positions have failed to recognize…”“Even the biggest wheels only know part of it.  They think the Communications Administrative Department exists to help them–and not the other way around.”)

7)  Markers that have played a role in assessing class status in many societies–accent and manner of speech, in particular—seem to be becoming increasingly important. This factor had a lot to do with the hostility directed toward Sarah Palin as well as that directed toward George W Bush. Had these two individuals spoken in the manner expected of one who has attended boarding schools and expensive eastern colleges–regardless of the academic quality of those schools and colleges–their critics would still have probably disliked them, but the hostility would have lost much of its hysterical edge.  (The point about manner of speech also applies to some extent to the extreme hostility directed toward Donald Trump, who of course actually did attend one of those expensive eastern colleges, but comes across as more blue-collar and less Ivy in manner of talking.)

8) There is concern that those providing direction to institutions increasingly bear little of the burden for their own failures. This is especially true of government–particularly the legislature and the courts, where a bad decision will generally have no negative consequences whatsoever for the individuals making it and of those who run the K-12 government schools–but also to a disturbing extent in the business world, especially with regard to those corporations with close ties with government and those in the financial sector.

9) There is concern that the people directing institutions increasingly have life experiences totally different from their employees and customers. Many of the “robber barons” of yore had actually started as low-level workers, and regardless of how much they exploited their own workers, they could understand and identify with them in a manner that is very difficult for someone whose path has involved 6 years of college followed by a series of fast-track corporate assignments.

10) In addition to the previously-mentioned overemphasis on educational credentials, it is accurately perceived that there is now a movement toward granting special privileges–in the sense in which that term was applied to the nobility at the time of the French Revolution–to those who are college-educated and especially those who have acquired advanced degrees. Biden’s student-loan ‘forgiveness’ plan would mean that if two people are working side by side doing the same job, the one who did not attend college–or did not get an expensive and debt-funded degree–would be legally required to subsidize the one with the expensive degree and the big loan. This is reminiscent of the French nobility’s exemption from taxation.

11) There has long been a perception that members of one profession–lawyers–play a vastly disproportionate role in our political process, resulting in public policies that benefit that group and that often fail because they reflect an excessively-narrow worldview and set of life experiences.  In recent years, that critique has expended to encompass those in the financial and technology industries.

So, I don’t think the issues being raised are really about the existence of elites so much as they are about the current structure of many elite and faux-elite groups and the characteristics and performance of those who currently inhabit them.

I should note one prominent exception to my point about people using the E-word not really defining who they mean: a recent Rasmussen poll on the political and social opinions of ‘elites’, defined as people who have a postgraduate degree, earn at least $150K annually, and live in a high density area.  This rather strange definition of ‘elites’…is someone earning $160K in a high density (and high cost of living) area, albeit with for example a masters in education or sociology,  really automatically an ‘elite’? Does Warren Buffet fail the eliteness test because he lives in Nebraska? Is the governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, a non-elite because her highest degree is a BA in political science?

Seems to me that this definition of ‘elites’ encompasses a lot of people who are not really elite in terms of spending, financial security, and any kind of actual authority…but who believe that they are entitled to such things and are resentful that they have not been granted them.

Interestingly, Rasmussen did not establish their definition of eliteness a priori and then conduct a survey to determine the attitudes of those matching the definition, rather, they observed the existence of a certain set of Americans who were consistently outliers in their attitudes, established a definition based on their demographics, and conducted a survey to find out more about their views.

Your thoughts on elites and elitism?

(This post is an update of this earlier post)

Worthwhile Reading

Academia Versus Civilization, at Quillette

A talk by Jensen Huang, founder & CEO of NVDIA, at Stanford.  Very, very good.  Related post and discussion.

Ruxandra Teslo notes that student protestors in the 1960s wanted less bureaucracy and more freedom…today, most of them seem to want less freedom and more bureaucracy.

It’s not the phones, says Marc Andreessen, referring to the psychological dysfunction that seems to afflict so many of today’s young people.  He’s responding to a post by Jash Dholani, who says “the young aren’t driving, f******, and drinking because high energy activity is fundamentally incompatible with modern ethics. If you’re always told to be harmless (but also guilty!) then your innate will to power withers. You vegetate. Man, the greatest animal, turned to plant.”

Elon Musk says:

Many movies exist about a lone inventor in a garage having a eureka moment, but almost none about manufacturing, so it’s underappreciated by the public. Compared to the insane pain of reaching high-volume, positive-margin production, prototypes are a piece of cake.

(Not many such movies,  but one that comes to mind is Valley of Decision, a 1945 film centered around family-owned steel mill in Pittsburgh.  I reviewed the movie, and the book on which it is based, here.  Also, there’s Executive Suite, a film from 1954 which involves executive succession at a furniture manufacturer…mentioned in a batch of reviews that I posted here)

In a comment at an earlier version of this post at Ricochet, Gary McVey noted that

“the eastern Europeans (in other words, the Communists, if not always the Soviets) were pretty good about trying to publicize the drama of start-up, the challenges of production. When we mock those days for films “about a couple falling in love at the tractor factory”, we are mocking something that, if you actually see the films, is in fact objectively a good thing. Some of them, by the Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs, were good. The best of them had little or nothing to do with Marxist theories, just the everyday achievements of construction, engineering, and metalwork that sated Western audiences found dull as dishwater.

A tractor factory’s a good thing to have, if you care to eat. There was nothing contemptible about making movies about it.”

Ashwin Varma argues that the usual narrative about WWII industrial production is defective, in that it does not give sufficient credit to the role of government.

The Department of Education embarked on a project to modernize and simplify the process for applying for student aid.  It is not going well.

The Biden administration is supporting the reopening of a nuclear plant in Michigan.  As Stephen Green says, it’s the right thing to do, but the Democrats doing it reeks of desperation.

gCaptain is a good source on the Baltimore bridge disaster and on all matters nautical.

In my post Visit to a Noteworthy Robot, I described a trip to a store equipped with Amazon’s no-check-out system.  Now, Amazon has decided to drop this system in most of the stores in which it is being used…problem is that too much human intervention (1000 people in India reviewing images that the AI can’t reliably interpret) to be cost-effective.

Cultural Theory of Mind and the consequences of not having it, especially the foreign-policy consequences.

Interesting chart: the ratio of commodity prices to the S&P 500.

An argument that the theft of national sovereignty at the Euro level was orchestrated entirely by legal elites – not political, much less economic, ones.

What kind of people tend to block (what they think are) sources of misinformation?

GE’s energy business has now been spun off as a separate corporation, GE Vernova.  They seem to be pretty well-positioned in nuclear; it will be interesting to see how much emphasis they put on this sector vis-a-vis their gas and wind businesses.

Speaking of nuclear, here’s a chart on the temperature ranges required for various industrial processes versus the temperature ranges available from various types of reactors.

The Reich Stuff

Yesterday, Transterrestrial Musings contributed to the venerable April 1 tradition with the headline Pro-German Protesters Demand Ceasefire. That brought to mind something I’ve pondered recently: does the Third Reich seem so unique at least in part because we never had a chance to see what the Aztecs, Moghuls, ancient Mesopotamian civilizations, and other pre-industrial empires would do if they had mid-20th Century technology? I can imagine boxcars unloading people at Tenochtitlan…