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20130728 America Aflame

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This is somewhat unusual book about history of America’s war in the middle of XIX century. Typically any book about this period is pretty much about American Civil War. This is about much more. It is a well documented and analyzed account of period from early 1850s through American centennial in1876 and 3 wars that occurred on American soil during this period.

Based on participants and conduct of these wars it is very difficult to treat any of them as civil war. By definition the civil war is a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country. The three wars of this period hardly fit this definition despite the fact that the first, the biggest, and only one well known is named American Civil War.

I think it is misnaming of the conflict because the war was not between citizens of one country, but rather between citizens of two different countries that while being joined by common ancestry, religion, and relatively loose Federal Union nevertheless where divided by economic structure of society, culture, philosophy, and type of citizenship. The Union was created at the beginning of American Republic and was more of an alliance against external enemy – Great Britain. After winning independence American republic continued exist as a federal union of two completely different countries – republic of independent farmers with significant, growing, but not overwhelmingly powerful plutocracy at the North and republic of slaveholders with some limited representation of farmers at the South. People in the United States of America at the time considered themselves first and foremost citizens of the states where they reside. The typical example would be Robert Lee who resigned his commission in United States Army to accept commission in Confederate States Army because he was a Virginian and Virginia joined confederacy. That was attitude of majority of population so majorities of northerners and southerners fought on the side of their states regardless of their attitude to slavery or any other issues related to the war.

This war or more precisely conflict over dominance between these two countries started in 1854 after Kansas-Nebraska act that ended Missouri compromise and opened new territories for competition between Slaveholding and Plutocratic republics. This war ended in 1865 with Northern victory and destruction of Slaveholding republic, its economy, and main features of its culture.

The second war much less researched and understood was the racial war between blacks, mainly liberated slaves, and southern whites started immediately after the end of the first war and ended in 1876 after election. This war was a lot less regular and a lot less bloody with number of victims counted in hundreds, maybe even thousands, but nowhere close to the hundreds of thousands loses in war between states. This war was won by southern whites after 10 years struggle against black liberation movement for equality which was initially supported by northern whites even if half-heartedly, but eventually lost this support and with it any chance for the victory. Even so while restoring white supremacy southern whites failed to restore their slaveholding republic and ended with regime of segregation that stifled southern economy for next 100 years until it was blown away by civil rights movement this time with unqualified support of majority of whites in the second half of XX century.

The third and final war – war against Indians also could not be considered a civil war. It was rather a typical war of territorial conquest when Americans pushed out Indians from their ancient territory. Typically such wars in history ended with original population being enslaved, exterminated, or completely pushed out, but American culture, being even in these cruel times more humane then it was typical, limited consequences of defeat to transfer of Indians into reservations, depriving them off dignity and self-sufficiency making them dependent on handouts from government.

We still have remnants of these wars impacting American culture, but this impact will go away as soon as economic market opportunities for everybody would become more significant then opportunities from getting handouts from the government by inflating racial and ethnic grievances. Successful people do not need this staff and will probably keep different parts of they highly mixed ethnic identities only as subject for curiosity and entertainment, but not much more then that.

20130721 Known and unknown

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Rumsfeld’s memoir is an interesting if a bit too voluminous account of outstanding bureaucrat, better then average politician, and underachieving family man.

The account of events he provides does not uncover anything new and dramatic, but is interesting mainly by demonstrating the mechanisms of political / bureaucratic corruption that was established at the very beginning of republic and grew extensively over next 200+ years currently consuming more then a half of country economy and bringing it to a grinding slowdown.

Actually American corruption is a lot more benign then corruption in other countries mainly because it is relatively open for everybody to see thanks to the first amendment, free press, and most of all to the democratic process when two approximately equal groups of politicians and bureaucrats fight via nonviolent election process for the place at the controls when they can satisfy their needs and wishes both material and immaterial.

The nice description of this process is provided in details when Rumsfeld gets out of politics due to the republican defeat in mid 70s and goes to work and make his fortune in private business. It is kind of touching to see that he does not recognize that there is something wrong with the system when the entry level job for politician out of office and without any business experience whatsoever is CEO of big pharmaceutical company. Actually he dedicates quite a bit of time proving that he was a big asset for the company and his appointment paid to shareholders a big time. This is absolutely correct. The story is simple – company developed a new product (sugar substitute) which it could not sell without government approval. After years of delay, the hiring of experienced politician out of office allows company to obtain the approval it seeks and make billions from the selling its product. In my opinion Rumsfeld absolutely deserves money that he made from this transaction and I am sure he learned business quick and well. However the fact that company had to hire politician to get a good product to the market says a volumes about whose interests government (politicians and bureaucrats) serves. Actually I think that Rumsfeld “politics to private business” story is a wonderful argument against decision making by politicians/bureaucrats and for limiting government to only advisory role in business.

Another interesting feature of the book is detailed discussion of events after 9/11/2001. Here again Rumsfeld demonstrate his quality of outstanding bureaucrat with clear thinking and abilities to get things done. His account of events includes insistence on defining response not as vacuous “war on terror”, but as war against militant Islam. By the same pattern this clear thinking bureaucrat would limit war in Iraq to quick removal of Saddam, transfer power to Iraqis of whatever political inclinations they are with only one caveat to remain friendly to USA and quick decrease in forces to minimum necessary to assure that Iraqis remain friendly and troops situated out of cities and out of view of Iraqi population. Too bad he was overruled by old bosses’ son Bush. This is another old feature of American system – nepotism common for both private business and government and often harmful for both.
Rumsfeld is competent and effective bureaucrat and he would make a great president at this point in history. Too bad those republicans choose family connections and political competence of Bush over abilities and experience in governing of Rumsfeld.

20130713 Amazing similarities: France 1788 and USA 2013

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As far as I am concerned it is really difficult to find a deeper thinker and analyst of society then Alexis de Tocqueville. I knew about his analysis of American Democracy since my life back in the Soviet Union (obviously it was not available for reading at the time, but I read it soon after coming to America).

What is interesting and unexpected for me was to encounter his book about French revolution of 1789 or more precisely about economic, political, and psychological conditions preceding this revolution. Everything seems to be not the way as it is typically presented in history books and I actually trust De Tocqueville a lot more then authors of these books because his analysis was based not on metadata, but on actual reading of documents of the period from personal diaries to bureaucratic reports.

So instead of traditional picture, which could be summarized as revolt of the Third estate against First estate (aristocracy) and the Second estate (clergy) caused by increasing burden on peasantry and business from wasteful aristocratic accesses supported by religious ideology enforced by church and accompanied by the contempt and indifference to the fate of people who actually carried this burden, we have quite a different picture of pre-revolution society.

First of all it includes real power groups (classes) that was missing – huge bureaucracy which quietly took over control of economic and political life of the society from aristocracy and secular ideologues from Voltaire to Diderot to Rousseau and a zillion other men of letters fed and supported by both aristocracy for their entertainment and feel good value and by bureaucracy for providing ideological support.

It seems that by the time of revolution the real power slipped from the hands of aristocracy. The lord of the locality did not control life of people in this locality; it was the function of Intendant appointed by bureaucratic power from the Paris. It was this unelected and not really visible Intendant who made all decisions on use of state violent powers – who will get taxed and how much and who will not, what revenues will be used for and how. Bureaucracy even wrangled out judicial power from the courts and judiciary that was formally serving to the king, informally and traditionally quite independent. By the time of revolution a bureaucrat rather then the king’s court resolved any serious dispute. By the same pattern ideological underpinning of society slipped from the church to the secular ideologists of Pure (more often then not bureaucratic) Reason.

All this left Aristocracy and Clergy redundant and parasitic in the eyes of majority of population. These people were excluded from taxes, waved around their superiority and external attributes of power while actually loosing real power to centralized bureaucracy. By the 1789 they become a perfect scapegoats to be punished for whatever wrong was happening in society without real power to do anything about it.

And it did went wrong as it always does when bureaucracy acquire power to transfer resources to themselves using apparatus of violent state. There were sinecures to create for brothers in law and government contracts to assign to old friends. There were wars to fight and grand projects to implement, but most of all there was an urgent needs to expand government and spend on it all resources that could possibly be obtained either via taxation or government debt.

This “noble” strive of bureaucracy to expand itself well beyond ability of French society to support it did aristocracy and clergy in during the storm of revolution of 1789.

Here is where the similarities between French society of 1788 and American society today are striking – uncontrolled growth of tumor of bureaucracy. New agencies and new regulations functioning using force of law; without obtaining any authorization by legislative power. Crowding out by bureaucracy of all other components of society in providing functionality necessary for society’s existence – government organizations providing everything from income to healthcare instead of private enterprise. Consequently it led to dramatic decrease in efficiency and effectiveness of these functions, because bureaucracy could not possibly match private enterprise. Tremendous growth of government debt and continuing attempts to increase taxes in the name of “fairness”.

The good news is that America is still democratic country and still has significant residue of American culture as created by independent people, pursuing their happiness in the wide wilderness of new continent. Hopefully there is still enough of health in American society to shrink this tumor. Lately we are doing pretty well using science in improving human chances with many other forms of cancer. Why not the cancer of bureaucracy?

20130706 The True Believers

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This book is about individuals who are both engine of human progress and scourge of humanity – true believers. Actually they also supply fuel for all big changes in the human society. It was written in the middle of XX century that was crowded with mass movements probably more then any other century in human history. Communism, Nazism, Italian Fascism, innumerable small and big Nationalistic movements, and even to some extent western Democratic Statism are all samples of mass movements of the last 150 years.

There are quite a few very interesting points in Hoffer’s analysis of causes of such movements and personalities who become true believers and fighters for idea of such movements. The most important of them is the notion that such movements are caused by refusal of significant number of individuals in society to continue their lives within a framework of this society and they readiness to fight and even die in order to change this framework. Such movement is not aiming at practical improvement of society it rather attempts to completely change its organization and function from routine and maybe not great, but functioning state into some ideal superior state when all problems are resolved and some perfect stasis is achieved.

Very interesting and well-illustrated point is that individual becomes true believer in very specific circumstances:
1. Potential true believer is not destitute; he/she does not spent all time just trying to survive. It is rather combination of availability of material resources with deep psychological dissatisfaction with current status of individual in existing society.

2. The dissatisfaction of individual with his/her status is perceived as impossible to resolve bringing individual into condition of frustration and self-hate. It is especially true in free societies that provide wide range of opportunities and, consequently individual has nobody to blame for failure then himself.

3. There is an ideological framework which seems to be able provide future state when this individual is guaranteed to achieve the status he is craving for even if this guaranties are illusory.

4. Existing society framework weakened and is not capable to apply force on the scale necessary to suppress mass movement.

Actually a very interesting dynamics for mass movement is implied in this book:
There is tension between freedom and equality in society. If society forces equality as in Socialism/Communism/Nazism (which is always false, but it does not matter as long as people believe in it) it is supported by great majority, but prevent talented individual to apply their talents leading to stagnation and switch of activities of talented minority to building ideological alternative to existing society. On the other hand if society provides wide freedom and opportunity so the talented minority could dramatically improve productivity and quality of life for everybody, but in the greatly unequal levels. This creates resentment in everybody, but especially in talented people whose special talents do not provide for the status they believe they deserve. It could be one of most important reasons why so many artists who did not achieve fame and recognition became leaders of mass movements and why business people very seldom become involved in mass movement on their early stages. Maybe it is because there is not limit on number of successful businessmen in prosperous society and failed businessmen can start all over again eventually achieving some level of comfortable life, while artist who is not rich and famous by his/her 30s will probably never be able to achieve material and psychological comfort.

Finally I found very interesting Hoffer’s analysis of personality types which are most effective during different stages of mass movement:
1. Intellectuals/ideologues who channel their frustration into theory of society and humanity that becomes foundation of new mass movement. These individuals work within existing society and could do it only if it is free or already undermined and weakened if it is not free. The example very close to my heart is former Soviet Union where somebody writing something with the slightest critic of communist party would be dead within days as soon as secret police found it during 1930s to 1950s, but would get away with just a warning in 1980s. These people usually much better off if they die before mass movement takes power. In this case they become well esteemed founders and prophets like Marks, but if they live long enough they inevitably transfer their intellectual urges into critic of new regime that could never do everything right and consequently they get persecuted as enemy and killed like Trotsky.

2. Fanatics – these are frustrated artists and intellectuals who could not get status under old regime. These people would rather die for idea then live bring and tedious life saturated by feeling of individual failure to achieve. These people are essential for movement and if in possession of effective communication skills they become leaders of mass movement and either die fighting for it or bring it to power.

3. Practical people – these are the people who do pretty well in existing society, but either can see opportunity in new mass movement or forced to join when mass movement has enough coercive power. They are managers, engineers, communicators, and other specialists who bring their practicality to bear and turn mass movement into new framework of society that more or less allows it to keep going. Certainly when mass movement brings ideology deleterious to economic success like socialism or war generating qualities like Nazism no amount of talented Russian engineers and managers or German best in the world soldiers could prevent society from disaster.

I think that this book provide a great insight into catastrophic mass movements of XX century and indicate some way of preventing such catastrophes – just give people opportunities to apply their talents and strive to achieve whatever they want to achieve, but be vigilant when somebody moves in direction of violent achievement at other people’s expense.

Any movement, which targets human rights, either it is religious intolerant movement of Islamists who want to force everybody to accept their rules or it is anti-property rights movement of statists (they are not socialists anymore because socialism failed), such movement should be suppressed preferably with democratic means, but without slightest signs of weakness because any weakness invites father expansion of intolerance and inevitably lead to more loss of blood and treasure then necessary.