The culturally modified tree

Loggers find face in a tree. It is a “culturally modified” tree. In Canada.

“Culturally modified” is not what the person that carved the face in the tree called it. That is what the White Man calls it. The White Man has even gotten the Indians to refer to it as a “culturally modified” tree. We’ve also got the Indians to refer to themselves as “first peoples”.

The White Man’s victory is complete! Next, we’ll get them to send their daughters to Bryn Mawr.



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Krugman and I see eye-to-eye

Krugman can write tolerably well off of The New York Times op-ed page. This review of a book on inequality, for example.

On the eve of World War I, Europe had accumulated capital worth six or seven times national income. Over the next four decades, however, a combination of physical destruction and the diversion of savings into war efforts cut that ratio in half. Capital accumulation resumed after World War II, but this was a period of spectacular economic growth—the Trente Glorieuses, or “Glorious Thirty” years; so the ratio of capital to income remained low. Since the 1970s, however, slowing growth has meant a rising capital ratio, so capital and wealth have been trending steadily back toward Belle Époque levels.

So far, so good. Solid economic growth leads to more equality between capital and income — or capital and labor, if you prefer. Krugman continues, having happily found the key to mitigating this nagging social problem.

And this accumulation of capital, says Piketty, will eventually recreate Belle Époque–style inequality unless opposed by progressive taxation.

What? So, inequality decreased during an era of strong, sustained, economic growth, so the way to decrease today’s inequality is . . . progressive taxation? Krugman shortly explains that sustained, robust economic growth is unlikely “due to slower growth in the working-age population and slower technological progress”. He does not mention economic growth as an alternative to more progressive taxation again — and it is along review.

But it is a carefully written, non-polemical article, quite different from his Times columns. Well worth reading, whether you agree with Krugman or not.


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Space Tourism is About to Take off!

Pun intended.

The next time someone tells you that space tourism is going to be a big deal, remember this passage from NASA’s 2010 memorandum on commercial crew vehicle transition concepts:

It is highly recommended that any human-rated launch system include a booster with ascent reliability at least as high as the Space Shuttle’s and an abort system which, together with the booster, yield a predicted Loss of Crew (LOC) number of 1/1000. This number assumes a loss of one vehicle per 100 launches and a crew escape system providing a 90% probability of survivable crew escape.

To make crew escape just a bit more difficult, ascent failure is most likely to occur at the time of maximum acceleration, when the astronauts are experiencing the equivalent of 3 times their normal weight.


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I am so cool.

The P.O. just delivered my 2-disc collector’s edition of The Guns of Navarone.

So my coolness can now be considered an established fact.

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Worse than the Borgias?

Thomas MacDonald, over at God and the Machine, tries to calm down the anti-Francis crowd, and in doing so mentions an episode from the early church:

Hell, we had a pope dig up the rotting corpse of another pope, subject him to trial, find him guilty, strip him of his vestments, cut off the fingers he used for blessings, and cast the remains into the Tiber … and we’re still here.

This event was memorably described by Browning in The Ring and the Book, giving me a welcome chance to present the passage here, where poetry is always welcome.

Eight hundred years exact before the year

I was made Pope, men made Formosus Pope,

Say Sigebert and other chroniclers.

Ere I confirm or quash the Trial here

Of Guido Franceschini and his friends,

Read — how there was a ghastly Trial once

Of a dead man by a live man, and both, Popes:

Thus — in the antique penman’s very phrase.

“Then Stephen, Pope and seventh of the name,

“Cried out, in synod as he sat in state,

“While choler quivered on his brow and beard,

“‘Come into court, Formosus, thou lost wretch,

“‘That claimedst to be late the Pope as I!’

“And at the word, the great door of the church

“Flew wide, and in they brought Formosus’ self,

“The body of him, dead, even as embalmed

“And buried duly in the Vatican

“Eight months before, exhumed thus for the nonce.

“They set it, that dead body of a Pope,

“Clothed in pontific vesture now again,

“Upright on Peter’s chair as if alive.

“And Stephen, springing up, cried furiously

“‘Bishop of Porto, wherefore didst presume

“‘To leave that see and take this Roman see,

“‘Exchange the lesser for the greater see,

“‘— A thing against the canons of the Church?’

“Then one (a Deacon who, observing forms,

“Was placed by Stephen to repel the charge,

“Be advocate and mouthpiece of the corpse)

“Spoke as he dared, set stammeringly forth

“With white lips and dry tongue — as but a youth,

“For frightful was the corpse-face to behold —

“How nowise lacked there precedent for this.

“But when, for his last precedent of all,

“Emboldened by the Spirit, out he blurts

“‘And, Holy Father, didst not thou thyself

“‘Vacate the lesser for the greater see,

“‘Half a year since change Arago for Rome?’

“‘— Ye have the sin’s defence now, synod mine!’

“Shrieks Stephen in a beastly froth of rage:

“‘Judge now betwixt him dead and me alive!

“‘Hath he intruded or do I pretend?

“‘Judge, judge!’— breaks wavelike one whole foam of wrath.

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Taranto asks a question

Do you recall ever seeing a column before ObamaCare urging young people to get insurance? The case would have been stronger back then, both because policies were less expensive and because the risks of going without were greater (no longer will you become uninsurable if you’re diagnosed with a serious illness).

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John Carey

John Carey is an emeritus Oxford don. I’ve been on a tear lately, reading about the birth of modernism. As much ill as good has come of modernism, I believe.

Here is nice quote from Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (1992).

This book is about the response of the English intelligentsia to the new phenomenon of mass culture. It argues that modernist literature and art can be seen as a hostile reaction to the unprecedentedly large reading public created by late nineteenth-century educational reforms. The purpose of modernist writing, it suggests, was to exclude these newly educated (or ‘semi-educated’) readers, and so to preserve the intellectual’s seclusion from the ‘mass’.

American intelligentsia are quite different from English intelligentsia, of course.

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The dust of Medieval religion

Whenever one touched the Middle Ages, the dust of Medieval religion rose, and with it English discomfort with any historiography that seemed to question the merits of the sixteenth-century events that had severed Britain culturally from Mediterranean Europe.

This is a passage from The Magdalen Metaphysicals: Idealism and Orthodoxy at Oxford, 1901-1945, by James Patrick. (1985, Mercer University Press) I picked it up at a rummage sale, and it’s the kind of book that only seems to be found at rummage sales: non-fiction with an obscure topic, not quite scholarly, but not quite meant to be read by a general audience. It is an intellectual history of the transition from the Victorian age to the Modern age at a single English university.
Patrick writes that before about 1830, no one at Oxford studied Medieval history. Beowulf was first translated and published in the early 18th century, and Piers Plowman in the 19th century. People who studied history at Oxford before 1850, studied the Greeks, the Romans, and Europe after the reformation. The period between about 400 AD and 1500 AD was in many ways a blank. Scholars simply weren’t interested in  that time period. It was not thought to have any value, as history. It had no literature worth reading (or, often, that the Victorians were capable of reading. Chaucer was not read until the 19th century, and English literature was not taught as a subject worthy of scholarly enquiry). The educated Englishman of the early 19th century probably knew the names and the order of the kings of England, and when and where famous battles were fought, but culturally the Victorians treated the Medievals much as they came to treat various savage peoples they came into contact with. Nothing of value could be learned from them. The first field scholars opened in Medival studies was architecture, not literature, again because until the mid-19th century, English scholars had not developed the skills to read and constructively criticise Medieval literature.
This information is given as background to Patrick’s description of the contest between the Victorian “idealists” and the modern “rationalists”. The idealist philosophy, Patrick writes, was based on theology (without being particularly religious), while the rationalist philosophy was based on empiricism. To illustrate the difference, Patrick says that the idealists were dumbfounded by the rationalists’ belief that facts could exist without a mind to conceive of them as facts. To the idealists, this seemed so absurd that it did not deserve a rebuttal. In the end the rationalists “won”, as shown by the fact that the names of the rationalists given are familiar as founding figures of modernist philosophy (Bertrand Russel, John Maynard Keynes, Ludwig Wittgenstein), while the idealist philosophers are almost unknown (Clement C.J. Webb, John Alexander Smith). According to Patrick, the idealists weren’t defeated by the rationalists as much as they abandoned the field. Patrick seems to believe that a strong defense of idealism required a solid grounding in the world view of the Medieval philosophers, and for the reasons given in the quote at the top of this post, they simply did not have it.

Yet two of the most popular (even beloved and lasting) authors of the 20th century were Oxfordians who clearly knew about the idealism versus rationalism contest, and just as clearly put themselves on what they knew to be the losing side. I’m talking about Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, of course.

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Obamacare waivers? Impossible!

Or so said this liberal pundit when Romney proposed them:

There are no “Obamacare waivers” that could be issued by executive order.  Section 1332 of the ACA permits “waivers for state innovation,” but these waivers, which only affect certain provisions of the law and can only be granted if specific substantive and procedural requirements are met, cannot be granted prior to January 1, 2017.  Even in 2017, a state seeking a waiver would have to show that it had a plan to provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive and affordable and that covers at least as many people as the ACA (without increasing the deficit), not exactly what Governor Romney has in mind.


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More Kunkel

More of the wisdom of Benjamin Kunkel:

“The younger you are, the less likely you are to associate the left with the Soviet Union and the more likely you are to understand capitalism, especially in its American variant, as something that rewards people very unequally and very unjustly.”

This was a friendly, even fawning interview.

The man is an idiot. I cannot exaggerate how dull and cliche’d are the thoughts of this Kunkel person. “Kunkel sees [economic growth] as something more like an illusion: A zero-sum trade system suddenly gets a massive boost when we discover that we can extract energy from the Earth in the form of coal and then petroleum, and that we can use that cheap power to exploit whole populations elsewhere in the world (“Coal and colonies,” in the phrasing of historian Kenneth Pomeranz, whom Kunkel likes to cite).”

These are not original thoughts. They are not even uncommon thoughts. This is freshman poli-sci discussion group stuff.

The economic usefulness of fossil fuels doesn’t come from its ability to “exploit whole populations elsewhere in the world”. The economic usefulness of fossil fuels comes from its ability to take the place of labor. Exploiting whole populations elsewhere in the world is an old human pastime. The modern West  is not particularly good at it. The Romans dominated the Mediterranean for many centuries, and they didn’t possess especially good ships or cavalry. The French held Indochina as a colony for less than three-quarters of a century, with a good break in the 1940s when the Japanese controlled the place.  All this fossil-fuel magic didn’t do them as much good as a few tens of thousand of crudely equipped soldiers did the Romans.

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