Review – The First Tycoon (#review, #books, #capitalism, #history, #entrepreneurship)

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

by T.J. Stiles, published 2010

How and why did Cornelius Vanderbilt, steamship and railroad entrepreneur, become America’s “first tycoon” and in the process earn a fortune worth an estimated $100M in the 1870s? The simplest answer provided by this lengthy biography is that Vanderbilt was able to think about abstract entities such as corporations as representing competitive business opportunities in an age when most other people controlling them thought of them as profitable grants of privilege from the State (which they were). The result was that Vanderbilt thought strategically about his acquisitions in the sense of actively seeking to own things with identifiable competitive advantages (the best route, the lowest operating costs, network effects) which he would then exploit while slashing prices, while his competitors were stuck playing defense until they gave up and offered to buy him out in self-defense.

But the book really doesn’t offer enough specific and concrete evidence to validate this thesis, it’s really just a hunch and an attempt to read between the lines of what is offered. Like most biographers and historians, Stiles consistently fluctuates between the two extremes of failing to provide the necessary evidence to actually understand what was happening and why, and forcing a tortured narrative metaphor of “the capitalist as king/general” that ends up just confusing the issues. Vanderbilt is constantly in “rate wars”, is “battling” for control of companies and finds himself with an “empire” after yet another “conquest.” But we never hear this language in Vanderbilt’s own quotations (based upon written correspondence, newspaper interviews and courtroom testimony) which are numerous.

How Vanderbilt saw himself as a businessman and operator, and how Stiles chooses to depict him with his jarring anachronistic fadism are even more incongruous because Stiles himself spends much of the time arguing against his own descriptions! It is a puzzling choice. Perhaps books about old tyme capitalists don’t sell well without a not so subtle nod to the villainous Robber Baron laying in wait inside of all of them, but it’s a shame because the much more interesting story would’ve been the one told through Vanderbilt’s own eyes. Not to mention the fact that the Robber Baron myth is a lie perpetrated against Vanderbilt, not because he was a horrible monopolist but because he was such a pain in the ass to the horrible monopolists!

[The NYT] attacked him for, as he wrote elsewhere, “driving too sharp a competition” [… deriding] “competition for competition’s sake; competition which crowds out legitimate enterprises… or imposes tribute upon them” [… and called on] “our mercantile community to look the curse of competition fully in the face.”

Similarly, there are constant references to “the world Vanderbilt helped make” with reference to markets and businesses, the city of New York and the emergent nation of the United States of America. And while certainly the man’s actions and decisions were influential and impactful, Vanderbilt was not a statesman and never saw himself as anything more than an ambitious private citizen. There is not one example in the book of Vanderbilt plotting to remake the world in his own image. This is just another forced biographical trope that dopey readers, editors and authors seem to think makes a story ten times better to insist upon when the world just doesn’t have that many psychopaths in fact.

Other information missing from the story that seems essential to charting Vanderbilt’s rise: what he paid for various business assets and how he financed them, what he earned from them and what he paid in taxes, when he controlled an asset and when he was a minority partner, etc. Especially, we should like to know his leverage over time and how he was able to benefit from the various money panics that occurred repeatedly throughout his business career. One thing is for certain, he seemed to always be a buyer in such scenarios, never a seller, and he seemed comfortable being in control of his investments and making and enforcing operating policy, rather than being a mere financial speculator such as a partner like Daniel Drew might.

There are many charming bits of early American social and business vernacular we learn sprinkled throughout the book and its strength is in providing so many direct quotations from primary sources, especially the business media of the day, which really help to flavor the narrative and transport the reader to the place and time described. But this can also be a weakness, when the author ends up name-dropping a litany of capitalists involved in some deal or scheme and dribbling their worries and anxieties from private correspondence over several pages as the deal unfolds. I found it difficult to follow and mostly tuned out what I assume are supposed to be the action-packed moments of the story.

I first read this book shortly after it was published in 2010. I since decided to re-read it and while I wish I had had a bit more energy and focus when I did, I am glad of it. I took a new and different appreciation from some of the book’s events than I did on first pass, which suggests I’ve either improved my mental framework or at least changed it in meaningful ways over the last 7 years. Vanderbilt still comes across as a unique and heroic figure, a true titanic will. The narrative is as confused and cluttered as ever, and while I think there were the makings of a better, more concisely argued book here, and the author certainly has done his research, I am not convinced he did the right research or even fully understood what lessons he was taking away from it. The result is I’ve since downgraded the value of this particular work in my mind and think it belongs to a pretty standard class of historical biographies. Vanderbilt the man himself though is easily a five out of five as far as members of humanity are concerned!

I’ve got far more I’d be willing and able to discuss about this work and Vanderbilt as an example in private correspondence than I think I could fit into a short, coherent blog post, so really ruminating on this story will have to wait for another time and a different occasion.

3/5

Review – The Rational Optimist (#books, #optimism, #reason, #evolution, #economics, #development)

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

by Matt Ridley, published 2011

Why, for the last 300 years, has “everything” been getting better and better in terms of just about any human outcome you can come up with? Human beings are getting better at exchanging ideas and thus generating new and better ideas. In addition, the total stock of life improving ideas humanity can build from is compounding at an increasing rate. The benefits of free exchange extend beyond the economic realm and into the philosophic, and then back again.

The author charts a surprising course through humanity’s shared hunter-gatherer history. He argues that it was economic trade which allowed the division of labor to develop, and the division of labor which allowed for the transition from hunter-gatherer subsistence living to agricultural subsistence, and from there to a compounding of capital and an increasing division of labor and economic specialization that allowed for mankind to finally break free of the Malthusian trap in many parts of the globe (and more every year).

In addition, he says we are never going back. The genie is out of the bottle and rather than the division of labor being fragile, it is far more robust than any social structure yet experienced and gets stronger the more specialized it becomes.

Because of this, and because when surveying history up to this point in the broadest terms possible there is evidence of things getting better and better for more and more people, not the opposite, the author concludes that the rational thing is to be an optimist and expect this trend to continue.

There are several convenient leaps of logic built off flimsy premises that would startle and upset an opponent of markets and industrialized societies, but there is such a preponderance of hard logic and even harder evidence that there isn’t enough here to tip over the apple cart. But the value of this book is less in its rhetorical force for free markets and industrial development and more in its sweeping survey of a number of seemingly unrelated historical data and economic phenomena into a coherent picture of hopefulness about humanity’s future. I found myself joyfully surprised by the idea that in the chicken-egg quandry of agriculture and trade, the author contends that trade came first and produced all the surplus we moderns have enjoyed since then.

Going “back to the land” or seeking out de-urbanized, atomized communities seem to be doomed to bring their proponents a lower standard of living overall, idealizing a past reality that never actually existed or rejecting the very thing (the division of labor) which is necessary to enjoying a desirable standard of living with modern securities and comforts.

3/5

News Media Can Not Be Objective

A friend in the financial industry sent over an article that began,

Hedge funds run by women have outperformed a broad benchmark of alternative asset managers over the past five years, raising fresh questions about why there are so few female portfolio managers.

This is a great example of the “fake news” phenomenon and will serve to illustrate why news media is not and can not be objective in its presentation of facts.

First, news gathering and publishing is part of the discipline of history– it deals primarily with events and information that have already taken place, even while commenting on or attempting to predict events yet to happen. When you open up a newspaper, you are reading articles about things that happened in the past, albeit the recent past. The only difference between what you read in a history book and what you read in a newspaper is how much time has passed between your present reality and the events portrayed in the book or article. In a news article, that time period may be hours, days, weeks or even a few years; in a history book, it may be decades, is often centuries and is sometimes millennia.

Second, as a specimen of history, news gathering and publishing suffers from the same philosophical problem that history in general does, namely, developing a criterion for selecting meaningful facts and data to tell a particular story from the essentially infinite quantity of such facts and figures available. To write history, you first need a person (the author) who has a set of values or curiosity that dictate his desire to explore a particular historical topic. Once he has selected a topic, he has to come up with a theory about the topic and then use the theory to select from and interpret the available data to tell a story about the topic. The news journalist works the same way– start with a person, the journalist (or their editor, advertiser, owner or other primary influencer) who uses their values and judgment to determine what stories need to be told, then, using pre-existing theories of how the world works, select and interpret relevant data to tell the story that needs to be told.

History does not write itself, and neither does the news. Historians write history, journalists write the news, and some innate values and beliefs are necessary in each to cause sufficient motivation to inspire the act of writing and publishing in the first place. Given the motivation, pre-existing logical theories of cause and effect are necessary to determine which facts and data belong to the story and which do not and how they are relevant. At no point in this process up to this point, or after it, is any “objectivity” involved.

Returning now to the example of the story my financial friend shared with me, what can we make of it? A few questions and observations come to mind, using the framework above:

  • Why (what theory/value) is the proportion of female versus male money managers a story that needs to be told?
  • Why was a five year period of data used for observing the phenomenon of relative outperformance?
  • How did the female active managers perform against a genderless, passive index strategy?
  • Were any male active managers able to outperform the broad benchmark used? Were they able to beat the female managers’ performance?
  • Do women want to run hedge funds?
  • Is there is a systemic reason for female fund managers outperforming a benchmark that is persistent and not attributable to luck?

Of course, none of these are addressed in this news story. That is because the job of interpreting the news falls on the consumer of the news, not the news itself– for the news to attempt to interpret itself would be a highly problematic and morally suspect enterprise!

The Greatest Time To Build A Fortune Is Now (#investing, #wealth)

From Is Value Investing Broken? by Geoff Gannon:

There’s a tendency for people – people of any time – to see the time they live in as unique, dangerous, different, unlike any other age. In some ways, they are always right. Some things really are different this time from all other times. But, mostly, they’re wrong. And what they are wrong about is reading a golden age of stability into the past. I was talking with a value investor once and this value investor said that sure Ben Graham’s ideas worked in Ben Graham’s times. But Ben Graham invested in simpler times.

Here are the times Ben Graham invested in: the 1910s through the 1950s. He invested during Two World Wars, the start of the Cold War, the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the U.S. and then the testing of nuclear weapons by other countries, The Great Depression, a big explosion (reportedly a terrorist bombing) on Wall Street, and the longest shut down of trading in Wall Street history that I can remember at least (right as World War One started). People talk about political risk today. Political risk in Ben Graham’s time meant Marxists and Fascists. Investors saw hyperinflation in Germany after the war and then they saw deflation after the 1929 crash. These were not simple times. If you go back and read the newspapers from the time – you can see how not simple they were.

Now, yes, they were different from today in some ways. Much of the period investors and economists in the U.S. study were more regulated than today. So, you either had the Gold Standard or Bretton Woods. You had much greater belief in planned and insular economies in a lot of countries. With the benefit of hindsight – and seeing the entire sweep of history – many of these decades seem simple to us. They rarely were. Try to find a decade without too much inflation, too much deflation, too much war, the mania of some bubble, or the bursting of that bubble. At any point in that past, people could have believed value investing was dead. And yet, buy and hold investors – business owners and the like – have been compounding fortunes in the U.S. from the 1800s through today. If there are companies that can make founders and their families billionaires – there are companies that can make shareholders very rich if they buy and hold.

The Unwritten Constitution of the United States (#politics, #government, #USA)

It would be a fascinating exercise to actually write down what the Constitution would say if it actually described the structure of the US government today.

from Why I am not a libertarian.

How Memes Get Twisted (#history, #language, #memes, #politics, #capitalism, #business, #RobberBarons)

I recently removed my read copy of TJ Stiles The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt from the shelf and paged through the introduction. I enjoyed the book both in the way it was written and in learning of the life and times of this esteemed capitalist and thought it might be nearing time for a re-read as I am certain that I would appreciate certain details differently now than when I first read the book almost 7 years ago.

One passage stood out to me right away as evidence in favor of this supposition because I do not remember it at all:

His strength of will was famous indeed. Vanderbilt had first amassed wealth as a competitor in the steamboat business, cutting fares against established lines until he forced his rivals to pay him to go away. The practice led the New York Times, a quarter of a century before his death, to introduce a new metaphor into the American vernacular by comparing him to the medieval robber barons who took a toll from all passing traffic on the Rhine.

I was floored re-reading this (well, as floored as I could be in the dim moments before bedtime). If you’ve heard the “robber barons” meme in contemporary discourse, its typically trotted out as a catch-all word to disparage a person who is extremely wealthy, implying perhaps to a criminal degree not in the sense that the wealth was acquired illegally, but that no one should be allowed to be so wealthy. This is the latest evolution in the use of the meme. Maybe even five years ago, the meme was used to mean a large corporation or wealthy person who was exerting undue influence in society, against the social mores of the Left, synonymous with “capitalist pig.” The tie to “robber barons” was the implication that there was something overtly political, and unfair, about the activities of a person or for-profit institution with so much wealth.

Going back still further, the meme seemed to be a muckraking term favored by the Progressives on their march, associating any type of large industrial scale as seedy, sinister and exploitative– not captains of industry, but robber barons who achieve their size and wealth not by solving the world’s problems, but by creating arbitrary opportunities to siphon off resources by gumming up the works.

But according to this quote from Stiles, the meme originated in Vanderbilt’s heyday (early to mid-1800s) to describe his actions, and the actions which inspired the response were not the actions of a monopolist or large-scale corporate monolith as has become fashionable, but the opposite! At this time, Vanderbilt was the scrappy upstart pestering the “established” businesses and giving them their first taste of competition, and he was being pilloried for this by the establishment press. Today, businesses and businessmen are attacked for raising prices, whereas Vanderbilt was being attacked for cutting them– finding cheaper ways to provide the same service just wasn’t the “gentlemanly” thing to do. We see here the origin of the meme is a lot closer to the “corporate raider” personality of the 1980s than the “corporate titan CEO” of the 1990s or 2000s.

 

But Who Will… Destroy Organic Urban Communities? (#economics, #fallacies, #development, #BigCities, #politics)

From the “But who will…?” file of pro-government fallacies comes this latest doozy on how the development of the Eisenhower Expressway destroyed multiple ethnic enclaves in Chicago:

If you live in Chicago and you drive a car, you’ve probably been stuck in traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway. Oak Park resident Jillian Zarlenga sure has. “I spent a great deal of time on the Eisenhower inching towards the Harlem Avenue exit,” she says.

Sitting in traffic jams gave Jillian time to think — especially when she was working as a United Church of Christ chaplain at Elmhurst Hospital. “I had a lot of time sitting on the Eisenhower examining this huge area of land, thinking there must have been a lot of people that lived here before, and I was just curious where they all went,” she says. She also wondered about all of the buildings that were torn down. What was lost? These musings prompted her to pose this question to Curious City: “What happened to the people displaced by the Eisenhower Expressway?”

Short answer: Who cares? Make way for Progress!

Long answer: read the article. Sure to get those same Progressives in a tizzy.

 

Review – From Third World To First: The Singapore Story (#Singapore, #history, #economics, #politics, #books)

From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965-2000

by Lee Kuan Yew, published 2000

Extended Introduction

This book has two parts (well, really, three, but the third part is about 20 pages and isn’t as significant as the other two parts), the first of which is about how Lee Kuan Yew describes the building of political institutions and the development of the economy of Singapore under the leadership of himself and his People’s Action Party over almost four decades, the second of which is a country-by-country exploration of Singapore’s foreign relations or what might best be called the exercise of Lee Kuan Yew’s political power abroad. I have an essay planned which will cover the first part of the book separately, focusing on the economic development of Singapore “from Third World to First” and the related political issues with specific emphasis on the myth of Singapore as an example of free market economics at work. Confusingly for some readers, I will argue both that according to Lee Kuan Yew himself Singapore was not a free market and was not intended to be one, and that despite this most of the credit for Singapore’s amazing economic development over the forty year period observed still belongs to the workings of the free market and not to intelligent central planning and wise stewardship of the economy by protectionist politicians.

Therefore, this review will only cover part of the book, but a still substantial one (pg. 225-660) and one which touches upon enough issues that will be raised in the upcoming essay that the reader should be able to get most of the story. I also plan in this review to meander quite a bit and talk about the things I found most interesting or meaningful, rather than summarizing the themes. I took extensive notes on the used copy I bought, annotating almost every other page. There’s a lot to chew on here and I probably won’t cover it all even between this review and the later essay, but might come back to it and comment on individual issues as my thoughts or interest allow. For those who are so inclined, you may wish to read some personal observations and experiences I had during a recent trip to Singapore, as well as some of the comments I made about Singapore’s history and political story, by reading the earlier posts tagged about Singapore. They may add meaningful context.

The Role of International Affairs in Little Singapore

Imagine I described to you a tiny, natural resourceless island nation situated strategically along a major shipping lane, whose historical role was one of trade entrepot and for whom fluid commercial volumes with every people and country possible were key to its economic survival. What kind of foreign policy would you imagine such a country would conduct? Do you imagine it’d have a standing army, or rely on the goodwill of other nations for its existence? What do you think it’s chief executive would spend most of his time doing and where would he most frequently be found?

According to LKY’s memoirs, though a small country dependent upon trade and commerce, Singapore nonetheless had a big role to play in international politics and was not above taking hostile stances even toward other southeast Asian nations (and even looked on approvingly at various wars in the Middle East!). Establishing a robust Singapore Armed Forces was one of the first priorities of LKY when independence was gained in 1965, reportedly to ward off threats from Malaysia and even Indonesia. And during my reading, I lost count of the number of times various chapters and paragraphs began with LKY meeting with other political and academic elites outside of Singapore.

Rather than adopting a strict foreign policy of peace and goodwill towards all nations, LKY comes across as almost bloodthirsty in his description of Singapore’s role in the Vietnam War, describing American intervention as good and necessary, claiming the Vietnamese regime deserved to be “punished”, first in a cross-border skirmish with China and then by continuing sanctions and non-normalized trade and diplomatic relations between Vietnam and Singapore even a decade after the conflict ended and even going so far as to throw his lot in with the Khmer Rouge to counterbalance the Vietnamese puppet government in Cambodia, describing the decision as one arrived at after having “no choice”! If choice doesn’t play a role in designing policy, what need have we of great leaders like LKY?

And then there is Singapore’s role as arms merchant at various times in various conflicts…

And why was it so important to LKY to get agreements with other countries to host SAF detachments for training in unusual environments? Though we are told that the SAF was created to defend tiny Singapore, the desire to train in environments alien to the tiny tropical island seem to lead logically to one place– interventionism. I doubt LKY planned to militarily dominate the globe, but surely he hoped to have his forces participate in struggles that had nothing to do with the direct defense of the island.

While many of the political tours were related to commitments imposed by being part of the British Commonwealth and its former colonial possessions, there seem to be just too many instances of LKY as a global jetsetter to excuse. Why was this man hobnobbing seemingly everywhere but Singapore?

I don’t know what the meaningful difference is between a currency board and a central bank, but assuming there is one, LKY said that Singapore did not have a central bank because,

a central bank is an easy way out for a finance minister who likes to juggle [his figures] when he has a deficit in his budget. I do not think we should put such a temptation before the finance minister in Singapore.

And yet, we witness numerous examples throughout the book, including episodes in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Asian Financial Crisis during which Singapore attempts to “defend” the value of other countries’ exchange rates through currency intervention in Singapore. Why? What excuse could their possibly be for this behavior other than trying to be a “player” in world affairs?

But it’s not all baffling. The book has its charming moments, too, including many glimpses into how world political figures really think and what they say about their regimes and records of governance behind the scenes. Take, for instance, this phallic competition between Indonesia’s Sukarno and Lee Kuan Yew:

[Sukarno] asked, “How big is your population?” “One and a half million,” I replied. He had 100 million. “How many cars do you have?” “About 10,000,” I said. Jakarta had 50,000. I was puzzled but readily conceded that he occupied first place in Southeast Asia in terms of size.

Or, the behavior of Indian officials in the face of new golf balls:

It was a gradual slide in quality of a once elite service [Indian Civil Service], now caught up in the throes of a social and economic revolution which had reduced living standards… they could not buy good (i.e., imported) golf balls because their import was forbidden… Our high commission had advised me to bring several boxes of golf balls to distribute to the committee members of the club. It was depressing to see top brass and civil servants breaking up the packages and taking fistfuls of golf balls to stuff into their golf bags.

Indeed, golf balls were so precious that caddies would dash into any house or rough to find them. Once, at the former Bombay Royal Golf Course in 1965, I sliced my ball into a squatter area [what is a squatter area doing within driving distance of a Royal Golf Course?] and heard the loud clatter as it fell on a zinc roof. My caddie dashed off, I thought to find out who was hurt. But no– a little boy emerged with the golf ball, not to complain of injury but to bargain over the price of the ball.

We also learn of the need to be street-wise when dealing with foreign communist dictatorships looking to play a little development scam on a credulous leader:

In February 1994, I signed the Suzhou Agreement with Vice Premier Li Lanqing in Beijing, witnessed by Premier Li Peng and Prime Minister Goh… the essence of the project was to transfer our knowledge of how to plan, build and administer a comprehensive industrial, commercial and residential park that could attract high-quality foreign investors… Instead of giving SIP their full attention and cooperation as was promised, they used their association with Singapore to promote their own industrial estate, Suzhou New District (SND), undercutting SIP in land and infrastructure costs, which they controlled… It was a chastening experience… For the Suzhou authorities, a signed agreement is an expression of serious and sincere intent, but one that is not necessarily comprehensive and can be altered or reinterpreted with changing circumstances… China has an immensely complex government.

But LKY was something of a shakedown scam artist himself as Singapore was seen as a “developing” but not “developed” economy for some time. After catching some American personnel spying in Singapore,

I told the British commissioner, Lord Selkirk, that we would release these men and their stupidity would not be made public if the Americans gave a hundred million U.S. dollars to the Singapore government for economic development. They offered US$1 million, not to the Singapore government, but to the PAP [LKY’s political party]– an unbelievable insult.

He engineered something similar with Japan,

The only important business I raised with Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda was the “blood debt”, a request for compensation for their wartime atrocities… We eventually settled this “blood debt” after independence, in October 1966, for $50 million [serious money for small Singapore when the dollar was worth something!], half in grants and half in loans. I wanted to establish good relations to encourage their industrialists to invest in Singapore.

American race-baiters like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton couldn’t have worked a better deal with calls for reparation that would just end up in their own pockets! He even tried the same scam on different terms with the Japanese at a later date, this time playing “Godfather” over a shipping lane:

To get the Japanese to help us, for example, in investing in a petrochemical plant, we had to remind them that their ships passing through the Straits of Malacca would have problems with toll collectors if Singapore were to join the other littoral states, Indonesia and Malaysia.

“Nice open sea lane you got there, it would be a shame if something happened to it,” said in a thick, Germanic Robber Baron accent. The shakedown later continued with “soft loan” subsidies available only to developing nations:

I protested to Fukuda that his officials had spoken of Singapore not as a developing country but as an industrialized one not entitled to soft loans from Japan… We would lose our General Scheme of Preferences (GSP) [like affirmative action for international trading partners who are non-developed countries] and other advantages before we could compete on equal terms.

“Soft loans” are a form of fraud where one entity makes loans to another entity that they never intend to be repaid and usually forgive entirely. It is an outstanding source of graft, especially in corrupt political regimes where outright bribery is outlawed by the lender nation’s laws.

When he isn’t reflecting on his own actions, LKY proves to be a biting and incisive critic and a truthful observer of laws and conditions in other people’s countries. Here he is on the European Economic Community, the predecessor to the EU:

With the other commissioners, I discussed how to avoid manufacturing those products that EEC countries would find sensitive because of persistent high unemployment. I discovered to my dismay that the list was unlimited. Any member country with any influence on Brussels, feeling the slightest pain, could appeal to Brussels for protection and would invariably get it.

This brief anecdote proves three things simultaneously– (1) contrary to propaganda, the EU is a protectionist trading bloc, not a free trading society, (2) there appears to be no nation on Earth that is led by politicians who understand the benefits of free trade, even unilateral free trade and (3) not even trade-dependent Singapore is able to gain a competitive advantage by being a true free trader because it was led by a Keynesian planner-mindset politician-in-chief, LKY, who had his own worries about managing unemployment in his country to risk upsetting bureaucrats in Brussels! Now that is global political power projection for you!!

Here’s another honest and insightful observation from LKY, this time about a faux pas made by an inept American president:

When I was leaving, he gave me a green leather-bound copy of his campaign autobiography [aw gee, what a nice gift, a hastily produced, ghost-written volume of propaganda], Why Not the Best? He had already inscribed it, “To my good friend Lee Kuan Yew. Jimmy Carter.” I was flattered but surprised by my elevation to “good friend” even before he had met me. This must have been a standard practice during his election campaign.

It makes you wonder if Jimmy Cahtah even bothered to sign it himself. If you’re going to piss off a foreign leader on a cheap gesture, spare no expense!

The book is rife with such charming episodes, I could fill the blog up with them. Instead, it’s worth saying something about Lee Kuan Yew’s somewhat confusing and arbitrary arguments for polylogist legal theorizing and the explanations he gave for the success of Singapore’s economic and national development since 1965.

As a polylogist, LKY is a skeptic of the idea of simply importing “progressive” legal principles from one population to another:

the are fundamental differences between East Asian Confucian and Western liberal societies. Confucian societies believe that the individual exists in the context of the family, extended family, friends and wider society, and that the government cannot and should not take over the role of the family. Many in the West believe that the government is capable of fulfilling the obligations of the family when it fails, as with single mothers… freedom could only exist in an orderly state, not when there was contention or anarchy. In Eastern societies, the main objective is to have a well-ordered society so that everyone can enjoy freedom to the maximum [even better if they’re ruled by people like LKY!]… Democracy works where the people have that culture of accommodation and tolerance which makes a minority accept the majority’s right to have its way until the next election, and wait patiently and peacefully for its turn to become the government by persuading more voters to support its views.

And yet, he encouraged China to join as a member of the law-abiding community of nations! How can China, whose authoritarian legal system is ostensibly appropriate for the culture and values of the Chinese, join the law-abiding international community whose laws and customs are foreign and antagonistic to the culture and values of the Chinese? One potential solution is that there exist in every society a set of elite individuals who are not beholden to local political bigotry and historical traditions but can instead transcend them and tap into a more universal logic. But if they can do this for their countries at an international level, why can’t they do this at the “local” level of their domestic politics?

This seems to present some problems for the polylogist approach of LKY, although I think there’s a perfectly simple, but embarrassingly revealing, answer that has something to do with the reality of power and how and why it is exercised in any society which the thoughtful reader can probably surmise with a bit of their own consideration.

I am not a polylogist. I believe there is one, universal human logic that all mature, physically functioning adult minds can understand and employ in their own thinking and communications. That being said, I think LKY is absolutely correct that it is absurd to believe one can foist political principles that were developed over hundreds or thousands of years of combined cultural history onto a population that has never utilized them before, such as using military Keynesianism to deploy democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly when in so doing the existing political arrangements and power structures are rapidly collapsed or, worse, ignored as if they’re unimpactful.

But more importantly, I think it is naive to expect any political principle, foreign or domestic, to work miracles. For example, believing the process of revealing voter preferences through democratic elections can somehow obviate the need for working within the confines of economic scarcity. Or, to use another example, instituting a vicious socialist dictatorship which doesn’t give a damn about anyone’s preferences, and expecting it to spit out the highest standard of living in the world for its people. So, there is some truth to what LKY is saying on this subject, just not much how he said it.

And how did LKY explain Singapore’s success?

the basic principles that have helped us progress: social cohesion through sharing the benefits of progress, equal opportunities for all, and meritocracy, with the best man or woman for the job, especially as leaders in government

I’d call this a bit of self-aggrandizing delusion. When LKY says “sharing the benefits of progress”, he means that he doesn’t believe the outcomes in a market society are anything but random (he makes this claim in an early section of the book), and that the wealth should be spread around by politicians through things like government housing projects and forced savings accounts. Of course, getting to hand out welfare goodies after an election is a good strategy for winning future elections– some might call this building “social cohesion” to a particular party’s cause, such as LKY’s People’s Action Party.

Similarly, it is pure fudge to claim that you provided equal opportunities for all while running a meritocracy. A meritocracy implies an inequality of opportunity– opportunity goes to those who show merit, having performed well with other opportunities. To give everyone equality of opportunity is not just wasteful, it’s impossible. Does everyone in Singapore have an equal opportunity to be Prime Minister like LKY, or just those who control a well-oiled electoral wealth redistribution machine like the PAP? The double fudge is insisting that government leaders themselves are examples of this meritocracy. Nobody wants to lose their subsidized housing for questioning the merits of their political leaders!

That being said, I don’t think LKY played NO part in the Singapore success story. There is something to be said for a stable political regime with predictable laws and regulations over a 40+ year period, especially one which tended more toward laissez-faire than most. And clearly, looking around the neighborhood (Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia… China) Singapore could’ve had worse political management than it experienced. I just think that the credit due is negative– it’s what LKY and his team didn’t do, that made Singapore great, not what they did do. That, and what they didn’t do relative to what the more eager regimes in neighboring jurisdictions did do over the time period observed. With racial tension in Malaysia, military government in Indonesia, socialist science experiments in India, a devastating civil war in Vietnam and the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in China, you didn’t have to be all that fast to win this footrace.

By just not getting out of bed and ordering an atrocity each day, LKY virtually guaranteed the investment, development and progress would come to his tiny island nation unimpeded for decades, just like it did. But since there’s no way to run a truly controlled experiment here, there’s no way to know for sure what might’ve happened under a different set of policies, so ultimately it’s Lee Kuan Yew’s word against mine.

3/5

Review – Restrepo (#film, #war, #documentary, #politics, #NationBuilding)

I watched a NatGeo documentary last night called “Restrepo.” It’s about the conditions and objectives of a small US Army platoon in the mountainous wilderness of Afghanistan.

Very little happens in this movie over its 1.5hr runtime. There is a lot of buildup and talk about how often the base is attacked, and this is depicted several times, but overall nothing happens. I don’t know if this was an intentional part of the plot (“the futility of the Restrepo mission”) or if it’s bad editing or belies a fraud about the claims being made in the film about what it is like for these troops, but it is not entertaining. And by that I don’t mean, “Gee, I wish there were more poor, dumb soldiers getting wasted in this real life documentary” but rather, “Gee, what am I getting out of watching this film?”

That being said, this is not good propaganda for the US government’s desire to nation-build overseas. Why does the military allow journalists and documentarians to embed with their troops? Restrepo is an offshoot of a slightly larger but still insignificant base tasked with enlarging the “security bubble” in the area so that a road can be safely built connecting two hapless economic regions into one, which is supposed to bring jobs, incomes and peace and happiness to the land. Every bit of tactical maneuver in war seems really stupid when studied by itself — “50 men gave their lives for a bridge that was ultimately destroyed by the enemy anyway, why did 50 men die for a bridge?” — but the Restrepo mission seems especially stupid not because these men are fighting and dying and accidentally murdering local civilians for an unbuilt road, but because the premise behind building the road is itself very stupid. Do the local Afghans even WANT this road? If they did, why didn’t they build it before the US Army showed up?

Is military Keynesianism a viable structure for developing foreign economies? Keynesianism doesn’t seem to work to develop domestic economies. And the military, professional murderers and demolishers, don’t seem to be the right people to task with building things, let alone people’s economies. Wouldn’t it make more sense to send overwhelming military force through the area, wipe out/expel the organized Taliban elements and then let civilian diplomats and construction contractors come through and negotiate new power structures and infrastructure plans?

The Korengal Valley itself, where the drama unfolds, is truly magnificent geography. It reminds me of the valleys I hiked on the Inca Trail in Peru on my way up to Macchu Picchu. In fact, the remoteness, the terraced cultivation and the “primitive” lifestyle and social organization of the Afghans looked nearly identical to what I saw in Peru. It seems like a perfectly nice place for the locals to live and you get the insane idea watching the movie that they never asked for the US Army to invade their territory and murder their wives and children in helicopter gunship assaults, and they’re not all that thankful for their service now that they’ve shown up. Would it be unpatriotic, dare I say even treasonous, to suggest that the Afghans are getting a raw deal here and it’s hard to wonder why they wouldn’t want to overtly or covertly support the Taliban in these circumstances?

That old quip about “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you” runs hard through the film’s narrative. We see again and again the way the local commander makes big promises and doesn’t follow through– he murders a guy’s cow and offers no agreeable compensation, he disappears a local who he suspects of being an accomplice of the Taliban and then offers the vague assurance that he’s being treated nicely and will soon return though he doesn’t, and he responds to an attack by calling in a fire mission on a neighboring village that kills and maims several women and small children. I don’t care who someone is fighting for, if I had to hold the charred body of my innocent two year old in my arms and watch a bunch of crude monkeys rifle through the smoking remains of my home looking for contraband after such an incident, I think I’d lose my shit.

And what IS the best solution to murdering someone’s cow, anyway? If you could get your higher-ups to release the $400-500 cash to pay the guy back (I think the village elders took the US Army for a ride on that request, by the way, there is no way a cow is worth half a grand in the mountains of Afghanistan) doesn’t that incentivize them to let more of their cattle wander into your concertina wire whenever they lack liquidity? And if you can’t get that cash released, aren’t you guaranteed to keep pissing off the locals while insisting you’re there to win hearts and minds?

The long and the short of it is that imperialism is a terrible idea in the first place, but the United States government isn’t even good at imperialism. It is very half-hearted and half-assed in its attempts to brutalize and control foreign peoples and spends more time apologizing and groveling about its numerous mistakes than making any meaningful progress in terms of rapine and pillage. It makes you wonder the whole time how such a pointless and ineffectual system can sustain itself, until you realize that the people who are really getting mulcted in this process are the guileless American people “back home.”

And the poor, dumb US foot soldier is the tool used to tug at those people’s heart strings while picking their pockets clean. “Thank you for your service,” indeed.

2/5

Review – Before The Dawn (#evolution, #genetics, #anthropology, #history, #books)

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

by Nicholas Wade, published 2006

Evolution and history are not two distinct processes, with one following another like the change between royal dynasties. Rather, evolution and history overlap, with the historical period being overlaid on a still continuing process of evolutionary change. (pg. 272)

Something I always used to wonder about when reading history was the recurring theme of barbarian invasions of “civilized” societies striking from the frontiers. Why were there separate civilized and barbarian populations? And where did all these barbarians keep coming from, given that the explanation invariably given for their invasion was that they themselves were being invaded/pressured by other barbarians on their frontier? (Was it barbarians all the way down?) I purchased Wade’s “Before the Dawn” to try to better understand the debate about “race” — which is one chapter of twelve in the book — and ended up with a much better understanding of this perennial personal historical quandary, the book having offered a framework for understanding early human history and migration patterns and the way evolution played the keyboard simultaneously.

The most descriptive word that comes to mind when I think of this book is “sweeping”, which is both its strength and its weakness. This is very much a strategic book examining large trends that took place over vast geographic expanses and long periods of time, rather than a tactical examination of the various microphenomena involved, although there’s some of that, too. Concerning itself with the evolutionary changes which led to the splitting of the human and chimpanzee genetic lines 5 million years ago, and then the ensuing genetic changes and speciation of the pre-modern human genetic lines between 5 million and 50,000 years ago and then finally sorting out the geographic expansion and social and likely genetic transformation of modern human beings from 50,000 years ago to the present, the author surveys key findings and scientific developments since Darwin’s writings that have helped to piece together the early history of humanity. And while it’s supposed to be an introduction written for the knowledgeable layman, Wade nonetheless covers so much ground, so many academic controversies, so many studies and theories and oddly-named regions and eras and behavioral developments — the world’s scientific community seems to have an unresolved dilemma when it comes to naming things — that it is sometimes hard to keep up and remain focused on the broad narrative of which these items are a part.

The book has 12 chapters, simply named, which serve as essential themes explored:

  1. Genetics & Genesis
  2. Metamorphosis
  3. First Words
  4. Eden
  5. Exodus
  6. Stasis
  7. Settlement
  8. Sociality
  9. Race
  10. Language
  11. History
  12. Evolution

It’s a testament to either the astounding volume of detail in this book, or the limits of my own cognitive abilities, or both, that having just finished this book last night after picking it up just over a week ago, I couldn’t reliably tell you which parts of the story fit in each section, so I won’t bother trying to summarize it all here. Instead, I thought I’d mention just a few pieces that I found especially interesting.

First, the “out of Africa” moment. I didn’t realize that this was not one moment, with one group of people. It happened many times with many different groups of people who, according to the historical record, went many different ways from there, some traveling around the coasts and then into the interior of Asia (and eventually outlying islands and over the land bridge to North America and South America), others migrating through Southern and Northern Europe. Wade argues that they were strong mariners due to the navigation and spread throughout the south Pacific archipelago, but why weren’t they navigating the coasts of North Africa and the Mediterranean and transiting out of Africa directly into Southern Europe? Meanwhile, numerous other pre-modern humans such as the Neanderthals (Europe) and Homo erectus (Asia) had already left Africa thousands of years before and fully populated the regions they were migrating into. But there was little discussion or exploration of how these other human species managed this, or why they might’ve been the firsts. Geologic history plays an important role here as well, and the multiple ice ages which occurred during these migration waves not only may have been drivers of evolutionary change which then led to social and migratory change, but they also dictated where various migrations could reasonably be achieved and increased the chance of tension and conflict between previous inhabitants and new arrivals in environs experiencing increased ecological scarcity.

Another important idea in the book, which for the present appears to be a hypothesis with a disputed body of evidence behind it, is that we might be able to peer deeper and more accurately into the historical record by means of the interplay between language and genetic diversification. The idea seems to be that every time a distinct genetic population splits off from an existing group, they tend to modify their language as well. Understanding where and how various language splits occurred might allow scientists to pinpoint new genetic branch timelines and vice versa, all the way back to the “original mother tongue” of the first “out of Africans”. One extremely speculative hope is that this original human language might even be reasonably reconstructed. Proto-Esperanto?

A third item I wanted to highlight isn’t interesting so much as it is entertaining, what I consider to be a bit of comical proledom. In a discussion of the relationship between last names and shared genealogy in Britain, Wade states,

Commoners acquired surnames between AD 1250 and 1350, apparently for the convenience of feudal record keepers who needed to differentiate between tenant farmers with the same first names. The surnames were not highly original. They tended to be a person’s profession (Smith, Butcher), or a patronymic (Johnson, Peterson), or derived from some landscape feature (Hill, Bush).

He goes on to give an example where it turned out that two Brits with the same last name, one a CEO and one an academic, actually did have a shared lineage originating to a common ancestor in a particular region of Northern England/Southern Scotland of whose geography the surname was descriptive, and who lived in that area according to official records. I got a chortle out of the way the elites of yore chose to humanize and differentiate amongst their tax cattle simply to aid their own tax farming, and that they didn’t bother to come up with anything more illustrious than tacking on terminology for slight changes in elevation on the land the peasants originated from, etc. It’s also interesting to think of how many people today have “commoner” last names (which group of ancestors, then, was reproductively more successful, the commoner or the elite?!) and how the market economy has allowed the sons of so many peasants to accumulate so much wealth!

A fourth item worth mentioning is the issue of “race”. It appears from this reading that “race” is a real and scientific phenomenon, though the implications of race are not well-know and are likely far different from what both “supporters” and “critics” of the concept currently think they can extrapolate from it. I’d like to learn more about race, and I think there will be more race-related scientific discoveries in the near future as this area of genetics is more thoroughly explored, but I would say I have less confidence in current race debates and their conclusions than I might have going into this book.

I’ll probably keep this one on the shelf and come back to some of the questions raised as I explore more books on the subject of genetics and evolution, pre-modern history, archaeology, economic history, etc. But I was less engaged with this book than I had hoped to be and I do hope there is a better organized, updated treatment of the subject I can read and discuss with my children in the future.

3/5