The Past and History

I have been guilty of using language imprecisely. “The past” is what has happened. It is impossible to escape the past. Your very bodies are made up of the chemical and biological interactions that took place in the past. They condition your reactions. They affect your present decisions.

Your memories of the past are not the past itself. As Korzybski put it, the territory is not the map. Your memories are not just approximations of the past; they are approximations shaped consciously or unconsciously by your opinions and prior experiences.

As Korzybski also noted, one of the things that makes human beings different from other creatures on the planet is that it is possible for us to know about things that happened longer ago than any single human being’s lifespan. We can do that by asking people older than ourselves; we can do it by reading works written long ago or written by people who’ve read works written long ago. We can do it based on the artifacts left by people in the past; we can do it based on tradition or observing the present and making inferences about the past based on those observations.

We do not rebuild ourselves from scratch every morning. It is impossible and even if possible the transaction costs of such a practice would be too high.

History is not the past. History is what has been written about the past, the artifacts from the past, and traditions or things about the present from which inferences may be drawn about the past. If every history book were burned, every statue or memorial destroyed, traditions banned and uprooted, and new languages invented that eschewed the accretions of the past, we would still not escape the past. However, we would be subject to the whims and notions of rulers and politicians. Mussolini’s dictum of “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” would be realized. History defends us against the passing excesses of the present.


Sustaining the Fantasy

I see that in his Washington Post op-ed Stephen Hadley continues to sustain the fantasy that creating a stable state in Afghanistan is within our powers:

The United States has vital national interests in Afghanistan. Since 9/11, preventing another terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland has remained our key objective. While the cost in lives and treasure has been too high, this objective has largely been achieved. But it has required a sustained U.S. troop presence, the active participation of our NATO allies and a close partnership with the Afghan government.

If the Trump administration now opts to draw down U.S. military forces, the NATO allies would go home and the Afghan state would likely collapse. The result would be a victory for the terrorists. It would undo the Trump administration’s recent success against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and provide the Islamic State a haven in Afghanistan from which to foment attacks on the United States.

Instead, the Trump administration can deliver another major blow against terrorism. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda seek to expand their presence in Afghanistan, but virtually none of the Afghan groups — including the Taliban — support them. They can be defeated in Afghanistan just as they are being pushed out of Iraq and Syria. This natural extension of the Iraq/Syria campaign would help consolidate the victory against the Islamic State. But it will require U.S. counterterrorism forces to continue operating alongside Afghan security forces.

The challenge will then be to preserve the victory and help the Afghan people stabilize their country so that the Islamic State and al-Qaeda do not return. This can be done with a political/diplomatic strategy that seeks an inclusive settlement among all Afghan political factions while creating a more legitimate, popularly supported government that addresses the conflict’s root causes.

However, it is this passage that caught my attention:

The big question is what to do about the Taliban. The answer: Test its interest in peace.

Defeating terrorist groups that threaten the United States does not include or require defeating the Taliban. The United States and NATO must make clear that they will fully support an Afghan-led political settlement involving all sectors of Afghan society — including the Taliban.

Is it merely that largely secularized Americans are incapable of understanding religious conviction? The Taliban are not liberal democratic politicians. For the Taliban to compromise is to relinquish what they believe their religion admonishes them to do. They aren’t interested in peace; they are interested in righteousness, in salvation.

And they aren’t going anywhere. There will be people in Afghanistan who hold beliefs like those of today’s Taliban for far the foreseeable future, possibly for as long as there are human beings in Afghanistan.

I agree with Mr. Hadley that our primary goals in Afghanistan should be counterterrorism. Propping up the Afghan government isn’t counterterrorism—it’s counterinsurgency.


The editors of the Washington Post, unsurprisingly, share Mr. Hadley’s fantasies:

Mr. Trump should chose a strategy with a clear, limited goal: shore up the Afghan government, help it gain greater legitimacy and strengthen its security forces. The point is not some kind of flashy victory but avoiding a terrible defeat. Achieving stability in Afghanistan is worth a modest commitment of U.S. troops, Special Operations forces and air power. A major surge of the size that President Barack Obama approved early in his first term is not being discussed. The point is to show the Taliban that it can’t topple the central government, and coax the Taliban, if possible, toward negotiations. Maybe the Taliban will never agree, but a continued U.S. effort is preferable to Afghanistan falling apart.

There is an alternative other than “abandoning Afghanistan” or continuing with the futile dream of a stable Afghan government but it is deeply unpopular and difficult for politicians to swallow. That’s why they hold on to visions of triumphant returns home accompanied by victory parades.


The Replacements

In one of my little essays yesterday what I thought of as the key words,

Of those who feel the need to tear down Confederate memorials, with what will you replace them? Choose wisely. Not only should we not forget that the war was fought, we shouldn’t relinquish the opportunity to remember why it was fought: it was fought over the abolition of slavery.

appear to have been mostly ignored. In that passage I was attempting to accomplish two things. First, I was acknowledging that removing Confederate memorials could be benign. But I was also suggesting that removal is a negative act. It is not courageous. It delegates telling the story of the past to someone else.

In his Washington Post column today Charles Lane proposes some alternatives for the Confederate statues that are being removed in Maryland:

Obvious candidates include African American abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who have been belatedly but appropriately honored with a public sculpture in Baltimore and a museum in Dorchester, respectively. New statues of Douglass and Tubman for Annapolis and the U.S. Capitol have also been proposed.

Less famous but no less worthy is Judge Hugh Lennox Bond, the Baltimorean who did as much as any other white Marylander of his time for the anti-slavery and Union causes, and perhaps more.

Born in 1828, Bond was a judge in Baltimore’s criminal court when the Civil War broke out, and in that position he supported murder indictments against pro-rebel rioters who attacked the Union troops rushing to defend Washington in 1861. Amid the crisis, he also upheld the right of loyalists to fly the stars and stripes, despite a ban by the Southern-sympathizing city’s administration.

Still a judge in 1864, he welcomed Maryland’s new constitution, with its ban on slavery, by urging his fellow citizens to “let us now bow at the shrine of freedom.” Maryland courts nevertheless ordered thousands of black children declared “orphans” and assigned them to white planters as “apprentices,” but Bond issued writs of habeas corpus so they could return to their parents.

Obvious candidates include African American abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who have been belatedly but appropriately honored with a public sculpture in Baltimore and a museum in Dorchester, respectively. New statues of Douglass and Tubman for Annapolis and the U.S. Capitol have also been proposed.

Less famous but no less worthy is Judge Hugh Lennox Bond, the Baltimorean who did as much as any other white Marylander of his time for the anti-slavery and Union causes, and perhaps more.

Born in 1828, Bond was a judge in Baltimore’s criminal court when the Civil War broke out, and in that position he supported murder indictments against pro-rebel rioters who attacked the Union troops rushing to defend Washington in 1861. Amid the crisis, he also upheld the right of loyalists to fly the stars and stripes, despite a ban by the Southern-sympathizing city’s administration.

Still a judge in 1864, he welcomed Maryland’s new constitution, with its ban on slavery, by urging his fellow citizens to “let us now bow at the shrine of freedom.” Maryland courts nevertheless ordered thousands of black children declared “orphans” and assigned them to white planters as “apprentices,” but Bond issued writs of habeas corpus so they could return to their parents.

After the Civil War, he campaigned for African American voting rights; when supporters of the newly ratified 15th Amendment paraded in celebration through Baltimore on May 19, 1870, Bond stood with Douglass on the speakers’ platform.

“He rejoiced with them over their freedom,” the Baltimore American reported. Bond said it was “not alone theirs, but also of the white race.”

Two months later, on July 13, 1870, the Senate confirmed Bond as the first judge of the newly created federal court for the 4th Circuit, encompassing Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas.

In that capacity, his greatest moment came as the presiding judge in trials of hundreds of Ku Klux Klan terrorists in North and South Carolina during 1871 and 1872.

The Klan’s defense lawyers — including Marylander Reverdy Johnson, a former associate of Taney who represented Dred Scott’s enslaver in the famous case — moved to dismiss the Klan indictments on constitutional grounds.

Bond upheld the relevant statute and later sentenced convicted Klan leaders to prison — a true legal revolution. Fifteen years after Taney purported to strip black Americans of their rights in Dred Scott, Bond declared that they were entitled to federal protection against violence by whites in the South.

This earned Bond hatred and threats, which he courageously brushed off. Bond could not, alas, overcome later Supreme Court decisions that tended to undermine the stand he took at the Klan trials.

Still, Bond deserves far better treatment from history than the obscurity that set in almost from the moment of his death in 1893. No public installation in Maryland — not a park, school or courthouse — bears his name.

I’m going to open this question to the floor. What lessons would be taught by the choices Mr. Lane has proposed?


Separation or Society De Novo

James Kirchick’s post at the Daily Beast nearly has me convinced. The post takes as its point of departure an essay in The Claremont Review of Books, “The Flight 93 Election”. The kernel of that essay was that voting for Trump despite his temperament, manner, or views was a move in desperation, necessitated by the nomination of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate. Flipping that argument on its head Mr. Kirchick writes:

Anton’s case was hyperbolic. It was also hypocritical. For if any candidacy posed an existential threat to the American republic, it wasn’t the unexciting, predictable, left-of-center continuity represented by Hillary Clinton, but the reckless, impetuous, populist disruption promised by Donald Trump. The Flight 93 moment, in other words, is now.

In the real-life situation, as in Anton’s metaphor, individuals are asked to take risks for the good of the country by dislodging a dangerous individual from power. But now that Trump is president, and barring his unlikely impeachment or resignation, it is essential that he be joined in the cockpit by competent, experienced, patriotic individuals, who, unlike their Commander-in-Chief, put the best interests of the country before their selfish and venal desires. To the extent they can, they need to wrestle Trump from the controls—perhaps by convincing him to be a largely ceremonial president. At the very least, they can lessen the damage Trump can do. Ultimately, it is better to have them there than to have Trump flying alone. Which is why it’s unfortunate to see commentators urging high-ranking administration staffers to resign.

I see the present day as very similar to the period leading up to the American Civil War. As I see it there are several possible ways forward for the United States and one way that is distinctly not forward.

The way that I do not see as “forward” is to treat those with whom we disagree as a conquered, subjugated people. Humiliate them. Demean them. Destroy them. IMO that’s no way forward. It’s merely a preparation for the final battle.

The ways forward are reconciliation, separation, or creating a new kind of society de novo. I am not by nature a revolutionary and, consequently, I do not believe that creating the sort of networked society that some envision, replacing today’s businesses, governments, and other institutions with networked interactions that have no relation to geography is possible.

What Mr. Kirchick has very nearly convinced me of is that reconciliation is impossible. Reconciliation is hard. It requires treating your enemies with respect and relinquishing some of what you might want in the name of a greater good. If both those who support Trump and those who oppose him see what they’re doing in terms of a last, desperate but necessary act, how is reconciliation possible?

That leaves separation. It could be formal or de facto. That’s what federalism is for.



Well, that didn’t take long. A statue of George Washington, long called “the Father of Our Country”, in his own lifetime called “the American Cincinnatus”, and one of the figures that distinguishes the United States from other countries, is too distasteful to remain in our parks. CBS Chicago reports that a Chicago pastor has called for the removal of his statue from Chicago’s Washington Park and for the park to be renamed:

CHICAGO (CBS) — A Chicago pastor has asked the Emanuel administration to remove the names of two presidents who owned slaves from parks on the South Side, saying the city should not honor slave owners in black communities.

A bronze statue of George Washington on horseback stands at the corner of 51st and King Drive, at the northwest entrance to Washington Park.

Bishop James Dukes, pastor of Liberation Christian Center, said he wants the statue gone, and he wants George Washington’s name removed from the park.

“When I see that, I see a person who fought for the liberties, and I see people that fought for the justice and freedom of white America, because at that moment, we were still chattel slavery, and was three-fifths of humans,” he said. “Some people out here ask me, say ‘Well, you know, he taught his slaves to read.’ That’s almost sad; the equivalent of someone who kidnaps you, that you gave them something to eat.”

The other park is Jackson Park. So it’s down the memory hole with them!

As I’ve noted before, it’s darned hard to find any historical figure or even living former presidents who aren’t tainted in some way. We cannot escape our history. It is an intrinsic part of us. We can learn about it, come to an understanding of it, and reconcile ourselves with it but we cannot escape it. Trying to expunge it is an error.


Why Is the Midwest in Decline?

I think that Mike Lofgren is onto something in his post at Washington Monthly on the detrimental effects of federal policy on the American Midwest:

Statehouses all over the Midwest have been taken over by legislators so stultified by the dominant atmosphere of social regression that they are incapable of thinking of any aspect of public policy aside from abortion restrictions. The Missouri legislature seems to have nothing better to do than dream up dozens of ever-weirder abortion laws. This from the state that sired Harry Truman, Thomas Hart Benton, and T.S. Eliot.

What has happened to the Midwest has been replicated in the regions of other developed countries with declining industries. The fading ore and steel-producing regions of northeastern France opted for the National Front in recent elections. The old industrial north of England, weakening since the shipbuilding and textile crash of the 1920s, chose UKIP and Brexit. The worn-out industrial and coal-mining region of Silesia in Poland hopes for improvement from the proto-fascist Law and Justice Party.

And that is the principal flaw of Lauck’s thesis. The topics that Lauck writes about—the cultural and intellectual trends of a region—must at some basic level be influenced by the industrial or commercial changes in the society that gave rise to those trends. That perspective is absent in Lauck’s book. A book about the decline of the Midwest in the 20th century should have given more reference to the epic industrial collapse and political transformation that has taken place. Along with these misfortunes, massive changes in the federal regulatory structure over the last several decades have severely handicapped the region’s competitiveness with the coastal centers. All these adverse trends have resulted in the almost surreal physical aspect of post-industrial Detroit, Youngstown, Gary, and other cities. They resemble the bombed-out wastelands of defeated Germany in 1945.

While I agree that policy has had a big and largely detrimental impact on the MidWest, I think he’s pointing his finger at the wrong culprits. Highway building provides subsidies disproportionately to the West. The managed trade agreements we’ve negotiated under the rubric of “free trade” over the period of the last couple of decades have disproportionately subsidized the Northeast and the West and hurt the Midwest. Look at the distribution of military bases. Base closure has hurt the Midwest much more than the West and the Southeast. The list goes on almost endlessly.


What’s the Impact?

An article at The Conversation proposes “development impact fees” intended to “support infrastructure in the neighborhoods that need it most”. Here’s how the fees are structured:

Impact fees are one-time charges assessed on new real estate development. They reflect the cost of expanding public facilities to meet the development’s new demands. For example, municipal revenue from fees might be spent on new schools to alleviate student overcrowding problems or new parks that serve the new residents.

Most states have legislation that enables impact fees. The fees are common in many rapidly growing areas, particularly in the southern and western U.S.

Most impact fee programs assess all new development according to the average cost of facilities that will serve it, regardless of the actual location of the new development. However, this approach is flawed. For example, we know centrally located residents have much shorter commute times than those who live further from the city center. By definition, the high-cost area for the cities’ transportation needs is the fringe property.

Under the everyone-pays-average-cost system, centrally located urban areas will tend to pay more than their proportionate share of new infrastructure costs. This extra burden discourages the exact type of development that mitigates urban sprawl. By contrast, more remote high-cost areas receive an implicit subsidy and pay less than their total costs. Even though they need extensive infrastructure investments, they pay only average costs.

At the margin, this reduces development in low-cost areas, but subsidizes development in high-cost areas. In urban jurisdictions, impact fees can distort the distribution of new development to be inefficient. New infrastructure goes to places where it’s less valuable than it might be elsewhere.

I have pretty serious reservations about such a plan as applied to the city of Chicago. I think it would tend to subsidize the wealthiest Chicagoans to the detriment of the poor. Here’s the authors’ graph of the incidence of their plan in Albuquerque:

Translated to Chicago “core” would be the Loop, “interior” would be the Near West Side or South Loop, and “fringe” would be Austin. The area least in need of subsidization is the Loop and the most in need is Austin. Our problem isn’t just urban sprawl; it’s actually the least of our problems. Our graver problem is excessive focus on the Loop while ignoring the underdeveloped areas like Austin or Englewood.

That’s a strategy that was openly and actively pursued by the late Mayor Daley. His never-realized Cross-Town Expressway was intended to further establish that pattern.

Politically, the plan strikes me as nearly impossible. Chicago already dominates Cook County and it already concentrates resources on the Loop (here it’s done via an arcane artifact called the “tax multiplier”). DuPage has no interest in cooperating with Cook and vice versa. The state is so focused on Medicaid and paying employee wages and pensions it doesn’t have any attention left for anything else.


Let’s Go to the Scoresheet

Murdering people: inexcusable
Violence: bad
Speech: should be tolerated
People who bring clubs (or guns!) to demonstrations and protests aren’t peaceful demonstrators.
There need to be a lot more arrests.
White supremacists are a) vile and b) dopes.
Trump’s comments on the riots in Charlottesville have been at best mealy-mouthed.

Have I missed anything?


I Don’t Care

I don’t care what the editors of the Wall Street Journal tell me about wages:

Researchers at the San Francisco Fed this week updated their 2016 paper that disaggregated the wages of full-time workers with steady employment from recent entrants—that is, new workers or those returning to full-time work. Their earlier analysis showed that average wage growth had slowed less than expected during the recession while staying relatively flat during the recovery.

That’s because workers who lost jobs during the recession were generally lower skilled and lower paid, so average weekly wages didn’t fall significantly. However, many of those workers have since been rehired at below-average wages, which has depressed the aggregate.

In prior expansions, wage growth has been driven mostly by continuously full-time employed workers, and the researchers find that’s still the case. Wage growth for these workers is now close to the pre-recession 2007 peak. But there are now many more workers who have been on the labor-force sidelines who are moving to full-time employment, thus creating a drag on wages.

“Counterintuitively, this means that strong job growth can pull average wages in the economy down and slow the pace of wage growth,” the economists note. The effect is even larger because so many higher-paid baby boomers are retiring. “With so many of this generation still approaching retirement, the so-called Silver Tsunami will continue to be a drag on aggregate wage growth for some time.”

The study portends better wage news for all workers if we can keep the expansion going—and even more if tax reform can accelerate growth by spurring more capital investment and increasing productivity. As ever, the cure for wage stagnation is faster growth and greater demand for workers.

Real median income is below its pre-recession high (heck, it’s still below what it was in 1998). My taxes are significantly higher and rising rapidly. Both property tax and income tax are rising at double digits on a year over year basis. It’s not my imagination that I have less disposable income now than I did in 1977.

And, as Lawrence Summers warned just recently, the likelihood of the expansion continuing for another four years is very low, the Fed doesn’t have the tools to counter a recession with monetary policy, and the will to respond to a recession with fiscal policy is low to non-existent.

The need for basic reforms is growing practically every day.


Ignoring the Facts

It’s amazing how quickly and easily you can arrive at mutually acceptable agreements as long as you’re willing to ignore the facts and aren’t actually dealing with those involved in the dispute. From David Ignatius’s Washington Post column:

As U.S. officials ponder the path of negotiation that might lead to a permanent treaty, they have signaled several basic American positions: First, the United States would offer assurances to North Korea that its regime wouldn’t be toppled; second, it would guarantee the security of South Korea, a close U.S. ally; third, Washington would pledge not to seek any quick reunification of the Korean Peninsula, reassuring China and Japan, which fear a unified, resurgent Korea; and finally, the United States would express willingness to discuss the future status of its military presence in South Korea, if a peace agreement proved durable.

Tillerson has already publicly offered the first three assurances. The fourth is the most delicate, because all parties recognize that, for now, U.S. troops are an essential stabilizing force, curbing not just Pyongyang but also greater militarization in Seoul and Tokyo.

Does anyone seriously believe that even were all of the assurances in the passage above to be granted it would make the Kim regime feel secure?

I believe there are several things we need to keep in mind. First, the United States military is by far the most powerful in the world. North Korea would still be insecure regardless of what we did.

Second, not only has the United States not attacked North Korea in the last 60 years, it has never done so. The Korean War began with an invasion from the North with the intention of reunifying the northern and southern zones, separated as a consequence of the occupation of the northern part of the Korean peninsula by the Soviet Union following Japanese withdrawal. That was matched by U. S. occupation of the south, under the principles of an agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States reached in August 1945. The Soviets withdrew their troops in 1948 after installing a communist government headed by Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the present ruler of North Korea. The U. S. withdrew in 1949. In 1950 the North invaded the South.

If there is any party interested in “quick reunification of the Korean Peninsula”, it is North Korea. They have never renounced that objective.

So, let’s recap. In exchange for assurances they cannot possibly believe the North Koreans will relinquish a goal they’ve maintained over the period of nearly 70 years. Sounds like a great agreement to me.