The point of reviewing these hypocrisies is not to suggest that the rich profit-makers of Silicon Valley are any greedier or more cutthroat than the speculators of Wall Street or the frackers of Texas, but merely that they are judged by quite different standards. Cool — defined by casual dress, hip popular culture, and the loud embrace of green energy, gay marriage, relaxation of drug laws, and other hot-button social issue — means that one can live life as selfishly as he pleases in the concrete by sounding as communitarian as he can in the abstract. Buying jet skis is as crass a self-indulgence as buying an even more expensive all-carbon imported road bike is neat.
If Silicon Valley produced gas and oil, built bulldozers, processed logs, mined bauxite, or grew potatoes, then the administration, academia, Hollywood, and the press would damn its white-male exclusivity, patronization of women, huge material appetites, lack of commitment to racial diversity, concern for ever-greater profits, and seeming indifference to the poor. But they do not, because the denizens of the valley have paid for their indulgences and therefore are free to sin as they please, convinced that their future days in Purgatory can be reduced by a few correct words about Solyndra, Barack Obama, and the war on women.
Practicing cutthroat capitalism while professing cool communitarianism should be a paradox. But in Silicon Valley it is simply smart business. The more money you make, any way you can make it, the more you can find ways of contextualizing it. At first these Silicon Valley contradictions were amusing, then they were grating, and now they are mostly just pathetic.
Victor Davis Hanson, “The Valley of the Shadow: How mansion-dwelling, carbon-spewing cutthroat capitalists can still be politically correct”, National Review, 2014-07-22.
May 21, 2015
May 20, 2015
At Strategy Page, a look at the “Red Team revolution”:
Red Teams came out of wargaming. There, the “Red” team represented the enemy, while the “Blue” team played the good guys. Beginning in the late 1970s the U.S. Army adopted a form of wargaming based on historical models but where commanders are presented with very realistic situations for future battles. This was applying to wargames the old phrase, “train as you fight, and fight as you train.” But in addition to providing more realistic games for training, this style of wargames also made it possible to analyze war plans as never before. In the past, your war plans didn’t really get a workout until you were in combat against a real, live Red Team (the enemy). The new wrinkle was that it was now easier to have your own people provide an effective, if not perfect, Red Team experience because of all those officers with wargame experience.
So now the senior commanders of the U.S. Army have been sending Red Teams around to the major commands, to play devil’s advocate to whatever war plans senior commanders and their staffs have come up with. It’s not new, really. The concept of “devil’s advocate” has been around for a long time. But now the army has institutionalized it and used more powerful techniques (wargaming) to implement it.
This all began back in the 1980s, when realistic wargaming was catching on, especially among the students at the Command and General Staff School (C&GSS) and the Army War College AWC). The younger officers at the C&GSS were particularly enthusiastic, and they came to be known as the “Jedi Knights,” mainly because the analytic skills obtained from playing lots of wargames, gave them a seemingly magical ability to find flaws in war plans. That’s what the Red Teams are all about, Jedi Knights on steroids. Since then the Staff School at Leavenworth has established courses for training Red Team members, some of the courses are 18 weeks long.
And what would the poor Red Team officers do when, as in Japanese wargaming before the Battle of Midway, the Blue force commanders “re-floated” most of the losses, thereby winning the game (but losing the war)? You don’t subordinate the Red Team to the local commander:
The Red Teams all report to the head of the army, which insures that none of the commanders they are working with try to pull rank. The Red Teams give the Chief of Staff of the army regular reports on how effective the many war plans developed in the army combat units are holding up to scrutiny, which is a unique capability in the military world.
You know the type as well as I do. Give the forward-looker the direct primary, and he demands the short ballot. Give him the initiative and referendum, and he bawls for the recall of judges. Give him Christian Science, and he proceeds to the swamis and yogis. Give him the Mann Act, and he wants laws providing for the castration of fornicators. Give him Prohibition, and he launches a new crusade against cigarettes, coffee, jazz, and custard pies.
I have a wide acquaintance among such sad, mad, glad folks, and know some of them very well. It is my belief that the majority of them are absolutely honest — that they believe as fully in their baroque gospels as I believe in the dishonesty of politicians — that their myriad and amazing faiths sit upon them as heavily as the fear of hell sits upon a Methodist deacon who has degraded the vestry-room to carnal uses. All that may be justly said against them is that they are chronically full of hope, and hence chronically uneasy and indignant — that they belong to the less sinful and comfortable of the two grand divisions of the human race. Call them the tender-minded, as the late William James used to do, and you have pretty well described them. They are, on the one hand, pathologically sensitive to the sorrows of the world, and, on the other hand, pathologically susceptible to the eloquence of quacks. What seems to lie in all of them is the doctrine that evils so vast as those they see about them must and will be laid — that it would be an insult to a just God to think of them as permanent and irremediable.
H.L. Mencken, “The Forward-Looker”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.
May 19, 2015
Tom Kratman on the overtly paranoid reactions to the upcoming Jade Helm exercise:
In about two months, exercise Jade Helm 15 is scheduled to kick off. This is a two-month long special operations exercise, spread out across the southwest of the country, from Texas to California. It has the Tin Foil Hat Brigade, Right Wing Regiment1, demonstrating all the calm and relaxed demeanor (I am, of course, kidding), as well as the typical paranoid delusions (not kidding at all), for which it and its members are justifiably famous.2
Never having actually enlisted with the Tin Foil Hat Brigade, my initial reaction to exercise Jade Helm 15 was a resounding, “ho hum,” and my reaction to the TFHB reaction was, “As Christ probably would have said if He’d thought about it, ‘The loons ye shall have with ye always.’”
To be fair to the TFHB, though, whenever the New York Times3 and Washington Post4 agree that something like this is clearly harmless, it’s possibly time to inventory our stocks of ammunition and break out the banana oil to make sure our protective masks are in good working order. In other words, their enthusiastic and unquestioned agreement constitutes a rebuttable presumption that FEMA is about to open concentration camps.
However, rebuttable presumptions are there to be rebutted. This week and next I’m going to limit my rebuttal to the notion that the exercise is inherently suspicious because it is so militarily useless and unnecessary as to be indefensible. To do that we need to get into a little history, a bit of doctrine, and a touch of dogma.
1 Which in general demeanor much resembles the TFHB, Left Wing Regiment.
2 Just Google it; there are too many examples for me to illustrate without appearing to be playing favorites.
Published on 2 Mar 2014
John Coltrane’s masterwork, A Love Supreme, was only played once in live concert. This portion is the only surviving film of that 1965 performance.
I should say I’m no free-speech absolutist. I think the notion that we should treat pole dancing like constitutionally protected speech while we try to ban actual political speech is just one of the loopiest manifestations of our popular confusion over the First Amendment. In fact, government support for the arts doesn’t offend me in theory, it’s just how they do it in practice that bothers me.
Specifically, I cannot stand the way New Class bureaucrats think they must be autonomous from the taxpayers who pay their salaries. Imagine if we lived in anything like the “Christianist” theocracy so many lefties live in quaking fear of. Evangelical bureaucrats would likely fund art they liked. The professional Bohemians would shriek — with some justification — that the state was imposing its values on the rest of us. But when those same people are in driving the gravy train, they think there’s nothing wrong — and everything right — with imposing their values.
Of course, this is a problem that extends far beyond outposts like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Public teachers’ unions and ed-school priests hate the idea that parents and other taxpayers should have a real say in how education money is spent. Bureaucrats in general have become a kind of secular aristocracy that resents second-guessing by the people who fund their will-to-power.
When voters say that bureaucrats shouldn’t spend money on X, the bureaucrats shriek “censorship!” But it is only the equivalent of censorship if you work from the assumption that it’s all the government’s money anyhow. As Bill Clinton once said about the federal surplus, “We could give it all back to you and hope you spend it right.” But if we did, alas, not enough of you would spend it on urophagic art.
Jonah Goldberg, “Bureaucrats Use Taxpayer Money to Subsidize Their Own Values — and No One Else’s”, National Review, 2015-05-09.
May 16, 2015
Published on 11 May 2015
The American ideal of limited government on life support. Is it time for civil disobedience? Charles Murray says yes. Murray has been writing on government overreach for more than 30 years. His new book, By The People, is a blueprint for taking back American liberty. Jonah Goldberg sits down with Murray to discuss civil unrest in Baltimore, the scope of the government, and why bureaucrats should wear body cameras.
According to AEI scholar, acclaimed social scientist, and bestselling author Charles Murray, American liberty is under assault. The federal government has unilaterally decided that it can and should tell us how to live our lives. If we object, it threatens, “Fight this, and we’ll ruin you.” How can we overcome regulatory tyranny and live free once again? In his new book, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission (Crown Forum, May 2015), Murray offers provocative solutions.
The governments of these United States, from the federal to the local level, have managed to insinuate themselves between citizens and their property at every point of significance. In that, our governments are very much like most other governments, liberal and illiberal, democratic and undemocratic. We have allowed ourselves to be in effect converted from a nation of owners to a nation of renters. But while medieval serfs had only the one landlord, we have a rogue’s gallery of them: the local school board, the criminals at the IRS, the vehicle-registry office, etc. Never-ending property taxes ensure that as a matter of economic function, you never really own your house — you rent it from the government. Vehicle registration fees and, in some jurisdiction, outright taxes on automobile ownership ensure in precisely the same way that you never really own your car: You rent it from the government. Stock portfolio? Held at the sufferance of politicians. A profitable business? You’ll keep what income they decide you can keep. Your own body? Not yours — not if you use it for profitable labor.
A Who down in Whoville? You should be so lucky: Welcome to Whomville, peon.
Kevin D. Williamson, “Property and Peace”, National Review, 2014-07-20.
May 15, 2015
David Henderson explains:
Of the 80 million acre feet a year of water use in California, only 2.8 million acre feet are used for toilets, showers, faucets, etc. That’s only 3.5 percent of all water used.
One crop, alfalfa, by contrast, uses 5.3 million acre feet. Assuming a linear relationship between the amount of water used to grow alfalfa and the amount of alfalfa grown, if we cut the amount of alfalfa by only 10 percent, that would free up 0.53 million acre feet of water, which means we wouldn’t need to cut our use by the approximately 20 percent that Jerry Brown wants us to.
What is the market value of the alfalfa crop? Alexander quotes a study putting it at $860 million per year. So, assuming, for simplicity, a horizontal demand curve for alfalfa, a cut of 10% would reduce alfalfa revenue by $86 million. (With a more-realistic downward-sloping demand for alfalfa, alfalfa farmers would lose less revenue but consumers would pay more.) With a California population of about 38 million, each person could pay $2.26 to alfalfa growers not to grow that 10%. Given that the alfalfa growers use other resources besides water, they would be much better off taking the payment.
At Strategy Page, a look at the political desire to fully integrate women into the combat arms:
In 2014, after years of trying to justify allowing women into the infantry, artillery and armor and special operations forces, the U.S. government decided to just order the military to make it happen and do so without degrading the capabilities of these units. While the army was inclined the just say yes, find out what quotas the politicians wanted and go through the motions, others refused to play along. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) and the marines pointed out that the research does not support the political demands and that actually implementing the quotas could get people killed while degrading the effectiveness of the units involved. This is yet another reason why many politicians do not like the marines and are uneasy about SOCOM.
But action had to be taken and orders were orders. The various services opened up some infantry training programs to women and have discovered two things. First (over 90 percent) of women did not want to serve in any combat unit, especially the infantry. Those women (almost all of them officers) who tried out discovered what female athletes and epidemiologists (doctors who study medical statistics) have long known; women are ten times more likely (than men) to suffer bone injuries and nearly as likely to suffer muscular injuries while engaged in stressful sports (like basketball) or infantry operations. Mental stress is another issue and most women who volunteered to try infantry training dropped out within days because of the combination of mental and physical stress. Proponents of women in combat (none of them combat veterans) dismiss these issues as minor and easily fixed, but offer no tangible or proven solutions.
Back in 2012 the U.S. Army and Marine Corps were ordered to come up with procedures to select women capable of handling infantry and special operations assignments and then recruit some women for these jobs. This had become an obsession with many politicians. None of these proponents of women in the infantry have ever served in the infantry, but they understood that if they proceeded without proof that women could handle the job, that decision could mean getting a lot of American soldiers and marines killed. The politicians also knew that if it came to that, the military could be blamed for not implementing the new policy correctly.
So far the tests, overseen by monitors reporting back to civilian officials in Congress and the White House, have failed to find the needed proof that women can handle infantry combat. The main problem the military has is their inability to make these politicians understand how combat operations actually work and what role sheer muscle plays in success, or simply survival. But many politicians have become obsessed with the idea that women should serve in the infantry and are ignoring the evidence.
May 14, 2015
At The Federalist, Sean Davis explains why throwing more taxpayer money at Amtrak isn’t going to do much good:
“Amtrak doesn’t get enough government money,” is the kind of thing someone says when that person doesn’t understand anything about Amtrak, or government, or money.
Created by Congress in 1970, Amtrak was meant to replace the private rail companies that, according to Amtrak, “had operated services at a net loss of millions of dollars for many years.” Net losses of millions of dollars, you say? According to its unaudited financial statements, Amtrak lost over a billion dollars in 2014, the last year for which annual revenue and expense data are available.
Amtrak lost nearly $1.3 billion in 2013. Since its creation, Amtrak has racked up over $31 billion in accumulated losses. And every penny of those losses has been covered by federal taxpayers.
Amtrak has a lot of problems. A lack of taxpayer generosity is not one of them, not even close. The key to fixing Amtrak, to making it function as a “for-profit corporation,” which is how the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak’s overseer, officially describes the passenger rail organization, is not increasing the volume of federal cash it sucks up every year. The solution is not to reform this and that to make the government-owned company work better or more efficiently. And selling off its assets to the highest bidder won’t fix Amtrak, either.
No, the key to fixing Amtrak is to just give it away. Hand over the entire enterprise to whichever rail company wants it. “But that’s crazy!” you might say. “Giving it away for free makes no cents!”
May 13, 2015
Published on 24 Apr 2015
Buckminster Fuller’s 1933 foray into automobiles gave us the Dymaxion Car, and enthusiast Jeff Lane has one of the only working replicas in the world. WSJ‘s Rumble Seat columnist Dan Neil takes the road zeppelin for a spin…or should we say wobble?
H/T to Open Culture for the link … and do at least check out the over-the-top trailer for The Last Dymaxion on Facebook.
Fred Frailey discusses the U.S. Department of Transportation mandate that all crude oil trains longer than 69 cars must be equipped with electronic brakes by 2021 or they will restrict the speed of oil trains to 30 MPH at all times. The current standard braking system for railroads in North America is pneumatic, which have worked well for decades, but have inherent problems as modern trains have gotten longer and heavier. One of the biggest problems is that pneumatic brakes have a relatively long activation time — when the engineer operates the brake in the lead locomotive, it takes quite some time for that to propagate all the way through the train. This creates situations which can cause derailments as the lead cars begin to slow down, while the rest of the train is still travelling at full speed.
The preferred replacements are called electronically controlled pneumatic brakes (ECP), where instead of the brakes operating by pressure changes in the air line, the brakes would be controlled by a separate electronic circuit that would allow simultaneous brake application in all cars in the train.
It seems electronic braking has no friends in the railroad industry. I find this puzzling. Research I’ve read suggests there is both a safety and business case to be made. One explanation for the bum’s rush being given ECP comes from someone whose career was immersed in railroad technology: “The mechanical departments say the ECP brakes don’t save enough on wheels and brake shoes to justify implementation. The track departments say that ECP brakes don’t reduce rail wear enough to justify implementation. Transportation departments say that ECP brakes don’t save enough fuel to justify implementation. And improved train running times, improved train dynamics, and improved engineer performance are all soft-dollar savings which don’t count. No one ever bothers to sum up total benefits.” Silos, in other words.
So I’ll make the case for ECP. (By the way, the standards were developed two decades ago by the same AAR that now vigorously opposes their implementation.) A train equipped with electronic braking is hard-wired, allowing instant communication from airbrake handle in the locomotive to every brake valve on the cars. The principal advantages are that all brakes instantly apply and release at the same time, the air supply is continually charged, engineers can gradually release and reapply brakes, and undesired emergency braking (dynamiters, they’re called) virtually disappear. In-train forces, such as slack roll-in and roll-out, are greatly reduced, and that lessens the risk of derailment. Moreover, stopping distance is reduced 40 to 60 percent, permitting higher train speeds and higher speeds approaching restricting signals. Longer trains are possible. Longer trains run at higher speeds increase the capacity of the railroad network. Because air is always charging, braking power is inexhaustible; plus, a train can stop and instantly restart. Brakes, draft gear, wheels, and bearings require less maintenance. Existing federal regulations would allow train inspections every 5,000 miles instead of the present 1,500 or 1,000 miles.
Those are a lot of advantages. In a report commissioned by the Federal Railroad Administration in 2005, the consulting company Booz Allen Hamilton estimated the cost of full implementation of ECP at $6 billion and the measurable savings (not including added network capacity) at $650 million a year. Booz recommended that ECP conversion begin with coal trains loaded in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, then to other types of unit trains (presumably including intermodal trains), and finally the rest of the car fleet — all in a 15-year time frame. “As applied to western coal service,” its report stated, “the business case is substantial,” with a recovery of all costs within three years.
Several things are going on here. Silos are one. Nobody is looking at the big picture, just his or her little piece of it. The boys in the Mechanical Silo could care less about increased network capacity. The occupants of the Finance Silo don’t want to divert cash flow away from share buybacks, their favorite toy. Most of those in the CEO Silo didn’t come up on the operating side and are probably bored by the subject. In a conservative, mature business like railroading, risk taking and even forward thinking are not rewarded. And the cost of hard-wiring the car fleet would primarily be borne by shippers, who own most of the equipment, whereas railroads would reap the benefits. How to share the benefits with car-owning shippers leads to very difficult negotiations.
One of the factors in the financial crisis of 2007-2009 that is mentioned too infrequently is the role of banking capital sufficiency standards and exactly how they were written. Folks have said that capital requirements were somehow deregulated or reduced. But in fact the intention had been to tighten them with the Basle II standards and US equivalents. The problem was not some notional deregulation, but in exactly how the regulation was written.
In effect, capital sufficiency standards declared that mortgage-backed securities and government bonds were “risk-free” in the sense that they were counted 100% of their book value in assessing capital sufficiency. Most other sorts of financial instruments and assets had to be discounted in making these calculations. This created a land rush by banks for mortgage-backed securities, since they tended to have better returns than government bonds and still counted as 100% safe.
Without the regulation, one might imagine banks to have a risk-reward tradeoff in a portfolio of more and less risky assets. But the capital standards created a new decision rule: find the highest returning assets that could still count for 100%. They also helped create what in biology we might call a mono-culture. One might expect banks to have varied investment choices and favorites, such that a problem in one class of asset would affect some but not all banks. Regulations helped create a mono-culture where all banks had essentially the same portfolio stuffed with the same one or two types of assets. When just one class of asset sank, the whole industry went into the tank,
Well, we found out that mortgage-backed securities were not in fact risk-free, and many banks and other financial institutions found they had a huge hole blown in their capital.
Warren Meyer, “When Regulation Makes Things Worse — Banking Edition”, Coyote Blog, 2014-07-07.