Recent Reading (Online)

  • Infrastructural Voodoo Doll from Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG, which summarizes and expands on Manaugh’s excellent Atlantic article on the new intelligence gathering unit at LAX. Here’s a fascinating quote from the Atlantic piece, also quoted on the blog:

It might sound like science fiction, but, in 20 years’ time, it could very well be that LAX has a stronger international-intelligence game than many U.S. allies. LAX field agents could be embedded overseas, cultivating informants, sussing out impending threats. It will be an era of infrastructural intelligence, when airfields, bridges, ports, and tunnels have, in effect, their own internal versions of the CIA—and LAX will be there first.

  • Situational Assessment 2015 by Jordan Greenhall on Medium almost two years ago now. It is a wide lens assessment of human civilization at this moment, and makes for particularly bracing reading after the 2016 US election. A taste:

After WWII, we engineered a deep retrofit with a whole set of new technologies (the welfare state, operational planning, mass production, scientific engineering, etc.) and this worked. Wonderfully. Population exploded, lifestyle transformed. We went to the moon.

But not all was well in the State of Denmark. Our late 20th Century innovations managed to carry us through to somewhere in the late 70’s or early 80’s. At this point we again started to see the edges of our “civilization toolkit” giving away and we made a fateful choice: stability in exchange for adaptive fitness. We doubled down. And since then, every time that the foundations started to shake, we’ve consistently chosen “more of the same.” The result is that we’ve been living in an increasingly delusional systemic environment.

At this point, it is increasingly evident that every single one of our social institutions are in what I call the “rococo stage” or the “root bound” stage: they are complex, heavy, ineffective, poorly designed and essentially impossible to change for the better. Education, healthcare, policing, legislative and regulatory decision making, wealth distribution, monetary system, etc, etc. You name it.

  • On Progress and Historical Change by Ada Palmer on Ex Urbe. This is another wide-lens look at our current moment, with a focus on the notion of progress and how change over time looks. It’s also a great exposition of Whig History, Great Forces history v. Human Agency history, and has a great description of a mock papal election Palmer conducted with her students last year that reads like an allegory for our current moment in history. Palmer is one of my favorite writers on history (she’s also pretty good at science fiction) Here is how she frames the piece:

I keep thinking about what it felt like during the Wars of the Roses, or the French Wars of Religion, during those little blips of peace, a decade long or so, that we, centuries later, call mere pauses, but which were long enough for a person to be born and grow to political maturity in seeming-peace, which only hindsight would label ‘dormant war.’  But then eventually the last flare ended and then the peace was real.  But on the ground it must have felt exactly the same, the real peace and those blips.

  • The Real Reason Your City Has No Money from Strongtowns.org, makes a strong case against urban infrastructure investment as an economic stimulus. on the dilemma of replacing ageing infrastructure. “Thus, Lafayette has a predicament. Infrastructure was supposed to serve them. Now they serve it.”
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Tectonic Bureaucracy

I recently found myself making the case that the United States is less a democratic republic than it is a semi-permanent technocratic state in which a minority of the nation’s population (the electorate) dispatch briefly-tenured officials (primarily on the basis of personal charisma rather than skill) to effect small surface-level changes, while the superstructure of the system remains untouched and untouchable. Ours is a system, in other words, that is actually run by long-tenured bureaucrats who are not elected but selected on the basis of competency and skill. These individuals form a kind slow-moving but powerful political lithosphere atop which elected leaders act out their impermanent prerogatives. Think of it as a kind of fixed tectonic plate beneath the shifting topsoil of electoral politics. A tectonic bureaucracy.

I don’t actually believe this — political leaders can and frequently do re-engineer the deep structures of government on at least a semi-permanent basis, and often for the worse. But as fantasy goes, it’s a pretty good one. In the wake of Trump’s election I saw several stories about the power and imperative of bureaucrats to stand up to the ethically dubious directives that are expected to emanate from a Trump White House. My favorite of these stories was Evan Osnos’s piece in the New Yorker about John Chiang, the California State Controller, who effectively stonewalled a terrible and cruel executive order from then governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

More recently, as the facts surrounding Russian interference in the election have gotten a wider airing, there has been a very sudden and very strange partisan realignment: while conservatives have developed a newfound love of Vladimir Putin, liberals have come to look to the US intelligence services — the very epitome of the tectonic bureaucracy — as a kind of savior. This is quite the 180 from the left’s natural inclination, reinforced after the Snowden leaks, to see the US intelligence apparatus as a kind of sinister deep state. I know politics makes strange bedfellows, but geez.

The tectonic bureaucracy is more fantasy than fact to my mind, at least in the United State. And it is almost certainly for the better. The most well-publicized version of this is probably the Turkish deep state, with its roots in the intrigues, conspiracies and secret armies of the Ottoman Empire. Its record of violence and corruption have made it a thing to be feared, and the depth of its penetration into the mechanisms of government have made it very easy for Erdogan to plausibly implicate many thousands of government employees, journalists, and business types as members of the deep state, regardless of the facts.

A somewhat more benign but no less destructive form of tectonic bureaucracy exists in Japan. In the wake of the Meiji Restoration Japan both restored direct imperial rule and jury-rigged a parliamentary democracy onto the imperial government. Two early imperatives laid the foundation for a tectonic bureaucracy: the desire to keep the emperor’s actions free from parliamentary oversight, and the tradition of keeping the emperor above politics by not intervening directly in government. Instead, the emperor’s privy council, originally made up of the samurai who overthrew Shogunate, acted on the emperor’s behalf, without oversight or interference from the elected parliament (and without input or protest from the emperor).

I had no idea about any of this until I read R. Taggart Murphy’s recent book, Japan and the Shackles of the Past. Here’s how he describes the process by which Japan’s bureaucracy first took hold:

As the genrō (elder statesmen–i.e., the Meiji leaders who survived into the twentieth century) began retreating from active policy-making into groups such as the Privy Council who could veto decisions without being required to bear the consequences, the stage was set for colossal political irresponsibility. That irresponsibility would culminate in the prosecution of a land war in Asia that lacked any plausible scenarion for victory and to a direct attack on an overseas power with an industrial base ten times larger than Japan’s The end-result would be precisely what the Meiji leaders had attempted to forestall: the loss of Japan’s control of its own affairs.

Japan’s bureaucracy metastasized over the decades, expanding even outside of the public sector. In the aftermath of WWII the Ministry of Finance, perhaps the most powerful of Japan’s unchecked bureaucratic forces of the era, pursued a hyper-aggressive growth policy, and in so doing co-opted some of the largest members of private industry into the tectonic bureaucracy. As Murphy describes it:

The economic ministries worked in a collaborative fashion with major companies as well as bureaucracies outside the formal government […]. Furthermore, the great business combines, particularly those in the guruppu gaisha (Sumitomo, Mitsubishi, etc.) where they owned shares in each other, functioned far more like bureaucracies than like profit-seeking business enterprises. They were not driven by “greed and fear” […]; among other things, large established Japanese companies effectively did not go bankrupt while “excessive” profit making was seen as socially suspect. Instead, like bureaucracies anywhere, these companies responded to expectations generated by the sociopolitical system in which they were embedded.

While this policy succeeded brilliantly in rebuilding the Japanese nation and vaulting it into the upper tier of the world’s economic powers, it went too far for too long, as Murpny expertly discusses in the book. Japan has been living with the economic consequences of this policy for almost three decades now.

As appealing a fantasy as an empowered, enlightened, benign tectonic bureaucracy is in this (hopefully brief) moment of extreme despair in our electoral politics, it is something that really ought to remain on the other side of the looking glass.

State Sponsored Pseudoscience

Did you know that the United States is using genetically modified foods as a bio-weapon against Russia, and is also creating a new human subspecies for use as a slave caste? It’s true. At least according to certain Kremlin-friendly Russian scientists. Maria Antonova has an interesting piece in Foreign Policy about the cancerous symbiosis between the Russian government and supposed “scientists” passing off outright conspiracy theories as science. A (legit) geneticist is quoted saying that “Even educated people are starting to talk about reptilians that have taken over and are plotting in the world government.”

I have a soft spot for pseudoscience and conspiracy theories, but strictly as entertainment. But when it rises to this level of public legitimacy you have a problem. Just as the Internet and social media have made it easier for individuals to retreat into cognitive bubbles by hedonically curating our information and social inputs, I wonder if its possible for an entire nation to retreat into an epistemic cocoon. I guess we’ll find out.

Recent Reading (Online)

  • Daniel Drezner on how effective opposition to Trump will be a very tricky balancing act. It’s all about timing:

Warn Americans about Trump too early, and most Americans will believe that you are overreacting. Warn Americans about Trump too late, and it’s too late. The challenge to those worried about Trump’s threat to liberal democracy is to figure out the best moment to sound the alarm.

  • The laws-of-physics defying EmDrive actually works. It might have something to do with pilot wave theory.
  • Rereading John Lanchesters Brexit Blues after Trump’s election. It hits themes that are by now familiar but which back in July were just hitting the US media’s radar
  • Extreme surveillance in the UK. This is worth reflecting on

The security agencies and police began the year braced for at least some opposition, rehearsing arguments for the debate. In the end, faced with public apathy and an opposition in disarray, the government did not have to make a single substantial concession to the privacy lobby.

How the Roman Empire’s Tax System (Unintentionally) Stimulated the Ancient Economy

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Among people who are both interested in ancient Rome and have a particular ax to grind against the tax code one will often hear the argument that excessive taxation destroyed the Roman Empire. You will find iterations of this argument bubbling up in the business media, conservative think tanks, and, for some reason, even the web pages of Baptist churches.

This argument, like most over-simplifications of complex, long-evolving historical phenomena, does contains a grain of truth. The disastrous fiscal state of the late empire brought about tax reforms that were quite severe, even tyrannical. After Emperor Diocletian reformed the tax code to require tax payments be made in kind rather than in the debased Roman currency, peasants could see as much as a quarter of their crop yields, or more, taken away by the tax collectors. By relying heavily on agriculture, produced by land-bound peasants, it was highly regressive. And, furthermore, peasants were denied freedom of mobility, essentially imprisoned on their land which they had no other choice than to work.

Apart from being a far from complete explanation of the ultimate collapse of the Roman Empire, however, this argument overlooks a significant economic benefit that the Roman tax network provided. If peasants had to give a large portion of their crops every year to the government, a robust and far-reaching transportation network was required to carry it.

According to historian Chris Wickham, in his book The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400–1000, although this transportation network was developed specifically for taxation, it had unintended beneficial consequences.

According to Wickham, it is likely that

… commercial exchange [in the late Roman Empire] was underwritten by the tax network. Ships left Africa for Italy every autumn, bringing state grain and oil to Rome as annona; doubtless they took commercial goods as well, ceramics and once again oil, the transport costs of which were thus covered by the state, and which could be sold on the other side of the Mediterranean more competitively, whether in Rome or in other ports. […] The tax network made commerce easier, and also contributed to the commercial prominence of certain regions.

But what started as an unintended but beneficial consequence of the tax system came to be an integral part of the Roman economy, so much so that, perversely, rather than taxes destroying the Empire, the dissolution of the tax network in the west actually contributed to its ultimate decline. Wickham indicates that it was the disruption of this tax network in the western Roman Empire that sent it into a tailspin:

When the empire began to lose fiscal homogeneity in the West, which was when the Vandals seized the heartland of North Africa in 439, breaking the Carthage-Rome tax spine, western Mediterranean commerce began two centuries of steady involution; but the East remained politically and fiscally strong, and eastern Mediterranean commerce was as active in 600 as in 400.

The reason why the taxes-killed-the-Roman-Empire theory is popular has nothing to do with ancient Rome, of course. As a glib, quasi-coherent historical argument it has a certain amount of persuasive thrust in the contemporary political debate in the United States. “Excessive taxation killedanother great power,” the implication goes, “just think of what could happen to us.”

But apart from being bad history, and not easily comparable to the state of modern-day fiscal policy, it is also worth emphasizing the significant benefits that the tax network brought to the the late Roman Empire. The Roman tax network, after all, was by no means the only example of a state-subsidized program that ended up spurring economic growth. The modern United States owes a significant portion of its economic and societal development to the U.S. Postal Service.

Unintended benefits accrue in the unlikeliest of places.

(Image: The Gleaners, by Jean-François Millet, 1857)

Dune: A Classic That Belongs in the Past

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More than half a century ago, in the twitchy weeks after the Kennedy assassination, the first installment of a serialized novel called Dune World appeared in the December 1963 issue of the science fiction magazine, Analog. Over the two years that followed, as the Beatles swept the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. marched in Selma, and the lives of Robert F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and thousands of Vietnamese civilians were lost to the world, the pages of Analog ran a total of eight installments of the novel that would eventually become Dune.

When the full novel was first published in 1965 Dune became an instant classic, winning the first ever Hugo Award—science fiction’s Pulitzer Prize. Its rapid fame opened a particular vein of culturally-immersive, environmentally conscious science fiction that has been assiduously mined by several generations of Herbert’s devotees ever since.

In terms of influence in a genre Dune’s closest analog is probably J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Just as Tolkien’s fantasy epic inspired legions of writers, ranging in aesthetic from cheap factory-style extrusion artists to creative wunderkinder like Robert Holdstock and China Mieville, the distinct stamp of Herbert’s masterpiece can be found on hundreds of subsequent science fiction novels, some of which have become classics in their own right. Vernor Vinge, Iain M. Banks, and Alastair Reynolds are among those whose works would likely read quite differently in a world without Dune.

But Dune shares another, less impressive, trait with Lord of the Rings: the story, its themes, characters, politics, milieu, and plot, are nearly a complete anachronism by 21st century standards. On just about every level of the narrative Dune is a novel that has barely made it out of the nineteen sixties, let alone the 20th century, with anything worthwhile to say. Unlike the Lord of the Rings, where defenders can point to its mythological and allegorical conceits, or at least claim that it is just cracking good entertainment, Dune belongs to a genre where the expectations, for better or worse, are set a few notches above “mere” entertainment.

A large contingent of authors, critics, and fans have always made grand claims about science fiction’s importance to humanity pretty much since the genre came about. Arthur C. Clarke, in a 1970 book, is quoted as saying:

One of the biggest roles of science fiction is to prepare people to accept the future without pain and to encourage a flexibility of mind. Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.

Another golden age luminary, Isaac Asimov, went even further. In the introductory essay to the 1978 Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Asimov wrote:

Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today — but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all. [Emphasis mine]

This belief in science fiction’s unique ability to save the world is not limited to the Golden Age genre giants. Here in the 21st century, when the accomplishments of real science have confounded the predictions of all but the most gonzo and far-seeing Golden Age science fiction, the idea that science fiction is unique among all literary genres in its world-changing abilities is alive and well. “If there is one single message we should take from science fiction,” writes Damien Walter, a science fiction advocate and columnist for the Guardian newspaper, “it is that the imagination has an unspeakably important role to play in solving the problems of our world.”

There is some truth in all these claims. One way to effect change in society is to show people what another world could look like only if. This is a job science fiction was built to do. At the most basic level, you paint a convincing picture of the future, wonderful, horrifying, or otherwise, throw in some appealing characters, a bad guy or two, an exciting MacGuffin that illustrates a morale of variable moral ambiguity, mold it into something vaguely resembling Freytag’s triangle and—BAM! —you may very well have taken the first step in changing the world. In its own fringey way, science fiction of a certain type can be a powerful vehicle for instilling both goal-oriented thinking and cautionary admonitions in its readers.

(Not all of it does this, of course, or even most of it. The genre is full of works that aspire to nothing more than escapist wet dream material for gearheads, Trekkies, and code monkeys, and many do this quite well. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, science fiction does not have to change the world to be entertaining. Entertainment itself is a worthy goal, even if the Arthur C. Clarke’s of the world would prefer to keep mere entertainments out of the hands of politicians).

But half a century after Dune jolted the tectonic plates of science fiction, it is worth evaluating just how it fares when judged against the criteria the genre has set for itself. What, if any, lessons does Dune have for those 21st century readers who take the heroic claims of science fiction seriously? Does it suggest ways to improve our world or enlighten human society? Is it a cautionary tale portraying the destructive consequences of certain insalubrious human endeavors? Can it contribute in some way to the salvation of human kind?

In a word: no.

Don’t get me wrong—Dune is sci-fi entertainment par excellence, but by the standards that the genre has set for itself, it fails. Imagine a politician of sufficient intelligence taking Arthur C. Clarke’s advice, throwing her mysteries and westerns into long-term storage and reading science fiction instead so as to better prepare herself for the future. What lessons would she come away with?

The three features of the Dune universe that might immediately jump out at her are that: (1) women can fight well in the future, but traditional gender roles are still alive and well, and (2) people who are gay and (3) fat are, very likely, evil. Of the half dozen or so female characters who rise to the level of having actual names, the most important to the story are Chani, Paul’s Fremen concubine (yes, they still have those in the future, too), and Paul’s mother, Jessica, who was herself the concubine of Paul’s father.

Right away, our reader may get the feeling that equal partnerships between men and women are not a thing in the future. Although the novel goes to some length to demonstrate that both Jessica and Chani are every bit their mates’ intellectual equal, neither can exercise power in society the same way as their male partners. And everyone is totally fine with this. Despite possessing space-faring technology, advanced genetic sciences, and a pan-galactic human culture, the society of Dune—both the Fremen society in which Paul comes of age, and that of the Empire in which Jessica has spent most of her life—is still deeply and anachronistically patrilineal.

And then there is the bad guy, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. A generic cut-out from the same ruthless, power-hungry, cold-blooded bad guy mold that has birthed so many sci-fi baddies, Harkonnen is different only in that he is (a) so fat that he needs anti-gravity suspensors just to move around, and (b) homosexual. References to Harkonnen’s obesity and attraction to men (including Paul) are given equal weight in the text alongside other evidence of the Baron’s evil nature, such as rape and murder. If you’re not heterosexual and thin, the future as envisioned by Dune is not looking good for you.

But so far Dune is not guilty of anything new. Sexism, fat-shaming, andhomophobia, are sadly nothing new for science fiction. There is, however, a more pernicious (if equally anachronistic) assumption embedded in theDune narrative. It sounds boring, but it is, for me, the thing that all but kills the novel as any kind of blue-print for the future. It has to do with the society’s governance structure.

Bear with me.

The universe of Dune is controlled by an autocratic Emperor, and its various planets are divvied up as fiefdoms among a number of “great houses” which constitute the aristocratic class. The great houses employ a servant class and a military class which, as far as the novel is concerned, are positions of lifelong indentured servitude. As the novel opens, the young Paul Atreides, the novel’s hero and heir to one of the House Atreides, is preparing to move to the desert planet of Arrakis, a new and extremely valuable feifdom that the Emperor has just granted them. Arrakis is rich in a very valuable resource—the drug spice. Regardless of which family controls the planet, the spice is extracted from the ground by a proletariat class of freelance machinists and manual laborers.

So right out of the gate we get an economic system that would have looked pretty normal to someone like Henry VIII. For that matter, Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, and Sargon of Akkad would probably not have had to squint too hard to recognize some familiar elements in Dune’s society. The obvious modern-day parallel to the Arrakis system is Saudi Arabia, where a large, monarchical ruling family controls vast deposits of a resource that is hugely important to the rest of the world, and which employs a class of foreign workers to extract it from the ground.

But then we get an interesting wrinkle. An indigenous people called Fremen inhabit the vast desert of Arrakis. The Fremen have adapted to the planet’s harsh environment, living nocturnally to avoid the intense daytime heat and using a technology called a stillsuit to collect and recycle moisture from their bodies.They are an egalitarian society where the group’s leader can be challenged at any time, and where individuals are trained to be conscious of their actions on the collective.

The Fremen are also a society of near unbelievable thrift. On a planet where water is so scarce, they have slowly, over the course of generations, collected oceans of water in subterranean vaults. This water never serves any immediate need. Rather, they are slowly accumulating it with the idea that once they have a critical mass of water they will, at some point in the distant future, be able to terraform the planet. A Fremen could be dying of thirst and they would never touch this vast reserve for fear of jeopardizing this far-future goal.

The Fremen harbor an deep hatred of the Harkonnens, the great house that ruled Arrakis prior to the Atreides and which attempted to exterminate the Fremen. When an assault launched by the Harkonnens against the Atreides casts Paul and his mother out into Arakis’s harsh desert, they find a home among the Fremen and learn their ways.

At this point our reader might be assuming that the Fremen’s communalist discipline and focus on long-term sustainability is being set up as an alternative, more effective model for society, one that will win out over the archaic space-faring feudalism that dominates the Dune universe. Our reader might be starting to think that this is the future science fiction is preparing her for. After all, whether it’s oil, water, phosphorus, or justmoney, resource scarcity is set to loom larger in the future than it has in the past century. Surely the Fremen are being held up as some sort of model, right?

Wrong.

If anything, Dune ends up vindicating the feudal, autocratic system that is the antithesis to and antagonist of the Fremen system.

Just when frictions between Paul and Stilgar, the leader of the Fremen, are about to bring the two into mortal combat, Stilgar relents and declares fealty to Paul. Paul actually makes him a knight, dubbing him in with a sword just like medieval European knights. Paul, then, leads the Fremen to victory against the Harkonnen and the Emperor. But instead of using his victory to usher in a new model of society, Paul becomes Emperor, relegating the Fremen to the role of a vassal society.

The larger society doesn’t change, it only gets an autocrat with greater power. A benign autocrat, but an autocrat nonetheless.

This is where Dune utterly fails to live up to the world-saving hype of science fiction. A reader looking to draw lessons for the future of human society from this novel would come away thinking that the Fremen’s intense collectivism is impotent in the absence of a benign dictator, and that a communalist, ruthlessly frugal society is fine for a harsh, empty, backwater of a planet, but it’s no way run a universe.

In the early 21st century, where autocratic governments are less stable than ever, where looming resource scarcity is prompting various creativetechnological hacks, and where a long-term focus on societal sustainability is arguable more important than at any other time in human history, Dune’smessage is less than useless—it is downright counterproductive.

Which is not to say that the novel should not be read. Dune is excellent entertainment, on par with the best westerns and detective stories. Fifty years on it is still one of the most exciting stories in the genre. Just don’t go into it looking for the future. It will only tell you about the past.