Tuesday, May 24, 2022

True dat

 

I came across this tweet from RoosterFJB the other day.  I can't find it today, which leads me to suspect it may have been deleted:  but fortunately I'd already saved a screenshot.



Absolutely true, IMHO, based on decades of experience in most of sub-Saharan Africa, and two-and-a-half decades in the USA since then.  Transgenderism is not, repeat, NOT a major worldwide problem.  It's only a big problem in this country, where demented dunderheaded progressive liberals have brainwashed themselves - and the poor children under their care - into believing that it's a thing.  There are, indeed, true transgendered individuals (the phenomenon known as intersex - see one such person's story here;  it's very interesting reading), but they're a tiny minority (usually calculated as less than one-tenth of one per cent of the population).

Also, let's not forget that much of the pressure to have kids think they're transsexual is nothing more or less than sexual predation by others.  As Divemedic points out:


The formative years from about 9 to 12 or so is when children form their sense of who they will become. It would be easy for a manipulative adult to convince a child that his deep friendship for his same sex best friend is really some sort of homosexual attraction of a more erotic nature, rather than of a developmental nature.

Children who are emotionally, sexually, and mentally abused or those who receive emotional trauma during these formative years are those who go on to experience mental health issues as adults. This is why allowing teachers to push these alternative roles upon children in the age groups from Kindergarten through seventh grade is so damaging to children.

This is also why there are teachers who are fighting so hard for access to children in this age group. It is access to young children that allows them to build the next generation of adults with misaligned emotional and psychological compasses.


There's more at the link.  I entirely agree with him.

Basically, in most cases, one can be fairly sure that the individual wondering whether they are, or claiming to be, transgendered is nothing of the sort.  The few genuine cases (I know three such individuals personally) have to cope with a burden I'd hate to carry, and I can only salute their courage and determination.

Peter


The Big Two see troubled waters ahead. So do I.

 

We've spoken often about the economic crisis in which we find ourselves.  Now comes news from Amazon and Walmart - probably the two largest retailers in the country - that both have overextended themselves, and will have to shed jobs and facilities to remain competitive.

Amazon announced that it's planning to shed at least ten million square feet of warehouse space.  (Makes my new 400 sq. ft. utility shed look rather small by comparison!)  Bloomberg reports:


Amazon.com Inc., stuck with too much warehouse capacity now that the surge in pandemic-era shopping has faded, is looking to sublet at least 10 million square feet of space and could vacate even more by ending leases with landlords, according to people familiar with the situation ... The surfeit of space could far exceed 10 million square feet, two of the people said, with one saying it could be triple that. Another person close to the deliberations said a final estimate on the square footage to be vacated hasn’t been reached and that the figure remains in flux.

. . .

In a sign that Amazon is being careful not to cut too deeply should demand quickly rebound, the 10 million square feet the company is looking to sublet is roughly equivalent to about 12 of its largest fulfillment centers or about 5% of the square footage added during the pandemic. In another signal that Amazon is hedging its bets, some of the sublet terms would last just one or two years. 

. . .

Amazon spooked investors last month after reporting slowing growth and a weak profit outlook that it attributed to overbuilding during the pandemic when homebound shoppers stormed online. At the end of 2021, Amazon leased 370 million square feet of industrial space in its home market, twice as much as it had two years earlier. 

In the April earnings report, the company said it expected the excess space to contribute to $10 billion in extra costs in the first half of 2022. The company didn’t divulge how much over-capacity it had, where it was located or what it planned to do with it.


There's more at the link.

This is pretty significant.  Amazon lives or dies by its ability to service its customers' needs accurately and in the shortest possible shipping time.  It's been caught up in a concertina-style ordering frenzy.  At the beginning of the pandemic, consumers who could no longer get to supermarkets (thanks to lockdowns) bought much more from Amazon and other online retailers.  Amazon "bulked up" to meet that demand, hiring tens of thousands more staff and opening warehouses all over the country:  but bricks-and-mortar retailers like Walmart were already doing the same, trying to make up through online sales what they were losing due to fewer shoppers in stores.  Walmart's done particularly well at that:  I now order a lot more from them, finding their prices very competitive with Amazon, and their delivery from nearby stores even faster.

This also has major implications for the trucking and transportation industries.  Walmart already had a very well-established delivery network of its own, and used it ruthlessly to gain advantage and muscle in on Amazon's operations, that were serviced by third-party operators such as UPS, FedEx, etc.  Amazon had seen this coming, and was already moving to bring more transport operations in-house (you've doubtless seen more Amazon-branded 18-wheelers on our major highways over the past year).  Now both companies have to accurately forecast demand, and tailor their transport networks accordingly:  and third-party vendors they've used in the past might find themselves holding the short end of the stick, because I'm sure the stores will give preference to their own transport operations (which have to cover their costs) over outside providers.

Last quarter Amazon's financial results were dismal compared to previous periods.  The company is moving fast to contract, shedding "fat" in both warehouse space and personnel, but if it contracts too much or too sharply, it may not be able to meet its customers' expectations, or respond quickly enough if the economy picks up again.  It's a heck of a conundrum when you're talking billions upon billions of dollars - literally.  (I've seen estimates that a single major Amazon fulfillment center contains goods worth up to one billion dollars - and the company operates hundreds of them.)

Walmart is responding in various ways, including converting space in over 100 of its bricks-and-mortar stores to serve as local fulfillment centers.  It's also automating the operation of its 42 regional distribution centers, making them more efficient (and saving a bundle on staffing costs as well, let it be said - robots don't need leave or sick leave, don't take breaks, and don't earn wages).  Once the process is complete, I expect Walmart's online order processing to be at least as efficient as Amazon's.

Both Amazon and Walmart are now talking openly about shedding staff.


Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said during the company's quarterly earnings call Tuesday that the company experienced "weeks of overstaffing" during the first quarter of fiscal year 2023, primarily due to the pandemic.

Walmart had hired extra associates at the end of 2021 to cover for staff that was out on COVID leave, but when Omicron cases declined the first half of the quarter, employees came back to work sooner than expected. 

The overstaffing issue was resolved during the quarter, primarily through attrition, McMillon said. 

. . .

But Walmart isn't the only retailer that ran into staffing challenges and elevated wage costs during the first few months of the year: Its primary US competition, Amazon, had the same issues. 

"As the [Omicron] variant subsided in the second half of the quarter and employees returned from leave, we quickly transitioned from being understaffed to being overstaffed, resulting in lower productivity," Amazon Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky said during the company's first-quarter earnings call late last month. 

That reduced productivity added roughly $2 billion in costs for the company, Olsavsky said.

For Amazon in particular, it's a major shift from previous years. The company has added hundreds of thousands of fulfillment-center jobs since the onset of the pandemic but has shed workers faster than it could hire them. A New York Times investigation last year found that hourly workers had a turnover rate of roughly 150% each year, leading some executives to worry about running out of people to hire.


Again, more at the link.

This has much wider economic implications.  Many towns no longer have smaller local stores, because Walmart (and, to a lesser extent, dollar stores) have driven them out of the market.  If a local Walmart scales back its operations, all those out of work as a result won't be able to find other jobs, because the local economy is already under severe stress.  Amazon employs vast quantities of people, many of whom at the lower levels are now going to find their jobs under increasing pressure.  Again, if they're laid off, the odds of them finding a replacement job right now are very, very poor.  That means all our neighborhoods will be under stress, from people who need help to eat or keep a roof over their heads, to rising crime as people with no alternative turn to anything that will keep body and soul together.  Large cities will be particularly prone to such problems.

If you, dear reader, are one of those whose job might be in jeopardy, or you rely for support on someone in that situation, you might want to re-evaluate your situation right now.  We're all going to feel the consequences of these cutbacks.  Let's do what we can to prepare for them before the full impact makes itself felt.

Peter


All right, what's the backstory here?

 

I couldn't help giggling at this tweet yesterday from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.



I can't help wondering what happened to prompt that tweet.  Can any of our readers in Oklahoma enlighten us?  If so, please leave a comment.  The possibilities appear endless!



Peter


Monday, May 23, 2022

The power grid is getting more vulnerable by the day

 

If you haven't already got a backup emergency generator, now might be a very good time to invest in one.  Hot Air reports:


The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) has released its latest reliability assessment for the summer of 2022 and, to put it mildly, the news is not good. In far too many states, the power grid is already nearly at full capacity, and in the next few months, that capacity will be exceeded. This isn’t a question of “if” or really even “when.” It’s just a fact ... When demand for electricity exceeds supply, the utility companies will either have to begin a series of rolling blackouts in all of the affected states or the grid will suffer crippling damage and be down for months.

. . .

A minimum of 14 states will be hit by this in a rolling sequence. As water levels fall, you eventually reach the point where your ability to produce hydroelectric electricity from dams diminishes. Meanwhile, there are 40 coal-fired power plants scheduled to be taken offline in the name of fighting climate change. No replacement sources for all of that juice have been proposed, to say nothing of having them come online.


There's more at the link, including possible fixes for the problem.  Sadly, all those fixes will take time - at least a year or more - to improve the situation;  and until they're in place (if they're even started, under this feckless administration), the problems will get worse.  If you rely on freezers to preserve your food, or if you're in a climate zone that requires air-conditioning in summer and/or electrically powered heat in the winter to be livable, you will almost certainly be impacted.

A generator isn't a solution on its own.  You need to plan for how often, and how long, you intend to run it.  Calculate the amount of fuel your generator uses per hour, figure out the maximum time you'll need to run it, and that's how much fuel you need to store (in a secure place outside your home, such as a garden shed, due to the fire hazard) to run it.  Given today's fuel prices, that's a not insignificant expense - perhaps as much as, or more than, the cost of the generator itself.  Smaller, more economical generators have a big advantage here compared to large, whole-house units;  but the smaller ones won't provide enough power to run every appliance or system in your home.  It's a trade-off.  I've chosen to run a smaller, dual-fuel inverter generator, and rely on a free-standing air-conditioning unit to cool just one room in our home, rather than buy a generator big enough to run the main HVAC system during a power outage.  That's not an ideal solution, but it's one we can afford.  YMMV, of course.

You also need to secure your generator against theft.  My gunsmith bought a powerful generator last year during the big Texas power outage.  Within a week it had been stolen from his porch, where he'd chained it to a big upright to keep it "secure".  The thieves simply cut the chain with bolt-cutters and made off with the generator while he and his family were asleep.  I'm working on a plan to run our generator inside our garage - and before you scream, it can be done safely and securely, provided you know what you're doing (and provided your local building and safety codes allow it).  See:



I know several people who've bought an RV generator exhaust venting system and installed it on the exterior wall of their garage, boring a hole through the wall to connect it to their generator.  In every case, it's worked well, and keeps their costly equipment securely locked away from light-fingered passers-by.

Forewarned is forearmed.  We know these problems are coming.  Let's address them as best we can while we have time to do so.

Peter


China's last year? Peter Zeihan suggests it is

 

Peter Zeihan, whom we've met in these pages on several occasions, is a geopolitical and demographic analyst who has controversial but well-supported views on the current and future state of the world.

Earlier this month Mr. Zeihan gave a two-and-a-half-hour presentation at the Naval Postgraduate School titled "Energy at the End of the World".  The whole thing is very interesting, and I highly recommend that you watch it if you can make the time.  Be warned, however:  it's packed with solid information, and will require careful attention and analysis if you want to get the most out of it.

Here's a twelve-minute segment from that presentation, dealing with the situation in China.  Mr. Zeihan makes several radical and controversial proposals, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • "I don’t see how China survives as a single political entity, much less a globally significant one. I don’t see how it survives this decade with these numbers, because this suggests that the Chinese population peaked back in 2003, and that Chinese economic efficiency probably peaked around the same time."
  • "There is not an industrial process that is done in China that can’t be done in North America at a lower cost, because our labor is so much more productive, our energy is so much cheaper, our supply lines are so much shorter and you can produce stuff where people actually live."
  • "Russia has many flaws, but they’re a massive producer of food and energy products. If you put the sanctions that we have put against Russia onto China, oh my. China imports 85% of their energy, 85% of that from the Persian Gulf, and they import 85% of inputs that are necessary to grow their food. So you would have an industrial collapse, a civilizational breakdown, and mass famine within six months, and then you would probably lose a half a billion Chinese over the course of the next year to famine."



I'm not entirely in agreement with Mr. Zeihan on this, even though I cheerfully acknowledge that his command of the data, facts and figures on this subject is vastly superior to mine.  I think he discounts the human element in favor of the statistical evidence.  I've seen (too often for comfort) how an individual or group can be so determined to accomplish something, even though the odds are against them and it might actually be deleterious to their situation, that they do it anyway, regardless of the facts on the ground.  I suspect that's what's driving the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and will probably drive Chinese actions concerning Taiwan.  As for China's future, there are a whole lot of different factors intertwining right now.  Which will emerge as dominant?  I don't know that anyone can say for sure as of right now.

Suffice it to say that the short video above is intensely interesting, and worth watching.  I hope it whets your appetite to make time for the whole two-and-a-half-hour presentation linked above.  Highly recommended viewing.

Peter


Memes that made me laugh 110

 

Gathered from around the Internet over the past week.  Click any image for a larger view.











Sunday, May 22, 2022

Sunday morning music

 

The marimba is a fascinating instrument, similar to the xylophone but with a deeper, richer sound.  It's come a long way from its primitive tribal origins.  It was developed in Africa, being found in many sub-Saharan tribes and cultures in one form or another.  From there, African slaves brought it to South America, where it was further developed into new forms;  and from there, it "migrated" to the USA, where it was commercialized and standardized for mass production as an orchestral and band instrument.  However, it's still played throughout Africa in its primitive form:  I grew up knowing its music.

There's so much marimba music available that I can't possibly do justice to it in a brief blog article.  I'll try to put up more of it in a few future posts.  This morning, I'd like to highlight The Wave Quartet, which specializes in the marimba and plays it both solo and with orchestra.  Let's begin with the quartet's rendition of "Tamacun", a well-known tune by Rodrigo y Gabriela.




Here they are with "Oblivion" by Astor Piazzolla, a slower, more meditative piece.




Finally, here's Christoph Sietzen, a member of the quartet, playing Bach's Gigue in E minor, the sixth movement of the composer's Lute Suite in the same key, BWV 996.




Bach would not have known the marimba at all, but I daresay he'd have approved of the transcription of his work for it.

You'll find more of The Wave Quartet's music at their Web site and on their YouTube channel.

Peter


Saturday, May 21, 2022

Saturday Snippet: Equity, equality and inequality - what's changed?

 

We hear a lot of discussion today about "equity" of outcomes, equality and inequality, and so on.  Much of it is very ill-informed;  a great deal of it is nothing more than political propaganda, with the speaker spouting dogma and theory from his or her perspective but not basing it in historical or current reality.  Such terms have become buzzwords, slogans, in popular discourse, rather than something concrete.  What's more, they're often used to whip up emotions, even violence, against the "haves" by the "have-nots".  You can see the pernicious influence of such incitement in the statements of leaders of Black Lives Matter (who are, by their own admission, "trained Marxists"), Antifa, etc.

What's the reality behind the polemics?  In his book "The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century", historian Walter Scheidel argues that violence has been the principal contributor to declines in inequality throughout human history.



That's a very uncomfortable theory for modern First World societies, but Prof. Scheidel defends it with a great deal of historical data.  However, he doesn't become pedantic about it.  He presents his case, and the supporting evidence, then invites us to make up our own mind.  I'm not entirely sure I agree with him upon first reading of his book:  but, based on what I've seen and experienced over decades in Third World environments, I can't say he's wrong, either.  My personal jury is still out on that.  In particular, current trends and influences such as what Michael Yon terms PANFAWAR - Pandemic, Famine, War - are already exerting an inexorable influence on every nation on the planet, not least our own;  and they're likely to get much worse before we see any improvement.  Are they merely the latest manifestation of the historical reality Prof. Scheidel identifies?

Here are some excerpts from the book's opening chapter.  I've highlighted certain passages that I think are key.  Read them in the light of our recent discussion of the global influences at work all around us.  Whether or not you see those influences as deliberate or coincidental, Prof. Scheidel's conclusions aren't comforting.


”A DANGEROUS AND GROWING INEQUALITY”

How many billionaires does it take to match the net worth of half of the world’s population? In 2015, the richest sixty-two persons on the planet owned as much private net wealth as the poorer half of humanity, more than 3.5 billion people. If they decided to go on a field trip together, they would comfortably fit into a large coach. The previous year, eighty-five billionaires were needed to clear that threshold, calling perhaps for a more commodious double-decker bus. And not so long ago, in 2010, no fewer [than] 388 of them had to pool their resources to offset the assets of the global other half, a turnout that would have required a small convoy of vehicles or filled up a typical Boeing 777 or Airbus A340.

But inequality is not created just by multibillionaires. The richest 1 percent of the world’s households now hold a little more than half of global private net wealth. Inclusion of the assets that some of them conceal in offshore accounts would skew the distribution even further. These disparities are not simply caused by the huge differences in average income between advanced and developing economies. Similar imbalances exist within societies. The wealthiest twenty Americans currently own as much as the bottom half of their country’s households taken together, and the top 1 percent of incomes account for about a fifth of the national total. Inequality has been growing in much of the world. In recent decades, income and wealth have become more unevenly distributed in Europe and North America, in the former Soviet bloc, and in China, India, and elsewhere. And to the one who has, more will be given: in the United States, the best-earning 1 percent of the top 1 percent (those in the highest 0.01 percent income bracket) raised their share to almost six times what it had been in the 1970s even as the top tenth of that group (the top 0.1 percent) quadrupled it. The remainder averaged gains of about three-quarters—nothing to frown at, but a far cry from the advances in higher tiers.

The “1 percent” may be a convenient moniker that smoothly rolls off the tongue, and one that I repeatedly use in this book, but it also serves to obscure the degree of wealth concentration in even fewer hands. In the 1850s, Nathaniel Parker Willis coined the term “Upper Ten Thousand” to describe New York high society. We may now be in need of a variant, the “Upper Ten-Thousandth,” to do justice to those who contribute the most to widening inequality. And even within this rarefied group, those at the very top continue to outdistance all others. The largest American fortune currently equals about 1 million times the average annual household income, a multiple twenty times larger than it was in 1982. Even so, the United States may be losing out to China, now said to be home to an even larger number of dollar billionaires despite its considerably smaller nominal GDP.

All this has been greeted with growing anxiety. In 2013, President Barack Obama elevated rising inequality to a “defining challenge”:

And that is a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain—that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead. I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American.

Two years earlier, multibillionaire investor Warren Buffett had complained that he and his “mega-rich friends” did not pay enough taxes. These sentiments are widely shared. Within eighteen months of its publication in 2013, a 700-page academic tome on capitalist inequality had sold 1.5 million copies and risen to the top of the New York Times nonfiction hardcover bestseller list. In the Democratic Party primaries for the 2016 presidential election, Senator Bernie Sanders’s relentless denunciation of the “billionaire class” roused large crowds and elicited millions of small donations from grassroots supporters. Even the leadership of the People’s Republic of China has publicly acknowledged the issue by endorsing a report on how to “reform the system of income distribution.” Any lingering doubts are dispelled by Google, one of the great money-spinning disequalizers in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, which allows us to track the growing prominence of income inequality in the public consciousness.

So have the rich simply kept getting richer? Not quite. For all the much-maligned rapacity of the “billionaire class” or, more broadly, the “1 percent,” American top income shares only very recently caught up with those reached back in 1929, and assets are less heavily concentrated now than they were then. In England on the eve of the First World War, the richest tenth of households held a staggering 92 percent of all private wealth, crowding out pretty much everybody else; today their share is a little more than half. High inequality has an extremely long pedigree. Two thousand years ago, the largest Roman private fortunes equaled about 1.5 million times the average annual per capita income in the empire, roughly the same ratio as for Bill Gates and the average American today. For all we can tell, even the overall degree of Roman income inequality was not very different from that in the United States. Yet by the time of Pope Gregory the Great, around 600 CE, great estates had disappeared, and what little was left of the Roman aristocracy relied on papal handouts to keep them afloat. Sometimes, as on that occasion, inequality declined because although many became poorer, the rich simply had more to lose. In other cases, workers became better off while returns on capital fell: western Europe after the Black Death, where real wages doubled or tripled and laborers dined on meat and beer while landlords struggled to keep up appearances, is a famous example.

How has the distribution of income and wealth developed over time, and why has it sometimes changed so much? Considering the enormous amount of attention that inequality has received in recent years, we still know much less about this than might be expected. A large and steadily growing body of often highly technical scholarship attends to the most pressing question: why income has frequently become more concentrated over the course of the last generation. Less has been written about the forces that caused inequality to fall across much of the world earlier in the twentieth century—and far less still about the distribution of material resources in the more distant past. To be sure, concerns about growing income gaps in the world today have given momentum to the study of inequality in the longer run, just as contemporary climate change has encouraged analysis of pertinent historical data. But we still lack a proper sense of the big picture, a global survey that covers the broad sweep of observable history. A cross-cultural, comparative, and long-term perspective is essential for our understanding of the mechanisms that have shaped the distribution of income and wealth.

THE FOUR HORSEMEN

Material inequality requires access to resources beyond the minimum that is needed to keep us all alive. Surpluses already existed tens of thousands of years ago, and so did humans who were prepared to share them unevenly. Back in the last Ice Age, hunter-gatherers found the time and means to bury some individuals much more lavishly than others. But it was food production—farming and herding—that created wealth on an entirely novel scale. Growing and persistent inequality became a defining feature of the Holocene. The domestication of plants and animals made it possible to accumulate and preserve productive resources. Social norms evolved to define rights to these assets, including the ability to pass them on to future generations. Under these conditions, the distribution of income and wealth came to be shaped by a variety of experiences: health, marital strategies and reproductive success, consumption and investment choices, bumper harvests, and plagues of locusts and rinderpest determined fortunes from one generation to the next. Adding up over time, the consequences of luck and effort favored unequal outcomes in the long term.

In principle, institutions could have flattened emerging disparities through interventions designed to rebalance the distribution of material resources and the fruits from labor, as some premodern societies are indeed reputed to have done. In practice, however, social evolution commonly had the opposite effect. Domestication of food sources also domesticated people. The formation of states as a highly competitive form of organization established steep hierarchies of power and coercive force that skewed access to income and wealth. Political inequality reinforced and amplified economic inequality. For most of the agrarian period, the state enriched the few at the expense of the many: gains from pay and benefactions for public service often paled next to those from corruption, extortion, and plunder. As a result, many premodern societies grew to be as unequal as they could possibly be, probing the limits of surplus appropriation by small elites under conditions of low per capita output and minimal growth. And when more benign institutions promoted more vigorous economic development, most notably in the emergent West, they continued to sustain high inequality. Urbanization, commercialization, financial sector innovation, trade on an increasingly global scale, and, finally, industrialization generated rich returns for holders of capital. As rents from the naked exercise of power declined, choking off a traditional source of elite enrichment, more secure property rights and state commitments strengthened the protection of hereditary private wealth. Even as economic structures, social norms, and political systems changed, income and wealth inequality remained high or found new ways to grow.

For thousands of years, civilization did not lend itself to peaceful equalization. Across a wide range of societies and different levels of development, stability favored economic inequality. This was as true of Pharaonic Egypt as it was of Victorian England, as true of the Roman Empire as of the United States. Violent shocks were of paramount importance in disrupting the established order, in compressing the distribution of income and wealth, in narrowing the gap between rich and poor. Throughout recorded history, the most powerful leveling invariably resulted from the most powerful shocks. Four different kinds of violent ruptures have flattened inequality: mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics. I call these the Four Horsemen of Leveling. Just like their biblical counterparts, they went forth to “take peace from the earth” and “kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” Sometimes acting individually and sometimes in concert with one another, they produced outcomes that to contemporaries often seemed nothing short of apocalyptic. Hundreds of millions perished in their wake. And by the time the dust had settled, the gap between the haves and the have-nots had shrunk, sometimes dramatically.

Only specific types of violence have consistently forced down inequality. Most wars did not have any systematic effect on the distribution of resources: although archaic forms of conflict that thrived on conquest and plunder were likely to enrich victorious elites and impoverish those on the losing side, less clear-cut endings failed to have predictable consequences. For war to level disparities in income and wealth, it needed to penetrate society as a whole, to mobilize people and resources on a scale that was often only feasible in modern nation-states. This explains why the two world wars were among the greatest levelers in history. The physical destruction wrought by industrial-scale warfare, confiscatory taxation, government intervention in the economy, inflation, disruption to global flows of goods and capital, and other factors all combined to wipe out elites’ wealth and redistribute resources. They also served as a uniquely powerful catalyst for equalizing policy change, providing powerful impetus to franchise extensions, unionization, and the expansion of the welfare state. The shocks of the world wars led to what is known as the “Great Compression,” massive attenuation of inequalities in income and wealth across developed countries. Mostly concentrated in the period from 1914 to 1945, it generally took several more decades fully to run its course. Earlier mass mobilization warfare had lacked similar pervasive repercussions. The wars of the Napoleonic era or the American Civil War had produced mixed distributional outcomes, and the farther we go back in time, the less pertinent evidence there is. The ancient Greek city-state culture, represented by Athens and Sparta, arguably provides us with earliest examples of how intense popular military mobilization and egalitarian institutions helped constrain material inequality, albeit with mixed success.

The world wars spawned the second major leveling force, transformative revolution. Internal conflicts have not normally reduced inequality: peasant revolts and urban risings were common in premodern history but usually failed, and civil war in developing countries tends to render the income distribution more unequal rather than less. Violent societal restructuring needs to be exceptionally intense if it is to reconfigure access to material resources. Similarly to equalizing mass mobilization warfare, this was primarily a phenomenon of the twentieth century. Communists who expropriated, redistributed, and then often collectivized leveled inequality on a dramatic scale. The most transformative of these revolutions were accompanied by extraordinary violence, in the end matching the world wars in terms of body count and human misery. Far less bloody ruptures such as the French Revolution leveled on a correspondingly smaller scale.

Violence might destroy states altogether. State failure or systems collapse used to be a particularly reliable means of leveling. For most of history, the rich were positioned either at or near the top of the political power hierarchy or were connected to those who were. Moreover, states provided a measure of protection, however modest by modern standards, for economic activity beyond the subsistence level. When states unraveled, these positions, connections, and protections came under pressure or were altogether lost. Although everybody might suffer when states unraveled, the rich simply had much more to lose: declining or collapsing elite income and wealth compressed the overall distribution of resources. This has happened for as long as there have been states. The earliest known examples reach back 4,000 years to the end of Old Kingdom Egypt and the Akkadian empire in Mesopotamia. Even today, the experience of Somalia suggests that this once potent equalizing force has not completely disappeared.

State failure takes the principle of leveling by violent means to its logical extremes: instead of achieving redistribution and rebalancing by reforming and restructuring existing polities, it wipes the slate clean in a more comprehensive manner. The first three horsemen represent different stages, not in the sense that they are likely to appear in sequence—whereas the biggest revolutions were triggered by the biggest wars, state collapse does not normally require similarly strong pressures—but in terms of intensity. What they all have in common is that they rely on violence to remake the distribution of income and wealth alongside the political and social order.

Human-caused violence has long had competition. In the past, plague, smallpox, and measles ravaged whole continents more forcefully than even the largest armies or most fervent revolutionaries could hope to do. In agrarian societies, the loss of a sizeable share of the population to microbes, sometimes a third or even more, made labor scarce and raised its price relative to that of fixed assets and other nonhuman capital, which generally remained intact. As a result, workers gained and landlords and employers lost as real wages rose and rents fell. Institutions mediated the scale of these shifts: elites commonly attempted to preserve existing arrangements through fiat and force but often failed to hold equalizing market forces in check.

Pandemics complete the quartet of horsemen of violent leveling. But were there also other, more peaceful mechanisms of lowering inequality? If we think of leveling on a large scale, the answer must be no. Across the full sweep of history, every single one of the major compressions of material inequality we can observe in the record was driven by one or more of these four levelers. Moreover, mass wars and revolutions did not merely act on those societies that were directly involved in these events: the world wars and exposure to communist challengers also influenced economic conditions, social expectations, and policymaking among bystanders. These ripple effects further broadened the effects of leveling rooted in violent conflict. This makes it difficult to disentangle developments after 1945 in much of the world from the preceding shocks and their continuing reverberations. Although falling income inequality in Latin America in the early 2000s might be the most promising candidate for nonviolent equalization, this trend has remained relatively modest in scope, and its sustainability is uncertain.

Other factors have a mixed record. From antiquity to the associated with violence or the threat of violence—and least when not. Macroeconomic crises have only short-lived effects on the distribution of income and wealth. Democracy does not of itself mitigate inequality. Although the interplay of education and technological change undoubtedly influences dispersion of incomes, returns on education and skills have historically proven highly sensitive to violent shocks. Finally, there is no compelling empirical evidence to support the view that modern economic development, as such, narrows inequalities. There is no repertoire of benign means of compression that has ever achieved results that are even remotely comparable to those produced by the Four Horsemen.

Yet shocks abate. When states failed, others sooner or later took their place. Demographic contractions were reversed after plagues subsided, and renewed population growth gradually returned the balance of labor and capital to previous levels. The world wars were relatively short, and their aftereffects have faded over time: top tax rates and union density are down, globalization is up, communism is gone, the Cold War is over, and the risk of World War III has receded. All of this makes the recent resurgence of inequality easier to understand. The traditional violent levelers currently lie dormant and are unlikely to return in the foreseeable future. No similarly potent alternative mechanisms of equalization have emerged.

Even in the most progressive advanced economies, redistribution and education are already unable fully to absorb the pressure of widening income inequality before taxes and transfers. Lower-hanging fruits beckon in developing countries, but fiscal constraints remain strong. There does not seem to be an easy way to vote, regulate, or teach our way to significantly greater equality. From a global historical perspective, this should not come as a surprise. So far as we can tell, environments that were free from major violent shocks and their broader repercussions hardly ever witnessed major compressions of inequality. Will the future be different?

. . .

Inequality either grew or held fairly steady for much of recorded history, and significant reductions have been rare. Yet policy proposals designed to stem or reverse the rising tide of inequality tend to show little awareness or appreciation of this historical background. Is that as it should be? Perhaps our age has become so fundamentally different, so completely untethered from its agrarian and undemocratic foundations, that history has nothing left to teach us. And indeed, there is no question that much has changed: low-income groups in rich economies are generally better off than most people were in the past, and even the most disadvantaged residents of the least developed countries live longer than their ancestors lived. The experience of life at the receiving end of inequality is in many ways very different from what it used to be.

But it is not economic or more broadly human development that concerns us here—rather how the fruits of civilization are distributed, what causes them to be distributed the way they are, and what it would take to change these outcomes. I wrote this book to show that the forces that used to shape inequality have not in fact changed beyond recognition. If we seek to rebalance the current distribution of income and wealth in favor of greater equality, we cannot simply close our eyes to what it took to accomplish this goal in the past. We need to ask whether great inequality has ever been alleviated without great violence, how more benign influences compare to the power of this Great Leveler, and whether the future is likely to be very different—even if we may not like the answers.


Makes you think . . . doesn't it?

Peter


Friday, May 20, 2022

Forecasting the weather - and arthritis pain

 

As regular readers will know, I'm permanently partially disabled due to an on-the-job injury almost two decades ago, and my wife has had some fairly serious injuries in the past.  I'm permanently in some degree of pain, and she gets hit by it if she over-exerts herself, or if the weather (heat, humidity, pressure, etc.) affects her particularly badly.

The other night we both woke up, in pain, shortly before 2 a.m.  I got up and fetched pain-killers for both of us, which helped:  but neither of us could understand why we were both being affected at that time.  There was no thunderstorm going on (something that usually makes both of us go "Ouch!" simultaneously), and there seemed no other obvious reason.

Looking around the Internet the following morning, my eye happened upon a sidebar heading "Local Arthritis Forecast" at Accuweather.  You won't see it on their main page;  you have to enter your location (we use our Zip code) to get your local forecast, whereupon it pops up.  For example, here's the location-specific weather forecast for Hermitage, TN, zip code 37076.  Read down the sidebar to find the arthritis link.

I followed the link for our area and found a very useful bar graph, with more information below it.  Here's what the next week's arthritis forecast looks like for our area (clickit to biggit):



The morning we woke up in pain, the arthritis forecast for that day was "Very High".  We both confirmed that from personal experience!

The arthritis forecast appears to indicate accurately when any sort of bone issue, including past injury and/or surgery sites, will be affected by that set of weather conditions.  If you fall into that category, you might want to bookmark the Accuweather page for your Zip code, and check the arthritis forecast regularly.  It may help you plan your activities better - and your need for pain-killers!  Kudos to Accuweather for providing it.

Peter


The most historically accurate movie sword fight?

 

In discussion with a group of friends, the question came up:  "What is the best, most realistic, historically accurate sword fight in the movies?"  We weren't interested in made-for-the-camera montages that have little or nothing to do with accurate depictions of real fighting (although we all laughed at the comic duel in Zorro, The Gay Blade, where George Hamilton was at his over-the-top best).

There were a number of suggestions, but most of us agreed that the duel between Colonel Wołodyjowski and the young nobleman Andrzej Kmicic was one of the best of its kind, if not the best.  It's described in Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel "The Deluge", the second book in his "Trilogy".  Jerzy Hoffman adapted the novel for the film of the same name in 1974.

Here's the famous duel scene, fought according to the Sarmatian dueling code (i.e. immediately, not needing seconds or a separation in time from the incident that sparked it) using period-correct Polish cavalry sabers known as Szablas.  It's gritty and realistic.




(Kmicic survives his injury, and goes on to become a hero in his own right, while the Colonel dies in a later battle.).  I've seldom seen a sword fight more realistic than that.  It's also very faithful to the tone and mood of the original work - something few movies can claim.

So, readers, what's your nomination?  What sword fight or duel scene, in your opinion, is the most realistic and historically accurate portrayal of the genre?  Please let us know in Comments, and provide a link (if possible) to the scene on a video channel.

Peter


Not a modern Stradivarius - but it's sure priced like one!

 

I have to admit, I boggled when I saw this auction posted on MeWe (courtesy of novelist and friend Michael Z. Williamson).


LOT #36RUSH: ALEX LIFESON "WHITEY" STAGE- AND STUDIO-PLAYED PHOTO- AND VIDEO-MATCHED 1976 GIBSON ES-355TD CUSTOM ELECTRIC GUITAR (WITH UK WORK PERMIT, ORIGINAL BACKSTAGE PASSES, BOOKS, AND BLU-RAYS) - WITH NFT

CURRENT BID: $200,000(4 bids)
ESTIMATE: $200,000 - $300,000
STARTING: $50,000


There's more at the link.

I'm not a musician, just a music lover:  but for the life of me, I can't understand why someone would pay so vast a sum for a guitar that just happens to have been played by a skilled and well-known musician.  If the instrument itself had some particular value (like, for example, a very rare Stradivarius violin, or an instrument used on a particularly famous occasion and therefore having historical importance), I could understand the price.  However, this one, while customized for Lifeson, is basically a standard unit like thousands of others, with only a few special features to distinguish it.  Anyone could have built a guitar just like it, and still can by retrofitting others from the same production line.  I just don't get it.  (On the other hand, I also don't get people who pay a premium for a house that's been lived in by a famous person, or the car that they drove, or the clothes that they wore.  I mean - a pair of shoes worn [and signed] by actor Michael Douglas while he played the role of Liberace sold for over $1,500.  Are you kidding me?  That price for used shoes???)

Clearly, I'm out of touch with the consumer society . . . for which my wife is doubtless very thankful!

Peter