Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, December 31, 2020


I'm not going to provide any links today, but you're all welcome to propose some if there are sources you like. My purpose today is to offer my own perspective on the economic history we've started to discuss with the help of The Communist Manifesto, Karl Polanyi, and Bret Devereaux. By the mid-18th Century the economy of manors and cottage industry and local reciprocity was dissolving into into capitalism. This was sufficiently well underway in England by that Adam Smith's famous treatise, the Wealth of Nations, was published in 1776. 

Smith had a particular understanding of the present in that era which was not well informed by history. He saw the economy of his time and place, which was dominated by monetized market transactions, as a natural state. He argued -- with some caveats that many people who invoke him ignore or are unaware of, because they haven't really read him -- that when people unrestrainedly pursue their individual self-interest in a market economy, the overall welfare is maximized. Self-interest is (without much examination) defined as personal enrichment, along with making consumption choices. The implication is that interference in this pursuit by government is necessarily harmful. This doctrine became known as laissez-faire, which is French for "allow to do," or liberalism. Yep, the people who made this argument in the 19th Century called themselves liberals. That's what the word originally meant.

Note the rhetorical implications. This form of economic organization was called the "free market," and the people who propounded it called themselves "liberals," which means proponents of liberty. The laissez-faire economy not only maximized the wealth of society, and the welfare of individuals, it also maximized freedom and liberty, which are taken to be essentially the same thing.

This idea failed spectacularly, which is the main idea in Polanyi's telling of the tale. It is based on historical myths and many false assumptions, and the undeniable events of history have proved it wrong again and again. Yet it lives on, an unkillable zombie doctrine. It is so obviously wrong that it shouldn't need debunking, yet here we are. There are even tenured professors at Harvard who still believe this, and it's one of the main ideas propounded by Republican politicians, although they don't actually believe it. So I'm forced to discuss it as though it should be taken seriously. That's what I'll be doing in the days ahead.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Wednesday Bible Study: Not exactly the First Amendment

Deuteronomy 13 is a strong reminder that we are immersed in a very different theological context from modern Judaism or the other so-called Abrahamic religions -- Christianity and Islam. One could also include Mormonism (I know they've decided they don't like that term) and various other offshoots from the Big Three. These are all monotheistic, and the mainstream view is that they are all trying to understand and worship the same God, albeit with different rituals and different though overlapping mythology. That's why we can have interfaith councils and ecumenical prayer services. That's not to say that there aren't some true believers who condemn apostasy and attempts to convert people from their version of the faith to another. In a few Islamic countries, trying to convert people from Islam is a crime. However, that is different from what this chapter is about.

Yahweh is specific to the Hebrews. Other people have other Gods, who are just as real, though Yahweh would like us to know they are not as powerful as he is. He isn't interested in converting other people to worshiping him, and he doesn't care what gods other people follow, although he does plan to murder all the people in the land he intends to give to the Hebrews. Outside of that land, however, he doesn't care what other people do. What matters is that his people remain loyal to him. Of course, not even the most orthodox of Jews follow these commandments today, and if they did, even in Israel, they would be guilty of murder. But this is where we are in the Seventh Century BCE.

BTW NIV has "troublemakers" in verse 13. This is literally "sons of Belial," Belial being a generic name for a wicked or worthless person. It occurs many times in the Tanakh. KJV usually translates it literally, but it isn't referring to an actual family. It's kind of like saying sons of bitches. 

13 [a]If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. That prophet or dreamer tried to turn you from the way the Lord your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you.

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. 10 Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 11 Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.

12 If you hear it said about one of the towns the Lord your God is giving you to live in 13 that troublemakers have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods you have not known), 14 then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done among you, 15 you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely,[b] both its people and its livestock. 16 You are to gather all the plunder of the town into the middle of the public square and completely burn the town and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. That town is to remain a ruin forever, never to be rebuilt, 17 and none of the condemned things[c] are to be found in your hands. Then the Lord will turn from his fierce anger, will show you mercy, and will have compassion on you. He will increase your numbers, as he promised on oath to your ancestors— 18 because you obey the Lord your God by keeping all his commands that I am giving you today and doing what is right in his eyes.


  1. Deuteronomy 13:1 In Hebrew texts 13:1-18 is numbered 13:2-19.
  2. Deuteronomy 13:15 The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them.
  3. Deuteronomy 13:17 The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Abnormal Psychology

I'm always intrigued by the ways in which the human wetware can go dramatically haywire. At this point the investigators are saying they don't know the motive for the Nashville bombing, but that may be a category error. Here's what I mean.


The action was meticulously planned, carried out to perfection, and constituted elaborate theater that clearly appeared designed to send a message. The perpetrator evidently wanted to minimize human casualties, although he was willing to accept a substantial risk that there would be some. But he also wanted to cause immense property damage. He played the iconic song Downtown, performed by Petula Clark, in between warnings of imminent explosion. That looks like a commentary of some sort on the entertainment district where the attack took place, but on the other hand the nearest target, that took the most damage, was an AT&T facility and the most severe impact of the attack was disruption of telephone and Internet service. But he left no manifesto and apparently made no attempt to provide an explanation for his actions.

So maybe he thought that 5G cell service is the cause of Covid-19. Maybe he thought people are spending too much time with their devices which is psychologically or socially unhealthy. Maybe he objected to the debauchery of night clubs, or more specifically maybe the real target was the nearby Hooters and he objected to the commodification of the female body. Who knows? But whatever the intended message, who was it for and what were they supposed to do about it?

The point I want to take from all this is that even when investigators do define a "motive" for acts such as this, they're really missing the point. Timothy McVeigh, who you will recall destroyed a federal building in Oklahoma City killing dozens of civil servants and children in day care, didn't bother to issue a manifesto or an explanation. However, once he was captured he told investigators he was angry about the federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and the subsequent fire and loss of life. But does that really constitute a "motive"? The Social Security and Department of Agriculture clerks and administrators and their children who he killed obviously had nothing to do with it. With whom was he trying to communicate by this action and again, what were they supposed to do about whatever it was he meant to say? 

The same can be said for the vast majority of terrorist actions. In the case of the Las Vegas massacre this is obvious -- it was as unintelligible as the Nashville bombing. But even in the Pulse nightclub shooter, the guy who shot up the synagogue in Pittsburgh, many others, in which there is hatred or resentment of some arbitrary group of people -- gay people, Jews -- just going out and killing a bunch of them at random has no evident point. It doesn't advance the perpetrator's agenda in any way. These people are really talking only to themselves, it is something in themselves they mean to kill. Sometimes they do kill themselves, of course, but not always. The Las Vegas gunman apparently did not originally intend to die, he had plotted his escape; but in the middle of his rampage he turned the gun on himself. McVeigh must have expected to be captured and he embraced execution. That was likely always part of his plan. 

When we use the word motive we mean that a person has an objective -- some outcome they wish for -- and undertakes an action in order to bring that about. I don't think that applies in most of these cases. But it might sometimes. Osama bin Laden and his co-conspirators wanted to draw the U.S. into a conflict with Islamic countries that they believed would be damaging to U.S. standing in the world and provide a boost for recruitment into their brand of Islam. It worked perfectly. But that's a whole different phenomenon.

Technical Difficulties

All of my bookmarks suddenly disappeared from Firefox, and I found myself locked out of my Blogger account. I finally managed to sign in, but I may have difficulty posting if my Google accounts continue to behave oddly. I think this was sabotage from Microsoft that wants me to use their browsers. Anyway, I'm working to restore my bookmarks and get my accounts straightened out. Might cause a pause in posting, just so you know.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Sunday Sermonette: Be thou intolerant

Deuteronomy 12 has three basic commandments. Two of them are straightforward enough, but one of them is extremely puzzling. First, the Israelites are commanded to destroy all the shrines of other religions in the land they will enter. Not very nice, but that's Yahweh for you. Second, the establishment of the Temple is foreordained. No problem there. The third, however, is plain weird: the dietary laws are explicitly revoked. As long as they aren't at the Temple, the people are given permission to eat unclean animals. I haven't found any explanation for this, and it is evidently ignored. In fact, the prohibition against eating unclean animals is repeated two chapters later, then revoked again in Ch. 20. Orthodox Jews today just ignore these permissions and follow the restrictions as laid out in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.


12 “These are the statutes and ordinances which you shall be careful to do in the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, all the days that you live upon the earth. You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains and upon the hills and under every green tree; you shall tear down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Ashe′rim with fire; you shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name out of that place.

Asherim (most transliterations omit the apostrophe) were wooden poles or statues honoring a goddess of the same name.

You shall not do so to the Lord your God. But you shall seek the place which the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there; thither you shall go, and thither you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the offering that you present, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herd and of your flock; and there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the Lord your God has blessed you. You shall not do according to all that we are doing here this day, every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes; for you have not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance which the Lord your God gives you. 10 But when you go over the Jordan, and live in the land which the Lord your God gives you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies round about, so that you live in safety, 11 then to the place which the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, thither you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the offering that you present, and all your votive offerings which you vow to the Lord. 12 And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your menservants and your maidservants, and the Levite that is within your towns, since he has no portion or inheritance with you. 13 Take heed that you do not offer your burnt offerings at every place that you see; 14 but at the place which the Lord will choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I am commanding you.

The Temple as a site of central religious authority is an important feature of the society that will be depicted in later books. Not every contemporary society had an equivalent.

15 “However, you may slaughter and eat flesh within any of your towns, as much as you desire, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which he has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, as of the gazelle and as of the hart. 16 Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it out upon the earth like water. 17 

This is very strange. The prohibition against eating blood remains, but permission is given to eat unclean animals. 

You may not eat within your towns the tithe of your grain or of your wine or of your oil, or the firstlings of your herd or of your flock, or any of your votive offerings which you vow, or your freewill offerings, or the offering that you present; 18 but you shall eat them before the Lord your God in the place which the Lord your God will choose, you and your son and your daughter, your manservant and your maidservant, and the Levite who is within your towns; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God in all that you undertake. 19 Take heed that you do not forsake the Levite as long as you live in your land.

20 “When the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he has promised you, and you say, ‘I will eat flesh,’ because you crave flesh, you may eat as much flesh as you desire. 21 If the place which the Lord your God will choose to put his name there is too far from you, then you may kill any of your herd or your flock, which the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you; and you may eat within your towns as much as you desire. 22 Just as the gazelle or the hart is eaten, so you may eat of it; the unclean and the clean alike may eat of it. 23 Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh. 24 You shall not eat it; you shall pour it out upon the earth like water. 25 You shall not eat it; that all may go well with you and with your children after you, when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord. 26 

This just repeats the previous instruction, but also seems to allow people who live too far from the Temple to eat what would have been their sacrifices without having them dispatched by the priests at the Temple. Or at least that's how I read it.  But the next paragraph appears to revoke that permission. Yeah, I'm a bit confused.

But the holy things which are due from you, and your votive offerings, you shall take, and you shall go to the place which the Lord will choose, 27 and offer your burnt offerings, the flesh and the blood, on the altar of the Lord your God; the blood of your sacrifices shall be poured out on the altar of the Lord your God, but the flesh you may eat. 28 Be careful to heed all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you and with your children after you for ever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God.

29 “When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, 30 take heed that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do likewise.’ 31 You shall not do so to the Lord your God; for every abominable thing which the Lord hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.

Here again is the accusation that the Canaanites practiced human sacrifice. As we have noted before, this is almost certainly false. There is no archaeological evidence for it, and no documentary evidence other than these claims in the Torah.  It is most likely just a slander.

32 [a] “Everything that I command you you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to it or take from it.


  1. Deuteronomy 12:32 Ch 13.1 in Heb


Friday, December 25, 2020

Just to make it clear about the Covid-19 relief bill

It was combined with the omnibus spending bill. There's nothing nefarious or inappropriate about there being a lot of stuff in there that isn't specifically about pandemic relief. The omnibus bill was developed and negotiated separately, then congress combined them.

And the stuff that Dump complained about, like foreign aid? Those were all items he specifically asked for. They were in the White House budget. He requested the aid for Egypt and other countries. Just so we're clear.


Also, they found the electoral fraud!


The claim that a vote was fraudulently cast using Elizabeth Bartman’s name and that it was emblematic of systemic voter fraud helping Biden spread widely online. On Facebook, articles with the claim from the conservative websites ZeroHedge and The Epoch Times were shared 1,800 times and reached up to 61 million followers, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned social media analytics tool. 

It was true! The guy voted for Trump.


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Great Transformation, cont.

So in our last installment,  I showed a bit of the Communist Manifesto and how Marx and Engels viewed the emergence of capitalism. Polaynyi, writing 100 years later, had a longer and somewhat different perspective. A central point, to him, which Marx and Engels don't much note, is that in pre-modern societies, most people had limited interaction with markets as we understand them -- systems of capital accumulation and exchange facilitated by money. To be sure, money and markets have existed since ancient times, and while they were of varying importance at different times and places for the most part they were secondary.

In the first place, the vast majority of people were farmers, and they farmed for subsistence, not for monetary profit. Historian writes a prolific long-form blog on many aspects of social history, which you may enjoy exploring at leisure. Here's his first installment on pre-modern farming.


It's much too long and complicated of a story to do any justice in a summary here. But the key point is that subsistence farmers -- the vast majority of the population -- simply could not turn any surplus they were lucky enough to have one year into monetary savings, or money to somehow invest. The world didn't work that way. Instead, they would turn it into social capital, by banqueting their neighbors, in expectation that they could count on help  in hard times.  And they made their own clothing -- more precisely the women did -- and tools. There was little or nothing for them to buy. In the next chapter, to which you can click through, Devereaux discusses the manorial organization of pre-modern Europe. Landowners extracted rents from their serfs or tenants in the form of produce and forced labor. They had some use for monetary trade although they also used the extracted rents to support artisans and soldiers and servants directly, rather than paying them in cash. 

So Polanyi's Great Transformation is the quite rapid evolution from this form of society to the modern nation-state in which a centralized polity is the setting for a largely monetized market economy. Previously, most economic exchange was governed by personal reciprocity or  highly structured relationships among people in sharply defined castes. To quote the Wikipedia article, "As a consequence of industrialization and increasing state influence, competitive markets were created that undermined these previous social tendencies, replacing them with formal institutions that aimed to promote a self-regulating market economy." 

This is not to say that the former situation was better. These economic relationships were often highly exploitive, and most people lived continually on the edge of hunger and even starvation. The emergence of capitalism produced unprecedented material abundance, and eventually -- not until after Marx's time, and probably only temporarily as matters now stand -- something of a reduction in inequality of station and increased opportunity for social mobility. However, it also produced a highly distorted perception of history and society, and produced immense harms and dangers, which again are becoming more urgently apparent today. More on that next time.

Wednesday Bible Study: More redundancy and repetitiveness

Deuteronomy 11 is just more of the same: recapitulation of events of Exodus and Numbers and exhortation to obey Yahweh, or else. So I'll just repeat myself as well. I think the function of these sermons by Moses was exactly that: they were read aloud to congregations in some form of regular observance. Other than the various prescribed sacrifices, the regular observances such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we don't really get any information about how the law and lore were transmitted to the illiterate masses. So I suspect there was some sort of regular gathering at which these sermons of Moses were read, and that's why they repeat content from earlier books, since hardly anyone could actually read them. Many of the events described here are examples of Yahweh's various mass murders; I won't bother to point them out. The boundaries promised for the land of Israel were never fully occupied by the Israelites. Most of the land is fairly arid and does require irrigation. Etc. Whatever, let's just get it over with.

11 “You shall therefore love the Lord your God, and keep his charge, his statutes, his ordinances, and his commandments always. And consider this day (since I am not speaking to your children who have not known or seen it), consider the discipline[a] of the Lord your God, his greatness, his mighty hand and his outstretched arm, his signs and his deeds which he did in Egypt to Pharaoh the king of Egypt and to all his land; and what he did to the army of Egypt, to their horses and to their chariots; how he made the water of the Red Sea overflow them as they pursued after you, and how the Lord has destroyed them to this day; and what he did to you in the wilderness, until you came to this place; and what he did to Dathan and Abi′ram the sons of Eli′ab, son of Reuben; how the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households, their tents, and every living thing that followed them, in the midst of all Israel; for your eyes have seen all the great work of the Lord which he did.

“You shall therefore keep all the commandment which I command you this day, that you may be strong, and go in and take possession of the land which you are going over to possess, and that you may live long in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them and to their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 For the land which you are entering to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and watered it with your feet, like a garden of vegetables; 11 but the land which you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven, 12 a land which the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.

13 “And if you will obey my commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, 14 he[b] will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. 15 And he[c] will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be full. 16 Take heed lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them, 17 and the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and he shut up the heavens, so that there be no rain, and the land yield no fruit, and you perish quickly off the good land which the Lord gives you.

18 “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 19 And you shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 20 And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates, 21 that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. 22 For if you will be careful to do all this commandment which I command you to do, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and cleaving to him, 23 then the Lord will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations greater and mightier than yourselves. 24 Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours; your territory shall be from the wilderness and Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphra′tes, to the western sea. 25 No man shall be able to stand against you; the Lord your God will lay the fear of you and the dread of you upon all the land that you shall tread, as he promised you.

26 “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: 27 the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day, 28 and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods which you have not known. 29 And when the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, you shall set the blessing on Mount Ger′izim and the curse on Mount Ebal. 30 Are they not beyond the Jordan, west of the road, toward the going down of the sun, in the land of the Canaanites who live in the Arabah, over against Gilgal, beside the oak[d] of Moreh? 31 For you are to pass over the Jordan to go in to take possession of the land which the Lord your God gives you; and when you possess it and live in it, 32 you shall be careful to do all the statutes and the ordinances which I set before you this day.


  1. Deuteronomy 11:2 Or instruction
  2. Deuteronomy 11:14 Sam Gk Vg: Heb I
  3. Deuteronomy 11:15 Sam Gk Vg: Heb I
  4. Deuteronomy 11:30 Gk Syr: See Gen 12.6. Heb oaks or terebinths

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Great Transformation

This is the title of a  book published in 1944 by the Hungarian-American political economist Karl Polanyi. It is widely considered to be an important work in political economy, so read it if you can. But the Wikipedia summary actually isn't bad. Polanyi addresses many of the problems and issues that concerned Karl Marx, but with 100 years of added perspective, including of course the experience of actually existing Communism. I'm going to run a trick play here and quote from the Communist Manifesto, which was first published in 1848. (The wordsmithing was actually mostly by Friedrich Engels, who was a better communicator than Marx, whose books are turgid doorstops.)


From the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burgesses the first elements of the bourgeoisie* were developed.

The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.

The feudal system of industry, in which industrial production was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new markets. The manufacturing system took its place. The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class; division of labour between the different corporate guilds vanished in the face of division of labour in each single workshop.

Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising. Even manufacturer no longer sufficed. Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry; the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires, the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois.. . .

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class. An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility, an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune(4): here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany); there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France); afterwards, in the period of manufacturing proper, serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy as a counterpoise against the nobility, and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general, the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

*"Bourgeoisie" is their term for capitalists -- owners of industry and employers of workers. It literally means "townspeople" and reflects the historical developments they describe, in which the locus of economic and social power shifted from the landed agrarian estates to the mercantile and industrial activities of the cities. 

Marx and Engels espoused a so-called "conflict theory" of society. They were principally concerned with how interest groups with varying degrees of power vied to maintain and gain power and advance their own interests. In 1848, they saw society as essentially divided into two classes, the bourgeousie and the proletariat who survived by selling their labor. They did not foresee the development of a substantial professional and managerial class, which greatly complicates the picture; nor did they foresee that capitalists would eventually move to protect themselves from revolution by enacting reforms that improved the condition of at least some workers. 

They also thought that Communism would emerge from industrial capitalism, but in fact the regimes that called themselves Communist and purported to be based on Marxist thought emerged in largely impoverished agrarian monarchies, and certainly did not result in the people effectively owning the means of production or the withering away of the state. So as prophets they were failures. But the history they review here is basically valid. Next time we'll discuss what Polanyi makes of it, and what that means for us today.


Sunday, December 20, 2020

Sunday Sermonette: More redundancy and repetitiveness

Moses resumes recapitulating events in Exodus and Numbers, and again, he gets some details wrong. As I've said, I think the reason for this is simply to put the highlights of the story in a more compact package. It was probably read aloud on some specific occasions -- remember that very few people were literate -- but as far as I know there isn't any record of how these stories and laws were conveyed to the people in these times. In any case Deuteronomy would have been more convenient, and memorable, than reading the whole thing. I've noted some of the errors and contradictions.

10 “At that time the Lord said to me, ‘Hew two tables of stone like the first, and come up to me on the mountain, and make an ark of wood. And I will write on the tables the words that were on the first tables which you broke, and you shall put them in the ark.’ So I made an ark of acacia wood, and hewed two tables of stone like the first, and went up the mountain with the two tables in my hand.

Of course he didn't make the ark personally. You might take this in the sense of he ordered it to be made, as one might say "I built a house" meaning I hired people to do it,  . .. but

And he wrote on the tables, as at the first writing, the ten commandments[a] which the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly; and the Lord gave them to me. Then I turned and came down from the mountain, and put the tables in the ark which I had made; and there they are, as the Lord commanded me.

 Here it seems more clear that Moses is taking credit for building the ark himself. As Exodus 37 clearly states, Bezaleel made the ark.

(The people of Israel journeyed from Be-er′oth Bene-ja′akan[b] to Mose′rah. There Aaron died, and there he was buried; and his son Elea′zar ministered as priest in his stead.

Nope. According to Numbers 20, and again in Numbers 33, Aaron died  on Mt. Hor.

From there they journeyed to Gud′godah, and from Gud′godah to Jot′bathah, a land with brooks of water. At that time the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers; the Lord is his inheritance, as the Lord your God said to him.)

10 “I stayed on the mountain, as at the first time, forty days and forty nights, and the Lord hearkened to me that time also; the Lord was unwilling to destroy you. 11 And the Lord said to me, ‘Arise, go on your journey at the head of the people, that they may go in and possess the land, which I swore to their fathers to give them.’

12 “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I command you this day for your good? 14 Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it; 15 yet the Lord set his heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as at this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. 17 

That's a very weird metaphor, to say the least. 

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 20 

This is just a chapter after commanding the people to murder everyone they meet in Canaan. Go figure.

You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve him and cleave to him, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen. 22 Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as the stars of heaven for multitude.


  1. Deuteronomy 10:4 Heb words
  2. Deuteronomy 10:6 Or the wells of the Bene-jaakan

Saturday, December 19, 2020

For what it's worth . . .

 Garrett Jones:

Reminder: Income per person in China is about one-third that of the Taiwan. And about 1/4 that of the US. China is, to a first approximation, a scaled up, less successful, late-arriving Taiwan. If the other team had won the civil war, China today would likely be better off.

Weird to see anyone treating the China model as outright appealing. Aside from the impressive scale, China's total performance is weak by the standards of countries with high test scores, high ancestral experience with technology. A bias toward changes over levels I guess.

A gloss on this is that China has been catching up lately, but yes, the cult of Mao set them back decades.

Friday, December 18, 2020

A word about mRNA vaccines

I note that many people are concerned that mRNA vaccine technology has never before been approved for use in humans. They worry about unknown risks and nasty surprises, and are reluctant to accept the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

I am actually not worried about it, and I'll try to explain why. First I'll just note that this technology has been under development for decades, and has been tested extensively in animal models and experimentally in humans before the large-scale clinical trials that have led to Emergency Use Authorization. So there is a lot of evidence for safety, although it is true that the follow-up time for the clinical trials is so far less than is usually required for full approval. The trial subjects are still being followed so we will get a signal if anything untoward might happen -- but there is very good reason to be confident that it won't.


This is pretty technical, and it's hard for people who haven't studied a lot of biology to get this stuff sometimes, but I'll do my best. Many readers will already know this, others may not. In animal cells (also plant cells, actually) the DNA in the nucleus, that kind that's in our chromosomes, contains instructions for making proteins. In simple terms, one gene consists of the instructions to make one protein. Proteins are long chains of smaller molecules called amino acids.  The instructions consist of three unit combinations of four different "letters," which are also specific small molecules, and you probably know these are abbreviated A, T, C, and G.* So AAT might mean one amino acid and GTC another. But these instructions need to be translated by a mechanism for assembling proteins.

The instructions are carried out by molecular machines in the cell called ribosomes. Messenger RNA, mRNA, is the molecule that carries the instructions from the nuclear DNA to the ribosomes. There are regulatory regions in DNA that mark where a gene begins and ends  (some genes consist of separated regions whose instructions need to be spliced together, not important) and for turning on and off reading of a gene by mRNA. Fortunately we don't have to worry about any of this because the mRNA vaccines skip all that.

Here's what they do instead.  Cells are wrapped in a membrane that  has little portals that selectively let molecules in and out, called receptors. Viruses consist of genetic material inside a protein capsule, with little keys that unlock one of the receptors so the virus can get its genetic material into the cell. The immune system learns to recognize one or more of the proteins in the viral capsule and make antibodies that attack that protein. In the case of these particular mRNA vaccines, that protein happens to be the key that gets the virus into the cell, which is often the case.


Note that the protein by itself is completely harmless. It's only dangerous when it's part of the virus; it can't reproduce on its own, and it doesn't hurt anything if it binds to a receptor if it's not associated with any viral genes to inject. So the vaccine manufacturer makes a whole lot of mRNA that consists of the instruction to make the viral protein. They make it a little bit different in some ways from natural mRNA, so it won't provoke an immune response itself, is more stable, and can sneak into cells. That part is very technical but don't worry about it. You can read all about it here if you're interested.

So you get injected with this and some of your cells take it up and start making the viral protein. They display it on their surfaces, your immune system recognizes it and starts making antibodies. Then the cell destroys the mRNA as it does all mRNA in the normal course of events -- it's job is done. So there is really no evident way that you could suffer any long-term ill effects from this.

Now, because the vaccine provokes such a strong immune response you may briefly experience typical symptoms of a viral infection. That's because those symptoms are actually caused by the immune response, not the virus itself. You don't have a viral infection, so the symptoms will go away quickly. I'm talking a fever, or feeling fatigue, or a headache. From what we've seen of the clinical trial data, something like 20% of people might have this experience, but it sure beats suffocating alone. 

So when you have the chance, that's the information you should consider. By then, we'll have at least a couple more months of follow up anyway. So I'm not worried. This technology has all sorts of incredible potential, not only against viruses but also against cancer and maybe some other applications. Once you have the basic platform, you can plug in any protein you want, very easily. These are the days of miracles and wonder.

*Not that it matters but these stand for adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Paleolithic War

As I say, we don't actually know, but here's the Wikipedia article, for what it's worth. Their conclusion is that systematic warfare was exceedingly rare prior to the neolithic and associated sedentism. Could be wrong. 

Raymond believes that this period of "Paleolithic warlessness" persisted until well after the appearance of Homo sapiens some 315,000 years ago, ending only at the occurrence of economic and social shifts associated with sedentism, when new conditions incentivized organized raiding of settlements.[5][6]

Of the many cave paintings of the Upper Paleolithic, none depicts people attacking other people explicitly,[7][8] but there are depictions of human beings pierced with arrows both of the Aurignacian-Périgordian (roughly 30,000 years old) and the early Magdalenian (c. 17,000 years old), possibly representing "spontaneous confrontations over game resources" in which hostile trespassers were killed; however, other interpretations, including capital punishment, human sacrifice, assassination or systemic warfare cannot be ruled out.[9]

Skeletal and artifactual evidence of intergroup violence between Paleolithic nomadic foragers is absent as well.[8][10] 

. . . 

Systemic warfare appears to have been a direct consequence of the sedentism as it developed in the wake of the Neolithic Revolution. An important example is the massacre of Talheim Death Pit (near Heilbronn, Germany), dated right on the cusp of the beginning European Neolithic, at 5500 BC.[23] Investigation of the Neolithic skeletons found in the Talheim Death pit in Germany suggests that prehistoric men from neighboring tribes were prepared to brutally fight and kill each other in order to capture and secure women. Researchers discovered that there were women among the immigrant skeletons, but within the local group of skeletons there were only men and children.[24] They concluded that the absence of women among the local skeletons meant that they were regarded as somehow special, thus they were spared execution and captured instead. The capture of women may have indeed been the primary motive for the fierce conflict between the men.[25][26]

 So that's the CW.

One more thing: I don't want to reach back to posts that are a couple of weeks old, it's easier to renew the dialogue. It is true that Quing China did not have a feudal system like that of medieval Europe, with various ranks of tributary nobility. Nonetheless some people do apply the term "feudal" to it, as here:

After the middle period, all kinds of social contradictions increasingly surfaced and Qing began to decline. Under the corrupt ruling of the later rulers, various rebellions and uprisings broke out. In 1840 when the Opium War broke out, the Qing court was faced with troubles at home and aggression from abroad. During that period, measures were adopted by imperial rulers and some radical peasants to bolster their power. The Westernization Movement, the Reform Movement of 1898 and the Taiping Rebellion were the most influential ones, but none of them had ever succeeded in saving the dying Qing Dynasty.

Finally, the Revolution of 1911 led by Sun Yat-sen broke out and overthrew the Empire of Qing, bringing two thousand years of Chinese feudal monarchy to an end.

That's just semantics, and it's fine with me if you don't want to use the term. But the relevant point is that Mao did not restore the former system, in that no new class emerged to replace the landlords. It is true that China had a centralized government prior to the revolution. The Chinese people are certainly better of materially today than they were prior to the revolution, but that's true just about everywhere. For me though, there's no sense worrying about the counterfactual of a Kuomintang victory. Who knows what would have happened? History is what it is.


The History of Stayin' Alive

 No, not this blog, the actual fact of stayin' alive. I mentioned in a previous installment that human life expectancy fell after the agricultural revolution and didn't recover until the 20th Century. Here's a look at the last 250 years.



Something happened toward the end of the 19th Century.  What was it? It wasn't medical advances -- physicians couldn't do us more good than harm until maybe 1930 or so, at the earliest, and they still don't actually contribute all that much to life expectancy. Just concentrating on Europe and its settler outposts in North America, society had mostly completed its evolution from feudalism to nation states, with first mercantile, then industrial capitalism considerably before the inflection point. 

To be sure, some of the gains early in the 20th Century can be attributed to the discovery of pathogens -- the "germ theory" of disease and attendant measures to supply uncontaminated drinking water in the cities, but the trend began considerably before then and continued thereafter. What happened is that humanity escaped the Malthusian trap. After the Industrial Revolution our ancestors finally achieved a growth rate that exceeded the rate of growth of the population. More people reliably had enough to eat. This was associated with many other profound changes, among which was a stark difference in the terms of political and policy debate. It's very important to understand where we are situated historically as we think about what is to be done today.

To be continued . . .