Barrel Strength

Over-Proof Opinion, Smoothly Aged Insight

Barrel Strength - Over-Proof Opinion, Smoothly Aged Insight

A target rich environment

It is a week beyond satire or exaggeration in the march of folly and error.

The white woman parading as a black, and a fraud at may levels, Rachel Dolezal, former head of the NAACP in some whitebread state. Best article on the subject is Terry Glavin’s in the Post.

Pope says Mass at Easter: Catholic Church condemns capitalism, greed, off-shoring, fossil fuels and planetary destruction ensuing therefrom. I am enjoying the recent micro-surge of people objecting to the immorality of preventing the poorest 2 billion on the planet from enjoying the benefits of fossil fuels. Nigel Lawson for one, and I am proud of Moses Znaimer for presenting such people at his Idea City conference. When the ultra-hip capitalist Moses Znaimer acts like this, expect him to be six months to a year ahead of the crowd. (From my personal experience, Moses Znaimer is quite politically sensible, but he has to disguise it under a canopy of hip-ness. I apologize to Mr. Znaimer for any harm this recommendation in right wing circles may cause him).

What else? Canadian Liberals call for proportional representation or some variant so that they can govern Canada once again.The always intelligent and frequently wrong adornment of Canadian journalism, Andrew Coyne, is beside himself with glee. The better reaction came from Kelly McParland, who pointed out that, since the Liberals have been out of power for nine years, their innate conviction is that something must be the matter with Canada, and fixing the voting system will address that problem.

Now, however, the party has lost three successive elections, so something must be wrong. Not with the party, mind, but with the election system. How can anyone put their faith in a system that doesn’t reliably elect Liberals?

That appears to be the root cause of Justin Trudeau’s declaration that, if he has his way, the election in October will be the last under the first-past-the-post system, which has served Canada reliably since Confederation, and hasn’t hindered the country from attaining its present level of peace, prosperity and tolerance. The only thing wrong, it appears, is that it can no longer be counted on to assure regular, lengthy periods of Liberal rule.

Then there is the case of the Chief of Staff of the Canadian Armed Forces saying something  sort of true and politically oh-so-incorrect about males in the army wanting to rub themselves up against the sweet thighs of female underlings, or some such expression. Well yeah! Of course!

This is further proof, if any were needed, that no true fact can be asserted in public without causing a scandal.

What is a billion?

The NatPost today had an article on the subject of the London Inter-Bank Offered Rate, particularly the price-fixing engaged in a by bankers.

In it a certain Don Coxe, a “global portfolio strategist” for the Bank of Montreal in Chicago was quoted.

Coxe estimates that, overall, banks around the world have paid US$350-billion in fines “for all the frauds they are admitting to since 2008.”

$350 billion!

That is greater than the size of the spending of the Canadian federal government for the year 2015.


I apologize for the fact that the numbers in the chart may appear illegible, but the topmost number in the left-hand column is 351000, standing for $351 billion Canadian dollars, or less than total bank fines since 2008, measured in US dollars.

As Coxe remarks, we have yet to see any bankers in jail.

If you are a defender of the capitalist order, as I am, then you ought to be appalled by this figure, and these behaviours.

“Floggings will continue until morale improves.” – traditional management technique

The market ideologists  need to be sent to their bedrooms without supper, for about a decade. Hopeful they will starve.

Maybe it is time you looked up the brilliant movie, Margin Call, and paid very close attention to the speech at the end of the movie by Jeremy Irons, who played the Chairman of the Board, who recites the list of market crashes, bubbles and scandals since the invention of stock markets in the mid-1600s.




Amsterdam is one of those places that challenge every libertarian’s ideas about how things should run. It is intensely left-wing in many respects: its citizens evince a strong social cohesion predicated on non-market values, the city enforces minute regulation of architecture, zoning and social behaviour, while a high level of government spending maintains social and municipal services. Yet Amsterdam also manages to show how capitalist it is in every store-front. In some ways, I thought, this place is a Potemkin village, and then thought “No” it is a Disney-like theme park maintained by millions of tourists and the willing cooperation of its citizens.

It seems to gather every hipster in Holland into one place: there are tiny stores selling electrical fixtures of the 1950s, micro-art galleries, baroque music concerts, weird antique stores of every description, ecological butcheries, and apartments which, when revealed by walking by, are contemporary art-galleries with dining room tables. Indeed, I was informed that the police check out every potential inner-city resident of Amsterdam; that to live there requires a permit. And the permit is issued if you are Dutch enough, which is to say,  willing to abide by the rules of the place, as the police may explain to you.


Make no mistake. This place has rules, visible and invisible. Once, more than a decade ago, I was with a bunch of guys at a restaurant on one of the outer ring of canals. It was October, dark and cold. We headed out the door for a doobie, because it was a non-smoking bar. Eventually the young lady of the place came out and politely informed us that we could not smoke a joint in front of the place, because that might imply the restaurant tolerated dope smoking , but that we could smoke dope at the end of the block, at a construction site a few yards away. A Dutch compromise of behavioural zoning worked out precisely to the meter.

A place as well run as Amsterdam must run on behavioural zoning. Stuff allowed in the red-light district cannot be tolerated a block away from it. By the way, if you do not wish to find the red-light district, you can avoid it for your first seven trips  to the place, as I did. Nothing to see: move on.


Indeed the charms and delights of Amsterdam are found in the walking around, in the architecture so carefully maintained, in the thousands of great bars and restaurants, in the amiable way the Dutch manage to live in the crowded spaces, in their friendly inhabitation of the place, in their tolerance of the tourists in their midst.

The annoyances of Amsterdam for the North American conservative are the arrogant sit-up cyclists in their damned cycling lanes whizzing by, who have rights of way against pedestrians and motor-cars;but more importantly,  in the idea that minute planning and regulation, formal and informal, could actually work, that a great capital of 17th century capitalism could actually be preserved more or less intact for centuries without  redevelopment, high rises, and modern architecture, but at the price of this regulation, that a highly capitalist people – including the hipster artists – might choose to live in a highly regulated way.


Does this not send Ayn Rand spinning in her grave? I hope so. Amsterdam epitomizes every thing that Jane Jacobs had to say about cities, communities, and markets: that highly creative and capitalist places are one and the same, and that markets are embedded in, and contained by, societies, and that the rules of markets co-exist within non-market institutions and rules. Do yourself a favour. Read Jane Jacobs’ “Systems of Survival”, which is scarcely a hundred pages long, and see if your views of markets and society are not deepened.

Or join me for another ramble through Amsterdam, as we discourse about markets, societies, religious freedom, and how to hold them all together in some harmony. The walk will do us good.






Our driverless future?

A young engineer was speaking to me about the future of cars and roads. The addition of artificial intelligence to cars is ongoing, and will soon reach the stage, he says, where it will become clear that cars in certain urban areas will not be allowed to drive with human drivers at the wheel.

Such an outcome assumes a great deal of progress in resolving a host of issues, technical, social and political.


The implications of increased intelligence in cars – up to the point where humans can be replaced as drivers – go on and on.

  • ownership versus renting

If cars can be rented by the hour or by the occasion, the incentives to own a car may go down. Cars usually sit in the driveway or the parking lot for most of the day. Imagine that cars are basically taxis, and that the ownership (whoever they or it may be) cleans, maintains and provides cars on much the same basis as taxis, but with no taxi driver. You would summon a car as you would an Uber taxi, and it would show up at your location, but without the driver. Step in and the car will drive you to your destination.

  • traffic signals

Your community is strewn with stop signs, lights, and painting of signals on the road. Imagine that the driving rules for every intersection are communicated by local networks to the cars within reach of the signal, and that cars communicate by networks to each other in constant Bluetooth-style to adjust momentum (direction and speed). Once cars are self-directing, if the destination has been selected by the passenger, then a huge infrastructure of visual signs would be replaced with an electronic infrastructure. As a pedestrian, you may need a sign as to where you can cross, but the governing software of cars will ensure that, within the limits of the laws of physics, cars will not be able to hit you.

  • legal compulsion

It will be argued that the full benefits of the driverless automobile system will only be realized when people are legally obliged to switch over from the human driver to local network control. The law will compel drivers in certain areas to surrender control, and in all likelihood the car will simply adjust by becoming integrated with the local network, on the supposition that there is a private automobile entering the local network space.

The sign saying “you are now entering Such and Such” municipality also acts as the point where the car – not your car but “the” car – passes from the control of one network to another, just as a cell-phone call is passed from one tower to another. The car in which you are riding has become a physical instantiation of a telephone call.

The consequences  of this driverless system are expected to be:

1) drastic reduction in the amount of society’s resources dedicated to automobiles, as the use of each car intensifies. This may mean fewer cars, or less social investment in related automobile technologies, or lowered energy consumption. It may allow for quicker transitions to newer propulsion technologies.

2) legal liability will be need to be worked out between the software makers (General Motors, Toyota, Apple whoever) that make the car control software, the cities which install the driverless networks, and insurance companies for both sides.

Some of the negative effects will be:

1) loss of autonomy and privacy, but as computer technology invades everything, the loss of autonomy will long precede the transfer to the automated driverless system spoken of here. You are already being followed by your GPS and other technologies in your car, even if you still drive it. Mandatory guidance systems will not change the trackability of cars.

2) Every car will become like a taxi. The cleanliness, appearance, and maintenance level of your car will depend on the previous occupants, and on which company owns them, and some companies will be better than others. Given the human propensity for status distinctions, people will pay for better cars by belonging to better car-cooperatives.

Cultural and social resistance will take a long time to be overcome.

First, the software to run all this must work seamlessly and efficiently to figure out the dozens of social and safety rules that govern human transactions in every driving situation. Consider four-way stops which can be a ballet of mutual recognition.  The mutual interchange of signals among cars and the successors to stop signs and traffic lights must work out in a faultless protocol. WIll drivers be allowed to assume control, and in what circumstances?

This leads to the second huge issue: trust. It is likely that failures will become as rare and nearly as deadly as airplane accidents. Imagine a breakdown of signals, or the failure of protocols, on a highway where hundreds of cars are hurtling on autopilot. It will take a long while before people can trust the state of the system to be sufficiently  faultless that getting into a car is as safe as getting into an airplane.

Inconvenience is the third major reason for resisting. Private ownership of cars may be as irrational as the private ownership of power tools, from the perspective of efficiency of use, but people do not like systems of common or collective ownership for good reason. Some people are slobs, others neatfreaks. Some use their cars as mobile filing cabinets. So private ownership will likely continue, even in the brave new world of automated driverless cars. Thus the argument for the driverless car system is not an argument for the abandonment of private ownership, but it will increasingly make private ownership look as anachronistic as a CD or record collection.


Population reduction

The UN’s Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) believes that lowering the human population should reduce the load we impose on the planet. In 2013, Figueres had a conversation with Climate One founder Greg Dalton regarding “fertility rates in population,” as a contributor to climate change.

Ironically, she is right, but the means she proposes to get to lowered population runs through higher wealth, not lower wealth, and to get to higher wealth, we need to maintain current per capita energy consumption.

Moreover, the total human population numbers will rise to 2050, but fertility is already crashing or in the process of doing so. This is the largest unrealized LARGE FACT in the world today. Everyone seems to think global population will continue to expand, as it did in the aftermath of World War 2. But as fertility (the number of babies per woman) crashes, population cannot continue to increase.

The fact is, women choose to replicate, when they can choose at all, in competition with a mass of other incentives. They will trade the possibility of a fourth child for a sewing machine; and the prospect of a third child for a better home.

The rich have always had fewer children, and now, thanks to energy consumption, we face the same income trade-offs as 18th century aristocrats: more children, less wealth to divide among them. Infowars reports

Populations in developed countries are declining and only in third world countries are they expanding dramatically. Industrialization itself levels out population trends and even despite this world population models routinely show that the earth’s population will level out at 9 billion in 2050 and slowly decline after that. “The population of the most developed countries will remain virtually unchanged at 1.2 billion until 2050,” states a United Nations report. The UN’s support for depopulation policies is in direct contradiction to their own findings.

But keeping wealth concentrated in the countries which are rich now is not the purpose of economic development, nor is it possible. The largest fact is that globalization is allowing wealth in countries that have not experienced it: not just China and India, but Indonesia, the Philippines, and Bangladesh, even Africa.

According to the UN Report “World Population Prospects: the 2012 Revision”, whose first finding is:

In July 2013, the world population will reach 7.2 billion, 648 million more than in 2005 or an average gain of 81 million persons annually. Even assuming that fertility levels will continue to decline, the world population is still expected to reach 9.6 billion in 2050 and 10.9 billion in 2100,according to the medium-variant projection.

Under the low variant of fertility, global population starts to decrease after 2050.

The moral is clear: allow people to increase their wealth and keep the products of their labour, and they will solve the population problem (as perceived by leftist planners)  by their own actions. Wealth is the key to population control.

Is the Internet behind growing income inequality?

The MacDonald Laurier Institute held a debate last night between the Liberal trade critic Chrystia Freeland, and the Canadian-American professor of law, Frank Buckley.

The issue was “Income Inequality:  we should quit worrying about it”. The debaters were too intelligent and well-informed to disagree fundamentally. The only decision criterion in the debate arose from one’s pre-existing disposition either to worry, as distinct from being concerned. Not a single intelligent person fails to be concerned about income inequality, in the same sense as a sailor keeps a wary eye on the water level in the bilge.

Freeland’s views are here.   Frank Buckley’s views are here.

The debate turned into a massive agreement between Buckley and Freeland that the United States is doing much worse than Canada in almost every dimension of income inequality, permanent class differences, social mobility in and out of the top ten and bottom ten percent of the income deciles, and so forth.

Buckley’s views on how American government is failing are summarized here. Essentially he attributes the fundamental fault to the separation of powers: the fact that the executive is not responsible to the legislative branch, which has powerful and ramifying effects on the whole system, including irresponsibility of legislators and presidents for results.

Here is Buckley:


What Canada has importantly over the U.S. is reversibility, the ability to undo bad laws. That doesn’t happen so easily in America, with the gridlock built into its separation of powers, and that’s a problem Fukuyama himself has identified in two recent books that describe a sclerotic society of special interests which enact wealth-destroying laws. Once passed, Americans are stuck with bad laws. Their constitution doesn’t have a reverse gear.

What Fukuyama recognized in his recent books is James Madison’s error in The Federalist Papers. Madison argued that the separation of powers would prevent bad laws from being enacted in the first place. However, that’s an example of what Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek called the “fatal conceit,” the idea that planners can anticipate all the problems that might arise with a well-drafted statute. More modestly, Canada’s parliamentary system assumes that, in a world of human fallibility, mistakes will be made, that “experts” are often unreliable, that dumb laws will be passed; and that what is more important is giving the legislator the ability to bring hindsight wisdom to bear in undoing laws which experience tells us were ill-planned. If American government has gotten too large, if the statutory code and the federal regulations have caught a case of elephantiasis, that’s not surprising. The know-it-all hubris of the planner was baked into the American constitution from the start.

Other faults abound. US laws are written by lobbyists for various interests – yes, this is exactly true – and then various sections are then “reconciled” with other sections written by other crews of expensive lawyers, and then, if possible, the House version is reconciled to the senate’s version. At no time is a consistent editorial or legal style enforced; no equivalent of the official of the Ministry of Justice, no specialized drafting section, touches a bill.

The Canada Health Act (RSC ch.C-6) is 22 sections long, the US Affordbale Care Act is  974 pages long. It could not have been passed without a large degree of legislative log-rolling, which are buy-offs for regions, senators, and pet-projects.

Or as Buckley says, “the Canada health Act is twelve pages long, and that includes the French”.


Of all the forces  acting on our respective countries, Canada and the US, I see this one as decisive.

  • every action capable of being reduced to an algorithm is being turned into software,  the instructions for machines, and these machines are doing jobs formerly done by humans.
  • More, the economic productivity gains are, under modern networked conditions, able to gathered on a global scale by very few owners of the intellectual property.
  • For example, think about how Uber takes the economic rents out of taxi licences, or Netflix out of Canadian broadcasting licences, and you can see how wealth can be centralized as never before.

Every other force generating inequality: family breakdown, the Bell curve – the unequal distribution of intelligence, globalization, decline of social cohesion, acts on both sides of the Canada-US border with greater or lesser effect.  The two political systems translate these forces into different social effects. Hence the Buckley-Freeland debate swerved into US-Canada comparisons, but avoided the main cause, as I see it, of increasing inequality.

The conclusions of this effect are being felt around the world:

  • since we do not need as many people to do the jobs now able to be performed by machines, people are reproducing themselves less, and population  is crashing in most places in the world.
  • Modern networked economies permit both innovation, and new forms of accumulating wealth, on scales that were not previously possible.


I recognize I am entering the dangerous territory occupied by Andrew Keen. Keen argues against the Internet, in that it does not create jobs, does not increase freedom, and wrecks the middle class. Both Freeland and Buckley were, in their ways, conscious of these trends, but they had not attributed the problem squarely to the effects of the Internet.

It is a thesis well worth allowing yourself to contemplate. I am allowing myself to think negatively and will report back when my views have matured.




Population Decline and Economics

George Friedman is a geostrategist, and he writes entertaining books: such as The Next Decade, and  the Next Hundred Years. Geostrategy looks at the  world from the perspective of how oceans and landmasses  interact with populations and states to shape how the world is controlled. You can pick his books up at airport booksellers, and they stimulate thought without commanding agreement, which for me is a compliment.

Friedman is, not incidentally, Hungarian by birth, which country has given us Edward Teller, John von Neumann, George Jonas, and a host of other geniuses and near-geniuses.

Culture, race, and religion are not the primary drivers in Friedman’s world view. His is a narrow but productive focus, comparable to that of an economist’s.

Consequently his latest piece is of interest, because he deals with the large implications of the ongoing world population crash – you hear me – crash. You may not have heard that the world population is in the process of crashing. It is. It is dealt with in many places, and I recommend David P. Goldman’s “How Civilizations Die (and why Islam is dying too)” for the facts, if not for Goldman’s gloomy interpretation of everything. (Goldman writes as “Spengler”, another notorious cultural pessimist).

Back to George Friedman, who is ever optimistic.

One of the key variables mitigating the problem of decreasing population would be continuing advances in technology to increase productivity. We can call this automation or robotics, but growths in individual working productivity have been occurring in all productive environments from the beginning of industrialization, and the rate of growth has been intensifying. Given the smooth and predictable decline in population, there is no reason to believe, at the very least, that GDP would not fall less than population. In other words, with a declining population in advanced industrial societies, even leaving immigration out as a factor, per capita GDP would be expected to grow.

Friedman’s second reason for optimism is that we would be moving into a world where capital was becoming more abundant relative to labour. Since the 1600s, or perhaps since the beginning of time, humans have been plentiful, capital scarce. He envisages a world where, as humans become ever scarcer, their relative value will rise.

The economist in me says that as humans become more valuable, they will tend to have more children, but this effect might be constrained by a comparable expense of raising them.

Friedman’s second prediction is that the distribution of wealth would change under conditions he envisages.

That would mean that in addition to rising per capita GDP, the actual distribution of wealth would shift. We are currently in a period where the accumulation of wealth has shifted dramatically into fewer hands, and the gap between the upper-middle class and the middle class has also widened. If the cost of money declined and the price of labor increased, the wide disparities would shift, and the historical logic of industrial capitalism would be, if not turned on its head, certainly reformulated.

Friedman says we might head into a period where wealth became more evenly distributed, as humans became relatively scarcer to capital.


The argument I am making here is that population decline will significantly transform the functioning of economies, but in the advanced industrial world it will not represent a catastrophe — quite the contrary. Perhaps the most important change will be that where for the past 500 years bankers and financiers have held the upper hand, in a labor-scarce society having pools of labor to broker will be the key. I have no idea what that business model will look like, but I have no doubt that others will figure that out.

Friedman reminds us that we have to look beyond today’s crisis in Islam to the underlying changes driving the world. Another thinker in Friedman’s stable, Ian Morris,  put it this way:

New energy sources, technologies that erode the boundaries between mind and machine, and shifts toward living in virtual rather than physical spaces may all threaten — or promise — to make the 21st century the biggest rupture in human history, dwarfing the agricultural and industrial revolutions. A century from now, trying to find the right level of inequality for a fossil fuel society might seem as irrelevant as determining the right level of inequality for Neanderthals does today.

Ian Morris is the author of “Why the West Rules, for Now”. I recommend it highly.

IanMorris book

Distributed cognitive stratification

There is a charming old grump of, I guess, my age, a former newspaper man who writes from some beach in Mexico, whose blog is called Fred on Everything. I recommend it warmly.

You might like to start with is latest, “Balkanizing the News: Separation of People and State”, for a deeply observant analysis of why the newspaper business is collapsing.


The major outlets (this will not be a blinding insight) as always are in near-lockstep—that is, controlled.  Reporters understand the rules perfectly. You do not, not ever, criticize Israel. You don’t say anything remotely interpretable as racist. Women are sacrosanct. Do not offend the sexually baroque. The endless wars get minimal coverage and almost nothing that would upset the public. Huge military contracts get almost no mention.

None of this is accidental….

This system is breaking down under the onslaught of the internet. Papers are losing both credibility and circulation. So are the networks.

Race is the obvious example of the decline in control. The spin and censorship have become so heavy-handed as to be comic….

The Internet is allowing lateral communication as he styles it, among the readership, which permits people to know that others are aware of the extent to which the papers are preventing discussion of, say, black on white crime, and the paltriness of the excuses for it, and the daily cover-ups [“youth”, “teenagers”] that seek to disguise the race of the attackers. Many elephants in the newsroom, none of them adverted to, all of them carefully avoided.

Another problem that the internet poses for papers is the divide between the intelligent and the rest. Again we see two opposed poles, though in this case blending imperceptibly into one another. The major media are not comfortable with intelligence. Television is worst, the medium of the illiterate, barely literate, stupid, uneducated, and uninterested. It cannot afford to air much that might puzzle these classes.

Newspapers can assume that their subscribers can at least read but, intelligence being pyramidal in distribution, have to focus of the lower end. They also have to avoid offending the advertisers, the politically correct, or the corporate ownership.

By contrast, web sites have few of these problems. Since they aggregate their readership from the whole planet, they do not have to concern themselves with grocery ads in St. Louis.  They cost little to run. They do not need the bottom end of the distribution. And they have become multitudinous. Collectively you might call them “a free press.”

There are for example Taki’s Magazine, leaning hard to the political Right but thoughtful, beautifully written, fearless, and possessed of a beguiling aristocratic snottiness; the Unz Review, leaning hard in all directions at once but written by and for a cognitive elite;, not sucking up to military industry; Tom Dispatch, extraordinarily informed analyst of imperial policy; Counterpunch, hard Left but highly intelligent, and the Drudge Report, half grocery-store tabloid and half unintimidatable teller-like-it-is, sort of America’s thermometer.

These and countless others are all over the spectrum, any spectrum, every spectrum, off spectrum, but in most cases assume a post-graduate intelligence and knowledge. No newspaper of which I am aware comes close.

It amounts to distributed cognitive stratification.

Go to Fred on Everything to read the rest, it is quite first rate.

The Bell Curve is the invisible gravity of human life.Dalwhinnie

Male unemployment, and what it means

The New York Times discusses male unemployment in the United States.
I am glad they have noticed, finally.

After decades of celebrating “diversity” and affirmative action [code for anti-white discrimination], deploring the glass ceiling and favouring female empowerment [code for anti-male discrimination], mass immigration of low paid Central American peasants and off-shoring [producing downward pressure on working class wages], the elites may be waking up to the crisis they have engendered. I accuse the Republicans as much as the Democrats for fostering many of these conditions.

Working, in America, is in decline. The share of prime-age men — those 25 to 54 years old — who are not working has more than tripled since the late 1960s, to 16 percent. More recently, since the turn of the century, the share of women without paying jobs has been rising, too. The United States, which had one of the highest employment rates among developed nations as recently as 2000, has fallen toward the bottom of the list….

Many men, in particular, have decided that low-wage work will not improve their lives, in part because deep changes in American society have made it easier for them to live without working. These changes include the availability of federal disability benefits; the decline of marriage, which means fewer men provide for children; and the rise of the Internet, which has reduced the isolation of unemployment.


It seems that the people in the New York Times may have read Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012). They are describing what Murray has been worried about for decades.

Murray’s thesis is both simple and well demonstrated. Society is becoming increasingly stratified around intelligence. The more intelligent are marrying and breeding within their cognitive class. The zip codes of the elites are home to the top half of the ninety-ninth centile of wealth. Geographic separation of the cognitive elites is well developed.

In chapter 4 of his book, called “How thick is your bubble?”, he tests the reader to a number of different questions, whose difficulty you will have in answering, will disabuse you of the notion that you do not live among, and are a member of, the cognitive elite.

For most of the rest of the chapters, Murray details the decline in family formation, industriousness, honesty and religiosity of the American working class.

Murray tells us why this matters.

The deterioration of social capital in the lower-class white America strips the people who live there of one of the main resources through which Americans have pursue happiness. The same may be said of the deterioration in marriage, industriousness, honesty and religiosity. These are not aspects of life that may or may not be important, depending on personal preferences.Together, they make up the stuff of life. (p.253)

The New York Times article points out the centrality of work to self-respect.

A study published in October by scholars at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies estimated that 37 percent of the decline in male employment since 1979 could be explained by this retreat from marriage and fatherhood.

“When the legal, entry-level economy isn’t providing a wage that allows someone a convincing and realistic option to become an adult — to go out and get married and form a household — it demoralizes them and shunts them into illegal economies,” said Philippe Bourgeois, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the lives of young men in urban areas. “It’s not a choice that has made them happy. They would much rather be adults in a respectful job that pays them and promises them benefits.”

[When the New York Times cites the conservative  American Enterprise Institute, you know something important is happening.]

The decline we observe comes back to simple moral elements of society that we have done our best to disparage, to consider optional, to treat as way more mutable than they really are, or can be: work, faith, family, children, morality. Yes there are issues of production, taxation, and technology, as there ever were. But when and if the history of this time is written, it will be described as the Great Darkness, a decadent time,  from which men and women arose, and not the high tide of human existence, which some people feel it is, on grounds of our material abundance. Measuring civilization by the number of countries that contribute produce to our wine cellars is a deceptive indicator.


American Thanksgiving and Puritan Geopolitics in the Americas


Puritan Settlement

The painting “Desembarco de los Puritanos en America,” or “The Arrival of the Pilgrims in America,” by Antonio Gisbert shows Puritans landing in America in 1620. By Antonio Gisbert (1834-1902) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The first winter took many of the English at Plymouth. By fall 1621, only 53 remained of the 132 who had arrived on the Mayflower. But those who had survived brought in a harvest. And so, in keeping with tradition, the governor called the living 53 together for a three-day harvest feast, joined by more than 90 locals from the Wampanoag tribe. The meal was a moment to recognize the English plantation’s small step toward stability and, hopefully, profit. This was no small thing. A first, deadly year was common. Getting through it was an accomplishment. England’s successful colony of Virginia had had a massive death toll — of the 8,000 arrivals between 1607 and 1625, only 15 percent lived.

But still the English came to North America and still government and business leaders supported them. This was not without reason. In the 17th century, Europe was in upheaval and England’s place in it unsure. Moreover, England was going through a period of internal instability that would culminate in the unthinkable — civil war in 1642 and regicide in 1649. England’s colonies were born from this situation, and the colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay and the little-known colony of Providence Island in the Caribbean were part of a broader Puritan geopolitical strategy to solve England’s problems.


Throughout the first half of the 17th century, England was wracked by internal divisions that would lead to civil war in 1642. Religion was a huge part of this. The dispute was over the direction of the Church of England. Some factions favored “high” church practices that involved elaborate ritual. The Puritans, by contrast, wanted to clear the national religion of what they considered Catholic traces. This religious crisis compounded a political crisis at the highest levels of government, pitting Parliament against the monarchy.

By the beginning of the 17th century, England had undergone centralizing reforms that gave the king and his Parliament unrestricted power to make laws. Balance was needed. The king had the power to call Parliament into session and dismiss it. Parliament had the power to grant him vital funds needed for war or to pay down debt. However, Parliament had powerful Puritan factions that sought not only to advance their sectarian cause but also to advance the power of Parliament beyond its constraints. Kings James I and his son Charles I, for their part, sought to gain an unrestrained hold on power that would enable them to make decisive strategic choices abroad. They relied, internally and externally, on Catholics, crypto-Catholics and high church advocates — exacerbating the displeasure of Parliament.

Both kings continually fought with Parliament over funding for the monarchy’s debt and for new ventures. Both dissolved Parliament several times; Charles ultimately did so for a full 11 years beginning in 1629.



europe_circa_1600 (1)

Europe in 1600

Spain was England’s major strategic problem on the Continent. Protestant England saw itself as under constant threat from the Catholic powers in Europe. This led to problems when the people came to see their leaders, James I and his son Charles, as insufficiently hostile to Spain and insufficiently committed to the Protestant cause on the Continent. In order to stop mounting debt, shortly after taking power James made the unpopular move of ending a war with Spain that England had been waging alongside the Netherlands since 1585. In 1618, the Thirty Years’ War broke out in the German states — a war that, in part, pitted Protestants against Catholics and spread throughout Central Europe. James did not wish to become involved in the war. In 1620, the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, a relative of Spain’s King Philip III, pushed Frederick V, the Protestant son-in-law of England’s King James, out of his lands in Bohemia, and Spain attacked Frederick in his other lands in the Rhineland. The English monarchy called for a defense of Frederick but was unwilling to commit to significant military action to aid him.

Puritan factions in Parliament, however, wanted England to strike at Spain directly by attacking Spanish shipments from the Americas, which could have paid for itself in captured goods. To make matters worse, from 1614 to 1623, James I pursued an unpopular plan to marry his son Charles to the Catholic daughter of Philip III of Spain — a plan called the “Spanish Match.” Instead, Charles I ended up marrying the Catholic daughter of the king of France in 1625. This contributed to the impression that James and Charles were too friendly with Spain and Catholicism, or even were secret Catholics. Many Puritans and other zealous promoters of the Protestant cause began to feel that they had to look outside of the English government to further their cause.

Amid this complex constellation of Continental powers and England’s own internal incoherence, a group of Puritan leaders in Parliament, who would later play a pivotal role in the English Civil War, focused on the geopolitical factors that were troubling England. Issues of finance and Spanish power were at the core. A group of them struck on the idea of establishing a set of Puritan colonial ventures in the Americas that would simultaneously serve to unseat Spain from her colonial empire and enrich England, tipping the geopolitical balance. In this they were continuing Elizabeth I’s strategy of 1585, when she started a privateer war in the Atlantic and Caribbean to capture Spanish treasure ships bound from the Americas. Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay were part of this early vision, but they were both far too remote to challenge the Spanish, and the group believed that the area’s climate precluded it from being a source of vast wealth from cash crops. New England, however, was safe from Spanish aggression and could serve as a suitable starting point for a colonial push into the heart of Spanish territory.

The Effects of Spanish Colonization

Spain’s 1492 voyage to the Americas and subsequent colonization had changed Europe indelibly by the 17th century. It had complicated each nation’s efforts to achieve a favorable balance of power. As the vanguard of settlement in the New World, Spain and Portugal were the clear winners. From their mines, especially the Spanish silver mine in Potosi, American precious metals began to flow into their government coffers in significant amounts beginning in 1520, with a major uptick after 1550. Traditionally a resource-poor and fragmented nation, Spain now had a reliable revenue source to pursue its global ambitions.


Spanish Colonies in the Carribbean

This new economic power added to Spain’s already advantageous position. At a time when England, France and the Netherlands were internally divided between opposing sectarian groups, Spain was solidly Catholic. As a result of its unity, Spain’s elites generally pursued a more coherent foreign policy. Moreover, Spain had ties across the Continent. Charles V was both king of Spain and Holy Roman emperor, making him the most powerful man of his era. He abdicated in 1556, two years before his death, and divided his territories among his heirs. His son, Philip II of Spain, and Charles’ brother, Ferdinand I, inherited the divided dominions and retained their ties to each other, giving them power throughout the Continent and territory surrounding France.

Despite having no successful colonies until the beginning of the 17th century, England did see some major benefits from the discovery of the Americas. The addition of the Western Atlantic to Europe’s map and the influx of trade goods from that direction fundamentally altered trade routes in Europe, shifting them from their previous intense focus on the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean to encompass an ocean on which England held a unique strategic position. The nearby Netherlands — recently free from Spain — enjoyed a similar position and, along with England, took a major new role in shipping. By the middle of the 17th century, the Dutch had a merchant fleet as large as all others combined in Europe and were competing for lands in the New World. Sweden, another major European naval power, also held a few possessions in North America and the Caribbean. (This led to curious events such as “New Sweden,” a colony located along the Delaware River, falling under Dutch control in the 1650s and becoming part of the “New Netherlands.”)

England’s Drive Into the New World

In spite of its gains in maritime commerce, England was still far behind Spain and Portugal in the Americas. The Iberian nations had established a strong hold on South America, Central America and the southern portions of North America, including the Caribbean. Much of North America, however, remained relatively untouched. It did not possess the proven mineral wealth of the south but it had a wealth of natural capital — fisheries, timber, furs and expanses of fertile soil.

However, much of the population of the Americas was in a band in central Mexico, meaning that the vast pools of labor available to the Spanish and Portuguese were not present elsewhere in North America. Instead, England and other colonial powers would need to bring their own labor. They were at a demographic advantage in this regard. Since the 16th century, the Continent’s population had exploded. The British Isles and Northwest Europe grew the most, with England expanding from 2.6 million in 1500 to around 5.6 million by 1650. By contrast, the eastern woodlands of North America in 1600 had around 200,000 inhabitants — the population of London. Recent catastrophic epidemics brought by seasonal European fishermen and traders further decimated the population, especially that of New England. The disaster directly benefited Plymouth, which was built on the site of the deserted town of Patuxet and used native cleared and cultivated land.

After its founding in 1620, Plymouth was alone in New England for a decade and struggled to become profitable. It was the first foothold, however, for a great Puritan push into the region. In time, this push would subsume the tiny separatist colony within the larger sphere of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This new colony’s numbers were much higher: The first wave in 1630 brought 700 English settlers to Salem, and by 1640 there were 11,000 living in the region.

Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay were different from nearby Virginia. Virginia was initially solely a business venture, and its colonists provided the manpower. New England, by contrast, was a settler society of families from the start. Both Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay were started by English Puritans — Christian sectarians critical of the state-run Church of England. Plymouth’s settlers were Puritan separatists who wanted no connection to England. Massachusetts Bay’s colonists were non-separatist Puritans who believed in reforming the church. For both, creating polities in North America furthered their sectarian political goals. The pilgrims wanted to establish a separate godly society to escape persecution; the Puritans of Salem wanted to establish a beacon that would serve to change England by example. Less known, however, is that the financial backers of the New England colonies had a more ambitious goal of which New England was only the initial phase.

In this plan, Massachusetts was to provide profit to its investors, but it was also to serve as a way station from which they could then send settlers to a small colony they simultaneously founded on Providence Island off the Miskito Coast of modern Nicaragua. This island, now part of Colombia, was in the heart of the Spanish Caribbean and was meant to alter the geopolitics of Central America and bring it under English control. It was in this way that they hoped to solve England’s geostrategic problems on the Continent and advance their own political agenda.

Providence was an uninhabited island in an area where the Spanish had not established deep roots. The island was a natural fortress, with a coral reef that made approach difficult and high, craggy rocks that helped in defense. It also had sheltered harbors and pockets of fertile land that could be used for production of food and cash crops.

It would serve, in their mind, as the perfect first foothold for England in the lucrative tropical regions of the Americas, from which it could trade with nearby native polities. In the short run, Providence was a base of operations, but in the long run it was to be a launchpad for an ambitious project to unseat Spain in the Americas and take Central America for England. In keeping with Puritan ideals, Providence was to be the same sort of “godly” society as Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth, just a more profitable one. Providence Island would enable the English to harry Spanish ships, bring in profit to end disputes with the crown and bolster the Protestant position in the Thirty Years’ War.



But while Massachusetts Bay would succeed, Providence would fail utterly. Both Massachusetts Bay and Providence Island received their first shipment of Puritan settlers in 1630. Providence was expected to yield immense profits, while Massachusetts was expected to be a tougher venture. Both were difficult, but Providence’s constraints proved fatal. The island did not establish a cash crop economy and its attempts to trade with native groups on the mainland were not fruitful.

The island’s geopolitical position in Spanish military territory meant that it needed to obsessively focus on security. This proved its downfall. After numerous attacks and several successful raids on Spanish trade on the coast, the investors decided in 1641 to initiate plans to move colonists down from Massachusetts Bay to Providence. Spanish forces received intelligence of this plan and took the island with a massive force, ending England’s control.

Puritan Legacies

The 1641 invasion ended English settlement on the island, which subsequently became a Spanish military depot. The Puritans left little legacy there. New England, however, flourished. It became, in time, the nearest replica of English political life outside of the British Isles and a key regional component of the Thirteen Colonies and, later, the United States. It was the center of an agricultural order based on individual farmers and families and later of the United States’ early manufacturing power. England sorted out its internal turmoil not by altering its geopolitical position externally — a project that faced serious resource and geographical constraints — but through massive internal upheaval during the English Civil War.

The celebration of the fruits of the Plymouth Colony’s brutal first year is the byproduct of England’s struggle against Spain on the Continent and in the New World. Thus, the most celebrated meal in America comes with a side of geopolitics.


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