Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Inequality and the Constitution

Teddy Roosevelt once wrote,
There can be no real political democracy unless there is something approaching an economic democracy.
This is an old idea, a problem that has been discussed and debated since the 5th century BC. Some ancient states dealt with great inequality by writing measures to protect the poor into their constitutions, most famously the Tribune of the Plebs in Rome. Ganesh Sitaraman writes of these arrangements,
We can think of these as class-warfare constitutions: Each class has a share in governing, and a check on the other. Those checks prevent oligarchy on the one hand and a tyranny founded on populist demagogy on the other.
These questions were debated at the American constitutional convention, where there were proposals to limit the Senate to the wealthy and the House of Representatives to those of lesser means. But in the end they were not adopted. Sitaraman:
What is surprising about the design of our Constitution is that it isn’t a class warfare constitution. Our Constitution doesn’t mandate that only the wealthy can become senators, and we don’t have a tribune of the plebs. Our founding charter doesn’t have structural checks and balances between economic classes: not between rich and poor, and certainly not between corporate interests and ordinary workers. . . .

And it wasn’t an oversight. The founding generation knew how to write class-warfare constitutions — they even debated such proposals during the summer of 1787. But they ultimately chose a framework for government that didn’t pit class against class. Part of the reason was practical. James Madison’s notes from the secret debates at the Philadelphia Convention show that the delegates had a hard time agreeing on how they would design such a class-based system. But part of the reason was political: They knew the American people wouldn’t agree to that kind of government.
Americans were not interested in such measures because they believed that they lived in a uniquely equal society:
Unlike Europe, America wasn’t bogged down by the legacy of feudalism, nor did it have a hereditary aristocracy. Noah Webster, best known for his dictionary, commented that there were “small inequalities of property,” a fact that distinguished America from Europe and the rest of the world. Equality of property, he believed, was crucial for sustaining a republic. During the Constitutional Convention, South Carolinan Charles Pinckney said America had “a greater equality than is to be found among the people of any other country.” As long as the new nation could expand west, he thought, it would be possible to have a citizenry of independent yeoman farmers. In a community with economic equality, there was simply no need for constitutional structures to manage the clash between the wealthy and everyone else.
All of this raises the question: is the level of inequality we have now incompatible with our constitutional arrangements? Is Donald Trump the plebeian-rousing demagogue our Founders feared? Or could some leftist with Bernie Sanders' platform but much better hair fill the role?

Is anger over inequality undermining our nation?

I worry that it is. The political effect of this anger was concealed for a long time by its division between left and right populisms. Since the angry populists have never held a dominant majority, and since they are split between two parties, they have not been able to take power. Until Trump, who took advantage of the Republican elite's weakness to seize control of the party, and then took advantage of the extreme dislike between the two parties to keep establishment Republicans loyal to him and thus win the election. I am not sure how much of a long-term threat this sort of politics poses. So far Trump's term in office has not seen much radicalism; the most radical idea he has advocated, dismantling Obamacare, is the position of mainstream Republicans. Is it inevitable that in power, any American radical will be moderated by the system? I don't know.

One of my sons asked me recently if I thought America had moved beyond the danger of Fascism. I said no. I followed that up by saying that I did not fear a simple Fascism of ethnic grievance, which can rally many Americans but not enough to take power. I said that to succeed in America a would-be dictator would have to combine ethno-nationalism with technocratic government; he would have to accomplish things that our Democracy has struggled with. This would work best if it included somethings dear to the left, like national health care and a massive infrastructure/jobs program, and others appealing to the right, such as maybe a re-invigorated elitist educational system, programs to promote marriage and childbearing, and strong support for the police.

I would never say that Democracy is completely safe. It helps us that we have deep habits in this direction born from long experience with it, but if Democracy fails to deal with our problems we will eventual discard it in favor of something that seems more promising.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

But Are They Real?

Let's play "real or fake?" with these two items from the online auction houses. The above is up for sale as a "Viking double-headed raven pendant necklace, 11th-12th century." But 1) it's amazingly well preserved – look at that plaited chain! Is that silver that has been in the ground for a thousand years? 2) the only provenance is "old European collection" and 3) I've never seen anything like it. The raven heads in particular don't look like any Viking examples I know of. I'm thinking fake.

This is supposed to be a bronze Roman statue hand with an iron dagger. I really know nothing about this sort of thing, but I'm suspicious because 1) I've never seen another one quite like this 2) copper and iron react very badly together so there ought to be a mass of corrosion where the bronze and iron meet, or damage from its removal and 3) this is just so much exactly the kind of thing 21st-century people want. I won't offer a firm opinion, not being any kind of expert on classical statuary, but my alarm bells are ringing.

Opiates in New Hampshire, or, Things are Complicated

The number one state for opiate overdose deaths is West Virginia, which is relatively poor and troubled in other ways. The number two state is New Hampshire:
Which U.S. state had the highest median income in 2016? . . .

New Hampshire.

The Granite State’s median household income last year was a whopping $76,260, nearly 30 percent higher than the national median of $59,039, according to the Census. . . .

One of the chief drivers of New Hampshire’s high median income is its poverty rate, which is the lowest in the nation. Only 6.9 percent of the state’s residents live below the poverty line, compared with a national average of 13.7 percent (in Mississippi nearly 21 percent of people live in poverty).

New Hampshire’s workforce is also among the best-educated in the country, according to previously released census data. Better-educated workers tend to make more money.
New Hampshire also has low inequality.

Economic distress is not the only driver of the opiate crisis.

It might be relevant that low-tax New Hampshire has very little in the way of state-funded addiction help. But I think the fundamental point is that America's current crisis is not economic; economically we are doing ok. It is a crisis of spirit.

Monday, September 18, 2017

No More Worrying about Immoral Politicians

I should be over being surprised or impressed by any more data showing how little most people care about the things they say they care about, but here's a doozy:

In the wake of Trump, the number of white evangelical Protestants saying they don't care about a politician's private morality has gone from 30 percent to 72 percent, which you have to admit is an impressive accomplishment for an orange-haired television personality.

Personally I've never cared much about this sort of thing, but in the 1990s I listened to conservative Christians going on about this forever. Maybe the good news is that I won't have to listen to it as much for a while.

In a Cool September

We had only one hot week in August, and since then four straight weeks of cool, cloudy weather when the temperature has rarely gone above 82 (28 C). This has been hard on the butterflies but the late summer flowers are thriving like I have never seen before.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


If one is to do good, it must be done in minute particulars.

—William Blake

Arthur Melville

Arthur Melville (1855-1904) was a Scottish watercolor painter known for his unusual use of color and impressionistic style. I was inspired to look him up by this painting, The Music Boat, Venice, which I find delightful. Its date is listed as 1904, so it must have been one of his last works.

He was born at Loanhead-of-Guthrie in Angus, a real out-of-the way place. I haven't read anything about his family but he must have been born to money, because he studied in Paris and did a lot of traveling before he ever had much success as a painter. This is the first painting he exhibited at the Royal Academy, A Cabbage Garden, 1877.

Zooming in on the cabbages you can see the rather wayward treatment of color that was his hallmark.

According to what I have read, most of Melville's paintings were of everyday life, and he became associated with a bunch of realists known as the Glasgow Boys who were sort of the Ashcan School of Scotland, that is, they liked to paint things other artists considered beneath them. But this is the only other such painting I have found online, The Chalk Cutting, 1898.

The internet is not much for scenes of everyday life. Or for scenes of golf, which the sources say were a specialty of Melville's. I imagine those hang in golf clubs and the man caves of wealthy players across Britain, but otherwise that is not the taste of this generation. No, we like the showy and the exotic. And as it happens Melville also did a lot of showy, exotic work, so that is what an online search turns up. This is Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1898, an old story about a king who disdained all women until he saw one particular beggar maid on the street and fell instantly in love with her. I find it fascinating that these stories were so widely told among people for whom romantic love played a rather small part in society, since all of their marriages were arranged.

Melville's career as an Orientalist began with a long trip he took to the Middle East in 1881 to 1882. He sailed to Cairo, spent some time in Egypt, and then traveled overland to Baghdad and from Baghdad to Constantinople. He did some paintings outside despite the brutal heat, and he also filled sketch books with ideas that he developed into more paintings back in Scotland. Baghdad, 1883.

An Arab Interior, 1881.

He continued his wandering ways for the rest of his life, spending time in Venice


Morocco, and more. Directly above is one of his most famous works, A Moorish Procession in Tangier, 1893.

Close-up of faces showing the technique.

He died at 49 after contracting typhoid in Spain. A Sapphire Sea, 1892.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


At evening the complaint of the cuckoo
Grows still in the wood.
The grain bends its head deeper,
The red poppy.

Darkening thunder drives
Over the hill.
The old song of the cricket
Dies in the field.

The leaves of the chestnut tree
Stir no more.
Your clothes rustle
On the winding stair.

The candle gleams silently
In the dark room;
A silver hand
Puts the light out;

Windless, starless night.

–Georg Trakl.

Translated by Robert Bly and James Wright

The North Sea Wind Power Hub

A consortium of German, Dutch and Danish power companies has hatched a bold scheme to profitably extract even more wind power from the North Sea: build artificial islands in the shallow area known as the Dogger Bank. Building islands is expensive even in seas only a few meters deep, but building wind turbines and other infrastructure on land is so much cheaper than building it in water that the idea might still pay off. Ars Technica:
North Sea Wind Power Hub is a proposed energy island complex to be built in the middle of the North Sea as part of a European system for sustainable electricity. One or more “Power Link” artificial islands will be created at the northeast end of the Dogger Bank, a relatively shallow area in the North Sea, just outside the continental shelf of the United Kingdom and near the point where the borders between the territorial waters of Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark come together. Dutch, German, and Danish electrical grid operators are cooperating in this project to help develop a cluster of offshore wind parks with a capacity of several gigawatts, with interconnections to the North Sea countries. Undersea cables will make international trade in electricity possible.

According to this plan, the first artificial island will have an area of 6 square kilometers. Thousands of wind turbines will be placed around the island, with short alternating-current links to the island. On the island itself, power converters will change the alternating current to direct current that will be carried to the mainland via undersea cables. The project is to be completed around 2050.
The scale of this plan is impressive. The first island and surrounding turbines should generate around 30 Gigawatts of power; with a chain of islands that could eventually rise to 100 GW, enough for 100 million people. By comparison the largest wind power farm in the world today generates 0.63 GW. All of this infrastructure would be out of sight of land.

Be Humble

Russ Roberts is worried about the state of the US, especially the degree of division and hatred between the factions. His advice for all of us:
When the world is increasingly uncivilized, take a step toward civility.

Don’t be part of the positive feedback problem. When someone yells at you on the internet or in an email or across the dinner table, turn the volume down rather than up. Don’t respond in kind to the troll. Stay calm. It’s not as much fun as yelling or humiliating your opponent with a clever insult, but it’s not worth it. It takes a toll on you and it’s bad for the state of debate. And you might actually change someone’s mind.

Be humble. Shakespeare had it right: There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. You’re inevitably a cherry-picker, ignoring the facts and evidence that might challenge the certainty of your views. The world is a complex place. Truth is elusive. Don’t be so confident. You shouldn’t be.

Imagine the possibility not just that you are wrong, but that the person you disagree with could be right. Try to imagine the best version of their views and not the straw man your side is constantly portraying. Imagine that it is possible that there is some virtue on the other side. We are all human beings, flawed, a mix of good and bad.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Viking Sword from the Norwegian Mountains

Wouldn't it be nice to just be walking along and then, hey, isn't that a Viking sword lying there? It actually happened to two Norwegian reindeer hunters. It probably dates to between 850 and 950 CE, the height of the Viking age. Nobody knows how it got onto this remote mountain; perhaps it was carried by a desperate fugitive like the Neolithic Ice Man, except that in Norway his body was eaten by bears and only the sword remained.

Japanese Fireworks Festivals by Keisuke

They take fireworks seriously as an art form in Japan, and 25-year-old photographer Keisuke has amassed a big following on Instagram for his pictures of this year's festivals.

William James on Religious Certainty

Part of William James' project in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) was to evaluate whether having personal religious feelings and experience makes human life on average better or worse. Another part was to assess whether our experiences of the divine presence, or those more fully developed experiences of mystics, have any value as evidence about the truth of religion. As he explains at length in this passage from Lecture 14, he is trying to assess these things using a method that might be called common sense. Note that he is using "secular" in the old sense of "pertaining to a particular age of history."
Abstractly, it would seem illogical to try to measure the worth of a religion's fruits in merely human terms of value. How can you measure their worth without considering whether the God really exists who is supposed to inspire them ? If he really exists, then all the conduct instituted by men to meet his wants must necessarily be a reasonable fruit of his religion — it would be unreasonable only in case he did not exist. If, for instance, you were to condemn a religion of human or animal sacrifices by virtue of your subjective sentiments, and if all the while a deity were really there demanding such sacrifices, you would be making a theoretical mistake by tacitly assuming that the deity must be non-existent; you would be setting up a theology of your own as much as if you were a scholastic philosopher.

To this extent, to the extent of disbelieving peremptorily in certain types of deity, I frankly confess that we must be theologians. If disbeliefs can be said to constitute a theology, then the prejudices, instincts, and common sense which I chose as our guides make theological partisans of us whenever they make certain beliefs abhorrent.

But such common-sense prejudices and instincts are themselves the fruit of an empirical evolution. Nothing is more striking than the secular alteration that goes on in the moral and religious tone of men, as their insight into nature and their social arrangements progressively develop. After an interval of a few generations the mental climate proves unfavorable to notions of the deity which at an earlier date were perfectly satisfactory: the older gods have fallen below the common secular level, and can no longer be believed in. Today a deity who should require bleeding sacrifices to placate him would be too sanguinary to be taken seriously. Even if powerful historical credentials were put forward in his favor, we would not look at them. Once, on the contrary, his cruel appetites were themselves credentials. They positively recommended him to men's imaginations in ages when such coarse signs of power were respected and no others could be understood. Such deities then were worshiped because such fruits were relished.

Doubtless historic accidents always played some later part, but the original factor in fixing the figure of the gods must always have been psychological. The deity to whom the prophets, seers, and devotees who founded the particular cult bore witness was worth something to them personally. They could use him. He guided their imagination, warranted their hopes, and controlled their will — or else they required him as a safeguard against the demon and a curber of other people's crimes. In any case, they chose him for the value of the fruits he seemed to them to yield. So soon as the fruits began to seem quite worthless; so soon as they conflicted with indispensable human ideals, or thwarted too extensively other values; so soon as they appeared childish, contemptible, or immoral when reflected on, the deity grew discredited, and was erelong neglected and forgotten. It was in this way that the Greek and Roman gods ceased to be believed in by educated pagans; it is thus that we ourselves judge of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Mohammedan theologies; Protestants have so dealt with the Catholic notions of deity, and liberal Protestants with older Protestant notions; it is thus that Chinamen judge of us, and that all of us now living will be judged by our descendants. When we cease to admire or approve what the definition of a deity implies, we end by deeming that deity incredible.

Few historic changes are more curious than these mutations of theological opinion. The monarchical type of sovereignty was, for example, so ineradicably planted in the mind of our own forefathers that a dose of cruelty and arbitrariness in their deity seems positively to have been required by their imagination. They called the cruelty 'retributive justice,' and a God without it would certainly have struck them as not 'sovereign' enough. But today we abhor the very notion of eternal suffering inflicted; and that arbitrary dealing-out of salvation and damnation to selected individuals, of which Jonathan Edwards could persuade himself that he had not only a conviction, but a 'delightful conviction, as of a doctrine exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet,' appears to us, if sovereignly anything, sovereignly irrational and mean. Not only the cruelty, but the paltriness of character of the gods believed in by earlier centuries also strikes later centuries with surprise. We shall see examples of it from the annals of Catholic saintship which make us rub our Protestant eyes. Ritual worship in general appears to the modern transcendentalist, as well as to the ultra-puritanic type of mind, as if addressed to a deity of an almost absurdly childish character, taking delight in toy-shop furniture, tapers and tinsel, costume and mumbling and mummery, and finding his 'glory' incomprehensibly enhanced thereby — just as on the other hand the formless spaciousness of pantheism appears quite empty to ritualistic natures, and the gaunt theism of evangelical sects seems intolerably bald and chalky and bleak. Luther, says Emerson, would have cut off his right hand rather than nail his theses to the door at Wittenberg, if he had supposed that they were destined to lead to the pale negations of Boston Unitarianism. . . .

Is dogmatic or scholastic theology less doubted in point of fact for claiming, as it does, to be in point of right undoubtable? . . .

The gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use, the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and on one another. What I then propose to do is, briefly stated, to test saintliness by common sense, to use human standards to help us decide how far the religious life commends itself as an ideal kind of human activity. If it commends itself, then any theological beliefs that may inspire it, in so far forth will stand accredited. If not, then they will be discredited, and all without reference to anything but human working principles. It is but the elimination of the humanly unfit, and the survival of the humanly fittest, applied to religious beliefs; and if we look at history candidly and without prejudice, we have to admit that no religion has ever in the long run established or proved itself in any other way. Religions have approved themselves; they have ministered to sundry vital needs which they found reigning. When they violated other needs too strongly, or when other faiths came which served the same needs better, the first religions were supplanted.

RIP Cassini

NASA lost contact with the Cassini spacecraft right on schedule at 7:55 AM EDT as it plunged into Saturn's atmosphere. The "Mission Status" on the NASA web site now reads COMPLETE.

Image is a raw, unprocessed photo of Saturn taken during the final descent.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Today's Castle: Rocca Calascio

Rocca Calascio is a famous fortress in Abruzzo, Italy, not far from the town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio.

In sits on top of a rocky ridge at an elevation of 4800 feet (1460m).

The first fortress here was a watch tower built in the 10th century. So far as anyone knows, this was always just a fortress, not the residence of anyone important.

The basic structure of the current fortress dates to the 14th century, built by Leonello de Acclozemora.

But it was added to in later centuries and took its final form under the Medici in the late 1500s. According to some accounts you can date the different periods of building by looking closely at the size and shape of the stones. Thus the lower portion of the keep, where the stones are large and carefully squared, dates to the 14th century, the upper portion with its smaller stones to the 15th or 16th century.

The castle was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1703 and abandoned.

Nearby is a 17th-century octagonal church, Santa Maria del People who have been there recommend approaching by way of a 5-mile walk over the ridge, not straight up from the parking lot. You can enlarge these photos to get an idea of the scenery, which looks like a great setting for a hike.

Age at First Marriage Still Rising in the US

Median age at first marriage is still rising in the US, up more than 2 years in the past decade, to 29.9 for men and 27.9 for women. This is happening for all groups, including Mormons and Evangelical Christians.

Which makes me think again that sometimes giant socio-economic/cultural forces override all our choices and beliefs and sense of agency. I mean, people think they get married when they fall in love with the right person, and it feels very personal and idiosyncratic. But those numbers keep rising.

Brutalism in Playground Design

It's hard to exaggerate the Soviet passion for concrete.

Today's Financial Sector Number

Today, global financial assets (including just stocks and bonds) are worth over $250 trillion and amount to about 330 percent of global gross domestic product, up from $12 trillion and just 110 percent in 1980.
No shortage of capital in the world now. Instead we have so much capital that people like the author of the above worry more about the effects of bubbles and asset price fluctuations than productivity or wages. Again I say: if capitalists can't find productive uses for all the money they control, governments should take some of it via higher taxes and spend in on things we could use.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Wooden Toys from Vindolanda

More wonders from the famous fort on Hadrian's Wall, a toy soldier and a child-sized sword.

Ugly Classics

Images of some hideous or grotesque images from the classical world. Above, terracotta lamp filler depicting a satyr, from south Italy, 4th century BC, now in the MFA, Boston.

Hellenistic grotesque, now in the British Museum.

Miniature statue of Silenus.

Medusa, 8th century BC.

Cameo, 1st or 2nd century AD.

This is in the Met, but they really have no idea what it is. Grotesque? Caricature of a philosopher? Hellenistic? Roman?

Two images of a terracotta Hellenistic grotesque.

Theater mask, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Another Silenus, 1st to 2nd century AD.

Hellenistic dancer.

Hellenistic grotesque, now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.

Stone relief of Medusa, Roman, 1st century AD.

And another Hellenistic work, this one in Munich.