The Mouse Goes Into Business [2]

Okay, let me be straight with you here: This one is going to be really boring and probably shouldn’t be a blog post at all. But the guys over at MouseCorp—slave drivers!—were really unhappy about the drop-off in blog productivity over the summer, and are absolutely hounding my butt to make quota before the end of the year, so like I gotta do something, right? Boring, not really worth reading, jokes even lamer than usual, nothing to see here, move along.

Well, got that off my chest. So…attitude adjustment…


and back to blogging.

Some of the challenges in setting up an independent business were discussed a couple of months ago, here and here. But for the most part, the process  was a series of fascinating little victories. A process interesting in an inevitable geeky way to me but I realized unless you are planning to do pretty much exactly what I’ve done, probably not all that interesting, nor all that original. But one or more elements of my experience might someday be useful somewhere to someone—more than can be said for most of things I’ve published in refereed journals—so here we go:


Out of inclination—and the advice of many others—part of the original feral plan had been to get an office outside my residence. As it happened, I inadvertently did an experiment in this regard, as the first option I thought I had lined up—a sublet at the end of a long dimly-lit hallway in a grim office complex—fell through (the occupant failed to check whether it was okay to sublet), and I worked out of my home office for about a month. It was okay, but the temptations everyone talks about—grab something from the kitchen, weed the garden, don’t take a shower until noon—were definitely there. I then lucked into—well, not luck, but my wife’s extensive social networks—an absolutely lovely office in an elegant house now occupied by several small businesses.  It was an easy walk from home, the rent was $450 per month, and “on a handshake”, a distinct contrast to one place I had checked into where the receptionist glared at me and said “We prefer only to provide space for people willing to sign a five year lease.” [1]

None of the other businesses had anything to do with mine—and I suppose in an ideal  situation I’d be sharing space with some tech firms—but they provided enough random human activity that I didn’t feel isolated. Also—yes, I’ve spent my entire life in large organizations—the fact that people could simply drive into our parking lot, which I could see from my window, was a pleasant and unexpected bonus.  The arrangement included a small kitchen, a shared coffee maker, a copy machine and a very large shared candy dish.

My office situation in CVille is not quite as good—in particular there is no common space—but in a quirky historical building [3], much the same distance from home, with parking, and at an even lower price. And two blocks from the CVille pedestrian mall and its seemingly endless array of coffee shops and restaurants: the one downside to the State College location was the sole food establishments in the immediate vicinity were a massive beer distributor—hey, it’s State College—and a friendly if rather downscale Quik-Trip and a walk of several blocks got you only to a Starbucks, Subway and Dunkin Donuts. Access to the CVille mall: priceless. Downside of the current venue is the absence of a chatty little community, no shared coffee maker, and no candy bowl. So as my lease runs out next summer—one year lease, that’s okay—I’ll probably be looking for an alternative.


My landlord in State College had accumulated a very eclectic collection of furniture in the garage of the building—sort of Antiques Roadshow meets Hoarders—and told me just to take my pick. I found a beautiful old solid wood desk with a couple missing drawers and a utilitarian table;  some guys with no necks hauled these upstairs for me and I assembled them with power tools. In CVille, the office was partially furnished and I completed that shopping at the local SPCA rummage store, finding an office chair for $7 and a nice little table for $10. In both offices I built custom tables from plywood and 2x4s—every time I make one of these I get better at it—to put the larger tables into the “L” configuration I prefer. No one is going to mistake this for the executive offices of a Fortune 100 company, though the furniture in State College was actually a lot nicer than what I’d had in Kansas.[4]


Lots of office spaces now include internet, but neither of mine did. Getting a hardwired connection was quite expensive, particularly given that I didn’t know how long I’d be staying, and the solution I’ve used is a Verizon wireless “JetPack”: basically a phone pretending to be a wireless hotspot.  The data plan I’ve got is limited to 5 Gb a month, but this is sufficient for my day-to-day work, and for the occasional high-bandwidth demands—notably teleconferences and updating software—I use our hardwired connection at home.[5] And the JetPack, about the size of a hockey puck, comes along when I travel and provides reliable internet access in the likes of airports, interstate highways and, Thor-forbid, conference hotels.


I already had a high-capacity MacBook Pro I’d used in Norway, and subsequently purchased a couple more machines from Penn State surplus for a few hundred dollars each which I used until about a month ago, when I was finally sufficiently settled that I got a large-screen iMac pimped out with a lot of RAM and a 3Tb hard drive. And with all of that equipment, no brain-addled bureaucrat telling me what I can and can’t install on it, in particular…


Everything I use [6] either came with the machine, is free-as-in-beer, and/or is free-as-in-open-source. And increasingly, everything I use for analytics is Python.

Color printer/scanner/copier:[11]

There are numerous machines in the $80 range that combine these functions, connect via your wireless network, and work right out of the box. Sure, the manufacturers expect to make up for that low cost selling ink cartridges, but I’ve got an older black-and-white laser printer I use for the very occasional high-volume print job—mostly I’m just reading things as PDF files [8]—or put the files on a USB drive and go to Kinkos or Staples.


There this fantastic thing called the World Wide Web, ya know? It’s absolutely full of information.

Establishing a legal entity as a small business:

Discussed in greater detail here, and while aggravating, and leading to the unexpected side effect of longing for Richard Nixon, not particularly onerous. Discovering that mortgage lenders find new small business owners as attractive as an Ebola carrier in a mosh pit was somewhat more problematic, though had a happy ending, as discussed here.

Business cards:

$10 or less from VistaPrint. Which can also provide every other imaginable business swag you may or may not need. Had some really cool EL:DIABLO-logoed coffee mugs made for my collaborators.

Health insurance

This is costing maybe 20% more than I was paying earlier, but minimal issues finding it in either Pennsylvania or Virginia. Thankfully I was able to get this under the Affordable Care Act, and not that dreaded Obamacare![7] But sorry, if you are using access to health insurance as an excuse not to get your Boomer butt out of the way, that one no longer works.


1. And State College wonders why it is not a popular venue for start-ups?

2. This isn’t really a footnote. Though I will use it to note that I’m not “monetizing” the various links to commercial enterprises you see here—nor has that been done in any of my entries. This blog is provided as a public service [yeah, right…] and maybe even the grist for an eventual book [yeah, right…]

3. Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe allegedly used to hang out at the site when doing business in the colonial-era courthouse across the street. Before the place burned down sometime in the second half of the nineteenth century, then was rebuilt in brick. The floors squeak.

4. At Penn State, in contrast, I’d inherited the custom wood furniture from the previous department head, which I then supplemented with some additional matching wood furniture from my own start-up budget. This was inherited by an assistant professor, who probably has the nicest office furniture of any assistant professor in the country. He also now has what is probably the longest job title of any assistant professor in the country.

5. Except during the times it is not working because squirrels have eaten through the coaxial cable.

6. Okay, in fact I use a single purchased program, BBEdit, though mostly because I’ve been supporting the company for some twenty years now and they long ago registered the trademark “It doesn’t suck”: how can you not like that? And the software does not, in fact, suck. But there are now open source alternatives even here.

7. Joke…

8. Please, please do not send docx!—yes, I can read those files through GoogleDocs [9] or LibreOffice but that is sooo 1990s.

A positive externality of paying for printing is that you don’t fall into the habit that I’ve seen so often in large organizations where one prints, say, a 10-page memo, or 75 page conference paper (or 400-page dissertation) because, well, because that is how they did things in the days of Gutenberg. PDFs on screen are, I would suggest, a little easier on the environment. And if you avoid printing on paper that was purchased from a Koch Industry subsidiary—and a lot of office paper is—then you are benefiting the environment twice over!

9. At which point if your document mentions, say, Boko Haram suicide bombers, and documents sent to me tend to, by posting these on Google means I’m effectively posting them to all sorts other places [10] but what would really get me into trouble is if your docx which I post to the Google Panopticon contains the phrase “Bargains on tropical timeshare resorts!”

10. Which were intercepting my email anyway…okay…whatever…tin hat and masking tape over the laptop camera…

11. It does fax as well, though I believe the fax is used with about the same frequency as carrier pidgeons, and far outpaced by bicycle couriers.

Posted in Ramblings | Leave a comment

Seven Theses on Theil and Drezner [1]

The Yule season is upon us, and as I sit watching sun progress across the windswept prairies of central Kansas, my Twitter-lurking attention was drawn to Dan Drezner’s recent challenge to Peter Theil’s prediction of the impending collapse of the “education bubble.”

With all due respect to Messrs. Theil and Drezner, I think they are oversimplifying the issue [2], as the pressures for change in higher education are quite multi-faceted. I’ve written—though of course, never bothered to publish—are rather extended  essay on this issue  which you should consider reading as an alternative to listening to <severe tangential riff alert!!!> the annual rendition of the cross-country trip your grandparents imposed upon your parents: coast-to-coast on a partially-completed Interstate system in a 1962 Ford station wagon with the emission controls, gas mileage and suspension of a Soviet T-34, your grandfather chain smoking unfiltered Camels while your grandmother confined herself to the more ladylike Salem Menthols, the recirculated air of the vehicle rapidly accumulating the same mix of carcinogens as the Love Canal Superfund site, though arguably this was less of a health threat than the food at Howard Johnsons and Nickerson Farms, to say nothing of the “Reptile Gardens” run by that family where people had six fingers and no teeth, and on this journey their children—your parents—counted cows [4], particularly while crossing Kansas, from the rear of the vehicle, unencumbered by seatbelts, much less the child safety seats you were strapped into even for those half-mile drives to Whole Foods when your parents went to pick up organic free-range tofu, elaborate contraptions which would have given the crews of the Challenger and Columbia shuttles at least a 50% chance of survival, and…well,  even this far into the story, except that you’ve now heard it at least nine times, you are wondering how any DNA was ever passed on in your family…I digress…<back to Drezner and Theil, at least sort of>…there are multiple changes going on.  Consequently, while I would not take Drezner up on his wager—which is to say, he is probably correct, and Theil is under-estimating the ability of academic institutions to resist change—there is more to be said.

So, in the spirit of the words variously ascribed to Stravinsky, Picasso, and Steven Jobs—”good artists copy, great artists steal”—and in the immortal—for as we are told, he is now immortal [5]—words of Stephen Colbert [6], the answers to life’s great questions are themselves questions, what follows are [of course] seven more specific questions, each with a Ehrlich/Simon style question following Drezner’s model, then a second Good Judgment Project (GJP) style question for just the next year. But unlike Drezner, I don’t plan to put money on any of these: I have squirrels to feed.

1. Public funding of higher education

Ehrlich/Simon: By 2020, the average state-funded contribution to the public universities which are members of the American Association of Universities (AAU) [10] will be at least 20% less than it was in 2014.

GJP: By 1 January 2016, a bill to privatize a public university which is a member of the AAU will have passed in at least one legislative chamber in some state.

Comments: Ehrlich/Simon version simply continues existing trends which show no sign of reversing. The logical extension of this is the GJP version, and many more major institutions than most people realize are already well below the 10% public funding point. An increasing number of state legislatures have increasingly tax-averse Republican majorities and such privatizations could generate substantial revenue streams: large universities are multi-billion-dollar corporations with tens of billions of dollars in capital plant and many could readily generate funding buy themselves out were the circumstances right. Relations between conservative state legislatures and universities were generally antagonistic even in the best of times, and we’re certainly no longer in the best of times. This one is nearly inevitable in the relatively near future.

2. Decline of tenure

Ehrlich/Simon: By 2020, the percentage of student credit hours taught by tenured professors in universities which are members of the AAU will be at least 20% lower than it was in 2014.

GJP: By 1 January 2016, at least one member of the AAU will announce that tenure is being phased out in the liberal arts: all subsequent hires will have fixed-term appointments.

Comments: Both of these are academic manifestations of that most notorious of the Boomer [9] Mandates: “Raise the drawbridge, boys, I’m safe inside!” Slam dunk on the Ehrlich/Simon version, and just a matter of time before someone gets the nerve to pull the GJP variant: I’m pretty sure—though too lazy to look up—this has been done in some AAU professional schools, but not the liberal arts, and also has been done in the liberal arts outside the AAU.

3. Grade inflation

Ehrlich/Simon [reversed]: By 2020, the percentage of students receiving a grade of ‘C’ will increase by more than 20% in any college or university ranked 50 or higher by US News and World Report (USNWR).

GJP: By 1 January 2016, at least ten institutions ranked in the top 100 USNWR list of either colleges or universities will be shown to have submitted false information.

Comments: Allowing reversal of the polarity, this question is also a slam-dunk, as the motto of the modern educational system is the “Dodo’s Verdict” in Alices’s Adventures in Wonderland:EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.” [12]  Even those students spending their entire six undergraduate years majoring in substance abuse with a minor in sexual assault. How much of this due to USNWR rankings and how much to the “self-esteem” madness—supported by zero empirical research [16]—is unclear.

As for the mouse, I’ll look at the courses you took, but I’ll pay no attention to your grades: I want to see the code you’ve contributed to Github. [7]

The GJP version: Lots of this going on already, of course. The fun will really begin when the current oath of omertá breaks down and institutions start actively ratting each other out.

4. Degree-granting sport franchises

Ehrlich/Simon: By 2020, the average salary of the football and basketball coach in the 65 major university-based athletic franchises [8] will be at least three times the average salary of a full professor in the liberal arts, and at least 50% higher than the average salary of the most highly-paid administrator.

GJP: By 1 January 2016, inaction by the NCAA in responding to the University of North Carolina athletic grade scandal will lead to the restoration of Joe Paterno’s football record. Bonus prediction: through continued litigation and legal discovery, Penn State will recover a significant portion of the $60-million protection money paid to the NCAA.

Comments: The Ehrlich-Simon merely projects existing trends. A more interesting question, I suppose, would be projecting the number of institutions which will follow the University of Alabama/Birmingham model of dropping out of this competition once it is clear they will not be part of the “The Sixty-Five.” Per Joe Nocera’s recent column, UAB’s decision is being denounced at the present, but given the millions in financial costs involved, and the sheer hopelessness of any secondary school competing in the new system, methinks we are witnessing a serious case of “Denial is not just a river in Egypt” here.

As for Penn State, if Joe Paterno’s record was vacated because he may or may not have known he had a serial pedophile on his staff, should not UNC have every single victory vacated during the eighteen-year period they were running an academic eligibility scam? Yes, I know you are laughing so hard you are choking on your egg-nog: of course the NCAA isn’t going to penalize UNC, so they will reverse the decision on Paterno. If Penn State’s lawyers can ever get some time free from fighting Penn State’s “We have to destroy the university in order to save it” elected members of their own Board of Trustees, they’ve already discovered enough incriminating emails from the NC-“You say `protection racket’ like that’s a bad thing…”-AA that the refund is probably all but in the bank. Curiously, almost to the dollar the amount reportedly paid in the settlements with Sandusky’s victims.

5. Growth of distance-learning alternatives

Ehrlich/Simon: By 2020, members of the AAU will have increased their revenue from distance-learning enterprises, including MOOCs, by at least 100% compared to 2014.

GJP: By 1 January 2016, at least one member of the AAU will have formalized a system where all large introductory courses in the social sciences, humanities and mathematics can be satisfied with a non-classroom-based alternative and will be actively encouraging students to use this option.

Comments: Any university which is not pursing distance-learning revenue streams needs a new administration. But almost all of them are, often with very substantial investments, and protestations by such institutions that MOOCs are a mere fad has, shall we say, more than a little of a David Copperfield aspect to it.

There is a very obvious model for established universities to monetize MOOCs—give away the instruction, validate (for a fee substantially less than the cost of residential tuition) the credentials based on successfully mastering the material—and it will be in place fairly soon. MOOC-based credentials have the further advantage over the traditional model by having open content, and presumably there will be fewer incentives to reward mere self-esteem.

This GPJ question for this topic is one of the hardest to call because unlike monetizing MOOCs, I don’t see how a major institution gets from the status quo to this vastly more efficient alternative. Theil is correct that these introductory courses are ripe for elimination: we do not need thousands of instructors providing, in person, nearly identical material to tens of thousands of students—at least a third of whom will show up for lectures [13]—using the old “sage on the stage” methodology which countless studies have shown is pedagogically one of the worst conceivable methods of instruction and has changed little, except with the addition of PowerPoint, since the times of Pierre Abelard.  These courses are, however, immensely profitable—at many institutions they provide about 50% of the tuition credit-hours—provided one has a supply of instructional cannon-fodder in the form of poorly-paid adjuncts and graduate students (most of whom—as noted above—have no chance of ever getting a tenured position).

Eliminating these courses would probably reduce total instructional labor requirements by at least a third [14], leading to a far more efficient model, but in the absence of a law-school-like collapse of student enrollments, particularly one driven by tuition concerns, it is hard to see how institutions could cross over to this model in the near term. Eliminating the fixed costs of tenured instructors, however, probably would be a necessary first step, but this will be gradual. [15]

6. Decline of law schools

Ehrlich/Simon: By 2020, enrollment in accredited law schools will be less than 50% of the level it was in 2010.

GJP: By 1 January 2016, at least one university which is a member of the AAU will begin the process of closing down its law school.

Comments: The extraordinarily rapid decline in law school enrollments is almost unique in the annals of academia, as U.S. law schools were caught in a nearly perfect storm where they faced simultaneously a technologically-induced decline in the demand for legal professionals, had evolved a system which, unlike medical schools, by most accounts does almost nothing to prepare one for either passing the bar exam or the actual practice of law, and had institutionalized tuition levels far above their marginal costs, leading to over-expansion. I would guess that Theil is anticipating that the liberal arts are similarly situated and thus poised for a comparable rapid fall. Consistent with Drezner, I do not think that is the case.

7. Problems with publications

Ehrlich/Simon: By 2020, the average lag between the first presentation of a research finding and its publication in a “top five” social science journal will be the same or longer than it was in 2014.

GJP: By 1 January 2016, one of the top five journals in political science, sociology or international relations will be shown to have published an article based on data which was largely fabricated.

Comments: The refereed publication system is horribly broken but I’ve seen little evidence that it will self-correct, even in the presence of blazingly dysfunctional incentive structures for institutions, which continue to require that their employees give away their intellectual property so that the institutions can buy it back at extortionate rates. All the while constantly complaining about the injustice of a system they have the power to change in a heartbeat. As I’ve noted before, were an individual to act in this manner, their financial affairs would be quickly turned over to a court-appointed guardian.

The likelihood of the discovery of fraud is not a criticism of those fields but a simple extrapolation from recent experience in the natural sciences, where such malfeasance is uncovered almost weekly, as well as with the opportunities for greater scrutiny that is developing with stricter replication norms.

My predictions:

All of the Ehrlich/Simon questions are virtual certainties (allowing [3] as zero), except [7], where it is conceivable that on-line open-access alternatives would cause a change.

The short time frame on the GJP questions puts these at much lower probabilities, though that also makes them more interesting. GJP (and other prediction markets) work with probabilities—the eventual accuracy evaluated by a Breier score—and to show how rapidly I think the changes are trending, I’ll give those probabilities with deadlines of both 1 January 2016 and 1 January 2017

Question 1 Jan 2016 1 Jan 2017
Privatize public university 20% 40%
Abolish tenure in liberal arts 10% 30%
USNWR ranking fraud 70% 90%
Paterno decision reversed 70% 80%
NCAA shakedown refund 60% 80%
Distance learning intro courses 30% 50%
Law school demise 80% 100%
Publication fraud 40% 60%

Again, if you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, I have written way more extensively on these issues here.


1. The reference, as I’m sure you all immediately recognized, is to Karl Marx’s Eleven Theses on Feuerbach. My generation would smoke a lot of dope, score some LSD and then read Marx. Except for the losers, who read Ayn Rand. Drezner’s generation—though probably not Drezner—would smoke a lot of dope, score some cocaine, and read Derrida and Foucault. Except for the losers, who read Ayn Rand. The current generation, as best I can tell, have been taking powerful psychoactive prescription drugs since nursery school and can legally purchase THC-laced consumables in states with really nice mountains, if not in Federal districts deprived of home rule, so they just score six-packs of Red Bull and read Twitter. Except for the losers, who read Ayn Rand and occasionally found internet-based companies with capitalization in the billions of dollars.

2. Over-simplifying in a blog posting!: I’m shocked, shocked!

3. To say nothing of gullible parents living in constant fear that sending their loveable puppies anywhere but a USNWR top-ranked school—or, Thor-forbid, an affordable public university—will mean a waste of those years spent shuttling the little darlings to zither lessons starting at the age of three, astrophysics camp, investing in the horses and kit required to participate on polo and fox-hunting teams, all culminating in the child’s critically-acclaimed solo performance, as a high-school junior, of the whole of Schoenberg’s free atonal compositions, on the zither. Some fourteen pages of closely supervised accomplishments now being required for mere consideration for admission to schools in the USNWR top 50, or 20, or 2, or whatever.[11] And should that fail, and, Thor-forbid, should it fail so badly that your children receive degrees from public universities, they have nothing to look forward to but a lifetime of sleeping under bridges wrapped in discarded U-Haul packing blankets, standing on freeway median strips begging for quarters, and sniffing paint thinner stolen from highway construction sites. Yes, parents, that is the consequence of getting a degree from an institution that doesn’t leave you with $100,000 in tuition debt, yesiree Bob!: U.S. News and World Report and the college-applications industry tell me so!

Lux et veritas, my ass: numquam intermissum a stulto.

4. The count goes to zero when you pass a graveyard! This was before DVDs.

5. He says, pretending as always that he actually watched the show rather than the reading about it the next day.

6. Or was that Alex Trebek? Again pretending that I actually watch the shows.

7. Were I hiring. Which I’m not.

8. The emerging four professional-grade 16-member athletic conferences plus Notre Dame.

9. And, if anything more so, “The Greatest Generation.”

10. If you are not familiar with the AAU, these are the big dogs of the research university world, so if something changes here, it is a major deal. Almost everything on this list will probably happen at, or be done to, a non-AAU institution before it occurs in the AAU. So using the AAU as the reference group is setting the bar high.

11. And even all that will be for naught should accident of ancestry mean that admission would cause your elite target institutions to exceed their long-suspected quotas for Asians and Asian-Americans.

12. And Charles Dodgson, let us remember, taught at an elite academic institution: some things, one suspects, never change.

13. There are various ways one can force students to be physically present, though that merely provides them uninterrupted time for updating their Facebook—nowadays, Instagram—pages.

14. At present it is hard to say what this number will be in the long run, as we probably need another ten years of experience to determine the optimal mix of professional, peer, and machine interaction in a MOOC, and that mix will also, of course, vary by topic. At least two secondary financial effects also need to be sorted out: how much of the professional instruction will be institution-based rather than decentralized (which will affect pay rates), and how much can be saved by the elimination of “graduate programs” that currently exist almost solely to provide ill-paid instructional cannon fodder for the generally farcical “discussion sections” of the introductory courses.

15. Theil, I would imagine, sees the rise of start-ups following the entirely new models—how higher education would look were it being invented today rather than 11501810 or 1950—as the solution, and some of this is happening, perhaps most dramatically (and certainly coherently) in the Minerva Schools. There are, however, at least two serious impediments to this

  • It’s a bad neighborhood: The existing for-profit universities have had a very nasty tendency to be little more than quasi-criminal enterprises whose business model rests on extracting funds from the public purse under the protection of for-profit members of Congress while saddling their clients with unconscionable and crippling levels of debt. Which is to say, acting like financial institutions.
  • The instant that any of the big dogs with established reputations, several dating back centuries, jump into this game—the costs of entry are quite low, and these institutions will become involved only when they are certain their models will scale—any institutions without such reputations will be at a very serious disadvantage, and could be wiped out almost overnight. Not an enterprise for the faint of heart. Or, possibly, the strong of brain.

16. My favorite result being a study of high schools that found the students with the greatest self-esteem were consistently the drug dealers.

Posted in Higher Education | Leave a comment

Hey, who you calling a ‘Crusader’?!

Given I analyze political conflict for a living—yes, you can actually get paid for that sort of thing—I’ve spent relatively little time on this blog writing about such topics. Avoiding a busman’s holiday, I suppose, or  maybe, just maybe, I find it less depressing railing against degree-granting sports franchises, corporations whose business model is taking your intellectual property for free and then selling it back to you, or the institutionalized insanity that supports that sort of thing.

But as this past week was spent first coding the activities of ISIS [1]—and they are really, really not nice people at all—and then participating in a workshop on the coevolution of tactics of violent groups, it struck me that not only have we seen the ISIS pattern before, but the number of parallels are quite remarkable: ISIS looks like the First Crusade and the subsequent Latin Kingdoms of the twelfth century.[2]

There is, of course, exquisite irony in this given that one of the prime rhetorical motifs of ISIS, as well as various al-Qaeda franchises for the past thirty years, has been arguing that they are opposing “Crusaders”, often including Israel in that category, a bit of an anachronism given the persistent Crusader penchant for getting into the swing of things by first slaughtering Jews in the Rhine Valley. And I’m not trying to use the “I don’t have cooties, you have cooties”  rhetorical technique, which most of us learn quickly on school playgrounds, but eventually out-grow unless experiencing the misfortune of winding up in the U.S. Congress, where this has become virtually the only rhetorical technique. No, I mean this has a serious historical analogy with, of course, the usual caveat that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” [3]

Factors First Crusade and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem 1096-1187 ISIS 2014
Opportunity provided by weak states Pressure on Byzantium Empire (particularly the catastrophic military loss at Manzikerk in 1071) and the Abbasid Caliphate by the expanding power of the Seljuk Turks Syrian civil war and Sunni alienation from Shia regime in Baghdad. Though ultimately the parallel to the disruptive role of the Seljuk Turks can be traced to George “Mas’ud” Bush and his merry band of think-tank inspired ghazis
Religious motivators Urban II, Peter the Hermit, etc
Internet not required.
Numerous self-styled jihadi leaders. Internet enhanced.
Religious reward Temporal remission of sins Some ambiguous heavenly reward, possibly involving access to virgins and/or white raisins
Ample supply of seasoned fighters Europe anxious to divert the attentions of poorly supervised young men with no prospects of gainful employment or inheritance but nonetheless wielding sharp objects with reckless enthusiasm Multiple generations of experienced jihadi fighters dating back to the Soviet-Afghan War, with almost uninterrupted opportunities in between
Multinational, decentralized leadership Particularly true of the First “Baron’s” Crusade, which was the only one that was militarily successful [9] See above, with additional recruiting in 2014 after establishing territorial control
Excessive use of violence Contrast massacres following Crusader capture of Jerusalem with Salah-ad-Din’s later treatment of the city. They couldn’t post videos of this, but based on the approving treatment of the slaughter by most contemporary chroniclers, they certainly would have were they able. Trademark. With videos.
Apparently come out of nowhere and rapidly establish extended territorial control Which is how it looked from the perspective of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo Which is how it looks from the perspective of Baghdad, Damascus and Washington
Idealized model from distant history Some Christian variant on the kingdom of David and Solomon, apparently Caliphate


So far, so bad. But after a rather inauspicious start, the Crusaders settled down and expansion stopped completely—despite concerted efforts—with the Latin Kingdoms beginning to contract starting with the fall of Edessa in 1149. What accounted for the decline?

  • Inability to maintain a sufficient colonizing or military force: once the First Crusade finished, most surviving Crusaders went home to deal with whatever mischief had occurred in their absence.[11] The remaining military force was not even sufficient to maintain control over existing territories—and hence alliances of convenience were quickly made with local Moslem elites—much less expand. Attempts to attract new settlers were almost entirely unsuccessful, in large part due to immigration restrictions: The nobility across Europe had exactly zero interest in having their serfs move to Palestine. Or anywhere.
  • Local rulers “went native,” or at least turned down the level of violence, and generally ruled with at least modest levels of responsibility, particularly given the rather low standards of the day. Politically, ruthless rampaging and terror tend to have a rather limited shelf life, with the apparent exception of the Assyrians.
  • Surviving adjacent Moslem states got their military act together, notably Damascus under the Zangas, and the Crusaders no longer had the advantage of surprise: the attempt to take Damascus in the Second Crusade was an abysmal failure.
  • In a much slower process, the Muslims eventually achieved a two-front political consolidation under Salah-ad-Din.
  • Non-stop dynastic squabbles weakened the Latin leadership internally, even in the face of severe external threats. This was further complicated by external meddling from Europeans—political and ecclesiastical—with little or no knowledge of the local conditions. Assisted by the equally unenthusiastic Byzantines who did understand the local conditions.
  • A few out-of-control elements—famously, Raynald of Chatillon—wrecked efforts to maintain truces and other pragmatic compromises in the face of an increasingly weak position.

How many of these conditions might we expect to see affect ISIS in some modern form?: pretty much every single one, and every one of these points, translated into a modern era, becomes a potential leverage point, as David Ignatius pointed out last week in the Washington Post. Such policies probably have a reasonably good chance of success because, through the lens of history, we can “see around the corner.” Or at least see through a mirror, however dimly.

Lots of similarities, but two obvious differences:

Most conspicuously, due largely to changes in technology, the time frame has sped up enormously, probably by a factor of at least 10: I’d put the current ISIS situation as similar to that of the Latin Kingdom around perhaps 1105. Correspondingly, due to globalization the ability to modify resource flows to meet the threat once the political situation has stabilized is also much faster: I rather doubt ISIS is going to last 90 years, or even 90 months.

Second, there’s one conspicuous feature of the Latin Kingdoms we have not seen yet: the emergence of formally structured autonomous military movements independent of the state, as occurred with the two major military monastic orders, the Templars and the Hospitallers.[10] Unless, in effect, we’ve already seen that development in the form of al-Qaeda, but al-Qaeda generally used a fairly unstructured franchise model rather than the highly structured bureaucratic model of the monastic orders, which arguably were the most “modern” institutions of their time. Alternatively, the “swarm”/franchise model of al-Qaeda might itself be an effective adaptation in the current environment.

So, coincidence, policy-relevant, or merely yet another over-generalized rant by an aging amateur medievalist with way too much time on his hands and Philip Daileader’s Great Courses lectures on audio while stalled in traffic on I-66?[7] Well, clearly the last, but to the extent that analogical reasoning is a valid analytical tool in human behavior [8], the momentum on this one is pretty strong and, for example, ISIS’s weakness in numbers has long been noted.

Again, history does not repeat itself, it only rhymes, but as with the Latin Kingdoms, I see the future of ISIS as the dustbin of history, not a new caliphate. And that can’t happen too soon.


1. I will not indulge in the silly rhetorical game of calling them ‘ISIL': they are holding territory in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, which is not part of the Levant in most historical uses of that word. To say nothing of the political agenda underlying the campaign of pretending that they are in the Levant, which I’m even less fond of.

2. In the real Levant, not ISIL Levant.

3. But Phil, don’t you realize that “jihad” and “crusade” are exactly the same thing?—Crusaders simply copied the Islamic “jihad” model! Or was it the other way around?

Uh, well, no, it isn’t that simple. It isn’t anywhere close to that simple. The two movements clearly influenced each other, presumably initially with Christian envy of the Islamic military expansion in the seventh and eighth centuries, though this was in the quite distant past by the time Urban II preached the Crusade. And as we see with ISIS, and countless other Islamic military rivalist efforts in the past two or three centuries, Islamic invocation of the need to counter Christian “Crusader” colonial efforts is common, motivated in part by those efforts helpfully invoking Crusader imagery themselves, as I can attest having been raised with ample exposure to Protestant missionary appeals.

Once one gets into the specifics, however, comparisons begin to break down because both concepts have been thoroughly mutable across centuries and in my [less systematic than it should be] reading, those justifications—and allowing that at least some Crusaders/jihadis sincerely believed them—have generally been driven by make-it-up-as-you-go-along theological approaches that from the outset have been quite distinct in the two religions.

Specifically, the individual motivation for a Christian warrior to engage in a crusade was to gain a temporal indulgence for the remission of sin, concern which plays a far greater role in Christianity than in Islam (or pretty much any other religion). The collective motivation for jihad in Islam, in contrast, was to expand the territorial area within which Islam could be practiced—the Dar al-Islam, or Abode/Zone of Peace—but, contrary to common representations in the West, this is not a central part of Islam, and in particular it is not one of the Five Pillars. In most orthodox Islamic theology, “jihad” is a fairly minor and decidedly ambiguous concept and, Fox News notwithstanding, certainly not central.

Where things start getting complicated—and mutual influence could well be relevant here—is when these two motivations start intermixing. In particular, after the Latin Kingdoms fail in the [real] Levant, the Crusading concept is moved to Europe where it is, indeed, employed with the primary purpose of expanding the territorial reach of [Latin] Christianity, specifically against Moslems in Spain, pagans in the Baltics, Cathars in the south of France, and eventually against whatever Catholic dynasties the Papacy happened to be at odds with at any given moment.[13] The indulgences thing also got a tad out of hand, eventually leading to that unpleasantness in Wittenberg in 1517, which, man, went like totally viral.[4]

Contemporary jihadis, meanwhile, have taken to emphasizing the prospect of heavenly reward, which is beginning to look at least similar to the Christian concept of remission of sin, though theologically—and by the way, not only am I not a lawyer, I am not a theologian [5], so if you suffer eternal damnation following my advice, I take no responsibility: please consult on issues dealing with eternal damnation and perpetual hellfire with an experienced and properly trained authority from your chosen faith.[12] I digress…—as I was saying, theologically that is distinct given Islam’s greater emphasis on practice compared to Christianity’s emphasis on the primacy of sin (individual and collective) and the difficulties escaping the consequences thereof.

And all this before we get into such issues as the legitimacy of forced conversion: orthodox Islam pretty clearly rejects this but that point has been lost on numerous jihadis across the centuries; Christianity is more ambivalent due to the sacramental power of baptism. And the issue of tolerance for “peoples of the book”: orthodox Islam is quite unambiguous on the importance of this but again, that point has been lost on numerous jihadis; there is nothing comparable in Christianity, which instead saw the development of anti-Semitism from about the second century forward, and ironically those anti-Semitic arguments have been adopted pretty much totally by contemporary radical Islam.

But if you are still reading this—yes, both of you—you really should be looking into the serious scholarship on these issues, and there is a fair amount of it, though it takes a bit of digging —and not trying to get the information off a blog. Really.

And as for the practical manifestations of Crusade versus jihad for those on the ground: alas, pretty much total convergence here. You are sitting in your village minding your own business and along comes a heavily armed horde comprised of a few folks probably sincerely motivated by radical theological interpretations accompanied by a whole bunch of opportunistic hell-raisers bent on rape and pillage [6]. You will almost certainly not have a very nice day.

Which I will then code.

4. Without the internet. But moveable type helped. Though moveable type by most accounts got the indulgence thing totally out of control in the first place.

5. Though in recognition of the season, I repeat—as in link to—my appeal that we all return to respecting the spirit of Yule rather than obsessing on how much crap we can purchase at WalMart and Best Buy.

6. These days both ISIS and Boko Haram seem particularly into the “rape” part, possibly an unpleasant side effect of the dominant media available on the internet.

7. I-66/stalled in traffic: I repeat myself here, of course.

8. The geeks making billions of dollars predicting your likely behaviors based on your activities on the web also believe it is the case. Shortly after reading this you will probably start getting Amazon ads for swords, armor, and group excursions to the Holy Land. Or suggestions that you join the jihad from your friendly local DHS entrapment specialist.

9. Frederick II’s Sixth Crusade actually secured—through negotiation—access to Jerusalem for pilgrims and Christian control of Bethlehem and  Nazareth. Which only pissed off Pope Gregory IX, who had excommunicated Frederick. Anticipating Goldfinger by several centuries, His Holiness’s attitude was “I don’t expect you to secure Jerusalem, Mr. Hohenstaufen. I expect you to die!”

10. And eventually, implementing the Crusades against pagans in northeastern Europe, those beloved Teutonic Knights.

11. By the Third Crusade, note in particular the interactions between Lackland, John and Lion-hearted, Richard t.

12. I’m sticking with Odin, who appears particularly skilled at causing lightening-induced delays to connecting flights at Dulles which would otherwise have taken off without me. And that whole crow thing is really cool.

13. Kicking off this theme, the [Christian] Fourth Crusade famously besieged and then sacked [Christian] Constantinople, but the motivations for this were almost exclusively commercial rather than theological. The as-ever-subtle Pope Innocent III was furious with this outcome, noting among other points “[The Greek Christians will see] in the Latins [Crusaders] only an example of perdition and the works of darkness, and with reason, detest the Latins more than dogs.” I believe we can also infer from this that Innocent III did not exhibit any particular fondness for dogs.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Earth to Apple: Some of us would still like to use your computers

I’ve been an Apple guy from way back, starting with the original Apple II which I’d purchased when these were barely more than a hobby computer. I was on a waiting list for one of the original Macs, upgrading the memory with a soldering iron, developed Mac software in the days when this required mastering five volumes of documentation each described as assuming that you’d already mastered the other four, stayed with Apple during the grim era of John Scully, and subsequently happily purchased a variety of machines—I believe our household has about eight [1], plus an iPad and one iPhone. I’m not just an Apple customer, but—within limits—one of those Apple true believers who actually thought those “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ads were funny rather than arrogant, and believed that Bill Gates [2]  was, if not the anti-Christ, at least, like Dick Cheney, regularly accompanied by the smell of sulfur.

But all this was when Steve Jobs was still alive. My recent experience “upgrading” to the newly-released “Yosemite” operating system—and that phrase should be in some sort of special ultra-snark sardonic quotes that I’m sure have been commissioned for one of Wired‘s [3] 6-point presentation fonts—has not been at all pleasant.

Okay, so it is partly my own fault: generally I do not upgrade to new operating systems until they’ve been out for a few months and other people get to find the bugs in them, that vaunted tradition of using the customer as the quality control department. The second mouse gets the cheese. But having settled into my new old office in CVille, I’d decided to get a new iMac with a 27″ screen—replacing the ca. 2008 model I’d bought from Lion Surplus—and I figured it would come with Yosemite installed. I’d been rather lax—albeit in retrospect, perhaps prudent—in upgrading the operating systems on my other working machines so, well, just how bad can it be?


The process started inauspiciously when—I was trying to support local businesses—the people at the local Apple reseller advised me not to max out the hard drive, and go with a less expensive machine, despite the fact I thought I’d made it clear this was a working computer, not a toy. I demurred, and figured if folks don’t know how to close a sale, and I’d have to wait while the machine shipped anyway, I’d just order directly from Apple.

Harmless, I suppose, though stupid. But…Steve Jobs is no longer alive.

While I waited for the cross-country journey of the new machine, I upgraded the two laptops I use for work outside the office and things were still going reasonably smoothly, though like many people, I find the new Yosemite “look” inferior to the older versions, and apparently some of the graphical gimmicks extract quite a cost in terms of machine cycles. Apple: I have better uses for those cycles. The main point of Yosemite is apparently to thoroughly integrate every aspect of your electronic life so that it can be completely and seamlessly monitored by Apple and the NSA, whereas except for the hardware, I have chosen to allow my life to be seamlessly monitored by Google and the NSA.

It gets worse.

The iMac arrives and is as lovely as I’d expected, and comes with those reassuring stickers noting that everything had been designed in the U.S.A., while failing to note that it had been manufactured in semi-feudal conditions in China by the sons and daughters of peasants displaced by hydroelectric projects or having their land confiscated by corrupt local “Communist” officials. This as distinct from Google, which merely conspires with corrupt local capitalists to drive elderly Asian immigrants from San Francisco apartments they’ve occupied for decades. I digress.

I plug the machine in, and start it up and…it comes preinstalled with the older operating system, Maverick, not Yosemite.

In the immortal words of Han Solo in the trash compactor of the Death Star in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Revenue Stream  “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Well, I’d already upgraded the other machines, and wanted to get everything on the same system, so we will do this one as well. It installs—whew.

Momentarily, whew.

One of my points of pride in being one of those snarky Apple guys was the ease of transitioning between machines, using a [once] marvelous Apple utility called “Migration Assistant.” There was a particular point in the early 2000s when the University of Kansas “Computer Support” people—a pre-Brownbackistan public works program for individuals unemployable in Kansas City who nonetheless could diagnose computer issues provided these were no more complicated than discovering the computer was not plugged in [4]—were firing messages across the listservs strongly advising people not to upgrade their Windows machines without taking extraordinary precautions, and even with that, the process appeared a risky venture akin to an emergency appendectomy on a desert island without anesthesia, undertaken by a nervous friend who had available only the sharpened lid from a can of baked beans and was following instructions in Morse code from a static-filled transmission to a radio with a failing battery. Acquiring a new Mac—about a third of us in the department had Macs, in no small part because that meant “Computer Support” would leave us alone—I fired up Migration Assistant, went off to teach a class, and returned to find my new computer ready to go.

Not this time: Steve Jobs is no longer alive.

I try Migration Assistant, and at first it crashes a couple of times, then seemed to be taking an extraordinary amount of time just prepping for the transfer. Periodically some sort of warning would flash up on the screen but this would disappear too quickly to read—perhaps this part of the interface was never tested on a high speed contemporary machine?—and well, things seemed to be going really really slowly. I finally decided to check the web to see if other people were having these issues and, my oh my, were they ever, some waiting thirty or forty hours—seriously—before giving up. Not me: I killed the process and re-installed/transferred everything manually, a process requiring a number of hours.

Hey Apple, about  “Migration Assistant”: isn’t that something that makes the process of buying a new computer (!) painless?  Really, reassure me that you want to sell computers , not just provide some sort of amorphous life experience, like, say, Wired. Therefore should it not be really important to get this right? Is there some sort of subtle MBA-level marketing ploy I’m missing here: first let’s have our sales reps persuade people not to buy our state-of-the-art machines, and if they do, let’s make that process really unpleasant?

It wasn’t like this when Steve Jobs was alive.

It gets worse.

As noted, I’d already upgraded my MacAir—my traveling computer [5], designed when Steve Jobs was alive, absolutely love it, love the battery life that will easily outlast a trans-Atlantic flight, love walking into meetings (and coffee shops) and seeing everyone under the age of 35 [6] has a MacAir—probably my favorite computer ever.

But not with Yosemite.

I was giving a presentation in front of a fairly large audience [9], and I’d made a few last-minute changes to the slides—Beamer, so a PDF file, presented using Adobe—and decided to present from the MacAir. The usually straightforward set-up seemed a little weird—I should have bailed and transferred the presentation at that point—but we finally get the connection to the projector working and for the first dozen or so slides, no problem.

Then the machine freezes. Totally. I restart, get the presentation up, freezes again. Restart and try the presentation in Preview: won’t even go past the first slide now [7]. We bring up another MacAir—running Maverick—download the presentation  from the Parus Analytics site, and finally get underway again.

In the middle of all this mess, someone calls out “Hey, I thought this only happened with Windows!”


[At the break, we finally traced this to the HDVI connector, or at least the problem went away when I switched to VGA. I had a second presentation in the next hour, which went fine on my MacAir, but presenting while wondering at every click whether I was going to have to finish the talk without the slides is not my preferred mode. At the lunch break, several folks mentioned they’d concluded that Yosemite thoroughly sucked.]

This sort of thing didn’t happen when Steve Jobs was alive.

Look Apple, I know you’ve got other priorities. There’s apparently an issue with the polarization of the dilithium inverters on the iWatch [8]. Or something. And even with your absolutely massive off-shore cash hoard, your company lives in fear that sometime we will find out just how much money God has, and Apple won’t have as much, and that just can’t happen. And, of course, endless to attention to the Yellow Peril: the end of Western civilization that would occur were Samsung to use rounded-corners on an interface.

But seriously, releasing an operating system which provides only marginal changes to the user experience, an interface that no small number of people think is a tad ugly-sucky, which seems have had its origins in nothing more complex than a whole bunch of people in focus groups thinking:

Well, Maverick, Snow Lion, they all seemed just fine to me but you people seem really eager and you gave us these really nice sandwiches so I’ve got to say something so… uh, make the window-buttons flat? Is anyone planning to eat that last cookie?

Waiting another three months or six months, or whatever it would take to get the operating system working without endless bugs would not disappoint us. Really. But instead you’re now in a situation you’ve got tens of thousands of experienced users reporting hundreds of problems, and a deepening suspicion that “Yosemite” is “Windows” in proto-Hittite. It’s all very embarrassing.

Did I mention this wouldn’t have happened when Steve Jobs was alive?

Apple: please get your act together.


1. Several purchased at bargain prices from Penn State’s Lion Surplus, gradually being donated to various groups who are in need of computers.

2. Before he was lured away from the dark side by Warren Buffett and Melinda French. Anti-malaria campaigns: I’m okay with that.

3. And hey, Wired, I’m not going to re-subscribe to your silly magazine because it is impossible for me to read—those oh-so-cool 6-point type white-on-yellow and blue-on-green text boxes and your way-too-cool-for-you graphics that are giving the concept of “info-porn” a bad name. On the other hand, I’m not planning to purchase $300 aviator glasses which I will wear while sipping an 18-year-old single malt as I drive my Tesla to the airport to catch my Emirates Air flight to, well, wherever, as I’m mainly there to chat up supermodels in the first-class lounge while they admire my $2000 wristwatch. But it’s not the wristwatch: supermodels just can’t resist a guy who can read 6-point blue type on a green background: drives’em wild. But that’s not me: I’m not really your target audience. So stop sending me increasingly desperate requests to resubscribe. It’s pathetic: sort of like a guy from a few years back who was once way-too-cool but now is sending messages on Linked-In hoping Parus Analytics needs a public relations consultant. Go away.

4. Okay, they knew a little more than that: one guy we hired spent about thirty hours a week in his darkened office playing first-person-shooter video games. As for being called in about a “computer problem” that was traced to the machine not being plugged in: I was once asked to assist someone and indeed, that was the issue.

5. I travel: this was drafted on a Delta flight from Madison to Atlanta, and is being finished at ATL. Which finally has excellent free wifi. Delta serves tasty little cinnamon cookies in-flight, unlike United, whose service model is clearly Aeroflot. I digress.

6. I’m not. Wired: stop asking me to resubscribe—I’m not cool enough.

7. Yes, I’d gone through the entire PDF on Adobe before coming to the podium: what kind of idiot do you think I am, someone from College of Liberal Arts tech support??

8. “iWatch”…is this just a little insider joke? You know, like “We’ve got a great watchdog: someone tries to break into the house, the dog’ll just watch.”
Hey, iWatch…I-Watch!…yuck, yuck yuck…

9. Best observation from the conference:

“Globalization? You can be sure that by the end of the month every militia in eastern Congo will be wearing “Kansas City Royals: 2014 World Series Champions” t-shirts.”

Posted in Ramblings | 2 Comments

A hundred or so questions to think about asking at an academic job interview

The following two lists of questions were accumulated over the course of about 16 academic job interviews I had, as a candidate, across 36 years [1], with some additional input from probably a couple hundred interviews I’ve participated in on the recruiting side. I’ve shared these with an assortment of folks over the years, and as we are hitting the onset of the job interview season in academic political science, figured I might as well post them:

Questions relevant to interviewing for a senior position (5 pages):
Senior.Job.interview.questions (pdf)
Senior.Job.interview.questions (odt)

Questions relevant to interviewing for an administrative position (11 pages):
Administrative.job.interview.questions (pdf)
Administrative.job.interview.questions (odt)

An assortment of caveats:

1. First and foremost, do not take these too literally: I’ve only actually asked a small fraction of these, and some of them could make a search committee or individual interviewer uncomfortable. [2] They are probably best thought of as questions you wish you could get the answers to. If you are aware of them, you can find answers to a remarkable number just by listening, without explicitly asking. Life is also like that.

2. These are not really relevant to an entry-level interview, that is, one where you are not currently holding a job (or a job you want to stay in): the dynamics in those situations are quite different and as importantly, you need two or three years to begin to get a sense of how departments and universities work from the perspective of a faculty member rather than a graduate student.

3. As will presumably be obvious, these are all directed at jobs that have a significant research component.

4. The administrative questions would also be useful if you are externally reviewing a department or institute. Those exercises are time consuming but can be quite interesting, particularly when the fourth or fifth person says “No one else is going to tell you this but…”—or even better “We aren’t supposed to tell you this but…”—and reveals the dirty little secret that accounts for some heretofore puzzling but blindingly evident dysfunction.

5. Not getting answers to a question, of course, says a lot: at one point I was interviewing to head a research institute and no one on the search committee had the slightest idea of the percentage of indirect costs that were returned to the institute, which was [of course] supposed to be self-supporting. I found that stunning. That said, that same committee correctly concluded I was not the right person for the position and offered it to someone far better suited, so one can conclude that despite this oversight they did their job.

6. My favorite questions are those involving coffee and cookie arrangements—which in fact I’ve never actually had the nerve to ask—but in watching the ebb and flow of departmental cultures over the years and across institutions, this is remarkably revealing. The best departmental coffee situation I encountered was where an enterprising faculty member persuaded a wealthy alum to fund coffee from a professional service that was used by the best restaurants in town.[3] The worst was a situation where relations between the faculty and staff were so toxic that separate apartheid-like facilities were maintained, apparently to avoid the possibility of class-based cross-contamination, and the office manager apparently spent much of her time trying to keep staff from quitting.[4]

Again, you need to get some experience to evaluate these: every collective coffee system since the proverbial Arab herder first noticed goats were very frisky after eating those little red berries has had free riders, but just who are the free riders and does the system still function? When I was greeted by the staff one morning with “Hey, Phil, look in the kitchen: someone besides you actually brought in donuts!” I knew the department was in trouble.

7. Oh, and yes, the staff notice these things. The staff (and graduate students) also notice how you treat them during an interview, and that information can become relevant. But you knew that, right?

And those donuts?: a few bucks spent on a dozen donuts once a week is a remarkably small investment for improving your work environment.


1. About half resulted in offers, on two I unilaterally withdrew having concluded the position was incoherently defined, and the remainder went to someone else: I’m guessing those figures are fairly typical once you get past entry-level interviews and have an established reputation so people have a fair good idea what to expect before deciding to interview you. So why didn’t I get 100% offers?: always remember that you might be a perfectly good person for the job, but someone else is even better. It’s really hard to get this across in the U.S. but truly, not everything is under your control.

2. But could also impress a search committee: search committees vary wildly, even within a department.

3. PRIO‘s airport-business-lounge-grade coffee/espresso maker in the lobby (particularly when it was working) and “cake parties” at the slightest excuse are a close second.

4. I had a curious dynamic with the staff at that institution: I tended to arrive about 8 when the staff had to be at their desks—or, more typically, were standing in the hall exchanging gossip—and at that point everyone was very friendly and I was effectively an honorary staff member, as were a couple other early-arriving faculty. But after about 9, the barriers went up and we were treated like faculty.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Mouse Goes Into Business [1]

For starters, let me apologize to the various followers of this blog for the absence of posts over the past six months but, well, we’ve been more than a little busy, between the development of a new event coder embedded in a real-time event generation system, and the vicissitudes of packing, buying, packing, selling, packing, packing, moving, unpacking and unpacking which are involved in transplanting our family unit 300 miles to the south. Oh, and a trip to South Africa. The anticipated “Feral + 7 [months]” entry became “Feral + 8″ and then eventually “Feral + 7 + 7″ and even that didn’t get written [yet]…

So let’s just do a reset here and try writing something.

As I had intended to write in Feral + 7, one of the major adventures of the past year has been getting outside the boundaries of a large, vaguely paternalistic institution and making my way in the world of independent business.  This has, for the most part, had many more pleasant surprises than unpleasant [2]—and I certainly would not want the unpleasant parts to deter Boomers from leaving their sinecures and experiencing such independence before they expire at their corporate desks—but at the same time has been a bit of an eye-opener.

I’ve got an essay about two-thirds written [3] titled “Big is Bad” that will discuss the numerous ways why I believe that in the current technological environment, well, big is bad and there are vast efficiencies to be gained to reorienting the economy around much smaller units of production. Sort of a 21st-century version of Jeffersonian [4] democracy. But, alas, that is most decidedly not the world we are in at the moment, which is still coasting on the 19th and 20th century waves of centralization and for those in power, whether in government or the corporate sector, this is a really nice thing. The motto of the United States should not be “In God We Trust”—as obviously we don’t—but rather “One person’s bottleneck is another person’s job,” along with Adam Smith’s cogent observation that

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty or justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary. [Wealth of Nations, Book 1, chapter 10]

So, this being a blog, let me tell you about a recent day, which was spent almost entirely dealing with paperwork for moving my teeny tiny little company, Parus Analytics LLC, from Pennsylvania to Virginia. On the positive side, this process will take me probably two days in total, this with the help of Web-based company which assists with these things, but otherwise without an attorney, and compared to say Nigeria or Tajikistan, this is not a particularly onerous burden. The bureaucrats one encounters are rarely venal: the elected officials are venal—in fact that is virtually a prerequisite for being governor of Illinois—but bureaucrats rarely, and when they are, it tends to be rather petty. Furthermore, I’ve neither paid any bribes nor expect to, I’ve not had to wait in any offices, the required fees are modest, and no one is going to throw me into jail because they wish to acquire the company.







whitespaceFace it, in parts of the world, these levels of efficiency would be the stuff of dreams. And with the level of literacy and understanding of governmental institutions that comes from having a Ph.D. in political science I understand pretty well what is going on and unlike large swaths of the politically-active public do not view these things as a personal afront: Far from it, what worries me is just how typical this is, for everyone. It isn’t so much that this is difficult, but rather than it is unbelievably aggravating.

This is actually the second time I’ve gone through this process, having established an earlier LLC in Pennsylvania. That was relatively harmless, until it came time to pay some very modest corporate tax [5] where Pennsylvania thoughtfully provides a single form that is used by everything from a one-person software shop to “AmerisourceBergen” [6] and is, for the most part, about twenty detailed pages of loopholes. This particular form must be particularly notorious, as I couldn’t even find an accountant willing to file it for a small business. So I filled it out myself, in crayon, and probably invested about $1000 in time to determine that I owed something like $300. A theme to which we will return below.

Incorporating in Pennsylvania is a gift that keeps giving, as I spent part of a day with the paperwork dissolving the LLC. It seems one can’t simply transfer an LLC between Pennsylvania and Virginia, probably an effect of some lingering resentment over that unpleasantness in 1861-1865, or as likely the Anglicans never could wrap their colonial brains around that Quaker stuff. So the Pennsylvania LLC is being dissolved, requiring paperwork that I have been assured from several sources can take as long as a year to get completely processed.[7] For a one person company.

Then on to Step Two: For many reasons I am no longer in Pennsylvania[8] but now in Virginia, rated by Forbes magazine as having the best business climate  in the entire country. So things are going to be better here, right?

Well, yes and no. On the positive side, Virginia definitely has its governmental web act together, and one can generally find forms, and find these coherently explained, with a minimum of effort. The forms are simpler than those in Pennsylvania—in some cases, like the $10 form required to reserve a business name, very appropriately simple—and the agencies respond quickly. So far so good.

But even at the level of Virginia, things seem way more complicated than they need to be. As I’m planning to stay here a while, I decided to get all of the permits—I may well have been flying a bit under the radar in State College—and this ends up involving about twenty-five pages of forms, albeit mostly just repeatedly filling in the same information and checking a few things off on pages which remain mostly blank. But again, for a single-person business: I can only imagine what happens once one gets employees rather than relying on robots.

Where things get really worrisome, however, is—recall that nice man Mr. Smith, back in 1776?—when things seem needlessly and deliberately complex. Well, needlessly except for the beneficiaries. Virginia—Forbes #1-for-business-Virginia—has fully 21 separate special taxes depending on business category, including such gems as a litter tax and—let’s party like its 1762!—special taxes on eggs, sheep, peanuts and cotton! Getting myself legal in Charlottesville (CVille) involved still more forms and relatively modest assessments, as well as one trip to the city hall to get a city document which apparently the people at the city hall can’t locate on their own unless I’m physically present. Granted, we are dealing with the People’s Republic of Charlottesville [9], which is one of the reasons I moved here, but it is unnerving to find that CVille differentiates between almost  150 distinct professions  and locally taxes these at varying rates. “Business-friendly” Virginia licenses are almost as expansive, and include such vital categories as “ginseng dealer” and no fewer that nine distinct licenses from the Virginia Professional Boxing, Wrestling, and Martial Arts Advisory Board! Click the links: I’m not making this stuff up! I couldn’t make it up! WTF???

WTF indeed: the issue here is that, as on many points, Adam Smith was right, and Acemoglu and Robinson, and Mancur Olson are even more right, and The Economist has been on a jag on this issue for several months now: bureaucracies like to accumulate power, people established in businesses like to raise the cost of entry, and neither of these are going to grind to a standstill—far from it—because certain political movements have successfully paralyzed the government. No, grease the appropriate palms, and the “business-friendly” Virginia license raj will apparently happily raise barriers to entry for pretty much anything. Including ginseng dealers.

At this point, the more politically conservative among you are saying “Yes, yes! Not only can a  conservative be created when a liberal is mugged, but when a liberal tries to start a small business!” So if you are the sort who lives in the political-entertainment reality distortion bubble [see below], just stop reading right here, eh? While you are still mellow with the flow of endorphins and cognitive dissonance is at a low level.  STOP READING RIGHT NOW!—you’ll be happier, I’ll be happier, you’ll live longer, there will be greater peace and serenity for all sentient beings.

Oh, wait, quite a few of my readers are in the United States, where people in the most privileged and materially secure conditions in human history go to massive efforts to scare the hell out of themselves on an almost minute by minute basis, even though almost every single one will eventually die peacefully in a bed paid for by Medicare. Or Obamacare. Okay, so keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

So…yeah, this system gets pretty sucky—though again remember it could be a whole lot suckier, and I’ve lived in places where it is a whole lot suckier [10]—so what to do? Is not the answer totally obvious: don a three-corner hat [11], carry a sidearm into Starbucks [12], attribute global warming to a vast conspiracy among scientists [13] in collusion, presumably, with Alpine glaciers and Antarctic ice sheets, and incessantly blame everything—yea, all that has ever gone wrong in the whole of human history, including the Black Death, in fact particularly the Black Death—on Barack Obama and/or Hillary Clinton?

Well, no.

Why then does Virginia maintain a 21st century business friendly web site but largely as a patina atop an 18th century tax structure with special sheep taxes and a licensing system worthy of the anti-competitive process of the guilds of a medieval European market town? This is not, for the most part, much of a mystery and is due, I would suggest, largely to the convergence of four—alas, not seven—contemporary forces:

  • The thoroughly well understood process of regulatory capture, which provides both barriers to entry and plenty of government jobs.
  • The economic elites, left and right, are in fact ecstatic with the almost effortless wealth-concentrating status quo of the past two or three decades.
  • This is almost certainly enhanced by the rise of the political-entertainment complex which diverts attention from these issues to, for example, immigration and death panels;
  • Which has in turn led to the demise of any power in the center-right that could represent anti-regulatory and “anti-big” interests: the far right merely eliminates the possibility of change, leaving the 20th-century status quo in place.

Let’s take these points one by one

Regulatory capture

Adam Smith again:

Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen, its counsellors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favor of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favor of the masters. [Wealth of Nations, Book 1, chapter 10]

The fallacy—but, like drum circles, it is not a coincidence—of simply paralyzing the discretionary functions of the government—legislative paralysis, those beloved shutdowns,  and, more generally, the naive hope in “starve the beast”—in fact simply empowers the out-dated structures that remain, specifically the bureaucracy and the rule-setting lobbyists. Or, in the strange case of the United States over the past three decades, “starve the beast” has left the tax burden constant, and merely out-sourced government functions to a series of poorly supervised contractors, profit and not-for-profit, who are less accountable, probably less efficient, and far more likely to be lobbying in their own interests than the functionaries they replaced. Not quite the worst possible combination, but you can see it from there. All of this regulatory capture is political science 101, not rocket science.

A large tree which shades out all growth of new vegetation can nonetheless provide a thriving environment for symbionts, and these massive bureaucratic structures interlink. Think “elite universities“: the massive edu-entertainment complex that the political-entertainment structure alleges is a threat to traditional values is, for the most part, an ultra-conservative infrastructure in support of the status quo—in particular class distinctions. And water parks.[14]

And it is regulations, not taxes, which hold people back (or at least make their lives difficult) when they leave the confines of a large organization. Taxes at a reasonable level—and the US is pretty much typical for industrialized democracies in terms of aggregate levels, though not the complexity of the system which I will not call “Byzantine” because the Byzantine system actually worked for a thousand years—are, for someone like me, much less of an impediment to getting things done than regulations, particularly convoluted regulations that are specifically designed to make sure that someone else (like me) is paying the taxes, and not whoever got those regulations in place. Or better yet, doesn’t get into business in the first place, as that could be competition, and additional competition is not a good thing.

But of course the folks who can afford to buy members (or branches) of Congress don’t worry particularly much about regulations—they hire lawyers to deal with the regulations that exist, and lobbyists to create ever more detailed new regulations for their benefit. They instead worry about the marginal tax rates that might inhibit their ability to pay for their third yacht, fourth vacation home, and alimony and child-support from their first five marriages. Not the world of the small business.

Traditional temples throughout East Asia are guarded by statues of fierce threatening demons. In rural areas they are dressed as soldiers. In urban areas they are dressed as bureaucrats.

For the elites, the status quo is incredibly cool

Specifically a status quo where the elites have not only succeeded in a concentration of wealth that looks not like the Gilded Age, but the Roman Empire [15] but in addition has been configured so that all increases in wealth now go, with little apparent effort, to that same class. To listen to this described in apocalyptic terms as some inextricable slide into a socialist hell should elicit, to put in mildly, a bit of skepticism. [16]

Mind you, it is easy to exaggerate the impact of intentional political agendas in this change, given that similar patterns of wealth concentration are occurring in political systems as diverse as the United States, the European Union, Russia and China. Various actions of the US economic elite to undermine Jeffersonian democracy—tax cuts on the wealthy, effective abolition of estate states, socialization of financial risk with privatized financial benefits, and institutionalization of electoral corruption—are probably at least as much effect rather than cause: the general trend would probably occur in any case due to changes in the global economic system. The democratic car was headed over a cliff anyway, but, as typical of the US national character, there was an additional Thelma and Louise reaction: hit the gas!

But if you like the status quo, be sure not to show it [17] As Peter Theil’s  Zero to One [18] cogently points out, most successful businesses claim to be their opposite: If your business model rests on stunning violations of individual privacy beyond the wildest dreams of a totalitarian state, start with the credo “Don’t be evil.” If your business model rests on controlling the distribution of literature beyond the wildest dreams of a totalitarian state, assert that you are doing this for the benefit of authors. If your business is a monopoly, extol the virtues of competition. If you are barely squeaking by selling some undifferentiated commodity, claim that your product is unique. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.

So if you are sitting pretty at the top of the hill [19], fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high, and of course someone else is catching the fish and picking the cotton for your benefit and yours alone, complain that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket and everybody, all at once now: “When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout!”

“Ah yes, so you want change? Don’t we all? Well, this is a democracy, it is not? [chuckles]. Assert yourself! Form a drum circle! Carry a gun into Starbucks! That will give the change we want! [maniacal laughter echoes across the yacht harbor, followed by a quieter “Pop another bottle of champagne, Manuel, good lad…”]

Which happens to be precisely what we observe in…

The political-entertainment complex

Let’s start by noting this phenomenon of the past two or three decades is mostly the consequence of a very savvy business insight, not—necessarily—a deliberate right-wing conspiracy. The genius of Roger Ailes was the realization that the Boomer generation, raised on sleep-overs where they watched endless repetitions of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Bride of Frankenstein on Sammy Terry’s Nightmare Theater on Channel 4 would be inexorably drawn, like moths to a flame, to endless repetitions of such contemporary classics as Barack: Kenya-born Moslem socialist and Hillary: Butcher of Benghazi [20]. That audience could then be sold for vast amounts to advertisers eager to separate these viewers from their retirement savings through dubious  schemes involving precious metals stored…well, trust us.

While primarily a business proposition, the consequence of this has been that a not insubstantial proportion of the population lives in a fantastic and frightening multiverse that includes the disastrous 2009-2010 Weimar-like hyperinflation which destroyed the value of the US dollar, death panels, and the desperate battles to prevent the imposition of sharia law in small rural communities with Moslem populations numbering in the single digits, often zero.

[The left is not wholly immune to the problem of the fantasy multiverse, of course: in 2004 the Democratic Party managed to nominate the only person of national repute, perhaps excluding Charles Manson, who could not defeat George Bush. But it’s the difference between quaffing an occasional beer on the weekends and starting each day with a pint of whiskey before breakfast.]

Or is it merely business? Is the fundamental driver now the Zaphod Beeblebrox Principle: “The President of the Universe holds no real power. His sole purpose is to take attention away from where the power truly exists…” [21] But in either case, living in a media-induced bubble with your amygdala firing off like a powder magazine hit by a forest fire does not necessary lead to effective participation in a deliberative democratic processes, even those where you might have some effect, which has in turn has led to…

The demise of the center-right

While the left has taken a few electoral hits during the Obama era, it remains generally intact and in power in large swathes of the population, if not territory, and with both its coalition and ideology intact.[22] Not so the center-right: The conservatism of Dwight Eisenhower, Nancy Kassenbaum [23], Robert Dole, and yes, I’d never thought I’d say this but no less than Richard Nixon would be a really attractive alternative at this point. This once-strong segment of the political spectrum has not only been completely devastated but, in the absence of open primaries, has essentially no route by which to recover.[24] There is little room for individuals who think that the U.S. government is thoroughly screwed up, but don’t see the solution in ever-declining marginal tax rates and quixotic culture wars.

This is not necessarily to say I would necessarily self-identify with such a party, though when the Kansas centrist Republicans were an option, I was pretty much splitting my ticket[25]. Rather I’m saying that I would rather—particularly now feral—live in a polity where the center-right had significant political power, and it no longer does.[26]

Instead we seem to be now is that much of the population is simply insulated from interactions with the government and deals instead with interacting with large bureaucratic structures. A tiny number of people are in control of those structures and they, in turn, exercise substantial control over the legislative and regulatory process to insure that things stay that way. Then everyone extols the virtues of the start-up, the entrepreneur, the self-employed but, in point of fact, that is the last thing the folks in control want to encourage—it’s called “competition”—and its also something most of the popular only sees in a highly fanciful version, in movies.

So the state with the #1 business climate still licenses ginseng dealers, mixed-martial arts fighters, and has special taxes on sheep and eggs.

At least that is how it looks to the mouse. I will return to both the organizational and political aspects of this at a later date. I hope.

Back to earning a living.


1. Actually, the mouse far too occasionally writes a blog. The business is the responsibility of a small black-and-white bird known for its ability to forage in difficult environments.

2. The primary unpleasant one has been learning the difficulties of getting paid by corporations with such inscrutable sidelines such as running Connecticut power plants and generating half-billion-dollar quarterly losses: the phrase “45 days net” is more accurately, “45 days net? Ha!—in your dreams, sucka!”

3. Which means, of course, it is actually already 50% over-written.

4. Home town boy made good, if a bit of a hypocrite on the issue of race relations. Still, anathema to the Texas Board of Education so he can’t be all bad. Jefferson, of course, was dealing with a government unimaginably weak by today’s standards, and in the period 1782 to 1789, arguably pretty close to what we’d call a failed state.

5. As a single member LLC, most of my profits are just passed through to be taxed as personal income. But you knew that.

6. Which according to this map is the largest company in Pennsylvania, and I have never, ever heard of them. Though apparently they deal drugs. Like most states, when all parts of Pennsylvania’s economy are considered, several other large drug-dealing enterprises would probably also be in competition for the spot as largest enterprise, but only this one, which happens to deal in legal drugs, made it.

7. No, this is not one of my snarky exaggerations: it apparently takes that long.

8. First and foremost: Hey, Pennsylvania, it is really possible not only to sell wine in grocery stores but to allow people to purchase and consume both wine and beer at public events, and this does not turn the community into an unceasing hellish bacchanalia. In fact such policies appear to be associated with noticeably less of a seemingly permanent hellish bacchanalia that characterized at least one place in Pennsylvania I was rather familiar with. To the contrary, the socially constrained public consumption of wine and beer makes life considerably more pleasant.

Yet the highlight of my experience with the local authorities in State College was that anonymous roving bureaucrat who, three years running, left me warning notes—two pages of a three-part carbonless form—that grass was sneaking through the vinca and ivy I was getting established as groundcover on a slope. Ah yes, here we have a town with a nationally-publicized public intoxication issue and a district attorney who mysteriously vanished after investigating the affairs of a certain college athletic program, and resources are allocated to monitoring the landscaping skills of a homeowner on a obscure side street. “When groundcover is criminalized, only criminals will grow groundcover.” In the end, the groundcover won, as properly-tended groundcover invariably does after a few years, and the grass was no more; that petty taxpayer-funded martinet, however, doubtlessly still stalks the neighborhood every spring.

9. After closing on our house, as we walked onto the thriving pedestrian mall having set up our utilities at the City Hall, and getting instructions for the single-stream recycling collection, my wife remarked “Where are we, Norway?” Though the office of the closing company was located next to a double-wide displaying a very large Confederate battle flag.

10. In the Middle East, and even Thatcher’s Britain. Not Norway.

As I may or may not have mentioned in the past, we lived for half a year under the iron yoke of Nordic socialism and experienced such indignities as enrolling in the national health care system, which required a phone call lasting perhaps two minutes. In English. To say nothing of the raucous daycare facilities every two blocks in our residential neighborhood. Getting to the equivalent of the “green card” which allowed us to sign up for health care: okay, substantially more of a challenge. Getting a seat at a cafe on a sunny day: you’re joking, right? And not because Norway has a socialist-induced shortage of cafes.

And Oslo, famously, does not have single-stream recycling. Note also the wretched, North-Korean like conditions evident in the video: Nordic socialism truly looks like that.

11. When the secret histories of the post-2010 period are finally revealed, we will surely discover that the Koch brothers paid people to set up drum circles and thus destroy the various “Occupy” movements. But we will also discover that the Gates and Soros foundations secretly paid for the distribution of tri-corner hats and Gadsden flags.

12. Curiously, I look long and hard to find “rude” and “threatening” among the civic virtues extolled in classical conservative literature, but they seem to have become the norm for what passes for conservatism in the U.S. in the past couple of decades. A topic I will be exploring in greater depth at a later date.

13. As someone who has known a lot of scientists, I can assure you that most can’t organize a coherent departmental potluck, much less a global conspiracy.

14. Obviously for the most part I both support this critique that higher education has thoroughly lost its way, and voted with my feet in that regard. But this might not be universally true—this list  (and this) suggests that the elite technical universities are at the very least non-randomly selecting, and I suspect they are providing some value added as well.

That said, in the rather unlikely event Parus Analytics ever hires, the first question in our interview protocol will be “Explain why you left your degree program.”

15. Seriously. On one of my many drives to and from Washington, I was listening to Garrett Fagan’s History of Ancient Rome where he did some detailed calculations to get a pretty good comparison between the vast wealth of a 3rd century Roman Senator with that of a common free laborer in Rome. Then shortly thereafter I tuned into an NPR story comparing the 21st century wealth of a successful hedge fund manager to that of a schoolteacher: the ratios are almost identical.

16. Starting with the observation that it is rather difficult for a country to slide into socialism when it’s been there for a good eighty years.

17: Which is far simpler now than in the Gilded Age, as a leased jet will whisk you far from the eyes prying eyes of the 99%.

18. A good, and quick, read: I don’t agree with all of it but the dude, ahem, is not stupid…

19: Though as I explained in the previous post, I was immensely pleased to see that because he now runs a small business, even Ben Bernacke can’t get a mortgage.

20. Continuing a string of successes that included Bill: Philandering Failure that attracted large audiences despite the hostile environment of peace, prosperity and budget-surpluses. Experimenting with different genres, notably the long-running George: Sage, Saint or Savior? didn’t go as well.

21. The political-entertainment complex also brings to mind another aspect of Zaphod Beeblebrox:

One of the major difficulties Trillian experienced in her relationship with Zaphod was learning to distinguish between him pretending to be stupid just to get people off their guard, pretending to be stupid because he couldn’t be bothered to think and wanted someone else to do it for him, pretending to be outrageously stupid to hide the fact that he actually didn’t understand what was going on, and really being genuinely stupid.
[Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, chapter 12]

22. Due to 18th century electoral laws, 21st century vote suppression operations, and certainly a less-than-ideal performance by Obama, this coherence will not necessarily translate into decisive electoral victories in 2014—in fact polling numbers at this moment are rather grim for the Democrats—but I still contend that in general the outlook based on long-term fundamentals is promising: I will elaborate on this in more detail in a later entry.

23. A senior colleague when I first arrived at the University of Kansas referred to her as “That Landon girl.”

24. Kansas, remarkably, is at this moment providing a model for push-back of the center-right, though it remains to be seen whether this will succeed. Still, Kansas survived—barely—the Wizard of Oz [the movie], efforts by the Board of Education to make the state as unattractive as possible to technology workers, and may survive even the rather Wizard-like Sam Brownback, so say nothing of the aging Scarecow, Pat Roberts.

25. Though I’m also the guy who voted twice for John Hagelin rather than casting a ballot for Bill Clinton.

26. The libertarian option, whether Randian, Paulian, or—we couldn’t make this up, eh?—Rand Paulian, is not the answer because it rests on a naive faith in human perfectability, with only institutions keeping us away from that. That folks, is Rousseau, not Burke, and it is not conservative. That Rousseau approach didn’t work out too well, eh? I will pursue this in more detail in a later posting.

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Mr. Bernanke’s mortgage

[This started as a footnote to a long-overdue blog posting which updates my situation. As sometimes happens with [my] footnotes, it got rather out of control [1], but as too often doesn’t happen with [my] blog entries, it actually got finished. So this is the appetizer; main course to follow fairly soon.]

By far the most sobering, “Did I really know what I was doing?” episode in my generally very positive first year of being feral was discovering that despite perfectly good credit, extensive retirement assets which I can now liquidate without penalty, a decades-long and uninterrupted record of home ownership, an ample documentable income stream  and the intention of putting down a large down-payment, as a new small business owner, I was totally ineligible for a mortgage. Anywhere. One of a number of points where one realizes that while the U.S. establishment talks a pro-small-business line, in reality they really don’t like small business at all, and they really want you to be under the control of some large organization Just Like Them. Nothing new here: medieval Europe worked pretty much the same way, and “Communist” China still does.

Thus I was immensely pleased to see that because he also now runs a small business, even the former chair of the Federal Reserve Board, Ben Bernanke, can’t get a mortgage.

So allow me a somewhat extended digression on this topic—you’re reading this blog at work, right?

There was a government project I consulted on which held large periodic meetings attended by people from other agencies, and I noticed one person in particular who, year after year after year, sat there without ever asking or being asked a question, in what appeared to be a state of utter oblivion. At first I was [mildly] upset, thinking “Why, oh why, are we paying this person??” until it occurred to me that the reality could be far more interesting.

This individual’s behavior, I came to realize, was completely consistent with the following scenario: The individual had once been a meditation master in some exotic order of warrior monks. Their monastery had been betrayed by a highly skilled but impatient protégé of the reigning abbot, and in one horrific night was destroyed by a rival order. This individual, through a spine-tingling series of heroic acts which may well have violated the laws of physics, at least as the uninitiated think we understand them, escaped and finally, Yoda-like, found refuge as a GS-12 in an obscure Federal agency. What I viewed as obliviousness was in reality the outward manifestation of a deep meditative state—the seventh or eighth jnana, or perhaps beyond. And one day, at just the right time and place, the surviving monks will receive The Call…

Hey, fits the existing evidence and is more interesting.

So what does this have to do with banks. Notice that the only things banks do nowadays is build more and more and more bricks-and-mortar branches. This in the internet age. They certainly don’t lend money, not to me, not to Ben Bernanke. They just build branches, and staff them with pleasant folks who spend day after day waiting for the dozen or so people to walk through the doors, though in Albemarle County [2], two-thirds of those are asking for directions to the downtown pedestrian mall or Monticello.

But that is only what you think you are seeing. In point of fact, each one of those apparently useless bank branch buildings is a node of a vast network of advanced laser battle stations that have been constructed in anticipation of an attack by a hostile alien civilization—Independence Day and the Transformers series are actually training films—and when that day comes, the people in those “bank branches” will rush into the “vault”—those are actually blast doors, and in the meantime those rooms are just used to store coffee for the nearby Starbucks, certainly not money for loans—notice there is always a nearby Starbucks—and change into  brightly colored form-fitting Spandex uniforms—the commanders get to wear capes—and wage an apocalyptic battle for the salvation of the planet. Barack and Hillary have this all under control.

Nah…the truth is much simpler. What we are witnessing is a systemic pouty fit over the fact that the banks are no longer able to routinely commit multiple acts of machine-assisted fraud, violate legal norms dating back to the time of the Magna Carta, destroy the lives, hopes and dreams of millions of people, then stick the taxpayers with the bill when the house of cards implodes, and do this with complete impunity. Impunity is not enough: they want to be able to do it all again. Until that point: we’ll take your money and invest in our own bricks-and-mortar, and there is nothing, nothing you miserable peons can do about it. So there!

Ben Bernanke can’t get a mortgage? Hell, Elizabeth Warren probably can’t even get a pre-paid debit card!

And the mouse? Happy ending actually: I was able to borrow directly (not with a bank) against some of those retirement assets, and we found a [smaller] house for less than we’d been ready to pay, sold our existing house without a realtor—our attorney charged $125, not 6%—and we now have a house, and no mortgage. I’m guessing Mr. Bernanke will do okay as well.

But multiply those experiences by hundreds of thousands and one can easily see how this five-plus year “bank strike” is slowing the economic recovery.

As for the meditating warrior monk at those meetings: I’m sticking with that story.


1. So as a footnote, this has no footnotes. Except this one. And the next one

2. Charlottesville, Virginia: we moved.

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