the political thought of 1890 with the genetics of 1890, in 2010

There’s been a great deal of fuss about the Bundesbank director Thilo Sarrazin’s book, in which he argues that the “upper layers” of German society ought to be encouraged to breed for fear of Muslims, etc, etc. The SZ points out here that he confesses to just making up his numbers:


Es ging um die Frage, woher Sarrazins viel zitierte, im Brustton der Faktizität vorgetragene Behauptung eigentlich kommt, dass siebzig Prozent der türkischen und neunzig Prozent der arabischen Bevölkerung Berlins den Staat ablehnten und in großen Teilen weder integrationswillig noch integrationsfähig seien. Sarrazin gab zu, dass er keinerlei Statistiken dazu habe. Er gab zu, dass es solche Statistiken auch gar nicht gibt.

But I’m not sure if anyone has pointed out quite how strange Sarrazin’s thinking is.

Für ihn ist die Unterschicht sowieso schon lange abgeschrieben, der Genpool degeneriert. Denn bereits seit dem 19. Jahrhundert sei die deutsche Gesellschaft immer durchlässiger geworden, “auffallende Hochbegabungen” hätten damals in Preußen bereits die Möglichkeit bekommen, das Gymnasium zu besuchen. “Das bedeutet aber, dass die Entleerung der unteren Schichten von intellektuellem Potential bei uns weiter fortgeschritten ist als in Gesellschaften, deren Durchlässigkeit sich erst später entwickelte.”

He thinks, or at least claims to think, that because the German (and specifically Prussian) education system has given the lower classes the opportunity to go on to higher education since the 19th century, Germany has a problem – the masses have been emptied of “intellectual potential” too early.

What strikes me as telling here is that it’s not just that Sarrazin’s political thought is trapped in the Wilhelmine era – his understanding of genetics is, too. This post of Razib Khan’s on the great early-20th century debate between the biologists who rediscovered Gregor Mendel’s work, and the biometricians, who had been trying to link data gathered on the range of human traits with the Darwinian inheritance, explains why.

The biometricians were essentially trying to operationalise Darwinism with early statistical methods. This gave them a problem; a lot, but not all, of the variation in biological traits at least seemed to be nice and smooth, movement along a well-behaved curve. With no other model of inheritance available, they assumed that genetics was a simple process of blending – children were an average of their parents. This had wide-ranging consequences; it implied that regression to the mean would apply to people. We would all eventually be average. From there, it wasn’t hard to predict that we would all, eventually, be mediocre and that racial degeneration was inevitable.

This is one of the great intellectual accident black spots – a nauseous gap in the barrier by the roadside. Experimental work, like Mendel’s, showed that something else was happening. One of the problems was that statistics itself needed to advance to resolve the debate. There is a very good reason why Francis Galton was both an important early statistician and a eugenist, and why it would eventually be a statistician, R. A. Fisher, who demonstrated that a Mendelian process was observable in the biometric data.

But by that time, the original mistake had set off a great avalanche of analogies. Social Darwinism and everything that followed from it was out there. It’s a horrific thought that its consequences have a lot to do with statistical methods, and it’s telling that Fisher published in 1918. The important point about Mendelian genetics is that it’s discontinuous – it doesn’t blend down to the average. Variation is conserved; not only will the German working class continue to produce bright kids, the elite will occasionally toss out a Sarrazin.

Hidden away in a sunlit mountain valley …

The Wall Street Journal carries a review by Trevor Butterworth of The Enlightened Economy by Joel Mokyr, former editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History. This is a book which aims to explain why the industrial revolution happened in Britain before it happened anywhere else. Thoughts on the book itself will follow, perhaps. Right now, I’m more worried about the review:

The reason for Britain’s exceptionalism, Mr. Mokyr says, lies in the increasing hostility to rent-seeking—the use of political power to redistribute rather than create wealth—among the country’s most important intellectuals in the second half of the 18th century. Indeed, a host of liberal ideas, in the classic sense, took hold: the rejection of mercantilism’s closed markets, the weakening of guilds and the expansion of internal free trade, and robust physical and intellectual property rights all put Britain far ahead of France, where violent revolution was needed to disrupt the privileges of the old regime.

This is the first time I’ve seen ‘rent-seeking’ defined as ‘the use of political power to redistribute rather than create wealth’. It’s a bad definition, since we naturally tend to think of ‘political power’ as something wielded by government; this particular definition, then, will lead us to think of ‘rent-seeking’ as primarily an activity of government. Which it ain’t. Things like ‘robust physical and intellectual property rights’ may privilege any suitably placed individual or private company: Sky TV, for example. But let’s take the main point as given: at one time, Britain was comparatively liberal, France was comparatively regressive. And France did indeed experience revolution. Of course, you’d think that revolution might allow France a bit of a catch-up opportunity. Apparently not:

Such political upheaval in Europe, notes Mr. Mokyr, disrupted trade, fostered uncertainty, and may well have created all kinds of knock-on social disincentives for technological and scientific innovation and collaboration with business. Much as we might deplore too many of our brightest students going into law rather than chemistry or engineering, it is not unreasonable to think that many of France’s brightest thinkers were diverted by brute events into political rather than scientific activism (or chastened by poor Lavoisier’s beheading during the Revolution).

Admit it, people, the real thesis here is: heads the Anglos win, tails the Euro-weenies lose. I note also that ‘France’ and ‘Europe’ are treated as synonyms, but hey.

I suppose it’s mostly fairly difficult to untangle the prejudices of the reviewer from the subject, where the subject itself is a representation in writing of someone’s thoughts, but I suspect this particular review gets close to the limiting case: i.e. the case where everything you see is the prejudice of the reviewer. Stock tropes only; nothing substantial or falsifiable to be given away.

Incidentally, I think there’s a way to understand the Murdoch publications paywall: it’s journalism going Galt. They’ll come out as they went in; how else could it be? I think it’s a shame Rand had the first-handers hide themselves away in the Rockies, though; I’m imagining a South American tepui, Conan Doyle Lost World style.

Update: I’ve realised that there is a reading of ‘the use of political power …’ which brings it more into line with how rent-seeking is usually understood. This is the reading in which political power (of government) is held ready for someone outside government to make use of: government as a utility, if you like. Even on this reading, I still think it’s a poor definition. It’s understood that it costs a petitioner something to engage with government – hence there’s an efficiency argument to be made in connection with rent-seeking – but terms like ‘use’ and ‘manipulate’ suggest that policy can be flipped on and off like a light. So, how would I define ‘rent-seeking’, you might ask. Perhaps like this: rent-seeking is the attempt to influence public policy in search of policy privilege.

And a welcome to readers from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also.

You can’t expect much from a journalist at that level

Alex Perry, an Africa correspondent Africa bureau chief for Time magazine, writes on China’s involvement in Africa. In the process, he describes the DRC as a “sucking vortex”, citing the corrupt rule of Mobutu Sese Seko. Julie Hollar at FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) takes Perry to task for failing to mention US / Belgian involvement in the overthrow of Patrice Lumumba (and their subsequent support of Mobutu). Perry then makes the terrible mistake of responding to Hollar in comments while not in full control of his own sense of self-importance. Self-harming behaviour (not to mention Time-harming behaviour) then follows.

Jonathan Schwarz (Tiny Revolution) summarises the Perry / Hollar spat and takes the opportunity to quote an apposite passage from Devlin’s book about his time as CIA station chief in the Congo. It’s good, so I’ll quote it myself here:

We moved onto Ambassador Houghton’s office where we were joined by Ambassador Burden for more detailed talks concerning the Congo and its problems…During our discussions, Tim brought up a delicate matter: “Time magazine plans to do a cover story on Lumumba with his picture on the front of the magazine.” He continued, “Celebrity coverage at home will make him even more difficult to deal with. He’s a first-class headache as it is.”

“Then why don’t you get the story killed?” Burden asked. “Or at least modified?”

“I tried to persuade the Time man in Leopoldville until I was blue in the face,” Tim replied. “But he said there was nothing he could do about it because the story had already been sent to New York.”

“You can’t expect much from a journalist at that level,” Burden said pulling out his address book and flipping through the pages. He picked up the phone and put a call through to the personal assistant of Henry Luce, Time’s owner.

So: Time. Apparently at the beginning it was going to be called Facts. May I just say at this point that if news reporting on the internet as we currently know it should happen to get wound up in favour of dedicated news magazine ‘apps’ running on tightly controlled platforms, then – since you can’t link from the web to the content of a proprietary app – no one will be linking to the bullshit with an explanation of why the bullshit is bullshit. It’s pretty obvious that Steve Jobs is nostalgic for the corporate futurism of the 1960s – only now he gets to implement it, woo-hoo – and it just doesn’t look as though end user selectivity features large in any part of the Jobs vision. You’ll get what you’re given and call it knowledge.

Pretty much the only part of Africa I’ve spent any time in at all is Madagascar. I’ve visited twice. They’ve just celebrated fifty years of independence from France. Andy Rajoelina has failed to gain international recognition since he took over (with the support of the army): for what it’s worth, celebrations are reported to be muted as a consequence. I think you have to give the Malagasy population credit for two things. First, they know a stitch up when they see one. Pre-Rajoelina, a South Korean chaebol had some deal under negotiation where (in broad terms) they’d produce corn and bio-fuel on some immense percentage of Madagascar’s arable land (half of it?) and then get to keep all the corn and all the fuel. In return, the Malagasy at large would get, not rent exactly, but at least the promise of being allowed to work as agricultural labourers for the South Koreans. News of this ‘deal’ prompted the ouster of Ravalomanana. You wonder if even Philip K. Dick could have foreseen it. As it happens, Alex Perry sees good things in the ‘deal-making approach’ for Africa:

For all the heat, IMF officials admit that the Chinese model for African development has some advantages. First, it’s quick. Loan talks with multilateral agencies take years. The China-Angola discussions took weeks. “With the West, there are studies, analyses and bureaucracy,” says the Western official. “The Chinese just ask what the government wants, and they don’t question or comment or judge. They just do it.”

My understanding is that the South Koreans took a similar approach: they just asked the then president what he wanted. Lickety-split …

The other thing about the Malagasy is this. When they have a coup, they generally do it with the minimum of violence and fuss. Madagascar is not a wealthy country but it’s smart enough not to waste too much time and effort on civil war when what’s wanted is a change in the administration.

Election sidelight

The gutter press (well, the Daily Telegraph: so the gutter in question is presumably attached firmly to the eaves of a rather nice vicarage somewhere in Buckinghamshire) has made much of the fact that Gordon Brown is an “unelected prime minister” – i.e. he hasn’t yet fought and won a general election as party leader. The fact that he’s attempting to do so now should have answered that point – it hasn’t – but it’s interesting to note that this isn’t exactly a rarity in British politics. Continue reading

Alternative to the ECB

A.K.A. The Bundesbank

Just a quick note for Matthew Yglesias and the three of our readers who read both his blog and ours.

He’s rightly exercised about Greece and its implications for the eurozone. The positions of the ECB and the anti-inflationary approach of the ECB come in for particular criticism. He writes,

Rather than try to run monetary policy that would be suitable for the median European economy, the European Central Bank has insisted on trying to run monetary policy that would be suitable for Germany. And not even suitable for Germany in general, but “suitable for Germany according to hard money fanatics.” That’s probably bad for Germany, but there’s certainly no reason to think it’s appropriate for southern Europe.

The ECB is a Frankfurt-based central bank that is extremely cautious about inflation, in which all members of the eurozone have a seat at the decision-making table. The alternative to the ECB is a Frankfurt-based central bank that is extremely cautious about inflation, in which only German central bankers have a seat at the decision-making table: the Bundesbank.

In the years before the introduction of the euro, only the UK and Sweden managed marginally independent monetary policies, as they do today. (Indeed, German supremacy within European monetary policy dates as far back as 1983 with Mitterrand’s turn away from nationalizations.) Whether Greece weathers this crisis, leaves the euro, or some larger mechanism brings monetary union to an end (unlikely in the extreme), monetary policy will still be made in Frankfurt. The ECB may not be all that good for some eurozone members, but if that is true, then surely a return to the Bundesbank as Europe’s de-facto central bank would be worse.

Does destiny come from geography or history?

Writing in Sunday’s New York Times, Robert Kaplan writes one of those geopolitical big-think pieces capable of launching a thousand blog posts.  He argues that Greece’s current predicament, and by extension that of Italy, Portugal, and Spain lies in its position on the Mediterranean and in the type of land in contrast to northwestern Europe which was less conducive to oligarchical land-owning patterns.  Religion then formed a crucial overlay on geography —

It is not only the division between north and south that bedevils Europe. In the fourth century, the Roman Empire split into western and eastern halves, with dueling capitals at Rome and Constantinople. Rome’s western empire gave way to Charlemagne’s kingdom and the Vatican: Western Europe, that is. The eastern empire, Byzantium, was populated mainly by Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians, and then by Muslims after the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453.

Now if you’re into a philosophy of history that sees it all as tectonic plates of deeply-rooted influences, this will seem logical.  And perhaps because Kaplan doesn’t want to sound like too much of pessimist, he ends on this note —

Continue reading

The cruelty of Polish history

News itemIn the village of Gorzno, in northern Poland, the streets were largely empty as people stayed home to watch television.

“It is very symbolic that they were flying to pay homage to so many murdered Poles,” said resident Waleria Gess, 73.

“I worry because so many clever and decent people were killed,” said high school student Pawel Kwas, 17. “I am afraid we may have problems in the future to find equally talented politicians.”

The much over-used word “irony” doesn’t capture the link between a Katyn forest commemoration and the deaths of so many people from today’s government of Poland.  God bless Poland.

Evaluation: Ernest May, Strange Victory

I’ve just been reading Ernest May’s Strange Victory – Hitler’s Conquest of France, which I was recommended in this thread at Abu Muqawama.

Strange Victory‘s main point is that everything you think you know about the German invasion of France in 1940 is wrong. The French (and British) armies weren’t catastrophically ill-equipped for modern war; the French tank park was almost a third bigger than that of Germany, and the advantage was concentrated in the newer and heavier types – the French had many more Somua S35s and Renault B1s than the Germans had Panzer III and IVs. In terms of quality, the B1 and the British Matilda were the heaviest tanks either side deployed; the S-35 was probably the best all-round tank on the battlefield. The French Army’s historic strength, its artillery, disposed of a huge advantage in big guns.

Similarly, there is no reason to believe that French morale was particularly poor, or worse than that of the Germans. Where they had the opportunity to fight, the French fought; in the Gembloux gap in Belgium, Rene Prioulx’s French Cavalry Corps – actually, a pair of armoured divisions – fought the 3rd and 4th Panzers for four days, covering the First Army’s move up to the Dyle line. They lost 105 tanks to 160 for the Germans; some German accounts suggest that had they kept going, rather than breaking off the engagement once the main force was in place, the whole German front in the north might have collapsed. On the other side of Antwerp, the 9th Panzers ran into another French armoured division, and this time lost another hundred tanks for the loss of five French. May quotes a German cavalryman’s account of their horses screaming in terror as French tanks surged towards their lines, a reversal of every traditional account of 1940.

Even the hapless 9th Army in the Ardennes, May argues, did better than might have been reasonably expected; it was made up of the bits and pieces of the French Army, with a high concentration of the oldest reservists and youngest conscripts, the last pick of equipment, a lot of ageing dug-out officers, and sent to guard a front no-one expected to be important, where it met the very best the Germans had to offer. May argues that it was no worse than the German forces facing the Maginot Line in Army Group C, or the Leeb Museum as the troops called it after its commander and the quality of its equipment. Had they been facing a concentrated attack by Prioulx’s tanks, they might have been routed as the 9th French Army was.

So what happened? How did the Allies end up with the best of their armies, and the whole of their mobile forces, successfully defending positions two hundred miles from the German schwerpunkt? May begins at the beginning, examining the German and French planning processes. It is a commonplace that the Allies did exactly what the Germans were hoping they would. Up until the early spring of 1940, however, the German army was planning to do exactly what the French were hoping they would – to commit their forces to a westwards push across Belgium and southern Holland, something like the Schlieffen plan of 1914.

The Allies planned to counter this with a left-flanking manoeuvre pivoting on the Ardennes, rolling the motorised 1st and 7th French Armies and the British Army, including three French armoured divisions and a British tank brigade, onto a river line running half-way across Belgium. This would provide a shorter line and defence in depth, and would concentrate the Allied strike force directly opposite the Germans’. This was roughly the plan – plan D – that they put into effect on the 10th of May, 1940.

The Germans were never satisfied with their plan; it was obvious to both sides that Germany could only lose a long war, as Adam Tooze’s The Wages of Destruction recently bore out. And the General Staff plan for the Western Front didn’t offer much chance of a decisive victory. Germany needed a battle that would transform its strategic position. May describes the emergence of the final plan, which moved the main attack from the area around Liege to the southern Ardennes, as a collective product, pointing out that the first person to call it the Manstein plan was von Manstein. He certainly did have a major influence on it, lobbying against the original plan until he was transferred away from Army Group A headquarters to shut him up. But so did many others.

Hitler correctly realised that the original plan wouldn’t do. But he also offered his own inimitable negative contribution – why not decide not to decide where the main attack should go in, and make the decision on the night? Eventually, the debate was settled by a string of major war-games designed to test the three competing proposals. As it turned out, the original plan usually delivered stalemate in Flanders, and occasionally, defeat. Hitler’s proposal reliably resulted in failure, varying between mere fiasco and the French conquest of the Ruhr. The Group A plan usually worked.

That the war games were an accurate simulation was the work of the General Staff intelligence branch, Foreign Armies (West), led by General Tippelskirch, with Colonel Liss in charge of the French desk. One of the duties of this office was to act as the enemy commander during war games. The French and German intelligence services were radically different; France had invested hugely in intelligence collection, with formidable capabilities in photo-reconnaissance, electronic intelligence, and agent-running. Germany, short of cash, was also short of information; however, the Germans had compensated by concentrating on analysis. Tippelskirch’s staff spent most of their time studying what would now be called foreign doctrine – how potential enemies thought about war, how they trained for it, and how they made decisions.

Their conclusions about France was that the French Army relied heavily on centralised command and control, which was implemented through staff procedures that generated extremely detailed written orders and reports. Also, the French communications system was much more effective vertically than it was horizontally – in the name of security, landlines and dispatch riders linking major headquarters were preferred to radio, which meant that French army units had to have very detailed instructions in order to coordinate with their neighbours. One of the few clear technological advantages the Germans had over the French was their Enigma-encrypted mobile radio network – which they had developed to support their own concept of Auftragstaktik.

Therefore, they proposed that the greatest weakness of the French Army would be in responding to unforeseen events. Whatever the final plan would be, it could only succeed by forcing the French to abandon their own plan; if they got to execute their own plans, they would win. When Tippelkirch and Liss got in character for their parts as French generals, they played them as men trapped by their own thoroughness.

Of course, it wasn’t enough to design a plan that would confront the French with an unexpected crisis and force them to abandon their own plans. It had to stay unexpected. French intelligence certainly had the data to find out what the Germans were planning; they identified most of the Panzer divisions from aerial photos and radio intercepts, discovered that two of the four major supply depots in the Western theatre of war were located in the Eifel, just across the border from the Ardennes sector, and analysed German aerial reconnaissance overflights statistically, showing that they were concentrating on a rectangular zone behind the Ardennes and leading towards the coast. They interrogated a shot-down reconnaissance pilot and got him to spill the beans on his targets, which all lay in this area. All this data was written up in careful summaries and delivered to the commander in chief, mixed with a vast quantity of noise and German disinformation.

But the French understanding of intelligence specifically barred intelligence officers from commenting on the content of their reports; rather like traditional journalists, they were not supposed to editorialise or speculate. Judgment about the enemy’s intentions was left to the commander; detailed planning was left to the operations branch. The very quantity of data that the Deuxieme Bureau delivered to Gamelin, Georges, and the rest every day meant that nobody was asking questions about its meaning. As the Germans installed extra railway sidings and temporary bridges in the Mosel valley, put in more telephone lines, and cleared parking space next to the roads leading towards Luxembourg, the French general staff was drowning in reports, endlessly revising the detailed plan for the move into Belgium, and creating an entirely new and ambiguous headquarters shoehorned between the General Staff, the Northern Front, and the Commander in Chief.

One book that doesn’t come out of this well is Alistair Horne’s To Lose a Battle: France 1940. May is scrupulously courteous to Horne, and credits him with providing the definitive account of combat in 1940, but it’s impossible not to revise your opinion of Horne as a result of this book.

For example, Horne doesn’t mention that the French divisions cuirassees, whose role as part of the strategic reserve he discusses at length, weren’t actually armoured divisions in the sense of a unit equivalent to a Panzer division. Rather, they were more like a British Army Tank brigade, a force made up of heavy, slow-moving tanks intended to lead a set piece assault on a fixed front. French doctrine foresaw that they would break through the enemy lines, and then let the “light mechanised division”, which had as many tanks as a Panzer division, pass through and exploit the breach. The DC would move back into reserve and put its vehicles back in order.

As a result, they didn’t have the mobile logistics or supporting arms of an armoured division and couldn’t manoeuvre like one, no matter what the high command wanted of them. This – not specific French incompetence or cowardice or Communist infiltration – explains why they were frequently in the wrong place, and why the 2nd DC could be caught with its tanks on one side of Rommel’s 7th Panzers and its soft-skinned vehicles, including all the fuel, on the other. It is true that the French never succeeded in using the three DCs effectively. It is also true that their tanks simply had to move to the battlefield by rail.

And there is far too much national-character stuff in Horne. May takes a much harder line with himself on this. Also, he is more able to recognise that a lot of postwar Gaullist writers wrote the way they did because they were politically on the Right and in the grip of the prejudices of the pre-war era. There is simply too much cheap frogbashing in the world to add to it. You can often hear the effort being made to resist it in Horne’s prose, but too much leaks through.

This story has a sort of tragic duality. The Germans won because they had been able to plan more like a democracy than democratic France or Britain – they constantly questioned their assumptions, criticised superiors, and threw out bad ideas – but they would never do so again, precisely because of their triumph over France. Hitler rapidly convinced himself it was all his own work, and the independent authority of the army was permanently destroyed. The technology – tanks, close air support, and mobile radio – and the doctrine of Blitzkrieg had been validated. Many people concluded that fascism itself had also been validated – they had seen the future, and it worked. The prestige of the Nazi Party and of Hitler rose to a degree that finally saw off any hope that the military would depose him; at the same time, the generals were faced with the possibility that Germany had a combination of technology and operational art that might actually win. Between Hitler’s triumph, and their new status as potential world conquerors, the generals’ opposition to Nazism faded, and any hope of limiting the damage went with it.