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Welcome to Ruminations! A writing exercise combining various present hobbies (cigars and rum) along side that which keeps me intellectually exercised, philosophy. Somewhere on your screen is a MENU. The menu consists of categories and articles under them. You can use these to navigate to articles of interest. In the interest of convenience however, I present here a list of the categories as links you can use. If you click on a link you will see all the articles under that category. They are always arranged in reverse date order (latest on top). Some articles are multi-part. If you see a “part II” scroll a bit further down to find the part I.

 

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Philosophy: Mostly metaphysics and epistemology in the English analytic tradition. The starting point is presently fleshed out in my books (presently 3 in number) described in this philosophy subcategory my books. As of May 2017 a new subcategory here is my book reviews published on Amazon. These are the text to the reviews themselves, not Amazon links. However each review does link to the book reviewed on Amazon. I’ve posted many reviews to Amazon and I will get to posting them here over time. Now, December 2018 another new category under Philosophy: Philosophy Guest Posts. At the end of 2018 there is only one, but I hope eventually there will be others…

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Cigar Reviews: One of my present hobbies (I have had many). There are many reviews here focused mostly on affordable cigars (under $10). There are a surprising number of very excellent cigars in the single digit price range.

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General Cigar Articles: About cigars and associated products. Covers “care and feeding” of a cigar collection.

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Rum Reviews: A hobby enhancing my enjoyment of cigars. Many reviews.

 

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Bourbon Reviews: A couple of reviews here.

 

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A few non-rum related pairing options. Some of these I haven’t touched in years.

General Spirit Articles: Pairing drink with cigars.

Hope you enjoy. I continue to add to the blog in all categories. Hope you will like and/or comment.

January 25, 2017

Review: The Geography of Risk by G. Gaul

This well written book hasn’t any philosophical implications on which to comment. I put this here in my rapidly expanding “book review” subsection because of its relevance to my commentary on Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness”. My commentary on the Zizek book ended up being mostly about climate change and ecological disaster, something that Zizek mentions but doesn’t much talk about. My point in that commentary was that the re-making of the world’s social, political, and economic orders that are the focus of Zizek’s book (many of his books in fact) will be made mostly irrelevant thanks to the utter destruction of the present global order beginning with its economics.

That’s what I said about Zizek. Specifically, with regard to the United States I said that climate change would soon bankrupt it, and that long before the impact of the twin phenomena (climate change and [partial] ecological collapse) was fully felt. Now a couple weeks after writing that commentary, along comes this book which, while focused on a singular aspect of the problem (the U.S. East and Gulf coasts), illustrates and puts numbers to my claims.

The Geography of Risk by Gilbert Gaul (2019)

Only two weeks ago I wrote a blog essay commenting on another book I recently reviewed (Slavoj Zizek’s “The Courage of Hopelessness”). In my commentary I pointed out that the on-rushing phenomena of climate change will shortly (next few decades) overwhelm the social, political, and financial capacity of any national or even supra-national organization. I accused Zizek of ignoring “the elephant in the room”. Only a few days after that essay (see my Amazon profile for blog address) this book by Gilbert Gaul appeared on my radar. Its title alone seemed a validation of my claims. I was not disappointed, though as it turns out, the focus of the book is geographically very narrow.

Dr. Gaul is an expert in the economics, geography, and risk of coastal and near-coastal communities of the United States Eastern and Gulf coasts. That, specifically is what this book is about. He is easy to read, gives us all the important numbers, but isn’t dry. He tells the story historically through the eyes of many involved: developers and politicians one one side, scientists and some of the engineers tasked with fixing a hopeless situation on the other.

Why this region? First, the U.S. Eastern seaboard, especially from New Jersey to southern Florida, and then throughout the Gulf of Mexico is riddled with barrier islands made mostly of sand, and then behind these barriers lots of shallow bays, estuaries, and low-lying land sometimes extending inland hundreds of miles. Second, all of this coast is among the world’s great hurricane and “rain bomb” bowling alleys. Third that same coast, all those barrier islands, have evolved demographically from a few fishing villages in the 1940s through inexpensive (once middle class) small summer homes costing a few thousand dollars, to multi-million dollar mansions. Fourth, back in the 1950’s the Federal Government covered 10% or 20% of the cost to rebuild thousand dollar homes when storms destroyed them, today the government covers 90% of the cost to replace a like number of million-dollar homes!

The net result of all this is that the taxpayers of all States, not just the coastal states affected, were, 70 years ago, on the hook for a few millions of Federal dollars spent on this process. Today, the number is in the hundreds of billions! As it turns out, according to Gaul, the cost to U.S. taxpayers to repair hurricane and rain damage to places that are destroyed by these weather phenomena every decade or so (sometimes more) is higher than damage from all other disasters (inland floods, fires, earthquakes) combined and by a big margin.

How this all came to be is much the focus of this book. In the end the answer is politics and economics. Take a barren piece of sand and put a few homes on it. Soon you begin to need services, sewers, roads, traffic control, bridges, banks, and so on. There come to be small towns with mayors, police, fire fighters, contractors (building and repairing homes), bankers, and so on. These are jobs paid for by property taxes. When the properties are destroyed (repeatedly) the tax base disappears and all these jobs are threatened. The solution is always to build back as quickly as possible and to make up for the temporary losses faster, to build more and bigger. As all of this re-construction occurred, the homeowners themselves could afford a smaller and smaller percentage of it all. To save the jobs (and ever larger community tax bases) Federal tax payers assumed a larger percentage of the replacement cost until today, this often comes out to more than 80% of costs to rebuild homes of millionaires and 100% of the ever growing network of roads, flood control projects (which never survive more than one next storm), bridges, sewers, and so on.

Of course all along these decades there were individuals in and out of government who pointed out that this cycle was absurd and would eventually become un-affordable not to mention physically unsustainable as the islands became smaller (erosion) and bays and wetlands were filled in to make yet more homes (and roads), further increase the tax base, and in consequence make it more difficult for high water to drain exacerbating the problem. The solution of course is to stop the building, abandon the islands back to small fishing villages, and let the waters do what they will. But repeatedly re-building small homes and a few services back on line meant jobs and now re-building big homes and greatly expanded services means even more jobs and trying to protect those towns (a hopeless endeavor) is always wasted work (Gaul gets into some of the crazy numbers). But millions of jobs are now invested in the continued functioning of those economies! The cycle goes on!

All of this and I haven’t even mentioned climate change. The economics and politics of this process is the focus of Gaul’s book, but he doesn’t ignore this. The bottom line here is that it would be bad enough to be loading American tax payers more and more economic risk as the economies of these storm-prone places get larger. Even if the storms and sea levels stayed constant the economic burden on the American taxpayer is already onerous and growing. Climate change will only make this worse. Gaul’s focus is the American East and South coasts whose risk grows disproportionately because of its exposure to more frequent, bigger storms and sea level rise. But he is well aware also that interior climate-related disasters, fires and floods, will grow in severity and so cost.

In my blog commentary mentioned above I said that this problem generally, this growth in the cost of disasters, would, in another decade or two, bankrupt the United States. Gaul’s book, though narrowly focused, is an argument for my claim.

Review: Pusser’s [new] 15-Year-Aged Rum

Review: Pusser’s [new] 15-Year-Aged Rum

From the back label: The Royal Navy Admiralty-approved blend of Pusser’s Aged 15 Years is heavily influenced by rum from the double wooden pot stills of Port Mourant, Guyana, which have been in production since 1732. The Greenheart staves of these historic stills provide unique tasting notes incomparable to those of modern metal stills, giving way to an unparalleled and authentic drinking experience. Additionally, the blend is aged to perfection in charred oak barrels for 15 years.

So a rum from Demerara sugar and so from Demerara Distillers Limited.

I was told by my vendor there is no sugar or any other additive in this rum but the rum has been tested independently to 8g/l of sugar. That isn’t very much, but it is not strictly sugar free. I include a link below to a review by “the fat rum pirate” who did the testing. Its color comes from the long aging in charred oak. Its smoothness comes from that, but also its bottling at 40% ABV,  a little weak, and cheap, for a 15 year rum costing $85/bottle. Even the base level blue-label Pusser’s is bottled at 42%! Come on guys and gals. I’d like to see what this is like in the 46-54% range… I suppose a bottle would have to be $100+. Too bad…

Color: medium dark and red-brown like old polished copper.
Legs: Fast, thin legs run down when the glass is swirled.
Aroma: Lots of complexity. Some alcohol, dark fruit (over-ripe prune, raisin), lighter pineapple or apricot, heavy into dark caramel, dark-brown sugar and warm spice. The aroma is mostly sweet with some bitterness in tobacco notes.

Flavor/texture: This turns out to be one of those rums that must be tasted to understand where good rums can go. Whether you like it or not is another matter. What strikes me is a glassy texture, not creamy, and definitely not sweet. Smooth, yes, there is only a little warmth going down and a rather bitter tobacco sort of flavor on the medium finish. But there is a funk here, that “old socks” or “moldy forest” sort of funk you also find in the Pusser’s blue label. Here it is less prominent but sharper without any sweetness to back it up. Not a fruity Jamaican funk but something vegetal. The fruits, caramel, and sweetness in the aroma are gone in the flavor. I imagine it is the wooden pot stills and the long aging in ex bourbon barrels that gives it this, maybe strong woody note.

I compared this to another “sugar-free rum” from Guyanese distillate, Hamilton Demerara at 43% ABV, which I took down to 40% with a little water. Both had the same level of non-sweetness, but the Hamilton lacked all the funk and woody bitterness. I think this sort of rum would appeal to a drinker of scotch, rye, or bourbon. One thing I do notice, the funk is at its heaviest when the bottle is first opened. A few glasses and a week of evolution in the bottle have already changed it; the bitter woody or tobacco notes seems better blended into the over-all flavor. Maybe I’m just getting used to it.

Is it worth $85/bottle? Everything is going up! All the Foursquares I see are now in the $75 and up range, even the Hamilton’s have gone up. This trend seems par for the course now. Yes, you can tell this is a high quality rum. But if I’m going to spend $85/bottle I’d rather get something without that bitterness. That’s just me though. There are rum aficionados, especially those I think who like whiskeys, who are going to love this. For me, no. If it was $50 or less I would buy another bottle, but at $85 I think this one bottle will have to do.

Here is a link to a review by The Fat Rum Pirate who has far more experience with rums than I. As is often the case, you will see his aroma and flavor impressions are very different from my own.

The cigar pictured is one of the last of my Foundation Tabernacles, among my best cigars. I’ve paired a few different cigars with this rum. They all work, but I haven’t yet found one that stands out. To my taste, this is an afternoon drink and not for the evening when I seem to much prefer the warmer tones.

Have at it and let me know what you think if you try this rum.

Review: The Courage of Hopelessness by Slavoj Zizek

As a philosopher there isn’t much more fun to be had than making further comment on a book by Slavoj Zizek. There is so much to be said. But my task here is a depressing one. In “The Courage of Hopelessness” it is the hopelessness that should be emphasized and Zizek, perhaps the most honest of socio-political and cultural commentators, fails to appreciate the gravity of just what it is that faces the global economy in the next 20-40 years. As usual, my full review of the book (published on Amazon) along with a link to the book itself is included below.

I begin and end with ecological and climate catastrophe, the elephants (yes two) in the room Zizek fails to appreciate. Of course he mentions them. He doesn’t much distinguish between them, adding them to the list of stressors on the global milieu. They are related but different. Ecological catastrophe refers to the collapse (partial or full) of the life web that sustains the higher animals like us. Ecology is changed and stressed by climate change (ocean warming, acidification, other knock-on effects) but the ecological catastrophe of interest here is also caused by pollutants dumped mainly in ways that get into the oceans and fresh water systems. Climate change adjusts eco-systems but mostly it extinguishes them only locally. Add human-caused pollution (heavy metals, radioactive waste, industrial chemicals and agricultural runoff, plastics) and what remains of a sustainable wider ecology can be put in jeopardy.

Mostly this commentary will be about climate change because the effects of it come on a little faster than does a broad ecological collapse. There is no escaping their dual inevitability to one degree or another. But the economic impact of climate change alone will be enough to sink the entire Western economic system. Zizek does not talk about this, yet it hovers over everything. In this 2017 article (Science News) the real truth is revealed: “Even if humans could instantly turn off all our emissions of greenhouse gases, the Earth would continue to heat up about two more degrees Fahrenheit by the turn of the century…” In case you are wondering, this isn’t a recent discovery as this article from 1912 illustrates.

Our present ability to feed eight billion humans on Earth is utterly dependent on modern industry and transport. If we could “turn off all our emissions of greenhouse gasses” immediately five or six of the eight billion souls on Earth would die of disease and starvation within a year or two. Really it has been “too late” since the 1950s at latest. Had we fully converted all of our energy use to so-called renewable sources 75 years ago we’d have had a chance of genuinely forestalling the disaster; of affording it. Of course the technology wasn’t in place back in those days and now it is too late. See note below on the carbon cost of “renewable energy”.

The bottom line is that this economic doom faces us no matter who wins the next elections anywhere in the world or even if tomorrow we were all to wake up in the utopian true “universal (world) communism” that Zizek envisions! Climate-related-catastrophe is inevitable. Billions are going to die world wide, and billions more displaced. Our present global civilization (such as it is) is doomed. There are only a few issues yet to be settled. Will we try to spread the disaster out over the next seventy-five years or are we going to precipitate it in the next ten or twenty? If the disaster is now inevitable, what exactly will it look like? Will any mitigating efforts we make in the next human generation (twenty-five years) make any difference at all? In brief, some of my thoughts on these questions follows.

Let me be clear about this. When I say climate disaster dooms us I am not speaking of an extinction event. Human beings will survive albeit in much smaller numbers. The ecological disaster might bring us closer to extinction but that will happen long after climate change has already broken the system. Make no mistake though, while not an extinction event, climate change alone will be the end of our modern, industrial, technological, long distance, service oriented civilization. Eventually we will return to a lifestyle in which most people are once again farmers and these will be scattered into the smaller areas still conducive to growing food.

Countries that are poorer now will suffer sooner because they cannot afford the price of mitigating what is already happening. Crops and water resources will fail. Eventually even the rest of the world will be unable to generate the surplus food needed to feed starving millions. Refugees will flood out of the poorest areas first, putting more economic pressure on everyone else. But the worst case might be the broader Indian sub-continent now Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. In only a few more decades the Himalayan glaciers will be gone and a billion people will lack for water! Food production will shrink everywhere (Canada and northern Russia perhaps exceptions). North America may be one of the lucky regions able to feed itself, but even this will not be easy.

In the rich countries the disaster will take a different turn, it will be first economic because at this time these countries are spending what capital they have doing exactly the sort of mitigation the poorer nations are unable to afford. America’s deficit is in the trillion dollar range. Already weather-disaster-related mitigation consumes some $50-$100 billion/year and that to rebuild $300 billion in losses that pile up more quickly from year to year. Eventually the number and destructiveness of extreme weather events will be beyond affording. Economic activity will begin to shut down because so much of the necessary infrastructure becomes unusable as we cannot afford to fix it quickly enough. Even if the United States financial system is not broken immediately by China calling in our debt, it will become impossible to afford not only disaster mitigation, but eventually, and as a result of the effects on infrastructure, the cost of transporting food, fuel, and products from one part of the continent to another.

Once this happens the nation will regionalize. The writ of the State will begin to break down. Even today, most of the “States” of the U.S. live on the Federal dole spending more than they take in on their own. The net effect will be a cascading collapse of the economy nation wide. Even the few “rich States” will grow much less rich as the cost of everything from food and transportation to clothing become prohibitive. The annual reconstruction cost each year already exceeds the capacity of the nation (private and federal) to cover it in one year! To add insult to injury, mitigating the immediate effects of these disasters releases even more carbon! Those helicopters don’t run on batteries!

Moving my focus temporarily, I get to the relation between this “elephant in the room” and the rest of Zizek’s incisive observations. On identity politics for example he is surely correct about its diffusing what little energy there is to be put into the left’s genuine “universal emancipatory project”. Some time ago I reviewed the book “Attack of the 50 foot women” by Cathrine Mayer 2017. Ms. Mayer is a crusader for women’s rights. In her book she notes that the rise of “identity politics” steals energy from the larger project of women’s rights more broadly. Why? Because an LGBT+ person who identifies as a woman puts more energy into “trans-rights” specifically than women’s rights in general. Zizek notes this also but in the broader context of labor (male, female, LGBT+ or what have you) versus the capitalist elite which is, for him, still the main problem (even besides climate change and eco-collapse) in the world politically, socially, and economically.

Is Zizek right about this theft of social energy? I believe he is, and he well notes that the capitalists themselves are happy to support LGBT+ movements for two reasons. First because they are happy to sell their products to anyone who can buy them, and happy to have productive labor no matter the sexual identification of the laborer. More significantly, the capitalists are aware that by doing this they contribute to the diffusion of social and political energy away from the more basic issue of capitalism’s unfairness. The left is the party of cultural tolerance (though some tolerance, for example honor killings, goes too far Zizek admits) and in this they find themselves, ironically, aligned with the capitalists! It is this present focus on identity politics that has eviscerated the new-left. He is right about this also. So where does he go wrong?

The main problem is human selfishness, greed, violent propensities, fear of “the neighbor”, and so on. As noted below in my review, Zizek criticizes three proposals to “fix capitalism” on the grounds that each requires a fundamental change in the nature of human beings. The problem is the same is true as concerns his “opening for the left” permitting a return to their broader project of setting right the disparity between capital and labor. When opportunities arise from the sudden breakdown of some existing political, social, or economic order (from Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1934 to the Arab Spring of the 21st Century, there are dozens of examples [most of Africa, Pol Pot] from the 20th Century alone) it is extremely rare (the American experiment being among the few and that in an unusually philosophical time) that a fairer system emerges.

To create something fairer than what preceded the defunct old-guard requires the cooperation of many individual power-centers with competing agendas. To create an autocratic system (or outright dictatorship) requires only that one power-center is well armed and vicious enough to justify its ends by any means. In contrast to Zizek’s claim that “the system cannot be fixed by tinkering” one could well point at England. The English system of political and social pluralism evolved by tinkering; six hundred years of tinkering from the Magna Carta in the 13th century to the Glorious Revolution in the 17th to its almost-modern plurality in the 19th. There was a civil war and a dictatorship in between there too, but the English aristocracy (the only ones with a “vote” at the time) didn’t break the system rather chosing a new King, one who would, at aristocratic behest, put them on the road to a wider plurality, namely themselves. It was tinkering.

This brings us back to the elephant in the room. we haven’t got six hundred years. Climate change will exhaust us economically long before that. So what is to be done? If we do nothing, if the present economic elite is allowed merely to go on as they have the extreme right, Nazism, will once again win out, perhaps not throughout the world but almost certainly in the United States. Why? Because politically a significant percentage of the population already leans in that direction and that segment happens to be the best armed. They are the most vicious and xenophobic. They will not hesitate to kill (more and more as groups and not merely individuals as happens now) to have their way. As social and economic breakdown accelerates political paralysis will follow.

The army will be the only force standing opposed to the armed right, but that too could be under the control of a right wing xenophobic government (refugee mobs will by that time be pressuring borders all over the world). The government might simply use the right to do its bidding in a way analogous to what Chavez in Venezuela (albeit from the left) did with his Bolivarian Militia

Even if the U.S. government is not right-wing, eventually they will be unable to pay the army. Given the army, along with the population, is split along tolerant/intolerant lines, the combination of the intolerant army elements and the existing armed right will easily defeat the tolerant remainder.

What becomes important then is not right versus left or even capitalism versus everyone else, but cultural tolerance (capitalist and neo-left) verses intolerance (xenophobic and racist right)! What must be done, now, by the left, is opposite to what Zizek recommends. The left must strengthen the natural [tolerant] alliance between themselves and the capitalists. Both can agree that within limits (no honor killings) cultural diversity is worth having. The capitalist elite need not become unselfish, only a little less greedy. The left has to acknowledge that corporations (see Phillip Bobbitt “The Shield of Achilles”) will become the core of the State (such State as will remain) as anything more than a minimal over-arching administration under corporate control will be too expensive to maintain. Meanwhile, the capitalists must become only a little less greedy. A larger percentage of what would otherwise be aggrandized profit will needs be returned to labor or everyone will starve and no one will remain to produce or buy anything, even locally!

By contrast, if Zizek gets what he wants, an immediate collapse of capitalism, the economic disaster will occur immediately. This will not stave off climate disaster merely because industry more or less ceases. Instead, as the effects of the collapse gain momentum regional and local communities will be thrown back on whatever resources they command to produce energy, transport what little they have and so on. There may not be as much industry in real terms but what industry there is will become dirtier again as no one will be able to afford pollution mitigation. Our air and water will be poisoned even more quickly than they are being poisoned now.

The ecological collapse will be accelerated (who is going to protect nuclear waste?), and this by the [formerly] rich countries! Moreover, our (rich nation) capacity to even partly rebuild from climate events will cease now instead of twenty or fifty years from now precipitating an even more rapid social disintegration. There is no left-wing anywhere in the world prepared to take advantage of this except of course China. But in the U.S. it will be the armed right that will dominate. The United States could well become the post-apocalyptic nightmare envisioned in so many novels and films.

I perhaps am getting out into left field here, but what Zizek should recommend (has he read Bobbitt? He doesn’t mention him, could he bring himself to contemplate this?) is that the present left take the lesser “worst choice” and align with capitalism! The old left’s “emancipatory project” is doomed one way or another because climate change will render the change-over economically impossible or to put it another way, in the time we have left, corporate capitalism is the only standing system that can, starting now, organize and move resources (while we can still afford to move them) to mitigate individual disasters as they arise. By that I do not mean forestall the climate-precipitated economic disaster, now impossible. What I intend is to ensure the largest possible population survives to come out at the other end however long that takes. This move is already taking place in the U.S. as more and more of what used to be functions of the political State are privatized and spun off to corporations.

Existing corporations also, of course, will be mostly wiped out. No matter what we do many millions will die even in rich countries. The question is will it be millions or tens of millions!? Trade and economic activity generally, especially energy use will shrink geographically, roughly to where it was in 1800. The corporate-capitalist mechanism can [possibly] survive and provide what possible writ of law can exist in that future time. Corporations are, if nothing else, supremely good at resource organization. They can bring whatever resources remain to bear on the problem of climate disaster mitigation.

There is no guarantee that a universal left, even were it to emerge and fully consolidate itself in time (there are not many decades remaining) will focus itself on survival for as many as possible rather than (as is more likely) the survival of a small vicious elite. Corporations have motive that politics by itself has not. Capitalism requires a sufficient number of labor and especially consumers, the more the better. The “rich elite” cannot get or stay rich unless there are people making them the money.

I hadn’t intended this commentary to rest so heavily on climate change, but there isn’t much else to critique about Zizek’s book. As always his social and cultural commentary (occupying 75% of the book) is beyond reproach. The problem is, and this has been his problem in the last few socially-focused books, he treats climate change as merely one more stressor on the system overall. It is that today, only one more stressor. But this one will grow steadily now until it overwhelms all the others, or perhaps triggers them (xenophobia to nationalism to war to nuclear war) instantly collapsing the entire world edifice and killing almost everybody!

Having written this commentary I stumbled on this book: “The Geography of Risk” by Gilbert Gaul. My commentary is here with a link to the book putting numbers to my claims above.

Other books I’ve reviewed by Slavoj Zizek

Less Than Nothing

Living in End Times

Trouble in Paradise

Refugees, Terror and Other Trouble with the Neighbors

[note: carbon cost of renewables] What does it take to make efficient solar panels, build a wind farm, drill for geothermal heat, or construct a gigantic solar farm in the desert? It takes mining and processing of rare earths, ships to transport it all, trucks to construct, and new electric grids (yet to be built) to replace the inefficient ones we have today. All of this new infrastructure then needs maintaining indefinitely. That too requires energy, carbon. Electric vehicles are only a partial answer. Those batteries powering modern electric cars, they have a carbon cost in manufacture and they don’t last forever. Sure we can recycle 90% of their components, but that too requires enormous amounts of energy both to transport and recycle the materials. What the batteries save us is only a fraction of the estimates given by our news outlets and industry pundits.

Zizek Courage of Hopelessness

In the last few years Slavoj Zizek has written the same book several times. He gives us the same argument backed up with different stories. The argument is (1) global capitalism is leading us down a road to disaster of many sorts, (2) the problem cannot be fixed ultimately by tweaking the existing system, but only (3) by destroying it utterly can something better (hopefully) emerge in its place. With each iteration of the argument (a new book every year or two) Zizek has plenty of new material ripped from the headlines upon which to comment. This book, written in 2017 has the fait accompli of Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. and all the hysteria surrounding it. Thanks to how polarized our politics has become (and not merely in the left vs right sense) his task in this book is perhaps made a little easier. To put it another way, the more extreme things become, the easier it is for him to make his points, or to put it yet another way, the easier it is for us to grasp them.

The book begins with an examination of capitalism and three proposals (roughly economic, political, and social) to fix it. He points out that each of these three ideas fails for the same reason. All depend on human beings becoming better than they are now, for example that they become genuinely caring of “the neighbor” or lose the greed that characterizes the capitalist and many others as well. Zizek is, of course, correct in identifying this problem but he also admits (and states) that after all these things (selfishness, violence, and so on) have been problems for humanity long before capitalism existed. This then becomes the problem he never quite addresses. No matter how capitalism is adjusted or replaced the human problem will remain and the potential (even likely) consequences of this are dire. He should know that almost better than everyone.

Following the opening chapter there ensues a long (most of the book) digression into the modern social, political, and economic problem illustrated with news ripped from recent headlines. Refugees, sexual consent culture, identity politics, eco-disaster, fault lines on the political right (religious fundamentalism and social/sexual intolerance verses racism, xenophobia in general and Islamophobia in particular, and so on) and on the left the complete abandonment of the “universal emancipatory project” in favor of political correctness and identity politics supported and welcomed by global capitalism itself! There is no better and more insightful social commentator today and no one, I mean no one, skewers political correctness quite like Zizek.

Throughout all of this commentary we get the usual Hegelian reversals. Nothing is quite as it seems. If one observation is prescient, something can usually be made of its obverse and this too gives us insight into the real situation. Zizek is a master at this (not to mention that third thing that stands for the difference between the first two and has a life of its own) and he delivers on it page after page. All the usual characters are present, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Lacan, and savy political, economic, and social movers and shakers (of the political right and left) present both in and out of our headlines. I do not know how Zizek has the time to find and collate all of this material between books written only a few years apart, but that is why he is the master!

Not until the penultimate chapter does Zizek fully return to the political sphere and lay out his program. Why did he favor Trump? Not because he likes him (his palpable dislike of Hillary Clinton is also on display) but because Trump will break everything opening up the space for the left to return to its “universal emancipatory project”, while Clinton would merely be tinkering around the edges as we slide complacently toward disaster. Zizek is here rather disingenuous, and for this reason I give him four and not five stars. Imagine you are a young person who would, under normal circumstances, live another forty or fifty years. But you have an incurable disease that will kill you in the next five to ten years. The best medical science can do is give you a normal life for that time in the hope that a cure can be found. Along comes Dr. Zizek who offers you the possibility of a full and immediate cure. If you take the medicine you will be either fully cured or you will die in moments and further, the probability of immediate death is 90%.

No one should know better than Zizek that when a social, political, or economic system (and all three are intertwined) is dismantled too quickly, there is a 90% chance that what follows from it is far worse for most than what went before. In one of his earlier books he admits as much. In this one, he mostly fails to mention it. Capitalism as an economic theory is not the problem. The problem is today’s capitalism given the nature of human selfishness. But the problem of selfishness remains no matter what one does with present socio-political and economic foundations (and the ecological catastrophe is inevitable no matter who wins elections), and that means the outcome of breaking the system will likely be very bad for almost everyone. Zizek offers us the 10% chance of a cure and the 90% chance of death; not only soon enough but immediately! I’m not sure I want to take that bet.

Review: The Shield of Achilles by Philip Bobbitt

I publish this review without further commentary as it is already long and covers all the bases. This review was published in July 2015. I will say that this book fits in with a number of books recently read and reviewed broadly on the subject of “the world order”, and I link those reviews here. Among this set, Bobbitt’s books stands out because he is the only one to suggest what specifically “comes next”, namely “the corporate State” in various forms.

Richard Haass “The World in Disarray”

Henry Kissinger “The World Order”

Francis Fukuyama “The Origins of Political Order” and “Political Order and Political Decay”

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson: “Why Nations Fail”

Slavoj Zizek Various books all linked here

The Shield of Achilles by Philip Bobbitt

This rather long book seems to have been written with multiple goals in mind. First the author wants to connect up evolving military technology, guns and particularly artillery, with the political evolution of states from the renaissance in Italy to modern times. In particular, evolving technology and the tactics that deployed it, fostered certain directions in political evolution primarily for the purposes of being able to afford and utilize the new technology. In between the major wars were peace settlements that ratified and solidified the evolving political forms mostly of the victors. His focus is on this evolution in Europe, but as he approaches modern times he does more and more apply his insights to an interconnected world.

The book is divided into three books. Book I focuses on the link between military history and the evolution of the modern state beginning with the French invasion of Italy in 1494. In book II the primary focus is on the nature of the peace settlements that evolved from the over-arching conflicts of various periods. In book III he sets out to describe in some detail the newest (post 20th century) form of the evolving state.

Beginning with the “princely states” of Italy, the political forms evolved over 5 centuries into “kingly states”, “territorial states”, “state-nations”, “nation-states”, and today, following the “long war” that Bobbitt describes as encompassing most of the 20th century from World War I to the end of the cold war in 1990 (with the collapse of the Soviet Union) the evolution of yet a new form, the “market-state”. In all of this description (taken up in book I). Book II reprises all of this ground, but this time focusing on the peace agreements between the great-war periods and how those agreements reflected the relations (what today we call “international law”) between the newly evolved and evolving political forms of states. Bobbitt gets into quite a bit of detail here (he is a law scholar after all) even to describing the philosophies (in a broad sense) of some of the prominant jurists (or political philosophers) of each period always focusing on how these philosophical beacons interpreted the peace agreements for specific problems emerging between states during the inter-war periods. It is one thing to establish a treaty that provides for general guidelines of behavior. It is another to interpret those guidelines as they apply to specific situations, and then yet another, even after an interpretation is broadly accepted, for evolving polities to act or chose not to act at all. Bobbitt chooses from among the luminaries examples who are both apologists for the newly evolving forms of state, and also a few polemicists. Much of this description evaluates various interpretations of what “international law” consists as compared to law as understood within the boundaries of the state.

As a descriptive work it is an excellent and well balanced read. Bobbitt is sensitive to the fact that thoughout history the political model did not evolve at an equal pace throughout Europe never mind the rest of the world. Some state forms in some locations resisted further evolutionary pressures for some time. In certain places such resistance made sense given what the earlier form encompassed geographically and ethnically, but in every case, eventually and usually by war or more technically the peace settlement after the war these entities either evolved or were broken up into geographic chunks more condusive to that evolution. Bobbitt is also very sensitive to the fact that the way this evolution did work out is not the only way it might have worked out, and this is true of both the nature of the world’s political forms as well as of present interpretations of the relations between entities internationally. I applaud him here for his balance in all of this descriptive work. He takes no interest in how things might otherwise have been, but beginning now, that is at the end of the “long war” from 1914-1990 he does seem to relish his projection of what he takes to be the newest form of large-scale polity, the “market-state”.

As above with his recognition that history might have been otherwise, his explication of the newest turn in the political screw, the evolution of the market-state (the focus of part III), is balanced by a recognition that things might go otherwise but his argument is otherwise persuasive at least as concerns broad brush strokes. As with his historical explication he is more concerned with relations between states than what is internal to the state itself, but he needs (and does) to describe something of the internal as this form is not yet as familiar as the others. He is writing in 2002, 12 years after the end of the cold war. Some of his shorter term projections as concerns the relations between states are down right prescient, while others seem entirely fanciful. Some of his prose in this section seems written almost tongue-in-cheek. But nothing that has happened in the intervening 13 years invalidates his overall vision. As in the previous 5 centuries, the broad outlines of large-scale evolution only become visible over several generations at a minimum. In between there is much room for unanticipated variation even retrogression and Bobbitt knows this well.

But Bobbitt does come off a little intoxicated by what he takes to be the next turn of the political wheel. He describes the over-all demands that will be made by and impinge upon the new “market-state” including some issues that now belong to the global community. Some of these are unique (global environmental issues and weapons of mass destruction in particular nuclear weapons to take two examples) to the modern period because they simply did not exist in the past. The particular problems that emerged between states of the prior period made no mention of genuinely “global issues” because there weren’t any. There weren’t enough people to cause genuinely global environmental issues and communications and transport technology had not yet begun to build serious economic or military dependencies that ran around the entire planet. I have to applaud the author for recognizing that the newly evolving market states are internally more inconsistent than the nation-state they are beginning to replace. He distinguishes three broad forms of market-states, the entrepenurial, the mercantile, and the managerial. The first two are genuinely novel and as such are subject to potentially more radical social disconnections than the third which is much more an amalgamation of the old and new forms, but that very blending causes (or rather is projected to have) inconsistencies of its own. The raison d’etre of the nation-state is the welfare of its citizens taken broadly (I presume) to mean that everyone who makes any effort to participate in the economy and politics of the state gains enough thereby to live something of a healthy and self-determined life. Of course even among the late 20th century society of nation-states some have succeeded at this more than others, but at least the rationale has some metaphysical basis in that individuals having self-interests are real entities. By contrast, markets are oblivious to the cares of individuals except in-so-far as enough of them succeed economically to be consumers and producers and so keep the markets functioning. Bobbitt is aware that given any of the market-state forms (except the managerial whose own internal inconsistencies stem from raised transaction costs imposed on its own market entities) some individuals will be big economic winners while many more will be net losers. Today, 13 years after writing this book, his vision here seems to be among the more prescient. As with the first two parts of the book, Bobbitt tries hard to maintain his balance. He calls [future] history as he sees it evolving and makes no attempt to be either apologist or polemicist.

Turning back to the society of states (ever his theme here) Bobbitt sees no end to conflict (war) of one kind or another. It is not his task in this book to suggest how this might be otherwise, only in this case how it might be channeled into hotter or colder forms. Inherently international markets, even cut-throat markets, function best when the social collectives that are their producers and consumers are not hurling bullets at one another. As such market-states have a greater incentive to keep conflicts between states cooler rather than hotter and this might be helpful globally even if from a perspective internal to any one state many of its citizens are worse off than they were under the older form of nation-state.

All in all a good explication tying military history (particularly European) and international relations together through the peace agreements (and the ways they were interpreted) that intervened between the cycles of political evolution.

Review: Why Nations Fail

Picture of me blowing smoke

I’m developing something of a sub-section on social, political, and economic philosophy…

I said in the review (reproduced below) that the theory of this book very much compliments that of Francis Fukuyama also reviewed here. There are other books in this arena as well, one by Phillip Bobbitt and one by Henry Kissenger. Each of these books has something to contribute to the same subject, roughly the history of nations on Earth. What I didn’t say in the review is reflected in an early marginal note that appears in this book. I wrote that this theory of Acemoglu and Robinson, given their introduction of it, seemed “trivially true”. What I meant was that given equality of other things, a nation whose political and economic institutions were more pluralistic would, on the whole, do better economically than one whose institutions were less pluralistic. I think the authors mount a powerful argument for the theory. I think they are right. But I still think that on the whole the theory is but trivially true.

To begin, the authors examine and reject a few other theories purporting to explain why some nations are wealthy and others not so wealthy. In particular the “cultural” and the “geographic” theories are of interest here. The authors very much emphasize that the institutions of which they speak emerge through history. The process can and has taken hundreds of years in some cases and the results have always been contingent meaning that only a small difference here or there might have blocked such evolution (as it has in much of the world) or reversed it even once begun (something that has also happened). The authors emphasize that small differences between institutions in different states are magnified by “critical junctures”, events like the Black Death, the discovery of the Americas, or the invention of movable-type printing.

The authors trace these differences and how different nations (in 1600 all “extractive” as the authors term it) responded politically and economically. These responses are all broadly social, and the social fault lines are reflected by culture and in turn rest on geography. In England the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. It gave the nobility a little say over what the King did, but it was hardly inclusive politically as we would understand that today. The plague followed in 1348, 133 years later and shifted things a bit more by pure chance. A greater percentage of English nobility was wiped out than was the case for example in France, Spain, or Eastern Europe.

Four hundred and seventy three years intervened between the Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution (1688), almost nineteen human generations. The book covers much more of the intervening details for example the War of the Roses, the Cromwell experience, and the installation of William of Orange. This history is what set the culture of England and insured that the English response to events would be different from that of France or Spain.

Cultural differences are social and subject to contingent social forces. The only thing contingent about geography (used broadly and into which I am folding climate and mineral resources) is which nation ends up with which territory.  Rwanda, Burundi, and Ethiopia grow delicious coffee, among the world’s best. Their coffee growing potential has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with where they are situated in the world. But none of the three have any coast. To ship their coffee to world markets each must pay transit fees to other nations in order to reach some port. If Ethiopian coffee farmers are to reap the same economic benefit as say producers in Guatemala who also grow superb coffee and do have access to a coast, Ethiopian coffee must sell for a higher price than Guatemalan coffee. Even if Ethiopian and Guatemalan economic institutions were equally inclusive (or extractive) Ethiopian farmers cannot get the same price for their coffee if they (or their elites) want to compete (and so sell for the same price) with Guatemalan farmers.

To wrap it up, nations with pluralistic institutions generally become wealthier than those without and the historical path from extractive to inclusive institutions is contingent. But among the contingencies are the culture as it evolved through many generations, and the location of the nation on Earth which limits, magnifies, or otherwise impacts the cultural contingencies and the possible wealth that might be generated under different institutions.

In my Amazon review (below) I bring up the “other end” of the whole process, something that is not the author’s concern. They are interested in why nations are wealthy (or not) now, and not what happens when even inclusive institutions go on too long. They do note that when new groups become wealthy under inclusive institutions, these become “new elites” and begin to work, politically, to constrain future inclusiveness so as to lock in their new privilege.

In the present day, such behavior in the Western and more inclusive nations has resulted in something of an equilibrium between forces, but at any given time one or the other can be ascendant. It is clear from the flattening of U.S. wages and the increase in wealth inequality since the 1970s that since that time, the push back towards exclusivity is gaining ground; an observation the authors seem to deliberately avoid making.

Why Nations Fail By Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson 2012

When I stumbled on this book I wondered how it would compare to the work of Francis Fukuyama in “Political Order and Political Decay” also reviewed. As it turns out the two works are entirely complimentary, the work of Acemoglu and Robinson riding on top of Fukuyama’s. Like Fukuyama, the author’s here recognize that a prerequisite to the political and economic orders that evolve in modern rich nations as compared to poor ones is a State, with writ over its whole territory, capable of enforcing property rights (whether they do so initially or not) and a relatively broad base of economic interests not tied solely to the land. Another prerequisite for both is the eventual evolution of a polity supporting “rule of law” which is not the same as “rule by law”. The difference is that in the former, everyone (in theory) comes under the law while in the latter the elite typically do not. This prerequisite is, in general, a consequence of the broad based economic coalition.

What begins to drive such nations is a feedback the authors call inclusive institutions, a “virtuous circle” leading to yet broader, more pluralistic political institutions and economic institutions characterized by lowered economic barriers, technological innovation, and competition that drives a broad-based increase in wealth. The authors emphasize that a virtuous evolution is not foreordained. There are always forces working to try and coerce political and economic institutions into an extractive mode in which both political and economic institutions are organized for the benefit of a few. This is, in fact, what was the case over the whole world in 1600 and has remained the case in most of the world. Though specific institutions in these countries (Russia, most of South America) have changed many times, they remain extractive and this tendency, the tendency of elites to preserve their status at the expense of everyone else the authors call a “viscous circle”.

Many nations today labor without even the prerequisite of a State writ. Such nations cannot possibly develop inclusive institutions of any kind. But even extractive institutions can grow an economy if the State writ is present and there are resources in demand by the rest of the world. Extractive societies can grow relative wealth, for example Saudi Arabia, but the authors argue (citing case after case, exploring many individual national histories) that there are severe limits to that sort of growth. Like Fukuyama these authors also recognize that even among the most inclusive nations today (mainly Western Europe, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and a few others with but one, Botswana, in Africa) are not immune from sliding backwards, particularly as concerns economics, into more extractive forms. Fukuyama, explores how this backsliding happens at the political level, while in this book, aside from the recognition that this can happen, such backsliding in the present is not specifically addressed.

This is well written and richly detailed exploration of political and economic institutions throughout the world. No continent (save Antarctica) is ignored. Acemoglu and Robinson make a fine case, and because the actual history of nations sets these outcomes much depends on how small initial differences are magnified by events out of anyone’s control (the Plague in Europe, the discovery of the Americas, the colonial grab for Africa) they recognize the limitations of their theory as well. The historical path taken by every nation or quasi-nation is unique. Emerging into the modern period there are endless variations. China is unusual in that economic institutions appear to be liberalizing while political institutions remain purely extractive. The difference, also the case in Russia, is that the State is compelled to find some solution to competition on the world stage. Chinese and Russian economic institutions remain broadly extractive and their growth will not continue for long.

The author’s point here is well made and well established. They do not, alas, address the gorilla in the room. Even if all the world’s nations were as inclusive as the wealthiest of today’s States, there are limits to growth. One problem with open-ended competition on a level playing field is that greater wealth ultimately comes down to greater resource utilization. There is only so much to go around. But this is not their problem. The goal here is to argue the case for wealth associated with both political and economic inclusiveness. I cannot find any weakness in that argument broadly conceived as the authors portray it.

Cigar Review: PUNCH Signature

Cigar Review: PUNCH Signature

I have smoked many Punch cigars. A big brand with Cuban roots. Can usually be counted on to be a good if not great stick. The Gran Puro was one of the early sticks in my line up and I still like it today. The Bareknuckle and BareKunckle-elites (the last a petit corona vitola I have not seen in a few years) are quite good. I’ve gone through more than a few boxes of Elites in the last two years not because they are so great, but because they are very inexpensive. I recently stumbled on a new (to me) Punch, the SIGNATURE. These came out in 2015. There are 4 vitolas, the 4.5″x54 Rothschild (a robusto) I’m smoking is the smallest of them and retails these days for around $6.25. I found a box (18 sticks) for about a dollar less so I thought I’d give them a try.

A very international cigar. I count 5 countries involved below… There is a lot in this blend by Augustin Garcia and it shows.

Wrapper: Ecuador Corojo
Binder: Proprietary (to General cigar) Connecticut Habano
Filler: Dominican AND Nicaraguan — Stogie review says this is the same blend as the original Punch but that was Cuban. They might mean after the marque moved from Cuba to Florida.
Manufactured: STG Donli factory Honduras.

Construction.. Slightly toothy brown wrapper. A little oily sheen. Medium dense/weight cigar. Packing firm, even. Draw light as I like it. Stays smooth, light draw, and burns well all the way down. Little need for correction. Slow smoking. 1 hour 15 minutes for me with this vitola. Smoke output not super thick but pretty good. Leaving the cigar sit a minute for the coal to cool down the first puff a little thin, but a double puff gives good and creamy smoke.

Cold smell: strong manure, barnyard, sweet honeysuckle flower. This a very rich cold smell.

Flavors in smoke: Dry and flat when first lit, the cigar comes into its own after about 1/4″. Roasted nut, cashew, melba toast, leather, earth, cedar are all in there. Pepper sneaks up at the 1/2″ mark and hangs around… Much of it on the retrohale, which by the way is pretty potent here. Though there are Dominican tobaccos in the blend I have not noticed any “Dominican twang” in this stick. Interesting because the Halfwheel review complains about it a lot (see below). The flavors are pretty distinct and the whole tends towards a sweetness I don’t get from Punch blends otherwise.

Into the cigar’s second half there is a lot of sweetness here still. A hint of that  sweet flower in the cold smell comes across too. Contrasted with the earthiness this is a very tasty cigar! Full body. Medium to full strength. A cigar smoker’s cigar! In the last third the flavors are perhaps more blended and sometimes a little stronger. Very unusual… In terms of flavor (construction of Punch cigars generally is very good) this might be the best Punch I’ve ever smoked. Stays enjoyable down to the last half inch, the mark of a great stick.

Here are three other reviews for your perusal from Halfwheel, Stogie Guys, and Cigar Dojo. There are many others.

The Difference between Erotica and Pornography

From the dictionary.

Erotica: Literature or art intended to arouse sexual desire

Pornography: Printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of … activity intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.

On various social media platforms I am in touch with writers, many of them, and a not insignificant portion of them (mostly women) write what they call “erotica”. I’ve read a smattering of these books, and what I have found was erotic certainly, but also pornographic. I do not mind pornography though like all other art I think there are better and worse examples of it. I thought it would be interesting to set down what I take to be the difference between the two. Perhaps some interesting discussion will ensue.

There are, of course, many sorts of both erotica and porn divided largely along the lines of who the characters are. I happen to be heterosexual and so my focus throughout will be books of that sort, but there is also some great lesbian erotica (and porn) with which I am familiar, and also male homosexual erotica (and porn) with which I am not. There must be, I assume bisexual, and transsexual variations to be found. The distinction between erotica and porn set out below applies equally to all of these.

Erotica is the broader term. “Erotic literature” is literature in which the story revolves mostly around the characters having sex. This is a general rule, but there are exceptions. Fifty Shades of Grey has a lot of sex in it, but the story is about much more than the characters merely having sex. It is still at least an “erotic novel” because there is enough sex in the tale, the main character dynamics revolve around it, to make it so. Also, like one of my recommendations below, its descriptions here and there touch the pornographic. There are grey areas (no pun intended) in the genre.

Pornographic literature (some would say porn is not literature but I would beg to disagree), like erotica, is mostly about sex. Unlike many stories that qualify as erotic however, pornography is almost always mostly about sex. Sex acts between the characters dominate the story. But what really distinguishes porn from the broader erotica is that the mechanics of the sex act are explicitly described.

In the better pornography I’ve read, the first few sex acts are described in considerable detail, while the description of later acts is shortened up. There is less detail, but also back references (there are various literary approaches to this) to the prior more detailed description with the link between them left to the reader’s imagination. This prevents the reader from getting bored. There are of course many variations in the sex act, but by in large they usually come down to the same core. Literally describing that same core over and over quickly becomes redundant.

That my friends is, in my view, the sum and substance of it. I’ve read many of both types of books, but I will leave you with a few recommendations. On the erotica side “The Education of Don Juan” by Robin Hardy is the greatest purely erotic novel, not pornographic, I’ve ever read. Every part of the story is tuned to sex, but the acts, though very stimulating, are never explicitly described. A close second is not strictly a novel but an autobiography of one very sex-filled year in the life of Anias Ninn. “Henry and June”, pushes the envelope a bit but only here and there briefly, sometimes a single explicit sentence, touches the pornographic.

On the pornographic side, I think much of the better literature was written in the late 19th and early 20th century. “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” (John Cleland), known also as “Fanny Hill” was written in the middle of the 18th century and is considered the first great English pornographic novel. But the best, in my opinion, is “The Black Pearl” by Anonymous (not the other one by Scott O’Dell).

Written in the late 19th or early 20th centuries (its real provenance difficult to determine) it follows many characters who in the beginning have sex (the women) with the main protagonist (Horby, a man) and then go off on adventures all over Europe reporting back to the protagonist on their exploits via letters. Horby of course has his own adventures as well and there is a raft of other characters who were famous artists, play-writes, and others of the English upper classes in the 1880s and 90s. The description of these characters by the protagonist (the story is told in first person) suggests that he was in fact a real person of substance and knew these people intimately.

My favorite line in all pornographic literature comes from this book. One of the women finds herself embroiled in a Satanic cult. Having described (in a letter) in luscious but shortened detail her liaison with the cult’s high priest (witnessed by a circle of initiates, and in which she is a willing participant), she makes perhaps the most pragmatic assessment of Satanism I have ever seen: “Oh Horby!” she declares “This Satanism is just fucking with frills!”

I suppose now you want a few examples? Here are two

Erotica: Clothes shed they embrace. Falling on the mattress, entangled in one another’s bodies, he enters her…

Pornography: … entangled in one another’s bodies the tip of his tumescent gourd finds the moist outer petals of her flower and buries itself to the root in her soaking wet volcanic channel…

You get the idea?

This all leaves me with one further question. Why do women seem, at least in this time of global social media, to be more often successful authors of erotica and pornography than men? But I take leave to address it another time.