American Elephants

The “Narrative” or Holy Writ of the Left. by The Elephant's Child

Inequality is all the rage again. You all remember the “Occupy Wall Street” movement of a certain segment of college dropouts, current students, whiny adolescents demanding that they get a bigger share of Wall Street’s money — because they wanted it, and those who worked on Wall Street were greedy plutocrats who didn’t deserve their pay and their benefits, and the Occupy protesters were much more worthy. Their rage was all about the One Percent, and corporations. Especially evil, greedy corporations.

There they were, sitting in parks with their iPhones and iPads, their Kelty tents and Northface backpacks, Nike sneakers and goose-down coats, whining about the people who were actually working in the nearby skyscrapers. The movement stands out in memory for the filth and garbage left behind, and their absurd indignance.

Now comes a new book professing old Marxism and proposing a worldwide wealth tax. Why anyone assumes that inequality is something evil that can be fixed by wise people in government redistributing it is beyond me. It has been proven over and over that such is not the case. Marxism has not only failed everywhere it has been tried, but has created killing-fields and misery.

Walter Russell Mead, professor and editor in chief  of the American Interest is a man of the left, but always thoughtful and interesting, even when I disagree completely. The left sees national decline, and the decline is the fault of inequality—which will somehow be cured by the blue social model.

My life experience is a little different than most. I didn’t really realize that for many years until I was working in a large corporate department and found that people were fascinated by my experience, which I had never considered unusual. They, in general, all grew up in neighborhoods of similar houses and similar people. I grew up not just rural, but very rural,  in what I always considered a classless society. I have always known very poor people and extremely rich people, as did my parents, and thought little about differences.  People are different and you do the best you can with what life hands you.

You make your own way. Life doesn’t dole out its blessings equally. People have different abilities, different levels of intelligence, different determination, different history and family circumstances. Average IQ is 100, with half the population higher and half lower. Some are strong. Some are beautiful, and some are definitely not. Talents are all over the place. Some can excel at higher math, some have trouble making change.And there is plain old luck. All those things make a difference in life outcomes, and can’t be fixed by some Marxist redistribution scheme to make people equal. You have perhaps noticed that leftist programs for reducing economic inequality always have a cadre of “smarter” and “wiser” people at the top to do the redistributing. You are not going to make people more equal by taking money away from some to give to others.

For Mead, we are united in pessimism and divided, even polarized, in the way we identify our trouble and prescribe cures. For the left it is about inequality.”For Democrats, growing economic inequality is an issue that unites the disparate elements of the blue coalition behind a common narrative and summons the faithful to a defense of the blue social model. For Republicans, the issue is more of a hot potato, and the GOP would probably rather see the whole issue drop off the national agenda.” If he refers to inequality, Republicans don’t worry much about it. They worry about a jobless economy, badly managed, and how to restore the growth that will lift all boats— in Jack Kennedy’s phrase. Here’s Mead:

For most liberals, inequality is both a leading symptom of our national decline and an important talking point for the defense of what’s left of the blue social model. For blue model liberals, the last generation is best understood as a Grim Slide. In the days of FDR and LBJ, Americans knew the right way to live and to govern themselves. A strong federal government used Keynesian economics and enlightened, progressive views on social policy to reshape American life. The inevitable and eternal greed of corporations and the rich was curbed; Americans learned the right lessons of the wicked 1920s in which inequality ran riot and plutocrats flourished, only to see the false prosperity of those years vanish in the Depression. As long as those important lessons were remembered, a progressive tax code, pro-union legislation, income redistribution and tight regulation of financial corporations made America a good and decent country. The middle class flourished, prosperity was shared, recessions were mild, and life was good.

Professor Mead recognizes that this is a “narrative,” misconstrues the arguments of the right, and says he will look at attempt to “construct a conservative counter-narrative  on the question of inequality…and then try to see what the state of the inequality debate actually tells us about the state of the nation and about what we could actually do that might make things better.”

As long as liberals insist on social fixes to economic problems; regard FDR who had no clue what to do about the Depression and made it vastly worse, as a great hero who fixed things;  continue to believe that Marxism is a solution to anything without considering honestly what Marxism wrought wherever it was tried, and believe that “In the days of FDR and LBJ, Americans knew the right way to live and to govern themselves;” there’s not much hope that we can agree on much of anything.

It got worse and worse. Motivated by unrestrained greed, corporations shipped millions of well-paying middle class American jobs overseas, exploiting the desperate poverty around the world to erode middle class protections and living standards here in the US. As financial markets became less regulated, the rich and the well-connected reaped huge gains, while ordinary Americans were fleeced by unscrupulous ‘banksters’. CEOs made huge salaries for firing workers, closing plants, and putting corporate assets into the hands of ruthless speculators. Our financial markets became casinos; our factories fell into ruin. As the protections of the New Deal and Great Society were dismantled, the evils of the 1920s and even the 1890s returned.

Do read Mead’s whole piece, it’s not long, but deeply interesting. He describes the left-liberal narrative quite accurately. I’m not sure that he understands the right-conservative narrative (do we have one?) at all, but we will see. Consider “Economics is Organized Common Sense” which I think is closer to the mark for the right, briefly stated.

Look Around. There Are Some Astonishing Things Out There! by The Elephant's Child

Every once in a while you trip over something new— something new to you that you had been completely unaware of previously— and you suddenly realize that there are whole worlds of things to see and learn about.

Long ago, my mother wanted me to be musical. We had a piano (which nobody played) and she rounded-up a piano teacher. I hated it. The teacher was a nice lady who wore a wig, and it didn’t fit well and kept sliding around. I remember that more than I remember the lessons. When I was supposed to practice at home, I managed to read while I poked around at piano with the other hand, so my mom could hear the piano.  My mother eventually gave up.

She didn’t attempt to interest me in another instrument, but when we later lived in Portland for a few years, she found an old lady who gave whistling lessons, who was the sound effects for Hartz Mountain Canaries on the radio. That didn’t take either, and I was always embarrassed about it, and never mentioned it to anyone. And then many years later I learned that there were Whistling Conventions and lots of people took whistling lessons, and competed nationally.  Who knew?

A chance inquiry at a feed store about harness, and how harness worked, led me to a potluck gathering of a group dedicated to preserving  the different breeds of draft horses.  With the advent of modern farm machinery, there’s not much need for draft horses except by Budweiser.The locals brought their horses, and visiting Brits talked about their breeds. I learned about harness, and stone boats, and the organizations all over the world dedicated to preserving species that had gone out of use and out of style. It was fascinating.

I had never focused my attention on materials and their development. I was vaguely aware of new plastics and other substances in the hardware store—but not on materials science as a profession developing new materials to do new things. So after writing that post, a friend asked me if I was familiar with aerogel? Huh?

Aerogel is a synthetic porous ultralight material derived from a gel…, in which the liquid component of the gel has been replaced with a gas. The result is a solid with extremely low density and low thermal conductivity. This is not new. First created in 1931, according to Wikipedia. First aerogels were produced from silica gels, then alumina, chromia and tin dioxide. Carbon aerogels came in the late 1980s. It is an excellent insulator, and lowest density solid, until eclipsed by graphene aerogel.

A new water-repellant concrete impregnated with tiny superstrong fibers promises to leave roads and bridges free of major cracks for up to 120 years. University of  Wisconsin Milwaukee has developed a concrete mix that is durable and superhydrophobic. (wonderful word) Preventing normally porous concrete from absorbing water means that liquid can’t get inside, freeze and cause it to crack. Cracks fo not form, do not propagate and cause failure. The useful life of typical concrete roads is 30 years and concrete bridges and culverts as 40-45 years. The new material not only repels water, but it can bend. They say it would pay for the increased cost with diminished maintenance costs. (“crumbling roads and bridges”)

A new bone-like material is lighter than water but as strong as steel. Jens Bauer and his colleagues at the Karlsruher Institute of Technology have developed a bone-like material that is less dense than water . but as strong as some forms of steel. This is the first experimental proof that such materials can exist.

All known materials can be represented quite neatly in one chart. Each line means the strength or density of the material goes up ten times.


The line in the middle at 1000kg/m³ is the density of water—all materials to its left are lighter than water and those on the right are heavier. No solid material is lighter than water unless it is porous. Porous materials like wood and bone exhibit exquisite structures when seen under a microscope. Materials scientists can use computer simulations to fill some empty areas on the strength-density chart that theory predicts.

We are now in a molecular age, when scientists can start experimenting at the level of the atom.  Add 3D printing and laser technology, and new super-light materials may mean new skis and aircraft parts, and things heretofore unthought of.

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