Teotihuacan and Dynastic Tendencies

Sergio Gómez ChávezThis last week, The Guardian published, Liquid Mercury Found Under Mexican Pyramid Could Lead to King’s Tomb. This has to do with Teotihuacan — a ruin site in modern Mexico that was a large city starting a few centuries BEC, which may have reached a peak population of a quarter million people around 450 CE. But here’s the thing: we really don’t know that much about the people who lived there. We don’t even know who they were, but it is now assumed they were people who emigrated from the south — at least some from the Mayan empire.

For the last six years, archaeologist Sergio Gómez Chávez has been excavating a tunnel under the ruins at the Pyramid of the Sun. At first, the tunnel was thought to be naturally occurring. But it indeed seems to be man made. The further they go in, the more interesting it becomes. They have now found three different chambers, one going down 20 meters below the temple. Along the way, they have found various artifacts: “jade statues, jaguar remains, a box filled with carved shells and rubber balls.” But most recently, they have found liquid mercury — as opposed to mercury ore. As a result, they believe they are on the verge of finding the first “royal tomb” ever found in Teotihuacan. And that’s important:

The discovery of a tomb could help solve the enigma of how Teotihuacan was ruled…

A royal tomb could lend credence to the theory that the city, which flourished between 100 CE – 700 CE[1], was ruled by dynasties in the manner of the Maya, though with far less obvious flair for self-glorification.

There are many other theories. As I said, we don’t know much about these people. But to my mind: of course it was a dynasty! This is just the way humans work. Consider: this is a major — multi-chamber — tunnel dug under the biggest structure in the city. Flair for self-glorification or not, that is the sign of at least one person with a very big ego and the power to feed it over a long period of time. A dynasty is almost required for that, because nothing other than some kind of god-king or God approved king would provide that kind of stability. Otherwise, there would always be someone trying to take over.

But look at our own society. Never has a country be so deluded about the idea of meritocracy as the United States. If many people don’t actually believe it, you would never know it by us constantly talking about it. Yet we could very easily see this country ruled by three members of the same family in the period of just 25 years. And it sure isn’t because they are so brilliant. George H W Bush was a reasonably competent bureaucrat. George W Bush was either incompetent or uninterested in the job. (Or both!) And Jeb Bush was anything but a stellar governor. Regardless, we would be happy if he was as good a president as his father. Humans just naturally fall for this kind of stuff. This is why we continue to allow unconscionable levels of inequality and don’t even pretend to provide “equality of opportunity” to our children.

So I am betting that within a year or two, we will find a “royal tomb” at Teotihuacan. But regardless, it ought to be fascinating what we do find.


Want to get really angry? WalMart moved into Teotihuacan and acted more or less how the Islamic State would, Teotihuacan Gets Mickey-Moused.

[1] This date is inaccurate. The Pyramid of the Sun — the biggest structure in the city — was built by 100 CE. So the city was doing quite well for a while before that.

College Education vs College Degree

The End of the RainbowIn recent years, the money preoccupation has trickled upward, shaping our ideas about college as well as K–12 schooling. Not so long ago, private college was a luxury that few could afford. But in the nineteenth century, first Horace Mann and then Charles Eliot led the charge to make ability rather than heritage the price of admission to college. Though the intention was to recognize that wealth or lofty ancestry was no guarantee of intellectual ability, motivation, or academic inclination, it also came from the realization that a college degree opened doors and changed one’s future trajectory. During the same period, the introduction of excellent state university systems provided another avenue for bright and motivated adolescents with no money to get a college education. But as with K–12 education, when college changed from being a luxury for a few to a necessity for all, it redefined itself. Where once it had been a place to expand one’s horizons, read great books, get exposure to new disciplines, and learn how to participate in intellectual discourse, it now became another step toward getting a job or moving up a career ladder. The focus turned from getting a college education to getting a college degree.

—Susan Engel
The End of the Rainbow: How Educating for Happiness (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools

Excerpted at Salon, We’re Teaching Our Kids Wrong: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates Do Not Have the Answers.

Republican Political Fail on Foreign Policy

Ted CruzJames Gibney wrote a very interesting article following of a recent Gallup poll, Everyone Likes Obama’s Foreign Policy Except Americans. It seems that the world is actually quite keen on American leadership. And contrary to what pretty much every Republican will tell you, our allies are the most positive of all. The one exception to this is Israel, which thought that the US foreign policy was great under George W Bush. I think we can disregard any group of people who think that the high point of American foreign policy was the Iraq War. In addition to our friends being very happy with us, our enemies (at least as most would define them) are very unhappy with us. In Russia, the United States gets an amazingly low 4% approval rating. (I assume this is a reflection of the fact that Russian media is as biased and jingoistic as the American media is.)

But it is wrong to say that Americans don’t like Obama’s foreign policy. Right now, Americans aren’t that keen on foreign policy as a thing. But their opinion has improved steadily since Obama took over the presidency. So clearly, the Republicans who are shouting about America’s standing in the world are just preaching to the choir. (Gibney seemed strangely a bit confused on this point.) American approval of our own foreign policy reached a nadir at the end of Bush’s presidency with less than 30% and now it is almost 40%. And this is for a poll taken “even as Russia was annexing Crimea, Islamic State was beheading its way across the Middle East, Ebola was taking its toll in West Africa, and Europe was dealing with an unprecedented crisis in Greece.” If the poll were done today, I’m sure the numbers would be better.

But should we pay much attention to what Americans think in a general way about foreign policy? After all, we are the people who gave Bush a 51% approval rating the week before 9/11 and an 86% approval rating the week after. Even more stark, his disapproval rating went from 39% down to 10%. This is after he oversaw the worst attack on American soil ever — where his initial reaction was to sit there reading, The Pet Goat. (Although I will admit: goats really are charming animals!) Similarly, approval of our foreign policy went up after the Iraq invasion — the very thing that now makes Americans sad about foreign policy in general.

The main thing to consider here is that Americans are unhappy with the idea of intervention altogether. Since 1964, the Pew Research Center has been asking Americans if the United States should “mind its own business, internationally.” In 1964, only 20% said we should. The number went up quite a bit in the decades after that. But in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, it dipped back down to 30%. And as of 2013, it is at an all time high: 52%.

So I don’t think it means much when Ted Cruz rants, “Today, the consequence of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy is that our friends no longer trust us, and our enemies no longer fear us.” The truth is that he is completely wrong on the facts. Our friends do trust us. Our enemies fear us even more. But most of all, the American people just don’t care.

Fanciful Libertarian Ideas on Information

Tyler CowenA week and a half ago, David Auerbach wrote a very good and detailed article, Buyer Still Beware. It is in response to an article by libertarian economists Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen, The End of Asymmetric Information. In that, they argue that the internet and other information delivery systems have greatly reduced the asymmetry of information, which has long been known to distort markets. So basically, we don’t need regulation, because people can just check Angie’s List. Auerbach makes a compelling case that having more information doesn’t help much given that it increases both good and bad information. The question is still how to find good information.

I would take it a step further — although Auerbach does imply this. All increased information does is create a kind of information arms race. People want more and better information about the products they buy. Sellers do not want this. It is much better for businesses to be able to control what people think and feel about products. And here is the main thing. Control of information is a major part of what businesses do. Consumers do not have the time or inclination to become fully informed about every product they buy. And I think this the critical issue.

On a practical level, libertarian ideas always lead to neoliberal policy. And this results in our getting worse systems. I understand that Obamacare might be better for a small number of healthcare consumers who have the time and inclination to really research all the insurance options. But for the vast majority of people, having a single-payer system is better. Overall, they would get a superior form of health insurance. But apart from that, their lives are easier because they don’t have to worry about something that really doesn’t improve their lives. Most people have the experience of just shifting through two or three insurance options at their employers — it’s a pain. The situation is just madness when it is 20 or 30.

Alex TabarrokWhat Tabarrok and Cowen are up to here is just libertarian fantasy. They want there to be no need for regulation, so they have gone out looking for something to justify it. It isn’t a coincidence that their paper just happened to find what they were looking for. If they had come to some other conclusion, I question whether they would have written the paper. And I know that if they had, the Cato Institute wouldn’t have published it, because it has been very upfront about its lack of scientific ethics. (They are not in the business of publishing information that pushes against libertarian solutions.)

Auerbach also documents how libertarian information systems become, in real life, little fiefdoms. He mentioned the whole Silk Road debacle. I wrote about it earlier this year, How the Libertarian Dream Dies. But he also goes into some depth about Reddit, and how moderators on subreddits actually ban articles. For example, Simon Owens wrote an article, Should Reddit’s Powerful Mods Be Reined In? It was banned from the technology subreddit.

This, I think, is the fundamental problem with libertarianism. It would have us get rid of government because of its fairly minor oppression of us, and replace it with totally unaccountable private parties that could and would oppress us far more. It is just a matter of incentives. There may be a great macro-level incentive for all of us to follow the law, but we don’t all follow the law. The same is true in markets. There will be some who will not do well — or at least not as well as they think they should — and they will use whatever advantage they have. And the fact that this makes everyone else worse off doesn’t matter in the least.

I know what libertarians say in response to this. But it is no less fanciful than the notion that everyone will get along just fine and no one will try to game the system. It all depends upon perfect judicial systems. Or even worse: it is dependent upon voluntary judicial systems. There could not be a more perfect political philosophy for those that already have economic power. It’s the ultimate con, “Just get rid of the one thing that is stopping you from enslaving yourself and then you will be able to do whatever it is you want, without anyone to tell you what to do!”

Does the fact that I don’t believe everyone can get along perfectly in a libertarian utopia mean that I am cynical? I don’t think so. Basically what the libertarians are saying is that we don’t need government in a world where everyone gets along. And I agree: in that kind of world, we wouldn’t need a government. But that is not the kind of world that we live it. It is because of human imperfections that we have governments. And yes, governments are a mixed blessing. But “no government” isn’t mixed at all: it is just bad.

It’s sad that two respected economists like Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen write such rubbish. Or not. Maybe it is sad that people who put forth such rubbish are respected. But they both write smart things a lot of the time. It is like libertarianism is a kind of disease. More than most ideologies, it fries the brain, making proponents think they are being smart and deductive when they are just being fanciful. They so want to believe. And there are rich people around with so much money to pay them to believe…

Morning Music: La-Le-Lu

Wenn der Vater mit dem SohneDo want to have a good cry? Then listen, my friends, to the story of Wenn der Vater mit dem Sohne (I don’t really know what it mean: “When the father with the son”?) — the 1955 directorial debut of Hans Quest. It stars Heinz Rühmann who plays Teddy, a man who runs a joke shop who has raised his landlady’s foster child — Ulli — as a son, since the boy was abandoned by his mother at birth. One day, Ulli comes upon a clown suit and Teddy explains that once upon a time, he was a famous clown who performed with his son. But after his son died, Teddy lost the ability to laugh and started the joke shop. Ulli convinces Teddy to begin performing and joins him on the stage. Happily ever after? Not at all! We aren’t even half way through the movie.

The mother returns — now married. She wants to take Ulli back with her to America. So Teddy and Ulli run away together. But alas, there is nothing to be done and the mother eventually takes Ulli back with her, leaving Teddy emotionally destroyed for the second time in his life. Now if this were some piece of garbage like Kramer vs Kramer, the mother would return Ulli to Teddy. But thankfully, this is not a piece of garbage. So the film ends with Teddy as a sad clown, performing “La-Le-Lu Nur Der Mann im Mond Schaut Zu” (Only the Man in the Moon Watches).

Here is a video with three times that the song is performed in the film. It’s very sweet: