A 1927 US massacre; physics of a falling slinky;distributism and the New Class; etc.

Mail 753 Saturday, December 15, 2012


‘Criminals Are Made, Not Born.’



Roland Dobbins

I confess that I had not heard of the 1927 Bath School Disaster until this called my attention to it. It is an instructive story.


Falling slinky displays slow-motion causality .


“Researchers from the University of Sydney have explained why a spring dropped from a height – in this case the toy “slinky” – appear to ignore the force of gravity for a time. The very odd thing is that “if a slinky is hanging vertically under gravity from its top (at rest) and then released, the bottom of the slinky does not start to move downwards until the collapsing top section collides with the bottom.”


They include a fascinating video of physics in action. Puts you in mind of Wile E. Coyote.


It was a bit odd watching the video (which is inside the Register website) but halfway through oddity gives way to astonishment. Well into the video a very long slinky is released with just a bit of lateral motion given to the top of the spring. What happens next is more than counter intuitive, it is nearly astounding. The top of the spring falls faster than the ‘signal’ wave, so that the top of the spring is now falling fast enough to pass the bottom before the bottom begins to fall.

Now think about all this through the eyes of relativity, with the notion of the top and the bottom of the spring as either observer or observed object. Keep in mind the premise of relativity regarding the medium through which signals pass, and the non-existence (to relativists) of the aether in which light waves wave. Under Petr Beckmann’s non-relativity theory, there is an aether, which is the local gravitational field. Of course the ‘signal’ to the bottom of the spring that it is no longer supported and thus can start falling travels in a wave through the medium of the spring itself. You can experiment with that sort of thing with a very long rope suspended at each end: shake one end and a wave travels down the rope. You can see it. I used to do that a lot in the hopes of getting a feel for wave mechanics. It makes visualization a great deal easier.

There is a link in the Register text to the actual paper Modeling a Falling Slinky which has partial differential equations. Following them would take more concentration than I care to give this, but I am reminded of a problem we had in a mathematics class involving modeling the result of forces applied to one end of a very long and very rigid rod. That got sufficiently complex that it took a great deal of work to understand; I suspect that’s the case with the falling slinky, so I don’t think I’ll contemplate the relativistic equations this observation may require for a complete mathematical description. I suspect they would be of a complexity far beyond my abilities no matter how hard I concentrate. Relativistic descriptions of simple phenomena like aberration of the components of a spectroscopic binary get beyond the mathematics ability of nearly everyone. Fortunately they can be modeled by assuming a medium, propagation of gravity speed, and forgetting the relativity. Come to think of it, that’s just what was done here.


Dear Dr. Pournelle,

In your latest missive, you wrote:

"The actual debate here is ‘distributism’. Just how large a discrepancy between rich and poor can a republic survive? The problem with socialism and social engineering is that the money goes to finance a huge bureaucracy which grows more and more powerful, and the power of government is more oppressive than ever was that of the rich upper class. The distributist notion is to divide excess wealth among all equally. That at least doesn’t build huge government bureaucracies, and gives the recipients some choice over what they do with their windfall gains. Small is beautiful, employee owned businesses are best – etc. And of course there are many variations on the theme. It’s best explained by one of its proponents. I’ve found this <http://www.scribd.com/doc/69349217/Age-old-%E2%80%98Distributism%E2%80%99-Gains-New-Traction-The-Washington-Post> . I am sure that is much more (including of course some of the work of Chesterton and Belloc)."

I can think of two things to contribute to the conversation on this:

1) It occurs to me that distributism will prove to exacerbate the gap between rich and poor, not close it. Why? Because the wealthiest of the wealthy can afford lawyers to protect them, offshore accounts, and friends in government. Saw a lot of the revolving door when I was in defense contracting. The ultimate result is a very few large companies like old-style AT&T or General Electric or GM locking up most of the wealth and productivity while the underclass grows.

In order to close the gap between rich and poor, we need to provide some way for poor people to become rich. Which means to foster economic opportunity, provide minimum barrier to creating new businesses, and allow people who make wealth to keep it. If you want to hammer really big combinations like GE or Microsoft or Borders or Walmart to allow more mom-and-pop stores , fine. But current government policy fosters and rewards the huge players (who oftentimes are the only ones who can afford things like CMMI-5 level processes) while making it harder for the little ones to play.

Of course the current administration is pursing diametrically opposite policies. All I can say to that is thank God for term limits, and we will have chances to reverse course. I believe the US as we once knew it is permanently and irrevocably dead, but that doesn’t mean life has to be miserable. The Roman Empire was not the Roman Republic, but it was still a sight better than a lot of other places out there.

2) I have recently read two books on very disparate cultures — "Blood and Thunder" by Hampton Sides describing the war with the Navajo, and "The Sex Lives of Cannibals", by J. Marten Troost , on life on Tarawa as the husband of an aid worker.

Both of these cultures have this in common: Personal wealth is considered very poor taste. Wealthy people are — or were — expected to give away much of their wealth to the tribe. To be outstanding was to be considered guilty of witchcraft.

While this sounds more "fair", the result of the societal approach is a subsistence level of society marked by poverty. Instead of having everyone equal in wealth we have everyone equal in poverty and squalor, because no one will step out to do anything as the fruits of their labor will be snatched away from them.

It’s not at all different from what Sam Clemens described in "The Innocents Abroad"



The Emperor of Morocco is a soulless despot, and the great officers under him are despots on a smaller scale. There is no regular system of taxation, but when the Emperor or the Bashaw want money, they levy on some rich man, and he has to furnish the cash or go to prison. Therefore, few men in Morocco dare to be rich. It is too dangerous a luxury. Vanity occasionally leads a man to display wealth, but sooner or later the Emperor trumps up a charge against him—any sort of one will do—and confiscates his property. Of course, there are many rich men in the empire, but their money is buried, and they dress in rags and counterfeit poverty. Every now and then the Emperor imprisons a man who is suspected of the crime of being rich, and makes things so uncomfortable for him that he is forced to discover where he has hidden his money.

Moors and Jews sometimes place themselves under the protection of the foreign consuls, and then they can flout their riches in the Emperor’s face with impunity."

Morocco wasn’t exactly a beacon for the 19th century Mediterranean either.

The lessons of history are clear and indisputable: Humans being what they are, if society is to prosper ordinary humans must have the ability to become rich. This means both minimizing the barriers to their doing so and a willingness to break up combinations that will hoard capital. It’s a shame we will have to relearn those lessons as a culture, but learning is better than willful ignorance.


Brian P.

Of course the mechanisms of confiscation always generate results you didn’t expect or want. Redistributing the wealth of the 10% or even the 2% wealthiest in the United States will not likely make anyone rich except those who are managing the despoiling. That has always been the great failure of socialism: it always works out in practice to create a New Class (Djilas has much to say on that) while at the same time greatly reducing the wealth to be distributed, so that the poorest become even poorer, the middle class becomes less wealthy, and even the New Class – nomenklatura, party officials, union leaders, etc. – is often less wealthy than they would be if the economy worked properly. As Mrs. Thatcher said, the problem with socialism is that you run out of other people’s money.

As to social conventions, probably the most easily examined example would be Zurich, where you have immensely wealthy people living in fairly modest means by choice. Of course I live near the somewhat different examples of Malibu and parts of Beverly Hills. Living in the filthy rich style comes and goes in and out of fashion in irregular cycles.

The real lesson to be learned is that if you are going to try to reduce the disparity between rich and poor, you should do it in a way that doesn’t create a class who can exist only by continuing the process. Setting up a “disparity of wealth” bureaucracy is never a good idea – it will always find that the disparity is too great, and the bureaucracy needs more highly paid agents.

At the same time, we have learned more than once that “too big to fail” should be too big to exist, and that too great a concentration of capital can be as inefficient as the confiscation of all capital. The concept of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was to stop actions in restraint of trade and break up monopoly power. It didn’t always work as intended – certainly folks who’ve got money can scratch where they itch, and will always look for means to defend what they have, often through fairly desperate and sometimes violent means.

Great discrepancy in wealth always tempts demagogues to incite the people into despoiling the rich and “spread the wealth around”.

The point I am trying to make is that there are institutions that are too big to fail, and thus ought to reorganized into institutions any one of which can be allowed to fail. Instead of Five Huge Banks we would all be better off with fifty or a hundred smaller ones. And those government financial institutions which are beginning to dwarf everything else are themselves creating dangerous powers. The “student loan” phenomena pours more money into the Universities which can always absorb the money and will never go back to lower costs; and meanwhile the entire middle class is subjected to lifetime enthralldom to government agencies and bureaucracies. I find that horrifying.

It would be better if everyone didn’t graduate with a lifetime debt, but it is worse when that debt is owed to government and can never be forgiven no matter what the circumstances. Yet we seem headed there, and no one seems to care.


‘Last year, he took home $822,302, all of it paid by taxpayers.’


Roland Dobbins

Public sector employment is best



Not that you’re a big fan of government employees as a general rule, but can you imagine someone instrumental in finding Bin Laden is stuck at a lower grade than people coordinating corporate tax shelter work at another agency?


Over the past year, she was denied a promotion that would have raised her civil service rank from GS-13 to GS-14, bringing an additional $16,000 in annual pay.

–Unsigned for obvious reasons…

The new class at work. Socialism always creates these. Lest anyone get the idea that I am an anarchist, I understand that we need and are often well served by a civil service. My observation has been that it always works in its own interest, and sometimes needs to be restrained and reorganized.  If I had my way we would begin by passing the old Hatch Act on political activities of Federal employees. Accepting civil service employment forfeits your political rights including advocacy and donation to political causes.


A Poor Constraint on Power


In View, 12/12/12 you wrote, "Power can be checked only by other power."

The power of the King can be constrained by shame. It certainly does not work well, but here and there a King stops before exercising power.

It seems to me that shame no longer exists in our culture.

Regards, Charles Adams, Bellevue, NE

Heaven and Hell are both rumored to be absolute monarchies. Monarchy is always the best form of government for large states – but only if you can assure that you have a good monarch. Alas, that doesn’t always work. As witness the events before and after the death of Marcus Aurelius (see the movie Gladiator for a fictionalized account). The laws of heredity assure that once in a while you will get a good king, and kings spend the early parts of their lives learning how to do the job of being king. Democracy assures that whomever you get as supreme leader will have spent all of his life learning how to get the job, and not so much on learning how to do it. So it goes.

The genius of the Framers was to divide power, giving the federal government enough – but just enough – to assure the survival of the Union without giving it the power to meddle in such matters as the public schools or religion (the States were assured of the right to create Established Churches supported by public taxes if they so wished) or wages. The general run of government was left to the states with the view that if one overtaxed its citizens they would flee West or to another state. And so forth.

But now federal supremacy has upset that balance and created an elected king who spends his life campaigning.


U of Chicago Law on The Mote

The Mote in God’s Eye made the latest list of books (row 6, item 4) recommended by the faculty of the University of Chicago Law School: http://webcast-law.uchicago.edu/facultyreading/

Dale Beihoffer

As well it should. Thanks…