Germany, Japan, and nation-building

Two common cases cited by proponents of “nation-building” are the great successes that Western powers had in post-World War II Germany and Japan. Even if efforts failed in other places it’s clear that these two countries bounced back from the war to become leading nations in the world, and with the right inputs we can reproduce that kind of success elsewhere, they argue.

(I’ll leave aside the fact that I think this is almost never really a goal for people who make these arguments. Geopolitical and military-industrial concerns are usually paramount, in my opinion, but let’s grant that their intentions are not malicious for the sake of argument.)

The mistake here is that these nations were not “built” after World War II, they were rebuilt. Both were already complex societies with private property rights, industry, law, art, and customs that made them successful. Granted, there were ugly, primitive trends in both societies that were exploited by their governing regimes, but the difference between both societies pre- and post-war was that these regimes were removed. Most of the rest of the epiphenomena of their cultures remained intact, and almost all of what had to be rebuilt was simply physical infrastructure.

In Marshall Plan aid Germany received 63% and 44% of what France and the United Kingdom received, respectively, yet its recovery (after the punitive measures imposed by the occupying powers were lifted) was swift. To this day it is the economic powerhouse of Europe. Japan likewise continued its swift upward trend after the war, stagnating only later due to domestic policies.

In contrast, a country like Afghanistan can mostly only be “built” from scratch. After almost 11 years of American occupation it lacks most of the characteristics that the two major Axis powers had before World War II. I don’t mean to say that economic progress is impossible for the people there, only that any analogies to Japan and Germany are bound to be wrong. On top of that, an occupying military regime hardly has the knowledge or incentives to help a society develop. A country’s own government with all of its powers, offices, and personnel cannot do this, much less a hostile occupying force in another country.


The JFK Assassination, pt. 12: the backyard photos

JFK assassination researchers have done a lot of analysis of the infamous backyard photos. Many insist they were forgeries, as Lee Oswald was alleged to have done. Many people, including most of the experts asked by the government to analyze them, believe that they are genuine. I’m not a photographic expert, and I don’t really have a position on this. The fact that they were found (or “found”) by the police only on their second search of the Payne house is a little suspect, but it could be true.

From my position, I don’t see that it really matters. I’ve discussed before how it seems that Oswald was engaged in some kind of deep cover infiltration of pro-Castro groups and how elements above him carefully planned to frame him for the assassination. His clandestine background would help them as long as only parts of it were revealed. These photos could easily form one of those parts—made so that he would appear to be a genuine communist agitator, when in fact that was simply a role he played on assignment. This would also explain the odd message on the back of the photo that George de Mohrenschildt’s widow gave to the HSCA.

In other words, the photos don’t present a challenge for what I think happened one way or the other. Sure, they could have been faked. Sure, they could be real. It doesn’t change my version either way.

Commentary on two news items: the Aurora shooting and the Penn State penalties

Two stories are really big right now in the news, and people keep posting their feelings about them so why don’t I?

1. The Aurora shooter. The usual noise after a shooting episode is about gun control laws. Actually, it’s primarily news outlets pondering if this will lead to more debate about gun control laws. For the record, I think there should be less gun control, not more. I’ve already written why I think so, so I’ll just quote it here:

On a smaller scale, one of the arguments supporting gun rights is that there will be guns out there, and the choice is between allowing responsible citizens to have them and forbidding them to, given that in either situation criminals will have them. Clearly, it is desirable for non-criminals to have access to them. Now a thought experiment: let’s suppose it’s possible for the gun fairy to make all the guns in the area in question disappear. Would this be more desirable than the gun-proliferation option? I would say no. Without guns, the 250 lb., 6’6″ criminal knows that there will be very little resistance when he breaks in with a bat. At best, the tenant has another bat, and the criminal’s odds are pretty good. He’s much more likely to come out of that situation healthy than he is to come out of the parallel situation in which both sides have guns. Thus, even in this case we should want the gun fairy to take no action.

Although the story is still developing, it seems as though the alleged perpetrator went to great lengths to kill people, including setting up a very elaborate set of booby traps in his apartment. If he could not have acquired the guns and ammo it took to commit the mass killing, he was prepared to use other means. It’s simply not possible to set up a society in which no lunatic can kill people. The essential problem is still the same: should we make it easier or harder for people to defend themselves? Put that way, the answer seems obvious to me.

2. The Penn State penalties. I know it’s not fair to the past, present, and near future football players who had nothing to do with the crimes. However, given the magnitude of the screw-up, I am ok with what the NCAA did. While the punishment is being described as “unprecedented”, the cover-up is also unprecedented.

Guys like Jerry Sandusky probably know deep down that they are doing wrong but can’t stop themselves. It is up to the people who can to stop them. In this case, Paterno refused to take action, as did a host of other people. If they had acted immediately, no penalties would have been appropriate. Not only did they fail to act, this failure continued and grew for years. There were many accessories after the fact, in other words, and they were deeply involved in the program, not simply random bad apples.

The penalties serve two purposes: punishment and deterrent. They punish a program that at its core was concerned only to limit damage to itself, including Joe Paterno. They (hopefully) will deter other programs from being more concerned about their football programs than about serious crimes happening on their watch. This will rightly overshadow all of the good things about Paterno’s career.

The JFK Assassination, pt. 11: Things that don’t add up about Lee Oswald

Lee Harvey Oswald* is the central character in the official version of the John F. Kennedy assassination, but many things about him—in that story—don’t quite fit together.

1. To start with, the fact that he defected to the USSR and came back so easily. This has naturally led many to suspect he had some kind of intelligence connection. He is said to have announced to the US Embassy in Moscow that he wanted to renounce his US citizenship and that he would give the Soviets information he learned as a Marine. Despite this, he kept his citizenship and the US embassy later assisted his travel back to the US.

His wife Marina later said in an interview that he was a proud American and would talk about politics with her family, including speaking positively about the newly-elected Kennedy. Jim Garrison suspected that he was being trained by Naval Intelligence based on the fact that he was given a Russian language exam, a rare occurrence for a private in the Marines. Jim Garrison has been criticized on a number of points, but this particular question is worth pondering.

It’s clear that the worldwide Communist movement was the “security” establishment’s main concern during this period, and that considerable resources were spent on espionage, counterespionage, infiltration, monitoring, etc. Not all of this was done in-house, either. The CIA had a lot of employees on the beat, but beyond that was a huge network of allied organizations, informants, infiltrators, and enthusiasts. Specific movements, e.g. the anti-Castro movement, were full of people allied with but not technically in the employ of the CIA. John le Carré’s book The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a great, if fictionalized account of somebody on the margins of government employ during this period.

Given these facts and this background, it’s hard to believe that Lee Oswald was not working for the US government when he went to the Soviet Union.

2. Next is the stumping for Castro period in New Orleans. Oswald was reported by many sources to be an “associate” of Guy Banister, who appears to have been one of the CIA’s point men for anti-Castro organization in the area. He is known to have been the founder and only member of a local pro-Castro group and to have distributed pro-Castro literature. He even went on the radio for this purpose. However, and this is very subjective, his manner when questioned does not suggest a man passionately devoted to the ideas he spouts. Given point #1 above, and his known association with Banister, and the information in Buddy Walther’s report about having files on “Cuban sympathizers” in his house, it seems that in this case too he was playing a role assigned to him by somebody else.

I’m fascinated by many of the specific stories about what Oswald did in New Orleans at this time, although I know that many of them are probably false. However the overall framework given here does not rely on any one witness being credible or any one story being faithfully reported.

3. Credible stories abound of Lee Oswald being observed in this or that place where he may not have been, perhaps most importantly Mexico City. Somebody went to a lot of trouble to create one or more narratives about Oswald before the assassination, and it had to be somebody with the resources, organization, and motive to do so and keep it quiet later. That sounds like the activities of an intelligence agency, or at least activities directed by an intelligence agency.

As further evidence, Marina Oswald said in an interview many years later that both she and Lee Oswald were observed in places around Dallas before the assassination that she never in fact went to. (This is one case where I am relying on one witness, because she seemed to me to be telling the truth. It doesn’t make sense why she would lie in that context, and I’ve never heard it disputed although I imagine it is somewhere.) Even if this is not true, the main point still stands.

[For the scope and thoroughness of reported incidents, however credible, see here.]

4. Now we come to the most notorious “fact” about Oswald: shooting Kennedy. As is written in numerous other places, even if he did shoot Kennedy it’s not physically possible that he was the only shooter. This is an important point but it is dealt with elsewhere so I will keep this point brief here.

5. Long recognized is another weak spot in the official story, the murder of Officer J.D. Tippit. Oswald’s guilt here was considered very important to the overall narrative, except that the eyewitness testimony pretty clearly did not clearly implicate Oswald at all. Witnesses variously described two shooters, or a short man with bushy hair, or another man who was not Oswald. The recreation of Oswald’s alleged journey down the street was inconclusive as well; it’s possible that there was enough time, but it’s not certain. Moreover, this episode might put Oswald heading in the wrong direction if it is to fit with the rest of the story. All told, somebody shot Officer Tippit but there’s no reason to believe that Oswald was that man, and various reasons to believe that he wasn’t. Oswald was eventually identified in police line-ups, though these police line-ups were manipulated in every way possible to produce that result, and lack any credibility.

6. Lee Oswald declared to reporters “I’m just a patsy.” Could that be true? Points 1 and 2 at least imply the possibility that he could have been a government operative of some kind. Point 3 indicates that somebody was setting him up for something. Point 4 demonstrates that the plot, whatever it was, was larger than just him. Point 5 indicates that somebody really wanted the crime pinned on him even to the possible extent of framing him for yet another crime and using that to relate him to the first.

Why wouldn’t he say more about it to reporters? This I can only speculate on, but it’s important to remember that he had a wife and small children. His mother was still alive. His relationship with his wife was not perfect, and I don’t know much about his relationship with his mother, but all of his neighbors in Dallas said that he loved his children and took great joy in being with them. Threats against them, even if they were only in his mind, would have been very effective in keeping him quiet. As he couldn’t have known he was going to be murdered only two days later, he may have hoped for a way to exonerate himself later without exposing his family to danger.

I could be wrong about any or all of this, but at each point I have taken the position that seems to me to make the most sense among the competing explanations. Taking a cue from public choice economics, I don’t make unrealistic assumptions about the behavior of government agencies; on the contrary, based on known evidence, these assumptions seem more realistic than the official version.

It goes without saying that there are many other things about Lee Oswald in the official story that don’t add up either. These are just an important few.

* I think the responsible thing for Kennedy assassination researchers and enthusiasts to do is to refer to him as Lee Oswald, not as Lee Harvey Oswald. It seems the full-name treatment is supposed to make him stand out in some weird way, which is already granting half of the case to the party line inventors. He did not go by Lee Harvey Oswald during his life, and whenever I can I write simply Lee Oswald.

Us vs. Them vs. Libertarians

I’m puzzled by the continuing dominance of the “left vs. right” mode of political thinking. Neither left nor right in the current senses, the libertarian position is so natural and intuitive to me that I have trouble understanding why most people think in left vs. right terms and insist on categorizing others in those same terms.

However, it makes sense if these are not consistent political ideologies but very broad group identities. David Friedman has mentioned this theme several times (and the one I found first was this one). When there is already an “us vs. them” system it’s only confusing and frustrating to have to add another category. Especially if that category is “sometimes us, sometimes them”, which leads all too quickly to “functionally them” and then to dismissal without investigating.

I don’t know a great way to combat this tendency except to point out where libertarians are better on some position than the alleged defenders of that position in the Team Blue vs. Team Red spectrum. Better on low taxes than Republicans. Better on war than Democrats. Etc. When there are enough of us making these points, perhaps the larger teams will have to admit that they don’t really care that much about said issues—they just like being part of those teams.