On socialism, incentives, and kibbutzim

Mark Perry discusses the failure of socialism. Among the cardinal features he singles out is the fact that, if you allow me to translate him into engineering lingo, the system is “not robust”: all it takes for the system to fail is a few people behaving like, well, jerks. In contrast, imperfect as capitalism may be, it’s the equivalent of a piece of machinery that only works “well enough”, but keeps going and going even if severely abused — a “robust” design.

Aside from that, Perry particularly stresses the role of incentives. Now if I’m ever asked to summarize economics while standing on one foot (the Talmudic version of “give an elevator pitch”), I’d say: “Humans respond to incentives. All the rest is commentary.” I am sure Steven Levitt would like this as a summary of his bestselling “Freakonomics” series.

Periodically, people bring up the Israeli kibbutzim in this debate — socialists as an example of “socialism that works”, detractors of Israel (when speaking to conservative or libertarian audiences) as a reason to dislike Israel. Few of them actually have any familiarity with life on a kibbutz.* Unlike them, I have plenty of current and former kibbutzniks around me, and I’ve lived in a kibbutz-like community in the past.

In fact, they are remarkably similar to medieval monasteries from a socio-economic point of view, except of course for the enforced celibacy and religious orientation. Allow me to elaborate on this point a bit. For those interested in more detail, Stanford University economist Ran Abramitzky has published a number of very interesting papers on the subject just as this one and that one.

Some of the points old-school kibbutzim and monasteries (both quasi-socialist micro societies, at least historically) have in common:

  • membership is voluntary (for the first generation of kibbutzniks)
  • prospective members are strongly screened for ideological and personal compatibility
  • even when admitted, they have to go through a probation period (novitiate in monasteries, provisional member status in kibbutzim)
  • they are generally small enough that each individual member knows (almost) all the others personally, which enables:
  • a level of social control that would be unbearable to most Americans. One could go as far as to say that the economic incentive to individuals in such communities has been replaced by a social one: the approval (or censure) of fellow members.

For all the talk about them, it might be hard to believe that kibbutzim only account for a few percent of Israel’s population. Aside from speaking to the imagination, they played a larger-than-life role in Israel’s founding, and still are heavily represented in IDF combat units and in the political scene.

Considering the value that left-wingers attach to “diversity”, Dr. Abramitzky rightly points out that kibbutzim are just about the least “diverse” society one can imagine. Separate kibbutz movements existed for hardline socialists (HaKibbutz HaArtzi), moderate socialists (TAKA”M, Hebrew acronym for United Kibbutz Movement) and religious kibbutzim (HaKibbutz HaDati). Ideological rifts within a kibbutz can end, and have ended, in kibbutz splits — Ein Harod being a prominent example.

The membership of most kibbutzim were nearly wall-to-wall Ashkenazim of Central and Eastern European background — moreover, the founding gar’in (“core” [membership group]) of a kibbutz often all hailed from the same town! A few carefully vetted members of different origins might gain admission, or a like-minded group of such people might found a kibbutz of their own. A few individual kibbutzim were formed by somewhat ‘out there’ communities: Hararit, for instance, was originally founded by a group of  Transcendental Meditation devotees. (She-yihyu bri’im/”bless their hearts”.)

There are a few really large kibbutzim, such as Giv`at Brenner (secular, about 1,700) or Kvutzat Yavne (religious, about 1,100). But more typically, membership is in the range of a couple hundred — which Dr. Abramitzky points out is near the limit of the human mind’s ability to process personal relationships. Kibbutzim that grow larger than that may eventually see rifts or be weakened by attrition — or a gar`in would form and a new kibbutz would be established elsewhere.

The model of “from each voluntary and vetted member according to their abilities, to everyone according to their needs and our resources” worked, after a fashion, until the 1980s. Worldwide economic changes that made agriculture and light industry less profitable were one factor. The second (sometimes third) generation of kibbutzniks being born into a model they had not taken upon themselves voluntarily was another. Many kibbutzim started experiencing an exodus of young people, particularly the talented and ambitious ones.

The 1980s financial “Kibbutz Crisis” forced most kibbutzim to reform in order to stave off bankruptcy. Some were privatized outright and turned into community villages that just retain “Kibbutz” as part of their name. The remainder exist in one of three models:

  • kibbutz mitchadesh, or “renewing kibbutz”, where every member’s only sources of income are their own, from work or trade inside or outside the kibbutz. This is presently the dominant model;
  • kibbutz shitufi (pronounced “sheetoofee”), or “sharing kibbutz”: the old-school model rebooted (a small minority);
  • kibbutz meshulav, or “combined kibbutz”: a hybrid model with wage differentiation

A few “urban kibbutzim” have been founded in recent years, where members voluntarily associate into such a form of living in an urban setting. Some of these groups are a little weird (centering around ecological or “alternative” obsessions), others more mainstream. The key word is, however, voluntary. Such “socialism” is not scalable to a large and diverse country of inhabitants mostly by birth rather than choice.

To the extent the kibbutz/monastery form of “socialism” ever worked, it did so because it was voluntary, vetted, tightly knit, and in tune with local economic circumstances. When one or more of these factors no longer pertained, it had no choice but to transform or disappear.

(*) Footnote: a kibbutz should not be confused with a moshav, which is an agricultural community organized as a smallholders’ cooperative.



I have been filled with a sense of foreboding recently.

The lib-left Inner Party has been overreaching and playing with fire. Soon they may get a reward they never bargained for, and the rest of us may get a cure that is as bad as the disease.

When you have insanity like this going on (just the most recent of heaps of examples)

SIGNS OF CIVILIZATIONAL COLLAPSE: Danish teen fought off her attacker – now she’ll face fine… via

And anybody who speaks up is shouted down by tarring them with the “R”, “S”, or “H” scarlet letters, eventually people get so angry that they will glom onto the first demagogue who dares say out loud what they themselves are thinking, and who does not try to wish the elephant in the room away (or worse, play a shell game with it).

Furthermore, when you keep trying to muzzle people by speciously accusing them of being “racists”, “sexists”, “homophobes”,… eventually some will say “I may as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb” and join truly unsavory elements.

All of this is utterly predictable to anyone with an elemental feel for mass psychology. Hence the rise of a blowhard demagogue like Trump. Note that I am not accusing him of being the R, S, or H words – I think Trump’s entire ideology starts and ends with his own 0bama-sized ego. Nature abhors a vacuum, Trump saw it, filled the void, and is obtaining the narcissistic supply from it he seeks. Think of the “Mirror, Mirror” episode of Star Trek (TOS), and what 0bama would look like in the parallel universe where Spock had a beard.

Trump may not get the nomination. If he does, he stands a very serious chance of being elected. Contrary to the prejudices of some, this prospect is giving many constitutional conservatives sleepless nights. A number of years ago, a dystopian novel named “Caliphate” (Baen Free Library Link) was published which prefigured not only the rise of an ISIS-like movement but also the rise to power of a populist politician who promptly proceeds to use the legal and bureaucratic tools put in place by his lib-left predecessor against the ones who created them in the first place.


And that is just the US. In Europe, I see similar things happening. Sane liberals, moderates, and constitutional conservatives alike watch in horror as a three-cornered psychodrama unfolds: between an ever more delusional looney left out-virtue-signaling each other; an ever more psychotic Islamofascism; and a yearning for/resurgence of authoritarian populist-right strongmen.

Cinema buffs may know the following eerie Chopin Prelude (No. 2 in A minor) from the Ingmar Bergman movie “Autumn Sonata”. All the preludes were given nicknames in Hans von Bülow’s edition (e.g. the “Raindrop” for No. 15 in Db major). This one was given the heading “Todesahnung”, German for “foreboding of death”.

I’m a natural “dark optimist” — worried about things that can go wrong, wanting to stitch in time to save nine, but fundamentally with a deep sense thing will turn out alright in the end.

But like in the hoary Jewish joke, “you think it’s easy being an optimist?”


Publishers, you need to hear this

The same sort of hidebound small-mindedness that is decimating the music industry is now doing the same for publishing. Meanwhile, production values of Big Five books keep declining while those of indie books keep improving. Another chapter in the Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Mad Genius Club

It continues to amaze me that now, years after e-books became a viable alternative to printed books, we are still having discussions about e-book pricing. When you look at what the Big 5 are saying about e-book sales vs what you see in the Author Earnings reports, you have to ask if they are operating in different worlds, maybe even universes. One tells us that e-book sales are slowing to the point of almost being flat. The other tells us the opposite. You look at the best seller lists on Amazon and you see more and more mid and small press books — as well as indie — finding their way onto the lists. So who is right?

If you want to be honest, both are. I have no doubt sales for Big 5 e-books are slowing. All you have to do is look at the pricing of their e-books…

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Double book review: “Domino” by Kia Heavey and “Chasing Freedom” by Marina Fontaine

Within a couple of days, both of the co-moderators of CLFA (Conservative Libertarian Fiction Alliance) had noteworthy books come out, one indie, the other published under the auspices of Amazon’s own Kindle Press. Kindle Unlimited subscribers can enjoy both books for free. If you do not own a Kindle, official reader apps are available for all major computer and mobile device OSes.


Chasing Freedom” ($2.99 on Kindle, $10.99 in paperback),  Marina Fontaine’s powerful debut novel, was seeded by a short story submitted to a flash fiction context at Liberty Island. The story itself does not appear in the book, but the premises of its world building are rooted in it.

The novel is a near-future dystopia, but a very realistic one. Technology features, but all of it extant and in use as of the time of writing. As the author herself puts it, you can’t have much technological progress in a society where creativity is stifled.

The government is ‘elected’ between nominally ‘different’ Tweedledee and Tweedledum parties. In practice, it is best described as ‘soft totalitarian’. It holds an iron grip on both the flow of information and the lives of its subjects. Suburbs have been forcibly emptied out in the name of ‘restoring the environment’, with most people living in micro-apartments in overcrowded cities, eating subsistence-level processed rations. Healthcare is spotty and heavily rationed. The population resorts to a variety of coping and avoidance mechanisms that sound familiar to anyone who has lived in the former USSR or one of its satellite states. (Marina emigrated to the USA as a young adult.)

A Russian author invariably evokes images of very long novels that move at a glacial pace. As the fictional Howard Anderson quipped to his former operations officer, admiral Ivan Antonov, in “The Stars At War”:

“I read a Russian novel once,” Anderson cut in bleakly. “People with unpronounceable names did nothing for seven hundred and eighty-three pages, after which somebody’s aunt died.”

Not this novel. It is written very tightly (though not unpleasantly so), with essentially no fluff. The author was almost apologetic about its ‘short’ length, until I pointed out her book is about the same length as “Brave New World”, about 65K words (roughly the median length of novels on Amazon).

If you need superpowers, over-the-top action, and improbable Mary Sue superheroes to enjoy your fiction, go elsewhere. One of the most refreshing features to me was the novel’s realism: the protagonists are clever and resourceful but not implausibly so, while the antagonists are not ‘love-to-hate’ cartoon villains but ordinary, flawed people who gradually sell their soul to an inhuman system.
Marina writes like a native speaker. I could only find one typo: “his metal state”, which may have been Freudian, considering Marina’s musical predilections.

I read the book in two sittings and enjoyed the heck out of it.


In contrast, Kia Heavey’s third novel “Domino” is a tale set in the animal kingdom. Its device of anthropomorphism in animals goes back to at least Aesop’s Fables — fittingly, Kyriaki (Kia) is of Greek heritage herself. Unlike Marina’s independently published novel, this book was published by Amazon under its own Kindle Press imprint after being nominated through the Kindle Scout program.

The eponymous protagonist is a tomcat keeping the suburban house of his mistress free of mice and rats. He lives in an uneasy truce with the dog and protects the chicken coop against small predators. In the process he makes the acquaintance of a mysterious but beguiling female feline who lives and hunts in the wild. The cats have an informal social life of sorts.

Then a mysterious feline orator named “Socrates” moves into the neighborhood, and starts preaching a message of coexistence between cats and rats. This ‘community organizer’, if you like, is manipulated by a couple of rodents through stroking his enormous intellectual and moral vanity. (Sounds familiar?)

Soon the entire neighborhood is predictably infested with rodents, who then start nibbling away (literally and metaphorically) at the lives of the others and upsetting the local equilibrium.

The theme of ‘social justice’ being imposed by moral preeners who need not live with the consequences, or make any of the sacrifices, runs strong. It gets to the point where cats with kittens are forced to feed ratlings out of ‘fairness’ even when they can hardly keep their own alive.

It is difficult to talk more about the plot without leaving spoilers. Suffice to say, the tale is well told, at a fairly brisk pace, and its denouement surprising.

One need not be a cat person to enjoy this book: I’m a lifelong dog person and was quickly drawn in, to furious yips and howls of ‘Treason!’ on the part of my faithful rat terrier.

Amazon appears to outsource its editing to a well-known firm in the business: the book looked as professional as anything I’ve seen from a major publishing house.

“Domino” can be enjoyed on several levels. For children and young teenagers, there’s a delightful animal adventure. For those who love the outdoors, Kia offers plenty of great atmosphere without getting long-winded.

Older and more politically literate readers, of course, will surely recognize the allegory: although the book is not an outright roman à clef , many of the calamities that befall the animals in the wake of “Socrates” have parallels in current or historical events, even as any allegory can only be taken so far.

Both “Chasing Freedom” and “Domino” are highly enjoyable reads, and both eBooks a steal at $2.99 and $3.49, respectively. I suggest buying both. Kindle Unlimited subscribers of course, can read both books for free.



Is Recruiting the Laziest Part Of A Company?

Read and weep.

The Arts Mechanical

It would seem so.


Look how hard they work to avoid doing their job.  First they have the computer flush 75% or more of the people applying.

First, reduce the number of résumés to be read

By now you’ve heard about the applicant tracking system (ATS) and understand its purpose, to eliminate as many résumés to read as possible. Simply stated, it screens résumés for keywords and phrases. Those without the proper keywords don’t make the cut.

To give you an idea of the sheer number of applicant for each job: according to Jobvite.com, nearly 100 résumés are submitted for professional positions and 150 for other entry level.

The ATS effectively eliminates 75% of résumés submitted for a position, but even reading 25 résumés can be a burden

Heaven forbid they should actually read the resumes people send to them.

And the ones that get glanced at?

Second, read the…

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Global Cooling – 1870s Style

From “TXRed”, some interesting observations about climate history in Texas, and how global cooling could make us BEG for “global warming”

Cat Rotator's Quarterly

Some of my long-term research projects require paying attention to local and regional weather and climate patters, often going back several hundred years if possible. When you start digging that far at that level of detail, interesting things appear, the sort of thing that makes you sit back and go, “huh. I’m kinda glad I wasn’t there then,” or “Geepers, no wonder they [action]. If both those rivers went dry, I’d [action] too.” As more and more historians are pulling more and more climate data and weather observation into their work, it’s becoming apparent that while we certainly cannot, and should not, credit or blame climate events for all human actions, the weather has played more of a role than we’ve previously given it credit for. Geoffrey Parker’s book about the 17th century is probably going to become one of the classics in terms of that, up there with Le…

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Of New Years and Old Calendars

The Gregorian calendar is so deeply embedded in Western culture that people take it for granted — even those of us who deal with another calendar for religious purposes. But what exactly does it stem from? Below is an attempt at a “TL;DR” summary.

Calendar systems

All the leading calendar systems in the world can be classified in three categories: solar, lunar, and lunisolar. It was from Bernard Lewis, I believe, that I first read about the link between calendar system and type of society. Early Roman society, for instance, was agricultural so it gravitated toward a solar calendar, as the rhythm of the seasons dictated. In contrast, early Islamic society was primarily urban and nomadic, and seasons meant very little, so the Islamic calendar is lunar (to this day). Lunisolar calendars, such as the Babylonian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese,… calendars, reflect mixed agricultural-urban societies.

The vagaries of the different calendar systems, then, are attempts to cope with two basic astronomical facts: the moon taking an average 29.53 days to complete one orbit around the earth (“synodic month”), and the Earth taking an average 365.24219 days to do the same around the sun (“tropical year”).

Ancient Roman calendars

The first documented calendar was attributed to Romulus, legendary co-founder (with Remus) of Rome in 753 BCE. It had 10 months of 30 or 31 days with a total of 304 days, plus a winter period. The first month was the month of vernal (spring) equinox: Martius (named after Mars, the Roman idol of war). The second through fourth months were named Aprilis (from “aperta”/open, as the Earth was ‘opened’ for seed); Maius from Maia, the idol of growth; and Junius, possibly from Juno (the wife of Jupiter). The remaining six months were prosaically named “5th” through “10th” in Latin: Quintilius, Sextilius, September, October, November, and December.

Under the 2nd of the Seven Roman Kings, Numa Pompilius, a reform took place, in which the winter period was replaced by two new months: Januarius (after the two-faced idol Janus) and 28-day Februarius (after Februa, the Roman festival of purification). As even numbers were considered unlucky, all months except Februarius had either 31 or 29 days. The total of 355 days meant that every few years, by priestly decree, an Intercalary Month had to be added to keep the calendar roughly aligned with the solar year: it was inserted between 23 February and 24 February.


Years were counted AUC (ab urbe condita, from the founding of the city, i.e., Rome).

Julian calendar

From considering equinoxes and solstices, ancient Greek astronomers already had figured out that the solar year is something close to 365 1/4 days, even if they had it backwards as to what rotates around what.

This, combined with the difficulty of communicating a priestly decision across a far-flung empire,  inspire the 46 BCE (708 AUC) calendar reform by Julius Caesar (hence “Julian”). The months acquire their current lengths, leading to a 365-day year, plus a leap years with an extra day in February every 4 years. Sounds familiar?

After the assassination of Julius Caesar, Quintilis was renamed in his honor and memory as Julius in 44 BCE; during the reign of the first “official” emperor Augustus, Sextilis was renamed in his honor 8 BCE. So now we have the year pretty much in the form we know it.

Gradually this calendar was adopted throughout the Western and Eastern roman empire, later to all lands that became Christianized.

Gregorian calendar

The solstices and equinoxes shift by about 11 minutes a year in the Julian calendar. As a result, Christmas and Easter drift away from the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, respectively, by about one day every 131 years.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII promulgated a calendar modification in which the leap year is skipped at the turn of every century, except if the century is divisible by four. The resulting average year of 365.2425 days is tolerably close to the solar year. A onetime realignment correction was made: the days from October 5-14, 1582 were simply skipped.

Catholic countries made the switch immediately, Protestant ones followed suit later. The UK and its colonies officially switched in 1752. Where ambiguity exists about which calendar a given date refers to, dates are conventionally followed by O.S. (“Old Style”) if Julian, and N.S. (“New Style”) if Gregorian.

Countries in which the prevailing religion was Orthodox Christianity were much slower to abandon the Julian calendar. Russia only switched in 1918, February 1 (O.S.) becoming February 14 (N.S.). This is the reason, incidentally, why the October Revolution (O.S.) actually took place in November (N.S.) for the West. Greece switched even later, on March 1, 1923 (N.S.).

Of the principal churches of the Eastern Communion, the Greek Orthodox Church (including its US branch [*]) has switched to a Revised Julian Calendar proposed by M. Milanković (yes, he of the cycles!), which is effectively identical to the Gregorian until 2800. The Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian,… Orthodox churches continue to use the Julian calendar, as do the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem and the Greek Old Calendarists. Until 2100, Julian dates can be converted to Gregorian ones by adding 13 days: for example, Russian Orthodox Christmas actually takes place on January 7.

In Russia since Soviet days, January 1 (N.S.) is celebrated as a secular winter holiday (“Novy God”) into which many Christmas/Yuletide traditions were co-opted.

Here’s to a Happy Gregorian New Year!




[*] Many thanks to Kia Tsakos Heavey for clarification.