Morality clause

Legal is not always fair

What is legal isn’t always fair. Perhaps the role of morality in law is too small. Because people have different views about what is right and what is wrong, the prevailing liberal view in many Western societies is that people should be free to do as they please unless their actions harm others. But even that view may justify a greater role of ethics in law.

Moral issues can be contentious and people reason according to their beliefs and political views. The following arguments may illustrate that:

  • Liberals might be concerned with the rights of criminals in jail but not of the rights of unborn children who are innocent of any crime.
  • Conservatives might be concerned with the fate of unborn children but as soon as they are born in misery their compassion suddenly vanishes.

It is easy to simplify matters in this way but this is how issues are framed in disputes. And as soon as you are dragged into a dispute yourself, it is hard to remain moderate. Moral issues tend to be complicated. Euthanasia can be an act of compassion but it might be turned into a means of getting rid of undesired people. Perhaps a criminal has had a poor upbringing and never realised that he had a choice but making criminals suffer can alleviate the pain felt by their victims and give them a sense of justice.

Liberals and conservatives have moral views and can be passionate about them. This is difference of opinion rather than an absence of ethics from one or both sides. Rational debates might help to clarify these matters and to balance the laws on these issues.

There are however areas where an infusion of ethics may be advised, most notably where business meets law. That may not be surprising as CEO is the job with the highest rate of psychopaths while lawyer comes in second,1 probably is because traders in financial markets were not included in the survey. Media came in third. These findings come from a British research. The British tabloids are rather unique in the world with their disregard of ethics. Salespeople make a rather unsurprising fourth position.

Vulture capitalism

Rural areas in the United States are turning into an economic wasteland. Closed down factories and empty malls dominate the landscape. Communities are ravaged and drug abuse is on the rise. One reason for this to happen is that jobs are shipped oversees. Several factors contributed to this situation, but a major cause is CEOs not caring for people and communities. In many cases other solutions were possible.

Paul Singer is wealthy hedge fund owner. He made a fortune by buying up sovereign debt of countries in trouble such as Argentina and Peru at bargain prices and starting lawsuits and public relation campaigns against those countries to make a profit on these debts at the expense of the taxpayers of these countries.2

In the United States Singer bought up stakes of corporations in distress. He then fired workers so that the price of his shares rose. In the case of Delphi Automotive he and other hedge fund managers took out government bailouts, moved jobs oversees, and cut the retirement packages of employees so they could make a huge profit.2

Vulture capitalists prey on patients too. They buy patents on old drugs that are the standard treatment for rare life-threatening diseases, then raise the price because there is no alternative. Martin Shkreli was responsible for a 6,250% price hike for the anti-retroviral drug Daraprim. Many people died because of his actions.3 Perhaps he should be in jail for being a mass murderer but he is not because what he did is legal.

Profiteering at the expense of the public

In the years preceding the financial crisis of 2008 there was a widespread mortgage fraud going on in the United States. Few people have gone to jail because much of what happened may have been morally reprehensible but was considered legal. Financial executives and quite few a academics share this view.4 And so nothing was done. Perhaps it is still possible to prove fraud but that may take years if it ever succeeds.

Healthcare is another domain for fraudsters. Patients are often not in a position to bargain. Perhaps that is why privatised healthcare tends to perform so poorly compared to government organised healthcare. In 2015 the Dutch government introduced the Social Support Act, making municipalities responsible for assisting people who are unable to arrange the care and support they need themselves.5

Municipalities were often ill-prepared. One of the issues that still persist is fraud perpetrated by several private contractors at the expense of the taxpayers and people in need. The Dutch prosecution is overwhelmed by fraud cases and it is not always possible to get a conviction because private contractors made use of loopholes in the law. Until these loopholes are fixed, their actions remain legal.6

In the United States hospital bills are feared. A routine doctor visit for a sore throat can result in a $ 28,000 medical bill.7 And so many people in the US go without healthcare because they can’t affort it. Efforts to reform healthcare in the US haven’t succeeded, perhaps because those who send $ 28,000 bills for sore throats have plenty of money to bribe politicians into keeping the US healthcare system as it is.

Attributes of the law

First we have to recognise why it is so hard to prevent these things from happening. On the political front it is because once politicians are elected, they can do as they please until the next election. Lobbyists prey on them. Citizens have few means of correcting politicians, except in Switzerland. The Swiss have direct democracy. Swiss citizens can intervene in the political process when they see fit and fix laws if they think that is needed. Direct democracy might help to fix many of these issues.

Laws are often made with the best intentions but you can’t test them in a simulation to see how they will work out in practice. So, once they are introduced, problems pop up. The process of lawmaking is slow and it often takes years before issues are fixed, if they are fixed at all because lawmaking is often political process. Changes in the law can be subject of a political process and that can make it rather complicated.

Even more importantly, the underlying principles of law cause certain restrictions that benefit the savvy. The law is the way it is for good reasons. No-one should be above the law and people as well as businesses should not be subject to arbitrariness. The rule of law implies that every person is subject to the law, including lawmakers, law enforcement officials, and judges. And it is agreed that the law must be prospective, well-known, general, treat everyone equal, and provide certainty.

Laws being prospective means that you can only be convicted for violation of laws in force at the time the act was committed. Legal certainty means that the law must provide you with the ability to regulate your conduct, meaning that the law must be sufficiently precise to allow you to foresee the possible consequences of a given action. Businesses prefer the laws to stable. They make investments for longer periods of time. If laws change then they may be faced with losses. If laws are unstable, investments may not be made, and a country may end up poorer.

With the rise of neoliberalism came the era of shareholder capitalism. Making profits became a goal in itself. Greed was good. Wall Street traders and CEOs were seen as heroes even when they were psychopaths outsourcing jobs for no other reason than making more profit. Often there was little consideration for the planet, people and communities. Consumers prefer the best service at the lowest price so businesses were pressed into cutting costs and moving jobs to low-wage countries. Businesses must remain competitive to survive. The moral issue comes maximising profit at the expense of the planet, communities and people.

A bigger role for ethics

More and more people start to believe that ethics should play a bigger role in business. The Internet enables activists to put pressure on corporations. It may however not be enough to shame corporations who misbehave or to press consumers into buying goods and services that have been made with consideration for the planet, communities and people. Corporations must remain competive and so they are not inclined to make real changes if that increase their costs. Levelling the playing field with regulations is an option but that may not be sufficient. Perhaps the law needs a morality clause, making specific forms of unethical behaviour unlawful.

A randomly selected jury of laypeople could make verdicts in these moral issues. Perhaps it is better that the legal profession stays out of these matters.

There are a few issues that come with a morality clause. First of all, ethics in business can be a political issue. It contradicts the prevailing neoliberal view that as much as possible should be left to the markets. It can also affect legal certainty, meaning that it will be harder for businesses to predict whether or not a specific action is legal. Business owners may incorrectly guess moral sentiment and believe they did nothing wrong. That might reduce the available investment capital for questionable activities. And if immoral profits and bonuses from the past are to be confiscated, that may affect the prospectiveness of the law. One cannot allow the world to be ruled by psychopaths so a morality clause in the law is an idea worth considering.

Featured image: Of course the laws are always functional. Loesje. Loesje.org.

1. The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success. Kevin Dutton (2012).
2. The death of Sidney, Nebraska: How a hedge fund destroyed ‘a good American town’. Charles Couger, Alex Pfeiffer (3 December 2019). Fox News. [link]
3. Vulture capitalists prey on patients. The Sacramento Bee (22 September 2015). [link]
4. How Mortgage Fraud Made the Financial Crisis Worse. Binyamin Appelbaum (12 February 2015). New York Times. [link]
5. Social Support Act (Wmo 2015). Government of the Netherlands. [link]
6. Gemeenten starten onderzoek naar Albero Zorggroep. Eelke van Ark (31 October 2019). Follow The Money. [link]
7. How a routine doctor visit for a sore throat resulted in a $28,000 medical bill. CBS News (31 December 2019) [link]

Was Marx right about capitalism destroying itself from within?

One of the core tenets of Marx’s work is that capitalism will be undone by internal contradictions that would manifest as ever-greater crises that would eventually destroy the system from within. If it turns out the current version of global capitalism is indeed unraveling due to its internal contradictions, it would be valuable to understand this now rather than later.

Read more:

https://www.oftwominds.com/blogjan20/marx1-20.html

Since the failure of communism Marx has been politically incorrect even though what he had to say about capitalism could be of great value.

There are two trends within capitalism, which are wealth creation and wealth concentration. Wealth concentration at some point may hamper wealth creation if the people at the bottom have not enough money to spend to make capital profitable.

The oversupply of capital or the lack of demand caused by lagging wages Marx foresaw may be the primary cause of the low and negative interest rates we have now. After the next recession we may never see positive interest rates again.

Read more:

https://www.naturalmoney.org/blog/190817.html

 

10 scientific reasons society is like it is and why we can’t fix it

Despite what the media would have you believe, we’re actually living in the most peaceful time in human history. There’s no doubt that the world is in a bit more chaos than it was, say, five years ago, but largely, it’s still way better than even fifty years ago. We’re just more connected than ever, giving us a direct glimpse into global human suffering we’ve never had before.

Read more:

https://listverse.com/2019/12/27/10-scientific-reasons-society-is-like-it-is-and-why-we-cant-fix-it/

So much progress has been made already. Perhaps we can’t fix everything that is wrong in the world but maybe we can improve things somewhat more. I hope you agree.

New World Order

version 2

The direction of history

We are heading towards a single integrated world order, sometimes called New World Order. Humanity is converging in three major ways, intellectually, economically and politically. The spread of religions and ideologies made it possible to unify different peoples under the same set of ideas. Trade and money enabled the cooperation between strangers all over the globe. And the increased cooperation between nation states is paving the way for a closer integration of governments.1

The world is now run by a global elite of business people, politicians, bureaucrats, engineers, journalists, scientists, opinion makers, writers and artists. No matter where they live, whether it is New York, Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Dubai or Cape Town, these people increasingly have the same interests, the same viewpoints about the world, the same culture, and increasingly live similar lifestyles. The individuals in these elites have more in common with each other than with their fellow countrymen.1

Globalisation

Globalisation has transformed the world. People everywhere around the globe are now interconnected. They cooperate and compete. Globalisation started more than 500 years ago when Portuguese explorers set sail for Africa to find new trade routes to the Indies. In 1492 Columbus discovered America while trying to do the same. In the centuries that followed the world became more interconnected but globalisation really took off in recent decades when several developments converged. These were:

  • the rise of neoliberalism around 1980
  • the fall of communism around 1990
  • personal computers and digital data storage
  • optical fiber and Internet making it possible to connect people around the globe
  • global standards for data exchange making it possible for every computers to exchange data with every other computer
  • software enabling cooperation between people and businesses around the globe

At the end of the 1970s economies in the Western world were stagnating. It was argued that poor business conditions and international competition were to blame. This marked the rise of neoliberalism. From the 1980s onwards regulations were reduced and the free movement of labour and capital were promoted. It became easier to move jobs to areas with lower labour costs. Entrepreneurs were seen as heroes and making profits became a goal in itself. It was the era of stock market capitalism and financial engineering with little consideration for people, communities and the environment.

The fall of communism gave further impetus to globalisation. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. A few years later the Soviet Union was dissolved and the European Union became enlarged. From then on it seemed that there was no alternative to capitalism.2 Countries like China, India and Russia realised that they had to compete on the global marketplace and began to transform their economies. Every country did this in its own way. For instance, India specialised in services and information technology. China became the global industrial powerhouse where everything is made.

Computers and data storage made it possible to store documents and other data like pictures and recordings digitally. In the 1980s the personal computer entered the homes of many people. Computers were also used in businesses but the impact of information technology remained limited. Rxchanging data between computers was still difficult because computers often weren’t interconnected and software suppliers used different formats for exchanging data.2

That all changed with the emergence of the Internet. Netscape turned out to be a crucial catalyst. It allowed people on personal computers to look at web pages anywhere around the world. Netscape turned out to be a killer application that made Internet very popular very quickly. Investors suddenly realised that Internet would change the world and that large profits were to be made. It resulted in a massive overinvestment in everything related to Internet during the Internet bubble of 2000. One of those overinvestments was in optical fiber. As a consequence the price of data transport dropped dramatically.2

Standards for data exchange emerged. Software suppliers were forced to support them and began to focus on facilitating the interaction, competition and cooperation of people around the globe, effectively enabling the world to turn into a global village where people everywhere can participate. This transformed the way people cooperate. The traditional way of organising is top down via command and control. The new way of organising is via teams of people sharing a responsibility for a task or a product, making more complex cooperations possible. China and India were able to develop and they were integrated in the global economy. As businesses used more cheap oversees labour, workers in developed nations were faced with job insecurity and lagging wages.

In 1977 the Chinese leaders realised that communist China needed to embrace capitalism. For two decades progress was into that direction was slow. That changed in the 1990s but doing business in China remained problematic until in 2001 China became member of the World Trade Organisation. From then on China conformed to international law and trade practises and  it became attractive to do business with China. Many corporations moved their production to China and China became the industrial powerhouse of the world.

The rise of China and India

Half the world’s population lives in Asia. In China or India alone live nearly two times as many people as in the European Union and the United States combined. The same is true for Africa. If people everywhere around the globe obtain a more equal portion of wealth then the relative importance of the European Union and the United States will decline. If current trends continue, China will be the most powerful nation in the near future. The Chinese economy may be the biggest in the world already.

Chinese leaders are preparing for a New World Order under Chinese leadership. Chinese policies include economic colonisation of developing countries like the United States and European countries have done previously. For instance, China grants loans to developing countries to build their infrastructure. If they fail to pay back these loans, China may take possession of assets like mines, harbours and corporations as payment. If India is going to follow suit, it may become China’s main contender. At the same time the importance of nation states is declining and they may even disappear in the future.

Global cooperation

Many businesses have become closely integrated with their global supply chains so doing business has become a global affair more than ever. And issues like climate change, human rights, international crime and financial markets require international agreement and cooperation of governments. The Old World Order was based on the sovereignty of nation states, which means that at least in theory, there was no higher authority than the nation state. All nation states were equally sovereign, at least in theory, and their power was restricted only by the treaties they signed.

Nation states are increasingly under pressure to conform to global standards as actions of one nation affect other nations as well. The global elite influences the decisions on these issues but they can’t completely ignore ordinary citizens. The elite believes it acts for the benefit of mankind and that we need more international cooperation or even a global government. This is reflected, for instance, in the words of the British politician Denis Healey, who had been involved in Bilderberg Conferences in which members of the elite gathered in secrecy. He told the Guardian:

To say we were striving for a one-world government is exaggerated, but not wholly unfair. Those of us in Bilderberg felt we couldn’t go on forever fighting one another for nothing and killing people and rendering millions homeless. So we felt that a single community throughout the world would be a good thing.3

The elite is first and foremost a social network. Globalists have friends and they have friends and they have friends too. Meetings like Bilderberg are just the tip of the iceberg. Still these meetings can influence political agendas. For instance the European Union has been discussed at Bilderberg and it may well be that these meetings helped to make the elite agree on more European cooperation and integration. Europe had just been ravaged by two world wars so it may have seemed a good plan. But that plan would not have succeeded if most Europeans didn’t feel the same. A side-benefit of globalisation is war becomes less likely because waging war becomes costly. A war disrupts global supply chains. As a consequence businesses may exit warring countries and not come back.

Neoliberalism or neofeudalism?

Many people in China and India have seen their living standards improve. In fact, globalisation may have been the best development aid. Nevertheless, the greatest winners are wealthy oligarchs all around the world. A 2017 report from Oxfam points out that the world’s eight wealthiest people own as much as the poorest 50%.4 There is no global government or binding international treaties so nation states end up competing to please large corporations and billionaires.

In the 1970s the situation in Western Europe and the United States was different. Most people were middle class. Since then a growing divide between the rich and the poor emerged. This coincided with the rise of neoliberalism, which is the idea that more should be left to the markets and that governments shouldn’t interfere.

Neoliberalism emerged in the 1970s when the ruling class was in trouble. The economy was stagnating and unions had a lot of power. Businesses were struggling because of the competition from low-wage countries. And so the elite started to promote freedom of the markets, privatisation, entrepreneurial spirit and individual liberty. Neoliberalism became dominant in the 1980s. The power of labour was curtailed and wealth inequality began to increase while many jobs moved to low wage countries.

Conspiracy theories

There is a conspiracy theory claiming the elite has a secret plan to create a New World Order where ordinary humans will be mere serfs. Rather than seeing the globalisation and the emerging oligarchy as a result of social, political and economic developments, conspiracy theorists believe it was deliberately planned by the elite. They see the elite as an evil cabal. Indeed, the elite doesn’t seem to like democracy and human rights when these values conflict with their interests.

In the decades after World War II the secret services of the United States toppled democratically elected governments and supported dictators while claiming to promote human rights, freedom and democracy. The politics of trade and power often conflict with principles and morals. It is often argued that if you don’t play this kind of dirty politics, you will lose power and the world will not become a better place either.

The political system of the United States is corrupt by design. Politicians fund their campaigns with donations. They accept money from large corporations and wealthy individuals so they tend to represent their wealthy donors rather than their electorate. It is not suprising that conspiracy theories thrive in the United States. It is also a business for ‘independent writers’  in a ‘free market’ to constantly come up with new ‘disclosures’ of ‘secret plots’ to keep their readers entertained.

Investigative journalism of good quality is time consuming and costly. If you don’t come up with interesting finds from time to time, readers may get bored. News outlets are often guided by advertisement income so journalism is either non-offending or of an extremist nature. Political division may further promote this process. If the political climate is moderate and people are willing to pay for high-quality content, the situation might improve. And more involvement of citizens in political decisions may be required.

Deep state

Politicians come and go but many officials remain within the governmental institutions for a longer period of time. Most of them aren’t democratically elected. Often they are specialised technocrats that have the best knowledge of the field they are working in. Most of them believe to work interest of the public but they can obstruct democratically elected officials. But technocrats probably are not what is meant by deep state.

The deep state consists of the interest groups that have captured the government to profiteer at the expense of the taxpayers. One can think of lobbyists and think tanks who represent the interests of businesses that live off government contracts or benefit from favourable legislation, for instance the Military Industrial Complex. These people work covertly via social networks to influence politicians and other officials.

A better political system

The elite doesn’t seem to care for ordinary people. Perhaps individual members care, but as a group the elite behaves as if they don’t. The elite is living in a bubble and has no idea about the plight of ordinary people. The rise of populism in Europe and the United States signals a growing discontent. If the economy goes south, things may get out of hand. It may therefore be a good idea to aim for political reforms to increase the legitimacy of government institutions by involving the citizens in decisions.

Direct democracy as practised in Switzerland can help to do that. It gives the citizens more control over their government. Making direct democracy work requires a culture of reason and compromise, issues rather than people taking the centre stage, and an adequate education of the citizens. It may be hard to build credible institutions top down so direct democracy may be the best way to achieve that.  The Swiss have confidence in their government while political debates tend to be rational. Direct democracy it is not perfect and perhaps it hampers innovation. For instance, women received only the right to vote in 1970 because men decided about that.

Direct democracy may only be a beginning. It gives people more power to shape their own future. And with power comes responsibility. If there is direct democracy then citizens can’t blame politicians for their mistakes. They can only blame themselves. As a consequence they may inform themselves better, consider different solutions and debate them in a rational manner. Perhaps people will venture outside existing ideologies and beliefs and look at the evidence and use logic instead. And in this way the New World Order could be owned by ordinary people and not the elite. Wouldn’t that be great?

1. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
2. The World Is Flat 3.0. Thomas Friedman (2007). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
3. Who pulls the strings? (part 3). The Guardian (2001). [link]
4. Just 8 men own same wealth as half the world. Oxfam (2017). [link]

The law of large numbers

Coincidence or not?

On 11 November 2017 (11-11) I went to Groningen with my wife and son by car. While driving I noticed the date and time on the clock. The date was 11-11 and the time was 10:35. “Wouldn’t it be nice to look at the clock at exactly 11:11 today because it is 11-11,” I was thinking. Then within a second I noticed the distance recorder standing at 111.1. It had been 111.1 kilometres since the car was last filled up. That is curious. Peculiar coincidences can happen by chance. With seven billion people living on this planet, and so many things happening all the time, remarkable incidents happen.

That is easy to see. Imagine you have five dice. Imagine that a remarkable incident is like throwing five sixes. Such a remarkable incident seems very unlikely. If you throw the five dice only once, the remarkable incident probably won’t happen. On average it only happens once every 7,776 times. But if you throw the dice a million times, it almost certainly happens more than once. You should not be surprised to see it happen 120 to 140 times.

Welcome to the law of large numbers. If we intend to make the case that this universe is a virtual reality running a script, and use meaningful coincidences as evidence, this is a big hurdle. A list of strange coincidences isn’t evidence of a script, even if they are very strange. That is because strange incidents like throwing five sixes happen by chance.

A way around it may be to see if the most important historic events are tainted by peculiar coincidences. That may be more telling for two reasons. First, there are only a few major historic events, so the law of large numbers may not apply. Second, if major historic events are tainted with peculiar coincidences, it would more plausibly suggest that someone is ‘writing’ history because these events are significant. Even then the argument remains problematic. You may need to answer questions like what are the most important historic events and what are peculiar coincidences?

Probability

And we run into another problem. Humans are good at attributing a cause but bad at guessing the likelihood of an event. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman came up with an example. It is about a study of the incidence of kidney cancer in the 3,141 counties of the United States. The research revealed a remarkable pattern. The incidence of kidney cancer was the lowest in mostly rural, sparsely populated counties in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South, and the West.1 So what do you make of that?

You probably came up with a few reasons why kidney cancer is less likely to occur in these counties, such as a healthy rural lifestyle or low pollution levels. But you probably didn’t think of randomness. Consider then the counties in which the incidence of kidney cancer is the highest. These counties were also mostly rural, sparsely populated, and located in traditionally Republican states in the Midwest, the South, and the West.1

The apparent contradiction can be explained by the fact that those counties all had small populations. And with smaller populations greater deviations from the average can be expected. Our intuition easily makes connections of causality but our reason doesn’t come into action to check whether or not it could just be randomness. We like to think that some cause makes unusual things happen while these could just be random events.

One might call this the law of small numbers. So if we consider the most important events in history, and use this as a sample to prove a cause like someone ‘writing’ history, we are running into this issue. Perhaps it is not possible to prove that there is a script. It might still be possible to make the case more convincing.

Endless possibilities

In the summer of 1913 the ball fell on a black number twenty-six times in a row at the roulette wheel at the Casino de Monte-Carlo. Some people lost a fortune by betting that the ball would fall on a red number the next time. They didn’t realise that the chance of the ball falling on a red number never changed. The ball doesn’t remember where it fell the previous times. If we represent black with a B and red with an R, and assume for simplicity’s sake that there is no zero, it is possible to represent falling twenty-six times in a black number like this:

B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B

The probability of the next twenty-six numbers being black is one in 67,108,864. That’s a long shot. What might surprise you is that the following combination of black and red numbers is exactly as likely to occur:

R B B R B R R B R B B R R B R R B R B B R R B B R B

You wouldn’t be thrilled if that happened unless you became a millionaire by betting on this particular sequence of twenty-six. And even then you didn’t think of the 67,108,863 sequences that didn’t materialise. We tend to consider only the things that did happen, but we rarely think of all the things that could have happened but didn’t. That might explain why events like the ball falling on a black number twenty-six times in a row impress us. And I am even more impressed because twenty-six just happens to be my lucky number.

Try to imagine all what could have happened but didn’t happen. Imagine the probability of you sitting here and now reading this page on a tablet or a mobile phone, but as a prediction from 3,600 years ago. Imagine Joseph telling the Pharaoh: “I see (your name comes here) reading a pile of papyrus pages, not real papyrus pages, but images of papyrus pages appearing on something that looks like a clay tablet. It is named The Plan For The Future. But don’t be afraid, dear Pharaoh, for it will happen 3,600 years from now. But if we don’t set up this grain storage, there will be no Natural Money based on this storage, and this money is required for that particular plan, so we must do it. And by the way, Egypt will starve when we don’t.”

The odds for this prediction to come true weren’t one in 67,108,864, and also not one in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 either. Even if you add considerably more zeroes to that number, the odds still remain far smaller. The probability is so close to zero that nobody can tell. Nevertheless you are sitting here reading this text. So how could this happen? The answer to this mystery is that so many things could have happened but didn’t happen, but something had to happen, and that’s what happened. It would have been impossible for Joseph to make this prediction unless the future is predetermined.

The licence plate on Franz Ferdinand’s car

So what to make of the reference to the end date of World War I on the licence plate number on Franz Ferdinand’s car? There are not many events in history as important as the start and end of World War I so the law of large numbers may not apply. It could still be a freak accident. A chance event helped the perpetrator. Franz Ferdinand’s chauffeur took the wrong turn after three conspirators had already failed. This gave the assassin the opportunity to strike. He was hindered by the crowd surrounding him so he couldn’t aim well. Nevertheless he managed to kill both the archduke and his wife with just two shots. This sequence of events is already remarkable.

The licence plate number makes it even more inconceivable. It might be possible to guess the end date of World War I by chance if you know that it starts and when. If you assume that the war wouldn’t take longer than twenty years, a random guess of the end date would be right one in 7,305 times, presuming that you know it will start not more than twenty years before 1918. But something doesn’t add up here. The assassination succeeded after a series of mishaps, so if it was a prediction that accidentally turned out right, it would also imply a prediction of the assassination succeeding, Franz Ferdinand being killed in this particular car, and this act being the trigger for World War I.

That’s really, really, hard to do. And so Mike Dash in the Smithsonian noted: “This coincidence is so incredible that I initially suspected that it might be a hoax.”2 And because it isn’t a hoax, investigative minds could have probed other options. The only escape is believing that this really, really, is a coincidence. Conspiracy theorists didn’t take notice either, even though this incident fits into their schemes perfectly.

There is a story about a Freemason named Alfred Pike, who allegedly disclosed a secretive plan of the Freemasons to bring about the New World Order. He predicted both world wars with uncanny precision already in 1871. Alas, nobody ever heard of this plan before 1959. It is hoax. In the Netherlands they call it a monkey sandwich story. The licence plate number could have added some credibility to it. But then again, the truth is overrated. It matters more what people believe.

Seeing meaning when there isn’t any

“Everything is just random,” pundits are eager to explain, “but because your mind is wired to see meaning, you see meaning. AIII 118 is just a random sequence of characters, but you attach meaning to it.” There is a problem with this. This text might be a random sequence of characters too, and yet you think it isn’t. Are you delusional because you read words and see that these words have meaning in the sequence in which they are written? Others might argue: “The language of Austria is German. Armistice in German is Waffenstillstand, so why doesn’t it read WIII 118, or even better, W1111 1918?”

If someone gives you a message, you don’t quibble about such details. If I say ‘hello’ to you, you are not going to discuss with me why I didn’t say ‘hi’ instead. That is, unless you are a philosopher with a lot of time on your hands. Great Britain, the United States and France, which were all major participants in the war, all use the word armistice. It might be better to ask yourself how many sequences of characters with a length of six to eight are possible, and how many of them could refer to date of the armistice ending the war? That’s only a small portion for sure.

The law of small numbers

Everything is random and weird coincidences happen by chance. This is the law of large numbers. Pundits use the birthday problem to demonstrate that weird coincidences happen more often than we think. If you happen to share a birthday with another person in a small group, it might strike you as odd, but the chance of someone sharing a birthday with another person is already 50% in a group of 23. What they don’t tell you, is that the chance of you being one of those persons is a lot smaller. Weird coincidences are likely to happen, but less likely to happen to you. So if they happen to you all the time, that would be hard to explain as mere randomness. Wellcome to my life!

And the law of large numbers may not apply to the licence plate number on Franz Ferdinand’s car. It applies to large numbers. How many historic events are out there that equal the importance of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Armistice of 11 November 1918 or D-Day? The answer probably is not many. It is less likely that meaningful coincidences happen to such major historic events. To make it even harder to believe, the licence plate number coincidence may not only imply a prediction of the end date of the war, but also the success of the assassination attempt, and this event being the trigger for the war, at least if it isn’t chance.

Only a few historic events equal the importance of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the end of World War I. Perhaps this is just randomness like the incidence of kidney cancer varying wildly in small population samples. There are only a few historic events of similar importance. D-Day is one of those events, and the scheme surrounding D-Day is even more puzzling. This is a bit like four people out of a population of six suffering from kidney cancer and this population being the royal family of the country. Perhaps it is just randomness, but an experienced physician would consider other options.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was predicted. The coincidences surrounding the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 are truly dumbfounding. So if you are God, and you want your minions to notice, then what are your options? Framing the question like this makes the answer appear obvious. Indeed, there are countless other options, but asking why this particular path is chosen is as meaningless as asking why I said ‘hello’ instead of ‘hi’. If you took a certain course of action to a certain aim, there are countless others you didn’t take. So if God wants us to take notice, then we live in interesting times.

1. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman (2011). Penguin Books.
2. Curses! Archduke Franz Ferdinand and His Astounding Death Car. Mike Dash (2013). Smithsonian. [link]