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Henry

Big Brother’s Liberal Friends

by Henry on October 27, 2014

I’ve an article in the new issue of The National Interest looking at various liberal critiques of Snowden and Greenwald, and finding them wanting. CT readers will have seen some of the arguments in earlier form; I think that they’re stronger when they are joined together (and certainly they should be better written; it’s nice to have the time to write a proper essay). I don’t imagine that the various people whom I take on will be happy, but they shouldn’t be; they’re guilty of some quite wretched writing and thinking. More than anything else, like Corey I’m dismayed at the current low quality of mainstream liberal thinking. A politician wishes for her adversaries to be stupid, that they will make blunders. An intellectual wishes for her adversaries to be brilliant, that they will find the holes in her own arguments and oblige her to remedy them. I aspire towards the latter, not the former, but I’m not getting my wish.

Over the last fifteen months, the columns and op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post have bulged with the compressed flatulence of commentators intent on dismissing warnings about encroachments on civil liberties. Indeed, in recent months soi-disant liberal intellectuals such as Sean Wilentz, George Packer and Michael Kinsley have employed the Edward Snowden affair to mount a fresh series of attacks. They claim that Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and those associated with them neither respect democracy nor understand political responsibility.
These claims rest on willful misreading, quote clipping and the systematic evasion of crucial questions. Yet their problems go deeper than sloppy practice and shoddy logic.

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Great bad writing

by Henry on October 25, 2014

I used to think that David Brooks deserved some sort of George Orwell ‘best bad modern writing’ award for a phrase in his old attack on Markos Zuniga Moulitsas.

The Keyboard Kingpin, aka Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, sits at his computer, fires up his Web site, Daily Kos, and commands his followers, who come across like squadrons of rabid lambs, to unleash their venom on those who stand in the way.

It’s hard to beat squadrons of venom-unleashing rabid command-lambs. But then, when doing some background reading for class in re: Rand Paul’s foreign policy speech, I came across this plea from Joseph Joffe:

who will save the American posterior once the chickens of aloofness come home to roost?

Who? Who indeed?

I envision America so:

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I’m sure that there’s a lot of other policy writing with terrible metaphors out there that I’m unaware of. Feel free to provide in comments.

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The Tomb of the Unknown Deserter

by Henry on October 24, 2014

Last year, I wrote a post building on James Scott’s argument that we should memorialize deserters. Today, I see a piece at Deutsche Welle saying that Austria is doing just that.

A monument to deserters from the German army during World War II has been unveiled in central Vienna. This follows decades of controversy over recognition and compensation in Austria. The monument on Ballhausplatz in central Vienna, right by the Chancellery, was unveiled on Friday in the presence of Austrian President Heinz Fischer and representatives of the government and victims’ rights groups. … Around 30,000 conscientious objectors and deserters from the German Wehrmacht were sentenced to death by the Nazi military courts from 1939 to 1945. An estimated 20,000 of them were executed, including 1,500 Austrian nationals. It took three years for all sentences to be overturned by the Recognition Act and deserters or their progeny granted compensation payments on a complex individual case basis.But the complete blanket rehabilitation only came into effect in 2009 – amid fierce opposition from Austria’s right wing parties.

Gobrey, Smith, Hume

by Henry on October 15, 2014

I wanted to note this disagreement between P.E. Gobry and Noah Smith because it allows me to pull out my favorite underappreciated David Hume quote.

Gobry:

Science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. That’s the science that gives us airplanes and flu vaccines and the Internet. But what almost everyone means when he or she says “science” is something different. … Since most people think math and lab coats equal science, people call economics a science, even though almost nothing in economics is actually derived from controlled experiments. Then people get angry at economists when they don’t predict impending financial crises, as if having tenure at a university endowed you with magical powers.

Smith:

One way of systematically understanding the world is just to watch it and write down what happens. “Today I saw this bird eat this fish.” “This year the harvest was destroyed by frost.” “The Mongols conquered the Sung Dynasty.” And so on. All you really need for this is the ability to write things down. This may sound like a weak, inadequate way of understanding the world, but actually it’s incredibly important and powerful, since it allows you to establish precedents. … A second way of systematically understanding the world is repeated observation. This is where you try to make a large number of observations that are in some way similar or the same, and then use statistics to identify relationships between them. … The first big limitation of empirics is omitted variable bias. You can never be sure you haven’t left out something important. The second is the fact that you’re always measuring correlation, but without a natural experiment, you can’t isolate causation. Still, correlation is an incredibly powerful and important thing to know. … Experiments are just like empirics, except you try to control the observational environment in order to eliminate omitted variables and isolate causality. You don’t always succeed, of course. And even when you do succeed, you may lose external validity – in other words, your experiment might find a causal mechanism that always works in the lab, but is just not that important in the real world.

Hume:

Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour. These records of wars, intrigues, factions, and revolutions, are so many collections of experiments, by which the politician or moral philosopher fixes the principles of his science, in the same manner as the physician or natural philosopher becomes acquainted with the nature of plants, minerals, and other external objects, by the experiments which he forms concerning them.

This, from Ars Technica, is pretty extraordinary:

In the early 2000s, William “Trip” Hawkins—founder of video game publisher Electronic Arts—was living the good life. … Hawkins had a peculiar way of keeping his cash flow up; he wasn’t paying all the taxes connected to the proceeds of some of his stock sales. Instead, he participated in a tax sheltering setup designed to produce on-paper “monetary losses” to offset the gains. The scheme was all done through accounting firm KPMG, which used convoluted Swiss and Cayman Islands deals that eventually raised the eyebrows of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax auditors. The IRS and the California Franchise Tax Board eventually cried foul. In 2002, the IRS notified Hawkins’ lawyers that the tax shelters, accounting for about $60 million in claimed losses, wouldn’t be allowed for the tax years 1997 to 2000. This meant that Hawkins would be on the hook for millions in back taxes on all those EA stock profits. Still, Hawkins continued living a jet setter’s life until around the time he filed for bankruptcy protection in 2006. For instance, a government legal filing said that Hawkins’ private jet had cost $11.8 million in 2000 and had an “operating” cost of $1 million annually.

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Workplace Freedom: A Primer for Alan Dershowitz

by Henry on September 22, 2014

Alan Dershowitz expresses his opinion on academic freedom, the Salaita case, and why UIUC natural scientists appear to have been less likely than social scientists and humanities people to support him.

Some, including Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor who backed Summers and opposed the tenure bid of Norman Finkelstein, the controversial former political scientist at DePaul University, have a more cynical take. Dershowitz said that in his experience, academics working in STEM tend, “in general, to be more objective and principled, and those in the humanities tend to be ideologues and results-oriented, and believe it’s the appropriate role of the scholar to use his or her podium to propagandize students.” Dershowitz said he believed personal opinion had influenced how those human sciences viewed both the Salaita and Summers cases, and that scientists were likelier to examine the evidence impartially. “I would bet anything that 99 percent of the people who are demanding that [Salaita] be restored tenure would be on the exact opposite side of this if he’d been making pro-Israel but equally uncivil statements,” he said.

There is a very strong case to be made against “results oriented” ideologues in the academy but I think that it isn’t quite the case that Dershowitz is making.
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Jim Henley needs your help

by Henry on September 21, 2014

People who’ve been reading this blog for a long time won’t need to be told who Jim Henley is. He’s been blogging longer than we have (if we’re a product of the mid-Cretaceous, he’s been doing it since the early Jurassic). He’s also a wonderful guy. And he’s been dealing with a recurrence of his cancer, the loss of his job when his employer went under, the need to pay medical and transport bills and keep his equally wonderful family going. In short, he could use your help. If you would like to provide it, please go here.

Krautmas only comes once a year …

by Henry on September 16, 2014

But here are two belated presents – take your choice as to which one you put beneath your poisonwood tree.

George Scialabba tries to see (as George always does), the good side.

For the tragic waste of Krauthammer’s considerable talents represented by Things That Matter, a good deal of the blame should doubtless go to the bad habits fostered by op-ed writing and talk-show commenting. Krauthammer is an expert simplifier, summarizer, and close-quarters scrapper. His skill at producing zingers is enviable. But remarks are not literature, and zingers are not political wisdom. You can’t surprise yourself, breathe deeply, get to the bottom of things in 800 words or 20 seconds.

By and large, the quality of the eighty-eight pieces in Things That Matter is proportional to their length. Hearteningly, Krauthammer mentions that he is, at long last, writing a book: two books, in fact, one on domestic policy and one on foreign policy. Perhaps in the course of them he will, at least occasionally, surprise himself and us, vindicating Mill’s generous hope.

Mark Liberman doesn’t.

It’s a tribute to our nation’s culture that a man like Krauthammer, who so consistently expresses blatant quantitative falsehoods about national leaders, is not only out of jail but comfortably established as a commentator for a major media outlet.

As a kind of side-note to Corey’s most recent post, most people, including, I suspect, most academics, don’t realize how important rich people are to the running of universities. Some months back, I was able to listen in on a conversation including a college president (not my own), and was startled to discover how much time the president spent managing relations with the Board of Trustees. Being a board member usually involves a two way relationship. As a trustee, you get some social kudos, and some broad-scale influence over how the university is run. In return, you are expected to give the university a lot of money. Relations with rich donors who aren’t on the board are somewhat similar, albeit less organized – again, there’s an implied quid pro quo, and the implicit or express threat if if you, as a rich donor, don’t like something that the university is doing, the money will dry up. While you do not have any veto, influential officials in the administration will listen – very carefully – to what you say, and be likely to represent on behalf of your viewpoint in internal discussions.

This has consequences for bureaucratic power. The paper trail described in Corey’s post emphatically suggests that Development (i.e. money raising) was heavily involved in the decision making process over Salaita’s appointment, while Academic Affairs (which is usually responsible for teaching and research quality of faculty and the like) was consulted pro forma, and after the fact. Of course, university presidents care – in the aggregate – about research and teaching quality. Apart from their intrinsic value, if research and teaching deteriorate too much, it will damage the university’s reputation. But they contribute to the bottom line only indirectly, and in ways that are difficult to measure. When they are weighed against the immediate and concrete threat of canceled donations and skittish board members (a vote of no confidence in the president is a rather different thing when it comes from the trustees instead of an academic department), it’s unsurprising that presidents will often be prepared to take dubious decisions on hiring and firing. From their perspective, the risks of angering rich people will usually outweigh the risks of angering faculty (who aren’t usually interested in governance issues, are difficult to organize collectively etc).

It also has consequences for ideas in the university. The Board of Trustees is one of the main channels through which the university is supposed to get external guidance and new perspectives on how it can do its job. If the Board is composed exclusively of the rich and powerful, then ideas which appeal to the rich and powerful will have an unusual degree of influence on campus governance and on the direction of the university. It will be difficult to rationally debate bad ideas which are fashionable among rich people, because these are just the ideas that are most likely to be popular with the board. Plausibly, something like this was at the root of the 2012 debacle in the University of Virginia.

One of the least appreciated problems of economic inequality is that it tends to filter out ideas that are uncongenial to rich people, and to heavily overweight ideas that they like. Universities like to think of themselves as removed from all of this. More and more, they are not.

“Bad Cess”

by Henry on August 17, 2014

Patrick Nielsen Hayden on Twitter today wished bad cess on a Hugo nominee apparently belonging to the richly-deserving-of-the-worst-cess-possible class. ‘Bad cess’ is an Irish expression; I suspect Patrick got it from Flann O’Brien, but I wouldn’t put it past him to have come across it somewhere else. This reminded me that I’ve been meaning for years to record a couple of Irish country expressions, mostly from my father and through him, from Gid, a Westmeath woman who worked at the farm he was born on, and who died when I was ten or so.

Gid was fond of two maledictions. One is a little opaque to me; “May the curse of Scotland be on you.” If I were to guess, I’d say it was a reference to the fact that multitudes Irish farm labourers had to go to Scotland to find seasonal work; many of them stayed and ended up, sooner or later, in the slums of Glasgow or other cities. The other is more transparent; “May the curse of the seven snotty orphans be on you.” ‘Snotty’ here means ‘badly behaved and presumptuous,’ rather than with noses in need of a good wiping. It wasn’t unusual for relatives to have to take orphans in unexpectedly- my own father’s father was brought up by two bachelor uncles after his parents died when he was an infant. And of course, he was very lucky – the history of orphanages in Ireland is a wretched one indeed.

Gid would also say that someone was “that hungry, he’d eat a chap’s arse through a chair,” a chap being country argot for a small child. Stephen King uses the word “chap” in a similar way in one of his novels, suggesting that the slang made its way to Maine (and of course, ‘chappie’ is a somewhat dated English diminutive for a very young boy). And of someone knocking on death’s door for a long while, but never quite managing to expire, “it’s the creaking door that hangs the longest.” This last seems from an Internet search to have had some circulation in nineteenth century England, where likely it originated.

I like these sayings; there’s some flavor to them. Feel encouraged in comments to provide your own, if you have any.

Reagan and plagiarism

by Henry on August 7, 2014

So I’ve been in the West of Ireland without proper Internet access for several days, and am catching up with umpteen posts in my RSS reader. I was going to write a post about plagiarism anyway, focusing on this weird Gawker story accusing True Detective of plagiarizing Thomas Ligotti. If unacknowledged quotes or references, intended as Easter eggs for people who spot the reference constitute plagiarism, then there are a lot of plagiarizers out there, me included (e.g. I ostentatiously plagiarize Matthew Arnold in this piece, with no acknowledgment whatsoever). But then, a little further down the feed, because a few hours farther back in the past, I saw this New York Times piece doing a class of a ‘he says, she says’ on whether Rick Perlstein’s new book is rife with plagiarism (I should say before writing that Rick is a friend, and that I read an early version of the last book and provided not especially useful comments on it; I didn’t do so for the new one, and indeed don’t yet have a copy (see above under location: West of Ireland and Internet: dearth of access to)).

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Severian of Nessus, Amateur Bayesian

by Henry on July 22, 2014

Noah Smith today

Consider Proposition H: “God is watching out for me, and has a special purpose for me and me alone. Therefore, God will not let me die. No matter how dangerous a threat seems, it cannot possibly kill me, because God is looking out for me – and only me – at all times.” Suppose that you believe that there is a nonzero probability that H is true. And suppose you are a Bayesian – you update your beliefs according to Bayes’ Rule. As you survive longer and longer – as more and more threats fail to kill you – your belief about the probability that H is true must increase and increase. It’s just mechanical application of Bayes’ Rule.

Gene Wolfe, The Citadel of the Autarch

Often their chants sounded so clearly that I could make out the words, though they were in no language I had ever heard. Once one actually stood on his saddle like a performer in a riding exhibition, lifting a hand to the sun and extending the other toward the Ascians. Each rider seemed to have a personal spell; and it was easy to see, as I watched their numbers shrink under the bombardment, how such primitive minds come to believe in their charms, for the survivors could not but feel their thaumaturgy had saved them, and the rest could not complain of the failure of theirs.

Democracy is Bad for Business

by Henry on July 16, 2014

A story that has gotten weirdly little play in the US (I can’t speak for the UK press or the press in other countries) is the pushback by the ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms against the democracy movement in Hong Kong. On July 1, over 100,000 people marched in protest against Chinese plans to curtail democracy in Hong Kong. But the Big Four had not only made it clear that they didn’t like the protests – they had threatened that business would pull out of Hong Kong if the protests continued.

The big four global accounting companies have taken out press advertisements in Hong Kong stating they are “opposed” to the territory’s democracy movement, warning that their multinational clients may quit the city if activists carry out threats to disrupt business with street protests. In an unusual joint statement published in three Chinese-language newspapers on Friday, the Hong Kong entities of EY, KPMG, Deloitte and PwC said the Occupy Central movement, which is calling for electoral reform in the former British colony, posed a threat to the territory’s rule of law.The group of pro-democracy activists is calling for 10,000 people to block traffic in the central business district as part of a campaign to put pressure on the Hong Kong government, although if and when this will happen is still under discussion. In the advert, the big four firms warned that protests would disrupt the Hong Kong stock exchange, banks and the headquarters of financial and professional services firms causing “inestimable losses in the economy”. It added that clients of the four firms had reflected further concerns about the wider impact of the protests: “We are worried that multinational companies and investors would consider moving their regional headquarters from Hong Kong, or indeed leave the city entirely. This would have a long-term impact on Hong Kong’s status as a global financial centre,” the joint statement said.

This is a quite remarkable initiative. It was published in Chinese rather than English – presumably both to speak more directly to potential protesters, and to make it less likely that it would seep into the English speaking press. According to one of the firms, it was pushed by local branches rather than the accountancy groups’ international management. Even if this is true, the statement is signed in the names of the firms and have not been publicly repudiated.

Of course, this isn’t the first shameful decision made by Western companies looking to build business in China – see Bloomberg’s squashing of a story on corruption among family members of senior Chinese leaders, or, for that matter, Rupert Murdoch’s instruction to Harper-Collins not to publish Chris Patten’s memoirs. But this goes substantially further than quiet acquiescence, to public and active opposition to the pro-democracy movement, and the issuing of threats intended to stifle it. It would be nice to see Ernst-Young, KPMG, Deloitte and Price-Waterhouse Cooper put on the spot by US politicians and journalists about their Hong Kong offices’ unrepudiated public statements opposing pro-democracy protestors.

Fun summer reading

by Henry on July 14, 2014

Books I’ve read in the last while that I’d recommend:

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Over the last year, there’s been a lot of writing about Edward Snowden (I’ve contributed a fair amount to the genre myself). Most people have discussed either the question of (a) whether domestic NSA surveillance in the US is appropriate and whether it is breaking US law, or (b) the purely political consequences of international surveillance. There’s been relatively little discussion of whether there is a problem in principle with international surveillance, and most of what there has been has concerned the question of whether or not privacy is a universal human right. But the recent Der Spiegel revelations combined with some earlier material points to a narrower but very troubling set of problems for liberal democracies. Cross national cooperation between intelligence services has exploded post-September 11. This cooperation is not only outside the public space but, very often, isn’t well known to politicians either. Such cooperation in turn means that intelligence services are in practice able to evade national controls on the things that they do or do not do, directly weakening democracy. [click to continue...]