Posts by author:


Gene Wolfe has died

by Henry on April 15, 2019

One of the great authors of our time

The past stood at my shoulder, naked and defenseless as all dead things, as though it were time itself that had been laid open by the fall of the mountain. Fossil bones protruded from the surface in places, the bones of mighty animals and of men. The forest had set its own dead there as well, stumps and limbs that time had turned to stone, so that I wondered as I descended, if it might not be that Urth is not, as we assume, older than her daughters the trees, and imagined them growing in the emptiness before the face of the sun, tree clinging to tree with tangled roots and interlacing twigs until at last their accumulation became our Urth, and they only the nap of her garment.

Deeper than these lay the buildings and mechanisms of humanity. (And it may be that those of other races lay there as well, for several of the stories in the brown book I carried seemed to imply that colonies once existed here of those beings whom we call the cacogens, though they are in fact of myriad races, each as distinct as our own.) I saw metals there that were green and blue in the same sense that copper is said to be red or silver white, colored metals so curiously wrought that I could not be certain whether their shapes had been intended as works of art or as parts for strange machines, and it may be indeed that among some of those unfathomable peoples there is no distinction.

At one point, only slightly less than halfway down, the line of the fault had coincided with the tiled wall of some great building, so that the windy path I trod slashed across it. What the design was those tiles traced, I never knew; as I descended the cliff I was too near to see it, and when I reached the base at last it was too high for me to discern, lost in the shifting mists of the falling river. Yet as I walked, I saw it as an insect may be said to see the face in a portrait over whose surface it creeps. The tiles were of many shapes, though they fit together so closely, and at first I thought them representations of birds, lizards, fish and suchlike creatures, all interlocked in the grip of life. Now I feel that this was not so, that they were instead the shapes of a geometry I failed to comprehend, diagrams so complex that the living forms seemed to appear in them as the forms of actual animals appear from the intricate geometries of complex molecules.

Kirstjen Nielsen

by Henry on April 8, 2019

Kirstjen Nielsen has resigned from her position as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. While there, she was responsible for overseeing some of the most egregious policies, including caging children and separating them from their parents, a policy which she appears to have lied about. Perhaps there are real extenuating circumstances that will emerge, or perhaps she will publicly repent for what she was involved in. Both seem unlikely.

Jesse Eisinger at ProPublica thinks that Nielsen might quickly find a berth at a think-tank, university center or similar institution.

Different people have different limits. Nielsen is some distance beyond mine. If she gets a position at a think-tank, university center or similar, I will not participate on any panel that involves anyone from that think-tank, center or other institution. I will not participate in any event where the institution plays an organizing role, nor will I associate myself in any way that might reasonably be seen as providing active support for that institution. If you feel similarly, I invite you to sign your name below (it may take some time for your signature to get past our commenting system) or, if you have a bigger or different platform, to take this idea and roll it out yourself.

[I should note: this is not a collective post by Crooked Timber, although I would guess that many/most/perhaps all others here will agree].


by Henry on April 2, 2019

Today is a big day for some of us. Linda Nagata’s follow-up to the Nanotech Succession books, Edges is coming out. The third book in that previous series, Vast, is one of the great unrecognized SF classics of the last twenty years.

In Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss suggests that one of the wellsprings of science fiction was the Victorians’ discovery that human beings were not at the center of the universe, were at most a temporary florescence in a process of evolution that had continued for billions of years before, and might continue for billions of years after. He describes the sense of radical alienation that this provoked, quoting a passage from one of Thomas Hardy’s novels where a character discovers a fossil in a cliff. This describes how humans, for the first time, really had to think about the age of things and their own cosmic unimportance. This perspective of deep time has been an important engine of science fiction ever since. Olaf Stapledon’s work provides one version. H.P. Lovecraft’s another (but that perspective is far more skilfully developed by Caitlin Kiernan, who is a paleontologist as well as writer)

Robert Charles Wilson’s Hugo winning novel, Spin provides a famous take on what happens when human beings are forced to confront cosmological time. Vast  provides another, and in my opinion, even better one. Her characters have wandered out into a galaxy that is a battlefield from a civil war that ended thirty million years ago, still littered with weapons that are half-plague half-social contagion and vast autonomous spaceships, guided by colonies of “philosopher cells” that operate like cellular automata turned lethal. The human longing for transcendence becomes a trap that can enfold even those who are aware of its dangers in its sticky embrace. As one of the key characters reflects in a previous novel, looking at an insect that has wandered into his collection of carnivorous plants.

Lot wondered if the fly would have followed the sundew’s sweet scent if it could have comprehended the danger ahead of time. And he decided that it probably would have. Consciousness did not negate instinct. It only provided a post for self-observation.

Much current science fiction is sentimental, using a cold universe as mere backdrop for heartwarming stories about people with difficult backgrounds making new families for themselves. Vast, in contrast, isn’t even slightly sentimental, though it is  about family – unorthodox family, whose members often don’t particularly understand each other, and grow further apart as they speciate. The lesson that Vast has – if it has a lesson, any more than the universe has one – is the need to adapt and change.

I don’t want to say any more, for fear of spoilers, except to recommend that you read it, if you at all think that you might want to. It deserves to be rediscovered, and folded back into the main story of science fiction, rather than merely serving as a well of hidden inspiration. It’s the third in a series, but I read it before the other two, and found that the additional sense of alienation and in media res enhanced the story rather than detracting from it. Alastair Reynolds, whose books are deeply influenced by it, had the same experience. You can then dive into the earlier books as an excavation of the prehistory.

I’ve spent the last few weeks reading Vast and its prequels in preparation for the new book’s launch. Twenty years later, the rest of the field has still to catch up with it.


The transformation of left neoliberalism

by Henry on March 5, 2019

I haven’t been blogging at Crooked Timber as much as I used to. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been active – the last two years have probably been the most productive two years of my life (it turns out that my way of dealing with political stress is to write. and write. and write – more on that as the stuff I have been up to comes out). But it’s hard to resist noting Brad DeLong’s very good interview, and Mike Konczal’s response to it. Brad:

Until something non-rubble-ish is built in the Republican center, what might be good incremental policies just cannot be successfully implemented in an America as we know it today. We need Medicare-for-all, funded by a carbon tax, with a whole bunch of UBI rebates for the poor and public investment in green technologies. That’s the best policy given the political-economic context. If the political-economic context were different — well, I’m fundamentally a neoliberal shill. It is very nice to use market means to social democratic ends when they are more effective, and they often are. If you can properly tweak market prices, you then don’t just have one smart guy trying to design a policy that advances an objective — you have 30 million people all over the country, all incentivized to design a policy. That’s a wonderful thing to have.


Delong focuses on the political aspect of this shift, noting that there is nothing on the conservative Right that meets left-leaning neoliberals halfway to try and negotiate market-based policies. “Barack Obama rolls into office with Mitt Romney’s health care policy, with John McCain’s climate policy, with Bill Clinton’s tax policy, and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy,” and yet conservatives give him zero credit, call him a socialist, and actually attack each of these ideas just as much as they would more ultra-left policies. … I’ve also carried a rifle in this battle, trying to move the party Left—and it is happening. But this movement is happening largely because the story that left neoliberals tell us all about the economy itself, not just the politics of it, has fallen apart. … This is a matter of ideas: ideas having failed, and us needing new ones. … The positive effects of more inequality never happened. … we are seeing a revival of structural arguments that wages are increasingly determined by institutional structures rather than individual measures. … Relaxation of antitrust enforcement would lead to more competition and innovation, as was told. Unions would no longer get in the way of businesses. [but] …  firm dynamism has fallen dramatically. The rate of business startups has fallen. … high markups and profits, low interest rates, weak investment—point to a significant market power problem that impacts the macroeconomy.

Mike is building on the old Internet argument about ‘left neoliberalism’ (a term that I semi-accidentally popularized; but the best and most succinct account was Cosma’s). It’s notable that the people like Brad, Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein who got grief in that debate have moved significantly to the left in the interim: Brad’s interview is a formal acknowledgment of a shift that has been taking place for a long time. Which is not to say that they are going to join the DSA, but that just as there’s a significant distinction between social democrats and democratic socialists, they have plausibly changed from being left neoliberals to neoliberal leftists. It isn’t just that they want neoliberal tools to deliver left-leaning results; they have always wanted that. It is that they tacitly or explicitly realize that preferred neoliberal means of policy delivery need to be embedded in a framework that is being built up by a broader social movement.

Two questions follow (for me, anyway). One is for the neoliberal leftists, as a part of a broader left coalition. When and to what extent will their preferred approach to delivering policy clash with, or undermine, the necessary conditions for achieving collective action and making the policy sustainable? If they are pushing for market means towards social democratic ends, that is fine and good – markets can indeed sometimes be the best way to deliver those ends, and few of us would want to be completely without them (including Marxists like Sam Gindin. But one key lesson of the last couple of decades is that market provision of benefits makes it harder to build and sustain coalitions – private gain and public solidarity are at best uncomfortable bedfellows. Figuring out the political tradeoffs – when market means are worthwhile even when they make collective action tougher, or where non-market means might be better for sustainability reasons, even when markets are more efficient – is going to be hard, and we need to start building shared language and concepts to make it easier to resolve the inevitable disputes.

The other is for the left including both its neoliberal and non-neoliberal variants. It is clear why Brad and others are jumping ship – apart from the intellectual problems that Mike describes, there isn’t a politically viable there there to their right. But  I am not as sure as I would like to be about the there there to their left either. The left is enjoying a resurgence in the US (not so much elsewhere). There are coalitions being formed, plans being conceived. But there are enormous obstacles to be overcome. First in the US (where the system seems almost deliberately designed to prevent the radical action required e.g. to tackle global warming, and where billionaires can credibly threaten to pull down the election if the Democratic candidate is not to their liking). Second, at the global level, where the soi-disant liberal order is in decay, and it is not clear that there is very much that is going to replace it. There may be no plausible choice in American politics other than the left right now. That doesn’t mean that the left has a very good chance of doing the things that it needs to do.

[The below text is a short memo I presented for a workshop on a left-liberal financial foreign policy for the US last week.]

The US left is starting to come to grips with the relationship between democracy and inequality. This builds on a variety of academic work over the last several years – most prominently Thomas Piketty’s book, but also work by other academics such as Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman – which maps the growth in wealth and income inequality across rich countries, and how marked it has been in market-liberal countries such as the US. But these are no longer academic debates: they are being taken up by politicians within the Democratic party, creating a new dynamic of intra-party competition. Proposals by left-leaning politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are not only notable in themselves, but in how they are shifting the center of gravity, so that more centrist politicians too are taking them up. [click to continue…]

The Material Power of Ideas and Knowledge

by Henry on January 22, 2019

Attention conservation notice: long (nearly 5,000 words long) essay on the economic power of ideas. To its credit, the questions discussed are plausibly important. To its detriment, the arguments are less arguments than gestures, and the structure is decidedly baggy.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been wanting to write a response to Aaron Major’s (paywalled) article on ideas and economic power for Catalyst. Now there’s a second piece by Jeremy Adelman in Aeon on Thomas Piketty and Adam Tooze. I think they’re both wrong, but in different ways. Major’s piece suggests that economic ideas don’t really matter very much – it’s the economic base, not the superstructure that’s doing the work. Adelman, in contrast, think that ideas are super important – he just thinks that Piketty and Tooze have ones that are leading us in the wrong direction.

These arguments come from radically different places, but they have one thing in common. They both substantially underestimate the role that ideas have played in getting us to where we are on the left, and what they they’re likely to do for us in the near future. [click to continue…]


by Henry on January 9, 2019

I’ll be teaching a Ph.D. level class on globalization this semester – the draft syllabus is below. The direct aim of the class is to provide doctoral students in both international relations and comparative politics with an understanding of broad debates about globalization, without duplicating the materials of the (separately taught) class in international political economy. The indirect aim is to get them reading at least some material outside the field of political science (specifically: sociology and financial history – they get plenty of economics elsewhere). Comments and suggestions gratefully received. [click to continue…]

At Bertram’s Hotel

by Henry on January 9, 2019

I really enjoyed this John Lanchester essay on Agatha Christie, which came out a little before Christmas. I thought it was even better after watching John Malkovich play Poirot in the new BBC version of The ABC Murders. The essay explains in advance why the adaptation failed. Poirot is not so much a character as a bundle of mannerisms. To provide him with an interior life, much less a Secret Wound that drives his quest for justice, is to miss the point completely. [click to continue…]

Tyler Cowen suggests that Tom Lehrer would have been a member of the Intellectual Dark Web.

Lehrer represented the IDW of his day.  He said (sang) things others couldn’t, and his main enemy or target was political correctness.  It surprised me to hear how little many of the battle lines have changed.  Yet Lehrer, while warring against hypocritical political discourse, was in his day on the Left.  (Shades of Eric Weinstein!)  He worried about the “decline of the liberal consensus,” following the Kennedy era.  In 1982 he wrote that he considered feminism, abortion, and affirmative action “more complicated” than the older liberal causes, so perhaps he simply did not blend into the contemporary Left (the piece is interesting more generally).

This is provocative – but it seems basically wrong to me. The more trivial reason why is that Lehrer seems to have stayed on the American left.

“I’m not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn’t figure out what sort of song I would write. That’s the problem: I don’t want to satirize George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them.” In a phone call to Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post in February 2008, Lehrer instructed Weingarten to “Just tell the people that I am voting for Obama”

The more useful answer is that whatever you think about their respective political positions, their orientations to politics are fundamentally different. Lehrer was an iconoclast. The IDW people, in contrast, are iconolaters. IDWers don’t just want to push back against what they believe to be an emerging orthodoxy. They want to defend a pre-existing orthodoxy of their own (which roughly coheres around a common mythology regarding the ‘Enlightenment’ was and what it still has to offer) against it, and they take their own dogma seriously.  This is why the style of IDW tends more towards thin-skinned self-seriousness, and heavy hectoring. You need a sense of the absurd to be funny.

Perhaps a modern Tom Lehrer would indeed skewer the pieties of the left. Any broad social movement tends towards dogma. All dogmas produce some absurdities, and for that matter, tragedies. But the left is hardly the only source of such pieties, or, perhaps, the most important one. The piece that Tyler links to also has this section:

On the other hand, there are certain dead horses that still merit kicking, such as the late Wernher von Braun, the subject of one of the songs in the show. I say that not out of animosity toward him especially, but because of what he represents. I have been amused over the years at the number of scientists who have enjoyed the song without ever realizing that it was about them.

It’s hard not to be reminded of the ‘we’re only interested in the neutral scientific inquiry’ line that many IDWers take on race and IQ, and the Left’s Hostility and Open Debate.*

Lehrer was entertainingly impatient with the people whose politics he agreed with, but his true venom was reserved for an altogether more important set of shibboleths. Not political correctness, but the Cold War fusion of unthinking patriotism and technocratic politics. There are analogies to that fusion today, but I don’t think they’re on the left.

Update: as happens pretty well every time that I write a post responding to Tyler, whether agreeing or disagreeing, there’s a raft of comments with personal invective aimed towards him, and/or complaining that I shouldn’t be engaging him. And as before, I’m deleting all such comments – opinions about my engagement have already been amply expressed, and there are plenty of other places on the Internet you can express your derogatory opinions about him (or, for that matter, me).

  • When I once had the misfortune to be criticized online by Jordan Peterson, I spent several days dealing with multitudes of politely insistent followers demanding that I engage them in lengthy debate on race and IQ, to the point that I eventually had to write this post to fend them off). NB that I am quite sure that Tyler is no more enthusiastic about race-IQ nutters than I am.

Democracy as an information system

by Henry on November 27, 2018

Democracy is an information system.

That’s the starting place of our new paper: “Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy.” In it, we look at democracy through the lens of information security, trying to understand the current waves of Internet disinformation attacks. Specifically, we wanted to explain why the same disinformation campaigns that act as a stabilizing influence in Russia are destabilizing in the United States. [click to continue…]

Gene Wolfe on Gmail predictive text

by Henry on October 19, 2018

From this story, though it was the shortest and the most simple too of all those I have recorded in this book, I feel that I learned several things of some importance. First of all, how much of our speech, which we think freshly minted in our own mouths, consists of set locutions. The Ascian seemed to speak only in sentences he had learned by rote, though until he used each for the first time we had never heard them. Foila seemed to speak as women commonly do, and if I had been asked whether she employed such tags, I would have said that she did not – but how often one might have predicted the ends of her sentences from their beginnings.

Law and Economics

by Henry on October 18, 2018

I’ve been waiting for this paper to drop, ever since Suresh told me about it last year. It’s groundbreaking. What it does is to take Steve Teles’ qualitative work on the conservative legal movement, and then ask a simple question: if we start with the qualitative evidence about the program’s intentions, then FOIA the hell out of George Mason University to find out which judges attended the Manne seminars, and then apply cutting edge econometrics and natural language processing to their decisions, what are we going to find out?

Some selected quotes (as well as one quote that isn’t in the current version, but will likely be in the next) under the fold, for those who are interested in the headline findings. [click to continue…]


by Henry on October 7, 2018

I wrote a long Twitter thread on Kavanaugh a week ago, the first time that I thought he was going to get in. This piece by Matt Yglesias covers much of the same ground that I did, but better. This Boston Review article by Sam Moyn says what I wanted to say about courts and democracy, but is sharper. Still, there’s one idea in neither of them that I think is worth developing.

That is Kavanaugh’s role as a frame. The sociology and political science of social movements talks a lot about how movements on the street need frames – simple representations that provide a common focus for the very different people with different interests that make up a movement. Kavanaugh – angry, distorted, shouting face and all – provides the most concrete imaginable metaphor for what the Republican party has become, and for the white conservative elite that is trying to cripple American democracy. The ways in which conservative judges are undermining American democracy are apparently a-political, and hard for many people to focus on and understand. Kavanaugh represents and personifies this silent judicial revolution. And he does so in an especially visceral way for the women who are the backbone of the social and political movement that has to be at the heart of any hope for political change in the US. He can – and should be – hung like a rotting albatross around the neck of the Republican party.

Democratizing the Supreme Court is a long term project. It is going to require a fundamental reshaping of the American legal elite – focusing on the cosy relationship between top law schools and the judiciary, and the ways in which the Federalist Society has finessed the ambiguities between debating ideas, providing a pipeline for judges, and vetting Supreme Court justices. It will also require politics on the streets. The circumstances of Kavanaugh’s elevation have temporarily raised the costs of overly comfortable relationships in the legal world. Keeping them raised – and turning them into a broader democratic agenda – will require active and continued mobilization. Pressing for investigations (should the Democrats win in November) of the role that Whelan, Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society and others seem to have played behind the scenes in trying to discredit accusations. Framing the court and every rotten decision it makes as the Kavanaugh Court. And protesting in every way possible to raise the costs for the politicians who voted for Kavanaugh, and where possible to replace them.

None of this changes the fact that it is very, very bad that Kavanaugh has been confirmed. But it does mean that Kavanaugh can, despite himself, become a political engine for change, in ways that would have been impossible if he had been confirmed without controversy, as seemed likely to happen just a few weeks ago.

Move over, Sokal Hoax

by Henry on October 3, 2018

Something has gone wrong in the university—especially in certain fields within the social sciences. Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon #slatepitching the libs has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields, and their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview. This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous. For many, this problem has been growing increasingly obvious, but strong evidence has been lacking. For this reason, I have spent a good 45 minutes inside the scholarship I see as an intrinsic part of this problem. [click to continue…]

My last word on Nancy MacLean

by Henry on September 18, 2018

Attention conservation notice: This is a lengthy post looking to demonstrate, should demonstration be needed, that I am not a tool of the “Koch donor network.” Also: if you are interested in l’Affaire MacLean, your time is probably better spent reading this dissection of the book by Jennifer Burns in the new issue of History of Political Economy. [click to continue…]