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Brian Friel has died

by Henry on October 2, 2015

The playwright, Brian Friel has died. He had been failing in recent years, but his death is still an enormous loss. I didn’t know him, but I loved his plays. His most famous play was probably Dancing at Lughnasa (which repurposed bits and pieces from a book by my and Maria’s grand-aunt, Maire MacNeill), but it wasn’t his best. That honor surely goes to Faith Healer; the Abbey production, with Donal McCann as the fantastic Francis Hardy, is the most extraordinary play I’ve ever seen. Its depiction of the main character’s embrace of the comforts of failure is in some ways more savage than Beckett, and certainly more intimate. Translations is also very fine, and has considerable social science interest – it’s no coincidence that James Scott uses a snippet of dialogue taken from it as his epigraph for Seeing Like A State. I’m sorry that he’s gone.


Alternative MacArthurs

by Henry on September 29, 2015

So the MacArthur ‘genius’ awards were announced today; I’ve always thought of them as tottering on a Bourdieuian knife-edge between two different kinds of legitimation. On the one hand, they are supposed to have consequences, to publicly recognize people who would otherwise be less well known, and giving them financial and symbolic support that they can then go on to use to do good and wonderful things. This means that it would be weird to give one e.g. to someone like Paul Krugman, who already is doing very nicely in terms of public recognition. On the other, they are supposed to go to people who are creative and brilliant – but in socially legitimated ways so as to maintain the status of the award. This means that they are unlikely to go to genuinely unsung geniuses, not simply because the selection process can’t find brilliance if it isn’t publicly well known, but because the legitimacy of the awards partly depends on their social validation by a variety of elite networks.

Hence, for example, we get today’s decision to give an award to Ta-Nehisi Coates. In one sense this is unquestionably awesome – Coates is fantastic. However, it would be unquestionably much more awesomer if they had given an award to Coates five years before, or gave it today to someone where Coates was five years ago. But the sociology of the process doesn’t seem to be set up to do that – like most institutions, it gravitates towards safe choices. A more risky symbolic venture capital approach – say giving grants to people earlier in their career in the expectation that 80% of them will flame out, 10% will do well, and 10% will be just wonderful would probably not be sustainable over the longer term (or at the least, it would make the prizes very different in status and connotation). Hence the current set up, which I suspect is mostly aimed to support safe bets – people who are either famous or very well regarded in their specific discipline – with perhaps a couple of riskier ones thrown in here and there, where they really strike fire with one of the selectors.

So if we were giving out awards rather than the actual selection committee, who would we give them to? It’s not likely, but it is possible that actual real people involved in the selection process will read this (Crooked Timber doesn’t have Vox-level readership, but it does have its own odd forms of cultural capital; stranger things have happened). So it’s possible that this thread could have consequences. Comments are open. My own two nominees (I can think of other very deserving candidates, but they’re personal friends; I’m also sure I’ll kick myself about all the people I should have mentioned as soon as I’ve posted this) would be Astra Taylor and Tom Slee. Both are writers in the hinterlands between technology and culture, neither is so high profile as to be a likely candidate at the moment. But both are just fantastic – brilliant writers (and in Taylor’s case, documentary maker and musician too) who could do wonderful things with MacArthur level exposure. Who else?


George Scialabba is retiring from Harvard

by Henry on September 10, 2015

George Scialabba is one of the great writers and intellectuals of our time. He’s also a member of the CT community, both as a commenter, and as the subject of a seminar that we ran a few years ago on his wonderful collection of essays, What Are Intellectuals Good For? He’s also someone whom I consider (although we’ve only met in person two or three times) to be a good friend. In a properly constituted America, he would be a Living National Treasure. His greatness as a critic and essayist is a result not only of intelligence and prose style but of willingness to try to get inside the heads of the people he is writing about, so as to understand what they were trying to do on their own terms, before reaching judgment. People may reasonably have different opinions about which of George’s essays is the best. My personal favorite is this devastating piece on Isaiah Berlin.

George is retiring from Harvard, where he has worked for many years scheduling events for the Center for Government and International Studies, while writing in his spare time. There are many people at Harvard whose work and thought I admire enormously, but with no disrespect to them, I think that George has been the single best public intellectual working there over the last few decades (I’ve sometimes wondered whether Harvard’s senior administrators know who he is, or have any idea what a gem they have had in him). The good news (as Scott notes in his appreciation at Inside Higher Ed is that this should give him more time to write. The Baffler is throwing a party for him this evening; I’d love to be there. In lieu of that, this post. Congratulations, George. And more importantly, thank you very, very much.

Adam Smith in action

by Henry on July 31, 2015

The New York Times:

Brian Canlis, a co-owner of his family-named restaurant, is also a client. He said he was fond of Mr. Price, but was more discomfited by his actions. Mr. Canlis is already worried about how to deal with Seattle’s new minimum wage, which rose to $11 an hour in April and is scheduled to reach $15 an hour for small businesses within five years. The pay raise at Gravity, Mr. Canlis told Mr. Price, “makes it harder for the rest of us.” Mr. Price winced. “It pains me to hear Brian Canlis say that,” he said later. “The last thing I would ever want to do is make a client feel uncomfortable.” But any plan that has the potential, as Mr. Price has put it, to “set the world on fire,” is bound to make some people squirm. Leah Brajcich, who oversees sales at Gravity, fielded complaints from several customers who accused her boss of communist or socialist sympathies that would drive up their own employees’ wages and others who felt it was a public relations stunt.

The Wealth of Nations

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate. To violate this combination is everywhere a most unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his neighbours and equals.

One of our Twitter accounts is missing

by Henry on July 27, 2015

A public service request – someone, presumably a Crooked Timber reader, put up a Crooked Timber Twitter account a few years ago, to automatically tweet new posts that we put up. Which was very nice of them – but it appears to have stopped working sometime back in 2013. If the person who put this together reads this and would be kind enough to let us know the password so that we can put it all back together, we’d be grateful (we presume that he or she has abandoned this little project himself or herself). If anyone knows who did this, and could contact them, we’d be grateful too (the only two accounts that the Twitter account follows are WTDirect and the PHL Jokes Initiative, if that’s any clue). Or if this turns out to be abandonware with no known owner, and there’s some way of getting Twitter to release it that someone knows of, also good by us.

There’s been a lot of back and forth about economic reasoning and the EU. This article by Kevin O’Rourke, takes a different perspective, one that is well worth reading, exploring the consequences of economists’ handwaving over utility for the technocratic politics that we face today. I’ve seen other efforts to make this kind of case, but they haven’t been nearly as clear or accessible.

A Brief Theory of Very Serious People

by Henry on July 22, 2015

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 21: Thomas L. Friedman speaks during a rehearsal before a taping of Jeopardy! Power Players Week at DAR Constitution Hall on April 21, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)

Tyler Cowen argues that the concept of “Very Serious People” refers to people who “realize that common sense morality must, to a considerable extent, rule politics.” I’m not either the originator nor the popularizer of the term, but I think that’s wrong. As I understand it, the theory underlying the concept of Very Serious People is as follows.

1. Everyone has a mix of beliefs, some of which are right, and some wrong.
2. Everyone co-exists in a social system that tends to value, heavily reinforce and widely disseminate some people’s beliefs while disparaging, heavily discounting, and tending to limit the circulation of certain other people’s beliefs. This bias is not random, but instead reflects and reinforces existing power structures and asymmetries.
3. People whose beliefs are reinforced and widely circulated so that they are socially and politically influential, even when they are manifestly wrong, are Very Serious People. The system provides them with no incentives to admit error or perhaps to understand that they have erred, even when their mistakes have devastating consequences.

Or: Shorter Theory of Very Serious People.

1. Being Tom Friedman Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry.
[click to continue…]

Why Greek debt is a problem

by Henry on July 8, 2015

Daniel wrote a post some months ago which has a useful point about Greek debt.

Don’t think of the Greek debt burden, either in cash € terms or as a ratio to GDP, as an economic quantity. It basically isn’t an economically meaningful number any more. The purpose of its existence is as a political quantity; it’s part of the means by which control is exercised over the Greek budget by the Eurosystem. The regular rituals of renegotiation of the bailout package, financing of debt maturity peaks and so on, are the way in which the solvent Euroland nations exercise the kind of political control that they feel they need to have if they are going to be fiscally responsible for the bills.

If this is right – and I think it is – it suggests that Greek debt is a different kind of problem than most people argue, but that it is arguably a worse one. Pretty well everybody, including most Greek people on both the left and right, agree that the Greek state is a mess (read Stathis Kalyvas’s book for history on how it got there, and on the relationship between Greece and the West). This creates problems in a common economic area, exactly to the extent that the euro area needs some rough congruence of state capacity across countries to administer all the things (taxes; fiscal policy) that the area needs to function properly as a backstop to monetary union. The story of the eurozone’s relationship with Greece post-crisis is a story of external powers trying to restructure an entire political system from outside, using the crude tools of control that are available to them. The situation is somewhere between the kinds of Washington Consensus restructuring and conditionality that the IMF used to impose as a quid-pro-quo for emergency loans to countries in crisis, and the massive efforts to restructure the political systems of Afghanistan and Iraq post invasion.

Obviously these past efforts have mostly turned out pretty badly (perhaps you can argue some of the IMF cases – but you’d have an uphill battle if you really wanted to make a general defense). There are instances of successful political-restructuring-from-outside in Germany and Japan, but both of those involved (a) military occupation over a long period of time, and (b) relatively strong pre-existing state structures. There isn’t any warrant to believe that this effort will turn out better, or that the Troika-or-whatever-they-call-themselves-these-days have the local knowledge and public legitimacy to bring real changes through. The more plausible scenario is the one we have – locals vacillating between (a) resentfully going through the bare minimum of the motions of reform that they think they need to go through to get the money, and (b) resisting outright. This is not a recipe for long term success at anything apart from fostering grudges on both sides.

However, it gets worse. If I understand Daniel’s arguments over the last few years rightly, he thinks that the Greeks should just shut up and get on with it, since (a) the alternative is worse, and (b) given the unsustainability of the debt burden, the richer eurozone countries are going to quietly disappear it at some unstated point in the future when everything becomes less politicized. This is not, contra some commenters, a stupid or evil argument – but I don’t know that it’s right either. The Greek state is not the only one that is underdeveloped – the EU/Eurozone one is too, meaning that there isn’t any single actor that can strike deals, whether informal or formal, on the part of the collectivity. It’s not at all clear that anyone can quietly make a credible commitment to Greece to knuckle under in the expectation of better things in the long run, because it’s not clear that anyone on the other side of that bargain can push through a long term restructuring of debt given how toxic the politics have become. Even if the Greeks started behaving exactly as the rich eurozone countries want them to, it’s not clear that the latter countries’ publics will be willing to forgive what appears to them as vast amounts of taxpayers’ money – and under the current system as I understand it (happy to be corrected if I’m wrong, since much of the devil is in the detail), all that it takes is one member state with a cranky right wing coalition partner to refuse a deal.

To be clear – none of this conducts towards any specific recommendations for what Greece or the eurozone countries ought to do. It’s a lot more modest than that. If we treat Greek debt as a political instrument of control rather than a quantity that is going to be demanded from the Greek people over the shorter run, we should be arguing about the project for which that instrument is being deployed, and asking whether (a) it is fit for purpose, and (b) whether the kind of project that it’s being used for is one that’s going to work over the longer term. We should also be wondering (c ) about the endogenous ways in which the instrument of debt as a form of political control affects the actors on both sides of the relationship, and whether it makes some successful and mutually acceptable long term modus vivendi more or less likely. Obviously, I’m skeptical on all of these (and given past track record, I’d have expected Daniel to be more skeptical on (a) and (b) than he appears to be), but willing to hear counter-arguments.

Danielle Allen seminar

by Henry on June 26, 2015

The seminar on Danielle Allen’s recent book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, which is available from Powells, Amazon and Barnes and Noble is now concluded. The entire seminar can be found at this link. The participants in this seminar and their posts:

  • James Miller is a professor of political science and liberal studies at the New School for Social Research. What Is To Be Done?

The Declaration as Patrimony

by Henry on June 19, 2015

I was born in Ireland, not America. This country’s habit of conducting its national conversation through its founders and founding documents still seems a little strange to me. The closest Irish equivalent to the Declaration of Independence, the Proclamation of the Republic, has a vexed status in Irish historical memory. This was in part because the republican promises made were never quite delivered on, in part because of Ireland’s civil war, where the losers declared themselves the true heirs of the Proclamation and took up arms on its behalf, and in part because the proclaimers have not been dead sufficiently long to acquire the incorruptible odor of sanctity. Instead of a civic religion centered on my country’s founders, we grew up in the gaps of a conversation that never quite took form, tacit and tactical silences that carefully skirted a complicated history, and, rising up from somewhere below, the sweet aroma of bodies that hadn’t been buried quite deeply enough. [click to continue…]

Yeats’ birthday

by Henry on June 13, 2015

Today’s the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Butler Yeats. From what I’ve heard (including a couple of first hand accounts), he wasn’t a particularly nice man. But he was a great poet. So, if you want to quote favorite bits in the comments, quote away. One of mine (not one of his great and famous poems, but some nice lines all the same), Two Songs from a Play:

I SAW a staring virgin stand
Where holy Dionysus died,
And tear the heart out of his side.
And lay the heart upon her hand
And bear that beating heart away;
Of Magnus Annus at the spring,
As though God’s death were but a play.

Another Troy must rise and set,
Another lineage feed the crow,
Another Argo’s painted prow
Drive to a flashier bauble yet.
The Roman Empire stood appalled:
It dropped the reins of peace and war
When that fierce virgin and her Star
Out of the fabulous darkness called.

In pity for man’s darkening thought
He walked that room and issued thence
In Galilean turbulence;
The Babylonian starlight brought
A fabulous, formless darkness in;
Odour of blood when Christ was slain
Made all platonic tolerance vain
And vain all Doric discipline.

Everything that man esteems
Endures a moment or a day.
Love’s pleasure drives his love away,
The painter’s brush consumes his dreams;
The herald’s cry, the soldier’s tread
Exhaust his glory and his might:
Whatever flames upon the night
Man’s own resinous heart has fed.

Not changing minds on TPP

by Henry on May 19, 2015

I’m writing a longer post on economists and the TPP for the Monkey Cage, and perhaps another post about the idea of “mood affiliation” for here (short version – I don’t think it at all does what its advocates want it to do) but in the meantime, a specific response to this post by Tyler Cowen. Tyler, partly perhaps as a result of an argument I had with him and Noah Smith on Twitter, argues that:

I’m familiar with studies showing estimated economic gains from TPP in the neighborhood of $1.9 trillion (pdf). Given the past performance of trade models, I am willing to believe that might be an overestimate. So let’s cut those gains roughly in half to say a trillion. (That said, if I understand the Peterson document correctly, they are not even trying to incorporate gains from reallocation on the production side, as might result from comparative advantage or dynamic specialization; in this sense $1 trillion may be a considerable underestimate of the upside.) That is still a sizable sum of economic gain. What would convince me to oppose TPP if is somebody did a study showing the following: when you use a better trade model, use better data, and/or add in the neglected costs of TPP (which are real), those gains go away and indeed become negative.

This is fundamentally the wrong way to think about these models. If as Tyler accepts, thinking about TPP primarily in Ricardian terms is likely to lead one ‘substantially astray,’ then starting from a Ricardian model and stipulating that you’ll lower the expected benefits by half to give your opponents a bit of a leg up, is fallacious. Specifically, it’s a weaker version of the Iraq war fallacy that Daniel identified in his 1 minute MBA.

Fibbers’ forecasts are worthless. Case after miserable case after bloody case we went through, I tell you, all of which had this moral. Not only that people who want a project will tend to make inaccurate projections about the possible outcomes of that project, but about the futility of attempts to “shade” downward a fundamentally dishonest set of predictions. If you have doubts about the integrity of a forecaster, you can’t use their forecasts at all. Not even as a “starting point”.

This isn’t to say that the Peterson Institute model that Tyler is working from is “fundamentally dishonest.” Although Alan Beattie notes that Peterson used to be “notorious for claiming trade deals would create thousands of jobs, cure scrofula and turn base metals into gold,” he accepts that they’ve gotten better under Adam Posen, (also, in fairness to the pre-Posen regime, this). But it’s highly problematic as a starting point for debate. As Jared Bernstein describes the results of the Peterson model in email conversation: “Only in DC-style econ would a number like 0.4% by 2025, derived from a model of a 29-chapter trade agreement that the modelers never saw, be taken seriously (Remember, we can’t accurately forecast monthly jobs numbers—yet we can somehow tell you to count on a miniscule change to GDP 10 years hence).”

I’ll have more to say about these issues in a follow up post. For now, just this. If you’re trying to build theoretical argument, you can reasonably ask someone to provide you with a better theory before you abandon your own. However, if you’re trying to advocate for a policy measure, and you accept that your preferred model is likely to lead people substantially astray, you don’t have any very good warrant for suggesting that this model should still anchor policy debate in lieu of someone coming up with a better one. Far better to admit ignorance (while berating the ignorance of your opponents as you like) and to accept that everyone’s views on the policy (including your own) are likely more the product of political values than dispositive evidence.

Ken MacLeod seminar

by Henry on May 19, 2015

The posts in the Ken MacLeod seminar, in order of publication:

Farah Mendlesohn, And This, Too is a Romance.

Cosma Shalizi, “The Free Development of Each is the Condition of the War of All Against All”: Some Paths to the True Knowledge.

Sumana Harihareswara, Games, Simulation, Difference and Insignificance in The Restoration Game & The Human Front.

Jo Walton, Helical Construction in the Work of Ken MacLeod.

Henry Farrell, Rationalism and the True Knowledge.

Ken MacLeod, Response.

Rationalism and the True Knowledge

by Henry on May 15, 2015

The introduction to the American edition of The Star Fraction contains Ken MacLeod’s second-most famous dictum – “History is the trade secret of science fiction, and theories of history are its invisible engine.” The Fall Revolution books are all about history and people trying to make it (or perhaps more accurately, histories, and people trying to make them). They’re also books that reflect a very specific historical period – when the Berlin Wall had fallen or was about to fall but the Washington Consensus had yet to gel – a moment where the cold logic of nuclear deterrence still held, sort of, while the political transformation of Eastern Europe and the new market anarchism of Sachs, drugs and rock and roll was starting to get going. Maybe the closest thing to the manic intensity of the first three books (and chunks of the fourth) is the Zone of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow – black markets, hustlers, ideas, freewheeling politics, and the frozen arc of the Rocket still hanging above it all. They’re also (and much more so than Pynchon, whose zaniness is often forced) very funny books – they don’t play anything for obvious laughs, but are riddled through with intellectual black comedy.

Ken MacLeod Seminar

by Henry on May 5, 2015

A public service announcement: we’ll be publishing a seminar on Ken MacLeod’s books next week, with contributions from me, Sumana Harihareswara, Farah Mendlesohn, Cosma Shalizi and Jo Walton, as well as Ken himself. It’s shaping up to be a lot of fun.