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Henry

Globalized Green Lanternism

by Henry on November 25, 2016

A piece of mine that was published a few months ago that might be of interest to some, especially recent political events in the US.

A …tacit assumption lurks behind calls for the U.S. president to consider how best America can stabilize the global system: that the United States not only wants to help stabilize the international economy but that it can do so. The dominant mode of rhetoric assumes that the key causal relationship runs from U.S. influence to possible solutions for the problems plaguing the global economy. However, there is another way to think about the evidence. What if the key causal relationship does not run from U.S. hegemonic influence to global economic problems, but the other way around? What if global economic problems are imposing ever greater limits on the influence of the United States, and indeed any other putative hegemon that might replace it?

Here, the diagnosis might be as follows—that the great age of economic cooperation of the post–World War II period is the product of a historically unique conjuncture of high growth rates, and of available forms of cooperation that offered readily achievable rewards. We have no warrant to believe that these will continue forever; indeed they might already be abating. Global economic growth may be sputtering as it reaches hard limits…

Furthermore, there is some reason from the work of Thomas Piketty and
others to think that the extraordinary growth rates of recent decades are a historical aberration from earlier times, and may not continue indefinitely into the future. Finally, the low hanging fruit of straightforward tariff reductions have mostly already been plucked. Future economic agreements will have to settle instead for more dubious gleanings from the higher and more inaccessible branches. In such a world, it is unlikely that the incoming U.S. president can do very much to solve global problems. Instead, his or her main task might be to adjust as best as possible to international economic difficulties. Aspiring hegemons will find it far easier to increase economic cooperation and secure global stability in a world where there is reasonable economic growth and cooperation than in a world of stagnant growth and few distributional benefits. We may be moving from the former world to the latter.

This is less an exercise in prediction than in stealing a method from Gene Wolfe (he mentions it in one of his collections; I can’t remember which) for writing science fiction stories and applying it to policy articles. Wolfe’s recommendation is to take the world, change just one important variable, and then see what happens. What I do in the piece is to take the existing elite consensus about trade, benign US hegemony etc, and change just one factor, assuming that economic stagnation acts upon US political ability and will rather than vice versa. The result may or may not be closer to the truth, but it does, I think, plausibly demonstrate the fragility of this consensus to changes in the underlying parameters.

Kissing the ring

by Henry on November 20, 2016

There are many theories of Trump out there – here’s another – Trump as Renaissance princeling. The New York Times:

As a parade of job seekers, TV talking heads and statesmen like Henry Kissinger paraded through the lobby of Trump Tower this past week, Mr. Trump ran his presidential transition from his triplex on the 58th floor much the way he ran his campaign and his business before that — schmoozing, rewarding loyalty, fomenting infighting among advisers and moving confidently forward through a series of fits and starts. … Yet Mr. Trump loves the tension and drama of a selection process, and has sought to stoke it. A senior adviser described the meeting, in part, as Mr. Romney simply coming to pay his respects to the president-elect and “kiss his ring.” … Mr. Trump also likes to surprise, and enjoys the worldwide speculation he sets off with his Twitter posts.

This reminds me weirdly of Padgett and Ansell’s description of how Cosimo de Medici used ‘robust action’ and constructive ambiguity about his ultimate goals to manipulate those around him.

We use the term “robust action” to refer to Cosimo’s style of control. The key to understanding Cosimo’s sphinxlike character … is multivocality – the fact that single actions can be interpreted coherently from multiple perspectives simultaneously, the fact that single actions can be moves in many games at once, and the fact that public and private motivations cannot be parsed. … The “only” point of this, from the perspective of ego, is flexible opportunism – maintaining discretionary options across unforseeable futures in the face of hostile attempts by others to narrow those options.

Crucial for maintaining discretion is not to pursue any specific goals. For in nasty strategic games, like Florence or like chess, positional play is the maneuvering of opponents into the forced clarification of their (but not your) tactical lines of action. Locked in commitment to lines of action, and thence to goals, is the product not of individual choice but at least as much of thers’ successful “ecological control” over you. Victory, in Florence, in chess, or in go means locking in others, but not yourself, to goal-oriented sequences of strategic play that become predictable thereby.

The crucial difference being of course, that Cosimo de Medici rarely spoke in public and Donald Trump, via Twitter feed, via softball interviews, and via any medium that isn’t going to present him with unfriendly and harsh questions does nothing else but talk.

However, multivocality can plausibly take a variety of different forms. The Renaissance form is to adopt a strategy of ‘whatever you say, say nothing,’ leaving it for others to interpret your ambiguous actions as they will, forcing them to commit while you remain unbounded. Another is to talk constantly, but not to allow what you say to be constrained by consistency, or logic, or anything other than the short term desire to badfoot your opponents in short term tactical games and the long term one to make everyone pay attention to you, and condition their actions on you, without you having to condition their actions on them. The two have somewhat similar long term consequences. In each, the successful practitioner dominates the public space and public argument as everyone tries to interpret what the hell you have done, paying attention to you and no-one else but you, so that you can continue to play center stage in the theater of politics while everyone else is reduced to Waldorf and Statler, carping from the critics’ box.

If this is right, the key qualities of presidential politics over the next four years will be instability, frequent policy change, palace intrigues, and Trump looking to reign triumphant above it all, not particularly caring (a la Padgett and Ansell’s Cosimo) about attaining specific goals, but instead looking to preserve his position at the center of an ever shifting spider web of political relations, no matter what consequences this has for the integrity of the web. This might not be authoritarianism in the sense of a well-honed bureaucratic regime dedicated to horrible ends, but authoritarianism in terms of the general break down of Weberian order and hierarchies in favor of a largely personalized politics in which one’s relationship with an erratic and unpredictable president counts for far more than one’s formal position and authority (of course, all politics do depend on personal relations more than one might like, but bureaucracy and rules still usually count).

American democracy

by Henry on November 9, 2016

The text that is going through my mind this morning is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. I’ve had a half written post sitting on my computer for a long time on the resonances between that book and Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which is far more lightly written, but which is subtly scathing in its depiction of how racism in America is anterior to, and more fundamental than American national identity. The most important part of Coates’ book, as I read it, is the part that got least attention – its account of American democracy. One of the reasons that liberals like Jonathan Chait get angry with Coates is because of his refusal to accept that things have, in some fundamental way, gotten better. This stems from Coates’ belief, which he develops in the book that the conditions of black people (and others too) are the result of wilful choices by a democratic majority.

The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies — the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects— are the product of democratic will … The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs. (pp. 78-79)

It’s hard to argue with those words this morning.

Michael Lind of New America has a Theory about why politics is so screwed up. It’s worth quoting in extenso:

Science fiction traditionally has had the task of providing us with alternative visions of the future. For the most part, it has done a terrible job. The main reason for its failure is that it assumes global uniformity. …

In optimistic visions of the future, there is a liberal and democratic world government, or perhaps an interplanetary federation. In dystopias, there is a single global tyranny. … The assumption of uniform conditions in the world of tomorrow saves science-fiction authors and screenwriters the trouble of explaining the Sino-Indian dispute of 2345 AD, allowing them to concentrate on the plot and the main characters. But it is completely unrealistic.

…even in an industrialized world of wage workers and cities, the gaps between rich and poor regions are likely to remain enormous. Even as some backward areas catch up, innovative regions will shoot ahead. …

Great-power rivalry, demographic collapse, mass migration — three of the major forces reshaping the world — have been all but completely absent, both from classic science fiction and newer novels and movies that have shaped public consciousness. … Unfortunately, literary and cinematic visions of the future influence the way the public and the policymaking elite think about the future. This is particularly a problem for the left … Meanwhile, from the early 20th century to the early 21st, many centrist liberals have put their hopes in international institutions — the League of Nations, the United Nations, or, more recently, projects of trans-national regionalism like the European Union.

Today’s national populists are told that they are on the wrong side of history, by elites whose members claim to speak on behalf of an emerging world community. But maybe the populists and nationalists are on the right side of history and the elites have been duped by bad science fiction.

Well, in fairness, it isn’t nearly as creepy as blaming it all on international bankers or the Rothschilds

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Uber Menschen

by Henry on October 5, 2016

This, screencapped by Ryan Cooper right before Jason Brennan suddenly and inexplicably deleted his Twitter account, gives the game away a bit.

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Privatization as State Transformation

by Henry on September 29, 2016

I’ve an essay on the topic of privatization forthcoming in Nomos. Since the theme may be of interest to CT readers, or at least might get some useful pushback, I’m putting it up beneath the fold. NB that it is quite long – people who want to read it may prefer the PDF.

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Glenn Reynolds should not be disciplined

by Henry on September 23, 2016

Glenn Reynolds is a piece of work. Much of his blogging is in the ambiguous borderland between right wing hackery and active depravity. Even so, I was disturbed to see this in Inside Higher Ed:

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville says it’s investigating a law professor’s tweet suggesting that motorists “run down” protesters blocking traffic following a fatal police shooting in Charlotte, N.C. The professor, a popular blogger with the Twitter handle @Instapundit, says he hasn’t been contacted by the university directly … On Thursday, Melanie D. Wilson, dean of Tennessee’s College of Law, posted a statement to the university website saying that she was “aware of the remarks” and of the “serious and legitimate concerns expressed by members of the [law college] family and the University of Tennessee community, as well as concerned citizens across the country.”Wilson said Reynolds’s comments “do not reflect my views and opinions, nor do they reflect the values of the college and university,” and that she, administrators and faculty members are “investigating this matter.”
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This letter to incoming students from the University of Chicago’s dean of students is getting a lot of discussion (e.g.).

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

There’s something basically right with the idea that universities (in the social sciences and humanities) should be in the business of making their students uncomfortable with their preconceptions, obligng them to examine their own and others’ ideas forcefully, and getting them to acknowledge a la Max Weber that there are awkward facts for every political position. But there’s also something fundamentally wrong with the claim that the ideal of academic freedom and the idea of the safe space are opposed to each other. [click to continue…]

Life in the party

by Henry on July 20, 2016

This rather unconvincing effort by Paul Ryan to lipstick the pig in his speech at the second day of the Republican convention:

We Republicans have made our choice. Have we had our arguments this year? Sure we have. You know what I call those? Signs of life. Signs of a party that is not just going through the motions, not just mouthing the words from the same old stuff.

reminds me of an old and likely apocryphal story about Daniel O’Connell’s time as a barrister:

One of O’Connell’s great displays of forensic acuteness took place at Tralee.

The question in dispute touched the validity of a will that had been made almost in articulo mortis. The instrument seemed drawn up in due form, the witnesses gave ample confirmation that it had been legally executed. One of them was an old servant. O’Connell cross-examined him, and allowed him to speak on in the hope that he would say too much. Nor was the hope disappointed. The witness had already sworn that he saw the deceased sign the will. ‘Yes,’ he went on, ‘I saw him sign it and surely there was life in him at the time.’ The expression frequently repeated led O’Connell to suspect that it had a peculiar meaning. Fixing his eyes on the old man, he said ‘You have taken an oath before God and man to speak the truth and the whole truth; the eye of God is upon you, and the eyes of your neighbours are fixed on you too. Answer me by virtue of that sacred and solemn oath which has passed your lips. Was the testator alive when he signed the will?’

The witness quivered; his face grew ashy pale as he repeated, ‘There was life in him.’ The question was reiterated, and at last O’Connell half compelled half cajoled him to admit that, after life was extinct, a pen had been put into the testator’s hand, that one of the party guided it to sign his name, while, as a salve for the consciences of all concerned, a living fly was put into the dead man’s mouth, to qualify the witnesses to bear testimony that ‘there was life in him’ when he signed the will. This fact, literally dragged from the witness, preserved a large property in a respectable and worthy family.

Also, Ryan’s claim that Republicans are “not just mouthing the words from the same old stuff” seems rather poorly phrased, considering. But your mileage may vary.

A small story

by Henry on July 17, 2016

This Granta article, which I came across via The Browser, talks about the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and family memories thereof. It reminded me of a small story that I meant to write about when the Easter Rising had its 100th anniversary a few months ago, but didn’t quite get around to. My grand-uncle Seamus, who died about 20 years ago, told me once that when he had been a small boy, he had wanted to go to a big parade of the Irish Volunteers with his older brothers (his father was nominally the Commander-in-Chief of the organization) but wasn’t allowed to, because he was too little. However, shortly after they had all left, Patrick Pearse called by the house, saw my grand-uncle crying, and picked him up and carried him into the center, to watch the parade on his shoulders. Obviously, this was an entirely trivial incident in itself, but its very ordinariness brought home to me how Pearse, despite all the posthumous mythologization and/or vilification, was an ordinary human being, who saw a child in distress, and wanted to comfort him.

Boris Johnson

by Henry on June 28, 2016

The first time I heard the name Boris Johnson was in the early 1990s. I was in graduate school, and one of the ways I made a little money during the summer was by helping shepherd tours of American policy people around Brussels to be lectured by various dignitaries and then writing up reports. One year, my Americans were treated to a performance by a prominent UK member of the Brussels press corps, who was clearly enjoying himself immensely. The larger part of his talk focused on Boris Johnson, who was then the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent. The journalist told of how Johnson clearly was completely at sea in Brussels, and at a loss for what to report on. Other reporters quickly noted that he had a sweet tooth for stories about this or that regulatory horror that Brussels bureaucrats were about to inflict on unsuspecting Britons. They started an informal pool, to see what was the most ridiculously exaggerated story that they could stuff into Boris, which he would then relay as gospel truth to Telegraph readers. The speaker suggested (perhaps exaggerating for effect) that they hadn’t yet been able to find a story so ludicrous that Boris wouldn’t gulp it down.

It’s Boris who’s having the last laugh though, isn’t it.

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s new book, American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper does four things. First, it makes the case for the mixed economy – the effort to make the market and state work together. Second, it makes the case that mixed government existed. The US used not to be as divided as it is now, and business, rather than being committed to a virulently anti-state agenda was often relatively pragmatic. Third, it tries to explain how this went South – how mixed government, and indeed government, became a dirty word. Finally, it asks how mixed government can be resuscitated again. [click to continue…]

The Age of Em Won’t Happen

by Henry on June 19, 2016

Tyler Cowen says that the predicted future of Robin Hanson’s Age of Em – a world in which most cognitive and much physical labor will be done by emulations of brain-scanned human beings – won’t happen. I agree. I enjoyed the book, and feel a bit guilty about criticizing it, since Hanson asked me for comments on an early draft, which I never got around to giving him (the last eighteen months have been unusually busy for a variety of reasons). So the below are the criticisms which I should have given him, and which might or might not have led him to change the book to respond to them (he might have been convinced by them; he might have thought they were completely wrong; he might have found them plausible but not wanted to respond to them – every good book consists not only of the good counter-arguments it answers, but the good counter-arguments that it brackets off). [click to continue…]

The Sandworm Solution

by Henry on June 17, 2016

Brad DeLong:

Time to fly my Neoliberal Freak Flag again! I see this very differently than … Dani Rodrik … The problem is not that Europe has too little democracy. The problem is that it has the wrong kind. Issues of fiscal stance are technocratic issues of economic governance. … Harry Dexter White and John Maynard Keynes were good democrats. Neither would say that Europe’s economic problems now are the result of a deficiency of democracy. They would say that it is the fault of their IMF—that their IMF should have blown the whistle, declared a fundamental disequilibrium, and required one of:

  1. the shrinkage of the eurozone and the depreciation of the peso and the drachma back in 2010

  2. a wipeout of Greek and Spanish external debts, and a fiscal transfer program from the German government to Greece and Spain and to German banks if German authorities wished to avoid such a shrinking of the eurozone.

We did not have such an IMF back in 2010. But that we did not have such an IMF is not the result of a deficiency of democracy in Europe. Or so I think: I could be wrong here.

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Now that the NLRB is considering the question of graduate student unionization again, we’re beginning to see people write pieces suggesting that academic life would collapse if graduate students had bargaining rights. If there’s any use to this particular one (by Jonathan Gartner, who is, as best as I can tell from Google, a law student at Harvard), it’s that it conveniently bundles a few of the bad arguments together. [click to continue…]