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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…]

Vindictive billionaires

by Henry on May 26, 2016

There’s been a lot of reaction to the news that Peter Thiel secretly funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit (which has led to a $140 million award) against Gawker. Thiel is, of course, not only a Silicon Valley billionaire, but a man of strong, if idiosyncratic, libertarian views. Hence, it’s ironic that he illustrates some of the blind spots of libertarianism – in particular, the tendency of many libertarians to discount the problems of wealth inequality.

A few weeks ago, Tyler Cowen wrote this post on Trump: [click to continue…]

Polanyi and Clopenings

by Henry on May 24, 2016

This piece by Mike Konczal and Patrick Iber on Polanyi’s double movement, Trumpism, and the difference between left neo-liberalism and the social democratic left is fantastic. Go read it – I’m not going to try to excerpt from it, and certainly don’t think I can improve on it. One of the things that it does, which I’ve wanted to write about for a little while, is to pick up on Polanyi’s notion that labor and land are fictitious commodities – that is, that much of the problem with classical liberalism is that it presumes them to be commodities when really they are not. Konczal and Iber pick out a key quote:

Labor is only another name for a human activity which goes with life itself, which in its turn is not produced for sale but for entirely different reasons, nor can that activity be detached from the rest of life, be stored or mobilized; land is only another name for nature, which is not produced by man; actual money, finally, is merely a token of purchasing power which, as a rule, is not produced at all, but comes into being through the mechanism of banking or state finance

One very good example of how treating labor as a commodity goes wrong is ‘clopenings’ – near back-to-back shifts, combined with the practice of many employers of requiring their workers to agree to irregular shift work where they may not know until very shortly before when they are supposed to turn up to work. Steven Greenhouse wrote a strong piece on this for the New York Times:

On the nights when she has just seven hours between shifts at a Taco Bell in Tampa, Fla., Shetara Brown drops off her three young children with her mother. After work, she catches a bus to her apartment, takes a shower to wash off the grease and sleeps three and a half hours before getting back on the bus to return to her job. … Employees are literally losing sleep as restaurants, retailers and many other businesses shrink the intervals between shifts and rely on smaller, leaner staffs to shave costs. These scheduling practices can take a toll on employees who have to squeeze commuting, family duties and sleep into fewer hours between shifts. The growing practice of the same workers closing the doors at night and returning to open them in the morning even has its own name: “clopening.” … Last summer, Starbucks announced that it would curb clopenings on the same day that The New York Times published an article profiling a barista, Jannette Navarro, mother of a 4-year-old, who worked a scheduled shift that ended at 11 p.m. and began a new shift at 4 a.m. … But several people who identified themselves as Starbucks employees complained on a Facebook private group page that they still were scheduled for clopenings, despite the company’s pronouncement. One worker in Texas wrote on Jan. 30, “I work every other Sunday as a closer, which is at 10:30 or really 11-ish, then scheduled at 6 a.m. the next morning.” Another worker in Southern California wrote, “As a matter of fact I clopen this weekend.” Laurel Harper, a Starbucks spokeswoman, questioned the authenticity of the Facebook posts.

Markets, given that they are what they are, treat labour as a commodity. There are obvious efficiencies for firms if they can require their employees to carry out clopenings, or be available at short notice for unexpected shifts. Perhaps, indeed, one could construct a model demonstrating that consumers will benefit in the aggregate – that their venti half skim lattes with an extra shot will each cost one or two cents less if firms can rely on these kinds of labour models. But labour is performed by actual people, with actual families, which often involve children or dependents relying on them. This is a significant part of Polanyi’s point – and modern shift practices in the service economy are an example which should be viscerally tangible to those of us who have had to juggle our work lives and raising kids or looking after other dependents (which is not all of us, but is many of us). Ways of thinking that turn labour into a commodity, divorcing it from the human beings that carry it out, are apt to produce monstrosities.

Screenshot 2016-05-10 13.01.23

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning is finally out (Powells, Amazon), so that you can read it too (I’ve been impatiently waiting to share it with everyone I know). As Jo Walton says here, it’s wonderful. It does something that I think is genuinely new (or at least, if other people have pulled it off, I haven’t read them). Palmer is a historian (here’s an interview I did with her on her book about Lucretius’ reception in the Renaissance) and approaches science fiction in a novel way. Her 25th century draws on the ideas of Enlightenment humanism, but in the same ways that, say, America draws on the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. Which is to say that it takes the bits that seem useful, reinterprets them or misinterprets them as new circumstances dictate, and grafts them onto what is already there, throwing away the rest. Palmer does this quite thoroughly and comprehensively – her imagined society is both thrown together in the way that real societies are, and clinker-built (in the sense that she has evidently really thought through how this would be related to that and what it might mean). [click to continue…]

Aristotle: On Trolling

by Henry on May 7, 2016

Via Cosma, this, by Rachel Barney at the University of Toronto, is the best thing I’ve read on the Internets in quite a while. UPDATE: since it has been Creative Commonsed, as I should have spotted immediately, am publishing the whole below the fold, free to all finders, birds, beasts, Elves or Men, and all kindly creatures.

That trolling is a shameful thing, and that no one of sense would accept to be called ‘troll’, all are agreed; but what trolling is, and how many its species are, and whether there is an excellence of the troll, is unclear. And indeed trolling is said in many ways; for some call ‘troll’ anyone who is abusive on the internet, but this is only the disagreeable person, or in newspaper comments the angry old man. And the one who disagrees loudly on the blog on each occasion is a lover of controversy, or an attention-seeker. And none of these is the troll, or perhaps some are of a mixed type; for there is no art in what they do. (Whether it is possible to troll one’s own blog is unclear; for the one who poses divisive questions seems only to seek controversy, and to do so openly; and this is not trolling but rather a kind of clickbait.)

Well then, the troll in the proper sense is one who speaks to a community and as being part of the community; only he is not part of it, but opposed. And the community has some good in common, and this the troll must know, and what things promote and destroy it: for he seeks to destroy. Hence no one would troll the remotest Mysian, or even know how, but rather a Republican trolls a Democratic blog and a Democrat Republicans. And he destroys the thread by disputing what is known to be true, or abusing what is recognised as admirable; or he creates fear about a small problem, as if it were large, or treats a necessary matter as small; or he speaks abuse while claiming to be a friend. And in general the troll says what is false but sounds like the truth—or rather he does not quite say it, but rather something very close to it which is true, or partly true, or best of all merely asks a simple question about the evidence for climate change. Hence the modes of trolling are many: the concern-troll, the one who ‘sees the other side’, the polite inquirer into the obvious. For the perfected troll has no need of rudeness or abuse, or even of fallacy (this belongs rather to sophistic or eristic, and requires making an argument): he only makes a suggestion or indication [sêmainein]. [click to continue…]

Brad DeLong is Seeing Red

by Henry on April 25, 2016

Brad DeLong has a post where he looks to be trying to resurrect the Left-neoliberalism wars, issuing minatory warnings about the dangers of a perspective in which:

There is a Movement, the Movement is good because the Movement is supported by the class whose interest is the general interest and by Correct Ideological Thought, and all progressives must support the movement.

He furthermore quotes an old post of mine so as to revive his previous suggestion that I’m a card carrying member of this purportedly disastrous tendency. I’m a genuine admirer of much of Brad’s work – but not of when he gets on his full Redbaiting (which usually seems to happen when he is personally exercised, or when someone says something that could be construed as being rude to Larry Summers). Some clarifications, in response to Brad’s post: [click to continue…]

Today is Krauthammer Day #13

by Henry on April 22, 2016

Again, it’s Krauthammer Day. Today is the unlucky thirteenth anniversary of the day when the prominent pundit announced:

Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We’ve had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven’t found any, we will have a credibility problem.

As of today, we’ve had five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months, and another month on top of that of Charles Krauthammer’s credibility problem. He’s still opining.

Samuel Beckett on the Quantified Self

by Henry on April 13, 2016

We’ve already had Janice Rogers Brown on Samuel Beckett as feel-good self-help guru. Now (from a bit of Molloy I was reading last night), here’s Beckett on the quantified self movement, half a century before it was a movement.

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Update: I hadn’t realized that today was the 100th anniversary of Beckett’s birth.

2016 Hugos

by Henry on March 24, 2016

As usual, my list of the Hugo eligible books for this year (as well as short story collections), meant less as a form of canvassing (especially given that nominations are about to close) than of solving the commitment problem of getting me off my arse to talk about books that I liked and didn’t like. Necessary qualification – the very best novel that I read last year isn’t available yet – Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning – a book that has the potential to remake the genre. It’ll be out in a couple of months, at which point I’ll have more to say.
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Bitcoin Frenzy

by Henry on March 10, 2016

I’ve a piece in today’s Financial Times about the political fights racking the Bitcoin community.

Bitcoin, the decentralised, mainly digital currency that is neither issued nor guaranteed by central banks, has always seemed like a magic trick. … Radical libertarians have desperately wanted to believe in it … Politics disappears and a combination of technology and cryptographic proofs is conjured up in its place. Unfortunately, the magic is wearing off. Some of the technological innovations associated with bitcoin will stick around. The political project will not. … As more people have started to use bitcoin, the system has grown more unreliable.The problem is that coming up with a fix requires political agreement. Because there is no centralised authority within bitcoin, there is no one who can impose a mandate. … This free-for-all demonstrates the main problem of technological libertarianism. It does not escape politics but temporarily displaces and conceals it. … The apparent value of bitcoin depends on a suspension of disbelief. It is hard to see how the illusion can work when the magicians are punching each other out on stage.

NB one error which crept in (completely my fault) during the editing process: “protocols to make the blocks bigger so that more bitcoin are released at one time, speeding up transactions” should just read “protocols to make the blocks bigger, speeding up transactions.” NB also, more interestingly, this piece by Ben Thompson at Stratechery, which I wish I’d seen before writing my own, especially since it has a couple of lovely and apposite quotes. [click to continue…]