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Harvard Kennedy School (discussion)

by Henry on September 15, 2017

This post is a stub, intended to allow people to discuss the Harvard Kennedy School decision to revoke its invitation to Chelsea Manning, since the main post comments section is being used as a petition.

The New York Times reports that the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Government has revoked its invitation to Chelsea Manning to be a fellow this year.

The decision by the Kennedy School followed forceful denunciations by a former top official at the C.I.A. and the current director at the agency. Michael J. Morell, a deputy director at the intelligence agency under President Barack Obama, resigned as a fellow on Thursday, calling the invitation to Ms. Manning “wholly inappropriate.” He said it “honors a convicted felon and leaker of classified information.” … Pompeo, who graduated from Harvard Law School, wrote in a letter to a Kennedy School official, adding that he commended Mr. Morell’s decision to resign. He added, “It has everything to do with her identity as a traitor to the United States of America and my loyalty to the officers of the C.I.A.”

It appears that the decision was taken by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Dean, Doug Elmendorf.

Institutions like the Kennedy School both reflect and advise the senior levels of the US political system. This means that they work with and invite people with a wide variety of beliefs and past histories, some of which I personally find obnoxious, and some of which I personally think are worthy of great moral condemnation. I’m more or less OK with the Kennedy School doing that – given what it is, that’s plausibly part of its mission. It hasn’t stopped me from e.g. giving a talk there, or considering other forms of participation.

But when the Kennedy School rescinds an invitation – as it just has – because of pressure from one side in the debate, it seems to me that the Kennedy School cannot appeal any more to that kind of defense. It isn’t reflecting both sides in a debate – instead, it is suggesting that people on one side of it (including such universally celebrated luminaries as Corey Lewandowski and Sean Spicer) are worthy of being honored, while Chelsea Manning is not. Personally, I’m not prepared to go along with that.

Hence, unless the Kennedy School changes this decision, or otherwise shows evidence of a real change in heart (e.g. if a new administration makes it clear in future years that people like Manning are welcome), I’m going to have nothing to do with the Kennedy School as an institution in the future. Specifically, I will not accept any future invitations to give talks there, nor will I participate in conferences, workshops or other events organized by the Kennedy School. Nor will I do anything else that suggests my personal willingness to be involved in Kennedy School activities (where there are borderline cases, my rule of thumb will be to refuse activities with Kennedy School that either suggest personal endorsement, or that provide me with personal benefits). I will continue to maintain personal contacts with individuals at the Kennedy School, while making my unhappiness with their institution’s politics clear.

I don’t have any particular illusions that this will change minds at the Kennedy School (although perhaps if many other academics feel the same way I do, it will). But since this is the one small thing I can do, I’m doing it.

Update: I’ve gotten a request via email to turn this into a petition. So if you agree feel free to sign on below. If you have broader comments make them here instead.

Richard Posner has finally become a pragmatist

by Henry on September 14, 2017

This exit interview with Richard Posner, who is retiring as a judge, is interesting.

“About six months ago,” Judge Posner said, “I awoke from a slumber of 35 years.” He had suddenly realized, he said, that people without lawyers are mistreated by the legal system, and he wanted to do something about it. … He had become concerned with the plight of litigants who represented themselves in civil cases, often filing handwritten appeals. Their grievances were real, he said, but the legal system was treating them impatiently, dismissing their cases over technical matters. “These were almost always people of poor education and often of quite low level of intelligence,” he said. “I gradually began to realize that this wasn’t right, what we were doing.” …

Judge Posner said he hoped to work with groups concerned with prisoners’ rights, with a law school clinic and with law firms, to bring attention and aid to people too poor to afford lawyers.
In one of his final opinions, Judge Posner, writing for a three-judge panel, reinstated a lawsuit from a prisoner, Michael Davis, that had been dismissed on technical grounds. “Davis needs help — needs it bad — needs a lawyer desperately,” he wrote.

On the phone, Judge Posner said that opinion was a rare victory. “The basic thing is that most judges regard these people as kind of trash not worth the time of a federal judge,” he said

I don’t want to be snarky – it is unqualifiedly great that someone of Posner’s stature on the right is taking up this cause. I do want to point out though, that it can be interpreted as a partial completion of something that was incomplete before – Posner’s commitment to pragmatism as an approach to understanding the law. [click to continue…]

The Origins of Glibertarianism

by Henry on August 31, 2017

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been involved in an on-and-off floating argument over Nancy MacLean’s book on James Buchanan and public choice, Democracy in Chains. This essay, with Steve Teles, lays out the problems we see with the book. The book makes very big claims e.g. that Buchanan provided the political strategies that made Pinochet’s Chile what it was, and galvanized an American right that had been in disarray before his decisive intervention. But the evidence that MacLean provides for these claims is problematic – key documents simply don’t say what MacLean thinks they do. MacLean describes Buchanan as an inventive creator of dastardly political ploys, using terms such as ‘evil genius’ and ‘wicked genius,’ but economists, no more than political scientists, make for good competent political strategists – the median is closer to Professor Pippy P. Poopypants than Svengali. [click to continue…]

Five Books

by Henry on August 11, 2017

So there’s a Twitter meme circulating of swiftly listing the five books that are most important to you, which has been going around in other media too. I’ve found myself listing slightly different books to different circles, and find it hard to pick anyway, because: incommensurables. But here are some subcategories:

Five most important novels (non f/sf):

Nights at the Circus
Pictures from an Institution
Pale Fire
Invisible Cities
Red Plenty

Five most important (f/sf):

Little, Big
The Course of the Heart
Book of the New Sun
The Dispossessed

Five most important (social science)

The Strategy of Conflict
Seeing Like a State
Plough, Sword and Book
The Sciences of the Artificial
Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach

Too many guys there, obvs – but those are the ones that leaped immediately to mind (which you can take, if you like, as a symptom instead of, or as well as, a recommendation).

What about all of you?

I read the same piece by Jacob Levy that Chris liked, but didn’t agree with the core argument. Below the fold, why: [click to continue…]

Trump’s America

by Henry on July 22, 2017

(I took this photo with my phone in Dulles Airport a couple of weeks ago)

Why Coase’s Penguin didn’t fly *

by Henry on July 21, 2017

This is a belated response to Cory’s post on Coase, Benkler and politics, and as such a class of a coda to the Walkaway seminar. It’s also a piece that I’ve been thinking about in outline for a long, long time, in part because of disagreements with Yochai Benkler (who I’ve learned and still learn a ton from, but whom I would like to see address concrete power relations more solidly).

As I said in my own contribution to the seminar, Cory’s arguments in this book are a kind of culmination of what I’ve called BoingBoing socialism – a set of broad ideas exploiting the notion that there is some valuable crossover between the politics of the left and the politics of Silicon Valley. Hence the aim of this post: not to deride that argument, nor to embrace it, but to think more specifically about its possibility conditions. [click to continue…]

Lost Time

by Henry on July 18, 2017

Some months ago, I started listening to audiobooks while walking the dog. By and large, they’ve been serious audiobooks, because these days when I get to read fiction, it’s late at night, and I’m too tired to read anything that’s too demanding. Hence my need to assuage my guilt, and hence the reason I’ve been listening to Marcel Proust. [click to continue…]

Gellner, Mair and Europe

by Henry on July 3, 2017

(Below is the text of a debate piece I gave last week at a meeting of the Tocqueville society, which is maybe of interest to some CT readers. A more polished version may appear sooner or later in the Tocqueville review)

The great Czech-English sociologist Ernest Gellner remarks somewhere that the Austro-Hungarian empire was strong so long as its subject populations complained about its central rule. It was when they stopped arguing with the center and each other – and instead took matters into their own hands – that it got into trouble.

Europe is surviving the Hapsburg test. For sure, it has lost the United Kingdom, but this loss has not triggered a cascade. People in the remaining member states still prefer grumbling to secession. Indeed, in the last few months the European Union has arguably become a little stronger, providing a fortress against a world that has suddenly become more dangerous and unpredictable. Trump’s election has not led to a tidal wave of populism overwhelming traditional democracies. If anything, it has made populism look less attractive.

Still, from a certain perspective, the European Union resembles the Hapsburg empire than one might like.  European leaders too have their court language, incomprehensible to their own citizens, and attachment to bureaucratic obscurities. As Gellner suggested in his last book, they also have the same enemies – irredentist nationalists who hate what they view as bloodless cosmopolitanism. [click to continue…]

Trump is just trolling me, isn’t he

by Henry on June 12, 2017

Following on this

The New York Times.

WASHINGTON — President Trump declared on Monday that he had led a “record-setting” pace of activity and been one of the most productive presidents in American history. …“I will say that never has there been a president, with few exceptions — in the case of F.D.R. he had a major Depression to handle — who’s passed more legislation, who’s done more things than what we’ve done,” Mr. Trump told a cabinet meeting as reporters looked on. “We’ve been about as active as you can possibly be and at a just about record-setting pace.”

Donald Trump – putting the Notably Rare in the State of Exception since January 2017. God help us all.

The Intercept Leaks

by Henry on June 6, 2017

Five reactions to the leak and charges against Reality Winner, based on the doubtless incomplete information that is publicly available right now, and hence open to revision and pushback as more emerges. [click to continue…]

Golden Hill

by Henry on June 1, 2017


Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill is finally being released in the US in a couple of weeks. I’m not going to pretend for a moment to be unbiased (I read an early version, and loved it). I don’t want to talk too much about its plot, for fear of spoilers, but this, by Abigail Nussbaum is very useful in how it talks about what Spufford is up to without giving it away:

There’s another twist that Spufford performs on the familiar 18th century template, but to discuss it is more complicated, because it would involve revealing the novel’s big secret. And yet the entire point of this revelation is how mundane it turns out to be. Golden Hill is structured like a heist story, with Richard’s narrative deliberately obscuring from us some of the most important details of his identity (and, of course, his goal in coming to New York), and creating the impression that he is about to pull off an audacious con. This turns out to be both true and not true. What Richard is doing is fiendishly difficult and extremely dangerous to him. It is also—and to modern readers in particular—something of a letdown, the thoroughly legal use of the tools of commerce and trade to make a tiny, ultimately self-defeating dent in the system of slavery and oppression on which New York’s economy runs. The genius of Golden Hill is in depicting that system, as an interlocking set of legal, economic, social, and extra-legal conventions that is so impervious to harm, so clearly constructed to prevent and crush any challenge to it, that even the small wobble Richard manages to introduce into it is a major achievement. Running through the novel is Richard’s awareness of the unacknowledged community of New York, the slaves who sit in the background of every scene, and the larger numbers of them who are being transported every day to the plantations in the south and the Caribbean. It would be giving Golden Hill a little too much credit to say that it ends up being the story of these people, but its ending prioritizes their fates over those of the characters whom we’ve spent the story meeting in drawing rooms and banquet halls.

Building on this, Golden Hill is a very important book about America, in ways that may not be obvious to those who read it merely for the picaresque. Spufford’s America is the America of the mid-eighteenth (and, in a postscript, the early nineteenth) century. New York is a town with several thousand inhabitants, frightened and suspicious of cosmopolitan visitors from London (although in one wonderful set piece of writing, the sparks from a bonfire preconfigure the New York that is to be). Spufford’s American provincials are Tories to a man, rousting out Papists and toasting the King (the book’s strong implication is that ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death’ patriotism arose half-by-accident, from maneuverings over taxes and who got what – see also on this Peter Andreas’ wonderful history, Smuggler Nation).

The most striking continuity between the old pre-Revolutionary America and the new is racism, which the book suggests (if I read it right) is more fundamental to American identity than independence. It may seem odd to compare an apparently light-hearted historical novel to the arguments of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the tradition he represents, but, when read through carefully and read again, Golden Hill isn’t particularly light – it’s looking to make a very serious point.

I’ve been thinking about this Gideon Rachman piece over the last 24 hours:

despite her cautious phrasing, Ms Merkel has also behaved irresponsibly — making a statement that threatens to widen a dangerous rift in the Atlantic alliance into a permanent breach. … it is a mistake to allow four months of the Trump presidency to throw into doubt a Transatlantic alliance that has kept the peace in Europe for 70 years …Ms Merkel was unwise and unfair to bracket the UK with Trump’s America. In the climate change discussions, Britain sided with the EU — not the US. … if Ms Merkel’s government pursues the Brexit negotiations in the current confrontational spirit — demanding that the UK commit to vast upfront payments, before even discussing a trade deal — she risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and a lasting antagonism between Britain and the EU. It is hard to see how the UK can be expected to see the same countries as adversaries in the Brexit negotiations and allies in the Nato context. So a really hard Brexit could indeed raise questions about Britain’s commitment to Nato — particularly if the US is also pulling back from the western alliance.

Not so much the broader argument (which I disagree with, but in obvious ways) than what the specifics say about the current state of Financial Times liberalism. [click to continue…]

Prickly questions

by Henry on May 22, 2017

Many CT readers will already be familiar with the recent effort by two scholars to repeat the Sokal hoax, as they understood it, by getting a bottom-feeder journal to publish a piece on imagined penises and global warming. Steven Pinker declared a smashing victory

albeit maybe slightly prematurely. James Taylor at Bleeding Hearts Libertarians

The first journal that Bognossian and Lindsay submitted their hoax paper to, and that rejected it, was NORMA: The International Journal for Masculinity Studies. This journal doesn’t even hit the top 115 journals in Gender Studies. So, what happened here was that they submitted a hoax paper to an unranked journal, which summarily rejected it. They then received an auto-generated response directing them to a pay-to-publish vanity journal. They submitted the paper there, and it was published. From this chain of events they conclude that the entire field of Gender Studies is “crippled academically”. This tells us very little about Gender Studies, but an awful lot about the perpetrators of this “hoax”…. and those who tout it as a take down of an entire field.

[click to continue…]