Red Plenty Seminar

by Henry Farrell on May 29, 2012

As promised, the seminar on Francis Spufford’s wonderful novel of the socialist calculation debate, _Red Plenty_ (Powells, Barnes and Noble Amazon). Over the next few days, interspersed with regular blogging, we’ll be publishing posts by a variety of people responding to the novel. On Friday, we’ll publish the first installment of Francis’ response; the second and third installments will be appearing next week. CT regulars with posts are myself, Niamh, Maria, both Johns and dsquared. Guests are listed in alphabetical order below. After all the posts are published, I’ll put up a post with links to the individual contributions, as well as a nicely formatted PDF of the proceedings.

Carl Caldwell is the Samuel G. McCann Professor of History at Rice University. His book, _Dictatorship, State Planning, and Social Theory in the German Democratic Republic_ was published in 2003 by Cambridge University Press.

Antoaneta Dimitrova is associate professor of European Policy and public administration at Leiden University.

Felix Gilman is a lawyer and novelist. He has written _Thunderer_, _The Gears of the City_, _The Half-Made World_, and the forthcoming (and wonderful) _The Rise of Ransom City._

Kim Stanley Robinson has written many, many excellent books (CT readers who haven’t read _Icehenge_, the _Mars_ trilogy, and _The Years of Rice and Salt_ at a minimum, should feel _very_ guilty), including _2312_, which just came out this month.

George Scialabba is a writer and critic. We’ve run a seminar on his collection of essays, _What Are Intellectuals Good for?_

Cosma Shalizi is associate professor of statistics at Carnegie-Mellon University and a blogger.

Rich Yeselson is a public intellectual, former union organizer, and former guestblogger here at _Crooked Timber._



Barry Freed 05.29.12 at 3:14 pm

Great guest posters (I’d love to see Ken MacLeod on that list but I guess you can’t have everything). However I think you’re posting them too fast. I don’t think that gives people enough time to read and thoughtfully respond and leads to fewer comments. Maybe I’m wrong but that’s just my two rubles.


Katherine 05.29.12 at 3:23 pm

Damn, too soon, too soon, my copy is still in the post! Better read quickly.


Phil 05.29.12 at 3:47 pm

I’d also recommend slowing down to 1/day. 3 is way too many.


ciaran 05.29.12 at 4:06 pm

Yeah the seminars are pretty fantastic, but it can be hard to keep up with the pace.


Henry 05.29.12 at 5:03 pm

OK – if there is a consensus on this, happy to make it a slower moving thing (with, obviously, other posts on other topics weaving around it). Anyone else want to weigh in?


Metatone 05.29.12 at 5:13 pm

I’d vote for slower moving posts.


Peter 05.29.12 at 5:23 pm

An interesting list of posters; you might have considered including a historian of the Soviet Union in the mix.


Colin Danby 05.29.12 at 7:36 pm

I think slower is good.

I might also suggest some follow-up or mop-up depending on how the threads go. It can happen that a reviewer raises several subtle points, but the thread latches on to only one of them and generalizes outward. If you see interesting areas going neglected, trampled by herds of hobby-horses, you might consider posts in your capacity as moderator re-raising them.


Maynard Handley 05.29.12 at 7:39 pm

[This may be considered a SPOILER if you have not read the book. Though, let’s face it, I assume we all know how it turns out, even without reading it.]

I second Peter’s statement above.
IMHO the single most interesting part of the book was the part almost at the end where the technical economists are told by the politicians why the Soviet Union will NOT be adopting their grand calculational scheme. I have to admit, I saw the politicians as deservedly winning that argument, at least as Spufford presents it — given the situation as it was, they were correct.
I’d love to know more about such issues as: was the argument actually decided on merits, or had the decision already been made? Certainly I could imagine arguments the economists could have used to push back somewhat against the political arguments, to accept the (valid) points the politicians had and modify or trim their schemes to work with those points.

I also think the book could have done (through fake seminars or whatever) with some comparisons with other command-and-control regimes: how were the US, UK, German (and Japanese?) war economies managed, and are there useful lessons that could be learned from them? How does the GM of the 1950s (essentially a command-and-control regime) operate.

As a general point (and were the economists too blind to see this, or not in a position to raise the issue) there are multiple issues that need to be thought about:
– there is the technical “how do we optimize X given constraints Y” issue (which the book talks about a lot)

– there is ALSO the “what are we trying to optimize” issue (which is never mentioned)

– there is ALSO the “how do we couple numbers to reality” issue (This is often not mentioned in the West because it is taken for granted — it’s the issue of “if you claim you did X, how do I know you didn’t actually do Y —- the plan does not AUTOMATICALLY fulfill itself”. This was obviously a big deal in the USSR with everyone aware of bogus figure (and bogus goods) being passed around.
It’s also a problem in the West especially when it comes to finance, where it appears to be remarkably easy to tell the world you are doing X but to actually do Y — see Morgan, JP [or for that matter Greece] for a recent example.)

I’d love to hear what the economists thought about the latter two issues, in addition to the first, technical issue, of how do we solved this constrained optimization problem.


Maynard Handley 05.29.12 at 7:42 pm

[Your comment system is doing ghastly things to carriage returns. The above comment was nicely formatted for easy reading when submitted, but unfortunately has had various carriage returns removed making it a whole lot more difficult to follow. This is especially unfortunate on an academic blog where people are trying to make arguments that are more complex than fit in a single tweet.]


William Timberman 05.29.12 at 8:21 pm

Seems to me that the CT proprietors and commenters are much better than most at giving comments their due, even several days after the OP first appears. Also, the recent comments widget makes it easier to catch up, although if you’re habitually gone more than an hour or two when following a particular thread, it becomes clear that having more comments in the widget display would be helpful.

Then too, having all the posts in one of these seminars appear at once would have certain advantages. Often enough I’m possessed by a thought while reading a post which isn’t strictly relevant to the thread at hand, but turns out to be perfectly suited to the one which follows, and I wish I’d had the patience to wait. Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues again, so to speak.


Charles S 05.30.12 at 5:12 am

3 out of 13 seminar participants are women. About on par with the NYRB and its ilk, but an embarrassment nonetheless (particularly since it means only 1 of 7 guest posters are women). I’m curious about the source of this failure at gender balance. Is it a matter of who was invited, or of who accepted invitations to participate?


QS 05.31.12 at 2:07 am

Please, 1 post per day. “Seminar” posts to be long, detailed, and of course very interesting–a slower schedule would enable greater mastication.


Chris Williams 06.01.12 at 9:56 am

One more observation: the ‘recent comments’ widget doesn’t cope well if one or more of the ongoing discussions has a title more than about 50 characters long.


Henry 06.01.12 at 11:33 am

Charles S – as flagged in advance this was emphatically because of who accepted, not who was invited.

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