From the monthly archives:

May 2023

Sunday photoblogging: Girona

by Chris Bertram on May 28, 2023


Misogyny and Violence in Michigan Politics

by Liz Anderson on May 24, 2023

In general, I think the left focuses too much on national politics, when a lot of the action is happening at the state level.  So I want to discuss politics in Michigan, my home state since 1987.   Ann Arbor is even more blue than Detroit, but overall Michigan is basically a 50-50 state.  Trump won here in 2016 by 11,000 votes; Biden won in 2020 by 154,000.  Democrats and Republicans have alternated in the Governor’s seat for decades.  But the Republicans had a lock on the state legislature for 40 years, until it was broken in 2022, when Democrats won both houses and swept all statewide offices.  I’ll explain how that happened in a subsequent post.  Here I want to focus on rising violence within the Michigan GOP and its connections to misogyny.

[click to continue…]

Ban LLMs Using First-Person Pronouns

by Kevin Munger on May 22, 2023

The explosive growth of Large Language Models (LLMs) like ChatGPT threatens to disrupt many aspects of society. Geoffrey Hinton, the former head of AI at Google, recently announced his retirement; there is a growing sense of inevitability and a concomitant lack of agency.

[click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: cloister

by Chris Bertram on May 21, 2023


Kevin Drum points to an obscure, but radical proposal to change the way the US government does benefit cost analysis. The Office of Management and Budget has released draft guidance saying

One practical approach to implementing weights that account for diminishing marginal utility uses a constant-elasticity specification to determine the weights for subgroups defined by annual income. To compute an estimate of the net benefits of a regulation using this approach, you first compute the traditional net benefits for each subgroup. You can then compute a weighted sum of the subgroup-specific net benefits: the weight for each subgroup is the median income for that subgroup divided by the U.S. median income, raised to the power of the elasticity of marginal utility times negative one. OMB has determined that 1.4 is a reasonable estimate of the income elasticity of marginal utility for use in regulatory analyses.

This is pretty obscure, but what it means is that, a project that delivers a dollar of benefits to each of a group of poor people is worth more than a project that delivers a dollar of benefits to each of a group of poor rich people.

A lot more !

Kevin uses a graph to illustrate, showing that an extra dollar for the median household is worth 50 times as much as an extra dollar for a household with an income of $1 million a year. Conversely, an extra dollar for households at the bottom of the income distribution is worth 12 times as much as an extra dollar at the median.

It’s actually simpler to get the intuition of you use an elasticity of 1, which corresponds to logarithmic utility. Then you can sum up the implications by saying that a given percentage increase (or reduction) in income yields the same additional (or reduced) utility no matter who gets it. So, for example, if a policy halved Elon Musk’s income, while doubling the income of a single randomly chosen US household, it would be evaluated as neutral. If the policy doubled the income of two households, it would be beneficial. More generally, you can just add up all the percentage changes in income from the project (included the taxes needed to finance* it). If that sum is positive, the project should be approved.

[click to continue…]

Huntington, the woke, and Radicalization

by Eric Schliesser on May 16, 2023

Richard Bourke’s (2018) “What is conservatism? History, ideology, party” critically discusses (inter alia) Samuel P. Huntington’s (1957) “Conservatism as an Ideology.” Yes, that Huntington (1927–2008). What follows is not about the clash of civilizations, promise.

Bourke claims that “the conservatism of Oakeshott and Huntington, like the liberalism of Hayek and Rawls, reflects an effort to fabricate an ideal, to stake out territory – to label in order to legitimise a particular system of values.” (Sadly, Bourke is unfamiliar with my own work on philosophical prophecy.) In particular, Bourke treats Huntington as a kind of modern Humean who, first, thinks that liberty presupposes authority. And, second, “that a conservative programme was necessary for the survival of the tradition of liberal politics in America.” On this reading, Huntington, then, criticizes those (like Russell Kirk) who understand themselves as ‘conservative,’ but who in their lack of understanding of American political culture end up in reactionary places. The role of Burke is, following Strauss’ reading of Burke (according to Bourke), to legitimise “existing institutions without prescribing for them any particular content.” Fair enough.

Now, if we go back to Huntington’s essay, he distinguishes among three ways of understanding conservatism as “a system of ideas concerned with the distribution of political and social values and acquiesced in by a significant social group:” first, as an aristocratic response to the French revolution. Second, as “an autonomous system of ideas which are generally valid. It is defined in terms of universal values such as justice, order, balance, moderation.” In fact, those political agents that adhere to this second way of understanding conservatism may well understand it as a “preferable political philosophy under any historical circumstances.” (emphasis added) And third, a situationist one in which a “recurring type of historical situation in which a fundamental challenge is directed at established institutions and in which the supporters of those institutions employ the conservative ideology in their defense.” (emphasis added.) Notice that, one can accept this three-fold taxonomy even if one is not a conservative. One can even think, as a dispassionate scholar, that one of these kinds of notions best describes conservatism in history while not endorsing it as a political agent or from a normative perspective. As Huntington observes the three kinds of conservatism posited by this taxonomy only differ analytically in relation “to the historical process.”

[click to continue…]

Reviving “Post-post-Fordism”

by John Q on May 15, 2023

I had an odd intellectual experience recently. A US high school student wrote to me as part of an assignment, asking for my thoughts on Brave New World, and its current relevance. I replied talking about the role of “Our Ford”, and Gramsci’s contemporary concept of Fordism.

That got me thinking about post-Fordism, and then to the idea of post-post-Fordism, referring to the information economy that has emerged since the rise of the Internet. I expected that this would be a reinvention of the intellectual wheel on my part, but when I popped the phrase into DuckDuckGo, I got a single hit, which was part of a 2015 interview with UK radical economist Robin Murray. whose ideas about the concept were very similar to mine, but whose comments were very brief.

I didn’t know of Murray, but I thought I should write to him and ask him how he had developed the idea. Sadly, I was led to Wikipedia, which reported that Murray had died in 2017, apparently without writing anything further on the topic. I’ve found a handful of citations, but of the “in passing” variety.

I’m not sure where to go next with this. I’d like to revive the idea (if indeed it died with Murray), but I’m not sure how to deal with an intellectual history like this. Perhaps some of my readers knew (or knew of) Murray or have seen the idea of post-post-Fordism?

Sunday photoblogging: Vegetables in Bologna

by Chris Bertram on May 14, 2023

This is why food in the US and Britain will never be quite good enough.

When crypto meant cryptography

by Maria on May 11, 2023

I recently caught up with an activist friend I’ve known for twenty-five years. We got into this stuff at the tail end of what were then called the crypto wars, a set of legal and policy battles to free strong encryption from the US and UK’s security services and allow it to be used to secure the internet. (If our guys had lost, there would never have been any of what we used to call “e-commerce”, remember that?) We drank very good coffee and talked about the weirdness of aging into and then (for me) out of the management side of tech policy, and reminisced about people who’d been central both in fighting and passing the laws that created the UK’s unusually comprehensive surveillance system. We also shared ways to exercise with fewer joint injuries and laughed a lot about being grumpy old fucks. We made some pretty fine distinctions between being jaded – neither of us feels that – but markedly less excitable than people for whom the latest state efforts to cripple encryption are a novel outrage. We briefly tried to figure out if we were on the fifth or the sixth UK attempt to backdoor end-to-end encrypted messaging. Sitting down with an old friend who profoundly gets political storytelling, from being so many times around the same apple cart, and can mine hard-won self-knowledge seemingly without limit was a pleasure my twenty-five year old self wouldn’t have even known to anticipate. So when I sat down last week to re-read Cory Doctorow’s Red Team Blues, whose t-shirt slogan is ‘crypto means cryptography’ and is about a battle-hardened old fart, I was primed to enjoy it at least as much as my first go-round.

Henry wrote about Red Team Blues here a couple of weeks ago. We’d both been talking about it and emailing with Cory. I have a strong reader’s debt to this extremely fun and thought-provoking noir-ish crypto thriller. When my brain was completely scrambled, Red Team Blues basically taught me to read again for joy, no less.
[click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Siena, Duomo

by Chris Bertram on May 7, 2023

Siena, Duomo

The Cult of the Founders

by Henry Farrell on May 6, 2023

Since I’m on the topic of Max Weber, religion and technology already, here’s a half-developed theory of Elon Musk that I’ve been nurturing for a while. I’ve trotted it out informally at a couple of meetings, and I’m not completely convinced it is right, but it’s prima facie plausible, and I’ve gotten some entertainment from it. My argument is that Musk is doing such a terrible job as Twitter CEO because he is a cult leader trying to manage a church hierarchy. Relatedly – one of SV’s culture problems right now is that it has a lot of cult leaders who hate the dull routinization of everyday life, and desperately want to return to the age of charisma. [click to continue…]

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Mastodon

by Henry Farrell on May 5, 2023

Erin Kissane wrote a great essay on the differences between Mastodon and Bluesky (two very different decentralized social networks/Twitter alternatives). Read it! I too joined Bluesky a few days ago (no – I don’t have any invites), and I’ve some of the same impressions as she did, but not being a real tech person, I want to talk more about the social differences between the two social media networks [click to continue…]

Does AI threaten the future of human creativity?

by Chris Bertram on May 2, 2023

It is reported that Geoffrey Hinton “the godfather of AI” is leaving Google and has voiced some serious worries about the future of humanity as AI continues to develop. I don’t have anything interesting to say about grey gloop or paperclips or AI robots waging wars, but I have been thinking a bit about the impact of AI on creative work, not limited to the production of student essays. Already we are seeing voice actors replaced by clones of their own voices and professional translators reduced to editing the output of machine translation (almost as much work, but for less money, I’m told). So what happens if AI can produce artworks (or should that be “artworks”?) such as plays, paintings, pseudo-photographs, movie scripts, novels, songs, symphonies that are indistinguishable from human productions and that people consume and enjoy? Well, one effect might be that it becomes even harder for people to earn a living producing artworks for the market than it is now. But that doesn’t mean that human production will disappear. And the reason that it won’t is because our interest in creative work isn’t just about the object of production but about its process and the exercise of our human powers (“life’s prime want”, as somebody once said.)

The invention of photography in or around 1839 may have made possible a more accurate representation of reality and in doing so may have displaced some forms of drawing whose purpose was the utilitarian representation of reality, but it hardly stopped people from painting and drawing and, indeed, gave them a new medium in which to express themselves. AI may be, even is, able to produce something that looks like a good drawing of an object, but it cannot replace the human activity of looking hard at that object and co-ordinating hand and eye to produce my (however pathetic and inadequate) represention of it. AI may be able to produce a song, but it cannot substitute for the experience of writing a song and singing it. So I suspect that even if AI gets very good and produces work indistinguishable from human work, it will not and cannot fully replace human work. It will, perhaps, somewhat devalue the artwork as the object of contemplation and consumption, except insofar as we continue to admire works as the product of specifically human intention and execution (just as we would continue to admire the moves of a talented human footballer even in a world where AI-driven robo-footballers were available). But the artwork as the product of a human process, with a renewed focus on that process as the real activity of doing and making will not cease to exist. The Milton who produced Paradise Lost “as a silkworm produces silk” will continues to write; the Leipzig literary proletarian will not. Indeed there may be more of creative labour, since if AI provides for our basic needs, we’ll have the time available to hunt in the morning and criticize after dinner, as well as drawing, painting, cooking, and writing short stories and songs, just as we have a mind. (That is, unless we are enserfed to spend our time catering to the whims of Jeff and Elon instead.)

May Day

by John Q on May 1, 2023

Yesterday was May Day, celebrated as the Labour Day public holiday here in Queensland. And this week, appropriately enough I’m giving two presentations on the case for a four-day working week, one to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, a business-oriented thinktank, and one to a parliamentary inquiry.

I started writing a post about the prospect of a radical change in the relationship between workers and managers in the information economy, arising from the combination of near full-employment and the shift to remote work for large groups of workers. But I ran out of time, so for now, I will just toss up some points I want to discuss

  • Will full employment be sustained, or will central banks succeed in recreating the reserve army of labor ?
  • How real is the threat of employer spyware extending surveillance into home workplaces ?
  • How should we conceptualise the relationship between workers, managers and owners of capital ?
  • What are the implications for unions?

I’ll throw it open for comments, and think some more about all this.

Happy International Workers Day!

by Macarena Marey on May 1, 2023

I just wanted to wish you all a happy international workers day and leave you this 1901 tango as a gift. In honour of all the workers everywhere who fought and fight for our right to a dignified existence and our right to be lazy!

I translate the recited introduction and the lyrics: [click to continue…]