From the monthly archives:

October 2023

The big one (updated)

by John Q on October 30, 2023

(14 Nov update) I got this badly wrong. Johnson followed the same path that doomed McCarthy, passing a short-term fix with Democratic votes. It’s hard to see why the Republicans went through all these contortions to end up where they started.

Government shutdowns, and threats of shutdown, have become routine in the US, with the result that no one much worries about them any more. Typically some kind of compromise is reached just as the deadline approaches, and government returns to quasi-normality.. Occasionally, bluffs are called and a ‘shutdown’ actually happens. Civil servants are sent home, public facilities are closed and so on. But the armed forces operate as normal, Social Security checks go out, and IOUs take the place of actual spending for various essential purposes. After a few weeks at the most, that produces enough pressure to deliver some kind of resolution. As far as I can see, that’s what most political commentators think will happen in November, when the next deadline is reached.

I foresee something more drastic and dangerous. It’s hard to imagine the Republicans in the House of Representatives agreeing on any set of demands for a spending bill, short of requiring Biden and Harris to resign and install Johnson as President* . But if they do come up with a program, it will be so extreme as to be totally unacceptable to Biden and the Democrats. And, the long history of blackmail efforts like this seems to have stiffened spines on the Democratic side.
Earthquakes: Facts, Definition, Types, Causes and Effects of Earthquake …

So, there will probably be a shutdown. But how will it end? Leaving aside the fact that Johnson is a far-right extremist dedicated to the overthrow of US democracy, cutting any kind of deal with Biden would be signing his own resignation (but see below). On the other side, capitulation would doom Biden’s presidency.

That means the shutdown has to continue past the symbolic stage of closing national parks and so on, to the point where it is doing serious damage to the US economy and society, with debt downgrades, personal and corporate bankruptcies and so on. That will still not be enough to shift the Republican extreme right, so no deal will be achieved with Republicans alone. What are the remaining possibilities? Here are a few I’ve thought about, roughly in order of probability

  • Johnson cuts a deal with the Democrats, passing a continuing resolution in return for the promise of some abstentions, or even active support, when the Freedom Caucus try to vote him out. This seems the most likely option to me, but it will be very painful on both sides
  • Biden capitulates. I still see this as unlikely, but the pressure to do so will be immense.

  • A handful of Republicans remember that they are supposed to care about the country they govern, and cross the floor, knowing they will lose their seats and face the obloquy of most of their (former) friends and supporters.

  • Biden invokes emergency powers to reopen the government and defies the Supreme Court to stop him. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know what these powers might be, but the issue is essentially political. Unless he is impeached or otherwise prevented from acting, emergency powers are what the President says they are, a point made by Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of the Civil War (a relevant precedent in the current state of the US).

I haven’t seen anyone else predicting such a crisis, so maybe I’m over-estimating the difficulty of reaching a resolution. IIRC, I was among the first to predict a crisis like this when the Republicans retook the House in 2010**, but I couldn’t see a resolution then either, and one was reached in the end.

  • Joking, but not really – I can imagine at least some of them demanding this, with the proviso that Johnson would then resign in favour of Trump.

** There was a debt limit crisis in 2011 and a 16-day shutdown in 2013.

Crossposted from my substack

Sunday photoblogging: blue tits

by Chris Bertram on October 29, 2023

I’ve not done much bird photography. It is actually pretty hard, since they move fast, change direction, disappear as soon as they see you, and are generally uncooperative subjects. But I’m resolved to do more and I’ve started to figure out some of the technical issues. There’s something serendipitous about this one, as I was actually concentrated on the bird to the left and didn’t realise that I had also captured its companion.

Blue tits

Israel and Palestine: simple choices

by Chris Bertram on October 25, 2023

Amid the current horror and propaganda, the pogroms, kidnapping and bombings, and the (at best reckless) violence against civilian populations it is important not to lose sight of what a justish solution might be in Israel/Palestine and it seems to me that this is actually a rather simple matter at least as soon as we set aside outcomes that require the total erasure by displacement or murder of either Jewish Israelis or Palestinian Arabs or the unjust domination of one group by the other. Some “just” solutions are better than others, but in the non-ideal world we have to accept some compromise with geopolitical force majeure and the fact that some people just hate other kinds of people.

Just-ish solutions

1A: A single state in which everyone living long-term within its borders has citizenship on equal terms, irrespective of national, ethnic or religious background.

1B: A single state with some kind of consociational system for power-sharing and, therefore, some explicit recognition of individual national, ethnic, or religious affiliation.

2: A two-state solution involving demarcated territory for each national group, based on some fair territorial settlement between them.

1A is preferable to 1B is preferable to 2, from an abstract liberal and democratic perspective. But given that we live under non-ideal circumstances and peace is also important, then 2 strikes me as acceptable.

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by John Q on October 25, 2023

(Crosspost from my Substack blog, where post includes links and images)>

I don’t think I’m the only one to notice that Marc Andreesen’s ‘Techno-Optimist Manifesto’ has a curiously dated feel, as if the author had been cryogenically frozen around the time he cashed out of Netscape. Two points particularly struck me.

First, there his paean to market processes, which are represented as “Willing buyer meets willing seller, a price is struck, both sides benefit from the exchange or it doesn’t happen”

This statement might have seemed plausible at the height of the dotcom boom, which coincided with the high point of faith in ‘turbo-capitalism’. But it’s not at all descriptive of the way in which the Internet and the World Wide Web have developed, as Andreesen himself ought to remember.

Until the mid-1990s, the Internet and the World Wide Web were products of government funded organizations, developed by academics and other users without a profit motive. The associated software, including Andreesen’s Netscape Navigator were given away free of charge (Gopher, the main rival to the WWW, failed because the he University of Minnesota tried to cash in on it). The Internet rapidly displaced commercial enterprises like AOL (who tried to buy their way back in by acquiring Netscape, and were themselves bought by Time Warner in one of the most disastrous acquisitions of all time). Even after the Web was open to commerce, much of the innovation (blogs, Wikipedia, most recently the Fediverse) came from non-commercial sources.

But even the for-profit Internet doesn’t fit Andreesen’s description. Google, Facebook and other platforms don’t rely on exchanging their services at an agreed price. Rather, they provide a service that is free of charge, and make their money by serving ads and harvesting user data for other marketers. At a stretch, one might say that advertisements in traditional media represent an agreed price “watch 20 minutes of our sitcom, and consume 10 minutes of ads”. But cookies and trackers are surreptitious – no one can really know how much they are paying. We are seeing a gradual shift back towards subscription models, both for traditional media outlets and for new entrants like Substack. But these are the exception rather than the rule.

Hardware vendors like Apple come a bit closer to the traditional market model. But even they rely critically on ‘intellectual property’, that is, laws preventing competitors from supplying equivalent products.

The result of all of this is that, in the Internet economy, there is almost no relationship between contribution and reward. Andreesen is a billionaire while Tim Berners-Lee drove a used car for years (more recently, though, he has been reported as having a net wealth of $50 million). As Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow have pointed out , the crucial thing is to establish a choke-point at which wealth can be extracted. These choke points do more to hinder innovation than to promote it.

Then there’s his pitch for nuclear fission. Again, this made sense in the late 1990s. The reality of global heating, and therefore the need to stop burning coal was becoming undeniable. Alternatives such as wind and solar were prohibitively costly. So, the risks of nuclear accidents and the problem of managing waste were outweighed by the certainty of climate catastrophe under business as usual.

But in 2023 nuclear power is a dead duck, a C20 technology with a string of failed revivals in C21. New additions have barely kept pace with closures of old plants.

By contrast, solar PV is the biggest single example in support of techno-optimism. From essentially zero, it’s reached the point where annual additions are around 400 GW a year, almost as much as the total installed capacity of nuclear. Costs have plummeted and, after some generous initial support from government, most of the process is being driven by markets. There is no better case of creative destruction than the rise of solar PV

Andreesen’s failure to recognise this illustrates two points

• He’s ignorant and doesn’t choose to inform himself, instead gullibly following sources that pander to his confirmation bias

• He’s driven not by rational belief in the progress of technology but by rightwing culture war politics

Finally there’s Andreesen’s rejection of the precautionary principle, which has been endorsed by quite a few generally sensible people, including Daniel Drezner . The precautionary principle has been interpreted in all sorts of different ways, from the common sense of “look before you leap” to the absurdity of “don’t do anything that might go wrong”.

But the most sensible interpretation, and the one relevant to the current debate is that of a burden of proof on innovators (I wrote about this with Simon Grant, here). That is, the precautionary principle, as applied to any particular domain, says that innovators should have to demonstrate in advance that their proposed innovation will not be harmful.

The opposite view, summed up by aphorisms like “move fast and break things” and “better to seek forgiveness than permission”, is that innovation should not be constrained. Negative consequences can be dealt with after the event, and, if necessary, rules can be adjusted to prevent a repetition.

The precautionary principle isn’t universally applicable. There’s widespread (maybe not universal) support for applying it to new medicines, whereas not many people would want to apply it to new restaurant menus (assuming they complied with existing health standards).

Looking at Andreesen’s manifesto, three cases come to mind. First, since he’s now a financier, there is the case of financial innovation. The default here is to allow any innovation that complies with the rules covering existing financial instruments. In my view, this has turned out very badly, most obviously in the leadup to the GFC, but also with more recent innovations like Buy Now, Pay Later, not to mention cryptocurrencies, in which Andreesen is heavily invested.

Then (not mentioned in the manifesto) but maybe in the background there’s the case of genetically modified crops. Here the precautionary principle was applied early on, following the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA. This process allowed research that established, fairly convincingly, that food produced from GM crops was just a safe as that produced using crops developed by traditional breeding and selection (also a form of genetic modification). That finding didn’t end controversy over issues like corporate control, or debate over specific innovations like Roundup-Ready (glyphosate-tolerant) crops, but it gave pretty good assurance that the nightmare scenarios floating around at the time of the initial discoveries would not materialise.

Finally, of course, there are recent developments in Artificial Intelligence, from which Andreesen hopes to make a lot of money. I’m not convinced by the apocalyptic scenarios put forward by people like William McAskill (and linked in some obscure way to the idea of ‘effective altruism’). But I also haven’t seen a clearly convincing counterargument to say that such an apocalypse can’t happen, or, at least, is less of a concern than other risks it might tend to offset, for example by generating enough prosperity to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict. And that’s also true of risks that aren’t existential such as the possibility of large-scale fraud through techniques like voice replication. Following the logic of the precautionary principle, I’d prefer (if possible) to slow down the pace of development and try to understand the consequences before they are irreversible.

None of this makes me a techno-pessimist. But, having seen lots of glowing visions of the future crumble into dust, I’m not impressed by Andreesen’s revival of 20th century tech-boosterism. Scientific progress provides us, collectively, with a range of technological options. The choice between them should be made wisely and democratically, not by the whims of venture capitalists.

Sunday photoblogging: at LUMA, Arles

by Chris Bertram on October 22, 2023

At LUMA, Arles

Some thoughts on ‘team philosophy’

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 21, 2023

In my academic job, I’ve just started a new 5-year project called ‘Visions for the future‘. In the first year of the project, I’ll tackle some methodological questions, including working out the discussion we had here some years ago on normative audits, and the question what ‘synthetic political philosophy’ is (on which Eric also has, and is further developing, views).

For the subsequent 3 years, I want to experiment with, and also develop the idea of ‘team philosophy’ (and I will hire three postdocs to be part of this). But what is ‘team philosophy’?
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Accelerationism is Terrorism

by Kevin Munger on October 17, 2023

Accelerating change has become both addictive and intolerable. At this point, the balance among stability, change, and tradition has been upset; society has lost both its roots in shared memories and its bearings for innovation…An unlimited rate of change makes lawful community meaningless.

Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality

The ideology of Silicon Valley is clear: move fast and break things, scale at all costs, pump and dump. The lingering earth-flavored utopianism of the California Ideology softened the edge, and American two-party politics ensured at least a facade of responsibility, but both have largely fallen away over the past year.

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Sunday photoblogging: Bouzigues

by Chris Bertram on October 15, 2023


On not knowing what to say about Gaza

by Chris Armstrong on October 12, 2023

I was meant to write a post this week, but then Hamas’s horrific assault on Israel happened, and now the civilian inhabitants of Gaza are once again living in fear (some of them have put themselves in the firing line; many have not). Since I have Arab friends and family, and have fond memories of Gaza, it all feels horribly close to home, and yet also impossibly distant. But of course, it has never been easy to know what to say about Gaza.

In the meantime, for a good example of what *not* to say about Gaza, you could try this piece. (In a nutshell, Yuval Noah Harari’s solution seems to be that Israel hands the problem over to a coalition of the willing who will administer Gaza colonial-style. I can envisage a few problems).

Given the latest catastrophe in Israel/Palestine, it’s time for me to repost my comprehensive plan for US policy in the Middle East, just as applicable now as it was when I suggested it back in 2011.

As usual, it’s over the fold.

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Sunday photoblogging: don’t bother me!

by Chris Bertram on October 8, 2023

Don't bother me

Lucy and the football

by John Q on October 3, 2023

It’s a movie we’ve seen over and over again in US politics. Centrists engage in respectful discussion with a thoughtful conservative[1], only to discover they are actually talking to a dishonest troll. Yet, just like Charlie Brown lining up to kick Lucy’s football, they keep coming back for another try.

Examples include Paul “policy wonk” Ryan, JD “voice of the heartland” Vance, and most recently Richard Hanania, for whom I can’t come up with a suitable nickname. Hanania’s public writing has always skirted the edge of outright racism, so it was no surprise when it turned that he had published far worse stuff under a pseudonym. That was enough to lead Bari Weiss to cancel him, but the majority reaction among his interlocutors was to accept a redemption narrative.

Hanania rewarded his backers with a tweet so breathtakingly dumb it’s still hard to believe. Challenged on his opposition to aiding Ukraine, he asserted that the US was spending 40 per cent of GDP on such aid, and laid out some of the alternative ways the money could be spend (years of funding for social security, for example).

This claim was so absurd that lots of people looked for an 11-dimensional chess explanation. Sadly, the prosaic explanation appears to be that US aid is equal to about 40 per cent of Ukraine’s GPD. Hanania must have read this number and misinterpreted it. That could only be done by someone utterly clueless about economics and public policy, but Hanania hasn’t needed a clue to become a big fish in the small pool of rightwing intellectuals.

Why do centrists keep falling for this? The answer, to paraphrase Voltaire is that, since no-one like the imagined intelligent, honest conservative exists, they have to be invented. In reality, intelligent honest conservatives, are either ex-Republicans (for example, David French and the Bulwark group) or open enemies of democracy (Adrian Vermeule).

But once they recognise that there is no serious thought to their political right, centrists would have to recognise that they themselves are the conservatives. That would entail an intellectual obligation to engage with the left, which is the last thing they want.

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Academic bystanders and Sold a Story

by Harry on October 2, 2023

If you haven’t yet listened to Emily Hanford’s Sold a Story, you probably should, now. It’s brilliant, if profoundly depressing. Very brief synopsis: the methods routinely used to teach children to read in the US don’t work well for large numbers of children, and the science of reading has been clear about this for decades. Three academics in particular — Lucy Calkins of Teachers College, and Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell of the Ohio State University — are responsible for promoting these bad practices (which are pervasive), and persisted in doing so long after the research was clear, and have gotten very rich (by the standards of academics) from the curriculum sales/speaking circuit.[1] Hanford’s documentary has single-handedly changed the environment, and in the past couple of years State departments of education and even school districts throughout the country have been scrabbling to reform, often under the eye of state legislators who have been alerted to the situation by the amount of chatter that Sold a Story has generated.

Go and listen to it.

Although a great admirer of Hanford’s work, which I have known and followed for many years, it took me a while to listen to Sold a Story. By the time I did I was familiar with the basic narrative which, I think, freed my mind to wonder about something that Hanford doesn’t discuss. The role of academic bystanders. People like me.
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Sunday photoblogging: Pézenas

by Chris Bertram on October 1, 2023