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A Database of Folly

by Aaron Swartz on July 3, 2012

The open data movement is a hammer which has gathered the support of many nails. There are the curious taxpayers, who feel their annual checks mean they deserve a peek at the interesting facts the government has collected. There are the ambitious business owners, who see an opportunity to privatize profits from work with socialized costs. And there are the self-styled activists, who believe that if we reveal the data on what the government is really doing, we will arrest corruption by exposing it to sunlight.

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In his new book, _The Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy_, Chris Hayes manages the impossible trifecta: the book is compellingly readable, impossibly erudite, and — most stunningly of all — correct. At the end, I was left with just two quibbles: first, the book’s chapter on “pop epistemology” thoroughly explicated how elites got stuff wrong without bothering to mention the non-elites who got things right, leaving the reader with the all-too-common impression that getting it right was impossible; and second, the book never assembled its (surprisingly sophisticated) argument into a single summary. To discuss it, I feel we have to start with remedying the latter flaw:

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Toward a Larger Left

by Aaron Swartz on August 4, 2009

Stanford, like many universities, maintains full employment for humanities professors by requiring new students to take their seminars. My heart burning with the pain of societal injustice, I chose the one on “Freedom, Equality, Difference.”

Most of the other students had no particular interest in the topic — they were just meeting the requirement. But a significant minority did: like me, they cared passionately about it. They were the conservatives, armed with endless citations on how affirmative action was undermining American meritocracy. The only other political attitude I noticed was a moderate centrism, the view espoused by the teacher, whose day job was studying Just War Theory.

It quickly became clear that I was the only person even remotely on the left. And it wasn’t simply that the others disagreed with me; they couldn’t even _understand_ me. I remember us discussing a scene in _Invisible Man_ where a factory worker brags he’s so indispensable that when he was out sick the boss drove to his house and begged him to come back, agreeing to put him in charge. When I suggested Ellison might be implying that labor, not management, ought to run workplaces, the other students (and the teacher) didn’t just disagree — they found the idea incomprehensible. How could you run a factory without managers? [click to continue…]

Political Entrepreneurs and Lunatics with Money

by Aaron Swartz on May 1, 2009

One of the interesting things about capitalism is that, if you have money, people seem to just magically appear to meet your needs. When it rains in New York City, vendors materialize to sell me an umbrella. When I was walking to the inauguration, the streets were lined with people selling hats and handwarmers. I certainly didn’t ask anyone to bring me a hat; I didn’t even realize I would want one, or I would have brought it myself — but people predicted that I would and brought it for me.

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