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The Future Finds Its Own Uses for Things

by Henry on November 15, 2021

So this event on the relationship between social science and science fiction went live late last week. It has Paul Krugman, Ada Palmer, Jo Walton, Noah Smith and … me. I’ve been wanting to say something a little bit more about this relationship for a while. Here is one take, which surely misses out on a lot, but maybe captures some stuff too. [click to continue…]

Technocracy and Empire

by Henry on May 12, 2021

The Ministry for the Future is a novel, not a manifesto. That complicates things. As Francis Spufford described Red Plenty nine years ago in his own CT seminar:

I was trying to stitch together a sort of story that paid more attention than usual to the economic motives for human behaviour, but even there, I wanted my account of causes to be as broad and open as possible, and not to collapse without residue into any single one of the rival diagrams of economic behaviour. Basically, I wanted to be awkward. I could take advantage of fiction’s built-in tolerance of overdetermination, in which multiple possible causes for an outcome can be allowed to exist alongside each other without being resolved, or even given definitive weights. Storytelling lets you bring negative capability into economics.

KSR was in that seminar too, arguing that Red Plenty was a novel. And so is TMFTF – it brings negative capability into the politics of climate change, allowing it to capture both how we need radical changes, and how we can’t be sure exactly which radical changes, in which combinations, we need. You can read the book as presenting KSR’s best guesses as to how such changes might unfold. But – and this is my argument – that’s not the only reading of the book. Because it’s a novel, it folds those best guesses together with the uncertainty that they will be right, and with the presupposition that actual history emerges, as the imagined history of the novel does, from disagreement and conflict between people with different guesses, different theories, different ideologies. From this perspective, the novel invites people who disagree with KSR’s surmises to advance their own, recreating in real life something like the arguments that drive the book.

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The Ministry for the Future seminar

by Henry on May 3, 2021

Over the next ten days, we’re running a seminar on Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel about climate change and how our political and economic system might have to change to stop it, The Ministry for the Future. We’re happy to be able to do this – it’s an important book. Since it came out, it’s had an enormously enthusiastic reception (see e.g. Barack Obama and Ezra Klein). What we want to do in this seminar is not to celebrate it further (although it certainly deserves celebration) but to help it do its work in the world. So we’ve asked a number of people to respond to the book, by arguing it through and, as needs be, arguing with it. We’ve also published a reply by Stan.

If you want to link to the entire seminar, use this address. The seminar is generally available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license. In plain language: you can probably do what you want with it so long as you don’t try to make money from it, and so long as you are willing to share whatever changes you make under the same conditions as we are sharing it. You can find hyperlinks to the pieces below. If you prefer to read it as a PDF, you’ll find that here. And if you want to remix it under the above license, it is available in various formats at the bottom of this post.

The participants in the seminar:

Seminar Markdown Version.

Seminar TeX Version.

Seminar HTML Version.

Seminar Word .docx Version.

Danielle Allen – a personal endorsement

by Henry on April 19, 2021

Danielle Allen phot

I imagine that many Crooked Timber readers are familiar with Danielle Allen – her book, Our Declaration, was the subject of a Crooked Timber seminar a few years ago. However, some people may not know that she is in the early stages of running for governor of Massachusetts. She is an extraordinary person, and would do extraordinary things if she were elected. I’m writing this both to endorse her (in a purely personal capacity – this is not a general CT endorsement, although I know that some other posters also know her and think she’s wonderful) and to suggest that if you agree and are in a position to, you should donate to her campaign.

The reason that I support her isn’t that she’s one of the finest academic political theorists of our age (she is; but that is beside the point). It’s that she is uniquely capable of bridging between a deeper understanding and the ordinary business of politics. I can’t think of anyone who even comes near to her ability to weave the two together to good purpose. She’s also someone who identifies problems and gets things done. And she has the kind of charisma that stems from deep moral seriousness combined with kindness and a real delight in other people.

The question is getting her to the place where voters can see who she is. This is a tough race – for starters, Democratic politics in Massachusetts is dominated by a well-oiled party machine. But it is far from impossible for her. A lot depends, as everywhere else in American politics, on money. Endorsements and political support depend on whether she can demonstrate that she has enough financial support from enough people. It helps that Massachusetts has donation limits that are lower than in many other states, making it harder for big donors to swamp the process. It also helps that her fundraising got off to a strong start, but a strong start isn’t enough on its own.

That’s why I’m asking that you donate, if you are a US citizen or a permanent resident, and are in a position to support her. If you want to find out about her campaign, you can get more information here. And if you want to find out more about how she helped shape the response to coronavirus, more details are here. There aren’t many people who have what it takes to potentially transform politics, if they get the chance. I believe she’s one of them.

Freedom from the Market

by Henry on January 26, 2021

Mike Konczal has a new book, Freedom from the Market ( locator, Amazon). I’ve been wanting to write about this book for a while, but first had to wait for it to come out, and then had my working life banjaxed by the madness of the last few weeks. But it is a great book that looks to remake the American debate about freedom and largely succeeds. Full disclosure: Mike is a friend of the ‘see very occasionally but like very strongly’ variety; I also read an early version of the mss and commented on it. [click to continue…]

January 6

by Henry on January 8, 2021

Elizabeth Saunders and I have a piece in the Washington Post. Behind a paywall, but the nub of the argument below the fold. [click to continue…]

The Supreme Court and Normcore

by Henry on September 19, 2020

After Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, we are going to see more debate over the norms on judicial nominations and whether they should be observed. The so-called “McConnell rule” – that the Senate should block Supreme Court nominations in the last year of their term to allow the people their say – is giving way to an equally fanciful McConnell exception stipulating that the rule only applies when Senate and President belong to different parties. So the question then emerges of how the Democrats should respond, if McConnell and Trump manage to get a Supreme Court nomination through, perhaps in the Senate’s lame duck session. Should they accept this or should they push back, perhaps through adding another two seats to the Court, something which is allowed under the Constitution, but that pushes back against long standing norms? [click to continue…]

The weirdness of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

by Henry on September 11, 2020

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a few years, and the impending publication of Susanna Clarke’s new book, Piranesi, has finally prompted me to get off my arse and do it. The short version  – Clarke’s first book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is deeply beloved, as it damn well ought to be. But it’s often misclassified. Because it is so funny and charming, people tend to read it as whimsical, but beneath the whimsy lies the weird. It’s usefully read (as Clarke herself suggested in her contribution to the seminar we ran with her), as a book about the weirdness of the English landscape, and in a backhanded way about Piranesi too.
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Below, a review essay on Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s most recent book, “Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality.” The essay tries to highlight and explain the political science arguments behind the book, and the kinds of political science research that would be needed to properly build out the agenda that the book implies. [click to continue…]

In praise of negativity

by Henry on July 24, 2020

Andrew Gelman has a post on the benefits of negative criticism, where he talks about the careful methodological demolitions he has done of others’ research that he has found to be slipshod.

if you want to go against the grain you have to work harder to convince people. My point is that this is the exact opposite of Cowen’s claim that following his advice—“Avoid criticizing other public intellectuals. In fact, avoid the negative as much as possible”—will “force you to keep on thinking harder.”

I’m in favor of a strong culture of criticism, but for a quite different reason: because serious criticism is probably the most valuable contribution we can make to the cognitive division of labour. There’s a possibly mistaken understanding of a truly excellent social science book behind this argument. [click to continue…]

Economists versus epidemiologists

by Henry on July 20, 2020

This Paul Krugman column helped crystallize the weirdness of the ongoing economists versus epidemiologists spat, perhaps more accurately described as the ‘some economists, especially those with libertarian politics, versus epidemiologists spat.’ Different theories, in turn below the fold.
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Danielle Allen wins the Kluge prize

by Henry on June 22, 2020

The New York Times story is here. We ran a Crooked Timber seminar on her book on the American Declaration of Independence. I am delighted to see this prize be awarded not for past achievements, but for someone who is still caught up in doing, thinking and changing the world.

The discretion to escalate

by Henry on June 14, 2020

Police forcing a protestor to bump them

[Reader Attention Conservation Notice: This post consists of me trying to make the obvious a little more precise, at considerable length. Since it’s on topics where I have no obvious expertise, I may very possibly not only be reinventing the wheel, but adding superfluous corners].

The video linked above has been doing the rounds on social media. A protestor is arguing with a police officer, who moves in front of him and then (clearly quite deliberately, from the body language) stops suddenly, so that the protestor has no choice but to bump into the officer. This then provides a pretext for the police to swarm the protestor and subdue him, presumably on the theory that he has physical assaulted the officer. Up to a couple of weeks ago, this kind of technique wouldn’t have gotten much public attention. Some of the problems (certainly far from all) with the police in the US and elsewhere, reduce down to the problem of how much discretion police should be allowed. Much of this problem, in turn, reduces down to what might be called the discretion to escalate. [click to continue…]

Broken Hearts

by Henry on June 9, 2020

Bleeding Heart Libertarians is no longer publishing new material. The final post is here. It’s an end worth noting, because it seems to me (I have no very specific knowledge, and have deliberately not asked any of the principals involved) to say something bigger about what is happening to libertarianism. [click to continue…]

The coronavirus public

by Henry on May 28, 2020

From a new article in Stat.

In a four-day blitz at the end of April, they swabbed and drew blood from 4,160 adults and children, including more than half of the residents in the 16 square blocks that make up San Francisco Census Tract 229.01. In the heart of the Mission District, it is one of the city’s most densely populated and heavily Latinx neighborhoods. While Havlir expected to see the Latinx community hit hard by the virus, the actual numbers came as a shock. About 2% of people tested positive for the coronavirus. Nearly all of them — 95% — were Latinx. The other 5% were Asian or Pacific Islander. Not a single white person tested positive, though 34% of the tract’s residents are white, according to the U.S. Census; 58% are Hispanic.

… One of Havlir’s motivations for the testing was to understand how the virus was being transmitted even after the city had been locked down for six weeks. Questionnaires administered with the tests gave her an answer: 90% of those who tested positive could not work from home. Most were low-income, and most lived in households with three or more people.

“What really comes out of these data is that low-wage essential workers are victims of this disease,” Havlir said. Many of those infected were working in food service, making deliveries, or cleaning offices despite shutdown orders. “These people were out working the entire time,” she said.

“Anecdotally, we knew this, but the hard data is heartbreaking,” said Susana Rojas, executive director of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District and a leader of the Latino Task Force for Covid-19 that partnered with UCSF to run the study. “Our community was out working, keeping the city moving and fed. Of course they were more exposed and getting sick.”