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Henry

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.”

“Public” choice

by Henry on May 12, 2020

XKCD chart showing public agreement about the coronavirus

An addendum to my earlier post, to explain more directly why I am skeptical of the argument that public choice is a useful lens to understand the politics of the public during coronavirus. Shorter version: if the “public” is indeed some kind of equilibrium, then the underlying game is unlikely to be the kind of game that public choice scholars like to model. [click to continue…]

Tyler Cowen quotes approvingly from a Robin Hanson post (the URL suggests that the original title of Tyler’s post was “On Reopening, Robin Hanson is Exactly Correct).

While the public tends to defer to elites and experts, and even now still defers a lot, this deference is gradually weakening. We are starting to open, and will continue to open, as long as opening is the main well-supported alternative to the closed status quo, which we can all see isn’t working as fast as expected, and plausibly not fast enough to be a net gain. Hearing elites debate a dozen other alternatives, each supported by different theories and groups, will not be enough to resist that pressure to open.

Winning at politics requires more than just prestige, good ideas, and passion. It also requires compromise, to produce sufficient unity. At this game, elites are now failing, while the public is not.

… More broadly, this is an example of why we need public choice/political economy in our models of this situation. It is all about the plan you can pull off in the real world of politics, not the best plan you can design. A lot of what I am seeing is a model of “all those bad Fox News viewers out there,” and I do agree those viewers tend to have incorrect views on the biomedical side.

This all begs an obvious question: who exactly is the “public” that they are talking about? [click to continue…]

Five Books

by Henry on May 4, 2020

The website Five Books did an interview with me on the five best books on the politics of information. It was an interesting experience. Picking the best five books means that you have to go back and re-read them, and figure out how they fit together.

What I decided to do was to take this essay by Ludwig Siegele in the Economist’s Christmas issue, and start from the question: If you wanted people to build out from that essay, what books would you have them read? The essay is influenced by Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, and the Crooked Timber seminar that followed from it (in particular: Cosma’s essay): what it sets out to do is to ask whether the socialist calculation debate helps us to understand current fights about democracy, autocracy, markets and machine learning. Like Ludwig, I believe that it does: “Comrades! Let’s Optimize” is an excellent starting point for understanding how people in Silicon Valley today think about the transformative power of software. I also think that Red Plenty is an excellent starting point for thinking about these questions because it is a novel rather than a tract. As Francis said in his reply, writing fiction gives you access to negative capability: rather than stating an argument or a principle, you can have a multiplicity of voices and experiences, providing a kaleidoscopic rather than a synoptic understanding of the problem. When it’s a complex problem, that’s helpful.

A certain kind of autobiography can pull off a similar trick: hence the structure of the interview is that it starts off with Red Plenty and finishes with Anna Wiener’s wonderful account of living in Silicon Valley, sandwiching the social science between these two more complicated narratives. It’s a long interview (about 10,000 words!) and has nothing about coronavirus (it was conducted in February), but I think it worked out well. Read if interested; ignore if not.

Show me your books …

by Henry on April 17, 2020

was once a demand made by Kieran on Chatroulette (remember Chatroulette?), but is now becoming an amateur spectator sport, as people scope out other people’s bookshelves on Zoom, and some of those other people in turn likely artfully arrange their books so as to present the best possible image of their serious or not-so-serious intellectual life. The Twitter commentary on this Pete Buttigeig bookshelf has already started.

For me, the interesting bit was not the volumes of Dragonball, or the Piketty in and of itself, so much as the way in which Piketty and a few issues of N+1 bracketted a copy of Juan Zarate’s decidedly non-leftwing book on US financial power, Treasury’s War. Perhaps the message that was intended to be conveyed was of how a leftwing attack on the power of capital and global inequality might be organized around the awesome power of the US over the global financial system. Or, perhaps, that’s just me.

Either which way, one way to keep some of us occupied is to scope out each other’s bookshelves. Here’s mine (as the disorder suggests, I haven’t artfully rearranged it at all, though I have chosen the bookshelf in our house with the greatest concentration of intellectually ‘serious’ books).

Feel free to snoop, and to disparage my taste. Feel just as free to include links to photos of your own bookshelves in comments (it looks as though img src is disabled in CT comments, but links should work fine).

Agency

by Henry on April 6, 2020

Attention conservation notice: below the fold is a lengthy and spoiler-filled response to William Gibson’s new book Agency. Probably best not to read unless you’ve already finished Agency, or have no intention of reading it and want to get some sense as to what the book is about. In either case, you’re likely better off reading Mike Harrison’s Guardian review, which covers much the same ground as below, but with more subtlety and fewer spoilers.

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Seeing Like a Finite State Machine

by Henry on November 25, 2019

Reading this tweet by Maciej Ceglowski makes me want to set down a conjecture that I’ve been entertaining for the last couple of years (in part thanks to having read Maciej’s and Kieran’s previous work as well as talking lots to Marion Fourcade).

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But how will they pay for it?

by Henry on September 5, 2019

Since the climate change townhall is happening, here’s a piece I wrote for Wired about it last month, based on some ideas of Jeff Colgan, Jessica Green and Thomas Hale.

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Last week, CNN announced plans to host a climate crisis town hall with the Democratic presidential candidates on September 4. MSNBC scheduled a multiday climate change forum with the presidential hopefuls later that month.

In both venues, some version of the perpetual question will undoubtedly be raised: “How will you pay for the costs of dealing with climate change?”

Despite its pervasiveness, this is a profoundly wrongheaded line of inquiry. Asking how to pay for the impact of climate change implies that these costs are a matter of choice. The reality is that global warming will impose massive costs, regardless of whether policymakers respond or not. Thus, the real question is not “How would you propose to pay?” but instead “Who is going to pay?” and “How much?” [click to continue…]