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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).


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.

[click to continue…]

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).

[click to continue…]

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.


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…]

Ossian’s Ride

by Henry on August 14, 2019

Caragh Lake, the epicenter of the future

[Caragh Lake: the epicenter of the future]

In 1959 the famous British astronomer Fred Hoyle published his novel, Ossian’s Ride. It was the wildest science fiction, depicting a future Ireland miraculously transformed into a technological superpower. Vast highways crisscrossed the Irish countryside. The discovery of cheap contraception (manufactured from turf) broke the control of the Catholic church. A shining new city, organized around the principles of scientific discovery, was constructed on the shores of Caragh Lake in County Kerry. Britain was left on the sidelines, wondering what had happened.
[click to continue…]

The Lavatories of Democracy

by Henry on July 10, 2019

[being a review of Alex Hertel-Fernandez’ State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States ,“ and the Nationcross posted from HistPhil]


A couple of months ago, Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Rob O’Dell wrote a long journalistic article on the influence of ALEC, the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, on legislation in U.S. states. ALEC has had enormous influence on state legislatures by providing model bills and courting lawmakers. O’Dell suggested on Twitter that this marked “the first time anyone has been able to concretely say how much legislation is written by special interests.” This … wasn’t exactly accurate. Columbia University political science professor Alex Hertel-Fernandez, who is briefly quoted in the piece, had recently published his book State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States,” and the Nation, which applied similar data to similar effect.

It was a real pity that the book didn’t get the credit it deserved, and not just for the obvious reasons. While the article was good, it focused on describing the outcomes of ALEC’s influence. The book does this but much more besides. It provides a detailed and sophisticated understanding of how ALEC has come to have influence throughout the U.S., how it is integrated with other conservative organizations, and how progressives might best respond to its success.

It’s a great book – crisply written, straightforward, and enormously important. It is energetic and useful because it is based on real and careful research. Hertel-Fernandezâ’s politics are obviously and frankly on the left. But even though his analysis starts from his political goals, it isn’t blinded by them so as to distort the facts.

[click to continue…]

Gene Wolfe has died

by Henry on April 15, 2019

One of the great authors of our time

<blockquote>The past stood at my shoulder, naked and defenseless as all dead things, as though it were time itself that had been laid open by the fall of the mountain. Fossil bones protruded from the surface in places, the bones of mighty animals and of men. The forest had set its own dead there as well, stumps and limbs that time had turned to stone, so that I wondered as I descended, if it might not be that Urth is not, as we assume, older than her daughters the trees, and imagined them growing in the emptiness before the face of the sun, tree clinging to tree with tangled roots and interlacing twigs until at last their accumulation became our Urth, and they only the nap of her garment.

Deeper than these lay the buildings and mechanisms of humanity. (And it may be that those of other races lay there as well, for several of the stories in the brown book I carried seemed to imply that colonies once existed here of those beings whom we call the cacogens, though they are in fact of myriad races, each as distinct as our own.) I saw metals there that were green and blue in the same sense that copper is said to be red or silver white, colored metals so curiously wrought that I could not be certain whether their shapes had been intended as works of art or as parts for strange machines, and it may be indeed that among some of those unfathomable peoples there is no distinction.

At one point, only slightly less than halfway down, the line of the fault had coincided with the tiled wall of some great building, so that the windy path I trod slashed across it. What the design was those tiles traced, I never knew; as I descended the cliff I was too near to see it, and when I reached the base at last it was too high for me to discern, lost in the shifting mists of the falling river. Yet as I walked, I saw it as an insect may be said to see the face in a portrait over whose surface it creeps. The tiles were of many shapes, though they fit together so closely, and at first I thought them representations of birds, lizards, fish and suchlike creatures, all interlocked in the grip of life. Now I feel that this was not so, that they were instead the shapes of a geometry I failed to comprehend, diagrams so complex that the living forms seemed to appear in them as the forms of actual animals appear from the intricate geometries of complex molecules.</blockquote>

Kirstjen Nielsen

by Henry on April 8, 2019

Kirstjen Nielsen has resigned from her position as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. While there, she was responsible for overseeing some of the most egregious policies, including caging children and separating them from their parents, a policy which she <a href=””>appears to have lied about</a>. Perhaps there are real extenuating circumstances that will emerge, or perhaps she will publicly repent for what she was involved in. Both seem unlikely.

Jesse Eisinger at ProPublica thinks that Nielsen might quickly find a berth at a think-tank, university center or similar institution.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Where Neilsen lands will be a big test of DC elite circles. I expect her to pay zero professional cost for ripping children from their parents, embracing hate &amp; racism, and habitually lying.</p>&mdash; Jesse Eisinger (@eisingerj) <a href=””>April 7, 2019</a></blockquote>
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Different people have different limits. Nielsen is some distance beyond mine. If she gets a position at a think-tank, university center or similar, I will not participate on any panel that involves anyone from that think-tank, center or other institution. I will not participate in any event where the institution plays an organizing role, nor will I associate myself in any way that might reasonably be seen as providing active support for that institution. If you feel similarly, I invite you to sign your name below (it may take some time for your signature to get past our commenting system) or, if you have a bigger or different platform, to take this idea and roll it out yourself.

[I should note: this is not a collective post by Crooked Timber, although I would guess that many/most/perhaps all others here will agree].


by Henry on April 2, 2019

Today is a big day for some of us. Linda Nagata’s follow-up to the Nanotech Succession books, Edges is coming out. The third book in that previous series, Vast, is one of the great unrecognized SF classics of the last twenty years.

In _Trillion Year Spree_, Brian Aldiss suggests that one of the wellsprings of science fiction was the Victorians’ discovery that human beings were not at the center of the universe, were at most a temporary florescence in a process of evolution that had continued for billions of years before, and might continue for billions of years after. He describes the sense of radical alienation that this provoked, quoting a passage from one of Thomas Hardy’s novels where a character discovers a fossil in a cliff. This describes how humans, for the first time, really had to think about the age of things and their own cosmic unimportance. This perspective of deep time has been an important engine of science fiction ever since. Olaf Stapledon’s work provides one version. H.P. Lovecraft’s another (but that perspective is far more skilfully developed by Caitlin Kiernan, who is a paleontologist as well as writer)

Robert Charles Wilson’s Hugo winning novel, _Spin_ provides a famous take on what happens when human beings are forced to confront cosmological time. _Vast_  provides another, and in my opinion, even better one. Her characters have wandered out into a galaxy that is a battlefield from a civil war that ended thirty million years ago, still littered with weapons that are half-plague half-social contagion and vast autonomous spaceships, guided by colonies of “philosopher cells” that operate like cellular automata turned lethal. The human longing for transcendence becomes a trap that can enfold even those who are aware of its dangers in its sticky embrace. As one of the key characters reflects in a previous novel, looking at an insect that has wandered into his collection of carnivorous plants.

<blockquote>Lot wondered if the fly would have followed the sundew’s sweet scent if it could have comprehended the danger ahead of time. And he decided that it probably would have. Consciousness did not negate instinct. It only provided a post for self-observation.</blockquote>

Much current science fiction is sentimental, using a cold universe as mere backdrop for heartwarming stories about people with difficult backgrounds making new families for themselves. _Vast_, in contrast, isn’t even slightly sentimental, though it is  about family – unorthodox family, whose members often don’t particularly understand each other, and grow further apart as they speciate. The lesson that _Vast_ has – if it has a lesson, any more than the universe has one – is the need to adapt and change.

I don’t want to say any more, for fear of spoilers, except to recommend that you read it, if you at all think that you might want to. It deserves to be rediscovered, and folded back into the main story of science fiction, rather than merely serving as a well of hidden inspiration. It’s the third in a series, but I read it before the other two, and found that the additional sense of alienation and _in media res_ enhanced the story rather than detracting from it. Alastair Reynolds, whose books are deeply influenced by it, had the same experience. You can then dive into the earlier books as an excavation of the prehistory.

I’ve spent the last few weeks reading _Vast_ and its prequels in preparation for the new book’s launch. Twenty years later, the rest of the field has still to catch up with it.


The transformation of left neoliberalism

by Henry on March 5, 2019

I haven’t been blogging at Crooked Timber as much as I used to. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been active – the last two years have probably been the most productive two years of my life (it turns out that my way of dealing with political stress is to write. and write. and write – more on that as the stuff I have been up to comes out). But it’s hard to resist noting Brad DeLong’s <a href=””>very good interview</a>, and Mike Konczal’s response to it. Brad:

<blockquote>Until something non-rubble-ish is built in the Republican center, what might be good incremental policies just cannot be successfully implemented in an America as we know it today. We need Medicare-for-all, funded by a carbon tax, with a whole bunch of UBI rebates for the poor and public investment in green technologies. That’s the best policy given the political-economic context. If the political-economic context were different — well, I’m fundamentally a neoliberal shill. It is very nice to use market means to social democratic ends when they are more effective, and they often are. If you can properly tweak market prices, you then don’t just have one smart guy trying to design a policy that advances an objective — you have 30 million people all over the country, all incentivized to design a policy. That’s a wonderful thing to have.</blockquote>


<blockquote>Delong focuses on the political aspect of this shift, noting that there is nothing on the conservative Right that meets left-leaning neoliberals halfway to try and negotiate market-based policies. “Barack Obama rolls into office with Mitt Romney’s health care policy, with John McCain’s climate policy, with Bill Clinton’s tax policy, and George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy,” and yet conservatives give him zero credit, call him a socialist, and actually attack each of these ideas just as much as they would more ultra-left policies. … I’ve also carried a rifle in this battle, trying to move the party Left—and it is happening. But this movement is happening largely because the story that left neoliberals tell us all about the economy itself, not just the politics of it, has fallen apart. … This is a matter of ideas: ideas having failed, and us needing new ones. … The positive effects of more inequality never happened. … we are seeing a revival of structural arguments that wages are increasingly determined by institutional structures rather than individual measures. … Relaxation of antitrust enforcement would lead to more competition and innovation, as was told. Unions would no longer get in the way of businesses. [but] …  firm dynamism has fallen dramatically. The rate of business startups has fallen. … high markups and profits, low interest rates, weak investment—point to a significant market power problem that impacts the macroeconomy.</blockquote>

Mike is building on the old Internet argument about ‘left neoliberalism’ (a term that I semi-accidentally popularized; but the best and most succinct <a href=””>account was Cosma’s</a>). It’s notable that the people like Brad, Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein who got grief in that debate have moved significantly to the left in the interim: Brad’s interview is a formal acknowledgment of a shift that has been taking place for a long time. Which is not to say that they are going to join the DSA, but that just as there’s a significant distinction between social democrats and democratic socialists, they have plausibly changed from being left neoliberals to neoliberal leftists. It isn’t just that they want neoliberal tools to deliver left-leaning results; they have always wanted that. It is that they tacitly or explicitly realize that preferred neoliberal means of policy delivery need to be embedded in a framework that is being built up by a broader social movement.

Two questions follow (for me, anyway). One is for the neoliberal leftists, as a part of a broader left coalition. When and to what extent will their preferred approach to delivering policy clash with, or undermine, the necessary conditions for achieving collective action and making the policy sustainable? If they are pushing for market means towards social democratic ends, that is fine and good – markets can indeed sometimes be the best way to deliver those ends, and few of us would want to be completely without them (including Marxists like <a href=””>Sam Gindin</a>. But one key lesson of the last couple of decades is that market provision of benefits makes it harder to build and sustain coalitions – private gain and public solidarity are at best uncomfortable bedfellows. Figuring out the political tradeoffs – when market means are worthwhile even when they make collective action tougher, or where non-market means might be better for sustainability reasons, even when markets are more efficient – is going to be hard, and we need to start building shared language and concepts to make it easier to resolve the inevitable disputes.

The other is for the left including both its neoliberal and non-neoliberal variants. It is clear why Brad and others are jumping ship – apart from the intellectual problems that Mike describes, there isn’t a politically viable there there to their right. But  I am not as sure as I would like to be about the there there to their left either. The left is enjoying a resurgence in the US (not so much elsewhere). There are coalitions being formed, plans being conceived. But there are enormous obstacles to be overcome. First in the US (where the system seems almost deliberately designed to prevent the radical action required e.g. to tackle global warming, and where billionaires can credibly threaten to pull down the election if the Democratic candidate is not to their liking). Second, at the global level, where the soi-disant liberal order is in decay, and it is not clear that there is very much that is going to replace it. There may be no plausible choice in American politics other than the left right now. That doesn’t mean that the left has a very good chance of doing the things that it needs to do.

[The below text is a short memo I presented for a workshop on a left-liberal financial foreign policy for the US last week.]

The US left is starting to come to grips with the relationship between democracy and inequality. This builds on a variety of academic work over the last several years – most prominently Thomas Piketty’s book, but also work by other academics such as Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman – which maps the growth in wealth and income inequality across rich countries, and how marked it has been in market-liberal countries such as the US. But these are no longer academic debates: they are being taken up by politicians within the Democratic party, creating a new dynamic of intra-party competition. Proposals by left-leaning politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are not only notable in themselves, but in how they are shifting the center of gravity, so that more centrist politicians too are taking them up. [click to continue…]