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The Material Power of Ideas and Knowledge

by Henry on January 22, 2019

Attention conservation notice: long (nearly 5,000 words long) essay on the economic power of ideas. To its credit, the questions discussed are plausibly important. To its detriment, the arguments are less arguments than gestures, and the structure is decidedly baggy.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been wanting to write a response to Aaron Major’s (paywalled) article on ideas and economic power for _Catalyst._ Now there’s a second piece by Jeremy Adelman in _Aeon_ on Thomas Piketty and Adam Tooze. I think they’re both wrong, but in different ways. Major’s piece suggests that economic ideas don’t really matter very much – it’s the economic base, not the superstructure that’s doing the work. Adelman, in contrast, think that ideas are super important – he just thinks that Piketty and Tooze have ones that are leading us in the wrong direction.

These arguments come from radically different places, but they have one thing in common. They both substantially underestimate the role that ideas have played in getting us to where we are on the left, and what they they’re likely to do for us in the near future. [click to continue…]


by Henry on January 9, 2019

I’ll be teaching a Ph.D. level class on globalization this semester – the draft syllabus is below. The direct aim of the class is to provide doctoral students in both international relations and comparative politics with an understanding of broad debates about globalization, without duplicating the materials of the (separately taught) class in international political economy. The indirect aim is to get them reading at least some material outside the field of political science (specifically: sociology and financial history – they get plenty of economics elsewhere). Comments and suggestions gratefully received. [click to continue…]

At Bertram’s Hotel

by Henry on January 9, 2019

I really enjoyed this John Lanchester essay on Agatha Christie, which came out a little before Christmas. I thought it was even better after watching John Malkovich play Poirot in the new BBC version of The ABC Murders. The essay explains in advance why the adaptation failed. Poirot is not so much a character as a bundle of mannerisms. To provide him with an interior life, much less a Secret Wound that drives his quest for justice, is to miss the point completely. [click to continue…]

Tyler Cowen suggests that Tom Lehrer would have been a member of the Intellectual Dark Web.

Lehrer represented the IDW of his day.  He said (sang) things others couldn’t, and his main enemy or target was political correctness.  It surprised me to hear how little many of the battle lines have changed.  Yet Lehrer, while warring against hypocritical political discourse, was in his day on the Left.  (Shades of Eric Weinstein!)  He worried about the “decline of the liberal consensus,” following the Kennedy era.  In 1982 he wrote that he considered feminism, abortion, and affirmative action “more complicated” than the older liberal causes, so perhaps he simply did not blend into the contemporary Left (the piece is interesting more generally).

This is provocative – but it seems basically wrong to me. The more trivial reason why is that Lehrer seems to have stayed on the American left.

“I’m not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn’t figure out what sort of song I would write. That’s the problem: I don’t want to satirize George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them.” In a phone call to Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post in February 2008, Lehrer instructed Weingarten to “Just tell the people that I am voting for Obama”

The more useful answer is that whatever you think about their respective political positions, their orientations to politics are fundamentally different. Lehrer was an iconoclast. The IDW people, in contrast, are iconolaters. IDWers don’t just want to push back against what they believe to be an emerging orthodoxy. They want to defend a pre-existing orthodoxy of their own (which roughly coheres around a common mythology regarding the ‘Enlightenment’ was and what it still has to offer) against it, and they take their own dogma seriously.  This is why the style of IDW tends more towards thin-skinned self-seriousness, and heavy hectoring. You need a sense of the absurd to be funny.

Perhaps a modern Tom Lehrer would indeed skewer the pieties of the left. Any broad social movement tends towards dogma. All dogmas produce some absurdities, and for that matter, tragedies. But the left is hardly the only source of such pieties, or, perhaps, the most important one. The piece that Tyler links to also has this section:

On the other hand, there are certain dead horses that still merit kicking, such as the late Wernher von Braun, the subject of one of the songs in the show. I say that not out of animosity toward him especially, but because of what he represents. I have been amused over the years at the number of scientists who have enjoyed the song without ever realizing that it was about them.

It’s hard not to be reminded of the ‘we’re only interested in the neutral scientific inquiry’ line that many IDWers take on race and IQ, and the Left’s Hostility and Open Debate.*

Lehrer was entertainingly impatient with the people whose politics he agreed with, but his true venom was reserved for an altogether more important set of shibboleths. Not political correctness, but the Cold War fusion of unthinking patriotism and technocratic politics. There are analogies to that fusion today, but I don’t think they’re on the left.

Update: as happens pretty well every time that I write a post responding to Tyler, whether agreeing or disagreeing, there’s a raft of comments with personal invective aimed towards him, and/or complaining that I shouldn’t be engaging him. And as before, I’m deleting all such comments – opinions about my engagement have already been amply expressed, and there are plenty of other places on the Internet you can express your derogatory opinions about him (or, for that matter, me).

* When I once had the misfortune to be criticized online by Jordan Peterson, I spent several days dealing with multitudes of politely insistent followers demanding that I engage them in lengthy debate on race and IQ, to the point that I eventually had to write this post to fend them off). NB that I am quite sure that Tyler is no more enthusiastic about race-IQ nutters than I am.

Democracy as an information system

by Henry on November 27, 2018

Democracy is an information system.

That’s the starting place of our new paper: “Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy.” In it, we look at democracy through the lens of information security, trying to understand the current waves of Internet disinformation attacks. Specifically, we wanted to explain why the same disinformation campaigns that act as a stabilizing influence in Russia are destabilizing in the United States. [click to continue…]

Gene Wolfe on Gmail predictive text

by Henry on October 19, 2018

From this story, though it was the shortest and the most simple too of all those I have recorded in this book, I feel that I learned several things of some importance. First of all, how much of our speech, which we think freshly minted in our own mouths, consists of set locutions. The Ascian seemed to speak only in sentences he had learned by rote, though until he used each for the first time we had never heard them. Foila seemed to speak as women commonly do, and if I had been asked whether she employed such tags, I would have said that she did not – but how often one might have predicted the ends of her sentences from their beginnings.

Law and Economics

by Henry on October 18, 2018

I’ve been waiting for this paper to drop, ever since Suresh told me about it last year. It’s groundbreaking. What it does is to take Steve Teles’ qualitative work on the conservative legal movement, and then ask a simple question: if we start with the qualitative evidence about the program’s intentions, then FOIA the hell out of George Mason University to find out which judges attended the Manne seminars, and then apply cutting edge econometrics and natural language processing to their decisions, what are we going to find out?

Some selected quotes (as well as one quote that isn’t in the current version, but will likely be in the next) under the fold, for those who are interested in the headline findings. [click to continue…]


by Henry on October 7, 2018

I wrote a long Twitter thread on Kavanaugh a week ago, the first time that I thought he was going to get in. This piece by Matt Yglesias covers much of the same ground that I did, but better. This Boston Review article by Sam Moyn says what I wanted to say about courts and democracy, but is sharper. Still, there’s one idea in neither of them that I think is worth developing.

That is Kavanaugh’s role as a frame. The sociology and political science of social movements talks a lot about how movements on the street need frames – simple representations that provide a common focus for the very different people with different interests that make up a movement. Kavanaugh – angry, distorted, shouting face and all – provides the most concrete imaginable metaphor for what the Republican party has become, and for the white conservative elite that is trying to cripple American democracy. The ways in which conservative judges are undermining American democracy are apparently a-political, and hard for many people to focus on and understand. Kavanaugh represents and personifies this silent judicial revolution. And he does so in an especially visceral way for the women who are the backbone of the social and political movement that has to be at the heart of any hope for political change in the US. He can – and should be – hung like a rotting albatross around the neck of the Republican party.

Democratizing the Supreme Court is a long term project. It is going to require a fundamental reshaping of the American legal elite – focusing on the cosy relationship between top law schools and the judiciary, and the ways in which the Federalist Society has finessed the ambiguities between debating ideas, providing a pipeline for judges, and vetting Supreme Court justices. It will also require politics on the streets. The circumstances of Kavanaugh’s elevation have temporarily raised the costs of overly comfortable relationships in the legal world. Keeping them raised – and turning them into a broader democratic agenda – will require active and continued mobilization. Pressing for investigations (should the Democrats win in November) of the role that Whelan, Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society and others seem to have played behind the scenes in trying to discredit accusations. Framing the court and every rotten decision it makes as the Kavanaugh Court. And protesting in every way possible to raise the costs for the politicians who voted for Kavanaugh, and where possible to replace them.

None of this changes the fact that it is very, very bad that Kavanaugh has been confirmed. But it does mean that Kavanaugh can, despite himself, become a political engine for change, in ways that would have been impossible if he had been confirmed without controversy, as seemed likely to happen just a few weeks ago.

Move over, Sokal Hoax

by Henry on October 3, 2018

Something has gone wrong in the university—especially in certain fields within the social sciences. Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon #slatepitching the libs has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields, and their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview. This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous. For many, this problem has been growing increasingly obvious, but strong evidence has been lacking. For this reason, I have spent a good 45 minutes inside the scholarship I see as an intrinsic part of this problem. [click to continue…]

My last word on Nancy MacLean

by Henry on September 18, 2018

Attention conservation notice: This is a lengthy post looking to demonstrate, should demonstration be needed, that I am not a tool of the “Koch donor network.” Also: if you are interested in l’Affaire MacLean, your time is probably better spent reading this dissection of the book by Jennifer Burns in the new issue of History of Political Economy. [click to continue…]

Decoding the Deep State

by Henry on August 17, 2018

Robert Litt has a piece in Lawfare, which probably deserves some further attention, if only because smart people seem to be misinterpreting it:

[click to continue…]

The Man with the Two-Storey Brain

by Henry on July 25, 2018

By Source, Fair use, Link

Since Holbo is encroaching on my territory by writing about Dark Web Intellectualism, turnabout is fair play. Paul Krugman’s knowledge of science fiction is vast and impressive. Still, I can’t imagine that when he tweeted this:

he knew that he was invoking one of the great (if sadly little known in this Age of Bronze) recurring characters from 2000AD’s Tharg’s Future Shocks. Alan Moore’s Abelard Snazz was the Man with the Two-Story Brain, or, as we’d say today, a Very Stable Genius, who specialized in handling “complex problems with even more complicated solutions.” For example – Snazz’s More Robots Less Crime approach, as described by Wikipedia:

On the planet Twopp, crime is so rampant that even the Prime Minister, Chancellor, and Commissioner are robbed down to their underwear on their way to visit double-brained, four-eyed “Mutant Supermind” Abelard Snazz, President of Think, Inc. The officials of Twopp ask Snazz for a solution to the planet’s crime problem. Snazz’s answer is to create a race of giant police robots, heavily armed and programmed to make unlimited arrests. Snazz is hailed as a genius by his sycophantic robot assistant, Edwin. Unfortunately, the police robots are so efficient that they arrest all of the criminals on the planet, and continue to fill out their arrest quotient by arresting citizens for minor offences, such as breaking the laws of etiquette, good taste, and grammar. With everybody getting arrested, the officials return to Snazz for help. Snazz creates a race of giant criminal robots to keep the robot police busy, thus saving innocent people from being arrested. However, the perfectly matched conflict between the robot police and robot criminals creates an all-out war which kills scores of innocent bystanders. After another visit from the officials, Snazz’s latest solution is to create a race of little robot innocent bystanders to suffer in the humans’ stead. This saves the people from harm, but it also leaves the planet Twopp overcrowded with robots. The humans abandon the planet, and when Snazz announces his idea of building a giant robot planet for them, the enraged officials have had enough and eject Snazz and Edwin into outer space.

Wikipedia fails to mention the arrests of children for removing the “do not remove” tags from mattresses, which particularly impressed me as a child. Still, the proposal for building a giant robot planet is pretty good.

The Enrightenment

by Henry on July 23, 2018

Jacob Hamburger has an article in the LA Review of Books on the “Intellectual Dark Web” which is really very sharp, but ends up in the wrong place. [click to continue…]

Would be/Wouldn’t be

by Henry on July 18, 2018

The Death of Stalin and the Trump administration have plenty in common.

What should I be reading?

by Henry on July 4, 2018

Having sent an academic book off to the publisher, I’m in what I hope are the final stages of writing a very long proposal for a commercial book based on this essay (the book will probably have less PKD, and more generic weirdness). For the last nine months or so, my reading material has been mostly recent US history, American paranoia (Jesse Walker’s book is very good), changes in American media markets, how Facebook actually works, the theory and practice of bots, history of traditionalism and lots and lots of creepy stuff on the WWW (Dark Enlightenment, MRA, GamerGate and other assorted varieties of sleaze and vileness). The result is that I’m desperate for new and different books to read, after I get the damn thing finished, as a class of a carrot to lure me over the finish line.

Books I know that I really want to read include:

Ruthanna Emrys – Deep Roots (have an ARC of it already, and it looks very, very good).
Vera Tobin – Elements of Surprise (cognitive psychology meets literature).
Dave Hutchinson – Shelter (though I’m looking forward even more to the next book in his Europe series)
Judea Pearl – The Book of Why (how we need causal reasoning and what it means).

Books that I don’t know that I really want to read, but should know, are multitudinous. Tell me about them.