History

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

But I would say that the Articles, for all their formal flaws, are badly underrated. They are a brilliant construction for a power vacuum, given that the relevant parties in the 1780s couldn’t agree on very much, but nonetheless needed some path forward.

In other words, think of the Articles as an early business plan or charter for a startup. The point isn’t to get everyone’s roles and responsibilities right on first crack, but rather to make sure that the institution survives and that continued growth is possible.

By this metric, the Articles were an unprecedented success. Keep in mind that many European thinkers of the time thought that America was hopelessly disunited and that its system of government was due to collapse. The Articles proved them wrong by serving as a bridge from the Revolution to the later development of America as a fully fledged nation.

It is sometimes forgotten just how fruitful the Articles period was for laying the foundations for the further growth of the country. A system of relatively egalitarian and transferable property rights was codified for the settlement of external lands. Most importantly, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 determined that future settlements could be incorporated into the country as states rather than subordinate territories or colonies. The independence and sovereignty of the initial founding states allowed them to support such policies, without fearing much dilution of their power or influence.

Alas I did not have the space to consider either Native Americans or slavery in the column.  National expansion was of course in general bad for Native Americans.  Slavery is a trickier matter, however.  Since the Articles gave states stronger rights, it may seem like they must have been bad for slaves.  But is that true?  Under the Articles, precisely because states’ rights were stronger, it might have been easier to create more free states on the rest of the continent.  I would judge the comparison as uncertain, plus we know the history with the Constitution involved an extremely bloody civil war.

The column has much more, including a discussion of the EU and also the emoluments clause in the Articles, do read the whole thing.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is part of the argument:

Sometimes governments trade leaked information to reporters, to curry favor. Other times leaks are used to hurt rivals within the public sphere, or a leak can serve as a trial balloon to test the popularity of an idea. Leaks also may help a president’s Cabinet members build up their own internal empires, which can boost a president’s agenda.

Or the American government may want to inform its people about, say, drone operations in Yemen, but without having to answer questions about the details. In this regard, leaks may substitute for more direct congressional oversight, to the benefit of the executive.

In other words, leaks are part of how the government manages the press and maintains its own popularity. A leak can get a story onto the front page, or if the first leak did not create the right impression, the information flow can be massaged by yet another leak.

Leaks are also a way of threatening other governments, yet without the president putting all of his credibility on the line. For instance, it can be leaked that the national security establishment would be especially unhappy with a further expansion of Israeli West Bank settlements. That sends a message, yet without committing the American government to any particular response if the settlements proceed. Or leaks can signal to foreign terrorists or governments that we know what they are up to.

Of course, many leaks are unwelcome, such as when national security confidences are disclosed. Given that reality, why haven’t American governments worked harder to prosecute unwelcome leaks and leakers?

Well, if that policy were pursued successfully, the only leaks that would occur would be “approved” or government-intended leaks, and everyone would figure this out. The government could no longer use leaks as a way of providing information or making threats in a distanced manner with plausible deniability.

Leak-receiving media outlets would feel more like pawns, and they would distance themselves from the leaking administration. Leaks would end up not being so different from announcements, which would counter the very purpose of leaks. And so whistle-blowing leaks and also security-diminishing leaks get pulled into the mix and tolerated to some degree.

Much of the rest of the column considers how matters have been changing under both Obama and Trump, and not generally for the better.

Here is one bit from an excellent longer piece by Michael Kofman:

Russia’s gradual approach is inherently vulnerable, since it is based around fielding the bare minimum amount number of troops in the battlespace to achieve desired political ends.  In order to deter and dissuade peer adversaries Russia  will often introduce high-end conventional capabilities, such as long range air defense, anti-ship missiles, and conventional ballistic missile systems.  These weapons are not meant for the actual fight. Instead, they are intended to make an impression on the United States. The first goal of the Russian leadership is to make the combat zone its own sandbox, sharply reducing the options for peer adversaries to intervene via direct means.  America does this in its campaigns by attaining air superiority. Russia’s method is cheaper: area denial from the ground.

…Beyond its political objectives, Russia places strong emphasis on having an exit strategy.  In fact, a viable exit strategy seems just as important than whatever they are trying to achieve.  It is perhaps one key point where Russia’s leaders would agree with Weinberger and Colin Powell. But unlike the United States, they actually practice it.

The pointer is from the always-astonishing The Browser.

It is very much a twist on Adam Smith’s argument about the division of labor:

One further remark however, which I cannot omit, is that the people in America are necessitated, by their local situation, to be more sensible and discerning, than nations which are limited in territory and confined to the arts of manufacture. In a populous country, where arts are carried to great perfection, the mechanics are, obliged to labour constantly upon a single article. Every art has its several branches, one of which employs a man all his life. A man who makes heads of pins or springs of watches, spends his days in that manufacture and never looks beyond it. This manner of fabricating things for the use and convenience of life is the means of perfecting the arts; but it cramps the human mind, by confining all its faculties to a point. In countries thinly inhabited, or where people live principally by agriculture, as in America, every man is in some measure an artist— he makes a variety of utensiles, rough indeed, but such as will answer his purposes— he is a husbandman in summer and a mechanic in winter— he travels about the country— he convenes with a variety of professions— he reads public papers— he has access to a parish library and thus becomes acquainted with history and politics, and every man in New England is a theologian. This will always be the case in America, so long as their is a vast tract of fertile land to be cultivated, which will occasion emigration from the states already settled. Knowledge is diffused and genius routed by the very situation of America.

That is from his Sketches of American Policy, #29.

That is in the FT, here is the closing paragraph:

In most other ways, Cowen’s thesis is deeply troubling. Democracy requires growth to survive. It must also give space to society’s eccentrics and misfits. When Alexis de Tocqueville warned about the tyranny of the majority, it was not kingly despotism that he feared but conformism. America would turn into a place where people “wear themselves out in trivial, lonely, futile activity”, the Frenchman predicted. This modern tyranny would “degrade men rather than torment them”. Cowen does a marvellous job of turning his Tocquevillian eye to today’s America. His book is captivating precisely because it roves beyond the confines of his discipline. In Cowen’s world, the future is not what it used to be. Let us hope he is wrong. The less complacent we are, the likelier we are to disprove him.

The review very well captures the spirit and content of the book.  Here is Barnes&Noble, here is Amazon.  Here are signed first editions, here is Apple.

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the opening bit:

“Why should it be different this time?” That’s the most common response I hear when I raise concerns about automation and the future of jobs, and it’s a pretty simple rejoinder. The Western world managed the shift out of agricultural jobs into industry, and continued to see economic growth. So will not the jobs being displaced now by automation and artificial intelligence lead to new jobs elsewhere in a broadly similar and beneficial manner?

And:

Consider, for instance, the history of wages during the Industrial Revolution. Estimates vary, but it is common to treat the Industrial Revolution as starting around 1760, at least in Britain. If we consider estimates for private per capita consumption, from 1760 to 1831, that variable rose only by about 22 percent. That’s not much for a 71-year period. A lot of new wealth was being created, but economic turmoil and adjustment costs and war kept down the returns to labor. (If you’re wondering, “Don’t fight a major war” is the big policy lesson from this period, but also note that the setting for labor market adjustments is never ideal.)

By the estimates of Gregory Clark, economic historian at the University of California at Davis, English real wages may have fallen about 10 percent from 1770 to 1810, a 40-year period. Clark also estimates that it took 60 to 70 years of transition, after the onset of industrialization, for English workers to see sustained real wage gains at all.

From that turmoil, we also received Marxism and agricultural subsidies for generations!  Do read the whole thing

One of my favorites, David was great, here is the link to the podcast, video, and transcript.  Here is the opening summary of the chat:

Named one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of our time, Rabbi David Wolpe joins Tyler in a conversation on flawed leaders, Jewish identity in the modern world, the many portrayals of David, what’s missing in rabbinical training, playing chess on the Sabbath, Srugim, Hasidic philosophy, living in Israel and of course, the durability of creation.

Here are a few bits:

WOLPE: So as my friend Joseph Telushkin says, “Polygamy does exist in the Bible, it’s just never successful.” David does have many wives, and very strained and interesting and complex relationships with women. David has the most complicated and most described relationships with women of any character in the Hebrew Bible.

Those qualities that can be negative, in David are to some extent positive. One of the things that draws David out of the charge of simple narcissism is that he really listens, he pays attention — he pays attention to women over and over again. He listens to what they say and changes himself because of it. And that’s not a characteristic of men in the ancient world or the modern one that you can rely on.

And:

COWEN: So again, I’m an outsider in this dialogue, but say I were thinking of converting to Judaism and I were asking you about Hasidic philosophy. Now in terms of some social connections, I probably would fit better into your congregation than into a Hasidic congregation. But if I ask you, on theological grounds alone, is there a reason why I should be hesitant about Hasidic philosophy? From the point of view of theology, what do you think is the greatest weakness there, or your biggest difference with it, given how much you like Heschel?

And:

COWEN: How would you alter or improve rabbinical training?

WOLPE: I’ve given this a lot of thought. Let me just mention one area. When I speak to rabbinical students, I tell them all the time that the single most valuable commodity you have as a rabbi . . . you can answer that yourself, and then I’ll tell you what I think: your voice. Most people are going to come in contact with you when you speak to them. Not all of them, but most. There’ll be more people who come to your services than the number of people at whose bedside you will sit as they die.

And yet, most rabbis — most people — don’t know how to speak.

There is much more at the link, including about Israeli TV, where to visit in Israel, whether King David parallels Trump, the future of biblical commentary in a world of context-less social media, whether Canadian Jews are more likely to stick with the faith, whether Los Angeles is underrated, what is beautiful and significant in Islam, and the Iran nuclear deal and the settlements, among other topics.  Self-recommending…

And again, here is David Wolpe’s most recent book David: The Divided Heart, which was the centerpiece for the first part of the discussion.

Yes, the survey of “works of reaction” will continue, at what speed I am not sure.  I picked up Julius Evola, in particular his Revolt Against the Modern World, because of a recent NYT article claiming Evola’s influence over Steve Bannon.  I don’t consider the cited evidence for a connection as anything other than tenuous, but still the book was only a click away and Evola was a well-known Italian fascist and I’ve been reading in that area anyway (read in areas clusters!).  I read about 70-80 pages of it, and pawed some of the rest.  I was frustrated.  Upon revisiting the book, here is the passage I opened up to at random:

If on the one hand the original synthesis of the two powers is reestablished in the person of the consecrated king, on the other hand, the nature of the hierarchical relationships existing in every normal social order between royalty and priestly case (or church), which is merely the mediator of supernatural influences, is very clearly defined: regality enjoys primacy over the priesthood, just as, symbolically speaking, the sun has primacy over the moon and the man over the woman.

He then went on about sacrifices and “the priestly regality of Melchizedek.”  In later life, Evola sported a monocle over his left eye, and if you are wondering he did have a reputation as an anti-feminist theorist.  Oh give me the clarity of Mosley and Dugin!

I’ve been pawing through de Maistre and de Bonald as well, I’ll let you know if I find anything interesting there.  In the meantime, someone needs to write an Atlantic article about the much-neglected connection between Alt Right and mystical ideas.

I had heard and read so much about Dugin but had never read him.  The subtitle is Introduction to Neo-Eurasianism, and here were a few of my takeaway points:

1. His tone is never hysterical or brutish, and overall this comes across as scholarly (except for the appended pamphlet on “Global Revolution”), albeit at a semi-popular level.

2. He is quite concerned with tracing the lineages of Eurasian thought, thus the “neo” in the subtitle.  Nikolai Trubetzkoy gets a lot of play.  The correct theories of history are cyclical, and the Soviet Union was lacking in spiritual and qualitative development and thus it failed.

3. Dugin is a historical relativist, every civilization has different principles of development, and we must take great care to understand the principles in each case.  Ethnicities and peoples represent “inestimable wealth” and they must be preserved against the logic of a globalized, unipolar world.

4. Geography is primary.  Russia-Eurasia is a “steppe and woods” empire, whereas America is fundamentally an Atlantic, seafaring civilization.  Globalization tries to universalize what is ultimately quite a culture-specific point of view, stemming from the American, Anglo, and Atlantic mindsets.

5. Eurasian philosophy ultimately can contain, in a Hegelian way, anti-global philosophies, as well as the contributions of Foucault, Deleuze, and Debord, not to mention List, Gesell, and Keynes properly understood.

6. “It is vitally imperative for Turkey to establish a strategic partnership with the Russian Federation and Iran.”

7. The integration of the post-Soviet surrounding territories is to occur on a democratic and voluntary basis (p.51).  The nation-state is obsolete, so this is imperative as a means of protecting ethnicities and a multi-polar world against the logic of globalization.  Nonetheless Russia is to be the leader of this process.

8. “America’s influence is the most negative tendency in the world…”, and American think tanks and the media are part of this harmful push toward a unipolar world; transhumanism is worse yet.  Tocqueville, Baudrillard, and Dugin are the three fundamental attempts to make sense of America.  The Statue of Liberty resembles the Greek goddess of hell, Hecate.

9. The Eurasian economy must be subjugated to “higher civilizational spiritual values.”  City-dwellers are often a problem, as they too frequently side with the forces of globalization.

10. “Japan…is the objective leader of the Pacific.”  It must be liberated from the Atlanticist sphere of influence.  Nary a nod to China.

11. On Moldova: “Archaic?  Let it be archaic.  It’s great!”  At times he does deviate from #1 on this list.

12. Putin is his own greatest enemy because he leans too far in the liberal direction.

13. Dugin enjoys writing with bullet points.

14. “Soon the world will descend into chaos.”

Apart from whatever interest you may hold in these and other particulars, this is a good book for rethinking the notion of intellectual influence.  Very very few Anglo-American intellectuals have had real influence, but Dugin has.  That is reason enough to read this tract.

Addendum: Here is good background on what Dugin is up to these days.  His current motto: “Drain the swamp.”

What would you think of a Western democratic leader who was populist, obsessed with the balance of trade, especially effective on television, feisty and combative with the press, and able to take over his country’s right-wing party and swing it in a more interventionist direction?

Meet Robert Muldoon, prime minister of New Zealand from 1975 to 1984. For all the comparisons of President Donald Trump to Mussolini or various unsavory Latin American leaders, Muldoon is a clearer parallel case.

Here is the full Bloomberg column, much more at the link.

That is the 1936 book by British fascist Oswald Mosley, and it is arguably the clearest first-person introduction to the topic for an Anglo reader, serving up less gobbledygook than most of the Continental sources.  Mosley actually makes arguments for his point of view, and thinks through what possible objections might be, which is not the case with say Marinetti.  Beyond the basics, here are a few points I gleaned from my read:

1. Voting still will occur, at least once every five years, because “The support of the people is far more necessary to a Government of action than to a Democratic Government, which tricks the people into a vote once every five years on an irrelevant issue, and then hopes the Nation will go to sleep for another five years so that the Government can go to sleep as well.”

2. Voting will be organized by occupation, not geographic locality.

3. If an established British fascist government loses a vote, the King will send for new ministers, but not necessarily from the opposing party.

4. The House of Lords is to become much more technical, technocratic, and detailed in its knowledge, drawing more upon science and industry.  The description reminds me of the CCP State Council.

5. A National Council of Corporations will conduct much of economic policy, and as far as I can tell it would stand on a kind of par with Parliament.

6. “M.P.’s will be converted from windbags into men of action.”

7. A special Corporation would be created to represent the interests of women politically.  Women will not be forced to become mothers, but high wages for men will represent a very effective subsidy to childbirth.

8. The government will spend much more money on research and development, with rates of return of “one hundred-fold.”

9. Wages will be boosted considerably by cutting out middlemen and distribution costs.  The resulting higher real wages will maintain aggregate demand.  Cheap, wage-undercutting foreign imports will not be allowed.

10. Foreign investment abroad will be eliminated, as will the gold standard and foreign immigration into Britain.

11. “…foreigners who have not proved themselves worthy citizens of Britain will deported.”  And “Jews will not be afforded the full rights of British citizenship,” as they have deliberately maintained themselves as a distinct foreign community.

12. Any banker who breaks the law will go to jail, just as a poor person would.

13. Inheritance will not be allowed, but private property in land will persist and will be accompanied by with radically egalitarian land reform.

14. To restore the prosperity of coal miners, competition from cheap Polish labor and Polish imports will be eliminated.

15. The small shopkeeper shall be favored over chain stores, especially if the latter are in foreign or Jewish hands.

16. All citizens, rich and poor, are to have the right to an education up through age 18.  Overall there is considerable emphasis on not letting human capital go to waste, and a presumption that there is a lot of implicit slack in the system under the status quo ex ante.

17. Hospitals will be coordinated, but not nationalized.  That would be going too far.

18. Roosevelt’s New Deal is distinct from fascism because a) the American government does not have enough “power to plan,” and b) it relies on “Jewish capital.”

19. The colonies will sell raw materials to Britain, and produce agriculture for themselves, but will not allowed to compete in manufactures.  And this:  “If we failed to hold India, we should be 1/100th the men they were.”

20. By removing the struggle for foreign markets, fascism will bring perpetual peace.

Mosley was later interned from 1940 to 1943.

What is often missed—and, frankly, it would seem deliberately misrepresented in his own autobiographical works—is that in Italy, Modigliani, by age 20, was a well published fascist wunderkind, having received in 1936 an award for economics writing from the hand of Benito Mussolini himself. Further, in 1947, at age 29, Modigliani published a 75-page article whose title in English translation would be “The Organization and Direction of Production in a Socialist Economy” (Modigliani 1947), an article that affirms socialist economics. In 2004 and 2005 there appeared English translations of five fascist works by Modigliani originally published during 1937 and 1938 (all five translations are collected by Daniela Parisi in Modigliani 2007b). The socialist paper of 1947 has never been translated in its entirety, though the  Appendix to this profile contains excerpts selected and newly translated by Viviana Di Giovinazzo, to whom we are very grateful.

That is from Econ Journal Watch, by Daniel B. Klein and Ryan Daza, with Viviana Di Giovinazzo, and here is the broader page on the ideological histories of the Nobel Laureates (interesting throughout).  The point here is not to trash Modigliani, but rather to point out how thoroughly fascist ways of thinking can seep into a society.  Furthermore, fascism and other forms of authoritarianism rule are a massive tax on human creativity, as it is unlikely Modigliani could have turned his career around had his life under Mussolini’s regime persisted.

1. Lucy Hughes-Hallett, The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War.  A vivid and entertaining look at a major European fascist who remains neglected by Americans (I don’t even think this book has a U.S. edition).  I was surprised how readable this book was, given its length and subject matter.  The words “rollicking” and “psychopath” come to mind.  He was nonetheless one of the most influential European writers of his time.

2. Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism 1914-1945.  One of the classics, readable and comprehensive and one of the best places to start.  One thing I learned from this pile of books is how hard some of those leaders worked to have the mid-level bureaucracy on their side.  The centralization often occurred at higher levels, for instance Mussolini had 72 cabinet meetings in 1933, but only 4 in 1936.  The Italian Fascist party, by the way, was disproportionately Jewish, at least pre-1938.

3. Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism.  Along with Payne, one of the core books to read, stronger on analysis while Payne has more historical detail.  He is especially clear on how the fascists built up and refined their political coalitions over time, and the conflicting roles of party and nation in the history of fascism.

4. R.J.B. Bosworth, Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Dictatorship.  I’ve only read parts of this one, but it seems to be the best detailed historical account of a non-Nazi fascist regime.  If you wish to know, for instance, how and why the Italian fascists reformed Italian public holidays, this is your go-to source.

5. Alexander de Grand, Italian Fascism: Its Origin and Development.  Highly focused and to the point, also has an A+ quality annotated bibliography.  It considers regions of Italy, demographic issues, looks at the arts, and for such a short book gives the reader a remarkably broad and multi-faceted perspective.  Overall this book emphasizes how deeply rooted fascism was in so many other Italian institutions and ways of life.

6. I’ve also been reading plenty of Benedetto Croce, including his history of Naples and History, its Theory and Practice.  He is oddly boring and non-concrete, but was a consistent opponent of the Italian fascist regime, except for the first two years of Mussolini’s rule (he later claimed that was for tactical reasons).  In any case, the reader learns that the opposing side doesn’t always have a good ability to articulate why bad events are happening.  I can recommend Fabio Fernando Rizi’s very good history and survey, Benedetto Croce and Italian Fascism.

7. Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.  This beautiful short novel (also a movie) is especially good on anti-Semitism in Italy, how youth process political collapse in their countries, and how events can outrace your expectations and leave you in a haze.

Some books on Italian futurism are coming in the mail.

Overall I did not conclude that we Americans are careening toward fascist outcomes.  I do not think that notion is well-suited to the great complexity of contemporary bureaucracy, nor to our more feminized and also older societies.  Furthermore, in America democracy has taken much deeper roots and the system of checks and balances, whatever its flaws, has stood for a few hundred years, contra either Italy or Germany in their fascist phases.

Still, I did not find this reading reassuring, as people will support many bad things in politics.  The Italian war in Ethiopian was remarkably popular, but exactly why?  We Americans could (again) do something quite bad, but without being fascists.

Less directly on fascism, but by no means irrelevant to the topic, I can recommend two new books:

Andrzej Franaszek, Milosz: A Biography. Long, thorough, but readable treatment, focusing on more on his poetry than the political writings.

And I have been enjoying my ongoing browse of Robert E. Lerner, Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life.

That is an emailed question from Cory M.

Yes, I’ve read Lord of the Rings, but no I don’t want to be corrupted.  I’m assuming that either “life extension pill” or “piles of money” are too trivial to be interesting answers.  I’m afraid that taking a Star Trek transporter trip would be akin to killing myself, plus the receiving stations would not exist.  Nor do I want an invisibility cloak.

One Reddit answer is “a key that can open any door” — nope.

A memory eraser?

How much would the Ark auction for?  Hamlet’s tunic?  How would Sotheby’s certify either one?

Varun says: “…whatever you draw with this pencil that particular thing or person becomes real…”

Let’s stick with the physical laws of this universe.  Proust’s madeleine would spoil, so how about Ahab’s harpoon?

Neglected big problems

by on February 6, 2017 at 1:01 am in History, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

Relearn Every Generation – We must each relearn many basic life lessons during our individual lifetimes, lessons that millions or billions of others already learned in their previous lifetimes, or that millions or billions of others are currently learning in parallel with us. There seem huge potential gains from finding better ways to learn from our ancestors and colleagues.

Changing World – Early in life we read the world around us and choose life plans and paths matched to that world. During our life the world around us changes, and we make some adaptations to that, but they seem insufficient. For example, we often seek to achieve in ways that were awarded with high status when we were young, to find that our achievements are much less valued by the new world.

Poor Matching – We match people as friends, lovers, spouses, and workers. Our distant ancestors only had a few available options for matches, and we inherited many intuitive mechanisms appropriate for that situation. But we now have a vast world with far more matches possible, and it seems like we don’t use that larger scope very well. We still rely heavily on inherited informal mechanisms. I see so many lonely and otherwise mismatched people.

Varied Commitment – We must each choose how much to commit to our careers, friends, lovers, neighborhoods, brands, etc. We do commit somewhat, but we also switch on occasion. But it isn’t remotely clear that we do this well. We must each match our commitment to the commitment choices of folks around us, and we often lack ways to commit to avoid temptations.

That is from Robin Hanson.