Sentences to ponder

by on March 27, 2015 at 1:21 pm in Philosophy | Permalink

From Will Wilkinson:

Reminder: The much greater mystery is why people don’t go on shooting sprees or crash planes on purpose ALL THE TIME.

Here is one excerpt from his very interesting post:

I get and very much like the skeptical, anti-theoretical thrust of Strauss. I like his deep wariness of ideal theorizing, his exhortations to pay attention to the political life we are always already living. He’s right to see reasoning with others about about how to live as an inherently political activity. He’s right to insist on honoring the distinctive excellences of those sensitive to the texture of real political life and expert in its ceaseless negotations. He’s right that social scientific theories about politics are less politically valuable then good political judgment, and that people who think they’re going to govern “scientifically” are dangerously stupid. (Paraphrasing, here.) And, yes, when philosophy is merely a handmaiden to the dogmas of our age, pursued under the “ecumenical supervision” of the universities, it is profoundly compromised. To be a philosopher is not to have a job you clock in and out of. To be a philosopher is simply to be, philosophically, always. Right! But the Socratic life is the one very best life? The naturally right, life? Nope. Nope. I’ve read and read and never quite follow how we end up there. I mean, I think this is a great life, beyond wonderful. But nope.

Anyway, Strausseans are strangely obsessed with this idea that the philosophical life, so construed, is the best human life, full stop, and are therefore obsessed with the tension between the best life, which is in the business of exposing bullshit, and the political life, which is built on it.

I am very happy to order this book in advance, I hope Will lets me know when that is possible.

I was pleased to have been invited to deliver one of the comments at Elizabeth Anderson’s Tanner lectures at Princeton a few weeks ago.  I have put the comment on my home page here.  I introduce the topic in this manner:

I won’t summarize her views, but I will pull out one sentence to indicate her stance: “Here most of us are, toiling under the authority of communist dictators, and we don’t see the reality for what it is.” These communist dictators are, in her account, private business firms. That description may be deliberately hyperbolic, but nonetheless it reflects her attitude that capitalist companies exercise a kind of unaccountable, non-democratic power over the lives of their workers, in a manner which she thinks is deserving of moral outrage.

Here is one bit from my response:

This may sound counterintuitive or even horrible to many people, but the economist will ask whether workers might not enjoy “too much” tolerance and freedom in the workplace, at least relative to feasible alternatives. For every benefit there is a trade-off, and the broader employment offer as a whole might involve too little cash and too much freedom and tolerance. To oversimplify a bit, at the margin an employer can pay workers more either with money or with freedom and tolerance, which we more generally can label as perks. Money is taxed, often at fairly high rates, whereas the workplace perks are not; that’s one reason why a lot of Swedish offices are pretty nice. It’s simple economics to see that, as a result, the job ends up with too many perks and not enough pay, relative to a social optimum. I doubt if our response to this distorting tax wedge, which can be significant, should be to increase the perks of the workers rather than focusing on their pay.


In fact there are some reasons why labor-managed firms may give their workers less personal freedom. The old-style investment banking and legal partnerships expected their owner-members to adhere to some fairly strict social and professional codes, even outside the workplace. More generally, when workers are motivated to monitor each other, through the holding of equity shares, monitoring becomes easier and so corporations engage in more of it. Again, the main issue is not controlling bosses vs. freedom-seeking workers.

Do read the whole thing.

I may not follow any of your suggestions, but just thought I should ask for advice, for my dialogue with Peter next week.  I am the interviewer, he is the interviewee, more or less.  #CowenThiel

The grand confluence of Protestantism has dwindled to a trickle over the past thirty years, and the Great Church of America has come to an end.

…The death of Mainline Protestantism is, as we’ve noted, the central historical fact of our time: the event that distinguishes the past several decades from every other period in American history.  Almost every one of our current political and cultural oddities, our contradictions and obscurities, derives from this fact: Mainline Protestantism has lost the capacity to set, or even significantly influence, the national vocabulary or the national self-understanding.

That is from Joseph Bottum, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

The Tea Party, the great stagnation, etc., maybe you can find it all right here.

Don’t worry people, just joking on that one…

Corey Robin has a useful survey of responses from the Left, some of which include repudiations of Zionism, in addition to claims that the current Israeli policies simply have to unravel, to the detriment of virtually everybody.  Think of the latter as a prediction of comeuppance, much like how inequality critics sometimes predict eventual doom for the wealthy if they do not redistribute their wealth.

From a separate direction, economist Glen Weyl explains on Facebook why he is now supporting the BDS movement.

I’m not interested in debating the normative side of the election, or various peace plans, right now.  What I find striking is how unready many critics are to confront what has happened, not just in the “Plan B” sense but also rhetorically.  The possibility that civil rights progress, peace progress, and self-governance and democratic progress simply have stopped, and won’t be back any time soon, is before us.  If anything, matters might become worse yet, especially once you contemplate Gaza.  Yet Western commentators don’t know where to turn, because the prevailing progressive narrative is one, not surprisingly, of progress.  The common progressive remedy is one of moral exhortation, but at this point it doesn’t seem like another lecture to Israeli voters is going to do the trick.

Such stagnation and possibly retrogression in outcomes is hardly novel at the global level, and even within Israel/Palestine proper it’s far from clear there has been much actual news from the Israeli election (i.e., the two-state solution has been failing for some while now).  Still, Israel attracts enough attention, and loyalty, that this is producing an intellectual crisis for many.  Some people feel they have been made fools of, and they are no longer happy playing along with the fantasy of an eventual peace deal based on ideals of democracy and rule of law.  They wish to recast their mood affiliations, but where really to turn?

By the way, the world has been getting more violent since 2007.

Our social and political life is awash in unconsciously held Christian ideas broken from the theology that gave them meaning, and it’s hungry for the identification of sinners—the better to prove the virtue of the accusers and, perhaps especially, to demonstrate the sociopolitical power of the accusers.

That is from Joseph Bottum, via PW.

You can sign up for rsvp or the live stream here, the chat with Peter Thiel is March 31, 2-3:30 p.m. EST, held at the Arlington campus of George Mason University.  It is part of a new event series Conversations with Tyler.

The chat with Jeffrey Sachs is April 7, 3:30 to 5 p.m., again EST in Arlington.  There will be more to come in the Fall.

I will host and talk with guests, but without formalities.  I won’t ask “So tell us about your new book,” or any of the usual soporific chit-chatty questions.  I will try to replicate the conversations I would have with these same individuals in a private setting, except that you all get to listen.  That means launching into substance immediately and seeing how far the back and forth can be pushed.  It also means asking questions that not everyone listening will understand and willing to let parts of the audience suffer in their confusion.  I want these dialogues to be as smart as possible, based on the premise that each guest, no matter how renowned he or she may be, is nonetheless a radically underrated thinker.

The goal is to be never hostile or combative, but always probing.  I’m aiming for the chat to be 1/3 me vs. 2/3 guest, more or less, but about the ideas and contributions of the guest most of all.

There is a new version of the Mahabharata, in blank verse rather than prose, translated/created by Carole Satyamurti.  I’ve only read an initial sliver of it, but dramatically and linguistically it is very effective.  This is a beautiful edition, and deserves serious consideration as a purchase for just about every library.  I have yet to see any significant reviews of the work.

Mark Brown asks me:

If voting with your feet was your preferred method, what would be the best country to immigrate to from the United States for: A) Progressives B) Social Conservatives C) Libertarians

As a follow up, a common expression in the US among adults as I was growing up was “its a free country”. That expressed both disdain of the expressed course of action and a willingness to let the fool do what he wanted. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are literary representatives of that, what should I call it, frontier freedom? Are there countries that even if the official line is restrictive, the feeling of liberty might be much greater? Am I nuts to feel that in many ways the US is less free than it was a couple of generations ago?

For Progressives I’ll pick Denmark.  They have high taxes and ultimately they are not too friendly toward immigration, instead preferring to keep their social policy comprehensive and expensive.  Sweden may not quite manage the same, although they are still a fairly high pick on this list.  Another direction to look would be Australia, where government spending is most likely to actually be redistributive.

For Social Conservatives, I say Singapore.  They are tough on drugs and the citizens are expected to work and required to save.  Parents are treated with respect, at least relative to the West, and when it comes to births at the very least they are trying hard with subsidies and ads on buses.  An underrated pick here would be France, by the way.

For Libertarians, I say the United States.  For all of the statist intervention in this country, it remains the place where markets are capable of exercising the most power for the better.  And it is no accident that such a huge chunk of the world’s libertarians are also Americans, or at least heavily American-influenced.  Singapore is in the running for this designation, with its government at eighteen percent of gdp, but so many things there are planned so comprehensively and the attitude of the country is more technocratic than free market per se.  Hong Kong is no longer such a free economy, having come under increasing Chinese influence not to mention law-enforced cartelization, and that is on top of their government-supplied housing stock and single payer health care system.

As for the last part of this question, the relatively peaceful parts of Mexico, in my view, very often feel freer than the United States.  But I am never sure how much that is worth.

This Neill Blomkamp (“District 9″) movie has received only lukewarm reviews, but while highly imperfect it is more interesting than most critics seem to realize.  The initial premise is that in a few years’ time South Africa resorts to AI-driven, robot policemen.  I see the film as revolving around three key questions:

1. What will a robot be like, if he grows up under rather brutal conditions?  This is first and foremost a movie about education, and it could have been written by John Gray.  Don’t assume that people (robots) have an irrevocable tendency to support liberal values, at least not when the chips are down and they have been beaten up.  The gang motive is both popular and enduring.

2. Can a society dependent on robots for law enforcement become/remain a liberal society?  Or will the “arms race” between the law and the criminals result in brutality and a loss of liberty?

3. How robust is a robot society to the eventual possibility of human error and depravity?

Along the way there are references to Asimov, “Silent Running,” Blade Runner, Verhoeven of course, and other android sources.  I can’t endorse every angle of the ending, or every character decision, but still I didn’t consider leaving this one.

And can happiness research be trusted?:

According to the latest opinion survey in Russia, the share of people who are happy with their life has increased to 52 percent, from 44 percent in December 2014, and from 41 percent in December 2013. The survey results were published at the end of February by the state survey agency VCIOM. This is quite a spectacular finding, suggesting that despite Western sanctions and the recent ruble devaluation, life in Russia is going well.

Except these attitudes are hard to square with some facts.

Fact #1: Between January 2014 and March 2015, the price of food products has increased by 29.3 percent. After the sanctions, prices of fruit have shot up by 45 percent, vegetables by 41 percent, fish by 30 percent, and meat by 28 percent. All this, according to Rosstat, the state statistical agency.

Fact #2: January 2015 saw a 51 percent fall in the number of Russian traveling abroad, relative to January a year earlier. Fewer Russians go skiing in Europe: Russian tourism dropped by 27 percent to Austria, by 52 percent to Finland, and by 43 percent to France. And lest one thinks that most Russian skiers now go to Sochi, it is worth pointing out that the numbers from last summer also show a significant decline in the tourist visits to Thailand, Bulgaria, Spain, Dubai, and other beach destinations.

Fact #3: 115,390 cars were sold in Russia in January 2015, down from 151,000 in January 2014, and 163,000 in January 2013. In other words, about one quarter fewer new cars have been sold so far this year.

That is from Simeon Djankov, via  And if current trends continue, maybe the Ukrainians will end up happier yet.

That is the new Michael Walzer book, with the subtitle Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions.  The stated paradox is fairly simple, yet worthy of sustained attention:

Why have the leaders and militants of secular liberation not been able to consolidate their achievement and reproduce themselves in successive generations?  Over the past several decades, Indian intellectuals and academics have been debating this question in its local version: “Why is it,” one of them asks, “that the Nehruvian vision of a secular India failed to take hold?”

Other cases considered include Israel, Palestine, and Algeria, as well as the Middle East more generally.  Walzer doesn’t much try to answer his own question, but this book is very stimulating and worth the short amount of time it takes to read it.  I would modify the paradox however: I see various European nations which do consolidate and maintain largely secular nationalist movements.  How about Denmark or France?  If you find those examples troublesome, try Serbia or for that Vietnam or China.  There may be a more general issue of morphing, above and beyond the religious vs. secular issue.

The only version of the new Houllebecq novel I can read now is the one in German, Entwerfung., as the English edition does not come out until September.   I am about halfway through and can report it is excellent and a fun read as well, most of all when it makes fun of the vulnerabilities and vacillations of the West.

Here is an Anthony Daniels review, with lots of plot summary (and spoilers), part of the last paragraph shows he understands the work:

This novel is far from a crude anti-Islamic polemic, however, as many might have supposed it to be from its pre-publication publicity (Houellebecq has expressed himself very unfavorably on Islam elsewhere). It is rather a meditation, admittedly using all the author’s habitual tropes which fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, are susceptible to an infinite number of bitterly amusing variations, on the state of Western civilization and what makes that civilization vulnerable to attack…In other words, it is an implicit invitation to us to look inwards, to think of what is wrong with us rather than with them. Whether we or they will read it like this, I rather doubt…

This is one of the novels of the year.  Here is a good Adam Gopnik piece on Houllebecq and the book.

*The Age of the Crisis of Man*

by on March 1, 2015 at 3:01 am in Books, History, Philosophy | Permalink

That is the new book by Mark Greif, and the subtitle is Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973.  I very much enjoyed grappling with this one.  One of my more recent views is that the thinkers of the mid-twentieth century are in fact, as a whole, extremely underrated.  They are not old enough to be classic and not new enough to be trendy or on the frontier.  Their world faced problems which seemed totally strange to us in the 1990s, but which are starting to sound scarily relevant and contemporary.  Yet our world is largely ignorant of their wisdom and creativity, in part because they often sounded dumb or schlocky or maybe they even were in some ways.

This book is sprawling, and while clearly written at the sentence-to-sentence level, it assumes some fair degree of background knowledge.  Nonetheless for an intellectually-minded reader it is an excellent way to jump into the world inhabited by Karl Jaspers, Ortega y Gasset, Flannery O’Connor, and Thomas Pynchon.

Leon Wieseltier has some interesting remarks on the book.  Here is another interesting (if overlong) review, by Richard Marshall.  Here is an excellent Adam Kirsch review, the best review as review.