straussian

Philosopher J. emails me about free speech and Straussianism

I won’t add extra formatting, here goes (and here is my original post):

“Nice point about a Straussian reading of the free speech letter, and the general constraints of working in groups…But I have this worry about your post. I am not myself a Straussian, but I will express the point as a way of taking further the Straussianism already in your post. Maybe this is what you intend, so that a post making a Straussian point explicit should have a kind of meta-Straussian point. But, here goes: Taking your point about working in groups, I’m worried about you saying:

  • we have a new bunch of “speech regulators” (not in the legal sense, not usually at least) who are especially humorless and obnoxious and I would say neurotic

I would think the Straussian position (in the fuller sense, not just the sense of covert or hidden) would be that working in a group, in a city (or state, country, etc.), always requires constraints — some way of encoding and reproducing enough of a common morality to make living together and coordination possible. From the position of “the philosophers” (as Straussians would say, but in this case I’m thinking of you) these may always be humorless, obnoxious, and maybe neurotic too. So why not think that the old speech regulators were equally so, just enforcing different rules? Why not think we’ve moved from rules of propriety (e.g. more censorship of sexual content, for example), to rules forbidding racism, etc.? You might then think that recent changes have broadened the openness for some kinds of speech. People I know who are interested in police violence, and remedies, report experiencing such a broadening.

An optional addition to this thought would be the idea that different sets of codes, equally and unfortunately all-too humorless, can still do better and worse judged with respect to the good, as Platonist-Straussians would say. In that sense, I would think the new humorless codes an improvement.

Granted, there is a strong strand in Straussianism that would think it just most important that there is some way for “the philosophers” to be able to have some space free of such codes to do the actually important stuff (as they see it) in ways that are not humorless, etc. But even that strand in no way holds the standard is that “the philosophers” should be freely expressing their views *publicly*! I would think that this is a pretty essential part of the point of Straussianism in the first place.

thanks as always for your work and the inspiration to think less about raising and lowering statuses, less from the perspective of Platonic thumos, as the Straussians would put it…”

TC again: More anonymity!  Hmm…

But *when* will you favor a shift in coronavirus strategy? (no Straussians in a pandemic)

I agree with the numerous sentiments, for instance as expressed here by Ezra Klein, that we are not facing a dollars vs. lives trade-off, rather the better solutions will improve both variables.  Also read this Tom Inglesby thread.  Furthermore there is a concrete path forward toward general improvement, for instance read Zeke Emanuel (NYT, I don’t agree with every detail but the overall direction yes).  And don’t forget these costs cited by Noah.

But we are economists, not mood affiliators, and so we must address the classic question of “at what margin?”  At what margin would you favor an actual shift in strategy because the virus already had reached so many people?  And yes, such a margin does exist.  At that margin we would continue some of our defensive responses, but the overall approach would have to change away from the above links.

Let’s say everyone had been exposed to the coronavirus except yours truly.  Should we shut all (non-take out) restaurants just to limit my personal risk?  Clearly not.  And likely I would end up getting exposed sooner or later in any case.  Then you should “let it rip,” and let Tyler decide when he wishes to go outside or not (but of course offer him health care).

So what is the margin of bad outcomes where, after that point, a major change in strategy should set in?  Has to set in?  That is the question we all need to answer.  And what should that strategy change be exactly?

We like to say “speed is of the essence,” but a less frequent spoken corollary of that is “at some point it is too late to stage the defense we had been hoping for.”

What if we made no further progress against Covid-19 after two more weeks?  Three more weeks?  How about a bit of progress on testing across the next month and a modest increase in mask capacity?  How much longer is the cut-off?  Given how rapidly the virus spreads, it can’t be that long from now.  It cannot honestly be “four months from now.”

(For the record, I am still optimistic, but not at p = 0.8, so this eventuality is by no means purely hypothetical.  And it is perfectly correct to note that Trump’s own incompetence is to some extent making the whole dilemma come true, and that itself is deeply unsettling.  Agree!  We should have “gone Singapore” months ago.  But the dilemma is now here nonetheless, noting that we are hardly the only country in this bucket.  You can’t just condemn Trump and stop thinking about it.)

Or what if New York and seven other regions are hopeless but the rest of the country is not?

I am fine if you agree with me, Ezra, Tom Inglesby, Zeke Emanuel, and many others, including most of the Democratic Party public health establishment.  We all favor “speed is of the essence.”

But the next part of the message never quite gets delivered.  And no one wants to talk about what the next strategic stage — if we fail — should look like.

It is imperative that you consider where your line lies — if only mentally — when you would jump ship and indeed…confess a significant degree of defeat and then formulate and push for a new strategy.

Addendum: Straussian Tyler is not entirely comfortable with this post, as he, like his brother Tyrone, prefers to tell the Noble Lie and maintain the illusion that the preexisting struggle must continue across all margins and at all times.  But perhaps, these days, there are no Straussians in foxholes.  So pick your “no return” point, write it down, and then get back to me.  The honesty of our policy response requires this, yes?  I’m not even making you say it out loud.

And don’t you find it strange that no one has been willing to raise this point before?  Could it be that we are not being told the entire truth?  Or are people not telling the entire truth to themselves?  Isn’t that the same mistake we’ve been making all along?

On Left Straussianism

We might therefore say that the left intellectual becomes the left Straussian when they decide that, in addition to sometimes filtering their own public speech to advance an ideological agenda, they’re additionally responsible for “protecting” the public from being exposed to conversations not disciplined by political strategy. To the extent that their own ideas are not already disciplined by such a strategy, they limit discussion of them to close friends and sympathetic colleagues.

And:

In each case, thoughtful criticism of an author’s argument—for being confused, or incomplete—was overshadowed by the left-Straussian assertion that, regardless of whether the argument was true or reasonable, it was “irresponsible” for the author to make it in public.

And:

Those who engage in such tactics would never endorse Strauss’s hard distinction between the elect few and the unthinking many—at least not explicitly. But the care they take to pre-screen intellectual material indicates that they share his dark foreboding about the “costs” of public intellectual conversations reflecting rather than repressing the complexities of private ones. Attempting to marginalize or disqualify intellectual arguments itself implies a gap between the commentator, who trusts themselves to evaluate the arguments in question, and their imagined audience, who is assumed to lack either the tools or the ability to do so unaided. Left Straussians may not believe that they are philosopher-kings but they repudiate, in practice and increasingly even in theory, the possibility of the philosopher-reader.

Here is the full piece by Anastasia Berg and John Baskin, via Agnes Callard.

Is Amharic the most Straussian language?

Amharic is susceptible of ambiguity to a remarkable degree, and Amharas have a tradition of writing clever, short poems, with an overt meaning and a hidden meaning, referred to as “wax and gold.”

That is from Sarah Howard’s Ethiopia: Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture.  An Ethiopian I had dinner with told me that Amharic is “eighty percent implication.”  Here is a research paper about ambiguity in Amharic.

*Blade Runner 2049* (some Straussian spoilers)

I hardly expected the movie to be so drenched in Tarkovsky (“The Zone” and Solaris, maybe a bit of The Sacrifice), and the now-famed sex scene draws from Bergman’s Persona.  Overall, the colors and palette were stunning, and the use of sound was as impressive as in any movie, do see this one in IMAX.  It hardly makes any concessions to the Hollywood vices of this millennium and indeed much of the Tysons Corner audience seemed to be baffled.

Think of the main plot line as showing a world where the Christ miracle is inverted and what that would have to mean for everything else.  Much of the plot is sprawling, some of the references are too heavy-handed or scattered (Moses and the Dalai Lama and Kafka and Star Wars 1-2 are thrown in for good measure, and few will grok the Galatians reference), and the whole thing could have been fifteen minutes shorter.  Still, this is a worthy sequel to one of the best movies of the 1980s or is that the 1990s?  Carla Juri steals the show, and furthermore it resolves the main plot puzzle of the original Blade Runner rather economically.

Also on the plus side, Adam Driver does not appear in this movie.

A Straussian neoreactionary review of *The Complacent Class*

The specific thinkers cited for ‘cyclical models of history’ are Vico, Spengler, and Toynbee, in that order.

With that triple-burst trigger pull, the race to a second, Straussian reading begins.

Taking a cue from those statements, consider that the book itself might be a cycle. Read forwards, it is a series of slightly overcooked thinkpieces that ends on a surprisingly bold note. Read backwards, one finds it hides a thrilling call to arms.

This is a contrarian reading; one I make no claim should actually be attributed to Cowen himself. Nonetheless, the coherences pile up too neatly to simply be ignored once seen.

There is much more of substance at the link.  That is from Thomas Barghest, via Justin.  By the way, someone else did a long “Alt Right” take on the book and emailed it to me, and I meant to link to it, but I misplaced the email somehow.  If you email it to me, or leave it in the comments, I’ll put it into Links tomorrow.  And here is just a wee bit more:

Cowen shows us that if we had the courage of immigrants and foreigners to ignore contemporary mores and treat our strengths as something to take pride in rather than something to hide, we might restore our culture to a dynamic greatness. Such honest pride in ourselves and our abilities was ours only a half-century ago, before the 60’s, he implies. It is not so long gone.

However, a proper neoreactionary, he doesn’t pretend we can simply wish ourselves there. Americans’ current complacency is not pure timidity. The transcendent is not something we’ve simply lost. It was crushed, stolen, and turned against us.

Overall, you guys crack me up, and I do mean “guys.”

Taylor Swift, Straussian?

Taylor

The singer is launching her own Taylor Swift-branded clothing line next month, on the platforms of local e-commerce giants JD.com and the Alibaba group, with t-shirts, dresses and sweatshirts featuring the politically charged date 1989.

The date – as well as being Swift’s year of birth – refers to her album and live tour of the same name, which she will perform in Shanghai in November.

But the date – and the initials TS – are particularly sensitive in China, as they signify the Tiananmen Square massace in 1989, when hundreds of students were killed in pro-democracy protests.

There is more here.  Here is a story on the map of China accompanying Dwyane Wade.

The Devil Wears Prada — a Straussian interpretation

Imagine a beautiful, pseudo-nerdy and ultimately devious Anne Hathaway [Andy] receiving a job at a top fashion magazine, more or less by accident.  At first she is baffled and fails but soon she is dressing up to fit the role and climbing the ladder of social success, ruthlessly at times.  Her model and mentor is Miranda, the magazine’s editor, an empire-builder played by a commanding and sexier-than-ever Meryl Streep.  Andy is transformed by a taste of success and she abandons her boyfriend, friends, and father in her Hegelian quest to command the obedience of others.

Of course Andy is troubled along the way.  After all, but a few months ago she was editing the school newspaper at Northwestern and wearing frumpy (but oh so cute, to my eyes) sweaters.  I much prefer her size six to her later size four, and yes women really do look better without make-up.

The key moment and emotional center of the movie comes when Miranda [Meryl Streep] tells Andy [Anne Hathaway] that, contrary to her initial expectations, Andy reminds her very much of herself.  Andy runs out of the cab, supposedly rejecting the life of obsessive careerism, for [get this] a [low stress?] career of journalism. 

But does she reject the life of the Uebermensch?  Andy had distanced herself from her hot but low-status boyfriend.  She never gets back together with him, and we learn that they will live in separate cities.  We never see her boring loser friends again.  She had been rude to her dull dad [from Ohio] and is never seen making amends.  Wouldn’t a cornier movie have closed with a fading shot of Andy on the phone, smiling and saying "Hi, Dad, Happy Birthday!  I Love You!"  But this never happens.  She is too hard at work on her next feature story. 

In fact Andy is an irresistible She-Demon, every bit as powerful as the mentor she turned her back on.  Andy didn’t so much scorn Miranda as mimic her and pay homage to her.  Miranda [Meryl Streep] was right (is she ever wrong?): Andy is strong enough to be her own leader and build her own world.  That is why Andy had to leave the realm of Miranda; it was not big enough to fit two such ravenous and yes extremely sexy women.  If Camille Paglia reviewed this movie, she would find occasion to use the words "Gorgon" and "autochthonous."

Andy even rejects the famous free-lance writer ("Christian") whom she sleeps with for kicks ("I’ve run out of excuses" she says) and then unceremoniously abandons — "I’m not your baby!"  Having sniffed out her own capabilities, she is no longer content to play second fiddle in a relationship, no matter how handsome or successful the man.  She also tells this guy just how much she admires Miranda — Andy is quite sincere — and notes that Miranda’s behavior would be found totally acceptable and indeed admirable in a man.

And the poor little British girl Andy screwed over (and caused to be run over by a car, I might add, check the movie’s title) during her rise at the magazine?  She buys her off with a set of new clothes from Paris.  How Kantian of her.

Make no mistake about it, this is a movie about sheer power lust.  It is a movie of how that lust can be cloaked or shifted to another sphere but never denied.  Never bottled up.  Never stopped.  It is a delicious tale of social intrigue, ambition, class, and how much clothes really do matter.  And to take sweet Anne Hathaway — remember the wonderful but underrated Ella Enchanted?– and have her play Max Stirner — that is a mark of genius.

The movie has many other fine points, most of which were neglected by the film’s intended demographic.  Here is Michael Blowhard on Anne Hathaway.  Here is Wikipedia on the movie.

Here is my earlier post, a Straussian reading of Star Wars.  What will be next?

Star Wars: Another Straussian Reading

Tyler’s artful reading of Star Wars inspires my own Straussian reading.

The Star Wars saga consists of 6 chapters.  Six equals 2 times 3. Three is now and for
quite sometime has been considered a good number, as in the holy trinity, but in former
times it was also and even primarily considered an evil number, as in three makes a crowd. So
‘twice 3’ might mean both good and evil, and hence
altogether; a balance of good and evil, surely the central theme of the entire saga.

The public choice economics of Star Wars: A Straussian reading

The only spoilers in this post concern the non-current Star Wars movies.  Stop reading now if you wish those to remain a surprise.

The core point is that the Jedi are not to be trusted:

1. The Jedi and Jedi-in-training sell out like crazy.  Even the evil Count Dooku was once a Jedi knight.

2. What do the Jedi Council want anyway?  The Anakin critique of the Jedi Council rings somewhat true (this is from the new movie, alas I cannot say more, but the argument could be strengthened by citing the relevant detail).  Aren’t they a kind of out-of-control Supreme Court, not even requiring Senate approval (with or without filibuster), and heavily armed at that?  As I understand it, they vote each other into the office, have license to kill, and seek to control galactic affairs.  Talk about unaccountable power used toward secret and mysterious ends.

3. Obi-Wan told Luke scores of lies, including the big whopper that his dad was dead.

4. The Jedi can’t even keep us safe.

5. The bad guys have sex and do all the procreating.  The Jedi are not supposed to marry, or presumably have children.  Not ESS, if you ask me.  Anakin gets Natalie Portman; Luke spends two episodes with a perverse and distant crush on his sister Leia, leading only to one chaste kiss.

6. The prophecy was that Anakin (Darth) will restore order and balance to the force.  How true this turns out to be.  But none of the Jedi can begin to understand what this means.  Yes, you have to get rid of the bad guys.  But you also have to get rid of the Jedi.  The Jedi are, after all, the primary supply source and training ground for the bad guys.  Anakin/Darth manages to get rid of both, so he really is the hero of the story.  (It is also interesting which group of “Jedi” Darth kills first, but that would be telling.)

7. At the happy ending of “Return of the Jedi”, the Jedi no longer control the galaxy.  The Jedi Council is not reestablished.  Luke, the closest thing to a Jedi representative left, never becomes a formal Jedi.  He shows no desire to train other Jedi, and probably expects to spend the rest of his life doing voices for children’s cartoons.

8. The core message is that power corrupts, but also that good guys have power too.  Our possible safety lies in our humanity, not in our desires to transcend it or wield strange forces to our advantage.

What did Padme say?: “So this is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause.”

Addendum: By the way, did I mention that the Jedi are genetically superior supermen with “enhanced blood”?  That the rebels’ victory party in Episode IV borrows liberally from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”?  And that the much-maligned ewoks make perfect sense as an antidote to Jedi fascism?

Wednesday assorted links

My Conversation with Matt Yglesias

Substantive, interesting, and fun throughout, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  For more do buy Matt’s new book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.  Here is the CWT summary:

They discussed why it’s easier to grow Tokyo than New York City, the governance issues of increasing urban populations, what Tyler got right about pro-immigration arguments, how to respond to declining fertility rates, why he’d be happy to see more people going to church (even though he’s not religious), why liberals and conservatives should take marriage incentive programs more seriously, what larger families would mean for feminism, why people should read Robert Nozick, whether the YIMBY movement will be weakened by COVID-19, how New York City will bounce back, why he’s long on Minneapolis, how to address constitutional ruptures, how to attract more competent people to state and local governments, what he’s learned growing up in a family full of economists, his mother’s wisdom about visual design and more.

Here is one excerpt:

It was so much fun we even ran over the allotted time, we had to discuss Gilbert Arenas too.

Thursday assorted links

1. “Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn has reinstated Ms Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi to her post of royal noble consort, and returned her royal insignia and military ranks, the palace announced on the royal gazette on Aug 29.”  Link here, short, and interesting throughout.

2. Straussian vaccine analysts: “And I don’t think people can use that information responsibly.”

3. “Staff at Hagerstown [Community College] must now go into their offices to work because they can’t access the VPNs.”  No support for remote work there!

4. Morgan Kelly on understanding persistence.  That is historical persistence, not the personal quality.

5. SPACs explainer, though it doesn’t convince me the implicit bid-ask spread/fees on securities offerings and deals will narrow so dramatically.  Many of you are asking me about this, but it still feels poorly understood to me.

6. The Swiss canton of Zug will now accept taxes paid in either Bitcoin or Ether (Bloomberg).  Limited to up to 100k, however, and maybe more of a marketing move than a real fiscal validation of crypto as money?

Convalescent plasma?

Here is the FDA press release.  Here is StatNews coverage.  Scott Gottlieb tweets:

The available data seems to meet the bar for an EUA.

Here is his WSJ Op-Ed with McClellan, Straussian throughout I suspect.  They will only hint at their outrage at the process, noting that both are former FDA heads.  Here is the FDA truth twist.

I found this Adam Rogers Wired piece insightful and the best single treatment so far, and also interesting more generally on RCTs:

“Fifty thousand people have been given a treatment, and we cannot know whether it worked or not,” says Martin Landray, one of the leaders of the Randomised Evaluation of Covid-19 Therapies (or Recovery) Trial in England, a large-scale, multi-center, multi-drug randomized controlled trial that showed that the corticosteroid dexamethasone saved the lives of Covid-19 patients and the autoimmune drug hydroxychloroquine did not. (That 50,000 number was from a few weeks back, just after the plasma preprint came out.)

The main arguments against the decision from Trump/FDA seem to be “do RCTs” and “convalescent plasma isn’t shown to be so great.”  But those points have it exactly backwards.  Patients for trials are extremely scarce right now, and if convalescent plasma is not the highest probability big winner (and I suspect it isn’t), you won’t want to waste scarce patients on doing the RCT.  Moreover, if you can’t get the RCT done with 98,000 or so patients, maybe you’re just not up to doing it period!  (Please do think at the margin.)  In the meantime, convalescent plasma does not seem to involve harms or risks, and it may offer some benefits.  So why not let more people have easier access to it?

And might there be a tiny chance that American citizens demand stronger payment incentives for the relevant supplies here and also for other treatments?

If all people have is “do RCTs and CP isn’t shown to be so great,” I don’t think they have begun to engage with the arguments.  And additionally politicizing the FDA is definitely a real cost to be reckoned with, but the Twitter noise I am seeing from public health experts seems oblivious to the fact that the FDA’s ex ante risk-averse stance was politicized to begin with (which is not necessarily a bad thing, but yes this is a basic fact — “politicization for me, but not for thee,” etc.).