Month: June 2016

What is neo-reaction?

Or perhaps I should rephrase that question: what would neo-reaction be if it were presented in a more coherent analytic framework?  (You’ll find other takes here; I like it better with the hyphen.)  Here is a list of propositions, noting that these are an intellectualized summary of a somewhat imagined collective doctrine, and certainly not a statement of my own views:

1. “Culturism” is in general correct, namely that some cultures are better than others.  You want to make sure you are ruled by one of the better cultures.  In any case, one is operating with a matrix of rule.

2. The historical ruling cultures for America and Western Europe — two very successful regions — have largely consisted of white men and have reflected the perspectives of white men.  This rule and influence continues to work, however, because it is not based on either whiteness or maleness per se.  There is a nominal openness to the current version of the system, which fosters competitive balance, yet at the end of the day it is still mostly about the perspectives of white men and one hopes this will continue.  By the way, groups which “become white” in their outlooks can be allowed into the ruling circle.

3. Today there is a growing coalition against the power and influence of (some) white men, designed in part to lower their status and also to redistribute their wealth.  This movement may not be directed against whiteness or maleness per se (in fact some of it can be interpreted as an internal coup d’etat within the world of white men), but still it is based on a kind of puking on what made the West successful.  And part and parcel of this process is an ongoing increase in immigration to further build up and cement in the new coalition.  Furthermore a cult of political correctness makes it very difficult to defend the nature of the old coalition without fear of being called racist; in today’s world the actual underlying principles of that coalition cannot be articulated too explicitly.  Most of all, if this war against the previous ruling coalition is not stopped, it will do us in.

4. It is necessary to deconstruct and break down the current dialogue on these issues, and to defeat the cult of political correctness, so that a) traditional rule can be restored, and/or b) a new and more successful form of that rule can be introduced and extended.  Along the way, we must realize that calls for egalitarianism, or for that matter democracy, are typically a power play of one potential ruling coalition against another.

5. Neo-reaction is not in love with Christianity in the abstract, and in fact it fears its radical, redistributive, and egalitarian elements.  Neo-reaction is often Darwinian at heart.  Nonetheless Christianity-as-we-find-it-in-the-world often has been an important part of traditional ruling coalitions, and thus the thinkers of neo-reaction are often suspicious of the move toward a more secular America, which they view as a kind of phony tolerance.

6. If you are analyzing political discourse, ask the simple question: is this person puking on the West, the history of the West, and those groups — productive white males — who did so much to make the West successful?  The answer to that question is very often more important than anything else which might be said about the contributions under consideration.

Already I can see (at least) four problems with this point of view.  First, white men in percentage terms have become a weaker influence in America over time, yet America still is becoming a better nation overall.  Second, some of America’s worst traits, such as the obsession with guns, the excess militarism, or the tendency toward drunkenness, not to mention rape and the history of slavery, seem to come largely from white men.  Third, it seems highly unlikely that “white men” is in fact the best way of disambiguating the dominant interest groups that have helped make the West so successful.  Fourth, America is global policeman and also the center of world innovation, so it cannot afford the luxury of a declining population, and thus we must find a way to make immigration work.

By the way, here is Ross Douthat on neo-reaction:

But while reactionary thought is prone to real wickedness, it also contains real insights. (As, for the record, does Slavoj Zizek — I think.) Reactionary assumptions about human nature — the intractability of tribe and culture, the fragility of order, the evils that come in with capital-P Progress, the inevitable return of hierarchy, the ease of intellectual and aesthetic decline, the poverty of modern substitutes for family and patria and religion — are not always vindicated. But sometimes? Yes, sometimes. Often? Maybe even often.

neoreaction

Anyway, let’s continue.

Who are the important neo-reaction thinkers?

Those who come immediately to mind are Aristotle, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Jonathan Swift, Benjamin Franklin, John Calhoun, James Fitzjames Stephens, Nietzsche, Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, and Lee Kuan Yew.  For all of the fulminations against neo-reaction, the intellectual movement is not a flash in the pan.  Of course these thinkers were not operating in the cultural matrix laid out above, nonetheless they embody varying elements of elitism, non-egalitarianism, historical pessimism, and culturalism.  The most significant neo-reaction thinker today probably is Steve Sailer, who often comments on this blog in addition to writing his own.  By the way, both F.A. Hayek and Murray Rothbard were drawn to neo-reaction in their later years, and perhaps a separate post could be written on the complex connections between libertarianism and neo-reaction.

The miracle to my mind is that neo-reaction as an intellectual movement was relatively dormant for so long, not that it is coming back or will persist.

And maybe some of you are upset that I am even covering this topic, but neo-reaction, in varying forms, is a (the?) significant ideology in China, India, Russia, and Japan, and it is growing in popularity in Western Europe and of course America, where it has captured the presidential nomination of one of the two major parties.  It seems odd not to discuss it at all.

Is neo-reaction a racist movement?

I don’t “hang out” with neo-reaction, whatever that might mean, so I cannot speak from first-hand experience.  Still, I see overwhelming circumstantial evidence, including from the MR comments section, that the answer is yes, neo-reaction is very often racist.  (And by “racist” I mean not only a particular set of beliefs, but how they are held with a kind of obnoxious, self-pleased glee.)  If you read through the above propositions, it is easy enough to see why racists might find neo-reaction a congenial home.  And that is an important critique of neo-reaction, namely that the doctrine, when stated explicitly or understood clearly enough, encourages a very harmful racism and a variety of other forms of bad behavior.  Even if not every neo-reaction thinker is a racist himself or herself.

The early stages of the Trump campaign show clearly enough how publicly propagated neo-reaction disturbs the fabric and rhetoric of society.  And there is a cruelness to the humor one finds in neo-reaction which is all too revealing; more generally neo-reaction just does not seem so conducive to a deep generosity of spirit.

That all said, I think it is a category mistake to dismiss neo-reaction on the grounds of racism or prejudice.  There exists a coherent form of the doctrine perfectly consistent with the view that different races are intrinsically equal in both capabilities and moral worth, even if such a variant tends to get pushed out by the less salubrious elements.  Furthermore calling neo-reaction racist, as a primary response, seems to personalize the debate in a Trump-like way, ultimately playing into the strengths of neo-reaction and distracting the liberals, in the broad sense of that term, from building up the most appealing vision of their philosophy and doctrine.

Liberalism isn’t actually an automatic emotional default for most people on this planet, so being a scold is in the longer run a losing strategy.  I believe many current “democratic mainstream” thinkers genuinely do not understand how boring and unconvincing they are, as they live in bubbles filled with others of a similar bent.  And while neo-reaction does not get exactly right the nature of “the golden goose” in modern America, that is a question which modern progressivism rather aggressively avoids in its attempt to view the wealthy as an essentially inexhaustible ATM.

What about me?

As an undergraduate, I was deeply struck by my readings of the Spanish and Salamancan friars who protested against the New World enslavement of the Indians, as they were then called.  You can start with Bartolomé de las Casas.  Here was a doctrine that was anti-slavery, anti-oppression, pro-reason, pro-liberty, pro-individual rights, and analytically egalitarian, and on top of that based on actual real world experience with the subject matter.  On top of that, the overwhelming empirical fact is that people are far too willing to go tribal when it comes to politics.  We don’t need to encourage that any further, nor am I excited by the notion of setting tribe against tribe.

The world could be facing some fairly dicey times in the decades to come, mostly for geopolitical reasons.  I view the Spanish friars and their successors and offshoots — Montaigne, David Hume, Adam Smith, William Wilberforce, John Stuart Mill, Edmund Silberner, Martin Luther King  Jr., Gene Sharpe, Thomas Schelling, and some of the EU founders, among many others — as providing better and more useful guides to our world than neo-reaction.  Looking earlier, toss in Buddha and Jesus Christ and some of the Stoics as well.

Still, it would be a big mistake to simply dismiss neo-reaction, even though there are some rather easy and facile ways to do so.  It’s a wake-up call for the fragility of liberalism, a doctrine which sinks all too readily into its own dogmatic slumbers.

China (Bitcoin) fact of the day

Most trading in bitcoin takes place in China: Huobi and OKCoin, two Chinese exchanges, are thought to account for more than 90% of transactions. The currency seems to have become an outlet for Chinese savers frustrated with their limited investment options and searching for high-yielding assets. The Chinese authorities are worried enough to have banned banks from dealing in bitcoin, but individuals are still free to speculate and have been doing so with gusto.

That is from The Economist.  It is consistent with my view that Bitcoin is a largely mature technology, used mostly for evading Chinese capital controls.

Sunday assorted links

Are work hours allocated justly and efficiently?

That is the topic of my latest NYT column for The Upshot.  Here are some excerpts:

In short, most older people already enjoy a much better deal than Keynes had predicted for the entire work force. The 1930 Keynes essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” didn’t even mention retirement, perhaps because he was accustomed to a world in which so many people worked until they died or were seriously disabled.

Teenagers are also ahead of Keynes’s workplace predictions. Several decades ago, about 55 percent of teenagers had jobs, but lately only about 35 percent do. In addition, service sector jobs have been replacing jobs involving manual labor. While enormous disparities exist among teenagers of different races and income groups, over all, life has gotten easier for them.

And:

If people in all of these groups are working less, then someone must be working more. The answer, overwhelmingly, is women, who have taken on an Atlaslike role in supporting American economic growth.

There are reasons to believe that at least some of the growth in female work hours has been an unfair burden. It is well known, for instance, that men do not come anywhere close to fully sharing in the household chores or child rearing when their partners are working, and that often means more stress for women. Furthermore, the best available evidence, from Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, both professors of public policy at the University of Michigan (Mr. Wolfers is also a regular contributor to this column), suggest that overall female happiness in America has been declining, while age-adjusted death rates for middle-aged white women — though not for white men — have been increasing. Those troubling trends are perhaps another sign that the distribution of stress has been uneven.

Many men are working too little, and perhaps many women too much.  But why isn’t there more smoothing of leisure over time?

On the other hand, many women do receive significant recompense in leisure time eventually — once they become older. Because women on average live longer than men, they are likely to have more years in retirement. Yet it is a strange society that disproportionately bunches much work and stress for so many women in the middle of their lives, and rewards them only much later with leisure. It is a kind of feast or famine for work, leisure and earnings.

Most economic models don’t account for these patterns, and instead assume that people engage in what is called smoothing behavior, in which leisure and work is evenly distributed across the years. Yet Americans as a whole are not experiencing that kind of moderation.

That is the real labor supply puzzle, and I don’t know of any consistent model which explains that along with other basic labor supply facts.

That was then, this is now

From 2012:

The Republican Party will continue to lose presidential elections if it comes across as mean-spirited and unwelcoming toward people of color, Donald Trump tells Newsmax.

Whether intended or not, comments and policies of Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates during this election were seen by Hispanics and Asians as hostile to them, Trump says.

“Republicans didn’t have anything going for them with respect to Latinos and with respect to Asians,” the billionaire developer says.

“The Democrats didn’t have a policy for dealing with illegal immigrants, but what they did have going for them is they weren’t mean-spirited about it,” Trump says. “They didn’t know what the policy was, but what they were is they were kind.”

Romney’s solution of “self deportation” for illegal aliens made no sense and suggested that Republicans do not care about Hispanics in general, Trump says.

“He had a crazy policy of self deportation which was maniacal,” Trump says. “It sounded as bad as it was, and he lost all of the Latino vote,” Trump notes. “He lost the Asian vote. He lost everybody who is inspired to come into this country.”

The GOP has to develop a comprehensive policy “to take care of this incredible problem that we have with respect to immigration, with respect to people wanting to be wonderful productive citizens of this country,” Trump says.

Here is the link, via Rebecca Berg and Robin Grier.  Does this get filed under “Model this” or “Solve for the Equilibrium”?  Or perhaps both?

Digital platforms encourage a focus on details

From Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan:

The present research investigated whether digital and non-digital platforms activate differing default levels of cognitive construal. Two initial randomized experiments revealed that individuals who completed the same information processing task on a digital mobile device (a tablet or laptop computer) versus a non-digital platform (a physical print-out) exhibited a lower level of construal, one prioritizing immediate, concrete details over abstract, decontextualized interpretations. This pattern emerged both in digital platform participants’ greater preference for concrete versus abstract descriptions of behaviors as well as superior performance on detail-focused items (and inferior performance on inference-focused items) on a reading comprehension assessment. A pair of final studies found that the likelihood of correctly solving a problem-solving task requiring higher-level “gist” processing was: (1) higher for participants who processed the information for task on a non-digital versus digital platform and (2) heightened for digital platform participants who had first completed an activity activating an abstract mindset, compared to (equivalent) performance levels exhibited by participants who had either completed no prior activity or completed an activity activating a concrete mindset.

Here is also the press release, and for the pointer I thank Charles Klingman.

Saturday assorted links

Muhammad Ali

AliMuhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74. Given the great love and honor shown to him since carrying the Olympic Torch at the Atlanta games in 1996 and being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George Bush in 2005 it is perhaps difficult to remember how reviled he was in the 1960s after he converted to Islam, changed his name, and refused to be drafted.

David Susskind, the well regarded television producer and talk show host, said this to Ali in a bitter exchange in 1968:

I find nothing amusing or interesting or tolerable about this man. He’s a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly describes as his profession. He is a convicted felon in the United States. He has been found guilty. He is out on bail. He will inevitably go to prison, as well he should. He is a simplistic fool and a pawn.

We should remember these things, however, because more than Ali’s courage in the ring, it was Ali’s courage in fighting the US government and much of the US public that made him a great American.

How to fix London real estate problems

James Jirtle writes to me:

I am a long-time reader of your blog (and your books!) and hugely enjoyed your recent interview with Camille Paglia.

I was wondering whether you might consider writing a post about potential policy responses to the housing crises in many major cities, perhaps nowhere as acute as in London where I live.

London is a bit of a perfect storm: (i) restrictive planning regimes, preventing the building of new homes; (ii) a strictly-enforced “green belt”, limiting the physical expansion of the city; and (iii) huge inflows of both people and capital (both foreign and domestic, in the form of buy-to-let investors) driving up demand.

The average London house price passed £500,000 last November (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/property/house-prices/11959731/Average-London-house-price-hits-500000-as-capitals-housing-market-shows-no-sign-of-losing-steam.html) and average rents for a 1-bedroom flat now exceed £700/month (http://www.workgateways.com/working-in-the-uk/cost-of-living).

Various policy responses have been proposed, including:

  1. raising stamp duty (tax on the purchase of a home – the UK government recently raised rates on homes worth more than £500,000, and introduced punitive rates on purchases of second homes);
  2. raising council tax (property tax – where a property is rented, this is paid by the tenants);
  3. “bedroom taxes” on unused bedrooms (currently in place for social housing);
  4. increasing taxes on private landlords (the UK government recently removed the ability of landlords to deduct mortgage interest, and capped deductions for repairs);
  5. loosening planning restrictions and taking other actions to combat NIMBYism;
  6. building on the green belt;
  7. deposit assistance for first-time buyers (the UK government currently underwrites mortgages of up to 95% LTV for first-time buyers for properties worth up to £600,000 and has introduced savings accounts where the government adds 25% to savings used to purchase a new home, contributing up to £3,000);
  8. punitive taxes on unused planning permission;
  9. direct price controls;
  10. restrictions on foreign ownership of property; and
  11. increasing interest rates.

Which of these (if any) do you think are likely to be effective?  Are there other policies which might be beneficial that I haven’t listed?  Politicians here have spent a lot of time bemoaning the crisis, but I don’t have much confidence that the solutions currently being proposed are likely to help.  Ideally, I think the goal should be to enable those who live and work in the city to live in reasonable, affordable comfort without causing those currently on the housing ladder to lose significant amounts of money.  But maybe we’re already beyond the point where that’s possible?

TC: I say we are probably beyond the point of fixing it, though marginal improvements surely are possible.  Here is a good feature story by The Economist on the problem.

Does tenure encourage risk-taking?

It seems not, here is the new paper from Brogaard, Engelberg and van Wesep:

Using a sample of all academics that pass through top 50 economics and finance departments between 1996 and 2014, we study whether the granting of tenure leads faculty to pursue riskier ideas. We use the extreme tails of ex-post citations as our measure of risk and find that both the number of publications and the portion that are “home runs” peak at tenure and fall steadily for a decade thereafter. Similar patterns holds for elite (top 10) institutions, for faculty with longer tenure cycles, and for promotion to Full Professorship. We find the opposite pattern among poorly-cited publications: their numbers steadily rise after tenure. The decline in both the quantity and quality of publications points to tenure incentivizing less effort in publishing rather than more risk-taking.

I am not surprised to read this result.  I consider the “wasting of tenure” to be one of the aesthetic crimes one can commit with a wealthy life, and yet I see it all the time.

For the pointer I thank the excellent — and untenured — Kevin Lewis.

Addendum: Kevin comments.

Friday assorted links

Intimate Partner Violence in the Great Recession

That is a recent paper from Schneider, Harknett, and Mclanahan (pdf), here is the abstract:

In the United States, the Great Recession has been marked by severe negative shocks to labor market conditions. In this study, we combine longitudinal data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study with Bureau of Labor Statistics data on local area unemployment rates to examine the relationship between adverse labor market conditions and intimate partner violence between 1999 and 2010. We find that rapidly worsening labor market conditions are associated with increases in the prevalence of violent/controlling behavior in marriage. These effects are most pronounced among whites and those with at least some post-secondary education. Worsening economic conditions significantly increase the risk that white mothers and more educated mothers will be in violent/controlling marriages rather than high quality marital unions.
That backlash seems to have started more or less right away…

Why was the American populist backlash so long in coming?

Bob Davis asks that question.  I can think of a few hypotheses, none well-grounded:

1. It was first necessary for America to recover from recession, so people could be less scared, thus feeling sufficiently secure to go a bit crazy.

2. Rising expectations are required to sustain a backlash, and finally the economy was strong enough to deliver some of those.  This mechanism was discussed by Tocqueville in his book on the French Ancien Regime.  Of course this is a close cousin of #1.

3. Obama actually has been a towering and calming presence.  But after him…the deluge.

4. The “Great Man Theory of Trump.”  He has unique skills, and an unusual celebrity background, and the relevant variable is when he chose to actually run for President.

5. The institutional and intellectual capital of the Republican Party was finally run totally into the ground.  (But when exactly? And who perceived it as such other than Democrats?)

6. Americans have been paying closer attention to the terror attacks and refugee crisis in Europe than we traditionally might think, and thus they feel that the American system requires a radical wake-up call.

7. Traditional white males approached some kind of threshold where they realized from now on they will lose all political battles unless kind of radical rebellion is undertaken.  This hypothesis reminds me somewhat of the South’s decision to secede shortly before the Civil War.

8. Social media are more potent, and that helps populist sentiment, but populism isn’t actually any more popular these days (see Krugman, who notes Obama has fairly high approval ratings).

9. Noise.

These are just food for thought, I am not endorsing any of them.  And for the most part they are not mutually exclusive.

The culture and polity that is Washington sentences to ponder

The ride-hailing group [Uber] is smarting over guidelines that let government workers recoup transport costs such as “feeding and stabling horses” but do not appear to permit claims for taking an Uber.

Here is the Barney Jopson FT article.  It remains to be seen whether or not the regulations will be changed.