Category: Political Science

Ezra Klein on UFOs

What if they turn out to be “a thing”?  Here is one excerpt, to be clear this is not the only view or possibility he is putting forward:

One immediate effect, I suspect, would be a collapse in public trust. Decades of U.F.O. reports and conspiracies would take on a different cast. Governments would be seen as having withheld a profound truth from the public, whether or not they actually did. We already live in an age of conspiracy theories. Now the guardrails would truly shatter, because if U.F.O.s were real, despite decades of dismissals, who would remain trusted to say anything else was false? Certainly not the academics who’d laughed them off as nonsense, or the governments who would now be seen as liars.

And this:

One lesson of the pandemic is that humanity’s desire for normalcy is an underrated force, and there is no single mistake as common to political analysis as the constant belief that this or that event will finally change everything. If so many can deny or downplay a disease that’s killed millions, dismissing some unusual debris would be trivial. “An awful lot of people would basically shrug and it’d be in the news for three days,” Adrian Tchaikovsky, the science fiction writer, told me. “You can’t just say, ‘still no understanding of alien thing!’ every day. An awful lot of people would be very keen on continuing with their lives and routines no matter what.”

Excellent column, do read the whole thing (NYT).

*Peace, Poverty and Betrayal*

The author is Roderick Matthews, and the subtitle is A New History of British India.  This book has been highly controversial for its supposed “whitewashing” of British rule in India, but so far I find it insightful and indeed revelatory.  It is to date my favorite book this year, most of all conceptual but also remarkably well-informed historically.  Here is one excerpt:

Ultimately, we should condemn [British] colonialism not because it was self-glorifying and arrogant, but because it was small-minded and fearful.

Colonial rule was undoubtedly heavily responsible for the fact that India remainder both poor and backward — but the high Rah hid a subtler hypocrisy, in the way that Indian landlords, for a muddle of humanitarian and political reasons, were denied the scope that their British counterparts had allowed themselves.  British landowners drove their tenants off the land and adopted new methods of husbandry to increase profitability, which allowed them to create the agricultural surplus that stimulated the industrial revolution, and provided Britain with a float of national wealth to pay for colonial adventures.  Rural India remained overmanned and underproductive.

This short charge sheet differs from the extensive accusations made by modern left-leaning historians, who recognize economic exploitation but choose instead to emphasize cultural issues, especially the bureaucratization of Indian society and the introduction of capitalist norms.  This is hardly fair, because the progressive middle classes in India would have done broadly the same things if they could.  Almost nothing of the imperial administrative agenda was undone in independent India.  However, it is true that the modernization process was rushed and defective.  It was too self-interested, and the guiding hands were not indigenous.  Something similar might have emerged, but with a more Indian face.  We cannot know.

I will be covering this book more, but so far strongly recommended.  It is no accident that the author, while an experienced Indian historian, is not an academic.

Network Structure in Small Groups and Survival in Disasters

I wonder if this kind of result might apply to more than just disasters:

People in disaster and emergency situations (e.g., building fires) tend to adhere to the social obligations and expectations that are embedded in their preexisting roles and relationships. Accordingly, people survive or perish in groups—specifically, alongside those to whom they were connected before the situation emerged. This article uses social network analysis to expand on this collective behavior account. Specifically, we consider structural heterogeneity with respect to the internal configurations of social ties that compose small groups facing these situations together. Some groups are composed of cohesive subsets of members who can split off from each other during evacuation without violating their group’s internal role-based expectations. We argue that groups that possess this “breakaway” structure can respond to emergencies more flexibly. We explore this using data from the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire of 1977, which killed 165 people. Our data include 303 groups (“parties”) that consisted of 746 people who were present in the dining room where most of the fatalities occurred. Fatality rates were significantly lower in groups that were internally structured such that they could split up in different ways during the escape while still maintaining their strongest social bonds.

That is from Benjamin Cornwell and Jing-Mao Ho, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Should the CIA be putting out “Woke” ads?

I am fine with the idea, for reasons I outlined in my latest Bloomberg column:

If you wanted to dilute wokeness, and limit its appeal to young radicals, what could be better than a CIA endorsement? I, for one, would like to make wokeness decidedly uncool — and if this video can recruit some new talent to the CIA at the same time, what’s not to like?

If you are a passionate young person, deeply concerned with social justice, you will be looking for causes rejected by the Establishment and embraced by a cool, in-the-know vanguard. Think of Marlon Brando’s line in “The Wild One,” when he is asked what he is rebelling against: “Whadda you got?”

The CIA, which just recently rebranded itself, just went a long way toward making wokeness feel ordinary and anodyne. Wokeness isn’t going to disappear, so the sooner wokeness becomes like the Unitarian Church — broadly admired but commanding only a modicum of passion and commitment — the better.

For similar reasons, those skeptical of wokeness should not be overly worried about so many American businesses embracing the concept, at least rhetorically. Some left-wing radicals might even consider the notion of woke and  inclusive CIA assassins to be sinister, just as they fear that international conglomerates will neuter wokeness by embracing it.

Have you ever been walking through a department store and heard the Muzak version of John Lennon’s “Imagine”? Do you know the line: “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can”? Maybe hearing the accompanying melody, perhaps while browsing the men’s wear section, made you think that Karl Marx had taken over the world. Or maybe — if you’re like me — your reaction was that John Lennon had found his place in history, and that both capitalism and conservatism were more robust than he had imagined.

Recommended, there are some subtle points in the longer exposition.

My Conversation with Daniel Carpenter, on regulation and also the FDA

Here is the audio, video, and transcript, I found it a very substantive and also illuminating episode.  Carpenter is very, very smart and also very well-informed historically.  Here is part of the summary:

Daniel Carpenter is one of the world’s leading experts on regulation and the foremost expert on the US Food and Drug Administration. A professor of Government at Harvard University, he’s conducted extensive research on regulation and government organizations, as well as on the development of political institutions in the United States. His latest book Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, details the crucial role petitions played in expanding the franchise and shaping modern America.

Here is an excerpt from the non-FDA section, much of which focuses on (non-FDA) regulation:

COWEN: What kinds of records should the Postal Service keep about itself?

CARPENTER: [laughs] Great question. There’s a whole set of things that they don’t since the Griswold decision and since the First Amendment decisions. They don’t keep as much records of what goes through the mail. They can’t prohibit things like pornography, contraception.

I guess it depends on what you mean by “itself.” I would start with the idea that basic privacy restrictions, which governed the postal system as much through norm as by law in the 19th century and early 20th century, should govern the system.

It’s a crime if I were to walk past your mailbox and open your letter. I’m committing a federal crime, but there were also norms that seals were not to be broken, things like that. I do think whichever way the Postal Service goes — and it’s quite possible that you could imagine an electronic platform for the US postal system — I think basic privacy restrictions have to be guaranteed.

Actually, in some respects, I think we need to know a fair amount about what postal workers do without, say, calling for Amazon tracking. But if we think that postal workers are misplacing ballots or not providing birth control pills or something like that, then we should probably have some way of picking up on that kind of nefarious behavior.

In the FDA section I got mad at him, the first (but not last?) time that has happened in a CWT, do read or listen to the whole section, the two of us really had at it!  Here is a tiny sliver from it:

COWEN: But shouldn’t there be a button within the FDA that can be pushed, where the FDA goes into a kind of wartime mode?

I don’t want to misrepresent Carpenter by an ill-chosen excerpt, so please do digest his full set of replies.  Recommended.

The Biden administration populist thinking about vaccine export

…top White House aides rejected that [export] recommendation over concerns that the domestic stockpile was not large enough yet — and that the optics of sending doses abroad during a big push to make vaccines more available to U.S. citizens. In subsequent weeks they repeatedly overruled administration health experts who felt it was a mistake to keep millions of doses in storage as outbreaks intensified across the world.

“The optics clearly were that we needed to take care of our own population first. Let’s not worry about the demand yet, we still have a problem at home,” said one person briefed on the matter, who requested anonymity to describe the internal divisions. “The public health people don’t see that in the same way.”

Here is the full story.

The petty narcissism of small vaccine differences

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

My survey of the cultural vaccine landscape in the U.S. includes the four major vaccines — from Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

Pfizer, distributed by one of the largest U.S. pharmaceutical firms, is the establishment vaccine. Since it initially had a significant “cold chain” requirement, it was given out at established institutions such as big hospitals and public-health centers with large freezers. It is plentiful, highly effective and largely uncontroversial.

Moderna — the very name suggests something new — is the intellectual vaccine. The company had no product or major revenue source until the vaccine itself, so it is harder to link Moderna to “Big Pharma,” which gives it a kind of anti-establishment vibe. Note also that the last three letters of Moderna are “rna,” referring to the mRNA technology that makes the vaccine work. It is the vaccine for people in the know.

Moderna was also, for a while anyway, the American vaccine. It was available primarily in the U.S. at a time when Pfizer was being handed out liberally in the U.K. and Israel. As a recipient of two Moderna doses myself, I feel just a wee bit special for this reason. You had to be an American to get my vaccine. Yes, the European Union had also approved it, but it failed to procure it in a timely manner. So the availability of Moderna reflects the greater wealth and efficiency of the U.S.

Then there are the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines…

And:

To the extent vaccines turn into markers for a cultural club, vaccine hesitancy may persist.

It might be better, all things considered, if vaccines were viewed more like paper clips — that is, a useful and even necessary product entirely shorn of cultural significance. Few people refuse to deploy paper clips in order to “own the libs” or because they do not trust the establishment. They are just a way to hold two pieces of paper together.

To be clear, the primary blame here lies with those who hesitate to get vaccinated. But behind big mistakes are many small ones — and we vaccinated Americans, with our all-too-human tendency to create hierarchies for everything, are surely contributing to the mess.

Recommended!

A Foreign Policy Disaster in the Making

NYTimes: A lethal, fast-paced second wave of the coronavirus pandemic has brought India’s health care systems to the verge of collapse and is putting millions of lives and livelihoods at risk.

On Sunday and Monday, the country recorded more than 270,000 and 259,000 cases, respectively, of Covid-19, a staggering increase from about 11,000 cases per day in the second week of February. Reported coronavirus infections shot up from about 20,000 per day in mid-March to more than 200,000 by mid-April.

The newspapers and social media are scrolls of horror and failure of the health system. There are reports of lines of ambulances with patients waiting outside the largest Covid facility in Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat because ventilator beds and oxygen had run out.

On Friday in the northern city of Lucknow, Vinay Srivastava, a 65-year-old journalist, shared his falling oxygen levels on Twitter, tagging government authorities for help. Overburdened hospitals and laboratories wouldn’t take calls from his family. The last tweet from Mr. Srivastava’s handle described his oxygen saturation level at 52, way below the 95 percent, which is considered normal. Nobody helped. He died on Saturday.

When I left India in February of 2020 I feared that COVID would rip through its dense, urban populations which were already under stress from some of the world’s worst air and water pollution. I feared that COVID would overwhelm India’s weak public health care system and leave its low-capacity state flailing. As it happened, I should have worried more about America’s poorly cared for nursing home populations, its high obesity rate, and its low state-capacity. It was the US state that ended up flailing, as it and the public became absorbed by media spectacles, impeachments and scandals du jour even as thousands died daily. The virus mocks us all.

All of this will require some rethinking. Today, however, I want to point to a foreign policy disaster in the making. America’s role as the guarantor of a globalized, mostly peaceful, and orderly world–already deeply hurt by four years of “America First,”–is now under further threat by an increasing perception that we are vaccine hoarders. Conspiracy theories are running wild in India on WhatsApp and elsewhere that we have hundreds of millions of spare doses. It isn’t true, of course. We ordered more doses than we needed because we didn’t know which vaccine would work and so we smartly placed multiple bets. Our advance-purchases from Pfizer and big investments in Moderna and related parts of the vaccine supply chain have paid off big time. As the US is vaccinated, our investments will benefit the entire world. Our investments in Novavax, AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson were also smart investments but those bets have yet to pay off in a big way. We don’t have hundreds of millions of doses stockpiled but maybe tens of millions of some AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson vaccines.

We have, however, used the Defense Production Act to prioritize American vaccine manufacturing at potentially great cost to India. As The Economist reports:

Production lines in India, making at least 160m doses of covid vaccine a month, will come to a halt in the coming weeks unless America supplies 37 critical items.

A shutdown of vaccine production in India would be a disaster for India and also for the United States. Our image in Asia will be tarnished at a time when we want to be making allies to counter Chinese influence. Moreover, the US benefits tremendously from a globalized world. Indeed, the US cannot supply its own vaccine needs without inputs from the rest of the world so flouting the rules will boomerang, leaving us and everyone else worse off. Autarchy is very bad for vaccine production.

The Biden Administration has some leeway. We have over 60 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines on hand and more arriving every day. We do not need to pause our own vaccination efforts to help others. We can donate what AstraZeneca stockpiles remain at no cost to us. A I said in my testimony to Congress, forget being humanitarians, there are health, economic and political reasons to vaccinate the world.

So let’s make it clear that we have an American plan to vaccinate the world before perceptions solidify that we are the villain and not the hero of the story.

Lucan’s *Civil War* is grossly underrated, and I found reading it to be a revelation

COWEN: Why does reading Lucan’s The Civil War make more sense in 2021 than it might have 30 years ago? To me, it seems remarkably contemporary — more than Virgil. People are crazy. They’re at each other’s throats, but not really for any good reason.

BARTSCH: Lucan seems contemporary. Lucan is very much after and in response to Virgil. He reads Virgil as saying the possibility of the good state, the good empire is a real thing. What Lucan says is, “No, that is never possible. There will always be men grubbing for power and killing each other, and civil war is, frankly, a condition of life, a condition of history. Right now, I’m writing under Nero, who is not a good emperor. I’m writing about the events that led to Nero coming to power, and I hate them. They’re terrible. People lie to each other. Brothers killed brothers. Friends slashed each other in the face, all for political reasons. People use language, again, incorrectly to distort what they meant, and then — here’s the rub — because I’m writing under Nero and because Nero is one of the bad emperors, I can’t complain about writing under Nero. I have to praise him. Otherwise, I’ll get in trouble.”

So you get this beautiful juxtaposition of a poet starting out his poem with almost over-the-top praise. “Oh, Nero, you’re going to heaven, and you’re going to be a star in the constellations. There’s never been anybody so wise as you. Civil war was worth it if you were the outcome.”

Then the rest of the poem is this blistering indictment of the present, which is the present under Nero. By indicting the present but praising Nero, he effectively shows us that his praise is false, but that false praise is what everybody has to engage in in a world where there’s no freedom. Maybe that is what seems topical to you. Or maybe it’s just about fake news, and you see Lucan is writing fake news in the beginning of his epic.

COWEN: I think the lack of obvious self-interested motivation for the polarization is what strikes me as so contemporary about Lucan. It’s not primarily about rent-seeking. There’s simply some logic of escalation that never stops. Now, maybe at the end of the poem, there’s a return to sanity in some ways, but there’s still this total immersion in violence, and the dynamics of that, the nonrationality or arationality — it struck me if I had read Lucan in 1991, I would have been quite puzzled, like this is something of antique interest. But I read it today — I’m not so pessimistic about the Western world, but it seems to hit much closer to home.

BARTSCH: Why is that? Sorry, you’re supposed to be asking me questions, but why does it seem to strike closer to home to you now?

COWEN: There seems to be a logic in contemporary politics where people take opposite sides of an issue because other people have taken a side. They don’t necessarily care anymore what it’s about. This may have moderated in the last few months, but there was a sense, if Trump tweeted some view about Turkey, some people would agree, and other people would take the other side, whether or not they had agreement about Turkey.

BARTSCH: Absolutely. The polarization of political views — that is completely in Lucan. Everything is binary. Both sides are at each other’s throats. The problem is, neither side is good. They’re just both opinionated. Yes, he constantly shows us horrible, meaningless scenes of butchery, which will never lead to anything meaningful. I think in that sense, yes, it’s an interesting comparison to what happens today.

Another interesting thing that he does is that, even though everything has been boiled down into them versus us — or actually them versus them because there’s nobody good in the epic except for Cato, who ends up dying — even as he takes on so serious a subject, he refuses to partake of its seriousness in a way. What I mean by that is that his battle scenes are ridiculous. They’re not realistic.

Here’s an example. You’re fighting for Julius Caesar, and you’re on a boat, and you’re trying to get onto a boat that belongs to Pompey, so you grab it with one arm as it comes by, but the people in Pompey’s boat chop off your arm. Then you grab it with your other arm, and then they chop that arm off. Then you’ve got no arms. So, what do you do? Well, Lucan says, you just lob yourself onto the boat armlessly and hope that you can make a difference that way. There’s arms and legs flying everywhere.

In Virgil or Homer, somebody stabs you, you groan, blood comes out, you die. In Lucan, you just bop around like a puppet losing limbs and legs. That’s very strange.

That is from my Conversation with Shadi Bartsch.

My excellent Conversation with Shadi Bartsch

She is a Professor of Classics at the University of Chicago, and recently published a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.  Here is the audio, visual, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Shadi joined Tyler to discuss reading the classics as someone who is half-Persian, the difference between Homer and Virgil’s underworlds, the reasons so many women are redefining Virgil’s Aeneid, the best way to learn Latin, why you must be in a room with a native speaker to learn Mandarin, the question of Seneca’s hypocrisy, what it means to “wave the wand of Hermes”, why Lucan begins his epic The Civil War with “fake news”, the line from Henry Purcell’s aria that moves her to tears, her biggest takeaway from being the daughter of an accomplished UN economist, the ancient text she’s most hopeful that new technology will help us discover, the appeal of Strauss to some contemporary Chinese intellectuals, the reasons some consider the history of Athens a better allegory for America than that of Rome, the Thucydides Trap, the magical “presentness” of ancient history she’s found in Italy and Jerusalem, her forthcoming book Plato Goes to China, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You may not agree with this, but many readers I speak with tend to think that Homer is somehow deeper, more mystical, or just more fun to read than Virgil. What accounts for that perception and how might you challenge it?

BARTSCH: I think they think that because both of Homer’s epics are not, per se, about politics or governments. They don’t offer etiologies of a state. They don’t talk about history. They are stories in the true sense. They are about heroes in the true sense, not about some guy who’s pushed around the world by the gods, constantly getting into trouble, crying, wishing he didn’t have to go found Rome, etcetera.

Achilles — figure larger than life. His pride is everything to him. He stops fighting in the Trojan War because he’s been insulted. The drama is, what compels him to go back into battle after that insult?

Odysseus — a fairy tale of a man wandering from island to island, meeting ever stranger creatures, but eventually making it back home. It’s a great yarn. You don’t have to learn history to read these. You get involved in the psychology of the characters, their tragedies and their triumphs.

Nobody is really interested in getting involved in the psychology of the state and its triumphs. On the one hand, you’ve got a poem that’s an etiology for a particular government. On the other hand, you have two amazing stories. I can see how reading The Aeneid would be considered duller for some.

Excellent throughout, and again here is Shadi’s excellent translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

*Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis*

Although they did not know it at the time, the seamen of the USS Cony and other ships of the Randolph group were moments away from being killed or shipwrecked by the tremendous waves that a nuclear explosion would produce. Savitsky’s torpedo carried a warhead with 10 kilotons of explosive power.  If dropped on a city, that would suffice to kill everyone with a half-mile radius. Moreover, the torpedoes’ nuclear warheads were designed to create shock waves that would topple or incapacitate ships. The 20-kiloton load tried by the US Navy in the Baker underwater test in 1946 produced waves up to 94 feet high. The Soviets tested their T-5 torpedoes near Novala Zemlia in the Arctic in 1957 but never released the results. Any ship hit by the torpedo would almost certainly have been destroyed, while the rest of the Randolph group would have suffered significant damage.

That is from the new book on this topic by Serhii Plokhy.  An excellent book, with much more on the Soviet side than any other source I am aware of.

So what’s it like being red-pilled by the median voter theorem?

President Biden will limit the number of refugees allowed into the United States this year to the historically low level set by the Trump administration, reversing an earlier promise to welcome more than 60,000 people fleeing war and persecution into the country.

Here is more from the NYT.  I have been stressing for several years now that the Democrats are not going to die on the hill of an ultimately unpopular immigration policy.  Here is an earlier Angus, penned before the Afghanistan withdrawal news:

The marketing and associated cultural capital, however, are indeed very different, and you can expect that to continue and possibly intensify.

Update: Biden will budge.