16 December 2018

Talking about talking about social justice

Over on Twitter, journalist David Roberts <@drvox> makes an observation about sexism in American politics:

CNN Breaking News <@cnnbrk>:
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand says she is “definitely thinking” about running for president in 2020 and will announce a decision in the near future https://cnn.it/2LhAbZH
I've always thought Gillibrand would be a great choice -- checks tons of boxes, super-appealing. But the speed with which grassroots Dems bought the fucking absurd sexist fairy tale that she “ran Franken out” of the Senate makes me despair for any female running.
Of course it's not background sexism! It's just that Hillary really was shrill! Elizabeth Warren really did screw up the Pocahontas thing! Gillibrand really did take Franken down! We just need to find a perfect female candidate w/ no problems or history or idiosyncrasies.

I saw this on my main Twitter list, since I follow Roberts. I also follow another person who re-shared marisa kabas <@MarisaKabas> quote-tweeting him, saying:

Of course I’m happy when men “get it”, but it is amusing to see them realize things most women have known since we were old enough to have critical thought.
Before you make a proclamation of The Way It Is For Ladies, ask yourself: Is it possible a woman has already said this, and probably more eloquently? And should I just amplify her instead of creating my own content?

This sparked a little dialogue in replies:

“Celia”:
And they always get so much credit for it too
marisa kabas:
imagine if they just—and i know this is going to sound crazy—listened to women??
“Celia”:
If they just listened to women they wouldn’t get a medal when they proudly exclaim sexism and misogyny exists.
Can’t let the women get credit for talking about it

I'm about to do some grumbling about this. But first let's sit with this critique.

Let's respect how vexing it is when someone shows up late to something you have been saying for a long time. We all know the ambivalence one can feel about that.

Let's remember how best practice for people in positions of privilege is to point to, credit, and amplify the voices of the marginalized, especially those who made the point early.

Let's take the point about “getting a medal” and note how there are certain people in positions of privilege who make a lot of noise about how woke they are and use it to get support and attention.

These frustrations are 100% legitimate. So let them soak in for a moment.



And. Also:

I recognize Roberts' type because I am not so different. Privileged in a number of ways, and while social justice isn't our main thing, we do care about it and we try to show up for it.

There are times when I have caught a thing about sexism or racism or some other systemic injustice — noticed it because I have listened to people hurt by it — and though I am sure that someone better-qualified to speak to it from experience has addressed the thing, I do not have the quote in hand and cannot find it easily. So the choice is whether to speak to the injustice in my words, or to not address it at all. One may object that Roberts is not in the middle of some realtime situation and so could hunt up a quote about this from a woman who said it better, but still: time and energy and attention are limited.

So in practice marisa kabas is saying to Roberts, and me, and all men: criticize sexism less.

This is not about marisa kabas. And again, her frustration and criticism are both legitimate. This is about the pattern. Pressure against the privileged speaking out for social justice coming from proponents of social justice is common and takes a range of forms.

Being a straight White guy who talks about social justice sometimes, I hear from other people who are some combination of straight, White, and male who ask me how I find the fortitude to do it. They tell me they are not deterred by opponents of social justice, but rather by the pushback they get from proponents of social justice any time they engage. They see that I am more skillful and dedicated than they are — which is not necessarily saying much, but is often the best example they have available to them — and I still get a lot of criticism for not saying things perfectly.

Yeah, many of those people are either rationalizing their laziness about addressing social justice, or even speaking in bad faith to rationalize their opposition to social justice. I remind them that getting critical feedback and learning from it is part of the work. Because it needs to be.

But some of these folks are earnest, sincere, and genuinely pained to be retiring from the field. I have no advice for them beyond telling them to grit their teeth and be happy warriors, because no amount of care and diligence they take is sufficient to end the barrage of cutting criticism from the very people whose perspective they value and are trying to support.

Yes, those people should be better. I too should be better.

But I know what will happen.

15 December 2018

DeLong's Principles Of Neoliberalism

I didn't write this, economist Brad DeLong did. Nor do I endorse it, though I do endorse DeLong as smart. I just couldn't stand the eye-bending formatting at the source.


Principles of Neoliberalism

Version 1.23 : 29 March 1999

Neoliberalism is many things. It is:

  • a counsel of despair with respect to the possibility of social democracy today (outside of the global economy’s industrial core).
  • a counsel of hope with respect to the prospects for rapid market-generated economic development outside the global economy’s industrial core — if governments adopt market-conforming policies.
  • a bet that improvements in transportation and communication — the shrinking world — “globalization” — gives us today an extraordinary opportunity to rapidly reduce global inequality by incorporating more and more people and more and more more regions into the global economy.
  • the only live utopian program in the world today.

A counsel of despair…

After World War II in Latin America, and at the achievement of independence elsewhere outside the global economy’s core, there were high hopes that social democracy (or something further to the left) could be successfully instituted. And there were high hopes that such social democratic or socialist regimes would enable peoples living outside the core to cut a generation or more off of what had been a lengthy, bloody, and cruel three- or four-generation process of industrialization and democratization in northwest Europe and its settler colonies.

Social democratic or socialist governments would from the beginning establish strong redistributive social insurance states to severely reduce the income and wealth inequalities that had been characteristic of Bismarckian Germany or the Gilded Age United States. They would put into place the physical infrastructure to reduce infant mortality and disease that the aristocracies and bourgeoisies of northwest Europe had not thought profitable. They would spend money like water on education.

Moreover, they would use Keynesian policies to make sure that growth was free of the recessions and depressions that characterized industrialization in the industrial core. They would carefully manage their connections with the global economy — choosing the level of the real exchange rate, controlling imports so that imported goods were those of high social utility, preventing artificial drives for export success from raising the prices of necessities to the people, and establishing national independence from imperial capital.

They would nationalize at least the monopolistic commanding heights of the economy (if social democratic) or nationalize far more of the economy (if socialist) in order to take full advantage of the massive economies of scale in industry, and to make sure that investments in capacity and productivity that made sense from the social point of view were made — as they would not be if large-scale industry remained private, and if it proved difficult for the private monopolists to make a profit off of such investments. And all these economic decisions would be made by democratically-elected governments responsible to an electorate that had learned by exercising power what the trade-offs were and how to choose the best path forward that led by the quickest way to utopia.

By the end of the 1970s, however, it was clear to all except blindered ideologues that something had gone very wrong with social democracy at the periphery. (And that even more had gone wrong with really-existing socialism at the periphery.)

Stable political democracy proved far more to be the exception than the rule. Authoritarian rule by traditional elites, dictatorship by impatient army officers, and charismatic populist politicians ruling by virtue of carefully-prepared and carefully-staged plebiscites were much more common than were stable parliamentary or separation-of-powers democracies. Those aspects of social insurance that were installed seemed to do more to redistribute income from (poor) rural peasants to (richer) urban workers and (rich) urban civil servants than to moderate income and wealth inequalities. With some exceptions (many of them among really-existing-socialist countries) high government spending on education and on physical infrastructure seemed to produced less in the way of actual education or infrastructure — and more in the way of sweetheart contracts to the Minister of Regional Development’s nephew’s cement factory — than one would have hoped.

The nationalized commanding heights of the economy turned out more often than not to become employment bureaus for the politically well-connected: under Juan Peron in Argentina the number of employees of the (newly nationalized) Argentinian railroad system close to tripled, while the number of trains and the volume of goods carried fell. It seemed that while the state was superior as an instrument of social evolution, it was not very good as a bank, or as a stock exchange, or as a nursery for inefficient enterprises.

Too-great a reliance on Keynesian policies of demand stimulation turned out to generate high- and hyper-inflation, with the recessions that came with the crash of the monetary system proving arguably larger than the booms-and-busts Keynesian policies were supposed to avoid. Import restrictions turned out to limit imports not to those of social utility, but to those profitable to the import companies owned by the son-in-law of the Vice Minister of Finance — and to the Vice Minister himself. High real exchange rates turned out to do less to amplify the purchasing power of the country abroad than to artificially shrink exports, and to divert employment and investment away from sectors of comparative advantage.

There were exceptions: places outside the core where the social-democratic program was a stunning success. India managed to hang on to political democracy (albeit with disappointing economic growth). East Asia managed to limit corruption and maximize investment in infrastructure and export capacity, achieving the fastest economic growth rates ever seen in world history (albeit with disappointingly slow progress toward political democracy, and civilian blood on the hands of the military in massacres ranging from the thousands (in South Korea) to the tens of thousands (in Taiwan) to the hundreds of thousands (in Indonesia). In Brazil rapid growth in measured GDP was associated with the most hideous income distribution ever seen. Southern Europe alone managed to “converge” to the industrial core of northwest Europe, its ex-settler colonies, and Japan.

It seemed that the key was political democracy. With stable political democracy — in France, in Italy, even in Spain after the fall of Franco — social democracy could work and achieve great successes. Without political democracy it seemed that the chances of success were low (unless somehow the poorly-understood foundations of East Asia’s low corruption could be duplicated). And it also seemed that the prospects for achieving stable political democracy on the periphery were rather low. After all, France experienced its first democratic revolution until 1789, yet depending on who you talk to it was not until 1871 or 1958 or 1981 that France truly achieved stable democracy.

Hence neoliberalism as a counsel of despair. As Marx wrote, the executive branchy of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the affairs of the ruling class — meaning, among other things, that a democratically-elected legislative branch turns the state into something better. But the prospects for stable political democracy in the periphery are slim. And thus the government becomes the tool of the ruling class—a ruling class that may be made up of army officers, or landlords, or urban elites, or those who profit as middlemen from the traditional channels of trade and exchange — who are not terribly interested in the success of social democracy or in rapid broad-based economic growth.

Hence the policy advice of neoliberalism as a counsel of despair: get the state’s nose out of the economy as much as possible. When the state is neither an instrument of positive redistribution nor an instrument of growth-boosting investment, its interventions in the economy are likely to go strongly awry. And to the extent that a reduction in the economic role of an elite-controlled state can be required as a price for rapid incorporation of an area into the global economy, such a reduction should be required.

A counsel of hope…

Yet neoliberalism is not just a counsel of despair, it is a counsel of hope. The hope is that the prospects for rapid market-generated economic development outside the global economy’s industrial core are very bright.

The prospects for rapid market-generated economic development are very bright for three reasons. First, the productivity gap between the periphery and the industrial core has never been larger. Second, governments now have a large number of positive examples to copy (as well as negative examples to avoid) in planning market-conforming development strategies. Third, investors in the industrial core now have the confidence and the resources to materially assist in peripheral development.

First, because the productivity gap between the periphery and the industrial core has never been larger, what Alexander Gerschenkron called the “advantages of backwardness” are now uniquely great. In 1870 an Indian or a Chinese textile-making entrepreneur could perhaps quadruple labor productivity by importing the modern capital goods of the British industrial revolution. Today any entrepreneur on the periphery has the prospect of being able to amplify labor productivity tenfold or more by investing in latest-generation or latest-but-on-generation capital equipment and factory organization. The stunning multiplication of productivity in Mexican automobile manufacture gives a clue to how quickly productivity can be amplified — if the capital is there to do so.

Second, all governments everywhere are now aware — from the examples of northern Europe, southern Europe, and East Asia — of those government interventions and policies that appear to be powerful boosters of growth. They are aware of the centrality of education (especially female secondary education) in accelerating the demographic transition. They are aware of the importance of making it easy for domestic producers to acquire industrial core technology (embodied in capital goods or not). They are aware of the importance of administrative simplicity and transparency. They are aware of the value of the transportation and communications infrastructure that only the government can provide. In those areas in which the government’s nose should and must stay deeply embedded in the economy, even those states controlled by elites that have only a limited interest in growth and development now have many positive models to imitate.

Third, improvements in communications and transportation have made investors in the industrial core more willing than ever before to consider placing their capital in the periphery. The pre-World War I wave of international investment was largely limited to regions in which there were lots of white guys — guys who could play polo (never mind that polo in its original form was a sport played by central Asian nomads using a goat carcass as a ball) — plus the French geostrategic commitment to Russia as an ally against the Second Reich. The U.S. benefited enormously from Britain’s willingness to lend capital to industrializing America in the years before 1900. The inflow of capital cut a decade or two off of the time it took the U.S. to industrialize (and crony capitalists like Jay Gould, Colis Huntington, and Leland Stanford took British investors to the cleaners as well). Now that investors in the industrial core are willing to commit their money to regions in which there are not lots of white guys, an opportunity to speed industrialization that used to be limited to a relatively narrow part of the non-European world is now open to many more — if their governments undertake the steps needed to reassure industrial-core investors, and if those who make economic policy in the G-7 can limit the destructive effects of the financial crises generated by the manic-depressive swings of opinion in Manhattan, London, Frankfurt, and Tokyo.

A bet on globalization…

And this is where the neoliberal view of the world is weakest: in its bet on globalization — its bet that a tightly-integrated global economy, with large flows of capital and goods (and, to the extent industrial core governments permit, of labor) is a richer and faster-growing global economy. John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White would disagree with the proposition that large flows of capital are good: they would call them too dangerous to be risked.

Nevertheless, neoliberals today are more impressed with the gains from capital flows than the risks. The quadrupling of real wages in Indonesia from 1965 to 1997 would have been significantly lower without capital inflows which carried technology and enabled higher domestic investment (even though real wages in Indonesia have fallen by at least a quarter since 1997). Lowered transportation and communications costs have amplified the gains from expanded international trade by an order of magnitude over the past generation. And it is next to impossible to have large international flows of goods while excluding the possibility of large international flows of capital as well. Small changes in the timing of payments and in the extension of trade credit add up to large swings in the capital account.

Thus neoliberalism is not only a bet that increasing economic integration is a good thing — that an integrated global economy will see much more levelling-up than levelling-down — but that successful stabilization policy can be pursued by the G-7 on a global level. It is thus a claim about the economic environment (that the gains from globalization are large) and about the state capacity of the G-7 (that they can successfully carry out global-level stabilization policies).

The only live utopian program…

Perhaps not all of the principles of neoliberalism are correct.

Successful development in East Asia suggests that the counsels of despair are perhaps somewhat overstated: East Asia is an example if not of successful social democracy at least of a successful developmental state. On the other hand, as Lant Pritchett has observed, there is nothing worse than state-led development led by an anti-developmental state. And pending a better understanding of what has gone right in East Asia or much greater success in institutionalizing political democracy, the risks of a government turning away from the neoliberal path and attempting to duplicate East Asian developmental states appear very high. The belief that the opportunities for market-conforming development are now uniquely great appears to be almost certainly correct. But the jury is still out on whether the free-capital-flow part of “globalization” is a good thing: the odds are 80% that the G-7 do have the state capacity to successfully manage a world economy with large-scale capital flows, but there is a 20% chance that they do not.

Nevertheless, the neoliberal program is the only live utopian program in the world today.

Opposition to neoliberalism on the left seems to call for a return to effective autarchy. But if there is one lesson from economic history over the past hundred years, it is that there has been one decade — the 1930s — when economic autarchy was the road to relative prosperity, while there have been nine decades in which the more open to trade a country’s economic policy, the faster has been economic growth. Opposition to neoliberalism on the left seems to call for a return to state control of the economy — to the pattern of Peronism or of the PRI — in the hope that this time the state will be not the tool of elites with little concern for development and growth but instead the faithful servant of the interests of the masses.

That is not very likely. The state can be the servant of the people only if political democracy is well-established, and not always then. To place one’s chips on the maximization of the power of a not-very-democratic and not-very-developmental state does not seem a promising path for either democratization or successful industrialization. It seems to embody a remarkable unwillingness to learn from world history since the end of World War I, and an ideological-blinded refusal to ever mark one’s beliefs to market.

Opposition to neoliberalism on the right seems based on a fear that neoliberalism will bring with it a breakdown of social order: peasants will no longer fear landlords, workers will no longer be the clients of bosses or of the leaders of government-sponsored puppet unions, and voters will no longer respect the views of notables.

All the rest of us certainly hope that the right-wing opponents of neoliberalism are correct, and that neoliberalism this generation will begin structural transformations that will make social democracy on the periphery possible next generation.

29 October 2018

Cuban missile crisis

I'm snipping out the meat of an article ostensibly about Donald Trump and John Bolton because it delivers a crisp telling of how Americans' collective memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis is wrong.

There is a standard story about the Cuban Missile Crisis, at least for those who remember it at all:

The perfidious Soviet communists, bent on intimidating the U.S. into submission via the superior power they wielded as a result of the missile gap, sent nuclear weapons to Cuba, from where they could strike the U.S. in minutes. But John F. Kennedy stood tall, refusing to make any concessions to the Russian bullies. JFK went toe to toe with the Soviets, and demonstrated he was tough enough to risk nuclear war. Finally, the other side blinked first and surrendered, taking the missiles out of Cuba. America won!

The hard reality, however, is that everything about this is false, both in its specifics and implications. It is, as James Blight and janet Lang, two of the top academic specialists on the crisis, have put it, “bullshit.” The even harder reality is that October 27 was a far more petrifying moment than U.S. and Soviet participants understood at the time — and they were terrified. Blight and Lang estimate that if the crisis were run under the same conditions 100 times, it would end in nuclear war 95 times. We are living in one of the five alternate universes in which humanity survived.

The roots of the Cuban missile crisis can be found in three main factors: America’s overwhelming nuclear superiority; the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961; and the stationing of U.S. intermediate nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey early on during the Kennedy administration.

During the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy attacked the Eisenhower administration for allowing the development of a “missile gap” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. There was indeed an enormous gap in the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles possessed by each country — but in favor of the U.S. As of 1962, the Soviets only had 20, and they were of such poor quality that they might not have managed to accurately reach the U.S. The U.S. had hundreds. This made the Soviets believe a nuclear first strike by the U.S. — something genuinely supported by factions of the U.S. military and hard right — could leave them unable to retaliate. The Soviets did have missiles, however, that could reach the U.S. mainland from Cuba.

The Soviets were also motivated to send the missiles to Cuba because they believed they would deter another invasion attempt.

Finally, the Soviets reasonably saw it as leveling the playing field. The American nuclear missiles in Turkey could hit Moscow in 10 minutes. Now, the Soviet missiles in Cuba could do the same to Washington, D.C.

The U.S. did not perceive it this way when American reconnaissance discovered the Cuban missiles on October 14. The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended an immediate invasion of Cuba. Kennedy instead chose to blockade the island. But by October 26, he had come to believe that only an invasion could remove the missiles. The administration began planning for a replacement government in Cuba. All the while the U.S. was acting in the dark, with the CIA concluding that Soviet nuclear warheads had not yet arrived in Cuba to arm the missiles. They had.

Shortly after midnight, in the early morning of Black Saturday, the U.S. informed NATO that it “may find it necessary within a very short time” to attack Cuba. At noon, a U-2 flight over Cuba was shot down, killing the pilot. On all sides, war — potentially nuclear war — seemed likely, if not inevitable.

But that night, Kennedy made the most important presidential decision in history: He accepted an offer from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to remove the U.S. missiles in Italy and Turkey in return for the removal of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. But the U.S. part of the bargain was kept secret from Americans. The administration maintained that Kennedy had forced the Soviets to give in, giving them nothing.

That was, of course, more than frightening enough. But here’s the rest of the story.

On October 27, A U.S. Navy ship participating in the blockade dropped depth charges on a Soviet submarine. It was only discovered years later that not only was the submarine armed with nuclear torpedoes, but also was out of radio contact with the Soviet government and believed that the war had begun. The captain wanted to use the torpedoes, which almost certainly would have led to the U.S using nuclear weapons in response. However, according to Soviet protocol, the torpedoes could only be launched with the approval of all three officers aboard. One of them refused.

The U.S. also had no idea that in addition to the missiles, the Soviets had brought tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba and the troops on the ground had received permission to use them against a U.S. invasion without further authorization from Moscow. This, too, would have led to a U.S. nuclear response and Armageddon. McNamara first learned this when attending a Havana conference organized by Blight and Lang in 1992, on the 30th anniversary of the crisis. McNamara had also come to believe by Black Saturday that an invasion might be necessary. Blight and Lang report that McNamara turned pale and was temporarily speechless as he listened to an aged Soviet general describe the existence of the tactical nuclear weapons. When he spoke, it was to ask the translator to repeat himself.

Castro, too, had his preconceptions shattered at the conference. He had come to believe that the Kennedy administration was determined to invade Cuba again, nuclear weapons or not, and this time crush its young government and society. Cuba’s only choice was either to accept its destruction, or be destroyed and take America with it. Castro had therefore written a telegram to Khrushchev that arrived on October 27, beseeching him to use the Soviet Union’s full nuclear might against the U.S. if an invasion took place. But this was all wrong, McNamara told Castro: After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy had decided that another invasion attempt was foolish.

So in the end, we’re not here to think about the 56th anniversary of Black Saturday because of our overweening military might, or because we forced our adversaries to bend to our will. It’s just the opposite, plus an extraordinary run of serendipitous flukes.

17 July 2018

Why I think Trump loves the Russians

It's not just that they bought him, though they did.

It looks like for the last two decades at least, Trump has been a bagman laundering money for Russian mafia & oligarchs (& government, to the degree that this is a distinct category at all). This has enabled him to keep his empire afloat and play Mr. Rich Bigshot despite most of his endeavors being catastrophes.

To a pathological narcissist like Trump, this doesn't mean that they own him. This means that these Russians are really great guys who are smart enough to recognize how awesome he is and help him be awesome.

So he develops an affinity. Russians are great. They tell him Putin is great, so there it is. He learns to parrot all of their ideas, not because he's trying to impress them but because he's a pathological narcissist who doesn't have ideas, he just makes mouth noises which get people to praise him, and when he echoes them he gets his narcissistic supply.

And Putin is a Winner: everybody does what he tells them! That's how you know Winners are Winners. And he knows that Winners are all in the club of telling each other how awesome they are. That's what the Winners he hangs out with do, and so he returns the favor not out of obligation but because they tell him again that he is awesome when he does it.

24 June 2018

Final solution

Last week I tweeted a link to an article in The New Yorker.

The Government Has No Plan For Reuniting the Immigrant Families It is Tearing Apart

In the past two months, under the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance policy, the government has taken some two thousand immigrant children away from their parents.

I captioned it thus:

I am sure they will come up with a solution, finally

A few people have warily told me that the comparison to the Nazis' genocidal Final Solution is too rhetorically strong. I understand why they would say that; we should keep our powder dry on accusations of genocide.

Let me expand on my allusion.

There are two major schools of how the Nazis came to the point that they were building murder factories.

One is that their leadership fundamentally had mass murder in mind all along, and it only took them time to secure sufficient control that they could implement their designs. Many scholars hold to this view, and it was my own for a long time.

But many others have another read, and seeing events in the US unfold in the last year has me leaning more to it.

The other thesis says that the Nazis effectively painted themselves into a corner. They want to rid the nation of undesirables — Jews, communists, homosexuals, Roma, et cetera — and they hoped that just making life difficult enough for them would mean that the undesirables would emigrate and the problem would solve itself. But that doesn't work, or at least not fast enough. So the Nazis start rounding people up to keep them from poisoning the society: kill off a few along the way, throw some in jail. But we are talking about a lot of people, so that doesn't scale well. The Nazis start building specialized facilities, to pack undesirables in a few areas while figuring out what to do. Hence “concentration camps”: concentrating unwanted people out of the way, in a camp. They use the people in the camps as slave labor, because so long as you are going to the trouble to manage a facility full of monsters you cannot expose to the populace, you might as well, right?

But again, this doesn't scale well. And by this time the Nazis are hard at work conquering Eastern Europe, so the they end up with even more Jews and communists and other undesirables on their hands. All of this gets to be more elaborate and expensive to run. Concentration camps prove not to be much of a solution, they are themselves a problem. They drain resources that should be devoted to winning the war and building autobahns and monumental architecture and developing scientific wonders and so forth. The attempt to get Jews to emigrate has already shown that repatriating millions of people to some other country is no kind of solution, either. Heck, other countries have been sending shiploads of Jewish refugees back for years and you're stuck in this stupid war because the British stubbornly refuse to help you to claim the space you need. Maybe you can quarantine all those undesirables on the island of Madagascar when you're done conquering Africa, but the war is taking a long time, and even that is not a real solution; then you have an island full of Jews plotting to overthrow you.

Golly, you just hadn't thought it through.

These partial, temporary solutions are no good. You need a final solution.

And there you are.

Knowing this, reading this article about the lack of a plan gave me a chill. The architects of this policy aren't thinking ahead. What do they do when they have camps and prisons with millions of undesirables? What do they do next?

03 June 2018

David Brooks

I have been meaning to compile a proper index of critiques of New York Times columnist David Brooks. This improper one will have to do.

Driftglass, who is a master of David Brooks takedowns, sums it up:

I will remain one of those cynical, vituperative, foul-mouthed bloggers of the Left who does not trust Republicans like Mr. Brooks as far as I can throw an angel food cake on a neutron star. Because having examined Mr. Brooks' work in detail for more than 13 years now, I can say with absolute confidence that whatever bunting and balloons Mr. Brooks may pick out during any given week to adorn his awful column, the real subject of virtually every single David Brooks column going back to the almost the beginning of recorded history is always the same: Both Sides Do It.

Everything else but his consistent, core message -- that Both Sides are to blame for all excesses and atrocities, and that the entire, well-documented history of his Republican party simply does not exist -- is nothing but Beltway gingerbread and sleight-of-hand.

And not even competent sleight-of-hand!

Driftglass again:

Because when Mr. Brooks' Whig fantasies go all sideways and another one of his beloved elite hierarchies goes horribly wrong or his Crazy Biggit Jebus Party once again decides to smash something precious to make some ludicrous point, David Brooks always, always, always weasels up a way to unload half or all of the blame for the catastrophe onto imaginary hippies or “the 60s” or Al Gore or woman or Barack Obama or some-damn-body else who is a not a member in good standing of Mr. Brooks' Invisible Army of Reasonable Conservatives.

Jonathan Chait:

Note that solving actual problems is besides the point here. Brooks is almost explicit about this. He begins with the need for initiatives that he thinks will lead to happiness and comity between the parties in Washington, and then comes up with policies that might fit the bill. Not surprisingly, viewed from the standpoint of an agenda designed to make life better for Americans in some way, shape or form, Brooks’s proposed agenda is strange.

Me, back in 2005, offering a quote from one of his articles and a set of vigorous takedowns of that one in particular.

We hate him because he has a knack for somehow sounding reasonable, thoughtful, and concilliatory when in fact, if you take a minute and walk through his reasoning carefully, you see that his comments are full of poison.

Brad DeLong (echoing a critique of conservative thought described in John Holbo's long, instructive essay about David Frum)

The worst of all is his closing line: “This is a moment to feel deeply bad, for the dead and for those of us who have no explanation [for why the tsunami happened].” No. This is not a moment to feel bad for those of us who have no explanation for the tsunami and so wallow in existential despair. This is not a moment for that at all.

Charles P Pierce on Brooks' oblique prose:

David Brooks concocted what may be “The Perfect David Brooks Paragraph.”
Most of the advocates understand data is a tool, not a worldview. My worries mostly concentrate on the cultural impact of the big data vogue. If you adopt a mind-set that replaces the narrative with the empirical, you have problems thinking about personal responsibility and morality, which are based on causation. You wind up with a demoralized society. But that's a subject for another day.

Pierce again:

This may be the most shameless passage of political journalism I have ever read. It contains more of the elements of passive-aggression, self-absolution, historical amnesia, and outright falsehood in the same place than any other single location this side of the author's own frontal lobes.

Corey Robin, who knows as much about the history of conservatism as anybody in the world, on Brooks lamenting the state of contemporary conservatism.

So let’s take it apart, piece by piece. Brooks says the rot set in 30 years ago, in the wake of Reagan. Let’s see how today’s conservatism compares to those loamy vintages of more than three decades past. The bolded passages are all from Brooks’ column.

Jon Schwarz, in The 10 Most Appalling Articles in the Weekly Standard’s Short and Dreadful Life, describing his #1 pick, Brooks' The Collapse of the Dream Palaces.

From the Weekly Standard’s April 28, 2003 issue — that is, a month after the U.S. invasion of Iraq — this may simultaneously be the worst, funniest, and most terrifying writing ever published in the English language. For instance, its opening paragraph includes the phrase, “Now that the war in Iraq is over.” You must read it for yourself; it cannot be explained, only experienced.

...

When you’re finished reading the piece, remember that this was published just five months before the New York Times hired David Brooks as an op-ed writer. In other words, the Times saw this gibbering, so disconnected from reality it is functionally insane, and thought: This is exactly who we want explaining the world to our readers.

The capstone: Brooks lying outright:


15 May 2018

The knack of interaction design

Ganked from a Twitter thread I ranted in March 2017. I should turn this into a proper article someday.
Via @vgr I learn that some people cannot visualize things in their “mind's eye”

I am reminded of something I realized years ago about the Secret Talent Behind Interaction Design

When I present an IxD (interaction design) solution to clients or colleagues, they often challenge me with “but what if the user does XYZ instead?”

After showing slides with a walkthrough of some key behaviors, I answer questions about other paths with quick sketches at the whiteboard

“Oh, if a user clicks here in this situation, then these things light up, and this comes up in X case, or that comes up in Y case.”

For a while I thought clients were so often astonished at this because of the obvious brilliance of my design solutions.

Not so.

Then I thought they were astonished at my facility at quickly communicating IxD solutions through simple whiteboard sketches.

Not so.

(For the record, my whiteboarding hand is inelegant, though I know a lot of little tricks for using whiteboards well)

I finally realized that what astonished my client was that I had the behaviors of the system in my head at all

Then I saw @MrAlanCooper's early dialogue with @KentBeck with its astonishing disjoint of ideas

I realized:

Most people cannot picture the interaction design of a software system that does not exist. They must build it to “see” it.

As someone with the knack for it, it had never occurred to me that most people in the software industry could not “visualize” IxD.

And of course if you don't have the knack for picturing IxD, it would never occur to you that someone could.

Many software industry practices are predicated on the assumption that attempting to do too much planning of projects inevitably fails

(And I do not want to overstate the level of planning I think is possible. Software development is an unruly process.)

I don't want to make IxD visualization sound easy. It is hard work. It takes several weeks to lock down good IxD solutions in my mind.

And keeping even a moderately complex IxD solution in my head “fills” it; I cannot remember the details of past IxD projects

But I can really have the whole system in my head.

Part of how I know an IxD solution is good is that its logic makes this possible.

I think much of the skepticism about IxD and UXD in tech comes from a reasonable but wrong assumption that the core work is impossible

If UX designers’ “knack” were properly understood, I think it would radically transform the entire software industry

@archslide suggests that visualizing IxD is more skill than talent.

There is definitely a skill one cultivates doing the work ...

Good balance doesn't make you a tightrope walker. But if you don't have good balance, no amount of practice will make you one.

RT Chris Doyle <@archslide>:
I have the same skill wrt code. Probably v difficult to succeed as a dev w/o abstract visualization/organization ability
Ability to visualize deep software logic and interaction are similar skills, but don't seem to be coupled

I think many UXD projects are stillborn by not having enough time committed to them, leading to We Tried Baseball

RT @exiledsurfer
took me years to understand what i could see in my head & drew / explained to others was invisible to them until it was manifest.

12 May 2018

Some history of trans politics

This isn't a post, more like a goad to myself to make a post.

A few times recently I have encountered people opposed to the current moment of acceptance for transgender people, and they had a telling of history that took me by surprise. According to them, the terrible trans women who showed up suddenly and demanded to barge in to every private women's space, harassing cis women from the very beginning, blah blah blah. This is, of course, pretty much the opposite of how things went down, given my second- and third-hand understanding.

Since my knowledge is fragmentary, facing this line of critique I want to be able to think and speak from a more grounded sense of the history. So I'm collecting some resources I have picked up from people much better informed than I will ever be about trans cultural politics. I hope to turn this post into a survey of those resources at some point, but for the moment, it's a pile:

  • An archive of articles about the early emergence of trans-exclusive radical feminism (I'm told that the interviews with Sandy Stone and Robin Tyler merit especially close attention)
  • More from Sandy Stone
  • Early articles from Emi Koyama
  • I'm told that Susan Stryker's book Transgender History has a particularly instructive chapter on Beth Elliot and the Daughters Of Bilitis and the West Coast Lesbian Conference. I'm told that Beth Elliot had helped to organize the conference but then Robin Morgan called a vote on Elliot could stay ... and when the vote went in Elliot's favor, Morgan's group threatened to shut down the conference.
  • An article about Margaret O’Hartigan has some more leads.
  • Perspectives on PantheaCon 2011 (note that I played a small part in some discussions about related events at PantheaCon the following year)

I also cannot resist capturing this little dialogue between a pair of experts, which I will anonymize:

All I can really say is that it was obvious that MWMF's organizers were deliberate and very much premeditated in causing as much pain as they could get away with.

There is a direct connection between MWMF and what we saw in the pagan world too, not least due to Ruth Barrett and her followers being active in both scenes. Same people, same TERF bigotry in both cases.


Yup. MWMF served as an incubator, a radicalizing center, and a rallying point in both propaganda and organizing.

28 December 2017

Fascism is speaking in bad faith

It is important to understand that fascism is not a political ideology in the same way that communism is. Communists have a detailed policy program which they espouse and pursue. Fascists do not; their policy prescriptions are often outright incoherent.

Fascism is better understood as a political method. And a key part of that method is speaking in bad faith: falsely describing what they want and care about, as a way of disrupting the process of political discussion itself. The vigor with which fascists do this is difficult to understand unless one has encountered it.

I have talked about this before, when talking about Milo Yiannopoulos, the Alt Right, and free speech:

We should not defend that as free speech; we need to recognize it as an attack on free speech.
....

This is a method and it has a purpose.

If we look at the history of far right movements, we can recognize the basic pattern. These movements are not simply opposed to liberalism-as-in-the-Democratic-Party; they are opposed to liberalism-as-in-liberal-democracy. They oppose universal human rights and equality. They aim to discredit liberalism by turning its systems against itself, making them impracticable, perverting the meaning of words like “free speech”.

In this we see a continuity between the fascists of the early 20th century and the fascists and para-fascists of today. Sartre's Réflexions sur la question juive describes this pattern in a troublingly familiar way.

Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play.

They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.

This is not restricted to the specifics of anti-semitism. It is a general rhetorical style. Here is Harry Frankfurt, the author of the wonderful short book On Bullshit summing up the method.

The distinction between lying and bullshitting is fairly clear. The liar asserts something which he himself believes to be false. He deliberately misrepresents what he takes to be the truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, is not constrained by any consideration of what may or may not be true. In making his assertion, he is indifferent to whether what he is says is true or false. His goal is not to report facts. It is, rather, to shape the beliefs and attitudes of his listeners in a certain way.

I bet you can guess who Frankfurt was talking about in the essay where he said that.

To get a feel for how this works in governance, I vigorously recommend the (exceedingly fun) party game Secret Hitler, in which players pretend to be a parliament where fascists are trying to pass legislation and get their leader elected Chancellor. In the game, the fascists know who each other are but the liberals don't; this makes the gameplay include the fascists lying about their intentions and pretending to be liberals. The player who is their secret leader tries the hardest to appear to be a liberal.

The game is structured such that the fascists are always outnumbered. But they usually win.

23 December 2017

Do your best

This is a story about doing your best.


So like a lot of people I have a certain ambivalence about Ms Amanda Palmer, but I love this thing she did, not so much for the thing (though it is delightful) but for the story behind it. So first check this out:




If you don't know, Palmer is a musician who does very lively stage shows, is wildly narcissistic, and has a vigorously cultivated network of fans. So she is interesting in part as a creature of our particular media age. She has gotten crowds of people for her music videos by saying on social media, “Hey, we are shooting a video in such-and-such place on Thursday. Show up wearing something cool.”

Her original plan had been to simply perform the difficult Tchaikovsky piece, despite being a pianist who plays by ear. You should read her telling of how she failed — except she didn't. The Boston Pops hadn't sent for the most technically proficient pianist, they sent for her, so she wised up and delivered what only she could have done.

Whatever it is you are doing, the gods didn't send someone else. They sent you. Do your best.

14 August 2017

Charlottesville

The Wild Hunt asked for a quote.


I got carried away.



My patron god is Hermes, god of communication, magic, and the agora, who sings to us in the packet-switched networks of the Internet. I ask him for clarity of speech and wings to bring these words where they are needed.

The god of my tribe, I inherited from my father. After the usage of the Chasidim, I call that god “Ha’Shem”, which means literally “the name”, because it is the tradition of my tribe never to speak its name. Ha’Shem has a well-deserved reputation for not playing well with others. But (after some negotiation) this god who does not accept icons and images has accepted an empty space of honor on my altar—the space above the space where I keep my offerings to Hermes, because Ha'Shem will brook no other gods before him.

Each year when the moon is right I do a magical ritual of my tribe called Pesach, or “Passover”. It celebrates the story of how Ha’Shem gave Moses a magic staff and told him to use it to liberate me from slavery. I say “me” because it is an important part of the ritual that I tell the story not as something that happened to other people but as something that happened to me. Pesach is not a Pagan observance but it has a flavor that speaks to my pagan sensibilities. We re-tell myths about magic, terror, and great deeds. We drink enough wine to elevate our spirits. We explain secret symbols. We sacrifice and eat symbolic ritual foods, the most famous of which is matzoh, the flat cracker which reminds me of one of the lessons of the myth: when the time comes to run from oppression, one should not wait long enough for the bread to rise.

A century ago my grandparents—perhaps mindful of that lesson—left the shtetls where they were born and sailed across the Atlantic to find a new life. No doubt they had cousins whose names I will never know who did not heed the lesson and would die in a genocide a few decades later.

I have been White all my life, but my father taught me his parents never were and that when he was young, neither was he. He told me this meant that it was something that could be taken away. And I read history, and learned about my lost cousins and millions more people in my tribe and countless others in other tribes and saw that this was true. I think about this every year at Pesach.

I think about this every day when I read the news.

Reading the news that way is not a new development since an election or a speech or some other thing. I have done it all my life because of what my father taught me. I think all American Jews, whether consciously or not, read the news asking themselves if it means that they don't have time for the bread to rise.

Today we are talking about Americans in Charlottesville who marched speaking the words and carrying the banner of my lost cousins' murderers. As they promised, they drew blood. As police stood by.

My nation fought in the bloodiest war in history against soldiers who stood under that banner, but strangely as I write this the supposed leader of my nation has not found the words to condemn that banner or what it stands for.

You may be shocked by this; I understand if you are. I am not. I have known for a long time that these people who will have my blood too if they get their way have been gathering strength. I have scented it in the wind for years. There are millions of them, and millions more Americans who will be untroubled if they succeed.

If you are reading the Wild Hunt there is a good chance that they want your blood too. They won't come for Pagans first, they think we are too silly. And frankly they won't come for Jews first either.

That they have such a long list of people to kill that we would have to wait is no comfort.

Despite this I am letting the bread that will nourish me and my community rise, because several years ago I swore an oath to another god, the Morrígan, that I would fight fascism in my nation. As is so often true of the important oaths, I did not know the implications of what I swore.

The priestess who invoked the Morrígan that day later marked my skin with a symbol of that commitment, a white rose commemorating Sophie Scholl, a German who stood in resistance to the Nazis. Marking my skin is a violation of Ha’Shem's laws for my tribe, and though he is accustomed to me violating those laws, this is one of special significance because Nazis forcibly marked the skin of my people in their murder factories.

As the priestess did the work and the rose took shape, she told me that she felt that my ancestors were awake to what was happening, conferring amongst themselves, and deciding that they understood.

I have no doubt that they do.

So, my Pagan brothers, sisters, and non-binary siblings, whom I know are far from silly, today I offer you the wisdom of my ancestors, and I offer you Hermes, Ha’Shem, the Morrígan, and two other gods I love.

One is the god Thomas Jefferson talked about despite not worshiping or believing existed. Our brilliant, monstrous, visionary American patriarch told us at least two things about his god. It endows us with inalienable rights. And Jefferson rightly trembled for his country when reflecting on this god's justice.

The other is Aphrodite. Most of us know her for her love for the lovers, but I recently learned another aspect of hers which I have come to adore: Aphrodite Pandēmos, god of all the people, whom I unverifiably personally gnosis as a god of democracy. Those who would levy war against her may benefit from reading the Illiad more carefully.

Hold fast. Love the gods and each other. And fuck fascism.







Some footnotes:

My friend Tori Egherman has another meditation on Jewishness, Whiteness, and America: A Home Safe From Fear.

“We were all seen as black,” my father explained to me. All those dark-haired children of immigrants.

His mother, my beloved grandmother, called Black people Schwartzes — black, in Yiddish. Despite her prejudices, she herself was often mistaken for “colored” and more than once was asked to ride at the back of the bus. In this day and age, the only place anyone would think she was black is Spokane, Washington or Ukraine.

....

And that’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s just what I can see. There have been so many ways I benefited with my apple cheeks and my Shirley Temple curls and my light skin. Most of them invisible to me. I still struggle, even with my privilege. It's not as though I have no fears. It's not as though I face no injustices.

A Twitter thread from Rabbi Dayna Ruttenberg

So “Jews” and “race” is complicated, esp in a world where white supremecists consider us not-white and those of us of European descent collect white privilege every day in America. I self-ID as white bc of privilege, I don't let Nazis define me. But it's not straightforward.

A Twitter thread from S. I. Rosenbaum:

oh my god ok

OFFICIAL EXPLANATION OF ASHKENAZI ETHNICITY:

03 July 2017

Free Speech is hard

Sam Theilman's essay You're Asking The Wrong Questions does some deep digging into the principle of free speech, looking at some hard cases. I suspect that I am a few ticks more sympathetic to the social justice advocates he references than he is, but I land pretty much where he does on principle.

Anyone who thinks the examples he points to are easy scares me.

The question of whether the cover is in poor taste is a settled one: Yes, absolutely. On a book that is not very good? You got it. On a book that is not worth defending?

Well, now, see, those are fighting words.

His failure to link the Lindy West essay he references is odd, so I have it here: Save Free Speech From Trolls.

19 February 2017

Jefferson

I am fascinated with Thomas Jefferson. I love him. He is my favorite of the Founders.

The first reason is the Declaration of Independence, which kicks off with two hundred words explaining liberal democracy with bracing clarity, then embodies those liberal-as-in-liberal-democracy values by submitting facts to a candid world so that he may justify an improvement to the political order. The Declaration is by my lights one of the greatest achievements in all of history. Jefferson was not truly its sole author — it is, after all, the shared statement of a committee — but his voice is integral to its greatness.

The second reason is the rest of his writing: clear, thoughtful, and inquisitive about every corner of the world. One might almost say the same of Franklin, but Franklin was earthy, practical, and grounded, while Jefferson was airy, intellectual, idealistic. The Library Of Congress began as Jefferson's personal library. In our mythology if not in fact, Jefferson is our First Nerd. And as I am an American nerd, Jefferson is my grandfather.

The third reason is that he was a monster. A profoundly and specifically American monster.

Jefferson was monstrous in owning slaves and profiting from their labor. We know he raped at least one of his slaves. (Any relationship we can imagine between Jefferson and Hemings does not make it rape any the less; she was a slave, bound to obedience by pain of death and worse.)

Jefferson was monstrous in advocating for and enacting genocide against American Indians.

And Jefferson was monstrous in hypocrisy, championing equality and liberty, calling American Indians his equals ... and yet still keeping slaves and pursuing genocide even as he wrote with conviction that these were evils.

So what is this love I have for Jefferson, the monstrous hypocritical genocidal slave rapist?

I hope my disgust at Jefferson is clear. I cultivate this disgust, deliberately summon it every time I speak his name. But I love him in his monstrosity, and I love him for being a reminder of the monstrosity to which I am heir, both in the way that all Americans inherit the consequences of those crimes and in the way that as another nerdy American White guy I inherit an ownership of those crimes.

To love truly is to embrace the whole of the beloved without delusion, to see clearly and love anyway, to know the worst and support the best. I would do that for my country, and for that there is no better symbol than Jefferson, who embodied so much of our very best and our very worst. We cannot understand the American condition or the human condition without recognizing that all of these things were the same person.

Jefferson — so much a skeptic that he took a scissors to his Bible to cut away every mention of miracles — said he trembled for his country when he reflected that God is just. As he should. As do I. Trembling in terror and in anguish and in awe and in awesome responsibility as I invoke his name.

29 January 2017

Art & politics

At the time, I tweeted a kind word about Meryl Streep's speech referencing the (then forthcoming) Trump administration, though I had mixed feelings about it.

For instance, her opening assertion that the glamorous and successful Hollywood people in the room constituted “the most vilified segments in American society” lacks perspective, to say the least. So I thought that — bracing as that was — I didn't need any more earnest actors talking about our national moment of dread.

I was wrong.

Because David Harbor's speech given tonight is a marvel: it talks about the news without talking about the news, by reaching down to fundamental things about the craft of acting, the nature of art, and (dear to my heart) the virtues of genre stories.




On behalf of this fearless and talented cast ...

[...]

I would just like to say that in light of all that's going on in the world today it's difficult to celebrate the already celebrated Stranger Things.

But: this award from you — who take your craft seriously and earnestly believe, like me, that great acting can change the world — is a call to arms from our fellow craftsmen and women to go deeper ... and through our art to battle against fear, self-centeredness, and exclusivity of our predominantly narcissistic culture. And through our craft to cultivate a more empathetic and understanding society by revealing intimate truths that serve as a forceful reminder to folks that when they feel broken and afraid and tired: they are not alone.

We are united in that we are all human beings, and we are all together on this horrible, painful, joyous, exciting, and mysterious ride that is being alive.

Now: as we act in the continuing narrative of Stranger Things we 1983 midwesterners will repel bullies. We will shelter freaks and outcasts, those who have no home. We will get past the lies. We will hunt monsters. And when we are at a loss amidst the hypocrisy and the casual violence of certain individuals & institutions we will, as per chief Jim Hopper, punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy the weak and the disenfranchised and the marginalized.

And we will do it all with soul, with heart, and with joy.

We thank you for this responsibility.

A few things I feel I must underline:

  • He opens by giving his castmates the highest compliment I think an actor can give another actor: fearless
  • This is the case for seemingly trifling art in times like these. And it is correct.
  • That last word: responsibility. Bingo.

28 December 2016

Necktie

So a while back I spat out this story on Facebook and now I'm posting it here.

There's this skinny young guy I run into on an irregular basis in downtown SF in the late afternoon. He sells snacks out of a little box to commuters on their way out of their office jobs. I never buy a snack from him.

But a few years back, after the first few weeks of saying “no thanks” to him as warmly as I could, I complimented his necktie because of Dapper Solidarity. And it became our habit that when he had a moment we would do a little howyadoin' and when he didn't have a moment I would give him a wave or a little salute. He started giving me dap because he knows White guys love that shit and I am so not above loving that shit and so I try to join in with the minimum of White gracelessness that I can muster.

I still know almost nothing about him other than that he has an open face.

So the day before I originally post this to Facebook I see him and it's a howyadoin' day and he says he's doing well and has a birthday coming up and I wish him Happy Birthday In Advance and he likes today's tie and it's one of my favorites, a tie I paradoxically don't wear very often because I like it so much, and I take off the tie and give it to him and he gives me dap and I roll into BART.

I don't know what this story is about. It's like a Harvey Pekar story that may not even be about anything.

It is definitely not about me being a swell guy. When I posted it to Facebook, I threatened that if someone even hinted at that in the comments I might well unFriend them because sweet suffering Sartre I hate even getting close enough to that thought to have to say that it's wrong.

It's not a story about what I did. It's maybe a story about something that happened to me. I suspect that it isn't even that much about me. But it's a story I felt I had to tell.