The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture


Of course Healthcare.gov calls the liberal project into question

First of all, kudos to liberals for being reality-based. After some equivocation, most liberals have succumbed to facts and admitted that the Healthcare.gov launch is a disaster—not glitchy, but a disaster.

As sure it is that the Sun rises, conservatives have pounced on the Healthcare.gov disaster to argue that it shows that the entire liberal project is made not credible.

And as sure as it is that the Sun sets, liberals have responded with a chorus of “Nuh-huh!”

The representative example is Matt Yglesias, who makes the facile point that bad websites notwithstanding, we find that plenty of countries and plenty of locales have functioning social insurance systems, so it’s silly to say that a bad website discredits the whole liberal enterprise.

Meanwhile Josh Barro notes (sorry for lumping you with the liberals, Josh!) that some DMVs are awful, but some DMVs are not and are pretty good. The implication is that there’s nothing intrinsic to being run by government that makes a system be crappy. Some government systems are badly managed, some are well managed.

There’s an obvious sense in which this is correct, at least superficially (but not unimportantly). Yes, Germany had a social welfare state in the 19th century. Yes, empirically, we do find that reasonably well-run government services can exist. And yes, conservatives should pay particular attention to the latter point, in the Tea Party and post-Bush era, because given that the welfare state won’t go away overnight they ought to pay particular attention to managing it well, and not just pruning it.

But, in the immortal words of Cyrano de Bergerac, “That’s a bit short, young man.”

How do I put this?

My main frustration with moderates and neoliberals is that even though they’ve reconciled themselves to the idea that some sort of capitalistic system is necessary in any worthwhile society, they seem to have expended no effort in understanding why capitalism works (with “works” defined as “being the worst economic system except for all the others that have been tried”).

They seem to take that as an inexplicable fact of life, and asking why it works would be akin to asking a mountain why it decided to sit there and not somewhere else. Okay, fine, the neoliberal seems to sigh, capitalism exists, it’s the least-bad thing there is, and we ought to make our peace with it, and advance with our liberal project anyway as best we can. In a way, this is an admirable posture, made of both pragmatism and fidelity to strongly-held moral instincts. And for obvious reasons I would much rather hand the reins of government to a neoliberal or a social-democrat than to a Communist; in fact I would much rather hand them to a smart neoliberal than to a dumb libertarian.

But to some advocates of free markets, the success of capitalism is not some bizarre, inexplicable fact of nature, it is something that tells us (or ought to tell us) important things about human behavior and patterns of organization that lead to collective success.

To some of us, what the success of capitalism shows, and the reason why capitalism works, is, basically, that humans are pretty much hairless monkeys who are not just greedy and quarrelsome but not very smart. Because us monkeys are dumb and proud, we can only assimilate a little bit of information, and we are terrible at communicating with each other. This, in turn, means that us monkeys are pretty lousy at two important tasks: planning and coordinating. We really are terrible at it.

Now this happens to have some pretty significant consequences for how you might help a tribe of monkeys achieve some progress in material welfare. If your tribe of monkeys works by having one Head Monkey tell the other monkeys what to do, the problem with that is that any monkey, being bad at assimilating information, will give the other monkeys really dumb instructions. And since the head monkey (and the other monkeys) are not only dumb but craven and quarrelsome, you will soon have chaos.

Paradoxically, if you let most of the monkeys mostly just do what they want, actually, they will bumble and stumble and grope their way towards a much more advantageous state of being.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

One problem with current society is that we take many things for granted when we shouldn’t. Everyone “knows” that Communism doesn’t work and capitalism at least sorta-kinda works. But this is a superficial realization. Understanding why is actually profound.

Central planning fails, and spontaneous order arises, because central planners never have enough knowledge, never have enough insight. Meanwhile, because humans are limited in their use and transmission of information, those humans who are closest to the thing they’re doing will have a much better understanding and be able to use these resources much more effectively. And, again, because humans are dumb, we find that decentralized means of aggregating information (whether commodity markets or Wikipedia) actually work much much better than centralized means, and are very precious.

In fact, if we look around at the Universe, we find that for some reason decentralized bottom-up innovation is a very very powerful force.

One of the many lamentable consequences of the Creationist movement has been that among educated elites it has become a kind of shibboleth to not only affirm faith in evolution by natural selection but to sort of scoff at any doubt that evolution by natural selection might not be obviously, self-evidently true.

But it’s worth it for just a minute to take off our cultural blinders and note how shocking to intuition and common sense evolution by natural selection really is. When a Creationist says “How could something as intricate and complex as an eye have evolved?” our first instinct is to get angry because we might be educated monkeys but we’re still monkeys, but we really should appreciate how, on its face, it really seems absurd that you could postulate the evolution of an eye through a totally unguided, bottom-up process. How much more intuitive, how in fact extremely compelling is the idea that something as complex, as awe-inspiring, as intricate, as glorious as an eye, or a tree, or a flower, or a hummingbird just has to be the direct product of an intelligence.

But in fact, we do know that eyes come from this unguided process, because for as much as humans can build rockets to space and stuff, we basically don’t even understand what makes a cell divide. Through our top-down, knowledge-intensive monkey way, we can build a rocket, but in terms of complexity and sophistication, a rocket to Mars is basically as advanced as a flint arrow, compared to an amoeba. And it takes all of human intelligence to build a rocket, but literally zero intelligence to build an amoeba!

That’s some wild shit, man. So wild that even though we actually know this is true, we totally ignore it.

We see this superiority of bottom-up trial-and-error over central planning all over human affairs. Tim Harford wrote a whole book about this, you really should read it.

We see it in the scientific method. Aristotelian science was a kind of scientific central planning, where scientists used reason to acquire “knowledge of the ultimate causes of things.” The problem is that because we’re dumb monkeys, we can’t actually know the ultimate causes of things. And because we’re not only dumb monkeys, we’re proud monkeys, it’s very hard for us to actually convince ourselves that we can’t know these things. And so science was basically just derp for roughly two thousand years; even though, and this is crucial, early scientists were actually really intelligent people! The point isn’t that they were dumb; the point is that they weren’t. But they were still monkeys.

Then we invented the scientific method, which could really be called “knowledge for monkeys.” Don’t actually try to know very much. Just do experiments, and see what works. Keep your experiments as simple as possible. Repeat your experiments as much as possible.

Again, because of the benefit of hindsight, because its benefits are all around us and have been all our lives, we take it for granted that it’s obvious that the scientific method is superior, and it is, but it’s also worth pausing for a second to note how bizarre it is.

You’re telling me the way to know more about the causes of things in the Universe is to actually stop looking for them? That to understand natural phenomena I shouldn’t actually try to understand them? What are you, some cut-rate Zen master or some shit?

(Yes, I know that things are a little bit more complicated than that, because science evolves through experiment within theoretical paradigms and not merely by bottom-up experimentation. But the point that bottom-up experimentation is crucial is true—in fact, it’s only bottom-up experimentation that changes paradigms.)

In fact, this is so hard to understand that we still don’t understand it, or else anyone who sees a headline with the words “studies show” would instantly projectile vomit. Most people on the street think science is this weird machine that somehow produces “truths.” Heck, even scientists think that science creates capital-t Truths instead of limited, small-t, contingent truths subject to experimentation, otherwise Richard Dawkins would have taken a vow of silence. It’s a testament to the power of the scientific method that even people who don’t understand it can use it profitably.

As Feynman said, “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”, and yet most people today believe that science is the belief in the knowledge of experts. Because we’re monkeys who are dumb and proud, and because we’re proud we refuse to acknowledge that we’re dumb. In the past, we took priests of a religion that proclaimed the value of property and turned them into wealthy princes (and monkeys that they are, they gladly obliged), and now we take priests of a religion that disregards capital-T truths and turn them into purveyors of capital-T Truths (and monkeys that they are, they gladly oblige).

Another point about monkey-knowledge (aka, science) is that the scientific method is only successful on a relative scale. The scientific method is stupendously superior to Aristotelian science, and yet most science experiments fail. Most results are highly contingent, and limited, and even the promising results turn out to be non-replicable.

But that’s the thing about bottom-up, trial-and-error experimentation: most of it fails. In fact, it’s if you don’t have failure that you have a problem. The key thing is that you have a process that identifies success (in science, replication) and that lowers the cost of failure (so that you can run more experiments).

So if you’ve been following me all around this roundabout way, you will see where it leads back to capitalism and to theories of government. It turns out that we’re dumb monkeys who are not only dumb, but too proud to admit to ourselves that we’re dumb. But it turns out that, because we’re dumb, proud monkeys, the least-bad way we’ve got to achieve some process is through bottom-up trial-and-error experimentation, because that’s the thing dumb, proud monkeys do the least bad at. And even though bottom-up experimentation will be very messy, very imperfect, very problematic, it will still be much, much superior to central planning because monkeys are even much much worse at that. But because we’re monkeys who are not only dumb but proud, we refuse to acknowledge our dumbness.

We acknowledge the superiority of the scientific method because we are forced to, but we refuse its epistemological implications. We take the success of science to mean that we can have knowledge after all, but what the success of science actually means is that we can’t.

And we acknowledge the superiority of free-market capitalism because we are forced to, but we refuse to acknowledge its human and social implications. If free markets really work better than central planning, then we really are dumb and proud monkeys and we should really start organizing as such. But because we’re dumb and proud monkeys that’s a really really hard pill to swallow.

In fact, some advocates of free market capitalism make this mistake too. Capitalism works, they say, because capitalists are (somehow) super heroes with super awesome ideas that come fully-formed out of their thigh and that, in their great generosity, they allow us to have for just $9.99. And capitalists are not just awesomer-er, some versions of this argument go, they’re better.

No! Monkeys, the lot of them! Jobs, monkey. Bezos, monkey. Musk, monkey. Edison, monkey. Ford, monkey.

So here’s what I’m driving at. It’s a reasonable generalization, I believe, to state that the liberal project rests on a (largely unspoken) assumption, which is that planning can work. Or, perhaps more accurately and charitably, that to have successful planning is only moderately difficult.

Thus the DMV argument. Sure, some DMVs are bad, but some DMVs are good, and if you put good people in charge of the DMV, then the DMV will work.

The problem with that isn’t that the DMV can’t work.

The problem with that is that the overwhelming record of history shows that it’s highly unlikely that the DMV can work in any sort of sustainable way.

The reason for that is that planning is much, much harder than we are inclined to think.

Planning is very hard because we are dumb monkeys.

And we are strongly inclined despite all evidence to the contrary to believe that planning can work because we’re not only dumb but proud monkeys and we don’t want to admit to ourselves that we’re dumb monkeys.

And when I say planning I mean planning.

I don’t mean “the market” versus “the gummit.” I mean planning.

All planning is extremely difficult.

In some sense, it’s utterly baffling that CEOs of big companies think the private sector is more efficient than the government, because boy, are big companies utterly awful. Big companies are notoriously awful at planning. If big companies were good at planning, no startup would ever succeed, and yet not only do startups succeed, they succeed all the time.

Conservatives like to grouse at the perverse incentives of tenured public school teachers, but any big corporation is a tangled mess of awful, destructive incentives.

It’s monkeys all the way down.

99.9% of science experiments fail, and yet that is still so much better than anything else.

This understanding of the role of limited information and our own limitedness is really, really, really, deeply counter-intuitive, but it is also really important. Because we are dumb, proud monkeys, we think we know a lot more than we actually know. And so we make big mistakes. We invade Middle Eastern countries. We think we can centrally plan an industry that’s 20% of GDP. And when the car ends up in the ditch, we say “Guess the plan was wrong!” No, you chimp! The plan wasn’t wrong. A plan is impossible. We’re willing to admit our plan was wrong. It is much, much, much harder to admit that planning itself is impossible.

Donald Rumsfeld is actually an extremely talented and competent guy. Just like Bob McNamara before him. Just like Cass Sunstein. Just like you-name-it. The point isn’t that these people are dumb and if we got smart people instead they would do better. The point is the opposite. The point is that these people are very smart, but you’re still asking them to do something that is impossible.

When we see a company fail, we reassure ourselves that we aren’t monkeys by declaring that the people who run the company are stupid. It’s much harder to admit the truth, which is that in most cases they’re actually very smart.

The point isn’t that a well-run DMV is a physical impossibility. The point is that if you assume a well-run DMV as a crucial part of your plan, then you are basically rowing against the laws of history and human nature. You are raising a middle finger to God in an Old Testament story where God routinely smites people who tell him to f off. But hey, you might get lucky! But “This extremely unlikely thing that basically only ever happens intermittently and in very specific circumstances just needs to happen for this extremely ambitious and far-reaching initiative to work” is a very very poor rationale for public policy. And yet it’s the rationale we always employ! We don’t put it that way of course, least of all to ourselves.

The reason why Healthcare.gov puts in question the liberal project is because you do not build something like Healthcare.gov unless you have a delusional confidence in the possibility of planning.

As Yuval Levin pointed out, Healthcare.gov is not a bad website selling a good product, Healthcare.gov is the product. There is now a non-trivial chance, acknowledged even by liberals now, that Healthcare.gov’s malfunctions could put the entire American individual insurance market on a death spiral. Whoops. If Healthcare.gov doesn’t work, all of Obamacare could implode, and with it the US healthcare system. Whoops. The overwhelming record of history shows that websites such as these are extremely extremely hard to pull off (and if you think that’s hindsight talking, talk to anyone involved in large-scale IT projects, they could’ve told you). The point isn’t that it’s impossible for any government to make a website that works. The point is that the kind of people who are so confident in their ability to make a good website that it’s a crucial part of their plan against all good judgement should not be trusted with the levers of public policy, because they are dangerously delusional. And we have a word for that kind of people, and that word is “liberal.” A prerequisite of being a liberal is having a faith in the possibility of planning that, when put together with the evidence of monkeyness, is exposed as a delusion. A highly understandable, a highly natural, delusion, precisely because our monkeyness makes us delusional. But a delusion nonetheless.

Ok, so when does planning work?

Answer A: Almost never.

Answer B: When it does, it almost only ever works in very limited and partial ways that involve a lot of bottom-up experimentation.

Ok, but what about World War II/the Manhattan Project/the Apollo Project/DARPA/that DMV that runs good?

Yglesias points to the fact that NASA can put a robot on Mars as evidence that the government can do stuff. Of course, for a country that sent a probe to the outer Solar System 45 years ago, putting a roomba on Mars is laughably pathetic.

It’s not the space equivalent of Healthcare.gov, because the roomba does get to Mars instead of crashing on the White House lawn, but it’s very much the space equivalent of right-wing-talking-point-DMV. Compare the evolution of space technology to the evolution of information technology over the past 50 years. Which one was driven by government? Riiiiight. Now read the essay A Rocket to Nowhere and have a good cry. When the space industry really gets into gear, the wretched state of what passes for space exploration will become as glaring as an internet.

But, ok, ok, the government does do cool stuff once in a while.

That being said, when you understand, actually understand, deep-down understand our monkeyness, and understand the difficulty of planning, you understand that the instances of successful government planning actually prove the case for monkeyness, just like the failures of private-sector corporations do. The point isn’t that there’s some awesome magic thing that makes the private sector efficient and gummit bad, the point is that we’re monkeys. If you think private sector good, gummit bad, you still think that there’s a place where there’s no monkeys. Monkeys everywhere, you monkey. Repeat it every time you go to bed.

As I wrote about DARPA inventing the internet, the way the government invented the internet was through bottom-up innovation. DARPA hired a bunch of hippies and gave them free rein to screw up tons of things. It was totally unbureaucratic. It was, in fact, all more than a little bit insane—the way most startups are insane.

I don’t think I’m descending into Rush Limbaugh-ism when I say that this is quite far from being the “default setting” of government. The success of DARPA calls into question the liberal project for the same reason as the failure of Healthcare.gov does, because it shows the futility of planning, and the virtues of bottom-up experimentation. It shows the futility of “markets good, gummit bad” which is another version of rejecting monkeyness. It shows the validness of embracing monkeyness. DARPA is the exception that proves the rule—not in a facile idiomatic way, but in the profound way that it stands out precisely because it is so unlike the way government normally operates.

Again, the point isn’t that there is some inherent property to government that makes it sucky, the point is that the way government is set up makes extremely unlikely that our monkey natures will be oriented towards good outcomes.

When writing about the scientific method I showed that one thing that makes these systems work, besides bottom-up experimentation, is clarity of a definition of success (in the case of science, reproducibility) and a possibility of failure leading to re-experimentation.

The Manhattan Project and the Apollo Project exhibited those traits. First, the definition of success was abundantly clear. Make a bomb make a really big boom. Put a man on the Moon and return him safely. (Compare with, say, education and healthcare, where it is quite literally impossible to define success adequately.) Second of all, the possibility of experimentation was there. Really really smart people were taken and written blank checks. (Note, again, how unlike the normal operation of government this is.) Finally, there was enough political will that failure was taken in strides. When some of the Apollo rockets blew up, Congress didn’t all of a sudden decide that NASA would be run by lawyers, because everyone was scared shitless by the Soviets’ early lead in space. Again, contrast this with the mess that NASA is today.

Tom Ricks convincingly described how, during World War II, most US Army generals failed, and were very quickly removed when they did. For all the top-down-ness that is inherent in the US Army, necessity being the mother of invention led them to, in spite of themselves, create some bottom-up innovation. Individual corps commanders who performed were rewarded, those who didn’t were culled. There was much unfairness to the system—not infrequently, genuinely talented commanders were unlucky and removed nonetheless. Just like many talented entrepreneurs experience failure. But it still made the system much healthier overall. Ricks aptly contrasts this with the ineptly bureaucratic way the US military now functions.

True fact: which was the first large organization to experiment with making employees rate their superiors? The Wehrmacht. Yep. (Source: Wikipedia, so it’s gotta be true.)

What we find is that top-down planning can kinda-sorta occasionally work under basically the following conditions: 1) clarity of objective (invade Europe; make plutonium go boom; land on the Moon; make money); 2) effective urgency, by which is meant that either necessity (kill the Germans or they’ll kill us; release a great new personal computer or go bankrupt) or a great political will (“we choose to go to the Moon”; the iPhone will be ready to ship by June) which seems to get the monkeys to be somewhat less awful at grokking and sharing information and letting their pride get into the way of collaboration; 3) extensive bottom-up experimentation within the top-down framework (and sometimes causing change/abolition of the top-down framework).

We find that these conditions quite rarely obtain, and that these conditions seem to be necessary but not sufficient. Top-down planning fails plenty even when these conditions are met.

We also find that while these conditions obtain rarely overall, they obtain vanishingly rarely in the government sector. Meanwhile they obtain less rarely in the private sector, because the private sector is by its nature more (not completely, not intrinsically, but slightly more) oriented towards bottom-up innovation, creating failure and bounceback, and providing clarity of objective.

I think this is also why founder-driven companies consistently outperform professional manager-driven companies. It’s not that they’re genuises who have this great vision, or at least it’s not just that. Yes, having a better top-down plan helps. But in the end they’re monkeys too and they screw up all the time. It’s that they provide the (2), the effective urgency which breaks down our innate, monkey tendency towards bureaucracy, and waste, and stupidity, and focuses us.

Again, I want to emphasize the extent to which the private sector is by and large an enormous engine of bureaucracy. Most large companies are only slightly more efficient than the proverbial DMV, and many may be less.

But as a prudential rule, assuming that the government can’t plan things makes a lot of sense, exceptions notwithstanding.

It’s a prudential rule, and it’s a good one. Just like when we prevent banks from having almost no capital, we’re not saying it’s impossible for a bank to have almost no capital and still succeed. But we still don’t allow that because we recognize that a) it’s still very unlikely; and b) when it fails the consequences are catastrophic. It’s possible for a financial institution to be totally reckless and succeed, even without bailouts, but the grain of the Universe goes against it. It’s possible in the same way that kayaking upstream of a torrent is I guess maybe possible sometimes? I know nothing about kayaking. It’s possible only when a bunch of stars that almost never align align. And even when it’s possible, history teaches us that it’s only possible for a time. Again, the analogy with government planning works. NASA once pushed the frontier of human exploration and knowledge, and now it’s building rockets to nowhere. And when you say we should stop building rockets to nowhere and unleash some entrepreneurial innovation, you’re accused of hating America and pissing on everything. But the Apollo Project! Precisely. Monkeyness tells us the Apollo Project is possible, and also not repeatable as such.

The law of monkeyness is to human affairs as the law of entropy is to the Universe. Once/if Healthcare.gov is up and running again, we will see plenty of longread post-mortems in our nation’s greatest journals, and plenty of earnest wonks will inweigh on the specific mistakes that were made and say: “See? If we hadn’t made specific mistakes X, Y and Z, it would have been fine!” The wiser, monkeyness-embracing realizes that by the nature of the thing mistakes will always be made. And in some complicated way that is impossible to forecast a priori, the attempt to prevent mistakes X, Y and Z will lead to mistakes A, B and C next time around. Such is the way of dumb, proud monkeys.

If you add monkeyness to the nature of modern democratic government, you quickly realize why monkeyness makes successful government planning highly unlikely not just in abstract, but now. As we’ve said, two necessary conditions for functioning central planning include tremendous political will and a tolerance for failure. These are the things that are absent from modern democratic system. And for good reason. It’s great for humanity that Steve Jobs terrorized Apple employees into making gorgeous phones, but the idea of Steve Jobs in control of the FBI makes Nixon look like a Quaker.

Democratic government is a government for monkeys, and that’s why it works. It’s a government for monkeys because monkeys get arbitrarily fired and replaced by other monkeys at regular intervals, which means there is some learning-through-failure that goes on. But it’s a government for monkeys because it’s full of checks and balances. The whole idea of checks and balances is that politicians are craven and proud and dumb and are going to spend time fighting each other instead of fighting the people. And it’s wonderful! It embraces monkeyness.

But the checks on government, particularly in the modern era, aren’t just checks of the constitutional variety. Popular opinion is also a great (perhaps the most important) check on politicians. And it’s easy to see how the influence of popular opinion makes planning impossible. Absent Sputnik scaring the crap out of the Nation, if you’re the monkey who decides to make NASA go to the Moon and your rocket blows up killing a photogenic astronaut, a Congressmonkey will give you a proctology exam on national TV. As I wrote, bottom-up experimentation is glorious over the long haul but incredibly messy up close, and the nature of politics ensures that all of the messy experimentation and failure is going to look awful and be a huge political hit. Which explains why the successful examples of government planning happened as a result of World War II or the Cold War, where the existential threat upon the nation briefly and partially suspended the normal rules of politics.

That’s the impact of broad popular opinion, but there is also the impact of narrow popular opinion, ie special interests. NASA is probably, net-net, a waste of resources at this point, but seriously reforming it is politically impossible at this point because too many entrenched interests are at play.

Now if you’re a conservative, this is okay, because monkeys are monkeys. A democracy is a regime for monkeys and this is good (or, less bad than the alternatives). A market is a regime for monkeys and this is good (or, less bad than the alternatives).

But plenty of liberals sometimes realize that the (or, more accurately, a reason) reason why it’s so hard to have Government-Planned Projects is because of this messy business of politics and checks and balances. Or, in other words, democracies. And so plenty of liberals, with the best of intentions, find themselves really really craving more power for the central government, so that we can finally get those big projects gone. Now I’m not saying all liberals are closet fascists, or even some of them (well, maybe some of them), but, again, we are proud monkeys. Proud monkeys crave power, and because they are proud, they need to reassure themselves that they are craving power for other reasons than the love of power. And I don’t think it’s unfair to say that liberals have an impulse towards increasing the power of central government.

And this is where conservatives start thinking about Second Amendment remedies. Because, of course, it’s not only deeply unwise (politics is only the proximate cause of the failure of planning; see: Soviet Union. No, really. See it. ), it’s also very dangerous and deeply morally wrong. It would be good if we could give lots of power to a benevolent non-monkey, but, again, we’re monkeys. And monkeyness means not only that we’re very awful when we get power but also that we’ll never learn to not crave it anyway, even with the best of intentions.

Meanwhile, markets, because they encourage bottom-up experimentation, because they have mechanisms for aggregating information which are necessary for our stupid monkey brains, because they provide failure-bounceback mechanisms, because they provide (some) clarity of objective, tend to be preferable to central planning whenever they can’t work. Not because they don’t suck. They do. Because they’re just an organization of monkeys. But they just suck slightly less. And that slightly less happens to make a very big difference.

Okay, so where does that leave us?

To the complicated and counterintuitive point that the overwhelming record of history is that bottom-up innovation produces the best outcomes, particularly for groups of monkeys such as ourselves. That monkeyness makes planning extremely hard. That planning should be resisted not only because it’s very unlikely to work but because proud monkeys will always overestimate their own skills at planning. That government planning in particular should be resisted because not only is it even more unlikely to work than other forms of planning, but because the consequences of failure of public sector planning are much more likely to be catastrophic than the consequences of private sector planning failure.

And if you want an example of that, look no further than Healthcare.gov.

Libertarian Provincialism

Let me speak in broad over-generalizations.

Libertarians who live in America look around them and see cops shooting unarmed pedestrians, people getting arrested for growing pot or selling (delicious) raw milk, taxes and government spending and debt going ever higher. In short, disaster. And all of these things are bad and it is very good that we have libertarians railing against them.

But where it leads them astray is that they are often taken to make the following sorta-syllogism: “America has terrible policies. Most of the people around me are either for them or just not up in arms about them as I am. The combination of most people being dumb and democracy produces terrible policies.”

Thus the venerable Ilya Somin in this month’s issue of Cato Unbound. (And of course Bryan Caplan wrote a whole book about this.)

The only problem with that is that if you take a little bit of a broader perspective (both geographically and historically) you realize that democracies are actually really awesome and that they kick the sh** out of all other forms of government. I mean, it’s not even close! On every front: protecting civil liberties, developing markets, etc.

Almost all the countries that have the best policies are democracies. It’s really quite lopsided. The only exceptions are either short-lived affairs (Chile) or exceptions that prove the rule (Singapore).

Libertarians who bash democracy are really sawing off the branch that they’re sitting on because to criticize democracy for those reasons is really to undermine markets. The idea that voters have to be experts to make good choices is like the idea that consumers have to be experts to make good buying decisions. Consumers are stupid, but markets nonetheless work for a bunch of complicated reasons, but at bottom because markets are a decentralized trial-and-error process and that in a highly complex world decentralized trial-and-error produces more robust outcomes. This is why Ayn Rand is so dumb: markets work not because of supermen, but because of millions of idiots making mistakes. If only people with an economics degree were allowed to participate in markets, all the markets would break down (except the market for economists). Over the long run, millions of lemmings make spontaneous order.

Because the feedback mechanisms of pulling the lever on the wrong guy are more diffuse than the feedback mechanism of making the wrong decision in the marketplace, it takes longer for the benefits to emerge, but if you look at the broad sweep of history and the planet today, it’s just no contest. Democracy works because it fires people who produce bad outcomes. And over the past centuries, democracy has led to more libertarianism than ever. Median-voter-pandering presidents and prime ministers have legalized trade and gay marriage and cut taxes and abolished Prohibition and and and and. The march of liberty goes on at an excruciatingly slow pace, but it does go on. Because your neighbors are dumb. Not you, of course. No. You’re the smart one.

Announcing The DeLong Club

My main contention about the healthcare system in the United States is that the main problem/opportunity is a lack of bottom-up, consumer-driven innovation.

Many economists, wonks and pundits have over the years advocated the idea that the way to have bottom-up innovation in healthcare while also achieving social justice goals is through the medium of health savings accounts (HSAs). A portion of your income every year would be put on such an account, which you would use to consume healthcare services.

HSAs aren’t perfect*, nor is any healthcare system, but many people who understood the trials of healthcare reform as encouraging both fairness and innovation thought that HSAs should be part of any healthcare reform.

This has become important now, of course, because of the healthcare reform act, which takes a centralizing approach to reform the healthcare sector, and basically sees no role for HSAs. I believe this is a grievous error.

The idea of HSAs is chiefly associated with the political Right in the US, but over the years countless economists, wonks and pundits associated with the political Left have advocated HSAs as a way to reform the US healthcare system. One of the most prominent is Berkeley economist and superblogger Brad DeLong.

As the ACA rollout moves from trouble to trouble and as the Right inchoately stumbles and gropes towards some sort of alternative proposal, I think it behooves people of good will on both sides of the political divide to think in good faith about positive reforms to the healthcare system.

THEREFORE, inspired by Greg Mankiw’s Pigou Club of “economists and pundits who have publicly advocated higher Pigovian taxes, such as gasoline taxes or carbon taxes” I am starting the DeLong Club, an elite group of Left-wing economists and pundits who have advocated health-savings accounts as a part of healthcare reform.

Here’s the list I’ll start with:
- Brad DeLong
- David Goldhill
- Dylan Matthews
- Matt Miller
- Jason Furman (Hat tip to Michael Hendrix )

I’m sure there’s more. Give me nominations (with sources, preferably).

O Lord, save your people, the remnant of true conservatism!

I would call the now decisively failed government shutdown / default brinksmanship a Hail Mary pass except that it’s actually possible that a teammate could catch a wild pass and score a goal whereas this whole political CF never had a plausible route to success. Rather the best metaphor I can see for the recent actions of the suicide lemming caucus and their Tea Party fans is as a civic religion equivalent to remnant apocalypticism.

Megan McArdle likes to draw on South Park’s underpants gnomes model of causation in business/politics/whatever but the original underpants gnomes model is apocalypticism, which typically works like this:

1. Recommit ourselves to God
2. ????
3. Utopia (eg, the Kingdom of God, restoration of the Davidic line, etc)

In apocalypticism the first step is premised on collective theodicy in which the travails of God’s people are punishment for the apostasy of the royal family and/or the nation and in which the purity of the apocalyptic community can reconcile the nation with God. Similarly, in the far right mentality if the post-colonial socialists are taking over it’s only because of the perfidious RINOs. In apocalypticism, penitence often involves a sort of one-upsmanship of purity, illogical rejection of common sense, and ostracism. For instance the Essenes lived apart from society and had rather radical purity taboos, even by Jewish standards. Apocalypticism often, but doesn’t always, go together with remnant theology and heretic hunting rather than “big tent” thinking.

Of course the “????” step two in apocalypticism is divine intervention which at least has the virtue of making sense on its own terms. (Note that attempts to provoke divine intervention not only include innocuous ascetic virtue but also more antagonistic “heighten the contradictions” tactics like mass suicide, provocative political theater, etc). However plausible or implausible it may be to count on divine intervention to slay the seven headed dragon, it strikes me as more internally coherent than political notions that pushing a radical agenda will somehow win the next election on turnout, give the electorate a choice not an echo, or any of the other obvious bullshit you hear from median voter theorem denialists in the derp industrial complex.

A Licensing Opportunity

1st of March, 1600 Anno Domini

To his majesty Felipe Hapsburg III,

His majesty Christian den Fjerde, king of Denmark-Norway, sends you greetings and congratulations on your recent ascension and wishes your reign to extend peace and prosperity to Spain.

We are writing to alert you that your realm’s “New Spain” project infringes on methods belonging to the Kingdom of Denmark-Norway. We wish to offer you an opportunity for licensing, including back-royalties for past activities of New Spain.

In particular, the kingdom of Denmark-Norway lays claim to various patents and other intellectual property stemming from its “Vinland” project with various filings contained in the Íslendingasögur. Although the Vinland project is no longer an ongoing project, in bankruptcy its assets have reverted to the crown and among these are various techniques infringed upon by New Spain. The most important of these patents is for “Growth in Commerce and Enrichment of the Realm Through Expansion to Lands Across the Ocean.” However New Spain also infringes on various other of the Vinland patents, including “A Method for Enslavement of Skrælingjar” and “Export of Agricultural Commodities Derived From Exotic Plants.”
We would therefore like to offer you the opportunity to license the Vinland patents to cover your activities in New Spain. A licensing deal must account not only prospectively but retrospectively for all such stuffs exported back into Christendom. It has come to our attention that New Spain has to date exported approximately 17,000 tons of silver in addition to several hundred tons of gold and many more tons of exotic useful things such as tabac, maize, cocoa, and various spices.

Please send an embassy to discuss licensing terms and royalties immediately so as to avoid a cease and desist on all activities of New Spain.

His Majesty King Christian IV
Frederiksborg Palace
Copenhagen, Denmark-Norway

[cross-posted to Code and Culture]

Bleg: Great Books For Your Child

The Internet is currently abuzz with David Bowie’s list of 100 must-read books and justifiably so—it’s a great list.

This brings something to mind. Our current plan (which is always subject to modification) for educating our children is to put them in Montessori school from 3 to 12, and unschool them thereafter. It’s not going to be a full unschooling, however. There will be some things that will be mandated of them.

In particular, I want to put my kids through a Great Books tutorial, and put together a list of books that I want them to read between 12 and 16/18. So I’m trying to come up with my own list of Great Books to put them through.

I know the lists that are currently in existence, but I want our own list to be slightly different. I want the books to cover disciplines outside the traditional liberal arts (e.g. economics; business) and cover more temporary topics. I also want the list to include literature.

But the idea is to give my kids a broad and deep exposure to the liberal arts, human (Western (?)) thought from the pre-Socratics to today.

With that in mind, I’d love to have your suggestions for books for inclusion in the list.

Here are some tips on what I have in mind. Please refrain from suggesting books that are already on most “Great Books” lists, as I’m already aware of them (an exception to this rule would be to say something like: “You really can’t do without, e.g. The Gorgias because XYZ”). A bleg-within-the-bleg is that I’m utterly ignorant of Anglo and particularly recent American literature and I’d like some of that stuff in there. Another tip is that I’m eager to include in the list what I’d call “secondary” material; meaning, I’d e.g. rather have my kids read the best book on Kant’s philosophy than force them to slog through the Critiques which are really technical and abstruse—but that requires that the “secondary” book be really outstanding and that’s one of the things I need help on. More generally, it seems that most “Great Books” list include books based on their historical importance rather than what a reader may get from them. Is the best way to understand Newton’s Principia Mathematica to read it? I don’t think so, actually. And I certainly don’t want to inflict Das Kapital on them, though they will certainly read The Communist Manifesto. Another thing is that, to an extent, I’m willing to define “Book” broadly; for example, on the list are Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose series and Leonard Bernstein’s lectures, even though they’re video, so if you have some great ideas for non-book material that would fulfill the purpose I have outlined, let me know. I’d also like to include a “meta” book like How to Read a Book, though I know TAS Alum Alan has criticized that one. I’m also open to “lifehacks” books (like How to Win Friends and Influence People and such) if they’re really good.

With that in mind, to further guide you (and spark discussion!) here are some ideas of the books I’m considering for inclusion, bearing in mind that there’s no final list (and there might never be):
- The Didache
- Books by Church Fathers not named Augustine (I am so ignorant! Give me the recs! Especially the Orthodox contingent! (You know who you are))
- Good books on/of Jewish theology
- F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (?)
- Milton Friedman, A Monetary History of the United States (?)
- François Varillon, Joie de croire, joie de vivre
- Marc Bloch, The Strange Defeat
- Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter (shocking, I know)
- Charles de Gaulle, France and Her Army, The Edge of the Sword, Memoirs of War, Memoirs of Hope
- Kierkegaard (which one?)
- John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem, Redemptoris Mater, Centesimus Annus, Evangelium Vitae, Ut Unum Sint, Ecclesia de Eucharistia
- Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus trilogy
- Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul
- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann in Jerusalem
- Alain Besançon, A Century of Horrors
- Primo Levi, If This Is A Man, The Truce
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
- Amar Bhidé, The Venturesome Economy
- Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s Solution
- Eliyahu Goldratt, The Goal, The Choice
- Andy Grove, High Output Management, Only The Paranoid Survive
- Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, Small Prose Poems
- Eric Cobast, Leçons particulières de culture générale
- Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (?)
- Vladimir Volkoff, The Turnaround, The Angel Chronicles, The Moods of the Sea, Disinformation, Towards a French Metric
- Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, America at the Crossroads
-

I could go on, but I think I’ve given you an idea. There are so many pieces that are missing here: art history; the Middle Ages; Catholic doctrine and mysticism; etc. Not enough fiction, not enough poetry…

…In any case, the floor is yours! Please help me. This should be a good discussion.

A Hermeneutic Of Pontiffs

I remember that one day I produced a theological musing on Twitter. One of my tweeps responded with something like “If you take that to an extreme, that’s [Heresy X].” I thought about that for a second and my response was “Well, don’t do that, then.”

I often think about that moment because whenever we write about theology there is a great room for interpreting anything anybody says, because the terms we use are so imperfect, and perhaps because Christian theology contains so many carefully (un?)balanced paradoxes.

It seems to me that this should lead to a general principle of, well, charity in interpreting what people say in this arena. If I am an orthodox Catholic, and I say “X” and some version of “X” is heretical, then you should probably assume that that’s not what I meant.

I say this, of course, because whenever Pope Francis says something, some Catholics have what seems best referred to as a hissy fit. And these hissy fits, invariably, seem to be based not on what the Pope actually said but what he seems to have said.

So for example, when the Pope says “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them”, that could be interpreted as a brief for moral relativism. Of course, the only problem with that interpretation would be that it would be arrant nonsense. Because, you know, he’s the Pope, and also an orthodox Catholic, as he has demonstrated on countless occasions.

What’s striking is that the same people who always wish to interpret the Pope in an unorthodox fashion are always so prompt in explaining why, say, the media are interpreting a Pope’s comments wrong.

The problem here, as always, is pride. We think like politicians. We parse words for whether they help the Republican Party of the Church or the Democratic Party of the Church, whereas we should be humbly receiving the teachings of the Vicar of Christ. When those teachings seem shocking to us, common sense alone dictates that, instead of rending our garments, we should, with humility and charity, check ourselves to see what we can learn.

So, for example, in his most recent interview, when the Pope criticizes proselytizing, is he criticizing evangelization? That’s what some people on Twitter seemed to think. It also doesn’t make sense, because the Pope later praises the Jesuits’ missionary work and, you know, more generally, he’s a Catholic bishop. It seems to make more sense if we understand his criticism as applying to pointless, antagonizing grandstanding (which is so often the form “evangelization” takes), and as calling us to an ethic of love in addressing unbelievers.

The wrong interpretation is particularly sad in this case, and missing the forest for the trees, since in this case the interview itself is an inspiring example of evangelization, with the Pope inviting (with striking humility!) a secular atheist journalist to a candid conversation. You think the Pope doesn’t care about evangelization? He is showing you how to do it! Note that his interlocutor leaves, while not converted, absolutely in awe, which is a pretty good first step. Note how the Pope speaks to his interlocutor in terms he can relate to—terms which might irk you, if you are a “conservative Catholic”, but terms which might bring people to the flock.

We really have to learn from the Pope.

Pope Francis Spits On Benedict And John Paul II's Corpse Again

Will you get a load of this?

We should not allow our faith to be drained by too many discussions of multiple, minor details, but rather, should always keep our eyes in the first place on the greatness of Christianity. I remember […] I was asked to give interviews and I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned the ordination of women, contraception, abortion and other such constantly recurring problems. If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the Church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith – a commitment from which we must not allow such situations to divert us.

This is really too much. Poor Pope Emeritus Benedict is in seclusion and can’t say anything about this stuff, but I’m sure he must be fuming! The era of John Paul II and Benedict XVI is well and truly over, and now we’re just 5 seconds away from womenpriests, balloon masses, and worshipping the Great One Togetherness. Francis is very clearly trying to undermine and reject the conservatives in the Church with these words. They may be nice, but they’re just going to get misinterpreted and we can’t have that.

Wait, what’s the full quote?

We should not allow our faith to be drained by too many discussions of multiple, minor details, but rather, should always keep our eyes in the first place on the greatness of Christianity. I remember, when I used go to Germany in the 1980s and ’90s, that I was asked to give interviews and I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned the ordination of women, contraception, abortion and other such constantly recurring problems. If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the Church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith – a commitment from which we must not allow such situations to divert us.

Wait, Germany?

Oh! It’s a quote from Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.

Nevermind then.

h/t Why I Am Catholic

Just In Case You Thought There Are Catholics Who Are Better Than Other Catholics...

After Pope Francis’ interview, the “group” Catholics United put out a press release titled “Pope to Right-Wingers: I’m Not One Of You.”

Here’s Paul:

You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.

Don't shut the doors of heaven in people's faces

The working title of this post was “Are you frickin’ kidding me?”

The greatest sin is the sin of pride, because it is the first sin and it is the one that leads to all the others. Pride is what turns us away from God, and all the rest flows from it.

Meanwhile, the demonic mind is a mind of perversion which always seeks to lead us to perversion. The Devil likes when we do evil, but he likes nothing so much as when we do evil in the name of the good. Fallenness is the work of Man, but perversion is the work of the Devil.

This means we must always guard ourselves against pride, and we must particularly guard ourselves against perversion, in the true etymological sense of turning something good to evil ends.

Nowhere is this perversion more evident than in the never-ceasing perversion of the Church. The Devil attacks the Church relentlessly, because nothing pleases him so much as the flaying of the Body of Christ, particularly when it is self-inflicted. The Devil likes Nero but his masterpiece is the Grand Inquisitor.

We see this pride leading to perversion whenever children of the Church seek to make the Church into something which it is not. A political party. A club. A prison. An elite. An NGO. A commune.

Because doing this to the Church and to us is the Devil’s main obsession, we see it arising always, in ourselves and in the world, and we must keep ever-vigilant about it.

All of which brings me to the trepidation du jour among some Catholics, which is the latest Pope Francis interview.

The mainstream media reaction was as sad as it was predictable, and the less said about it the better.

What was striking was the reaction of some “conservative” Catholics (why do you need a modifier before “Catholic”?) to, well, a message of love. The same people who are faulting the New York Times for focusing only on the culture war issues in this deep, wide-ranging interview are focusing on the culture war issues in this deep, wide-ranging interview.

This interview is just wonderful, so full of depth and love and humility and wisdom.

The Pope says two things about issues like homosexuality and abortion: he says Catholics should show their love first before catechizing, and he says that the teachings of the Church should be remembered in their broader context of love. This is precisely correct.

We have to love sinners before we teach them. We have to welcome sinners into the Church. We first have to show them that Jesus saves them before we can teach them. This is true not just because it works better. It’s true because it is God’s Way. God led his people out of Egypt and then gave them His law. God does not say “Follow these rules, and maybe I will save you.” God says: “I save you—follow these rules if you want to love me back.” The entire dynamic of the Bible and the Gospel is about receiving God’s love first, and His Law second.

Everything the Pope said about “social issues” in his interview was the stark, naked, Catholic truth. He preached an ecclesiology of love, and charity in movement.

And yet some people are saying: Now, Mr Bergoglio, I don’t know just who you think you are, but this will not do.

This is what happens when pride leads us to perversion.

It was written: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

Oh but no no no, we are told, the Pope didn’t say anything wrong, exactly (how generous of you to grant!). It’s not that we shouldn’t love sinners, it’s just that the Pope just shouldn’t have said it.

Well okay then. That’s much better.

Here’s Rod Dreher, whom I love as a brother and a friend albeit in a terribly imperfect way, and who I don’t want to single out. I single out this post only as an avatar of the many comments I’ve seen on Twitter and elsewhere, and not Rod personally. I’m certainly no better than Rod in any way. But this is what Rod writes:

I know what the Pope means here, and he’s right: there is so very much more to Christianity than its teachings on sexuality and abortion. But this is where I think he goes badly wrong: his remarks will be received as the Pope saying that this stuff doesn’t matter all that much.

Well yeah, they’ll be received that way. If you let them.

Can’t risk being misinterpreted! Why, if Jesus’ contemporaries had misinterpreted His message, they might have turned on Him.

This is the perversion of the Church. This is the pride that leads us to destroy the good in the name of the good. We have to find a reason to fault the Pope for saying we must love the sinner, when by our own admission everything he says is right.

You understand, the Roman Catholic Party can’t have one of its spokesmen undercutting message discipline! We can’t have him make us look bad! Yeah, yeah, sure, that love the sinner stuff, it’s in the platform, but this week is Abortion Week. And all the other weeks.

Catholicism is not an identity. It is not a party platform. It is not a clique. It is not a political objective. It is not an ideology.

Writes a priest of Rod’s acquaintance:

Words fail. If this keeps up, everything is going to be much harder. I can’t say it surprises me; the man gave an eighty minute press conference to the assembled press corps on an airplane. But it’s terribly naive, in a time when people graduate from Catholic elementary and high schools, college, and don’t know the most fundamental things about the Faith, not to realize how selectively people will pounce on this kind of thing.

I’m really sorry that the Pope expounding on the verities of the faith will make your job harder. I hadn’t realized that you had signed up for an easy job.

People “don’t know the most fundamental things about the Faith”? It’s pretty good, then, that the Pope is teaching the most fundamental things about the Faith.

People will “selectively pounce on this kind of thing”? Yes! As they always have, and as they always will! Your job is hard! It involves carrying a Cross! And dying!

But hey, look on the bright side. Catholic institutions of education have been failing at their mission for decades, but now we can blame the Pope who was elected two seconds ago.

“The man” (that’s “His Holiness” to you, Father) is “naive.” He just doesn’t know how to do his job right.

“Words fail”? Father, if this quote reflects what’s in your mind, then you need to go to confession and say penance.

This accusation of naïveté, it’s quite something.

Writes Rod:

I love his style — seriously, I do — but I am sure the liberal Pope has been very, very naive in his words here.

First of all—“the liberal Pope”? Really? When, exactly, did he become a liberal? Was it when he called same-sex marriage a plot by the Devil as bishop of Buenos Aires? Was he a liberal when he denounced abortion literally today?

Anyway, this (hold your nose) liberal is just naive. (How often do you hear a Jesuit described as “naive”?) If he’d been a Provincial, and Primate of a big country, he might have some worldly wisdom. But he’s just a holy fool. And holy fools aren’t bad, exactly, you understand, but they just shouldn’t mess with grown-up stuff. They just don’t know any better.

There are many words that can apply to Jorge Mario Bergoglio. I really, really don’t think “naive” is one of them.

The world wants to be told, “It’s okay, do what you like.”

No, actually, the world wants to be saved by a King of Glory.

For liberals and Moralistic Therapeutic Deists within Catholicism, it’s springtime. For traditionalists and conservatives in the Catholic Church, it’s going to be a long winter.

This is it. This, right here. This is the problem. This is the perversion. This is the defiling of what is holy.

The Pope is measured by whether what he says helps politically the “Republican Party of the Catholic Church” or the “Democratic Party of the Catholic Church.” This is the disease. This is the cancer. We have our cliques, we have our parties, and the question is who is going to win. Who cares!

Is it going to be a long winter? Why? Because you don’t love enough? Good!

Is it going to be a long winter because you’re going to look bad? Tough! You shouldn’t have looked good in the first place. A Christian who looks good is headed in the wrong direction.

What does it mean to have a long winter? The Pope isn’t going to give you brownie points? He won’t hang out with you at recess anymore? The Pope’s job isn’t to take care of the feelie-feelies of self-described Modifier-Catholics.

Anybody who thinks the Pope is promoting Moral Therapeutistic Deism or cafeteria Catholicism or anything like that is just out of their mind. Anyone who is challenged by the Pope saying that we must first love the sinner ought to be challenged, and is not challenged by the Pope but by Christ, who is speaking through His Vicar is the Pope.

When will it get through our thick skulls? (Mine is certainly very thick.)

The Gospel of Life is the Glengarry Glenn Ross speech, except with love instead of selling real estate. “Nice guy? Good father? I don’t give a shit.” LOVE. Take up your Cross and follow Him.

It is written: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

It’s not a figure of speech!

It is also written: “Dreadful it is to fall in the hands of the living God.”

Dreadful! Christianity is not a cake party! The Spirit burns like a flame!

Now, I am not saying you cannot ever criticize the Pope. I have questions about his comments about the Latin Mass, and his comments about Papal Infallibility, although they seem to be well-within the bounds of Catholic doctrine and to be taking it in an interesting direction. These are not things that I would criticize, because I just do not know enough about what the Pope is saying, but I certainly understand why there are questions.

But to treat an interview where the Pope urges us to treat sinners with love first with alarm is, for a Christian, demonic. It is a perversion of the good in the name of the good. It is yielding to temptation.

Do you know how many people feel excluded from the Church because they have had abortions, or are gay, or are divorced? “Oh, but they’re not excluded.” You have quite the way of showing it, by freaking out when the Pope says they shouldn’t be excluded. Love! The way the Catholic Church treats homosexual persons is very often a damned disgrace (I am in no way referring to the Church’s doctrine) and it is a blessing that we have a Pope with pastoral experience who realizes it.

The Pope is calling on you to love.

I am cutting out here because I have hated writing this post, which is almost certainly an unhinged rant which is not treating people faithfully and is all wrong.

On Recommending Books

Friend of The Scene Rod Dreher has a bleg: 3 good “Intro to Christianity for the interested irreligious reader” book recommendations.

I think that’s a great idea and I’m curious what people’s recommendations are.

But what was striking was Scene Alum Alan Jacobs’s response that, essentially, you can’t do that. It’s impossible to recommend books to people you don’t know, because nobody knows how a book will affect someone, and it might have the opposite effect. (Alan noted that he knows people who were turned away from Christianity by reading C.S. Lewis, even though he is (Anglo) Christians’ go-to apologist.)

After being snarky on Twitter, I sort of want to explore this.

There’s a sense in which this is obviously true, right? We’re all different, books are universes, and so on.

But there’s also a sense in which it’s a bit absurd. If we take it to its logical conclusion, then no one could ever make any recommendation—of anything. Gone is any sort of Great Books curriculum, or any list of books whatsoever. It looks particularly absurd when you go into non-fiction. “What are the 5 best books on the fall of the Roman Empire?” “Well, who can say? It’s a mystery.” That will not do. And this is true despite the fact that many of the books on such a fraught topic have viewpoints, editorial choices, and so on that might rub readers the wrong way. But it’s still useful for me to be able to know “Hey, here’s what So-And-So, woman I respect/whose credentials tell me her opinion is worth something/whatever, thinks are the X best books on Y.” It’s easy to make fun of “Top 20” lists and suchlike, but they actually serve a purpose in human affairs, at least in the aggregate (one Top 20 list is probably going to be useless, but a bunch of Top 20 lists together paint a picture).

I would want to make some remarks about this:

There is at least ONE Book that recommends itself to everyone. Right?

It’s possible to hate a Great Book and still get value from reading it. For example, I hated Madame Bovary. I hated the melodrama, hated the story, hated the characters. And yet, I couldn’t help but note the mastery of Flaubert’s prose, and I was still glad to be immersed in it.

Recommendations really are useful, or can be. I bought Benedict XVI’s Introduction to Christianity after reading Rod’s comments.

Recommendations are a good intellectual exercise. I’ve read a few books about Christianity, and yet Rod’s question stumped me for a while. Making a recommendation actually forces you to settle down and think about the books you’ve read, what they’ve brought to you, how someone might receive them, what they’re like, why, exactly, you’ve found them so valuable (or not so valuable), and so on.

People are grown-ups. If someone recommends a book to me, and I read it, and I don’t like it—that’s fine. Or I might not even read it because I’ll take the recommendation into account, compare it with other recommendations, and decide I want to read something else instead. To recommend a book is not to foist it upon someone. If you recommend a book on Christianity to me and I hate it, I might think “Well Jeez, this Christianity stuff really is ridiculous”, or I might think “Huh. That was really bad. Maybe there’s something else out there” or “I hated this, but So-and-So is smart and recommended it anyway, and so I’m going to try to think about why, even though overall this was bad.”

A recommendation should not just be a title and a name. I think this is the point that we should keep in mind. This is the thing that makes Alan’s point important, and the thing that might reconcile his point with recommendations. “The best book on X is Y” does not have much value. “If you’re the kind of reader who cares about A, who feels a certain way when B, and who is particularly interested in C, then the best book on X is Y. Y gives you the story of α, β and γ in such and such a way” that’s actually very useful. And remembering that People Are Grown-Ups, it both improves the odds they’re going to read a book that’s good for them and takes into account their agency.

What do y’all think?

With that in mind, here are some tentatives answers to Rod.

1. The Gospel of John and the First Epistle to the Corinthians (yes, I’m counting them as one book, if only because if I were to write “The New Testament” that would also count as one book and be bigger). Why? First of all, I don’t think it’s possible to have a good intro to Christianity without reading the actual Scripture. For many reasons. First of all, obviously, because it’s the Word of God. Second of all, because everything else in Christianity is based on it. Third of all, because Christianity starts with a (true) story about a man who lived and died in 1st century Palestine, and so the place to start is by actually reading that story. But fourth, most of all, because Christianity is not merely a doctrine, it is an experience, and to understand Christianity you have to do what Christians do, which is read Scripture.

So why John and 1 Corinthians? John because it is the most explicitly theological Gospel. It makes explicit what the others make implicit. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. This is what Christians believe. And 1 Corinthians, frankly, because it includes the soliloquy “Without love, I am nothing”, which is the other core of Christianity.

2. Tentatively, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. I say tentatively, because the inquiry of Rod’s questioner came in a sort of culture-war-ish context, and Spufford actually rejects some bits of traditional Christian orthodoxy, e.g. on homosexuality. So if you want a book that will tell you, e.g. “Why orthodox Christians believe homosexual acts are sinful”, this is not the book (though Spufford is pretty fair in his treatment of the traditional view). But the reason why I want to recommend Unapologetic anyway is because his topic is Christian faith first, and Christian doctrine second, which is how Christians experience it, and how they live it, and is how Christianity is properly understood, because Christians believe that Truth is a Person, not a body of knowledge. This is the great value of Spufford’s book, in that even though he covers the “philosophical bits” of Christianity, such as theodicy and soteriology and Trinitarianism and the rest, he does so in the practical, real, human way which is not only the way Christians experience it, but the way it ought to be experienced.

3. This is a cop-out, but Joie de croire, joie de vivre (Joy of Believing, Joy of Living) by François Varillon. It’s a cop-out because, tragically, this book has apparently never been translated into English, and so it probably won’t be of much help to Rod’s questioner, but it is simply the best, most accessible treatment of orthodox Christian theology I’ve ever read. François Varillon was a Jesuit priest who actually (I believe) never wrote a book but spent most of his life giving lectures (so sort of like Jesus), and Joie de croire is a set of edited lecture transcripts on all the most salient topics of the faith. He is just great and perfect and scintillating, and the “spoken word” style of the lecture helps make the text alive, and helps sometimes complex ideas go down easier. Another disclaimer is that because Varillon was a Catholic priest, some of his stuff, especially on Purgatory and the role of works in salvation, would not be endorsed by most Protestants (though they would certainly endorse 98% of the book).

I would also add some left-field choices:

The Brothers Karamazov First of all because it’s a great book. Second of all, because it contains some great Christian theology. In Karamazov, theodicy and salvation are not given neat explanations thereof. Instead, one must acknowledge one’s sin and give oneself up to Christ. In that spirit, let me also add Kristin Lavransdatter and The Power and the Glory.

The Messiah The story of Christ, set to some of the most beautiful music ever.

The Story of a Soul by Therese of Lisieux. Again, experience matters as much as theology in understanding Christianity, and Therese had all of them in spades.

Finally, I would critique some of the popular choices among Rod’s commenters:

I would not recommend the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I am a Catholic and I believe it is a great document, but it is a statement of what the Church believes, not why it believes it (or only incidentally). It is also a fairly legalistic document, which again is fine, but makes reading it cover-to-cover a daunting thing, and is unlikely to teach much to a non-Christian, except that Christianity is just a bunch of rules.

I would also not recommend Chesterton. Chesterton was chiefly an apologist and a polemicist. Which is great. But if you’re trying to understand Christianity from a detached perspective, being hit over the head with it might not be the best thing.

That’s my contribution. What are other people’s choices?

Opposition Party Opposes Majority Party's Signature Policy: Will Democracy Survive???

“The only way to understand the press, Prime Minister, is to remember that they pander to their readers’ prejudices.”

Jonathan Chait has a frankly bizarre piece in New York Magazine explaining to what must be a puzzled audience’s insistent question: why does the Republican Party persist in opposing Obamacare? I mean, I know they hate kittens and everything, but c’mon—healthcare!

Now, off the top of my head, one reason why the Republican Party might oppose Obamacare is that it remains deeply unpopular, and that politicians tend to be responsive to public opinion.

But I think there’s an even bigger reason, and I have seen time and again how shocking it remains to many liberals, but nonetheless it must be said. I may be French, but I have been taken to Rove Mountain and been inducted in the secret society that runs the Republican Party and the conservative movement, taught all the secret handshakes and passwords (“Fidelio”), and so I can report back on the TRUE reason to conservative opposition to Obamacare. And it’s pretty shocking.

Are you ready?

Wait for it…

Conservatives think Obamacare is terrible policy.

Conservatives actually, seriously, deeply, genuinely, truly, strongly, really think Obamacare is really bad no good policy.

And so they oppose it.

No, really.

That’s the reason.

I know, I’m one of them.

Most, if not all, conservatives, myself very much included, think that Obamacare will make American healthcare worse and more expensive and will be too expensive and unnecessarily (and perhaps dangerously and irreversibly) expand the size of government (I realize that for progressives this latest a feature and not a bug, but conservatives don’t see it that way). They think that it will lead to millions if not tens of millions of people being worse, not better off, and many more dying too soon.

Maybe they’re wrong! But that’s what they think! And so they oppose the law!

Forgive me for being flip, but there is something a bit absurd about reading all this concern about the opposition party of a country opposing the majority party’s signature policy. From where I sit in France, the main right-wing party used to have a majority, and they cut taxes, and the main left-wing party opposed it ; then the left won elections, and now it is raising taxes, and the right-wing party opposes that. As far as I can tell in Great Britain the Labour Party opposes the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition’s austerity policies.

This is how democracy works. One party has some ideas about what’s good policy, the other party has other ideas, and so when one party wins the election, the other party is not happy about the policies that get implemented.

I mean, really. This is how democracy works.

Now, Chait notes that Republican opposition to Obamacare has been particularly virulent and trench-warfare-like.

Well, again, conservatives feel really strongly about Obamacare. Why, I’m almost as angry with it as I was with the Iraq War! (Which Democrats at several points tried to defund.)

And, again, Obamacare is very unpopular, which tends to put wind at politicians’ backs. (Chait notes this, but attributes it to Republicans’ well-known Dark Magick Powers Of Voter Brainwashing—you know, the ones that got Mitt Romney to sweep all 50 states.)

But it’s true that there’s another reason why conservative opposition to Obamacare has been so virulent, and it’s right there in Chait’s lede: “The Republican party has voted unanimously against establishing the Affordable Care Act in the Senate and then in the House of Representatives[.]”

Another, equally valid way to write this would be: “The Democratic party pushed the Affordable Care Act through Congress on a party-line vote in the Senate and then in the House of Representatives, in violation of the long-standing American political tradition of passing far-reaching initiatives only with bipartisan support.”

Regardless of whether reform-by-consensus is a good idea in the abstract (and as a partisan red in tooth and claw, I support it when I’m in the minority and oppose it when I’m in the majority), one reason why in the American system reform-by-consensus is advisable is because the American system includes so many checks and balances (legislatures, and courts, and states, and governors, and oh my) that if you were to just trample the Opposition, why, it just might use those checks and balances to try to block your reform anyway. You know, like the Founders intended.

If Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act is unprecedented, then, it’s because it’s a response to unprecedented actions by the Democratic Party.

Now, when this is pointed out, liberals often respond that Republicans did nothing about healthcare when they were in power and that Something Needed To Be Done. There’s less truth to this than many liberals think but a lot more than I am happy with, but as a matter of logic this is plainly absurd: even if Alice did nothing about the roach infestation, it doesn’t mean Bob was right to burn down the house to get rid of the roaches.

Now of course, liberals don’t view Obamacare as “burning down the house.” But conservatives do!

We really do.

Civil Society and Its Discontents

Yesterday Slate published a piece arguing that if you send your kids to private school you’re a bad person, albeit not murder/rapist bad. The stated logic was basically (to put it Hirschman terms) that exit undermines voice and that if high status/motivation people exit from schools then they won’t have as much motivation to push for them to get “resources.” The article admitted that this may take a long time to accomplish, but in the meantime one should sacrifice one’s own children as a matter of civic virtue.

Now PEG probably nailed the most obvious response, but a slightly more elaborate way to respond to this is to say that within reason we have more responsibilities to our children than to society as a whole and there’s something very sympathetic about the Obamas putting their daughters in Sidwell Friends regardless of whether its hypocritical and somewhat creepy when the Carters did the consistent thing and put Amy Carter in a DC public school. Indeed, that was basically my initial response in the form of hyperbolic satire. Another way to respond is to dispute the factual premise that exit is a substitute for rather than a complement to voice. Yet another is to observe that public schools are really Tiebout goods and so a strong norm against (openly) private schools would end up driving extreme residential segregation and sprawl.

In a way I think these are true, but also missing the really interesting thing, though Megan bringing in the Tiebout issue gets pretty close to where I want to take this. Suppose there is some baseline of crappy schools and one wishes to replace them with good schools. If one enrolls children in a private school one has purchased the premium education as an open quid pro quo, much as I bought my car in an open quid pro quo from the Honda dealer. On the other hand if one deliberately seeks out a good school district and this is priced-in to one’s home purchase or apartment rent, then one is buying premium education as a Tiebout good. A more general way of describing the latter is that one is buying housing bundled with premium education. What I find interesting is that there are a lot of people who would describe themselves as committed to public education, but who have no qualms whatsoever about spending many many hours looking at cachement zone maps and test scores when making a housing locational decision. That is, some people find it taboo to buy premium education a la carte, but are just fine with buying premium education bundled with housing. How quid pro quos can be less savory than functionally equivalent but indirect exchanges is an emerging research interest of mine and you see similar patterns in all sorts of areas.

I was talking about this with a friend and he suggested that a taboo on public schools is about removing mediating institutions between the individual and the state in which modernity demands removing institutions that form rival bases of power and may reflect tribalism, prejudice, etc. Hence, the laïcité type proposal in Quebec to ban public workers from wearing religious symbols.

I think my friend’s argument has a lot going for it but I worry that it’s incomplete insofar as it doesn’t reflect the subjective reasoning of the people who are suspicious of institutions that rival the state for services and sentiments. With regards to private schools (and other substitutes for public services, like gated communities, private fire-fighting insurance, etc.) I suspect that a big part of it is about the intuition that one is exempting oneself from the common experiences and trying to get more. That is, it’s inegalitarian. The view from the right would be that this sort of thing is a demand that one subjects oneself to the state, but if you take the perspective that “government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together” then it means that refusal to relate to the state is a refusal to relate to the group. This would then trigger what Haidt calls fairness and loyalty moral foundations. Since I believe in Haidt’s emotional dog, rational tail model, I think it’s fair to describe the intuition in this way even if it’s expressed in moral reasoning about utilitarian “harm” concerns like peer spillovers, the political economy of lobbying for “resources,” etc. Similarly, if you take the “there’s no such thing as society” point of view (by which Thatcher really meant that society!=state) you may find it puzzling that a relationship to the state is conflated with a relationship to the group. However this kind of thing is common. For instance, Fiske & Tetlocke note that Marxism is ideologically devoted to “communal sharing” even if in practice it inevitably turns into extreme “authority ranking” in practice. So the upshot is that there may be contempt for mediating institutions that substitute for the state but if you want to pass an ideological Turing test you’ve got to understand that it’s not subjectively understood as statism for its own sake but rather about group egalitarianism that finds its expression in common reliance on the equal goods provided by the state (and with a loophole in which Tiebout competition allows some of our state provided resources to be more equal than others).

The nicest resort in France

The era of faster transport swiftly led to the era of the vacation. When, in its industrializing drive, France began covering itself with train tracks, well-to-do Parisians quickly saw the opportunity for quiet weekends away from the bustle.

Given 19th century steam trains, the only place where it was practical to spend a weekend at the beach from Paris was the North Sea. Thus enterprising entrepreneurs bought tracts of land alongside a desolate beach, albeit one with the finest sand in Europe, christened it Le Touquet, and built France’s first beach resort.

Since Le Touquet is pretty much France’s northernmost point, a swim away from England (a difficult swim sometimes, as many French monarchs found out), their Entente-era business plan called for attracting posh English tourists as well as French. So they built one of the best golf courses of the time and a city with the architectural look of an English seaside town, a grand hotel called the Westminster Hotel and street names like Avenue Reine Victoria.

This history explains the unique charm of Le Touquet. In reality, its buildings are as “fake” as those of any resort, but since they’ve been fake for more than a hundred years they’ve acquired the patina of reality. Since it was designed as French people’s idea of what an English town looks like, it doesn’t really look like anywhere else. Houses here are not called houses but villas (however small), and they all must have a name like ships, often poetic or amusing ones like Found Time, A Thousand Pleasures, Jalna) or Fifteen Minutes. Here, the sports of choice are golf, rugby, polo, tennis… (Don’t know about cricket, but I wouldn’t be surprised.) Le Touquet feels like it should be its own microstate, a sort of Monaco or Gibraltar on the North Sea.

And speaking of the sea… Those who can appreciate northern seas know this awe-inspiring beauty. I’ve already mentioned the sand, the finest that I’ve ever had the pleasure of resting my feet on, an angelic cushion. And the sea… Those tones of pale copper and steel blue, streaked with impatient foam, a carpet of diamonds glittering in reflection of the pale sun, arrayed against a sky of ever-changing colors and cloud patterns. The powerful wind, alive with salt and embers. This is a real sea, not the tepid lake of the Mediterranean.

Everyone should learn to swim in cold, living seawater. Once you realize in your bones that the cold resides in your mind and in its instinctive fear, once you learn to enjoy and even relish the cold sea’s reinvigorating properties, there are many more adventures you are ready for.

Le Touquet is its own tiny magic kingdom, a well-kept secret—and here we get to the most awkward reason why I love it so much. The city was born thanks to transport technology, and it changed, or rather didn’t, because of it. Lucky for me, the North Sea is not for everyone. As transport got faster, well-off Parisians quickly diverted their attentions to the warmer climes of, first, Normandy, and later, the Côte d’azur. Deauville and Saint Tropez have eclipsed tiny Le Touquet. Because of this change in fashion, the kind of people who come to Le Touquet aren’t just any rich people—they’re rich people whose families have been rich since the 19th century at least, and whose grandparents came to summer here. The friends who are letting us borrow their beach cabin have had it for 60 years, and other houses for longer (“Why go to the city museum? To see black and white photos of German officers living in our villa?”). My mother learned to swim here, and my uncle won tournaments at the Tennis Club. Here, people who go to the beach to get roasted by the sun like a steak don’t come. This affects not just the kinds of people you meet, but the character of the shops, of the restaurants, with the luxury understated and the focus on what’s on the plate. The best restaurant, Pérard, which makes the best fish soup in the Universe (the Universe, I tell you!) is decorated with cartoons that are only funny if you’re well versed in French and English history and literature. Le Touquet isn’t about bling. It’s Hermès, not Vuitton. BMW, not Ferrari. God, I know this is all so horribly elitist, but so be it. I would die if I had to spend my entire life in a gilded ghetto of “my people”, but for a week’s vacation at the beach, I refuse to begrudge myself.

Like every place in France, Le Touquet draws upon the rich treasures of a deep terroir. Here you can eat rattes, the tiny potatoes, grown in the sand, with their wonderful nutty flavor, made world-famous by Joël Robuchon. Maroilles and the other pungent cheeses of the North. And, of course, the wonders of the sea—mussles with fries, amazing seafood aplenty, and have I mentioned Pérard’s fish soup?

In short—the beach, the scenery, both natural and man-made, the food, the ambiance, the memories… Perhaps you’ll understand, then, why I think Le Touquet is the nicest resort in France, by far.

Bloggin' Kristin 3: Et Nos Dimittimus Debitoribus Nostris

What a book, what a book.

Read the full article

Detroit, failed rival of its own suburbs

In the standard ruined-Detroit story, there’s a photo of the burnt remains of an abandoned home, and it’s clear that the house you’re looking at the charred outer shell of was pretty big – two stories, well detached from its neighbors, with an ample porch and its own decent-sized yard, now overgrown. This is an important detail, typically unmentioned.

Detroit is old by American standards. It was founded by French traders in 1701, grew unremarkably for two centuries, then exploded (or, if you will, boomed), but strangely, in a munificent rush starting after 1900 and fueled (of course) by the auto industry, in which the city bypassed the usual stage of dense, tenement-style construction – very few row-houses or attached townhouses, very few multi-family houses such as greater Boston’s ubiquitous three-flats or Chicago’s two- and three-story gray-stones, very few apartment buildings and virtually no neighborhoods anchored or defined by apartment buildings – and went straight to vast swaths of detached, single-family, owner-occupied homes, a striking percentage of them two stories high, many of them on ample if not generous lots. Detroit’s double blessing early on was its curse later – lots of flat land for houses, and lots of money for building and buying them, as people migrated to Detroit for jobs that were already waiting for them. Perhaps more than any other great American city, Detroit went up as a perverse forerunner of its own suburbs.

For a long time I’ve thought an underappreciated factor in Detroit’s demise was this mix of housing, or, this lack of a mix of housing. The city is a virtual monoculture, residentially speaking, 140 square miles of detached, owner-occupied, single-family homes. Being a monoculture made it vulnerable to a particular pathogen that infected many large cities, but not so thoroughly as it did Detroit, the run on real estate known as white flight. If you were renting an apartment in a dense patch of, say, Chicago, in the 1950s or early 60s, the distant sound of whites fleeing areas to the south and west perhaps foretold a change in your neighborhood, which you may or may not have welcomed, but it didn’t make you panic that your biggest investment was heading for a collapse in value, because you were just renting. And so those who did own houses on the leafy back stretches of your cross-street could take your relative equanimity, and of the whole clot of other renters you’re part of, into account. Not everyone would be reacting to the same cues. Change would be slower and less total. It might be worth it to stay put.

Homeowners in Detroit had no such break on their panic. It was all houses, almost all owned by the families inside them. Maybe they were racists, the white people who owned and sold those houses, but it wouldn’t have mattered. You didn’t have to be a racist to flee whitely. You just had to suspect that some meaningful portion of your neighbors were, or that some meaningful portion of your non-racist neighbors were engaged in a slightly more anxious calculation than you were, for your market behavior to become identical to theirs: Sell! Racial fear and the endemic anxiety of homeowning fueled each other. The ’67 riots didn’t help, but those two factors were already spinning in a feedback loop.

This suggests another convenient, Jane Jacobs- and James Scott-inspired hypothesis I’ll just throw out there: Detroit’s stunning increase in violence, which made it the Murder Capitol in ’73, was not unrelated to this housing scheme. As in arid planned cities like Brasilia that turn sketchier than anyone imagined, life in the atomized residential blocks of Detroit is carried on less visibly, more amenably to crime, than in dense urban streets with 24-hour business happening under the streetlights of busy intersections. Crime obviously happens amid urban density, but maybe it’s easier for violence and fear to invade and conquer a place where so much less other life is visibly happening. And maybe this housing scheme heightened racial suspicion by making so much black-white interaction so private, comparatively, and high-stakes, subjectively, our property lines tending to be etched in vigilance already, if not yet fear: Why is that black man walking down our all-white street? Past our homes? Where our children live?

This non-mix of housing has of course made Detroit a less attractive target for repopulation and gentrification than pretty much any city of its original size, not to mention of its cultural prominence. (And this is the real issue in this conversation, not why Detroit went downhill – virtually all eastern cities lost jobs and people and saw crime rise after WWII – but why it kept going downhill and saw no revival as even humble rivals like Cleveland did.) Indeed, some of Detroit’s closer suburbs feel more like urban neighborhoods, by the light of the current urban BoBo revival, than most of Detroit does, or did, or, probably, could. By the 1980s middle-/working-class Royal Oak was already becoming a hip quasi-urban destination, with clubs and restaurants lining Woodward Avenue. More recently this role’s been taken up by Ferndale, right across blighted Eight Mile Road to the north, a humble old working-class suburb of little houses that used to be called “Fabulous Ferndale” ironically, because of its dilapidation under the care of poor whites, but which now bears that handle unironically, or in ironically self-canceling irony about the old irony – because it’s hip now, and because it’s where the gay people live and, perforce, fabulous. Buzzing right up against Detroit as it does, anchored in a strip of Nine Mile Road that probably has more vintage clothing stores than trees, peopled by hipsters living in its low-slung houses on its highly uninteresting streets, Ferndale feels like the gentrifying BoBo impulse throwing up its hands and saying, “Look, we’re really trying, but this is the best we can do.”

When white Boomers and Gen Xers were buying up Brooklyn’s glorious Park Slope and Chicago’s cozy Bucktown and Boston’s gorgeous South End in the early Nineties, neighborhoods sketchy in the 70’s and 80’s but wonderfully and sturdily built, Detroit’s version of this demographic had good-enough options for hip living north of Eight Mile, and no obviously better options south of it, because, compared to its suburbs, compared even to Ferndale, the vast majority of Detroit is profoundly unspecial, especially uncompelling. It’s a flat, unvarying landscape of detached houses, many big like those in the suburbs, but, well, old and worn, in neighborhoods that were always going to take a lot more than a few pioneers and a restaurant and a club to spark a revival. They were going to take loads of people willing to mortgage their lives on those 1920s money-pits, all of them assuming the existence of a critical mass of other people just as reckless and dreamy as they are. And the payoff, best case, if you’re one who wagered it all to gentrify such a neighborhood? Having improved the landscaping and paint-jobs and plumbing of a block that now looks and feels like one of the world’s first suburbs, from back before they were, like, nice. And until your efforts are realized in this long-deferred anticlimax… “Er, the café up on Grand River between the empty lots and across from overgrown field that just opened under new ownership just closed again, and there’s still not a supermarket, and there’s nothing we can walk to but other houses, and the coyotes keep eating our cats.” No wonder it didn’t happen.

The deeper causes of this have nothing to do with race, and are only indirectly related to the auto industry, and have more to do with its early triumph than its later collapse. The city is just too geographically big, too filled with too-big houses, too defined by neighborhoods that are too defined by those too-big houses. Detroit, built as a weak rival of its own suburbs, was eaten by them.

Several factors – both weird bad luck and criminally bad urban policy – aggravated this comparative disadvantage. I hope but don’t promise to expand on them here.

Re-reading Kristin Lavransdatter

I did not intend to re-read Kristin Lavransdatter this summer; no, I did not. But Matt and I pressed it into Pascal-Emmanuel’s hands so firmly, and here he is gushing over it, and so I sat down to comment on his posts, which prompted me to refer to the first book in the trilogy, The Wreath, and then I found myself—an hour and a half later—a third of the way through it!

Perhaps it’s engrossing to this degree because this is my sixth read. I am not a re-reader by nature. Of all the books I have read, there are only a few that I’ve considered picking up a second time, and even fewer that I have followed though with a total re-read. Kristin obviously ranks among these, and it’s not just because it’s so good. It’s because I am making up for lost time.

Read the full article

Detroit died because it sucks

Everyone’s joining the fun game of Autopsy: Detroit, but the coroners are doing a lousy job, in general, because they neglect the obvious task of isolating what was unique about Detroit that might have contributed to its unique condition, among American cities, of being dead. Lots of recent examples.

Former Detroit suburbanite Jonathan Chait says “Detroit’s crisis began as primarily a racial problem,” but this gets the timeline wrong and fails as comparative explanation. Virtually every major American city has been marked by grievous racial division. Why is Detroit alone dead? In Slate Matthew Yglesias wonders how much better-off Detroit would have been had a major private university – Ford University – been given a home there, or if the University of Michigan hadn’t relocated to Ann Arbor. Answer: we’d have had the equivalent of Hyde Park Chicago, a small island of stubborn tax- and tuition-supported affluence, except surrounded by the vast acidifying ocean of Detroit. And Andrew O’Hehir, Salon’s excellent film critic, dabbles in stupid para-conspiracy theories Detroit failed because of, or at least in a malevolent aura of, right wing hatred of this Chocolate City. As a theory of Detroit’s decline, O’Hehir’s comes closest to being both self-refuting and, actually, right.

What O’Hehir’s right about is the malevolence. Conservative gloating about Detroit’s failure is unseemly and self-congratulating and just wrong as analysis, though if you want a real glimpse of sickening white gloating read the comments section of any depressing news story from a Detroit TV station – white suburbanites watching Detroit’s decline with undisguised glee.

And so I suppose I should add these ungenerous race-tinged theories – corrupt black leadership and government largesse killed Detroit – which are obviously wrong in that Detroit became a Chocolate City as a result of its decline, not the other way around. Blacks didn’t seize power in Detroit. White people left. They began leaving the city when it was still affluent, and kept leaving and leaving until Detroit was a black majority city with a black mayor, by which time affluent black Detroiters were also leaving in large numbers. Detroit’s Black leaders, corrupt and inept as they’ve been in their disastrous mix of machine politics and identity politics, have merely been feasting on a dying corpse. The horrific Detroit riots were in 1967. Coleman Young became Mayor in 1973. Detroit’s population began its steady decline in 1950. And steady it was. The population graph of Detroit marks a relentless downward plummet that shows no special dips of acceleration for such cataclysms as the riots or the more recent disaster ’07-‘08. And, to repeat, every other big American city has had racial divisions, and yet these problems didn’t kill them.

So all the people who point to race and/or racism as Detroit’s defining problem, Chait, O’Hehir, Conservatives and Detroit’s gloating white suburbanites, are wrong. So are creators of the simplistic documentary Detropia, which lingers on recent troubles in the auto industry as its main explanation, even as it contains a scene in which someone raises a population graph, illustrating the sharp decline starting in 1950, that undermines this theory. The Big Three were in robust health in 1950, and had some hale decades ahead of them. Yet people started fleeing Detroit then, and kept leaving at a pace that stuns above all by its constancy. Why?

In a day or two I hope venture my own ideas about why Detroit died. And, just as a warning, and even though I was born downtown and lived some of my happiest years on the city’s west side, my general claim will be that Detroit failed as a city because, as a city, it kind of sucks.

Noah and Alan on growth

I tried to restrain myself from responding to Alan’s latest post on growth because the last time he did I unleashed what I have to say was a big honking rant. Then Noah responded.

Noah’s post, characteristically, is very smart, very eloquent, and makes a lot of good points. And yet it’s mistaken, in a subtle, but serious and deep way.

Let’s start with the things Noah gets right:

- “Growth” is actually hard to measure.

- Not all kinds of growth are equal. Growth that comes from productivity gains is much more desirable than growth that simply comes from longer hours worked.

- Growth is a moral imperative insofar as it helps people in truly bad living circumstances raise their conditions of living.

And yet Noah makes errors on growth because he misunderstands it in some key ways.

As we’ve said, growth is hard to define, and economists have a hard time understanding where it comes from. And as we said, not all kinds of growth are equal.

So to better understand growth, then, we had better understand value. The “growth” that we want is a growth of the value of the things we produce and consume.

Now “value” is also a fuzzy concept so let me try to explain what I mean.

If Apple (or Dell) produces a better computer that costs less, that might not register as “growth” on the national statistics, and yet we understand it as essential to growth, at least in the long term (I hope), because it creates more value for society—value for Dell (or Apple) but more importantly value for consumers in terms of consumer surplus. And even more importantly value for society in terms of how this computer helps me do things better, more effectively, etc.

To think about things differently: society gets value out of Google because Google generates profits for its shareholders and jobs for its employees (jobs that then go on to generate more economic activity). That’s how we generally understand the benefits of “growth.” Society actually gets a lot more value out of Google (orders of magnitude) out of the consumer surplus that Google generates—that is to say, the difference between what consumers of Google would be willing to pay for the service, and what they actually pay. That’s how many economists generally understand the benefits of “growth.”

But actually Google generates even more value. It generates value in the sense that it makes our lives easier and better. This is what is actually meant by “consumer surplus” but of course if I am willing to pay X for something it means I am getting something more than X of value out of it. And in the case of Google it is very high. Here the example would be the time I save by doing Google searches instead of looking things up in books or hard-to-use and disparate databases. That would be the types of “productivity improvements” that would lead to “growth” that we would crave. But that is actually a minuscule amount of the value that Google creates.

Thanks to Google (and the internet more generally, I am here talking about “Google” in abstract) I have read many things that I would never otherwise have read. I have met people that I wouldn’t otherwise have met. I met the investor in my first company through Twitter. Business Insider gave me a job because I got in touch with people who worked there over the internet. Again, the point isn’t that I generated $X dollars of economic activity thanks to the internet—I probably would have earned more money by going to work at Goldman Sachs rather than Business Insider—the point is that I got to experience things, and meet people, and collaborate with people on things, in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. And that this is a tremendous amount of value in any sense of the word that makes sense (economic or not).

Or think about the car revolution. The car revolution created value not because it created big car companies that made a lot of people rich and gave even more people jobs, although that’s nice. The car revolution created value because it gave people a profound autonomy that they didn’t otherwise have, it transformed the culture (drive-in cinemas) etc. etc. etc.

This type of value seems incredibly hard to quantify and is certainly impossible to integrate in macroeconomic statistics in any meaningful way, and yet it is without a doubt the much bigger quantity of value and the more precious one.

If we define tautologically value as what we value, things like cars and the internet (and penicillin, and electricity, and…) have value not just because people can put a dollar amount on them, they have value because they allow them to do things or to experience things that they find valuable.

Why carp on this?

Because once you understand what value is and how it’s created, you understand not just why it’s precious but how to get more of it.

As Noah notes, to be vague about it economic growth (at least the good kind) comes from some combination of the use of energy and productivity, that is, more output per unit of energy. And meanwhile, “productivity” is this mysterious black box that probably includes things like technology, but also other things like better know-how—skilled labor, but also production processes and so forth.

But once you’ve said this, you have to realize that all value comes from cooperation. Energy must be extracted (whether from the ground or from the sun or from uranium). Technology must be invented, and then tested, and then built, and then marketed, and then market-tested, and refined, and iterated upon—all things which are done by people working together, whether as members of firms, or as firms collaborating together, or as participants in marketplaces (literal or metaphorical, e.g. the “marketplace of ideas”).

Coase describes how economies of information make it better for us to collaborate as firms or not to accomplish some things. Schumpeter and Christensen describe how how some innovations lead some firms or industries to be destroyed and yet simultaneously lead to more value creation. Hayek describes how our poor handling of information makes central planning destroy value while bottom-up collaboration creates value. Bhidé describes how the interplay of departments within a firm (R&D, manufacturing, sales, marketing) and the interplay of actors within a marketplace (venturesome consumers, market feedback) create innovation through an iterative, decentralized process.

Value, then, is what happens when you allow people to cooperate. Economic value, but also culture, communities, all the things that make the good life. Now, the details on how to accomplish that are fiendishly complicated, and there’s good reason (though not always) why economic policy is so complex and, at times, so powerless.

But once you understand what makes value you can’t make some of the errors that Noah makes, and that are all-too common. That is to say, the error of thinking that growth comes from stuff. If there’s enough oil, then there will be growth. If there’s not enough oil, then there won’t be growth. If we have super-duper computers (or robots or Big Data or spaceships to Mars or whatever) then there will be growth, and if we don’t, we won’t. (True enough on the latter, but it only begs the question of who builds the robots or the supercomputers.)

So Noah writes “of course, once resources are exploited beyond a certain degree, population growth just means sharing those resources across more people – a decline in per-capita wealth” as if “resources” was some finite concrete thing even though human ingenuity and industry is the only resource that creates value.

And Noah writes that we have to “limit the costs of growth” by “restraining population growth.” That makes sense if you think growth comes from stuff, from a fixed pie that we have to share. But that’s simply not how value creation works.

There is nothing to indicate that there is any resource constraint on humanity. We are producing a lot more food than we need, and that is by exploiting only a tiny amount of land and “resources.” If you took just Iowa and replaced all the corn field by vertical farms, you would have enough food to feed ten planet Earths.

Same thing about energy. Just build enough pebble-bed reactors. They’re safe, plus they also generate lots of hydrogen which is great if you want to build fuel cell cars.

Earth is not densely inhabited at all.

We’re just not running out of anything.

And yet this inexplicable fear is there. It comes, most of all, from a failure of imagination. For example, Noah wonders whether if we achieved Star Trek-like cold fusion, it would even register as economic growth. Um, yes? Like, if you dramatically lower the cost of a unit of energy for a unit of production, you will get more units of production?

And yet, while all of this is true, it is also true that growth is slowing, and that it is at least worth asking whether this will continue forever and what to do about it.

First of all, there is little question that given how “growth-oriented” our societies are, if we don’t reignite growth we are headed for societal collapse.

But second of all, it is also true that once you realize where value comes from, it also becomes a lot easier to see how we might get more of it. First, since people cooperating is what creates value, the more people cooperate the more value we get, so we should really get more people, not less. (And it becomes obvious that a civilization that adopted a neo-Malthusian frame and decided to lower its population growth rate in fear of lower economic growth would trap itself in a self-fulfilling prophecy.) Second, it also becomes clear that there are lots of avenues for cooperation that have been blocked. One example is immigration. Another example is the numerous regulations that hold back many sectors of the economy, particularly the most promising (pharma, transportation, space, etc.).

But that’s not even the point. The point is that, to go back to the beginning, once you really understand value and how it’s created, you understand how it’s precious, and you at least understand what you must not do.

Watch Reza Aslan Make An Ass Out Of Himself

A scholar named Reza Aslan wrote about about the historical Jesus. From what I’ve seen, the book reprises one of the familiar narratives about the historical Jesus, which is that Jesus was not a religious preacher but a political rebel against Roman rule. Apparently Aslan was once a Christian and is now a Muslim.

You probably already know these things already, and the reason you probably knew them is because Twitter has been aflame with links to an interview Aslan has given about his book to Fox News. The Buzzfeed post about the interview has over 3 million pageviews and a “12X social lift” (whatever that means). Meanwhile the Slate post is cited among its “Most Viral”. Both call it “embarrassing”, and usually with superlatives.

Well, it’s certainly embarrassing. But mostly for Aslan.

Let’s back up here for a second. There is a problem for “historical Jesus” research, which is that source material is so scarce. You have a few fragments in Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. You have the non-canonical gospels which are of very late and dubious origins. And you have the canonical gospels, which make supernatural claims about Jesus and therefore automatically (and justly) invite skepticism. This gives a wide latitude for historians and other scholars to paint pictures of the “historical Jesus” as basically whatever they want. That’s not an indictment of Jesus scholarship. That’s just the way it is.

Meanwhile, there is a great popular interest in “historical Jesus” scholarship, if only because there is a great popular interest in “What You Don’t Know About This Familiar Story”. Many “historical Jesus” books have gone on to become publishing sensations. And often, they’ve gone on to become publishing sensations in the wake of generating controversy for proclaiming that the traditional Christian account of Jesus’ life is a-historical. (Even though it’s not possible to prove it, only to hypothesize it.) Controversy generates book sales. Particularly religious controversy. Such is the world.

In this context takes place the Aslan interview.

And it’s impossible to watch the video and not feel that Aslan has come into the studio picking for a fight. Trying to generate a viral moment.

Oh sure, the Fox News interviewer also has an agenda. But watch how the interview proceeds.

Interviewer: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”

Aslan: “Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with [enunciating] four degrees including one in New Testament and fluency in Biblical Greek who has been studying the history of Christianity for [enunciating again] two decades.”

And boom, we’re off to the races!

Aslan won’t answer the question, and so the interviewer presses on (as Interviewing 101 demands), and we all go downhill from here. Aslan never stops treating the interviewer with contempt, and never stops taking offense at any relation between his faith and his book.

Those bigots at Fox News with their anti-Muslim views. Oh, how dare they say that a Muslim can’t write a book about Jesus! And their buck-toothed anti-intellectualism. This is a SCHOLAR. Don’t you understand? A scholar!

Except that there is nothing whatsoever offensive or out of the ordinary about the interviewer’s question.

“Why did you write this book?” is literally the most common interview question asked of authors! It is so common, it is such a cliché, that it is a joke in literary and media circles! This is also true of the variation “[Tidbit of author’s personal history], so why did you write this book?”

I’m a Frenchman who has never lived in the US for long, and who often writes about American politics. As a result, I am often asked why I, as a Frenchman, decide to devote so much time and attention to US politics. This is normal. And to be honest, I sometimes tire of answering that question. But I’m never offended by it.

And I’m also a practicing Roman Catholic, and if I wrote a book about Luther or Muhammad or the Buddha, it would be normal and completely innocuous to ask me why I chose to write about this particular subject given my faith tradition.

But I could take offense. I could treat the person like a child and say something like “I have a master’s degree from HEC School of Management which was ranked number one in Europe for many years running by the Financial Times — a small newspaper out of London, maybe you’ve heard of it — where I was ranked among the top twenty matriculants.” You know what that answer would make me? It would make me a complete ass and a buffoon.

Scholarship is scholarship and should be judged on its merits. But there is absolutely nothing weird or out of the ordinary for an interviewer to ask an author how his background affected his decision to write a book. It’s amazing to me that this has to be pointed out. I would even add especially if a believer in one religion writes about another religion.

Aslan, talking to his interviewer “as if she were a child”, Slate notes, says “it would be like asking a Christian why they would write a book about, you know, Islam.” Indeed, old chap! That’s exactly what it would be like!

To take an example, one of the TAS Alums is Alan Jacobs, a professor and scholar of literature. His latest book is a biography of The Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer (I now know, thanks to Alan) is one of the great works of the Anglican Church. And I know Alan is an Anglican. So it seems obvious to me why Alan wrote this book. Alan is a man who cares deeply about books and their history and about his own religious tradition so it makes complete sense to me why he would write this book. If Alan’s next project was a Biography of the Ramayana, I would be indeed curious to note why he decided to write it.

The interview goes on in this vein. The interviewer quotes Aslan a bit of criticism of his book. Instead of responding, Aslan talks about how his book has a hundred pages of endnotes and is therefore a serious book. First of all, that’s silly. I mean, really. But second of all, answer the damn question. Aslan speaks as if the fact that he has a PhD somehow means that he is beyond criticism, at least from non-PhDs, and certainly from journalists.

Then why go on the interview?

I mean, think about it for a second. There’s about as much chance of Fox News’ audience buying Aslan’s book as there is of it buying Yeezus. So why do the interview?

Well, for this, of course. The interview didn’t ever degenerate—it never “generated” to begin with. Oh sure, Fox News had its own agenda. But Aslan could have played it cool, or presumed good faith at least on the first question. That’s if he hadn’t been coming on the interview just for this. To assume bigotry on the part of Fox News, to talk about his academic bona fides, and therefore to generate a viral moment and juice his book sales.

And this is why I’m annoyed and I’m writing this. Yes, Fox News had an agenda, and yes, Aslan is not the first person to manufacture controversy.

What’s so annoying to me is that I haven’t seen a single media outlet—that so breathlessly posted the video, and called it “embarrassing”—point out what is actually going on here. Because there’s the Bad Guys in one camp—the camp of bigoted Christians—and there’s the Good Guys in the other camp—the camp of Scholars who, because they are Scholars, are Good.

Oh yes, the Fox News video is embarrassing. It’s a little embarrassing for Fox News. It’s a lot embarrassing for Aslan. And it’s very, very embarrassing for Buzzfeed and Slate and all the other outlets that amplified it uncritically.

Newer articles ↑

Older articles ↓